Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

Today I experienced one of the 7 wonders of the world. The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China (located 70 km from Beijing) is one of the best preserved sections. The foundations of the wall were built in the 6th century, and the current wall was built in the 1500s. Mists swirled in the dense forest as the cable car took me away from the t-shirt and souvenir hawkers and into history. When I reached the top, a Chinese couple in their wedding fancywear posed as a professional photographer and assistants bustled about. The wall undulated along the ridge as far as I could see in both directions.

“I’m on the Great Wall!” Strange to be on such an iconic structure. Reconciling the feel of rough hewn stone with the ideas and images collected in my mind. I stood in the watchtowers and imagined the place alive with scurrying soldiers, shouts, smoke. Low doorways and small steps whispered clues about the size of the people. Wondered if the resources and blood spent building the wall was worth the protection it provided. Did it really work? Did it keep nasty northern invaders out, as intended? Apparently for several stretches, at different times in history, it did.

After an hour of hiking along the wall, I made it to the highest point after climbing a very steep stretch of stairs with about 700 feet elevation gain. Got a couple of pictures before the clouds swallowed me and the wall up and the rain began. Covered in my raincoat, I carefully hiked back over the slick granite stones. The fog was so dense, I walked right past the cable car station and ended up a mile later at another one. I felt exhilarated and happy, snapping photos, imagining the wall at different times in history and smiling at other visitors as they passed.

I booked the China portion of my trip from Kathmandu, where my agent there put together a package for me. With such a short time here, doing it all on my own was too much as I am getting ready for Mongolia. Without meaning to, I’ve been launched (temporarily) into another world of travel. My hotel is a 4-star high-rise behemoth, with an older historic section attached. The big section was booked, so they gave me a small lovely room overlooking the garden in the antique (and more expensive) part of the hotel. I have hand-carved antique furnishings, high ceilings, memorabilia from 40s China, Tiffany dragonfly lamps. Kind of fun. All the other guests (mostly European) are on group tours, with big buses coming and going from the grand covered entrance. Uniformed bell hops assist white haired visitors with baggage. I think of my Grandfather Cowan, as he traveled extensively this way. He enjoyed it, and got to see many places…it just isn’t my style. Funny to feel as foreign to the other travelers as I do with the locals.

Though I know I could have figured out a cheaper way to do it, I hired a driver for $100 to take me for the day to the Great Wall. Today I am going supercheap and will see what I can see on foot. Tomorrow I leave for Western China on the train. I think I turned a corner yesterday with this illness that has been with me the past 2 weeks. I’ve eaten 2 meals now without serious gastric revolt. Fingers crossed!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Everything here is written in Chinese!

Made it to Beijing after 24 hours of travel—had to go through Hong Kong when my original flight to Beijing via Lhasa was cancelled. Took three hours to get across Beijing to my hotel due to rush hour traffic. I was really tired, looking at all the shiny cars, lack of tuk tuks and motorbikes, all the concrete, clean streets, gleaming high rise buildings. Fairly orderly stop and go rush hour traffic. One scraper’s entire side was a TV screen (like the kind they have around the edge at fancy stadiums) playing images of octopus and other sea creatures moving in the water. Felt like I had gone 50 years into the future after being in Nepal and India. Then in my mind, I heard this surprised realization, “Everything here is written in Chinese!” And then quick on its heels, “Ah, that would be because I am now in China…” I have been on the move lately, and that little moment showed me how much moving there has been. Maybe it was a premonition that everything in the future will be written in Chinese. It is the language on the planet with the most speakers. China is investing heavily in education and technological advancements…(fans of Firefly will appreciate the implications here).

Spent my last 4 days in KTM resting and started a different round of pills. It looks like I picked up a parasite from contaminated food or water. In a previous post I thought it was a particular meal, I now think it was water I drank in McLeod Ganj…there is a place you can fill your Nalgene instead of buying bottles. I’m glad I didn’t use the plastic bottles there from an environmental standpoint, but this has been hard on my body. I hope I can kick it before I get to Mongolia. Though it is nice to cut a thinner profile, losing 15 pounds in 2 weeks (that’s after getting rehydrated) is worrisome.

