“Perfect” Strangers

When I wake up from the nap, the fever is still there. Looking around, I notice that in between the time when I passed out and now, all the ninety bunk beds in the room have filled up. People are quietly going about their business, reading, writing, washing clothes, and resting their tired muscles. I don’t recognize anyone. Most of the familiar faces seem to have moved on. 

Bedroom for close to a 100 people
I try to reach over and grab my water bottle from the foot of my bed when a faintly familiar man passes by. He tries to find out what’s wrong but doesn’t understand what I’m saying. He leaves and comes back with a big Hungarian man who speaks fluent English; very quickly, the Hungarian man -- Istvan -- is convinced that I have what he had and strongly advises me to go to the doctor.  It turns out that he got caught up in the cold weather without proper winter gear and got a really bad fever and chills and almost died. On hearing his story, I gather enough strength to eat so I can take medicine. Istvan kindly hands me some medicine along with a quarter of a baguette from my bag on the floor.  A German lady offers me her banana.  Just moments ago, I felt like I didn’t know anyone and a bit lost in a crowd of ninety people -- but here I am.  If I didn’t get up to grab my water at the exact same time that the familiar man was passing by – I wonder if anyone would’ve even noticed that I was really sick. I eat and quickly slide back into my sleeping bag on the top bunk, covered from head to toe.  Because the high fever didn't subside, I wake up once again to take a Tylenol and then sleep through the rest of the night.

On Istvan’s suggestion, I was planning on asking the Refugio if I can spend an extra day. But to my surprise, I woke up at six in the morning feeling rejuvenated, ready to hit the road and have things go back to “normal”. Taking a peak outside at the rain, I knew I would need to wear a pancho; And I promised myself that I would walk slowly without overexerting myself. It was a beautiful walk. When I stopped to take a break at a café, I ran into Istavan again.  Almost flabbergasted to see me walking, he greeted me with a big smile. “We would’ve left you for dead,” he joked.  Every time I took a break, I was greeted with friendly smiles from people I’d never met.  "It’s a Camino miracle," someone said.

That same evening, when I couldn’t stop coughing, I got an impromptu physical from a man sitting across from me at dinner -- who happened to be a doctor. His final diagnosis was that I would live and prescribed me, “Vegetable Juice”. Rather serendipitously, I got back to my bed after dinner to find that another pilgrim had left a bottle of vegetable juice on my bed!  It took me two days to figure out who it was from. I felt like the whole universe was conspiring to help me. The kindness was coming in from all sides. It was almost too much to take in and I couldn’t wait to get better so I could start paying forward the kindness of strangers. 

The Camino has many lessons to teach: we are never given more than what we can handle. If it appears that we can’t handle something at first, it only means that we need to sharpen the tools that are already at our disposal. And indeed miracles do happen every day -- we just need to have the eyes to see them. 


What Part of Us Suffers?

My plan was to walk about twenty-five kilometers today but when I stop in Najera for a cup coffee, I have my doubts. After setting my pack down, it’s obvious that I’m feeling more than the usual soreness and my knees aren’t the only thing hurting today. The whole body is starting to ache and the fever is rising quickly. The older Spanish men sitting on bar stools watch as I struggle to go up the three stairs and out the Café. Once I’m back on the street, it’s obvious even to me that I simply won't be able to walk the thirteen kilometers to Santo Domingo, where there’s a place to stay. It’s time to surrender to this moment. Painstakingly, I walk about a kilometer to the Refugio in Najera, feeling fortunate that there’s a place to stay nearby. All I want to do is to find a bed and slip into my warm sleeping bag. 

At the door of the Refugio, however, there’s a schedule that shows that it opens at 3pm, and it is now 10:30am. My options for the next four and a half hours seem pretty grim. I can lie on the bench outside, but it’s really cold outside.  Or I can walk thirteen kilometers to the next Refugio and keep the body warm.  Given that my body can barely move, I decide on the only thing I’m capable of doing -- stay. There are two others in a similar predicament waiting for the doors to open: a man with a cast on his foot who only speaks Spanish and a lady with bad blisters from the last Refugio who only speaks German. She recognizes me and we exchange sympathetic glances. Feeling the chills, I slowly walk over to a bench. Using my backpack as a pillow, I lie down and try to rest my eyes.

People come and go as I lay there, almost motionless. My body is completely drained, but the mind is surprisingly more alert than ever. There’s something about suffering that jolts us into the present moment. What part of me is suffering?  I wonder. The high fever is warming the entire body, the aching pains are mostly in my back but when I try to watch it – it’s all just a physical sensation. The body is hurting, but there’s no suffering in the mind.  For a change, there’s no story, no narrative for my mind to grab onto. Ego is subdued, creating total acceptance of the moment. Mental noise is replaced with clarity. 

Physically unable to smile or say hello to the people passing by, my mind wanders to a metal Cross I saw this morning in a field. It was different than all other Crosses I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was my own physical circumstances that made me relate to it more. What state of mind must Jesus Christ have been in to wish forgiveness for those that were physically hurting him? You have to be drowning in compassion for others. I’m not a religious person per se but every time I think of that cross, I get all choked up. When I’m not feeling well, I just want to find a bed, much less think about blessing those who are creating suffering for me. How far am I from having even a pinch of that compassion for the world?  It's a humbling thought, as my heart overflows with gratitude for all the people in the world that have served humanity so selflessly.

As I lie bundled up in a scarf, gloves, and a hat, it starts to drizzle. Not exactly the best timing for my situation but I accept the water drops without cursing it. Most of the last two weeks have been very cloudy.  Across the park, birds fly in circles across the clear blue sky. As soon as it starts to rain, though, I look up and the Sun comes out and warms my body. It happens several times and I get a strong feeling that nature is keeping a close eye on me. Ultimately, Nature is constantly eavesdropping on all of us -- and if we tune into it, perhaps we can co-create the reality in far greater capacities than we might've imagined. Without a doubt, I feel the connection with Nature. In this moment, when my body is in deep pain, I feel a lot of joy and beauty.

