Feb 21, 2007

I can't believe its been 2 months since I returned home from India. The 6 weeks in India seemed like a lifetime. I came back inspired to write about my trip, so that I would always be able to remember it. But I busied myself with one thing after another, dove right back into my life, and 2 months whizzed by . Time really is funny.

So here I am sitting down to write about it, and feeling a bit reluctant since it already feels like "the past" and I want to be onto the future already, impatient as always. Yet when a picture from the trip comes up on my screen, it feels so familiar, with that quality a dream has of being so distant and yet right there on the tip of your brain.

I have travelled a bit in Southeast Asia -- Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, VietNam, Thailand mostly -- but India is a whole other level of Asia. I wasn't sure I ever needed to go to India. I had gotten really sick in Malaysia and since then haven't quite ever been the same, so I wondered if I needed to expose myself to a place infamous for making people sick. Pretty much all my friends who had travelled in India had horror stories about the hallucinatory fevers (endured in a noisy, cell-like rooms with shared bathrooms). I felt like I had heard so many stories, seen so many movies, and spent so many past lives there, that maybe I could experience it vicariously through my friends and not physically have to suffer there.

But of course, it had to be done, and ironically enough, I felt great the whole time I was there. My digestion was even better there than it was at home. But it took me almost the whole 6 weeks in India to begin to get used to just being in India. By the time I felt like I could sort of hack it, it was time to go home.

Plans are not possible in India, but just about everything else is -- as they famously say there,Anything is possible in India. Which I found absolutely true. India is like the ultimate instant-manifestation machine, like the thing they have in Star Trek to manifest you a cup of tea, or roast pork. If you want something done, you can find someone to do it, usually right away, nearby, partly because there are so many people nearby you at any given time. You are never alone. There are always dozens, if not hundreds of people, in your sight.

When I got back home to Berkeley, at first I felt like there that been some sort of disaster and people were staying off the streets. The city seemed deserted. Everywhere I went felt like that. Downtown San Francisco. I had so gotten used to the people density of the streets of India that now the streets of my city seemed eerily quiet. In every square inch of India, it seems, people are strolling, eating, squatting, peeing, drinking, spitting, talking. Now that I'm used to the States again I still try to tap into that feeling of gratitude for privacy, open space, clean air.

An Indian friend I met in Rajasthan, in India, who spoke excellent English and French, told me about the 4 months he spent in France. He was fortunate to have the opportunity to go, he said, and it was a nice place to visit, but he wouldn't want to stay there. He got so homesick. It was so cold there, and he was so alone. Here in India, he said, you walk down the street and you see so many people, walking around doing things, you never feel lonely.

But for me, a youngish white woman with braided hair (with extensions, which generally Indians have never seen), I attracted way too much attention. I didn't blend. In some places, I couldn't go two steps without being addressed, complimented, cajoled, solicited, begged from. It was exhausting.

And of course, just when I couldn't stand it any more, I would have one of those moments that just make it all worth while, like the time a precious tiny old lady took my cheeks in her hand and grinned at me, nodding vigorously and chuckling breathily. India will push all your buttons and touch your heart . Its sheer enthusiasm for itself will win you over. The eyes of its people , big and beautiful and clear, look right into you .

From my perspective, it seems like Indians enjoy a level of group consciousness that we Westerners lack. Often a group of Indian men will be gathered together to watch a spectacle, all leaning on each others' shoulders, the whole group of heads turning together right or left. Perhaps this is what allows traffic to flow in a state of total uncontrolled chaos, without the benefit of traffic lanes or signals, with an absolutely amazing lack of accidents.

There was an amazing network of information as well, like a group mind. Once when I was shopping the streets of the large city of Jaipur, I forgot my parasol in one of the shops. Ten minutes later, I was tracked down, two blocks away in another shop, by someone bringing me the parasol. As I walked down the street several people stopped me to ask if I had gotten my umbrella back.

Everyone always wants to know how much you paid for things, too. "Nice umbrella", I heard constantly if I walked with my parasol. I braced for the next question: "How much you pay?" (I guess I did pretty well with my umbrella purchase since everyone would nod, satisfied. If I paid too much for something they would laugh).

In fact, every minute strangers asked me very personal questions, something I would tolerate somehow as a guest in their country, but would never tolerate in my own country. "How old are you?" "Are you married?" (something which I learned to say yes to minimize marriage proposals). "Where are you going?"

The more I read and heard about the vicious injustices of the caste system in India, and the way women are pretty much without human rights, the more I despaired. I understood why Islam, a culture without a caste system, caught on so well among the lower classes. Yet still, I couldn't pity the people. There is a certain quality of ecstacy that seems ready to sweep through at any moment, like a riot. You have to admire the cheeky enthusiasm of the people -- proud to be Indian, proud in their bearing and always decked out in their finest, even the beggars. Despite the filthy squalor of the streets, everyone is mysteriously, fastidiously clean. The men sport their flared pants and sexy disco shirts, or their fine traditional kaftans and turbans. And the women -- wearing saris, those 6 foot long pieces of fabric that miraculously stay tied around them, as well as several pounds of jewelry and fancy jeweled shoes -- sashay effortlessly in the heat, through the filth and cow dung, holding a baby and a toddler on each arm, looking serene.

And I finally came to understand why cows are worshipped. In the midst of complete chaos -- ever-honking traffic (everybody honks to let each other know they are there, so they don't have to turn their heads), weaving motorbikes, shouting pedestrians, weaving buses -- the cows lumber along, utterly unperturbed, chewing their cud, as the traffic flows around them. I decided that was what I came to India for -- to be more like a cow.

cow entering a restaurant


Since I decided to go to India at the last minute, to be in support for the Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers, the only affordable flight was with Air China, with a 12 hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan. Not a place I had ever considered, but I figured I might as well see it as an adventure. I had never been to a Chinese metropolis before, having little interest in modern cities .. after all, why bother flying halfway across the world to see minimalls and Starbuckses? As I had expected, there was little that was exotic about Taipei. Of course, exotic is in the eye of the beholder. Once you become familiar with a place, it ceases to be exotic. In Taiwan everyone looked exactly the same -- jeans, T-shirts. There was a coffee shop on every block. The most picture-esque thing, as in many parts of the world, was the old people.

But Taipei seems a very livable city. The surroundings are beautiful, and it's much cleaner than American cities, and uncrowded. It's unusual to find such a modern city surrounded by tropical jungle. There's even drinking water supplied everywhere you go.

It's a very thermal place -- hot springs all over the island. If I were a young modern materialistic Chinese person, I would find it a paradise. As I am, however, I had a hard time spending a day there.

I visited a Taoist temple. In the early morning light, the carvings and angles and colors were spectacular.

The two sides of the temple represented yin and yang, with female and male deities represented on each side.

The Chinese Joan of Arc, a woman general, on the wall of the temple.

Then I had a soak in a hot springs, which are all unfortunately in unappealing hotel settings.

When I arrived at the gate for the flight to Delhi, I descended into another world. Most of the people waiting were Indian -- and the consciousness in the room was so different from Taiwan, it made the Taiwanese culture seem basically the same as American, in comparison. In contrast to the jean-clad clones of Taiwan, here were colorful saris, orange, yellow, red. Noisy, chattering folk, unlike the eerie silence on the Taiwanese subways. And people stared. Taiwanese are far too polite to stare.

