While I feel there is still so much about myself that I am yet to learn, there is one thing I do know with certainty in my almost thirty years of existence, I jump before I think (a typical Aries trait!). And deciding to go to an ashram is certainly no exception.
Sure I knew a little (I had seen Eat, Pray, Love afterall!); I knew they did yoga (love yoga!), meditated (something I have been trying to work on for a long time), ate Indian food (yum! FYI, I have now mastered non-poo hand eating!), worshipped various Hindu gods (thank you Sagey for introducing me to Ganesha, the elephant-like god that rides a mouse and signifies overcoming obstacles) and they perform services/chores (ok, so that is tolerable), so how bad could it possibly be? I knew I needed some down time to get grounded and back to basics. I needed a clear head and time to think and start pondering what it is that I really wanted out of life. And from the very high level understanding of what I thought an ashram was, it seemed like it is the perfect place to start this process (that will undoubtedly continue for the rest of the year and beyond!).
But on that first full day, when I caught my first glimpse of the other devotees, I would be lying if I didn't say that I began to question my sanity..."seriously Melinda, what the hell are you doing?!". In a sea of about 130+ Indians, most of which were made up of 75 young boys ranging from 8-mid/late twenties, there were about 8 westerners who were all at least twenty years my senior and were completely decked out in Indian attire (the seriously converted!). Talk about a fish out of water!
Well here goes nothing, I took a deep breathe and sat down at a large table of westerners (luckily there was one extra space) and introduced myself. They were all very nice and welcoming and took turns introducing themselves. Each of them were from various parts of the world, having vastly different stories of how they "got here", and were now all going by Indian names that I could hardly say, let alone try and spell (and to be honest even rememeber! I figure asking for a third time is just flat out rude so have been sneakily avoiding it or finding other ways of finding out). So feeling a little deflated and like a bit of an indiot for thinking I could even handle this (or even last more than a few days!), it dawned on me that we actually have quite a few things in common. For one, a love of India, an interest in the culture, and for me, I had a million questions about what really happens at an ashram (let alone even forming a basis for a general understanding of what it means to be a Hindu). And for these devotees, who are so in awe of Guru Dev, and love the religion, I couldn't have picked a better place to start. With anyone that has a passion for anything, when they speak about it, they light up and the conversation soon flowed effortlessly. So maybe I can do this? After the lunch hour, I left the table smiling, it was all going to be ok. It was going to be "interesting" as I am so far out of my depth and have so much to learn to even know the basics, but at least I was treading water now and maybe only swallowing a few gulps of water here and there.
While things seemed to be going as well as could be expected, there have been certainly some faux pas committed along the way (and still being committed!). My first was at about 9am on my first morning, I was tired as had only arrived at 1am that morning, when I completely forgot where I was and when there was a knock at my door, I opened it, forgetting that I was in my pjs. By western standards my pjamas are completely standard, just a pair of boxer shorts and a tanktop (luckily it was cold and I had a jumper on over the top, God forbid if I had the legs and shoulders out...would have been considered a seriously loose unit!). There I was the door wide open and two Indian men just gawking at me as though I was practically naked, they quickly looked away (and subsequently avoided all eye contact) and came inside. Crap, I had forgotten that I was expecting someone to come in and fix my hot water heater. I awkwardly sat down on my bed and covered my legs with a blanket while I had men in and out of my room trying to get the heater fixed. Cringe. Not exactly the best start to the day!
The second occurred about 30 minutes later (seriously, can't I catch a break here?!) when I was over an hour late for breakfast (everyone had gone), but there was one young man who was waiting for me to arrive. I immediately recognised him as one of the guys who was in my room earlier for the hot water heater. I walked in and he pointed to a table that I was to sit at; "sit there". Ok, so I am clearly eating alone and am I that repulsive that you won't sit with me? He then yelled something out in Hindi (not entirely sure to who) and out came another young boy with my food. Then he looked over at me with a horrified look. Great, what have I done now, I am just sitting here?!. "Shoes not inside" he scoffed. I'm sure he thought I was raised in a barn! But in my defense, the eating area is open aired and just covered with a roof with so hardly "inside" in my opinion, but I won't argue. There have been many "oooopsies" occurring since but the westerners have been correcting me where they can and the little boys have been looking after me.
The boys speak varying degrees of English and some are more keen to try and interact with me than others. I think part of it is also that I am a girl and in India, girls and boys don't fraternise like they do in the west so that is part of the reason for the separation or distance. For the first few days, they kept their distance and rarely made eye contact. If they did, and I caught them, I would usually smile, and they would look away. At first I thought it was quite strange, but now looking back of it, I can't really blame them. I was this young(ish) western girl who clearly didn't have a clue what I was doing (I am sure they all think I am a complete spaz), I don't dress in Indian attire and don't partake in any of the ritual worshipping in any of the ceremonies (just observe). So why am I here?
But they have now really seemed to open up to me. They smile, greet me in English (or in Hindi if they don't speak well), ask my name and where I come from, and they look out for me. At one ceremony, I accidentally took the sanskrit chanting book (duh!) and one of them noticed and brought me a copy of the English version. Quite often in the chanting sessions, as I am following along in the book, I often lose my place. They see that I have lost my place and one will come over (or one of my western friends) will help me find my place again. They're sweet and each day the interactions are becoming more frequent and friendlier.