What part of me suffers?  I wonder again.  The part that suffers is the part that is disconnected from life.  When we are connected, the body is merely an instrument to compassionately express Nature's interconnected-ness.


Mindful by Mary Oliver

Lake Peten Itza, Flores (Guatemala)

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It is what I was born for --
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world --
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant --
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these --
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
our of grass?

Mary Oliver


The “Four” Basic Needs

A tree in the French Pyrenees
When you strip life down to its bare necessities, it starts to reveal glimpses of its true nature -- very much like rubbing the dust off of a stone exposes its ever-present sparkle. 

The path is clear. I wake up and follow the signs (quite literally). I know exactly where I’m going. There are no conflicts in the mind. No real decisions to be made. I just need to keep walking. And in between those steps, somehow, things become clearer and less complex. All of a sudden, everything seems simple. 

Once the mind accepts whatever situation it comes across with an unwavering steadfastness and equanimity, everything is in the flow. Majority of the thoughts now revolve around the three basic needs: food, shelter, and enough warm clothing. 

After walking for hours, there’s a relief when I finally spot a café.  I can go in and get a sandwich and a coffee to nurture the body and walk the rest of the day. Hopefully, I'll make it in time to my destination and get a bed for the night. Most days end with me lying completely exhausted in a warm sleeping bag, with a sense of accomplishment and gratefulness for the day. Day after day, the same situation transpires. I wake up, work hard physically, and search for food and shelter. As a custodian of this body, my mind anticipates its needs and quickly steps in to protect and provide -- it does the job it’s meant to do. 

On exploring and inspecting the three basic needs, another need arises.  While I’m constantly receiving -- from the air that fills my lungs to the food that satisfies my tummy to the sun that warms my body -- there is also a natural impulse to complete the circle and start giving.  That's the fourth basic need: to give.

This one is not so obvious at first and it can easily go below the radar for an entire lifetime.  Still, if we are to learn to thrive, and not just survive, this is the most important one.  The patterns of receiving tend to set in from our birth since Nature provides for us so effortlessly.  We almost take it for granted.  As a result, it is no surprise that we seek out relationships where we will receive; relationships that will fulfill our needs and cover up our voids. Like many others, I’ve often taken pride in being independent without recognizing the extent of our interconnection with all that lives around us. If science tells us that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas, what about our impact? We are deeply connected not just with people but with all of nature.

The only way that we can complete this circle is by becoming aware of the magnitude of gifts we've received, feeling a deep sense of gratitude, and paying it forward. Just like food, shelter and clothing, if we truly recognize the importance of “giving” as a vital need, it would be difficult not to meet life at its doorstep every moment with one question: how can I serve?


Unwrapping the Days

There’s very little room for mental or physical lazy-ness. Lights are on at 6:00 in the morning. All of the forty bunk beds start stirring in hopes of getting to one of the two bathrooms in the Refugio, before there’s a long queue. Days are starting to set-in to a routine: I lay out the toiletries and clothes at the foot of my bed every night; In the morning I get my stiff body down from the top bunk (they always save the bottom bunks for older pilgrims), grab my stuff and head to the bathroom, pack my bag and be out on the road by 6:30am. Mornings are the best times for me to walk. In the afternoons, my pace becomes painfully slow.

Today, for half of the day the route goes through a quiet dirt path at a pace that allows time and awareness to expand. I’m enjoying the freedom of walking at a little bit more comfortable pace with a manageable amount of uphill and downhill.  By the afternoon, however, it’s contrasted by city sidewalks of Pamplona, a historical Spanish city of about population: 200,000. The largest city I’ve crossed so far. Clouds of pollution that hang in the air above are the biggest indication that you’re close to a city. Rolling meadows slowly turn into cement buildings where everyone is crammed together in unnaturally tight spaces.

Streets of Pamplona, Spain
As I enter the town, accustomed to greeting everyone I pass with a cheerful “Hola,” and getting an equally enthusiastic response in return, I’m surprised at the reactions I get. Most people just stare at me with a blank stare like I’ve broken some sort of a cardinal rule. While others are walking so fast that I don’t actually get see their reactions. I managed to get just a couple of smiles. Then I cross a group of guys, one of them yells out “Guapa,” which means pretty but it sounds so ugly coming from him because of the look in his eyes. I try to shake off that gross feeling and keep walking. The scene is the same as in any major city: streets filled with shops selling duplicates of everything from electronics to pastries, restaurants, and people chatting on cell phones, busily trying to get somewhere that they’re not. I’m ashamed to see a reflection of myself from my own life back home, and it scares me for a moment. Their eyes are either intensely looking for something or completely blank. It’s like they’ve all got the Stepford-wife syndrome. Most people seem to be sleepwalking, they’re moving, but there’s no one home. Everyone’s lost in the crowd. All of a sudden I feel like I can muscle out enough energy to walk over to the next town that is much smaller, instead of staying here as intended. The contrast between the pilgrim community against the regular city life seems too vast for the moment.