I slept the whole 6 hour flight. By this point my body had no concept what time it was. I got a taxi to the hotel and joined my friend from home, Meridian, in a hotel room. We chatted until the sun came up. There was breakfast and registration, and I felt a bit resistant to travelling in a herd. I had never done it before, as an independent traveller, I felt alienated. I wandered out of the hotel and suddenly was in India.

There was a small shrine in the hotel parking lot. I sat down on a rock and honored the shrine. Even there in a desolate parking lot, by the airport, the breeze rustled the trees and I felt the power of the land. A group of men and boys sat and stared at me wordlessly. I knew why I had come to India.

Then began the bus odyssey.

Oct 12-13, 2006. Our first day on the bus took about 10 hours. The most entertaining diversion was at a random roadside stop, where all 5 busloads of us got out and milled around with the locals. We stared at them, they stared at us; mutual entertainment! Some of the grandmothers had to relieve themselves, so were led out to a wall where 4 women formed a human shield with their shawls.

We spent the night in Chandigarh, a lovely, green, clean city that had all been planned by an architect. The next day was also grueling, a bumpy ride on the over-airconditioned bus. It got beautiful as we began to ascend into the mountains. The forest was sacred, green, with misty valleys, and bushy fir trees . Monkeys everywhere. When we caught our first glimpse of the faraway snow-capped Himalayas, the bus let out a collective gasp.

This was my birthday; I was blessed to be sung to on the bus, a seamless round of tunes in English, Spanish, Italian, and Swiss German. The whole crew passed around a birthday card in so many languages, Tibetan, Hindi. Someone made me a toilet paper flower, an origami frog, all impromtu gifts, from near-strangers, so sweet. A birthday I'll never forget, on this auspicious Friday the 13th. Thanks to Meridian, who told everybody it was my birthday behind my back.

The villages below Dharamsala were breathtaking, so green with windy alleys and rice paddies. Then we climbed sharply and it seemed endless, and the air outside got colder. McLeod Gang, the real Tibetan town above Dharamsala, is high on the hill. It was dark when we arrived, to the welcome of the Tibetan childrens' orchestra. The Tibetan women greeted us with huge smiles and palms in prayer. How lovely...

We were fed and then chaos ensued getting us into our hotels with our bags, in the midst of a thunderstorm. Finally I was in bed, a hard bed in a simple room. I fell asleep immediately but awoke in the middle of the night, my internal clock confused. The winds outside were howling fiercely, as I lay there, a little sad to have left the warm sunny weather below.

The next morning began with our opening ceremony, on a deck outside facing the high mountains we lit the fire that would be kept burning for the whole week. The Tibetan nuns chanted: slowly, in trance, their wrists gracefully bending to ring the bells, their other hands holding the drums that beat the creator's heartbeat...

And then an introductory talk, in the plushly decorated council room. Tsering, the Tibetan grandmother, welcomed us, and Jyoti recounted the amazing story of how the council was formed:

At her community in Northern California, Kayumari, the Holy Mother visited in 1998 and gave them their mission: she said: I will give you a precious basket of jewels that represent the indigenous traditions. Take them through the doorway of the milennia and gave them back to me. Teachers came to initiate them. They heard the whisper: When the grandmothers speak... Jyoti went to Africa, where she met the African grandmother, Bernadette, who said she had had the same vision. She then went to Peru where the people had signed a letter saying, "we were here before the governments. We are in solidarity. It is no longer okay for the governments to take our medicines and patent them. It is no longer okay to call our culture illegal. It was here first." She then went to the Amazon to meet with the Brazilian grandma, who also had a letter, with the same words as the Peruvian letter, signed by six tribes of the Amazon! Get to work, Spirit said; it's about relations.

It turns out that many cultures shared a prophecy of a council of 13 grandmothers. Rita Blumenstein, a North American grandmother, told a story: when she was nine, her grandmother told her: one day, when you are old like me, you will get an invitation to join the council. I made 13 bundles with 13 sacred stones inside, and 13 eagle plumes. When you are invited pass them out to each grandmother and sit down and know that am sitting behind you and know that the prophecies of their people are coming together and beginning a new time.

A Mayan grandmother, Flor de Mayo, looked up the date when the grandmothers' council first gathered. In the Mayan calandar, she said, the date is the day of spiritual liberation, coming full circle.

And a Brazilian grandmother spoke the prophecy that all groups separated will be united in Brasil, for that country has a vision of weaving together, with the umbanda: the horn to call all the souls to join in one circle.

Rita, a sweet Alaskan grandmother, spoke of how she made a drum from white birch. It took her five years to make, and has feathers for the air, and stones for the ancestors' bones.

I felt blessed to be present for this gathering, for these stories.

A group shot of the grandmothers, including the Princess of Monoco, a fan of the grandmas

That afternoon, we headed for the Dalai Lama's temple where we received excellent instruction in Tibetan Buddhist meditation from a high yeshe (master). It was the clearest meditation discussion I have ever heard. Suddenly it downpoured, beautifully, and then ten minutes later, the sun returned and slanted through the temple. Quiet, curious onlookers crowded around the windows to gawk at the foreigners and listen to the master.

For the next 2 days we were fortunate to have this master speak and to meditate in this temple. He had a most excellent translator, a kindly English lady who was completely fluent in Tibetan.

Sunday morning I met a German man as I had an excellent capucchino at the cafe of my new Tibetan friend, Shadow. The German man took me on a walk to the monastery where he was staying, high on a hill, so beautiful. Its colors gleam in the sunlight, the golds, the blues. We have tea with the monks there. Then we meet a very interesting gentleman, fluent in Tibetan, Urdu and several other Asian languages, who tells me that if I'm interested in antique Himalayan jewelry and crafts, I won't find it in Dharamsala. He gives me directions to a lady he knows, who had been married to a Tibetan for many years, who had a collection of antique jewels. The next morning Meridian and I go on a little quest to find this lady. It's a beautiful day ; warm and sunny; it feels to good to walk the hills outside of town. Finally we find the place. I knock on the door, and it opens a crack. There's a very eccentric English lady wearing nothing but a thin shawl. She apologizes but doesn't invite us in, and then she keeps us talking on the doorstep for an hour. It's clear she hasn't talked to anyone for a while. We tell her about the grandmothers and encourage her to come for a day. She says she's just moved rooms, so her treasures are locked in her truck. I'm telepathically urging her to open the suitcase. Finally we say the right things and get invited inside for tea. She mentions that the Friday the 13th that just passed was an auspicious date; I have a feeling I might score some points if I mention it was my birthday, and it works: she exclaims, Ah! Well then, I'll just have to sell you some of the crystal yantras.

Well, we don't succeed in seeing her treasures that day, but her conversation was very entertaining.

I missed most of the fireside stories that night, since I was doing a volunteer shift. One story was about beetle whose job it was to put up the stars at night. He did such a good job arranging them that everybody gave him compliments, so he began to get very proud. He was daydreaming about how good he was such that he tripped and the stars spilled out across the sky! This was the origin of the Milky Way..

