Monthly Archives: May 2014

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The Beatles Ashram in Rishikesh

Rishikesh was a little known village on the bank of the Ganges River in India’s north until early 1968 when a visit by The Beatles propelled Rishikesh into the western limelight. While in Rishikesh The Beatles stayed at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi‘s ashram and undertook a course of transcendental meditation. The Beatles wrote over 40 compositions at the ashram, many of which went onto be released on The White Album later that year.

The ashram closed in 1997 and has since fallen into a state of disrepair but that hasn’t stopped it being a major drawcard for tourists even if entry is illegal and punishable by a 5000 rupee ($100) fine. The ashram is surrounded by a stone wall that holds signs warning you of the potential fine but abandoned buildings with such a history just hold too much temptation for the signs to be taken seriously so off we went looking for a low point in the wall to jump over.

The entrance to The Beatles ashram

The entrance to The Beatles Ashram

The second I got inside I felt as though I’d been taken back in time, the complex was huge and slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. The glass windows had been smashed and graffiti marked some of the buildings. Despite the damage it was very surreal to be inside this huge complex. I let my imagination wander as we entered the different rooms and meditation pods, it was easy to picture The Beatles walking around in between meditations or John and Paul writing tracks together in the now over-grown gardens. We excitedly speculated over which Beatle would have stayed where and later found out that Lennon’s room and meditation cell was rumoured to be building No.9 (one of the buildings pictured below) and supposedly where he got the inspiration for the repetition of the number in Revolution 9.
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The main meditation pods are housed in a huge building with over 100 separate rooms, most of them had their walls and ceilings covered in the river rock and they seemed like beautiful places for meditation.

The entry to the meditation pods

The entry to the meditation pods

The real highlight of the ashram is the meeting hall which has become a guerrilla art installation – The Beatles Cathedral Gallery. Every wall and most of the floor of the huge room was covered in murals, lyrics, quotes and poems as a tribute to The Beatles and other spiritual teachers. Perhaps it was the mixture of spirituality expressed in modern day art in a derelict building with a history of housing the greatest musical talents of all time that gave this place its electric atmosphere.

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

The Beatles Cathedral Gallery

It was a truly amazing experience that I won’t be able to do justice with my writing or photo’s. The fact that it’s all a big secret and we weren’t really meant to be there definitely added to the allure of this place. Get here and see it before the nature and time completely reclaim it.

theboywander

 

Desert Days in Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer, India’s gateway to the Thar Desert sits in Western Rajasthan about 130km’s east of the Pakistani border, it’s India’s capital for camel safaris. Stepping off the bus you are engulfed and a little overwhelmed by two things – the stifling heat and hot winds rolling in off the Thar Desert and Jaisalmer’s touts, rickshaw drivers and camel safari operators, given that it’s off-season both the heat and the people are as pressing as ever. It’s a whirlwind of people offering cheap rooms and cheap safaris and just 22 hours later I found myself on a camel 70 kilometres outside of Jaisalmer with a Polish couple, our guides Hokum and Salem, and our camel convoy – Johnny Boy, Sonia, Mr. Bean and Papu.

Johnny Boy and I

Johnny Boy and I

 

Camel Safari in Rajasthan

The camel convoy


The camel safaris have long been considered a must do of India (like Hampi) and I can now see why.  The days start early with chai, eggs and toast around the campfire. As the sun peaks it’s head over the horizon we began to pack the camels for the long day ahead. After loading them up with 75 litres of water and all our other rations for the 2 nights in the desert we make our way out into the blistering sun – I should hardly complain I make the journey on the back of the camel and apart from keeping myself on the camel there’s not much I have to do for the next few hours. At around 11 o clock, after 3 hours of riding we stop under the shade of a tree and cook lunch – this is more for our sake than the camels.

‘Camel Kitchen’ – a few pots and pans over a campfire – as the drivers call it cooks up a delicious mixed veg masala with endless chapati’s as well as the obligatory chai (it happens to be the best chai in India). We eat more or less the same meals for lunch and dinner on the 3 days and there was no complaining there – the food was tasty, filling and endless. All of us except the camels followed this up by a nap under the tree.

Camel Kitchen - serving up India's finest Chai

Camel Kitchen – serving up India’s finest Chai

We rest and let the camels wander for a few hours while the sun is at it’s most extreme then our turbans go back on and we venture off in search of a campsite by sunrise. It’s worth noting that for some reason fluoro pink and orange turbans are somewhat of a ‘thing’ out here, even among some of the locals.  The days end in much the same way they start, with chai and dinner as the sun goes down this time over Pakistani border. The air instantly cools and we spend the nights sitting around the campfire drinking desert whisky, telling stories and listening to Salem’s renditions on classic songs. If you’ve never heard an Indian camel driver belt out ‘Hotel Camelfornia’ while playing the water container as a tabla then I seriously suggest you book your camel safari today.