About five tiring kilometers later, there’s a small Refugio in the clean and beautiful Cizur Mejur. The town has two small mom and pop grocery stores that close for the afternoon siesta. They have more than enough for all my needs. A nice lady sells me some veggies to stir-fry at the kitchen in the Refugio, a baguette of bread, cheese, and some fruits for tomorrow. This is the most comfortable Refugio I’ve stayed at so far: A nice hot shower is my most favorite feature, so I can actually wash my hair; A small dryer so the thicker pants can be washed and dried tonight, and lots of friendly smiles – aching bodies, but friendly smiles. And eyes looking at you with such tenderness, and lips that ask how your blister is doing even though they don’t know your name, and may not ever see you again. These are the people who have come alive and are living their lives against all odds. They seem to remember that life can be a joy to live, not just a drudgery to go through each day but instead -- a gift to be unwrapped carefully and mindfully.


How I Learned the Meaning of 'Satyagraha'

A labyrinth created by pilgrims on the side of the road
When you are a woman walking alone, you attract all kinds of attention. Having consciously made the decision to be a little bit more reserved than usual as to not attract too many "talkers," it is still challenging to keep to myself.

In Roncesvalles, I arrive at one of the two restaurants that serve dinner for pilgrims. The waitress walks me over to a table of four pilgrims whose meal was already in progress. Just to be polite, I join the conversation. Spanish and Portuguese seem to be the common language in this group of an older Spanish man, a young Portuguese guy, and a Spanish lady. We actually have a very meaningful conversation on topics ranging from walking alone to vegetarianism (a major topic of discussion at each of my meals since this is not-at-all normal in Spain) to spirituality. Right after the meal, we walk over next door to the church that is having a special mass for the pilgrims, since many people actually start the Camino in Roncesvalles. Pilgrims are quietly gathered in the beautiful church, in anticipation of a start to a new journey.

Once the priest starts the prayers, we stand up a few times and bow as the mass continues. You can practically hear the soreness in the muscles every time the entire crowd gets to their feet. My stubborn muscles refuse to move another inch for the day, so I place my hands on the bench in front of me to help me stand each time. Just then, I notice something odd. The Portuguese guy is doing the same thing and his hand happens to touch mine ... not once or twice but three times, even though there's enough space in front of him. Strange, I thought. I didn't even know him, prior to the dinner. He then turns around and asks (in the middle of mass) what kind of perfume I’m wearing. As my doubts of his intentions quickly get confirmed, I head to the door as soon as the mass finishes. He follows and asks what time I’m starting tomorrow and that we should walk together. Wanting to put an end to whatever his intentions were right away, I explain to him very clearly and compassionately that I plan on walking the Camino alone.

Surprisingly, by the next day, I had a stalker situation on my hands. This is the last thing I would expect to deal with on the pilgrimage. Another evening, at the Refugio, the Portuguese guy ends up getting a bunk-bed right next to mine. That's more-than-a-bit odd when there are over a hundred beds spread across about a dozen rooms. Still, there’s not much that I can do. There’s really nowhere to run to. Not just in this town, but even in subsequent towns, he always makes the effort to locate me and happens to be walking at my identical pace. It continues for a week.

My first response is agitation at the sight of this person and a tendency to change plans if he's anywhere around me. But I know that constantly thinking of avoiding someone is not the mental space that I want to be in during a pilgrimage. My second response, though, is to tune in for a subtle lesson that I need to learn from this remarkably awkward situation.

I meditate and soon realize that there are three things I need to do (incidentally, these three things are useful in facing any conflict). One -- maintain internal balance; accept that this is the issue I currently need to address and as, with everything in life, it will also change. Two -- generate compassion for the offending party; And to do that, there has to be total non-violence in the mind. You can oppose a certain action or issue, but hatred and anger towards any particular person simply blinds us. Three -- be steadfast; whatever clear action is taken, remain unwavering in that position.

I’ve frequently thought of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (meaning "holding firmly to Truth") movement as a remarkable tool for India's Independence. But there's actually a deep spiritual basis which can help address any conflict, however big or small. In trying to hold onto what is true for you, the struggle always has to be along the lines of strict non-violence (in body and mind). I’ve heard this word -- Satyagraha -- many times but with every round of practice, I'm starting to understand its depth and strength.

Even with this situation, as soon as I make a firm resolve to practice 'Satyagraha', my experience of the situation changes. I'm making myself very clear at the level of words and actions, but I am no longer reacting to the external circumstances. I'm surprised to see that once I make that mental shift, it really doesn't take up much of my mental energy anymore.

Ironically, after a week of this situation, a random event changed my circumstances and I never run into the Portuguese guy for the rest of my walk. Satyagraha works. :)


Why I Walk

A snail on the side of the highway (of all the places)
Why do you walk? Why do you wake up early every morning and walk twenty-five kilometers to the next village, and get up the next morning and do it all over again for the next five weeks in a row? Even when it’s windy, when it rains, when you’re sick – why do this? Why put yourself through this? 

Every person has their own unique reasons for walking: to cultivate deeper, to pray, to spend time in nature, to challenge themselves, or to simply just walk. Underneath all these responses, though, there is perhaps one single thread that connects them all. A walking pilgrimage is to stop life in its tracks and ask that one fundamental question -- why? Or as Ramana Maharishi might frame it -- who am I?

You leave the comforts of your home and work and people you love, and you put aside the responsibilities of your daily chores and the day-to-day undertakings, simply to answer the primordial call -- why all this? A pilgrimage is about giving full priority to that inquiry. It is about having the courage to stop your world from spinning if only for a bit, so you can look directly in the eyes of life and try to understand its message. Certainly, we've had bursts of joy, glimpses of truth, and whispers of wisdom but those are no longer enough.  A deeper call beckons.

A pilgrimage is a call to pay attention, to look beneath the surface, to listen to the subtle voices from depths of yourself that you never knew.  It is to trust that summoning and allow it to reveal the treasures that were always there. This is why I walk.