Over the next few days we held many ceremonies by the fire with the Native American grandmas, with drumming, and prayer. The Mayan grandmother burned copal and offered a heartfelt, tearful prayer to all the elements. After ceremony would be council, where business is discussed, and dates set for future projects.

On Tuesday October 17 we had an indoor evening ceremony with Julieta, the Mazatec grandmother. She handed out small doses of ninos sagrados, the sacred mushroom. She and her friends chanted the prayer to Santa Maria; it was sweet, yet fierce and trance-inducing. We had only a little medicine, yet I felt it, it brought me into my body, tuned me into my abilities to heal the aches and pains I had from adjusting to India and the hectic schedule. I prayed fervently, I felt my heart burst open, I prayed for the health of the Dalai Lama and for the healilng of all the lepers and beggars we see each day here in India, and for myself to have compassion for them when they irritate me, and for all the species of the earth. Just as my heart burst open, Julieta says: right now it is important for everybody to open their hearts and pray together.

It was a sacred space, there by candlenight, the Latina mamas joined together singing. I realized that as much as I relate to the Tibetan traditions, it feels male and intellectual to me, while the Latina tradition is what touches my heart, feels mystical in a feminine way, messy and slouched over and sweet. The marriage of the ancient gods of central and south America to the Catholic gods of the Spanish resulted in a living tradition soft yet powerful, for me.

After the mild journey I felt refreshed and renewed. I noticed the Princess of Monoco needed to be helped out of the room, and I wondered if she had journeyed before.

I woke up feeling incredible. A group of us went to the Tibetan clinic of Dr. Yeshe Donden, doctor to the Dalai Lama. The good doctor is not in town but another doctor was presiding. He took the urine samples we had brought and swished them around with a whisk to examine them. He also checked out pulses. From this he was able to guess correctly my health issues. He gave me some medicines which tasted like yak dung.

That day we visited the Tibetan Oracle. The Oracle rarely receives visitors, but agreed to see us. Like most Tibetans, he has wide smiling eyes. He tells us the story of how he became the Oracle... he was a regular monk ,when at a ritual the Dalai Lama saw him go into a trance and pass out. His Holiness told him he must go into retreat for two months to determine whether or not he was destined to be the next Oracle. After two months of meditation, he determined this was indeed his destiny.

Then we got a talk from a Tibetan doctor about their system of medicine. The Dalai Lama re-established a medical center in 1961 to preserve the tradition in exile. Tibetan medicine, he told us, has no sophisticated technology or methods of analysis. The doctor can determine a great deal about the client merely by looking at him. His other tools include talking pulses, looking at the eyes and tongue, and checking the urine. He or she stirs the urine to see the color, and how it bubbles.

It all sounds esoteric by Western standards, but it is very effective. The doctor relates a story about a high-ranking Tibetan military officer who sent a soldier to the doctor with his urine sample, since he was too busy to go himself. The doctor said the urine belonged to a pregnant woman. The soldier said, that's impossible, this was from the officer, but the doctor insisted. Finally, they returned and questioned the cleaning lady, who confessed that she had spilled the officer's urine by accident and, figuring there was little difference, substituted it with hers.

The next morning began with a prayer by the fire by Aama Bombo, the grandmother from Nepal. She is a powerful trance healer who does healings for hundreds of people per week, in Nepal. The first healing she gave that morning was to a woman who shuddered violently, started crying and went into seizure. She had to be comforted and taken to rest. The remaining people did not have this reaction.

The evening prayer that night was with Bernadette, the African grandmother. To amazing African trance-inducing music, she worked with her ritual items, performing healings, baptizing with water in the mouth. She moved with ferocious grace as spirit shuddered through her.

The following morning it was pouring with rain, so morning prayer was inside with Agnes Pilgrim, the rock of the grandmothers. It was very powerful, she and her daughter blessed us with their feathers, as the younger generation sang tipi songs and drummed, strongly and surely.

And finally that afternoon was the final closing council. The Tibetan nuns chanted and prayed, with clashing cymbals and bells.

On Saturday, October 21 we had our audience with the Karmapa. The monastery was beautiful, the high snowy mountains framing it from afar. As we processed up the walkway, monks peered at us from their balconies, and the small boy monks scampered about throwing white powder at each other. The white powder was then used to bless us as we came through the gates.

me, covered with the blessing of dust

The Karmapa regarded the group sharply, looking around at all of us like a bird of prey. Definitely less cheerful and more discerning than the Dalai Lama, he had a commanding presence. He spoke about his own grandmother, who was blind, but never for a moment complained. From her he learned the value of compassion.

This is not my photo of His Holiness the Karmapa

One by one we filed by so the young Karmapa could bless us by wrapping a white scarf around our necks. We received red strings blessed by him as well as special pills for longevity.

And we were swept off in the bus to our next visit, to the Tibetans Childrens Village (TCV). The grandmothers greeted the children warmly. They seemed very accustomed to visitors. The campus was grand, beautiful, large and surrounded by mountains. Unlike elsewhere in India, there was not a single piece of trash anywhere. The children seemed happy, with new clothes, new shoes, and seemed to want for nothing. They walked arm in arm and cared for each other. Of the 3000 or so children there, almost none of them could contact their parents. Their parents had paid to have them smuggled out of Tibet to escape persecution by the Chinese. The children could thereafter not contact their parents, although once in a while there were stories of children and parents travelling to the border to glimpse each other across it. And also stories of children journeying back to Tibet to search for their parents, only to meet imprisonment or even death.

Any child fleeing Tibet is welcome to a free education at TCV, while children born in India have pay to tuition. There are 30 children assigned to each dorm mother. While the idea of so many orphans is unimaginably tragic, still, they do seem happy and cared for. Each older child is assigned a small child to look after.

We were then treated to a photography show by Bridges To Understanding, an organization that teaches digital storytelling to the children. They had guided the children to create a montage of photographs set to music and narrated. The first story was about a determined young girl who loved soccer, and lobbied for the creation of a girls' soccer team at TCV. The next show was about the grandmothers' council: the children spoke about their own elders, and then their perceptions of the 13 grandmothers. Finally we viewed one of the Bridges' shows not done by the children, about the disappearing cultures on the planet, ancient ways giving way to modernization. The photos were of beautiful humans, all colors, young and old, and the statistics wracked me with grief: every 2 weeks, an elder dies, taking with them a language that will no longer be spoken.

The next morning I went for a Tibetan massage and astrology reading. When I arrived, my astrologer friend Wangko was still having breakfast with his 2 friends, and invited me to join them. Typical Tibetan breakfast: momos and weak tea.His home was a tiny, spotless room, with a nice rug, a soft single bed, and a compact modern TV and computer.

The three guys were lovely and welcoming. One told me about how he once hid in the mountains and watched the Chinese rape the sacred mountain of its gold and minerals. The Tibetan miners were not allowed to know their way into the mountains, so the Chinese hired several guides. They would emerge with huge lock boxes full of gold and gemstones.

Finally I understood why the Chinese went to so much trouble to break the soul of the Tibetan people. Tibet is a huge land, two-thirds the size of India, and rich in natural resources. By now the Chinese have stolen the gems, mined the minerals, cut down the trees, and hunted all the animals.