Tomorrow I will go see a section of the Great Wall, then walk around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City the next day. I am working to learn and have an open mind, rather than “prove” what I already think I know about China. I am in a country with thousands of years of history, that has made significant contributions to science and religion over the eaons. Like us (U.S.), China has its shadow sides. It is an incredibly complex place.
My approach here is different than in India or Nepal. I am going to try to see something true about the whole by looking at a small slip of it sideways with squinted eyes (like the way you can see sunlight glimmering on water by looking sideways at a handful of sand or the way you can realize something important about the oceans by listening to a conch shell). I am embarking on a train trip to see part of where Arabia met old China in the Silk Road city of Urumqi.

(Thanks Will for posting this entry…Blogger is one of the Google products that China has banned. I also will have to wait to post more pictures, as apparently Picasa is another.)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Last post from India

It has been a long and full 3 weeks here in India. Much more managable than I expected, and in moments, fully living up to its reputation of chaotic, intense, colorful, wonderful, hard...

I went to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab. It was built by a Swiss architect and team of city planners to be the new modern city, at a time of great optimism in India after the British left. Wide avenues, many parks, and strange cube buildings. Everything very organized. Strange to have that mixed in with all that is India. (Kyle: thought of you at the museum all about how they planned Chandigarh. Quite a philosophical foundation to it. Look it up...)

There was this amazing place there, the reason I went. It is called Nek Chand's Fantasy Rock Garden. It is a huge winding park filled with surreal settings, thousands of sculptures, gorgeous mosaics...all made from recycled building materials when they were removing old city to build the new. He worked on it in secret for 20 years before it was discovered. Rather than tearing it down, they made it a park and gave him a salary and a team of artisans. Soon I will have a whole folder of photos dedicated to this on my photo site. I loved it. A place that trancends the country it was made in. Magical.

Spent the day with the "Angel of Travelers" Narinder Singh. He is a lovely 74 year old Sikh man that lives in Chandigarh and has made it his "job" in retirement to meet and take care of foreign visitors. He had taken a friendly couple from New Zealand under his wing and I joined in. He walked us around the sites, showed us where to get cheap and good food, and told stories. We ended that day with the 4 of us in a blue swan paddle boat on the lake at dusk.

Tomorrow I leave Dehli, a little unsatisfied, but glad with what I did with the time I had. Unsatisfied because 3 weeks is too short to do anything but taste. I'll just have to come back. Now to Kathmandu for 3 days, then on to China!

I'm starting to get excited for Mongolia, and being in one place for awhile after all this movement. Peace to all--thanks for following.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

McLeod Ganj and Dharamkhot

Well, there will be no miraculous accidental meeting with the Dalai Lama. Of course, I knew it was a long shot. But when you come to where he lives, there is a chance, right? Ironically, he is traveling in the US right now. But here in McLeod Ganj, is a home-away-from-home to Tibetans (exiled government and spiritual leader, refugees, released and escaped political prisoners, transient refugees that hope to return to Tibet, as well as more established business owners). It is also home to many Hindu shopkeepers and street vendors. There are 2 main streets that run parallel, about 7 feet wide, lined with shops, guesthouses, restaurants and monestaries. Filling the streets are young homespun dreadlocked hippies (mostly euro), students of yoga, Buddhism, Auyervedic medicine, Buddhist monks and nuns with shaved heads (in their burgandy robes with goldenrod accents and tennis shoes), Indian tourists, and Israeli tourists (about a third of the tourists here are Israeli). Into this mix are a few Hindu Sadu (holy men) and motorbikes, taxis, cows, monkeys, donkeys and the occasional bus. But compared to every other Indian town I have been in, it is calm. Sometimes as much as 3 minutes passes between horn toots and blasts!

The town is built up into the foothills of the Himalayas and is much cooler than where I was traveling. Being among pine trees again (the last I will see on this trip) is healing. I breathe deeply. The air is fresh.

There is also a strange disconnected feeling here. The town too well caters to tourists. Italian restaurants abound. It is possible to be completely in a new age bubble of superficial stoned spiritual bliss, eating Western food, doing yoga in a Western way... which doesn't feel right to me. It feels I left India and now don't know where I am.

Despite the surreal surface, I was able to make some tangible connections. I attended an English conversation class with nuns that had been political prisoners. Two days in a row, I met with them for 2 hours and we talked about many things. Their stories came through in little bits, but mostly we talked about our families, our hopes. I met an amazing Swiss woman and we talked about our lives and philosophies over several meals. I took a cooking class and learned how to make Tibetan momos (a tasty steamed dumpling filled with vegetables).