Effortless Effort (Day One)

Early morning, I walk out onto the old cobble-stone street in a small French town of St. Jean Pied de Port. A little drizzle in the air would soon become the least of my worries. As I am huffing and puffing up the mountain, 50-something-year-olds pass me by and I wonder if should've prepared for the the physical challenge of this pilgrimage. I thought I was in decent shape -- intense yoga retreat in Central America, climbing an active volcano in Guatemala, underwater caving in Belize. Plus, I had trekked the rough terrains of Himalayas, so why would the French Pyrenees be any harder?  Well, it is. Maybe it is that I'm ten years older now, or it is the wonderful desserts in Paris last week.  :)

It’s steep and foggy. The uphill climb is exhausting my lungs, my calves are turning into jello, and I can barely walk fifteen minutes without needing more oxygen. Under the heavy pack, my back and shoulders also add to my woes. Just about everything hurts. There's nothing along the way -- no food or shelter. And it is cold. There is one small refugio that I already know is full, so my next stop is after 28 kilometers of a rigorous uphill climb. I am not prepared for this.

Despite the doubts about my physical capability, I am mentally excited to step-it-up in the spirit of cultivation. I know that if I get through this day, I will make it to the end. Still, a big If. :)

The fog starting to lift around two o'clock 

As I continue my struggles up the mountain, I notice an old Japanese man walking on the left side of the path ahead. With a pole in each hand, he’s moving slowly up the hill. He has to be hurting more than me but his steps are slow, deliberate, persistent. Just seeing him, I have an epiphany: I am using the brute-force technique.  There is no grace; it is about an accomplishment to get somewhere. This old man, though, walks with a stillness that allows him to find an alignment with his natural rhythm.  

Like the Japanese man, I start walking as slowly as I can and synchronize my breathing with each footstep.  Gradually, my pace picks up but there’s no more pushing or pulling in my mind. There is no conflict, no worry, no anxiety. It’s just one foot in front of the other. The same mountain that felt like my enemy in the last hour is now my ally, supporting my feet and my spirit. Instead of push-stop-push-stop cycle, I start to find my dynamic balance. A task of climbing a mountain has turned into a beautiful meditation.

When I pass the Japanese man, I send out my heartfelt gratitude to him for teaching me this lesson. For the rest of the 20 kilometers, I walk with effortlessness -- stopping only once to eat my sandwich.

Finding the “right” amount of effort is key. I tend to oscillate between pushing too hard or not trying hard enough, but it’s really about finding the effortlessness in between. By the time I reach the Refugio, my body is sore but my mind is fully at ease. I'm ready for the remaining 872 kilometers.

From the Camino Journals April 30

Notes From The Camino

I finished walking the Camino on June 5th and two days later I was on a flight to India to meet up with Nipun and spend time with some of my favorite people in the world. The following weeks were filled with friends (old and new), family, celebrations, service opportunities, a retreat, good food, big bear hugs, and lots of blessings. In the words of my friend Birju, it was simply a “Love-Fest”. No other words to explain it. Needless to say I dived right into it and enjoyed every second of it.  

Now that I’m back home, and trying to take the time to reflect on some of the experiences from my 4-month-hiatus -- one thing that has been a bit of sand-in-my-shoe is that I didn’t update my blog during the Camino as I had intended to. That was definitely the part of the journey that I would’ve loved to share with friends and family, but the Internet access was pretty grim. And once I got to India, life took on a shape of its own. As I go back and read my journal -- yes, the good ol' pen and paper journal I had kept for myself -- I’ll post up some of the entries retroactively.  It was a unique experience and I’ve grown a lot from it, so will be nice to reflect and share simultaneously. 


Un-tying the Inner Knots

I gathered up all my stuff which now fits neatly into a 12 pound backpack, and walked down the stairs of the Refugio. It´s 6:45am and all other pilgrims seemed to have left already. Filled up my water bottle at the large sink and almost didn´t see him standing at the door until I heard a voice, "will you help me, please?" Walking alone, a little weary of some of the men, I hesitate for a second. He points to his shoes and then moves his shirt to show me the stump on his right arm. "Of course!" How could I have been so blind? He has no arm. I hold back the tears and neatly and quickly tie a knot on both of his shoes. Not wanting him to feel my sadness, I go back to my pack as matter-of-factly as I can and he leaves on his journey.

It´s hard to imagine how life must be for him each day. The simple things that I take for granted, like putting on my backpack, twisting the cap on my water bottle without thinking about it, quickly climbing up to the top bunk of the bed, getting into my sleeping bag and zipping it up, or tying a double-knot on my shoelaces. How many little things to be grateful for each day. Each day is a gift.

Six hours later a Polish man passes me on the road, bright blue eyes and a big smile. He points to his shoes. "Remember you help me this morning" he says in his broken English. I smile back broadly this time, because I no longer feel bad for him, "yes, yes, it was not a big deal." "Thank you for your help," he grinned as I wished him a good journey and walked on.

For some reason I don´t worry about how he will tie his shoelaces tomorrow. I have a feeling he will be taken care of. He has his gifts just as we all have ours. What I worry about is if I will allow small fears to build walls around me or if I will be able to un-tie my own inner knots and take advantage of the opportunities to serve.


Camino de Santiago

Every time I´ve tried to sit down and write a blog entry about the pilgrimage, I´always find myself at a loss of words to share this experience. Camino de Santiago is the oldest pilgrimage in Europe. Many feet have walked through the path that today supports my journey. And many will follow. It´s a constant stream that keeps moving. Many routes lead to Santiago. Some people even start walking from their home in Europe. All the different routes end in a town called Santiago, the Spanish name for ¨James,¨ one of the main disciples of Jesus Christ whose remains are buried there. Camino de Santiago literally means the ¨Way of St. James,¨ referred by pilgrims simply as ¨the way¨ or ¨the camino.¨ 

I´ve chosen to walk the five-week long Camino Frances, which starts in Southern France then crosses the border into Spain and goes along the northern width of the country, ending at Finisterra, which opens into to Atlantic ocean. In ancient times, people believed this was the end of the world.