Wangko was a monk for many years, and the massage he practices was the way the monks healed each other, when they spent months in the caves without doctors. And, Wangko was a total trip, not monk-like at all, quirky and irreverent. He had spent some time in computer school with African-Americans (who apparantly come to India to learn computer skills, since it's so cheap), so he was fond of using by-now long-outdated Black slang. "Catch you on the flip side", in his strong Tibetan accent.

Wangko ranted for a while about how much he likes Americans. Unlike Europeans, he said, Americans are open-hearted, like Tibetans.

The astrology reading was very interesting. A few of the things he told me: my ability to control desire and anger in this life would determine whether in my next life I would be a great leader,or a poor person. My tendency to occasionally be short-tempered sometimes undid my many positive actions. I tended to think too much, and walk too fast, but still, am a very kind, honest good person, and very frank and truthful. I am not talkative with everybody, but instead like to go deep with those who wish to. I would live to be 77! I would confront 7 obstacles. I was sometimes proud (thinking myself, as he said, "cool" and "sexy"). I never lied. I was a "complete human being". Blue, white and green were my lucky colors, and my element was metal.I should face my front door to the west, and never start new things on Thursdays.

And then the massage, which was excellent. One of the most complete healing modalities I have ever experienced, this type of Tibetan massage (which they call "Ocean" massage) combines rocking, deep pressure on accupuncture meridians, and gentle traction. Very different from Ayurvedic massage, which tends to incorporate much rubbing along the long bones to increase circulation.

We had a very interesting afternoon, first a visit to the Dolmaling nunnery. This place really touched my heart. The nuns, so fiery as they debated religious matters in their ancient way: they clapped their hands loudly to illustrate their points. When not debating, the nuns were so sweet, especially when they all lined up waving goodbye to us as we left, until we could no longer see them from the bus windows.

Then to the Norbulinka Institute, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. This place is committed to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Though it was built only since the Tibetans settled in India, a few decades ago, the brick architecture is so solid and well-made that it has the look of a very ancient building. It was built in harmony with the lush vegetation around it, the gardens with huge gnarled trees and stones and fountains.

The temple at the Norbulinkna Institute for Tibetan Culture

The Institute featured a doll room, with diaramas showing life in Tibet with tiny beautiful costumes and backdrop paintings. So realistic were the dolls, representing nomads,city folk, sorcerers, courtiers, yaks, dogs, and many animals I didn't recognize (such as the tzo, a cow-yak hybrid).

the dolls

I ended up getting swept up into a taxi with Tsering's son, Gelek, who had been tirelessly toiling for us the whole time. In the taxi he explained to us that the Tibetan's didn't own any of the land that they occupied, including the land that the Norbulinka Institute was built on, since they were still second-class citizens in India living at the whim of the Indian government. It amazed me that they would design and build such grand structures as the monastery, school, and the Institute when they owned none of the land. The conversation turned to Tibetan medicine, and he spoke of a friend in Canada who had been diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live, by two different doctors. When he found Tibetan medicine, he enjoyed four more years.

When we got back to town, Shelley and I went to the weekly Tibetan music and dance performance. I can't say I find most East Asian music to my taste, but the folk dancing isfestive, with much leaping, laughing, and flapping of long sleeves.

Over dinner Shelley shared her experiences seeking Buddhist teachers in Dharamsala. It's easy to find teachers for beginners, apparantly, but for the more esoteric tantric teachings, you have to have been practicing for at least 20 years. If you don't know who you are seeking, she said, there is no way way you can find them. These teachings ultmately lead to the "Rainbow Bridge": at death, you can make your body disappear. (Wangko also had spoke of the Rainbow Bridge, and had told me about his teacher, whom he had walked in on levitating in the air on several occasions. When this master died, said Wangko, his body disappeared, all save for his teeth and nails.)

And so, our final day together with the 13 grandmothers was the audience with His Holiness himself. He was speaking to the masses at The Childrens Village stadium, 1000s of Tibetans in their best colorful dress, and a handful of Westerners and Indians. The stadium is a striking setting, surrounded by mountains, a huge field fit for a joust.

There were hours of waiting, then hours of pomp and circumstance. First the marching band: too European for my tastes. Then the smaller children of TCV sang a beautiful, high-pitched song to His Holiness, who sat in the tower above. The best part was the calisthenic display: 1000s of children poured onto the field like a swarm of insects, then formed perfect rows and columns. They ran in place, with a shuddering dance, to the tune of exotic, jittery music, which built in anticipation. Then they would snap into a pose, the rows of thousands in matching uniforms, their colorful wristbands forming streaks in the air as they moved in unison.

One of the childrens' brigades was sitting in front of us. When they returned from their performance, they came rushing toward us like a tidal wave, released from their discipline, looking almost identical in their uniforms, all the same height with the same haircuts.

Then His Holiness spoke. Unfortunately, he was too far away to be seen, and his speech went untranslated, so it was very boring for us, lasting for hours. The children weren't listening either, a squirming mass of wrestling arms and legs. Still, they were much more good-natured and less bratty than American children would have been, and absurdly adorable. I had a strong urge to adopt one -- then thought, they belong here with their people, each Tibetan a rare precious jewel. In America the child would be wealthy in possessions but spiritually poor.

Finally we climbed the hill, along with the masses, to the high temple, and awaited our private audience -- the hundred of us of the Grandmothers Council were granted an audience! Although only the grandmothers were allowed to ask questions.

His Holiness came out, a small man with a huge presence, all beaming smiles. Tears came to my eyes immediately at his radiance. He speaks English simply and well, occasionally muttering to this translator when he's seeking a particular word.

He speaks of his elders, how elders and children have so much to offer each other, how their minds think alike in so many ways. He speaks of how a circle of people such as the council of grandmothers takes work to create and maintain. And he reminds us that though prayer is important, action is also crucial.

As he speaks, he laughs frequently, a laugh that shakes his whole body, and is very infectious.

Someone told me about an interview he saw with His Holiness where the interviewer asked, "Don't you think that your policy in Tibet has been a failure, since the Chinese have not liberated the Tibetans from occupation and torture?" He laughed heartily at this, and said, "Well, maybe, some would say so." "Doesn't this bother you?" asked the interviewer. "No", he replied, "I try my best!"

There was not much time for questions from the grandmothers. Agnes asked him if he would write a letter asking the pope to grant the grandmothers an audience. He strugged: sure, why not? But if I do, he laughs, when you go see the Pope, you behave well!! Ha ha ha ha!

Then we broke up into groups for pictures. His Holiness stood in the middle of each group, smiling sincerely, as people touched his hand, then we all waved goodbye.

I felt profoundly struck, although exhausted, during the exodus from the Childrens' Village through the forest path back to town. The path was crowded with speedwalking monks in Nike's, pushing a bit to get past us. The forest was magically alive, buzzing and pulsing loudly.

I got back to the hotel and passed out for the whole night. The next morning we had to move to a different hotel, we chose one with a magnificent view of the mountain. We woke to bright sunshine, peace and quiet, circling birds in the valley below.

We attended a demonstration in honor of two nuns who had just ben shot escaping from Tibet. A big banner read "China is a danger to Asia and to the world". In the crowd a sea of men, their faces painted with Tibetan flags, their expressions strong, stoic, impassive, with steely eyes. They held placards without moving a muscle. Then the sea of women, who wore gags across their mouths.