Our camp for the night

Our camp for the night

The long day in the sun and desert whisky take its toll and I retire to bed, a blanket on top of a nearby sand dune. As the campfire burns out the cosmic light show comes to life. The Milky Way spans the sky and I can’t remember the last time I had seen this many stars. As I lay there I remember reading that there are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on this Earth and lying in the middle of 200,000 square kilometres of sandy desert is a timely reminder of just how small we are.

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This escape from the chaos of India was exactly what I needed. It was an amazing way to tick off another item on My Bucket List.

Have you done a Camel Safari or a trip into the desert somewhere? What was your experience like?

theboywander

Vipassana in India

What is Vipassana

Vipassana is a Sanskrit word from ancient India meaning ‘to see things as they really are’ and this is the aim of the Vipassana meditation retreats. It’s a 10 day journey that will completely change your life but it is by no means easy. The course itself is donation-based and includes your accommodation and 2 vegetarian meals per day (No dinner!). Vipassana was originally a Buddhist teaching from 2500 years ago but has been adapted as a secular program that’s open to anybody. They only ask that you cease all other practices of religion, yoga and alternative meditation for the 10 days as to give fair trial to the Vipassana technique.

During this time you must abide by the very strict Vipassana Code of Conduct. One must abstain from killing, stealing, lying, all sexual activities and all forms of intoxicants as well as this you must follow the daily timetable. You must observe complete silence, and all forms of external stimulation including reading, writing, music and strenuous exercise. You’re basically left with meditation, eating, sleeping and showering from 4am-9:30pm for 10 days. Okay, so maybe retreat wasn’t the right word for it but it was on my Bucket List and being in India, I was committed now.

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The Vipassana Centre and Accommodation

I did my course at the Bhopal Centre in Madhya Pradesh, India. The centre was situated 20 minutes out of town and the first thing you notice upon arrival is the absence of traffic and beeping horns, I instantly began to relax. The first step is to register and hand in our electronics for the 10 days – Goodbye phone, laptop, headphones, books and writing materials. My already light backpack now consisted of nothing more than clothes and toiletries.

We were assigned our rooms and from what I’d heard from friends who had completed the course elsewhere, you usually share a room with someone. I turned up to my room and noticed there was only one bed. Yes! Either I had my own room or Vipassana was going to be weird! It was a small fanned room with an attached bathroom (western toilet too, this place was ticking all the boxes).

Meditation Begins

Noble silence had begun and we were awoken at 4am by a bell with the implied message that we were to be in the Dhamma Hall for meditation by 4:30. The days consisted of 10 hours meditation and a 1 and a half hour lecture in the evening. In between sessions of meditation we had breakfast, lunch and some free time to shower and rest.

The first 3 days you spend focusing your attention on the sensations of your breath entering and exiting your nostrils, the idea of this is to sharpen your attention for the real part of the technique. Although we were sitting for well over 12 hours a day, the mental side of it was exhausting and I took every opportunity to sneak a nap.

On the second night I had started to question why on earth I was here. I remember lying in bed that night struggling to fall asleep, thinking I might be losing my mind. The revelation soon came that that was the point, you were meant to lose a part of your mind and ego.

On day 3 I was feeling more energised and started taking less and less naps during the day. I needed something to fill in my free time and decided to start exercising (only allowed inside your small room), I had a choice of push-ups and sit-ups. While doing sit-ups that afternoon I was laughing to myself that this was how I imagined prison to be, it was at this point I looked up at the wall and saw the numbers 1-10 on the wall with the first 4 crossed out, someone obviously hadn’t made it past day 4. This gave me a little bit of motivation and laughter and I made it a personal goal to see out the course not just for myself but also for the random stranger who hadn’t.

Day 4 brought a change of technique where we started to focus our attention on the natural sensations of our body, this was the actual practice of Vipassana and the technique we would use until the completion of the course. We learnt to observe all sensations as impermanent and to neither crave or develop aversion to the positive and negative sensations. The key here is to accept everything as it is. Through extended sessions of practising impermanence your old patterns of aversion and craving bubble to the surface and disappear layer by layer.

On Day 6 I had a few very profound and positive sessions of meditation that left me feeling euphoric and the next day when I walked into the 4:30am session I assumed I would instantly get back into this zone. I had forgotten the most important lesson – impermanence. I had developed a craving for the positive feelings and aversion for anything less and this stuck with me until Day 9 when I realised this. Day 9 was equally as profound as the earlier sessions but was also the last full day of meditation. I feel like I might not have made the most of days 7 and 8 because I hadn’t fully grasped the technique.

Our Vipassana group with our teacher.

Our Vipassana group with our teacher.