The reasons for why people walk this ¨Way¨ are as diverse as the number of people walking. There are people here from all over the world -- Belgium, Germany, Janpan, Southern Korea, France, Canada, U.S., Brazil, Portugal, India, Switzerland, Australia, Holland, and of course Spain. There are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Multi-Faith, Non-religious Spiritualists, and even a couple of Atheists. And people are of all different ages, surprisingly many over sixty-five.

Generally, I walk an average of about 25 km a day. So far I´ve made it a point to walk alone and in the evenings I end up spending time with others in the Albergues, which are set-up for the pilgrims for a small fee or on a donation basis. It´s interesting to spend a large part of the day in silence and then hear the stories of other pilgrims in the evenings. Albergues so far have had anywhere from 8 to a 100 bunk-beds in a room so you get to know everyone really quickly. And at the same time, it´s not the same people each day since everyone walks at a different pace and might stay in another town. I´m walking alone and at the same time feeling that there is a strong solidarity with everyone else that´s walking. People pass each other on the road with a hearty ¨Buen Camino¨ meaning good journey.

It´s been a lot more demanding physically that I had expected, especially with the coldest May in Spain in the past 130 years. In the last 17 days, I´ve seen snow, hail, and mostly rain with temperatures ranging from 30-40 degrees in the day. However, I think the luck is turning around because the sun´s been out the last two days so it´s starting to get warmer. Regardless of the weather, it´s daylight until around 10 o´clock at night which is interesting since most of the pilgrims are tired and in bed by nine while the light is still out.:-)

Each day feels like a life-time waking up at six in the morning and walking through different towns. There is no concept of time. I have to write down the day and date to have an idea of where I am in time. Sometimes the road seems endless like I´am walking to end of the earth and other times I reach the next town before I know it. It´s a completely different life each day.

Until next time, wishing you all a Buen Camino!


The Sacred Hour

Under the cover of darkness
a symphony of snoring souls
rest their aching bodies
on a single row of bunk beds 

An old Spanish bell tower
glows high above
A supreme witness of the pilgrims
for centuries past 

The road is wide open
ready to be taken
I slip onto the dirt path
joined only by a light drizzle
from the skies above 

The most sacred hour
of the day --
a gap between
the darkness and the daylight
Only prayer seems appropriate 

Even the green hills stand still in awe
And the birds line up on the trees
to witness the miracle
of another birth
of another sunrise 

Feeling like the only
person in the world
I savor every moment
knowing it happens
only -- once a day.


Heavy with Rain

Earth --
brown like my eyes
holds me
one step
after another 

Unlike the black asphalt
Or the sharp rocks
Or the red clay mud of La Rioja
that clings to my feet
and weighs a ton
like impure thoughts
heavy with rain 

that need to be scraped off
skillfully on a rock
or walked gently off
on wet morning grass.


Dear Pilgrim

I´m on day 4 of the pilgrimage. The first day was painful and wonderful all at the same time...fourth day the body is struggling less and finally starting to get accustomed to walking everyday. Mind is getting stronger too. Each day is so full. Hope to write more when I have better internet access. It´s a bit limited in most towns but here´s a short poem I wrote today that I can share. Hope you are all well.
Walking through the earth
tread lightly, dear pilgrim.
Leave no trace that you were here
for tomorrow you will be somewhere else.

Be kind to those around you
who also have aches that you cannot see.
A warm smile and gentle encouragement
may carry them through the coldest mountain.

Take only what you need
you will breathe easier,
and walk with a straighter back.
Some things might look enticing
but they are not necessary,
they will only burden you in the end.

Worry not about tomorrow
it will come soon enough,
and greet you with it joys and sorrows.

Embrace the joy with open arms,
make certain that you don´t miss it,
staring deep into your eyes.
Learn from the sorrows,
know that you have lessons to learn,
that can only be taught in this way.

Above all -- be grateful.
For gratitude and misery
cannot co-exist in your heart.

What else do you need?
A bed to rest,
clean clothes to wear,
and a simple meal.

And remember when the sun shines upon you,
and the flowers bloom in your path,
don´t forget to smile back.

Be grateful that you are given
yet another day.

With gratitude for all the beautiful people in my life. :-)


The Way of the Pilgrimage

I ran across this beautiful piece on pilgrimage by Huston Smith:

The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation – to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life. Nothing matters now but this adventure. Travelers jostle each other to board the train where they crowd together on a journey that may last several days. After that there is a stony road to climb on foot – a rough, wild path in a landscape where everything is new. The naked glitter of the sacred mountain stirs the imagination; the adventure of self-conquest has begun. Specifics may differ, but the substance in always the same.

Travel brings a special kind of wisdom if one is open to it. At home or abroad, things of the world pull us toward them with such gravitational force that, if we are not alert our entire lives, we can be sucked into their outwardness. Attentive travel helps us to see this, because the continually changing outward scene helps us to see through the world’s pretensions. With its phatasmagoric, kaleidoscopic character laid bare, we see it for what it truly is – perpetually perishing maya – and the world loses its wager. We can understand how perpetual wandering can be a spiritual vocation, as with dedicated pilgrims and sannyasins.


Notes from my Conversation with a Shaman

“Do you remember your purpose?” he asked me point blank. A little surprised by his question I knew exactly what he meant. “No” I nodded my head. “You’ve forgotten. You need to wake up. You need to wake up and remember who you are and why you are here." 