I felt devastated by the Tibetan demonstrators' strength and beauty. The procession then left the temple and marched through the streets, with chants in Tibetan and occasional English protests slogans for freedom. There was only one lone Indian in the parade, holding a sign saying "India supports free Tibet", plus a handful of Westerners, and a huge sea of monks and nuns in their red uniforms.

Later that night there was a candlelight vigil for the murdered nuns. We processed solemnly through the streets, chanting a chant that reverberates in my head still.

The next day we sent to the Tibet museum near the temple. There are stunning pictures of pre-invasion Tibet, the costumes, the landscapes. We watched a film "Freedom in Exile", showing the story of the invasion, interviewing Tibetan women who had been told they would learn skills in the Chinese army, then forced to have sex with three Chinese soldiers a day. It showed the brutal beatings in the street. Then an interview with a Western woman who visited Tibet wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon character that bore a vague resemblance to the Dalai Lama, who had her T-shirt confiscated by the Chinese. The film related the story of how current the Dalai Lama was discovered: the baby Dalai Lama was able to tell the monks from the servants though the servants were dressed as monks and the monks dressed as servants, and was able to recognize objects that belonged to his predecessor, his previous incarnation, the 13th Dalai Lama.

In our final days in McLeod Gang, we walked to the waterfall, not the most exciting walk but it eventually lead to a nice rural area, with terraced fields and gnarled trees. I also shopped and ate at the delicious healthy Tibetan restaurants.

A weird temple near dharamsala

The Tibetan people are, quite simply, the most wonderful people I have ever been honored to be around. Kind, generous,and infinitely forgiving. Always a smile on their faces. The elderly people walk through the streets with their lips ever moving with prayer, spinning their prayer wheels soundlessly. The deliberate cruelty of the Chinese people in attempting to crush the Tibetan people, language, and culture and religious fills me with despair. Why can't I be like the Dalai Lama, and love the Chinese? These Chinese torturers that I heard stories about impaling Tibetan nuns with spears so that they dangle, the spear through their genitals and out through their anus. No doubt about it, the Chinese occupation of Tibet makes the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians look like Disneyland.

And the West has abandoned the Tibetans to their hideous fate. We have forgotten, so focused on the trendy cause of Israel. And America kisses China's ass, granting them Most Favored Nation Status, because we can't live without the disgustingly cheap electronics they make in their sweatshops.

Then we boarded a night bus for Delhi.


We climbed into the small double berth of a sleeper bus in Dharamsala-- Meridian and I very grateful to be sharing with each other rather than with an Indian man -- fell asleep, and woke up in another world.

It was dawn in Delhi. An evil-seeming dense fog enveloped the city, making it seem bitter cold, even though I knew that within an hour we would be roasting. Rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we loaded our bags into a mototaxi and went to seek a train or bus for Rajasthan.

I had been in Dharamsala for 2 weeks, but that is hardly India. Now I was really in India for the first time, and nothing I had seen in Asia prepared me for it. Huddled masses, everywhere, sleeping, defecating, washing in the wells, shaving, having their hair cut. I think my eyes were bulging out staring at the immense, sprawling squalor.

street haircut

I have found, however, bus and trains to be surprisingly efficient in India. The trains are more charming and far less bumpy, but somehow less convenient. We got a bus for Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, that huge ancient north Indian state.

And in a few hours we were in still another world. The first thing I noticed were the especially colorful saris of the women, and the fact that they were mostly veiled. Here, so close to Muslim lands, the women traditionally observed "purdah", or hiding a woman from all men except her husband and family.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend a traveller visit Jaipur, unless they have a specific purchase there. It's a huge and somewhat impressive city, but the traffic is relentless and since it's been touristed for so long, everyone is out for your money. It's the gem capital of the world, probably also the scam capital. it's nearly impossible to find a mototaxi driver who will actually take you to your destination, instead of to their uncle's cousin's special store.

It's also difficult to find a decent place to stay. Crabby from the all-night and most-of-the-day busrides, we looked at a few depressing windowless places and finally consented to let the driver take us to his picks. This was a mistake, because then, you're in the driver's territory, a sitting duck . All the drivers come around and fight over you. For the next few days, various drivers would call up to our room, asking if we wanted to go to the movies, or anywhere. There was one driver who made an impression on me, seemed like a nice guy, and I told him he could take us to dinner after we got showered. At dinnertime, another guy was trying to muscle in, and the two men got into a shouting match. I told them that the first guy was first (and seemed nicer).

His name was Rafik, he was a tall Muslim fellow, who wore a nice white kaftan. He dutifully took us to the restaurant we had picked out of the guidebook, without arguing, but he did say he thought we wouldn't like it, and if we didn't, he could take us to a local place. He was right. The place was over-airconditioned, overpriced, touristy, and without any charm. He took us to a bustling Jaipuri place, not a tourist to be seen, where they have excellent "thalis" -- the special of the day, all-you-can-eat chappatis, and whatever the special dishes are that day. We had a great time, Rafik was nice and spoke good English, so we decided that he would be our special driver (and protector!)

Rafik treated us well. He took us to a delicious local spot where they made fried onion patties and Indian sweets. He did involve us in one scam. He had told us about a great "master" who had cured his anger problem with a special jeweled ring and said we could get free "readings". So somehow we ended up at this jewelry store. The master, who did have a somewhat impressive vibe, gave us readings that at the time seemed pretty right on, about our past, our emotional lives, our issues. Then he proscribed pendants (a tiger eye for me) , specially prayed over, that could help us. I guess with our dreads and clothes we were obviously New Age suckers. We barely made it out of there without spending money. That night, one of the locals insisted i have a beer with him on the hotel rooftop, wanted to "talk". He told us the pendant scam was the oldest in the book. Then proceeded to tell me all of my issues -- and how my boyfriend back home was cheating on me-- and managed to get me thinking about it, until I realized how everything he said could apply to anybody. These guys are good, though.

The next day we took in some culture -- the city museum had the usual Rajasthani miniature paintings, and some semi-interesting clothing and musical instrument exhibits. The Hawa Mahal was sort of worth a visit. This was an old palace where the women used to be hidden away, with little holes in the palace walls where they could look out onto the livf outside. I could almost feel myself back in time, hidden away, spying on the street processions from above.

Later we saw the sad, dusty street elephants, and a temple, all shiny and glowing and covered with mirrors, the kitchiest temple I had ever seen.

And we shopped in the "pink city", the center of the city with its shabby pink walls, which I don't recommend. At any given moment several shopkeepers are shouting after you and chasing you down the street, in addition to the usual entourage of beggars and street children. Crossing the street you take your life into your hands. At one point the traffic was making my head pound and there were 5 children hanging on my dreads, pounding on the little drum I had been suckered into buying. The more you chase off the children, shouting "chello!" (buzz off!), the more they laugh. My head was threatening to pound out of my skull and I am not proud to admit that I grabbed one of the little hands hanging onto my hair and squeezed. I turned around to look into some scared little eyes and felt utterly ashamed. India had gotten my goat. I wanted to sit down and sob, but that would have caused a huge scene.