I grew restless in McLeod Ganj, so came up the hill for a couple days of retreat before heading down the mountains into the heat and chaos. I wanted a couple of days to hike, process the trip so far, and prepare for the next chapters. My first evening here, I ate at a fine restaurant and got really sick. Not like food poisoning, just the runs. Worst bout so far. 2 days of liquified guts that Immodium wouldn't solidify. Losing a lot of water, stomach cramps, some relief by laying perfectly still on my back. Unable to eat the first day, had a little broth and crackers yesterday. Needless to say, my time here has been very different than I pictured. At least the weather has been cool and rainy and nice for snuggling into blankets and resting. I took my strong medicine, I've been drinking electrolytes, and I hope today will be better. These little gastric mishaps are an inherent part of traveling where I am. Today I plan to make my way to Dharamsala where I will catch a very early bus the next morning to Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab. I will leave India May 23.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Being present

As I have written in other entries, this trip has been as much about the internal as the external. One lesson I have been working on is staying in the present moment. Travel gives many opportunities to practice. When I am uncomfortable, tired, the past I would have worked to endure the moment by thinking about the next good thing that was coming, or distractng myself with this or that to get through the discomfort. I have been playing with a different approach. Whenever I find my mind complaining or wandering or my body too hot, cramped, fatigued (these complaints, once it is established I am safe from immediate harm, are another kind of distraction) I say "This moment is beautiful. There is beauty in this moment." I look for it.
On a bus in 98 degrees, stuck in traffic, exhaust fumes and dust pouring in the open windows, squished sideways into a seat that does not allow for long legs, my mind goes to distraction and complaint. "Look for the beauty in this moment." I see a pair of women, one in a bright goldenrod yellow sari and one in a fushia sari winding carefully through the mass of tuk tuks, trucks, motorcycles. The bright colors transcend the dust as the fabric ripples in the breeze. The dashboard on the truck next to me (I could easily touch it through the window it is so close) has a nice dashboard shrine for Lord Vishnu, complete with tiny blinking lights. And in this moment, the women have crossed the road out of view, the clog begins to drain and slowly there is movement (and the sound of many horns in all their declarations from the small squeaky tuk tuk to the big trucks and buses booming).
How much have I escaped from moments and missed the beauty as I threw the baby out with the bathwater? Deemed as unpleasant, uncomfortable, viewed as something to endure, how much have I missed? India is a good place to practice this, as many moments have the good, the bad, and the ugly mixed together (if I chose to see it that way). I have been working to see what is, without judging it or closing my heart, while looking for the beauty that is there.
Two girls run by holding hands and shrieking with laughter. Their hair wild and dreadlocked, covered head to toe in a layer of dirt as thick as their skin, but not thick enough to hide the bruises and marks on their thin arms and legs. Sound of bare feet padding on rough pavement. I want to see the dirt, not flinch from the bruises, but also delight in their friendship and that moment of joy. I want to stay in that NOW, instead of succumbing to feelings of impotence or the guilt of the privileged. I want to keep my heart open, without that meaning that I bleed dry trying to fill all the holes I can see.
Even as I write this, I see another way of being here. On a boat ride in Varanasi on the river Ganges, the holy river, the polluted river, a fellow passenger accidentally dipped her fingers in the water. She said "Ew! Ew! I touched the water!" and looked anxiously for something to wipe her hand on. I am in this country for 3 weeks. In this old and complex place with a rich, diverse, and painful history, I am a tourist skimming the surface of the holy waters in a boat that protects me from the pollution mixed in with the sacred. I don't know if I am yet willing to do more than "see the dirt" and the beauty. This "seeing" still implies separation. For this first trip to India I am letting down some but not all guards. I think I have touched the surface of the water, and intentionally let it dry on my hand, while still safe in my boat. It feels a limitation of time, and I don't think I know yet how to do more in just 23 days.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Doing seva at the Golden Temple in Amritsar