Those are the words that keep coming back to me even a month after the conversation I had with a Shaman in Guatemala. I’ve never been one to give too much credence to the stars -- the Indian horoscope that my mother forced me to get still sits somewhere in her dresser, never having been translated from Sanskrit.  Yet, something moved me to meet with a humble Shaman skilled in the Mayan horoscope.  All I shared was my date of birth and a curiosity of what all he might come up with. Not really looking for anything particular but still wanting to take advantage of all that came my way, I tried to stay open to any lessons I could learn from this.

The penetrating hazel eyes of this gentle man appeared to penetrate deep into my soul.  Sitting across a table, he circled three numbers on a complex looking chart that he had drawn on a piece of paper: 16 for the material world; 21 for the mental world; and 26 for the spiritual world. “You don’t care about the material world and are naturally inclined towards the spiritual world.” I nodded. He continued on, “You constantly struggle with this duality between the material and the spiritual. Until you find the balance, it will be hard for you to progress. In reality there’s no duality, it’s all maya -- an illusion. The good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the light and the dark are all an illusion.”    
Lake Panajachel, Guatemala
“According to the Mayan beliefs before we are born, we decide exactly where we’re going to be born, who our parents will be, and what purpose we want to fulfill in this lifetime. You had decided that you were going to work on some negative karma from your past life that you were carrying. You decided to work hard your entire life. There will be no free lunch for you. You will work for everything until the day you pass on. You made that decision for yourself.” Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time I was hearing this. “If you overcome any negativity that comes to you from others with love, it will bring them to a different vibration. You work with your hands -- you were a doctor in your past life. Your job is to heal yourself and others in your community. When you are in the space of love, you are connected to the first Shaman woman and can create miracles in life.” I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by this, but he went on.  “In this life, you work with technology, like computers. You need to pay attention to your intuitions. You’ve lived 65 lives before and are ready for transmutation into the next world."  "You have to stop fighting with yourself,” he repeated.

We talked for an hour and a half. I listened intently without giving him any other information about myself.  The Shaman revealed truth after truth about me and the universe. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of a lot of this. And yet there were many things that made some things “click” within me, almost like finding a piece of the puzzle that you had all along but now you can see exactly how it fits. At the least, it was an excuse to have a really insightful conversation with a wise elder. :)

At the end, he wrote down on the piece of paper in front of me: “El camino spiritual es la base de la solucion.”  And explained, “the spiritual way is the base for your solutions. You need to meditate.”


Falling in Love with Antigua

Can you really fall in love with a city? Never one to understand why people waste money on those silly “I Love San Francisco” sweatshirts. I like S.F. too but can you really like a city so much that you want to declare your love for it in red and gold glossy letters across your chest, for years to come? But is it actually possible, I seriously pondered sitting in a heavenly outdoor café and taking a bite of my heavenly square chocolate croissant for lunch. Can you love an entire city? To my astonishment, a resounding, “yes” arrived from the back of my mind (or perhaps my mouth), as I took a sip of the coffee. And between that bite of a square chocolate croissant and sip of that divine coffee, I had declared my love for Antigua. There was no more denying it. It’s true. I heart Antigua. 

I’m enamored by its cobble-stone streets, 17th century colonial buildings, the baroque style churches around every corner, the friendliness of it's natives. The city seems to be frozen in time. Once served as a rich colonial capital, it’s declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site. As a result, it’s clean, organized, ad-free since you can’t post anything on the streets. Tiny little storefronts open into magical spaces filled with restaurants and boutiques. Around Easter, purple robed monks from the dozens of churches packed the streets. All day people leisurely stroll through the Parque Central over-looking a beautiful Cathedral. Cafes, bookstores, bakeries, restaurants, and handicrafts shops line the streets. After having been in the rural areas for the past few weeks, my mouth watered on seeing a bookstore that had books – in Ingles. Si. I think there might have been a tear or two at the mere sight of it, since I had finished reading all my books and didn’t find anything at the one bookstore in San Marcos.

The skeptic in me wonders if it’s really love or just my inner urban girl coming out after being in nature for so long. Perhaps its knowing that I’m headed on my walking pilgrimage soon. These are probably the last couple of days that I can actually relax and be comfortable. Soon enough I’ll be sleeping in dorms with lots of other tired and snoring souls who’ve walked all day. Perhaps my love might be a little bit of an infatuation given the circumstances. But still there’s no denying it, there’s something magical about this place.

You almost feel like skipping through the streets for no reason. It’s a place where old men still stop and give you the way with a slight nod of their hats. It’s where you can watch artists quietly drawing on the streets early in the morning absorbed in their art. It’s where you can buy spiced mango on a stick and gobble it up by the time you get to the next block. It’s where butterflies will suddenly appear out of nowhere, and come sit on your lap on the quite steps of an old church and beckon you to stay. Just like the Antiguans, they’re in no rush to get anywhere and will let you even pet them. It’s absolutely magical.

And to answer my original question, the answer is – yes! If there was a shop selling an, “I Love Antigua” sweatshirt, I would absolutely get one and walk around wearing it for years to come as a reminder of the beautiful place and it’s spirit.

A friendly butterfly sitting in my lap, greeted me outside La Merced

Originally a convent, the famous arch

The popular church, "La Merced" that was recently renovated

                                                                (Dad and sons marimba team)


Lost in Time?