The forts were relatively impressive, with their Islamic architecture, and desert views. We were so ready to get out of Jaipur, and we said good bye to Rafik (who later had a semi-literate friend email me in Pushkar, saying he was in love with me and had to come to Pushkar) and got on the train.

The train ride was a great laugh, since in our car was a large party of Hare Krishnas from Bombay. They were a whole different sort of Indian, well educated, speaking good English, very friendly and chatty. They forced us to have some of their chapattis and food, and they sang and chanted and chatted ecstatically the whole way.

Pushkar , the holy city, home to hundreds if not thousands of temples. What a godsend -- the town is blocked off from car traffic. After the constant jangle of Jaipur, our ears were ringing with the relative silence. Ahhh.

Pushkar, literally meaning 'a lotus that blooms in mud', is also home to one of the only two temples dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu creator God. According to the legend, Brahma was passing over Pushkar on his swan, when a lotus fell from his hand and struck at three places, forming three lakes.

The holy town of Pushkar, with 1000s of temples.

Our hotel in Pushkar, one of many converted havelis, or palaces.

Of course, once the Camel Festival got into full swing, silence wasn't a problem. The Camel Fair makes Burning Man look like a small gathering. It is the most exotic place I have ever been. My first night there, I went on an epic walk. In Jaipur, there was far too much traffic and hassle to walk, but in Pushkar I wandered and wandered, delightedly , out to the fairgrounds and back. There are hundreds of temples, but the one that drew me that night, at twilight, was a Kali temple where they were doing puja to that famous goddess of destruction. I was drawn in by the frantically clanging symbols, faster and faster, until I was in a state of confused ecstacy, tears rolling down my cheeks. Then the clanging stopped suddenly and the devotees began lighting candles for the next part of the puja. A woman spotted me and waved me away. Tourists are not always welcomed for ceremony.

the kali temple

The days in Pushkar are a blur. Walking through the streets is a strenuous journey, through surging throngs. As the days go by, more and more pilgrims cram into the town. It can take hours just to walk the length of the small town, out to the fairgrounds. It is impossible to meet any of your friends at any given time, since you never know what sorts of adventures you will encounter along the way. There are the people who will threaten, cajole, or seduce you into doing puja with them for an exorbitant fee. Sometimes they hand you a flower, then act very offended that you won't give them lots of money to offer the flower to the holy lake. If you are already at the lake, they will approach you and start praying, gesture for you to put your hands in prayer position, and then pray over you, have you repeat endless prayers and make offerings, , but then act all offended if you don't give them 50 dollars. At one point I felt sad when I met a family who invited me into their home. The women shared their food with me, delicious chutneys, and took turns hugging and squeezing me like a big doll, then the patriarch took me down to the lake to show me his lakefront property, so proud. But in the end the patriarch gave me a puja hard-sell.

So many characters in the street: thousands of holy men; the one-eyed saddhus, the fierce tribal ladies with big white bracelets all the way to the shoulder that sell silver tools, the bands of ladies -- each tribe with its own clothing scheme of brilliant fabrics and veils -- and my favorites, the chai-selling caste, tall handsome young men who, when they are on the move , roll the round chai stands along with them, quickly, with great flair.

The snake charmers.

The fairgrounds is a whole different scene. It looks like a town fair sideshow from the American 1950's, with scruffy ferris wheels, and weird circus sideshows. Cotton candy, but camels everywhere. At one point we paid 5 cents to go up into one of the little sideshows, into a round wooden building. We climbed up into the balcony above and waited for the show. Down below were two motorcycles, and two small cars. Still I really didn't guess what was going to happen until men came out, got onto the vehicles, and drove them around and around on the wooden walls, up and down, whizzing right by the audience's noses, hanging non-chalantly out of the car windows. Our mouths were wide open with disbelief as the entire building vibrated. The rest of the audience was bored, used to watching cars drive on walls, and instead stared at us, the amazed Westerners.

double click the pic above to see the video

All sorts of official and random entertainment is taking place: the moustache contest (the winner's moustache, when held taut, is about 6 feet long), the camel dancing contest, little girls walking with pots and pans on their feet, up on a high wire.

A scene from a typical Indian play, where cross dressing males play out musical parts from Indian religious epics.

And out in the camel fields it is yet a whole other scene. Here it could be 1000 years ago. Camels richly adorned in beautiful textiles and red pom-poms strut proudly, disdainfully. Colorful and ragged gypsies crowd around us, singing.

he knows he is the finest camel of them all

My favorite moment was sitting in a market stall talking with the kind and very intelligent merchant who collected antique cultural items. He told me amazing stories about the items: 100 year old bags that were used to carry chapattis by the camel traders, on the road for weeks; wraps that took months to make, and were only used to wrap a ceremonial knife for a bride on her wedding; stories of all kinds of customs, crafts and ways that were now died out, of the nomads of Rajasthan, and nearby Gujarat and Pakistan.

In the afternoons, we westerners retreat to the restaurant rooftops, to hide from the heat and the crowds. Here's what I wrote from a rooftop one afternoon:

The beautiful view from Pushkar rooftop ... warm desert winds, the sound of horns..

A staticky speaker blares religious music, while a horn sounds in the distance, and the temple bells clang. All around are desert hills, temple spires. The crumbling walls of the buildings have brightly-colored peeling paint and fleur-de-lys windows.

Someone starts playing a flute. And suddenly, a marching band rambles through, clashing symbols, blowing horns. Part of the background noise is the clamoring of market sellers; each seller has his or her signature call, like birds in the wild: "Yes madam chai cold drink water yes you buy" , all delivered in a rapid singsong.

Thronging through the streets is a sea of color-- women in bright orange, yellow, pink, lime-green saris and veils, together in tight bands consisting of similar colors, holding babies and carrying luggage on their heads.

the red and orange gang of ladies

the yellow and turquoise family of ladies

And then the holy men, their brightly-colored turbans, wraparound skirts, begging bowls, and facepaint showing their devotion to their deity -- they ask passersby "hello chapati", probably the only English they deign to pollute themselves with.

Among the rainbow throng, the odd Westerners lumber by, sticking out like sore thumbs with their large bodies and the way they walk, not surging with the flow, but struggling against it. One pale-faced young European boy wears the local costume of white flowing clothes and a white turban -- people laugh and salute him.

Meanwhile, up on the rooftops is a whole other layer of the world. Westerners hang out languidly, puffing on spliffs and eating treats. Monkeys leap across buildings, swing on each others long white tails, and look down upon the crowd quietly and thoughtfully.