Mission 2 for India was to spend a day or two at the Golden Temple (the Sihk's most holy shrine) doing seva (service done as a spiritual act). The Golden Temple complex is made up of a shimmering pool with white marble buildings and gateways at the periphery and the shimmering Golden Temple in the center of the pool. All day, priests chant the contents of their holy book accompanied by musicians within the Golden Temple. This calm, beautiful music plays on speakers throughout the compound. A constant stream of people come and go from the Temple. Though Sihks are the most represented group among the tens of thousands that come each day, there are also Hindus and other folks (like me). Sikhs are very open to people of all religions visiting (which is different than many of the Hindu holy places which are closed to non-Hindus). It is a place of absolute serenity.
Part of the Sihk practice is to serve langar, a meal, to anyone who comes to eat. At the Golden Temple, the kitchen is running from dawn to dusk and serves a simple meal of rice pudding, lentils, curry, and chapati (flatbread) to 60-80,000 people a day. The amazing thing about this, besides the sheer volume of that undertaking, is that is almost entirely done by volunteers. To do seva at the temple is an important part of the Sihk's spiritual practice. I had read about this and wanted to experience it.
I went to the dining hall and asked to be put to work. A man walked me to back to the kitchen building--a huge space, with wood fires heating enormous cauldrons of lentils and curry and rice. In the chapati area, groups of 20 (mostly but not all women) sat rolling out dough, tossing it to the people who cooked it on a flat grill, expertly flipping them with little wooden sticks. Runners kept the food going up to the dining hall in big silver buckets.
When you come for the meal, you pick up a plate and bowl and spoon as you enter the dining hall. The hall holds about 400 people. People sit in lines on the floor. As equality is important in Sikhism, even if royalty came, they would have to sit on the floor with everyone else. Volunteers come around and serve the food out of the silver buckets with big ladels. Chapati is brought around in large baskets. You can eat your fill. When finished, you take your dishes out to the washing area.
I also helped here. Already covered in flour from making chapatis, what's a little water going to hurt? I helped at one of the rinsing stations. The silver metal dishes are cleaned by about 100 people working at stations that consist of long steel sinks filled with different kinds of water. First the dishes get dunked to get off most the food. Then they move to the next sink station where they are washed. Then another washing station. Then a rinsing station. Then a second rinsing station. As the metal dishes move through this process it is deafening with clanging clattering. Water is splashing sploshing. It is too loud to talk, so people smile at each other as they work. The clean dishes go to a drying station, then are wheeled out to where they are being given to new people coming in for langar.
It was an amazing thing to be part of such an efficient human machine. American churches could learn some things from the Sikhs at how well they engage and use their volunteer force. It was set up so anyone can come and jump right in and start helping.
I took several days here, and went to the Golden Temple about 8 times over the 4 days. My first day I hit a bit of a wall, and wasn't feeling well, so I stayed in resting in my hotel room watching bad American movies. It helped to take a day off. I've been going for 2 months now. For the first time, I find myself thinking of home.
Next stop: McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan Government.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Meeting a living saint

I had seen him in the movie "Enlighten Up" about the spirituality of yoga, and he caught my eye and interest. He has a twinkle and a joy about him, and radiates love. He doesn't have an air of superiority. I did a little research and found out he was usually near Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, (about 2 hours from Agra by train). Thanks to help from Cait, I found a Web site that led to Swami Naresh, who told me the Maharajji would be in Goverdhan at their ashram there for the festival.

I made it to Goverdhan, to a Krishna Ashram that had a very nice guesthouse, and realized my address from Swami Naresh was quite vague. I took a room, found internet, got better info, and finally knew where to go.

That evening, I went to the Karshni ashram. A huge tent was set up to offer shade, and there was a glitzy shimmering stage hung with red curtains covered in tiny mirrors. I was greeted and led to a dining area, under another tent. Rows of people from all walks of life sat on the floor and were served a meal of dhal and chapati and rice. I attempted to eat as they were, with my right hand, and I guess I wasn't doing very well because they took pity on me and brought a spoon. I was taken to another area to wash up. Another kindly man who is close to the Maharajji came and took me past the tents to an area just behind. A 3 story building with an elevator, wood flooring, chanting music playing over the speakers in the elevator. Felt like I stepped from the country to the city as I crossed the threshold. Wasn't sure where they were taking me. A private audience? I was still struggling to come up with a question to ask him, if given the chance.

On the top floor, there was a large deck, and in the middle of the deck, a glass room about 50 X 50 feet. Inside, I could see a service was underway, with men on one side (about 60) and women on the other (about 45). These folks were much more well dressed, and this was a service before the later service for the masses. Gurusharananda (, scroll down to see his picture and bio) sat at the front in a big chair, encircled on one side by disciples, and on the other by 20 musicians that were leading the chanting. I was ushered up to the front. The kindly man who brought me prostrated himself fully on the floor and kissed the ground in front of the Guru. The room was watching me, and I wasn't sure what to do. I knelt, and bowed with my hands together in a sign of respect, but didn't feel comfortable going for full prostration when I do not worship the guru as they do.