The Guatemalans in San Marcos seem to be living at such a pleasant rhythmic pace that I can’t help but be in awe of the ease with which they effortlessly carry on their daily affairs. They go about their normal day, going to work in the morning, raising their children, cooking and cleaning -- all the same things that we do, but no one’s ever rushing or even seen walking fast. No one ever says, “I don’t have time or let me look at my calendar to see if I can schedule you in for the Thursday after next.” 
Growing up in the Bay Area, life has always revolved around deadlines, meetings, spending hours in traffic, hours on email, and too busy a social calendar to keep up with everyone. The days are crowded with activity and yet most of us live with this overwhelming guilty feeling of not getting enough done in a day. We console with the latest self-help books on time-saving techniques, even attend courses on time management, or email others just to put the “ball in their court” so it’s off of ours. Heck we often enjoy crossing things off our lists more than completing the task itself, just so we can move on to the next item (on our never-ending-to-do list). We’ve become a culture of people used to running around at a dizzying pace trying to achieve the un-achievable. Why? Well, since everyone else seems to be in the same predicament, it must be “normal.”

One can understand my astonishment at arriving in San Marcos, where people are beating to a different drum all together ... completely oblivious to the fact that their neighbors up north are sprinting through their lives like their tails are on fire. So I can’t help but ask: what are we missing? What does an average Guatemalan know about time that an average American hasn’t figured out yet? After weeks of looking at them with scrutinizing eyes and making mental notes of their every move, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two simple reasons for our wide differences: contentment and living with rhythms of nature.

Although they work hard to have a better quality of life for their families, they never lose sight of what’s important. On the busiest tourist day of the year, they will not hesitate to shut down their restaurants, close down their shops, and go home to celebrate Easter with their families. They will not worry about missing out on a months’ worth of profits; instead they go to church and give thanks for what they have. In the US, this might be translated as un-ambitious but here they’re working off of a totally different grid all-together. Brand names mean very little since most families weave their own clothes. No one has a car. The small cobble streets aren’t even wide enough for motorized vehicles. It’s considered pretty snooty to have more than your neighbors (quite opposite of “competing with the Joneses”). Everyone borrows from each other at one point or another, for a wedding, a celebration, or a religious holiday. By the end, everyone owes everyone else in the village. Rather than a sign of weakness, this is considered a sign of community that connects everyone. And humility is a trait that supersedes all others.

Nature is also a central part of the Mayan culture so there’s an inherent connection to it in their daily lives. They live close to the lake; Wake up when the sun comes up to the sound of the birds chirping and the roosters roosting; Go to sleep when it gets dark. I’ve never seen a Guatemalan cram more into their days than comfortably possible. I don’t think they’ve ever heard of the term “multi-tasking”. I’m sure they would think it was a crazy idea. They’re not just doing things, they seem to “really” enjoy the process of simple everyday tasks, and never seem to be in a hurry to get to the next one but you know that they eventually will.

While we almost always chew more than we can swallow, they seem to have a built-in system for interruptions. They chat with neighbors; they talk to the grocers; they even have time enough to be curious about the random traveler that drops in on their town. They’re the most courteous people I’ve ever met, no matter how young or old, no one will let you pass by without saying a hearty “Buenas Dias” or “Buenas Tardes”. I’m almost certain that they think that Americans are a pretty antsy bunch, demanding a meal or a room before fully enquiring how their day is going. A little “como estas” (how’s it going?) goes a long way here.

They seem to allow space within all their exchanges, to sanction things below the surface to come up and permeate their lives. Just as you can’t hurry a bamboo tree to grow, you cannot rush your own natural rhythm of life. No matter what, a woman will take nine months to give birth to a child, a dog will take two months, and an elephant will take over two years. There’s a natural flow for everything. Interrupting it inevitably leads to the devastation of certain other parts of our selves. Maybe we wouldn’t need as many drugs and therapists in the US if we harmonized with our natural rhythms instead of the ticks of the clock.

On describing a typical day in San Marcos to a friend back home, he joked that Americans would’ve gone around the world five times by the time I finished a meal at a restaurant here. But then we pondered: after going around the world five times, we’d still end up in the same place, so what’s the rush. Where are we going after all?


Lessons From a Hazel-Eyed Boy

The ferry docks as passengers step in, one by one. The pre-pubescent ferry driver jumps onto the front of the boat, almost as if in an action flick. Inscribed on his shirt are five words that read, “I am the evil twin” and a long red scarf wrapped around his neck. I’m exhausted but find it quite humorous and want to laugh out loud but I hold it in. All are quiet. It wouldn’t be appropriate. In his most authoritative voice, he scurries the travelers along instructing them to move to the back and make space for others coming on. About thirty-five people squeeze in where normally eighteen would enjoy the ride. 

The boat finally splashes forward onto the wild waves. A little boy sits at the front of the boat, squeezing his little fingers tightly onto the edge of the boat as it roughly moves up and down. His big hazel eyes smile, enraptured by the setting sun. His mother calls him to the back, but he insists on being in the front, where another man from the States sits, with a long wooden musical instrument resting on his lap. Feeling the end of the day tiredness, the women in the Mayan dresses and the tourists in the cargo pants, we all sit quietly watching the sun. The waves get wilder and start to splash the passengers. Everyone quickly pulls down the plastic on the side, the little boy giggles as water splatters on his long eyelashes. Once accustomed to the sudden moods of the lake, we continue in silence.

The ferry driver, now sitting on top of the roof hums to whatever sounds are coming from his head phone. The boy with the big hazel eyes watches him intently. And minutes later starts singing at the top of his lungs, a Spanish song that he feels so obviously passionately about. I am floored by this show of courage, oblivious to the thirty-five strangers on the boat and can’t help but smile broadly. Lessons in bravery and living every moment of the day, from a little hazel-eyed boy -- these are the moments I later remember, when I recall my day.


Lava-Roasted Marshmellows on Pacaya

To climb or not to climb, that was the question. The mountain in question was the Pacaya – an active volcano near Antigua. For almost two days, I pondered the thought of laying my eyes on this beauty. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Many horror stories were heard about how grueling the climb is and how unsafe the mountain is since it is an “active” volcano. And the fact that there are no safety measures didn’t help what so ever. 