Outside the town is a whole other world. The bustle quickly gives way to peaceful scenes, where holy men sit under lush banyan trees, and lovely rice paddies. I pilgrimaged to the top of a holy mountain, where bats circled at sunset. On my way down I met a nice English girl, and we were chatting when suddenly a herd of camels galloped toward us. There were at least 15 of them, and they were going faster than I had ever seen camels go. I realized -- they were heading straight for me -- I was in the middle of a stampede! I froze, and hunkered down, hoping they would just go around me, but my English friend cried -- Elicia! and grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me into the forest, while the camels thundered by. It's possible she saved my life.

outside of town, holy men and folks sit in the shade of the massive banyan trees

The adrenaline was still pumping through me when I suddenly found myself back in town, with the crush of people. There was a tiny puppy underfoot, curiously clean and fluffy for an Indian dog, and I was worried he would be crushed by the crowds, so I picked him up and held him. An old holy man, with crooked glasses and huge blue eyes, approached me. Such babas rarely spoke to tourists, it seemed, or at least I hadn't been approached by one yet, but he launched into a story:

Ah ha ha, you like dogs, yes? This dog here is the son of a dog I knew, yes! This dog had a special friend, a monkey, yes! The dog and the monkey went everywhere together, yes, the monkey rode everywhere on the dog's back! Ha ha ha!! No you do not believe me, but I tell you true! I have pictures. And then the dog died, and the monkey was so sad, he was crying! You believe me not, but I have pictures, yes!

Ah, only in India, a monkey riding a dog.

That night after I was almost stampeded by camels, we went to check out the weekly "gypsy dance", at the lovely courtyard restaurant owned by a French woman and her Indian partner. The dancers and musicians are from the Kabelyia tribe, the ancestors of the Romani gypsies (according to many theories)... the dancers were a beautiful and quirky lot, we had some funny interactions through facial expressions -- they were attracted to my party of friends, we kept smiling and waggling eyebrows at each other -- and had some very confusing negotiations over jewelry. The younger woman was very unusual, sometimes she seemed a child, and sometimes a very old woman. I asked her how old she was, she spoke some English, to which she replied "five and ten."

The Kabelyia gypsy dancers.

The Quawwali singer, with Meridian dancing.

After the show, the people sitting next to us whispered that we should come back soon for the private party. And so we did, and were so blessed to be present for an incredible Qawwali band. For hours we danced as these ecstatically alive beings danced and sang .. And then wandered, past the cafes where westerners ate Israeli food and smoked hash (in Pushkar, "anything is possible" is slang for " we sell you hash"). By 9:30 at night, all the locals and pilgrims were asleep, and only stoned Westerners roamed the streets. On the ghats (the stairs at the lake), however , there are crowds 24 hours a day. We found a miraculously deserted ghat and sat to quietly chant and sing together. When we opened our eyes we found that we were surrounded by about 100 people, all staring at us intently, cocknig their heads like curious birds.

By 5 AM, the place is hopping. One morning I awoke at 5, lured by a haunting music, feeling like a sleep walker or a snake charmed by a flute. I wandered out onto the streets where people were cooking in the pre-dawn light. Down at the ghats, thousands of people took their morning dip in the holy lake.

At one point, we had to leave Pushkar. There were simply too many people, and so many people from the villages that had apparantly never seen white people, so that we could not go on without a crowd of at least 20 people staring intently. We got groped, my friend got pickpocketed.

the crowd gathers just to watch Meridian buy a calandar

It was a huge struggle to escape Pushkar. Even on the final day of the festival people were pouring in, while we were swimming upstream to get out. Finally the bus broke free of the traffic of cars, pedestrians, and beasts and we drove through a lovely sort of desert savannah , for a few hours, to arrive in Udaipur.

Udaipur is one of those places you end up staying longer than you expected. It is sometimes called the "Venice of India", since the majestic lake invokes that city. Beautiful ancient stone steps lead down to the lake, where ladies beat their laundry, with a rhythm that echoes all the way to the other side. We stayed on the quiet side of the lake, away from all the traffic and hussle. The sun on the water in the morning was truly luminous.

Udaipur is filled with fine old palaces of crumbling charm, that look like varying combinations of Arabic, Moorish, or Spanish.

It's a very romantic place, filled with palace rooftop restaurants with delicious food, looking out onto the cityscape. It's a very touristy city, with lots of rich tourists, some that pay real money to see the famous building from the movie Octopussy. This palace is its own island, and it is not cheap to take a boat over there. I didn't bother.

The palace from the James Bond movie Octopussy.

I had heard it was a musical city, so I sought out music lessons. I became friends with Krishna, the rather intense and charasmatic music store owner and music teacher ,and with his young friend, Ali. They invited me to a wedding one night. The wedding procession followed a fine horse through the streets, trailed by a clunky generator that powered the processions's lights.

The wedding procession

It was a slightly morose affair, except every once in a while it would stop and a few young men in suits would dance with each other quite ecstatically, shaking their shoulders. Finally it arrived at its destination, one of the few open spaces in the city. My friends told me that recently weddings had become extremely expensive, that it cost 5000 US dollars to rent that small grassy park, and then another 5000 for all the food and everything. Families would go into debt for life to host these lavish weddings. There were gaudy lights everywhere, and the dance floor was something out of Saturday night live, with flashing light squares. The dance floor was filled with men and boys gyrating and grinding their hips suggestively. It was not proper for the women to dance, of course. It irritated me terribly that I had had to get off the motorcycle that we drove up on, since it was unacceptable to have a woman riding a motorcycle with two men, yet men have license to behave like horny dogs on the dance floor at a wedding.

The wedding

The food was among the best food I have ever tasted in my life. An endless row of buffet dishes that I didn't recognize, yum. Then was the enormous dowry -- the huge tax a person has to pay just for being born a woman, in order to get married. Where in times past the dowries usually consisted of livestock, this one was mostly huge TVs, woks, and other appliances.

I caught a glimpse of the bride and groom, up on a pedestal. The groom looked bored, and the beautiful bride looked despairing. I guess she should have counted herself lucky her husband wasn't twenty or fifty years older than her. Arranged weddings are still the norm in India, and everyone that I talked to had a miserable marriage.

The wedding couple.

In Udaipur i found Raju, a unique massage therapist. He is able to tell you a great deal about your health and issues by studying your hand, and he claims to be able to adjust internal organs, even ovaries. He took no massage course, but his lineage is from his father, who learned from his father, who learned from his.. and Raju is teaching his son.

Rajasthani dancers.

This woman balanced all these pots on her head,while dancing on broken glass.

Rajasthani musicians.

As usual in India, in Udaipur I was barraged by people who wanted to talk, often wanting to sell me something, but even wanting just to talk. I really enjoyed talking to Ali, a young, very intelligent Muslim guy. Ali spoke perfect french and english, he had lived for a few months in France.

Udaipur downtown jangled my nerves: the constant honking of traffic on the narrow streets (so that you are always having to step up onto a doorstep to get out of the way of cars), the choking pollution. I was so excited one day to get out of town into the villages, on horseback. There we found beautiful ancient villages.

Even though my travel companion returned to the States, I extended my trip by ten days so that I could see one more region of India: Gujarat, the seldom visited state on the west of Rajasthan.

I woke from the overnight bus, to change buses to journey to the north of Gujarat, the region of Kutch known for its tribal peoples. It was immediately apparant that I was in a different world from Rajasthan. I was the only foreigner in sight, where hundreds of people waited for buses. People regarded me curiously, but didn't want anything from me or approach me. And so I headed for Bhuj, the capital of Kutch.

Bhuj is a lovely town, the most peaceful place I visited in my very short tour of India. It's tragic that the earthquake of 2001 destroyed so much beautiful historic architecture here. The region of Kutch is a very ancient crossroads with so much history. Also spelled Kachchh, Kutch was the home of the Indus Valley civilization, dating to 2900 BC. In the 13th century it was the center of a rajput dynasty, and later an independent state until 1950 when it joined India.