The service continued, with music, chanting, and clapping. People were very moved seeing him and by the music. I found it calming and peaceful. At one point the Guru took a break and left the room for about 30 minutes. The service continued. When he returned, he asked for a different song. Then some people made requests of him. He performed some blessings, and gave a small gift of food to each person there. Then everyone stood up, and came forward in a line for a final blessing. He waved me over to talk to him.

After the usual niceties, where are you from, how long will you be in India...he said "How can I help you?" "I wanted to meet you, and am honored to meet you." "And how can I be of help?" get a chance to ask a question of a holy person, what would you ask? I was hoping that something brilliant would come in the moment I was given the chance, and instead, I felt most of my intelligence leave me. So I stumbled on with this question, which is what I have been working on. "I understand the peaceful place reached through meditation practice, but want to better understand how to move from that place into action. The two states don't feel compatible." He asked if I focus on something while meditating, or if I worked only to clear the mind. "I'm still trying different ways of meditation." He said, "If I may make a suggestion: Pick a path. It doesn't matter which one. If you go on that path, once you get there, you will see many paths lead there. But if you are trying to walk all the paths at once, you won't get where you want to go." He was very sweet and gentle as he spoke. He asked if there was anything else. Couldn't think of anything, so I thanked him, and bowed with my hands together.

Walking back to my guesthouse, I was walking against thousands and thousands of people coming the other direction for evening services for the festival. I still haven't figured out which festival it was. People were bused in from the surrounding areas. The next day, I went to Mathura.

I don't understand the guru culture, and hope to get a better sense of it in Amritsar where the Sikhs revere 10 holy gurus and are monotheistic in a sea of polytheism.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Agra and the Taj

Got to see one of the 7 wonders of the world, and I think, one of the finest buildings ever made by human hands. The Taj Mahal is one of those mythical places. It conjures images of old India, of warm Arabian nights. People come from all over the world to see it. It's reputation is well deserved. The white marble seems to glow with a light from within. The workmanship is impeccable. Everything precise, and done entirely by hand--many hands (it took 20,000 people 17 years to build, completed in 1653). I saw the sun rise there, and couldn't take my eyes off it.

I spent the day seeing many amazing places (like the Red fort and the "Baby Taj") via rickshaw in an impressive heat. I was worried my rickshaw guy was going to have heat stroke. It was over 100 degrees. I got to have dinner with the Australian women I met in Varanasi, and today caught a local train to Mathura. My cold is finally starting to pass.

I am staying at a Hare Krishna guesthouse. Mathura is the birthplace of Lord Krishna, so this whole area is primarily Hare Krishna. I am looking to hear a man named Gurusharananda speak. He is regarded as a living saint, and I saw him in a documentary film ( It seemed a fun mission since I was in the area to try to find him. After this, I will make my way by train to Amritsar.


A glimpse of enlightenment while nearly missing train

I thought I had to leave for the train at 4:30 p.m. I'd worked it out. I knew some others that had been on the same train the day before. At 4:15 I was amicably chatting with a New York couple. I get out my ticket. Departs at 16:45, i.e. 4:45, and the station is 40 minutes away. Whoops! I calmly approach the guy at the desk. He thinks I can make it, if I leave right now, and I run. He gives me his card to help me if I miss it.

I run down the 5 foot wide stone street alleyways. I'm dodging cows, motorbikes, old folks, monks, children, touts, monkeys, and dogs.I'm smiling. I burst onto the crazy busy main street where the line of auto tuk tuks wait. I go to the first one, a new tuk tuk with a young driver. I say, calmly, "I need to go to the train station, and I am very late. Maybe will miss the train. Can you get me there fast?" His price is great, and there is no time to haggle. We're off. He doesn't leave more than 2 seconds between horn blasts. He's riding the tails of anything in our way, horn blaring until they move and we ride the next tail. He goes zipping into oncoming traffic to pass, taking on buses, trucks, pedestrians, cows, waterbuffalo, and rickshaws. I'm smiling. I'm relaxed. I'm not attached to the idea of catching the train, just curious if I can get there. I'm floating through the traffic and the noise, closing my eyes briefly when collision seems imminent, and then reopening when the moment has passed without incident. We get to the station, and I pay him a good tip, and run. I am running up the road, through waves of people coming and going.