View of the volcano on the climb up
“This is something that would never be allowed in the US,” one traveler advised. I had a flash back to riding on top of buses in Nepal driving through the narrow and curvy Himalayan mountain roads, wondering where I would fall if the bus tilted over couple more inches. It was the most memorable bus ride of my life. I never regretted doing it. I wouldn’t do it again -- but I never regretted doing it. That would never be allowed in the sue-happy US, and neither would crossing the street in India where everyone (cows included) seem to be attempting to run you over. :)

I remembered my life-long dream (okay maybe not life-long) of one day returning to Nepal to climb up to the Mount Everest base camp. If I was ever going to do that, I needed to make sure I stay in shape. This might just be the type of challenge that my body needs right now. And being a self-proclaimed “very practical person”, if at some point I felt things were heading in a hazardous direction, I could just stop and not go further. The reasons were quickly stacking up in favor of climbing. And there was one over-arching reason above all that just could not be argued against: I wanted to see lava!

With the decision made, all I needed was a good pair of shoes (rubber soled shoes would melt I’d heard). A generous friend lent me her running shoes. They were two sizes bigger nonetheless they were a lot better than my sports sandals -- which would quickly get filled with ash. With little trepidation, I packed some snacks and water. After an hour and a half of driving to get to the starting point, we had barely gotten out of the van, when little kids selling wooden sticks came barging in through the windows. I bought one for 5 quetzales (about 60 cents) and marched on with my size nine shoes. The ascent was steeper than I expected, and oxygen was in short supply. Within the first five minutes I was completely breathless and wondering if I had made a good decision. I tried to take three breaths in for every two breaths out and avoided all conversation with anyone around me, since I couldn’t spare a single breath. The English guy, who was bent up on knowing where everyone was from, would just have to wait. :) I avoided all eye contact with him and strutted forward like a woman on a mission.

A huge ball of clouds followed overhead threatening to rain any second. And true to their word, ten minutes later they thunderously delivered on their promise. Everyone mumbled their surprise but kept moving along like troopers. I actually didn’t mind the coolness of the rain, being drenched was better than being hot and breathless. However, I did wonder about the effects lightning and thunder might have on an active volcano. Might not be a good combination to reckon with. Trying to be optimistic, I kept my thoughts to myself and focused on putting one size-nine foot in front of the other. If I could just get through the first half an hour, I would be fine. That’s about how long it takes for my heart to acclimatize to the steepness and the higher altitude. And then my trusted legs would carry me forward. At every twenty minute interval, men ready to rent out their horses waited preying on the hikers that had given up. With my sulfur-filled lungs, I tried not to huff and puff while passing them and put on my most courageous smile to let them know I would not be defeated. :) 

Step after step I finally made it to the last half an hour -- to the ash part of the mountain, where formerly lava flowed, in some places as recently as ten days ago.

I’d never seen anything even remotely like this.

Roasting marshmellows at the top of the volcano
The black waves of river seemed frozen in time, hard as a rock in some places and yet brittle and sharp in other places. Everyone had to tread very carefully to avoid stepping on any cracks, especially in the hot parts. It was quite astonishing to believe that actual lava was flowing right underneath us. Some spots felt like an oven. Climbing the last bit and seeing a huge river of lava flow on one side of the volcano was incredible. It was something I’ve only seen on National Geographic before. But the biggest highlight of all was roasting marshmellows through a crack of lava on top, overlooking the volcano. Strangers congratulated each other on making it to the top and forgot all about the pain they’d gone through only moments ago. It was a priceless moment. The best darn roasted marshmellows I’ve ever had in my life. That alone would’ve made the trip worth it.

On the way back there were a few scraped elbows and bloody knees around but most people survived. The ash part is pretty sharp, so any little tumble led to cuts and scrapes. Mountains, I’ve always felt were not something to be “conquered” -- that’s the delusional Western ego talking, since it would only take a second for the mountain to toss you over to your descent. They are aged-old-masters who’ve lived long enough to teach you the lessons that you need to learn. You offer them your toil, your own sweat and they reveal to you the secrets of the universe. There are reasons why many sacred temples in the world are on top of mountains. I couldn’t help but feel reverential to the great volcano for letting me climb it and to push myself beyond the personal boundaries of my own mind (and body).

Lava streaming down on the side of the mountain

Life - still finds a way to grow between the crevice


Of Relationships, Attachments, and Love

The first week in Mexico, I often found myself looking over my shoulders to share some things with Nipun. Only that he was a couple thousand miles away. :) Sometimes it was funny, sometimes interesting, and sometimes just plain frustrating –- that need for comfort, advice, and his laughter that often lightens my heaviest burdens. 

No matter how independent we are, relationships tend to groove us in the habit of relying on the other person for certain things. There is a part of it that’s very natural and yet there’s a part that has a potential to turn authentic love into clingy attachments.

Attachments are worthy of a closer look, from time to time. For Nipun and I, it isn’t that uncommon to spend extended periods apart -- which naturally inspires that type of introspection. But generally I’m the one at home and when you’re going about your life in the usual comfort of your routine, you don’t notice some of the attachments in the same way. This trip, though, has helped immensely in taking a closer look at some of those gray areas. I’ve undoubtedly strengthened certain muscles of self-reliance that were sitting idle for a while.

I've always insisted in entering any relationship out of joy and out of service to help each other walk on the path. After continuously practicing this for a while, the "what do I need from this relationship" naturally turns into “What can I bring to the relationship, and how can I help you reach your higher purpose?” Then, you trade in the mundane insecurities for the simple joy of being alive together, and the relationship can truly begin. The love progresses from being partial and fractional to being spiritual and whole.