Bhuj is mostly free of tourists, tourist joints, or the touts who pray on tourists. (The downside of this, of course, is that you can't find coffee, bread, or other comforts of home.) I wandered unmolested through Bhuj's historic neighborhood and pretty parks, with their huge banyan trees, under which people have gathered for shade and comfort for thousands of years.

I took a day trip from Bhuj to the town of Mandvi, on the coast. It was interesting to see them building the huge wooden ships, but otherwise I found little of interest in this town. The beach was far to get to -- and the only place I had been to in India where there wasn't a single soul as far as the eye can see! (a real contrast to beaches where I come from, which are covered in people. I guess Indians aren't too into the beach). The beach was also curiously free of trash, although not somehow appealing for sunbathing. The ocean had no surf.

So I took the crowded local bus back to Bhuj.

I loved the food in Gujarat. The thalis were great, with millet chapattis. Mmmm. Meals went for about 50 cents.

I spent my last 2 days wandering the countryside visiting tribal peoples with a guide who was, himself, from a local tribe, the Rabari. The tribal women in Kutch are world-renowned for their embroidery.

We had lunch in my guide's hometown, Anjar, a colorful market town. Here I did some shopping -- one shop sells some clothing made by Rabari women. Here is a picture of all the passerbys gathering to watch me try on local clothes:

The Rabari people, once nomadic, are now semi-nomadic or settled. They worship Mata Devi, the great mother goddess. Women wear heavy brass earrings that stretch their ears, and tattoo symbols on their necks. The men usually wear white, with beautiful white jackets and elegant turbans.

We were fortunate to see a family of nomadic Rabari on the side of the road with their flock:

We visited this village of Rabaris, where a beautiful mother and daughter (who looked so alike) gave us tea and shared their weavings. The little girl had a great time playing with my poi (which I travel with to entertain children):

Here is their beautiful baby:

The tribe we visited wear very colorful clothes, but another tribe of Rabaris wear black, with long black headscarves that fall almost to the ground. These women are quite mysterious, never wish to be photographed. Here is one of the beautiful designs on their headscarves:

me in Rabari garb

We also visited a rarely visited village that my guide described as Harijan, although this confused me, since this term is often used to describe people of the Hindu untouchable caste, in general. Since they rarely saw foreigners, the whole village gathered to observe me.

One crone in particular seemed to garner much respect here, leading me to wonder if these people have a matrilineal past:

We also visited some traditional craftspeople, the tye dyers, and this weaver:

My Rabari guide is a teacher in the world's first all-Rabari school. He was very proud of his school, which had been paid for by donations by a well-meaning American woman. I had mixed feelings, since I wondered if Rabari people were learning in school meaningless facts and figures instead of their unique and ancient embroidery. We visited the school, where I went from class to class singing songs and spinning poi. (He insisted on my spinning poi, which the kids didn't know what to make of. They watched politely, then applauded.)

I was saddened that my guide had sought to marry a "modern" Rabari woman, who worked in town and didn't know embroidery. I visited his home, in the "suburbs" , where only a few cows wandered, in an antiseptically clean tiled home.

A lone cow wanders the "suburbs"

I had to leave Bhuj, and with my embroidered treasures took an overnight bus to the Gujarati capital of Ahmenadabad. This city, the birthplace of Gandhi, seemed a very impressive place. While waiting for my flight to Delhi I took a mototaxi into the city and visited a beautiful Jain temple. (The Jain religion stresses non-violence -- it requires every member to be vegetarian -- and the equality of all souls).

Jain temple

A lavish offering at the Jain temple.

Unfortunately my flight was delayed by 4 hours. I sat outside the airport chatting with the large population of genial, underemployed security guys.

So my final hours in Delhi were cut very short. This visit to Delhi was so unlike the last , where I spent a few hours in shock at the poverty -- this time I saw rich modern highrises, beautiful lush temples. Here is the Sikh temple:

I somehow wandered into Paharganj, the tourist ghetto of Delhi. I got some last-minute henna from some very talented young boys. I ran into one of my friends from Pushkar -- it was so nice to have someone see me off, waving good bye to me, as I sped to the airport, tearfully, leaving Mother India.

I had another 13 hour layover in Taiwan (on China Airlines). Now, used to India, I was utterly discombobulated by the underpopulation of Taiwan. This city seemed eerily clean and deserted. I kept thinking there was a curfew in effect, or a war on -- since it seemed like there was no one around. The night market was such a pale, modern, joyless affair, a few ugly stalls with seriously weird food, compared to the colorful, exotic, noisy, winding markets of India!

Besides being mind-numbingly boring, to me, with cookie-cutter trendy shops and a homogeneous population, Taiwan again seemed very livable, surrounded by clean lovely jungle. I took the bus up to the jungle in search of the hot springs. There was a free womens hot spring, I found my way there and found a bunch of older women waiting. Apparantly it didn't open until 5:30, an hour in the future, so I sat and waited. A few women befriended me. One woman pulled out her bagged lunch and urged me to share her food. They spoke very little English ,but enough for basic conversation. I showed her some of the jewelry I bought in Rajasthan -- ahh, jewelry, the global language of women. The woman pulled out a brown egg and peeled off the shell, handing it to me. A brown egg? I asked. What is this? Her eyes went wide. You never eat??? she asked, incredulous. She insisted I take a bite. It was one of the most disgusting things I have ever eaten. I tried to hand it back, but she wouldn't take it, no, no , you eat. Somehow I got it down and washed it down with some tea. (When I got home, I asked my boyfriend's Dad, who had spent some time in Taiwan, what a brown egg would have been. Ah! he said, you ate a "hundred-year-old egg"! A delicacy for Chinese, they bury eggs until they are rotten.)

Suddenly all the ladies got up and surged towards the doors, as the hot spring opened. I was pushed in by the stampede, but was too slow to snag a cubbyhole for my stuff. I had my precious daypack full of jewelry and books and other good stuff. Meanwhile, the room was filling with water. Water was coming up to my ankles and wetting the bottom of my skirt. Naked old ladies were pushing and shoving me as I was trying to pull up my skirts to keep them dry and find a place to put my precious things. It was just too crowded, I had to flee the scene.

Before long, I was in San Francisco -- it still seemed quiet and deserted compared to India, but with far more grit and character than Taiwan --- ahhh, it's just right here. I felt so fortunate to live here, and a day later, was right back in it---making my way through the noisy and exotic Ashby flea market drum circle to take BART to the city, to rejoin my own tribal freaks, at the Synergenesis festival...

I will surely be back in India when I can, it is the kind of place that once you visit, you never really get out of your skin -- you can always close your mind, and smell it, imagine yourself there, exotic and familiar at the same time. As horrified as I am by the injustices of the caste system, by the oppression of the women, worse than you can possibly imagine -- I can't help loving it with all my heart, in all its crumbling splendor, the smells, the colors, everything lovingly decorated, especially the cows:

The quirky squalor:

The colors :

The tough road construction crew, consisting mostly of young girls in beautiful saris: :

The elephants!! :

OM SHANTI Bless the people of Tibet and India