I did make one Indian friend right off the bat, Anund, the communications manager for the ashram. He is probably about my age, maybe a bit younger (very hard to tell how old Indians are!), but has been so welcoming from the very beginning. In the first few days we had some pretty long conversations, and weren't particularly saying much but more taking a long time for either one of us to convey what we wanted to say to the other. But I appreciated the effort and quite enjoyed his company. He is also my saviour as he got me a connection to the internet (which is something that should be used sparingly here). Unfortunately, he is gone now as has followed Guru Dev to Dehli. I am not sure when he is back, but hopefully before I leave so that I can say bye.
So my first few days have been very interesting for a variety of reasons but mostly because it was all so new and foreign. Within one of the first minutes of meeting one of the westerners, a lovely French lady, she exclaimed how lucky I was because Guru Dev was here and I would have a couple of days with him before he moved on to Dehli and I should maybe consider following him to Dehli! What! He's here? Oh God, I have just gotten here, have no idea how to do anyting appropriately and the Guru is here (and I certainly can't follow him to Dehli!). Why couldn't he have come on my last few days when I was in the swing of it and not breaking every "rule"!
Because the Guru was here and leaving shortly, all of the ceremonies were significantly longer and much grander. People travelled for hours to come and bid him farewell (many people come here on the weekends from Mumbai, which is a 4 hour drive! They are so devoted). On my first full day, I got to take part in a 5 hour chanting session. And for the girl who can hardly make it through a Catholic Mass without falling alseep or passing out, I surprisingly made it through with flying colours! I have no idea why I found it so easy, perhaps it was the hypnotic melodies of the boys chanting or the boys going nuts on the bongo drums or maybe it was just that it was all so new and so lively so it kept me engaged.
On the eve of my first full day, I got to meet the Guru himself. This is apparenlty a pretty huge deal and when I did, I assure you I did it in the most awkward fashion possible. I was so hesitant about the thought of it but the westerners were so encouraging about it that I eventually decided that I should. So my next big question, how do you even go about interacting with a Guru? How do I greet him? A handshake? (I really wanted to give a high five but knew that would be seriously inappropriate). I was told that you could either fall to your knees and bow or do a simple Namaste with your hands together. Not one to bow or devote myself to anything that I do not fully understand (or 100% fully committed to for that matter), I opted with the Namaste and was comfortable with that as it is something that I have done thousands of times to my lovely yoga teachers over the years. My interaction was brief and full of awkward pauses (on my part) but all in all, it wasn't that bad. I am glad I had the opportunity.
The following day, after watching the Guru during the ceremonies and listening to other devotees speak about him and his work, I decided that he is a top bloke (not sure if that is appropriate to say, but it's the truth). He has an incredible sense of humour, no I don't speak Hindi (he does speak great English but mostly conducts ceremonies in Hindi and there is an ear piece the westerners listen to for the translation), he has everyone laughing in his services and all the little girls in the community love him and during the ceremonies will come up and sit on his lap. He also does some amazing work in the community and has some very inspirational visions for the ashram which will also affect the wider India (and also world) which left me in awe. I have grown a great sense of admiration for his workings and am beginning to see what the fuss is all about. But more on that in another post!
I've decided to take my time here day by day. What I love about being here is that for the first time in a long time, I am starting to live in the moment. I'm no longer wishing for the weekend or counting down the minutes (let's be honest, sometimes it was seconds), until home time. I don't know how long I will stay here and have been toying with the idea of going back to the state of Rajasthan (where Jaipur is) for a look but will see how I feel. All I know is that I need to be in the UK mid March (don't worry Hicksie, we will have our night out in London when you visit!). So will see what happens, but it is certainly nice to be taking each day as it comes and not worrying about the next.
Next post, I will give you a bit more of an overview about the ashram, where I am, what I am doing and maybe some more stories about the friends that I have made here. I've been loving all the texts, emails and comments, so keep 'em coming!
Jai Guru Dev (Victory to the Greatness in You)
PS And for those of you who think I've completely lost my marbles, don't worry, you won't be getting an invite to my "Mel's becoming a Hindu" ceremony anytime soon (if that is even such a thing?! But if I did have one, it would be epic and have loads of exquisite Indian food - so worth the visit - ha!). I am just finding all of this so fascinating so I thought I'd share...hopefully it is somewhat interesting for at least a few of you!
My new digs (next post will have the ashram grounds, etc). Oh how the mighty have fallen! The first night was definitely a shock to the system. The bed is hard as rocks. But now I am settled and a bit more comfortable (just needed to recalibrate the comfort barometre!). It is the bare bones, but has everything I need so I am happy enough!
Shamefully, it took me at least 10minutes to figure out how to flush the loo! Not the typical western button. You need to twist a knob and then sharply pull and twist it out to stop the flush (my first try the toilet was flushing for a fair while before I figured that out, ha!)
And this is how we do laundry on the road. I use a bucket and some woolite sachets that I brought over with me. I miss sending out my laundry like I did in the flash hotels I was staying at with the Grande Gringas! It is revolting to see how much dirt comes out of your clothes (even after a couple of wears and if they still look clean). The water is foul after! So dusty here.
This is the swing in my apartment complex. I am sitting here writing this blog (and it's the closest proximity to the wireless room without being inside).