Smack! I hit a wall of people. In the main hall of the station, as big as 1/2 a football field, 2000 people wait in long lines. My first Indian train station. No sign for track numbers. I don't have time for lines. I see a door going out to the platforms. I force my way to it. I don't know if my e-ticket is all I need to board, but I don't have time to ask. I go through the door and hit another wall of people...hundreds and hundreds waiting on the platform. "Do you speak English?" I ask a couple of times. They shake their heads. I get a strong feeling to go upstairs. I run up, looking for a board with track numbers and find one--all in Hindi. I get this idea that I can find my train through intuition, that I have time for one "guess," and wouldn't that be funny if it works? A feeling says, "Go to the other platforms" on the overpass I am on. I go. Now where? "Now left." Through the tons of people I see a train and think it is mine. A man puzzles over my ticket. "Is this the train to Agra?" After some time, and help from a friend, they think it is my train. He seems helpful and clueless. Should I trust it? He points, the train is ready to leave. I am running through oncoming people. I can't see any English numbers, and don't know what my seat or car number is. Now the people clear, and there is a man waving at me. Waving for me to come where he is. Wait--it's the guy who sold me my train ticket!? He's smiling. I'm still totally calm. He walks me to my car and right to my seat like it's the most natural thing. 2 minutes pass, and the train leaves. It's 4:50. I'm smiling and shaking my head in wonder. What an incredible experience! Miraculous. Beautiful. Fun.

I have been working on meditation and reading more about Buddhism in addition to my journey this past year to be more open to intuition and flow. I have been struggling to understand how I can be in the moment, calm, still, heart open, and still get things done. In my mind, that zen space feels passive and immobile, which doesn't jive with the idea of taking control and action to move toward a goal.

This experience allowed me direct experience with how this concept actually feels and works. I had a goal: Catch the train despite low level of success. I was calm and alert and happy, taking each little step at a time while holding the possibility, the goal of reaching the train, gently in my mind. It was a game. I didn't have time to despair, freak out, or get off course. I had to listen. In that state of mind, I heard clearly and took action because I didn't have time to doubt or question the method. It was an experiement. A guess. I knew no matter what happened, it would work out. I was a feather being blown through reeds to the shore. Many things came together in those 30 minutes that I will be chewing on for awhile. I am left with a feeling that I am cared for, being looked out for, and loved.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Made it to India!

Well, after another 3 hour delay, we did finally make it out. We flew on a nice big plane into Varanasi. I had made friends with 3 cool young Australian women, and they were kind enough to let me tag along with them. I shared a taxi and a tuk tuk and was able to get a room at the same hotel. They have a great balance of cool confidence that is friendly but has a boundary in it. I have been struggling with how to be friendly yet have an air that says "I'm not interested" to everyone trying to sell something. My technique has been to be very guarded, a bit grumpy even, which puts me on edge. It has been really helpful to me to see how a relaxed confidence can be its own boundary. I do feel it was a divine gift that allowed me to arrive with those women. I was intimidated but determined to come to India alone. Thanks to Alicia, Vanessa, and Jade, my entry here was seemless and easy. What a gift!

Hotel Alka is right on the holy river Ganges, and has easy access to the walkway along the river by a series of temples (called ghats) where the devout come to pray and bathe, and where it's especially auspicious to be cremated when you die. About 300-450 people a day are cremated here, and the burning ghats are running 24 hours a day to keep up.

This morning, I woke up at 4:30 to go with the Australians on a boat ride for sunrise. The ghats, hotels, and some houses, are crowded together in a wall lining the river. Steep stairs lead down the bank into the river. Thousands of people stream through the alleyways headed to the river's edge. At Shiva's main temple, hundreds of people bathed while other hundreds waited, sold flowers, or prayed and chanted. There were holy men (sadus) with their long dreadlocks, painted faces, far away eyes. The sharp "crack!" of a cricket bat hitting the ball could be heard as boys played cricket on any surface wide and flat enough. There was even an area to roller skate! The lines between the sacred and secular are not recognized here. Everything is woven together. Life, play, death, laundry, sacred bathing rituals, swimming for fun, sports, grief, prayer, business...all together on the banks of the Ganges.

I will spend some more time at a few of the temples, but the early boat ride was the best way to be introduced, and to ease into this place. I expected the chaos to hit as soon as I left customs, but things were subdued. I had read the touts are aggressive trying to sell things. They are prevalent, but pretty easy to wave off and ignore. I will rest during the heat of the day (over 100 degrees) and then take an evening boat ride to see the evening festival where thousands of lights are released into the Ganges. One of them will be mine!

PS: Due to the US warnings about imminent attacks in New Dehli, I have changed my plans to skip it for now. I will have to find a creative way to get around it on my way North.