 

The morning of Day 10, silence ended and that afternoon we received our phones and laptops. After chatting with the other students and trading experiences, I found the idea of long conversations a little arduous and retired to my room, I was hanging to listen to some music (first up was The Story So Far followed by Ben Howard). The next day we would return to the real world.

What I Gained from the Course

It’s going to be different for everyone but for me I left feeling much lighter, happier and completely stress-free. I feel much more positive when confronted with adverse situations. 3 months of travel in India had started to tire me out and these 10 days – probably the hardest 10 of my life – left me feeling reenergised and ready to take on the world again. I think if I was to do another course I would gain a lot more out of it as I now have a more complete understanding of the technique. What I found hard about the Course For the first 3 days it was definitely very challenging to sit still for so many hours. My knees and hips ached and most people limped away from the meditation hall very stiff. After a few days your body adjusts and then it’s just the mental side. It was frustrating to realise how little control you have over your brain, it’s nearly impossible to switch off your thoughts and while trying to still your mind for meditation your mind seems to wander constantly. I got extremely homesick and a couple of times I was ready to pack my bags, walk out the door and fly home.

Preparation

I think I would have had an easier and more successful experience if I had taken the time to prepare myself properly for Vipassana instead I spent the week beforehand discovering Mumbai’s pubs and bars with a good mate from home. I would recommend trying to ease yourself into the experience. Try to meditate daily in a cross-legged position for at least 2 weeks before the course even if it’s only for 15 minutes. A couple of massages or yoga sessions leading up to it would also make the physical side of it much easier. Apart from that, the only advice I can offer is to surrender yourself to the experience and focus on the meditations session by session, forgetting about counting down days and forgetting about the positives or negatives of your previous sessions.

It might be difficult but it’s definitely worth it.

theboywander

Don’t Worry, Be Hampi

I’m not sure if Hampi is best described as an alien landscape or a prized photograph from the National Geographic collection but I certainly felt as though I wasn’t meant to see it. It’s one of those places where photo’s just seem far too surreal to ever picture yourself amongst it.

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After 13 hours by train and bus over flat and relatively dry land, huge mountains of boulders appear out of the plains in the distance. The roadsigns read Hampi 12 kilometres and as it counts down the stacked orange boulders seem to surround the road, the bus is now following the road that winds in and out of these huge formations and excitement wells amongst Hampi’s first-timers and return visitors alike.

Although the boulders are all naturally formed it appears as though they’d been carved and stacked by a giant master sculptor and each piece glued into place to stop them rolling down the mountainside to the surrounding villages and rice paddies.

After a short stroll through the bazaar and a river crossing you come across the dirt road that’s home to a group of guesthouses with very little to distinguish amongst them, almost all of them have an in-house restaurant with cushions on the floor surrounding low-lying tables serving local Indian food as well as an Indian take on Italian, Chinese and Israeli food.

After you’ve stuffed yourself with as much Malai kofta or ‘Italian Lessange’ the real adventure starts. Cover yourself in sunscreen and start walking in just about any direction and you’re sure to find yourself at the foot of one of these boulders. A laborious hike over cacti, thorn bushes and boulders will have you stumbling upon ruins that – excusing the proximity to the town – would have you believing had been unseen since the day the Vinayanagara civilisation collapsed some 400 years ago .

Atop the mountain of boulders opens up to 360 degree views of Hampi and the surrounding lie of the land. It sprawls in all directions with similar mountains of delicately stacked boulders and you can trace the run of the river by the coconut and banana trees and rice paddies that surround the fresh water. The paradoxical play between the greenery surrounding the river and the orange/reds of the boulders reminds you of something out of a Dali painting.

That look of thanks at the end had me.

That look of thanks at the end had me.

Perhaps Hampi’s most famous mountain top temple is the Hanuman Temple or Monkey Temple. It’s a 5 kilometres out of town and upon reaching the foot of the boulders you are met with 600 dauntingly uneven steps that snake around and under the boulders before opening up to a small temple surrounded by 50-100 monkeys and on a busy day, an equal number of tourists, backpackers and devotees. It offers a 360 degree view of the land around and the boulders, sunset and monkeys make for amazing photo opportunities. Bring some bananas for the monkeys but keep them well hidden until you’re prepared to part with them-they’ll quickly disappear. You’ll split your sunset between here and the sunset jam, a drum circle on top of boulders just outside of the main street (ask around and people will be able to tell you where it is). Check it out here.

I must warn you though, Hampi is a trap. You’ll roll into town with the intention of a 4 or 5 day stay and wake up 2 or 3 weeks later still wandering if you really need to leave. The only thing that dragged me out of Hampi was that I had a friend waiting for me in Goa and that didn’t take long before I convinced him to come back to Hampi.

Don’t Worry, Be Hampi

theboywander