India: Love is the only way, a meditative journey

 

Bunny takes a rare photo op at the peak of a particularly spectacular summit, where violet and green rock dazzles the eye. She shared the entire journey with me in a special cotton bag inside my backpack each day.

 

Kenan asked me, “So, what have you learned from your journey?”

“Love is the only way”, was my immediate response.
 

It seems so simple, so obvious. We all know this right? Then there is the question, do I live this way?

 

14 days with no electricity, in a tent, trekking 6-8 hours per day in whatever weather presented itself up 7 peaks the lowest 4,825m and the highest 5,260m. Our schedule was demanding; up at 04.30, discussion/mediation from 05.00-07.00, breakfast and final preparations before 08.00 departure, then the actual trek to our next destination, pop into camp, 17.00 – 19.00 discussion/mediation, dinner at 19.30 and then fall into bed before we began the next day. Had I lost my mind? No, what I was looking for was my heart, because I felt I had lost it and above all my connection to said heart. This was an adventure to and from my heart, inside and out.

 

Silence was the theme of the trek. The majesty of the mountains lent themselves to this opportunity to bring consciousness to the noise we make, inside our minds and hearts, and outside in our physical actions, behaviors, and expressions.

 

Awe inspiring landscapes gave us the gift of silence, naturally, effortlessly. At times the very act of speaking seemed an insult, a diminishment of the beauty.

Friends who have been on this spiritual trek with Bartolomeo Lanza of the Sheva center Lugano, have shared with me their experiences in part, and they all told me, having the experience myself would be the only way to even begin to understand. They were right.

 

Some readers have been with me since I returned, and they have commented, “You are different, your energy is different.” My challenge is to translate this energy into a narrative which allows you a glimpse into my experience with words and selected photos.

 

Note on the photos, a young Swiss French man on our trip, Nicolas Ferrier, became the defacto photographer and his talents are, lucky for us, astounding. Among many things for which I thank him on this trip, his photographs are the most tangible.

 

One day, which we spent in silence from 08.00 – 17.00, I was accompanied by what I later called my personal narrator. Inside my mind was a peaceful voice, storytelling about everything she saw around her, expressing her joy and gratitude through the art of narration in a chatty and natural way. When we met in the evening for our discussion/meditation session I spoke of her, this voice which seemed disembodied from me reveling in her stories. I asked Bartolomeo, what to do I do with this constant narration? Adroitly he answered, “Love her, embrace the Narrator Nicole, maybe one day you will liberate her, and you will tell your stories for a living.”


That evening I began a narration in writing to share with Claudio upon my return, I missed him and writing my experience seemed one way to be close with him in my heart while I was far away in body. As I set about narrating this journey now, I am acutely aware that this story may grow. As the rings and layers of the experience reverberate in my heart, in my life, new realizations may come to me and I may be compelled to add them. Each day is new, as I integrate the impact of this journey into my everyday life; the profundity of the tangible difference between living in love and living in fear with all the strategies that help cover fear up. It has in fact taken me a long time to write this post because each day new results present themselves, memories of a moment or experience visit me, and in the spirit of this journey I am kind and patient with myself in this narrative process.

 

At a certain point I commented to Bartolomeo how for me this trip had several dimensions; our own personal journey, our multicultural group of 8, the trek, the 7 Ladakhi men who took care of the camp, the food, and the horses, the interactions we had with other people along the way (when we met them) the Himalayas and the nature around them, plus the weather and its effects. With his characteristic smile sparkling directly through his eyes he confirmed, for those who wished them, the layers were both deep and broad.

 

The Ladakhi men who took care of the camp, the food, and the horses; They are a story all by themselves. These men woke before us, did the same trek as us, set up our camp, cooked and served us our food, and went to bed after us and every single day at 04.30 they greeted us in our tents, individually, “Good morning! Ginger tea, black tea?”.  Each day I heard them as I lay half-awake in my tent, giggling, joking, full of joy; hail rain, sun, darkness, whatever was happening outside, from inside of them radiated a purity, a joy which reminded me to be grateful to wake up and be alive.

Morning of our departure for ‘civilization’ I cried tears of gratitude when we parted with our camp crew. To my left Phunchok Dawa the cook; playfully holds up peace over Jigmath one of the two young assistants; from the same Nomad village the other young helper on the far right, Chojor; with his arm around Stanzin head assistant to the cook and practical man extraordinaire; to my immediate right behind him is Jigmath Dawa our local guide a man who personified the Buddhist principles of peace and kindness. Immediately behind us is my tent.

Our camp horses and their men; top center they traverse a particularly steep path with Jigmath Dawa in red, Phunchok Dawa with yellow hat in hand, and head horseman with his back to us clutching his walking stick, all calm and attentive; bottom right zigzagging up the approach to a pass; center with their second man; right 2 horses in their gear.

 

 

Each morning the two horsemen would sing a prayer to the horses as they cleaned them off, and carefully dressed them for the day, the final bit being the cargo – kitchen, camp, and our personal things. Each night they would do the same in reverse. On a rare day we came to camp at the exact same time as the team and were gifted with a magical spectacle. The entire team worked in harmony to prepare our movable village, it was as if to watch a dance and the horses played their part. As each one was freed from the burden of its cargo and then their individual dressing they would bolt off and throw themselves on the ground rocking back and forth to scratch their backs now free. Next, they would pair up and gently clean each-others flanks with their muzzles and teeth. Once this ritual was done they would wander off to eat, frolic, and generally be free until the next morning when the horsemen would canter off to retrieve them while we were served our tea.

 

Bartolomeo was our overall and spiritual guide and each day Jigmath Dawa, our local guide, led us through the varying landscapes with a smile and a gentle ease. Rocks, mud, scree, river crossing, he was consistent in his good cheer and calm. He would assess each river crossing and enter the water himself to rearrange rocks so that our feet could stay dry, then he would hike all day with wet shoes and feet, he never blinked an eyelash. I took note and was humbled by his actions.

 

Jigmath Dawa, our local guide, contemplating a peak of 5,000m.

 

Phunchok Dawa and his team wowed us daily with their creativity and imagination. At 4,000m he made us a chocolate cake. Three times momos were made 100% from scratch, rolled lovingly by hand for us to feast upon. They made pasta in an effort to please the Italian pallet, as well local specialties including -  khambiri bread which is a sort of steamed pastry like dumpling that is eaten as bread with the meal, than-tuk soup full of vegetables and homemade noodles which warmed us on a cold night, and my personal favorite, dahl and rice with papadams. One particular specialty which has now rekindled a childhood love; each night there was soup before the main course, and one of the soups they called ‘popcorn’ soup as they served it with popcorn which was to be as well sprinkled on top of the soup. When I returned to Lugano I bought a bag of kernels and now enjoy on occasion corn popped on the stove with a little olive oil at the bottom of the pan.

Featured center Phunchok Dawa and Stanzin working their magic in the kitchen with two portable propane burners; top left ingredients, utensils, & finished products; bottom left Phunchok Dawa frying up chips while Jigmath Dawa serenely looks on.

Various angles of our camp, center right & middle left the kitchen tent. Top left our tents seemingly perched on a precipice; bottom left view from Nicolas’ tent of the kitchen tent.

 

Beyond a place of culinary magic, the kitchen tent was the warmest, driest place to gather at any time of day in which the tent was in use and naturally my inside happy place. Many an evening I visited the team there, sitting in silence as they went about their business, or quizzing them on some food or ingredient.  Inevitably laughing uproariously with them in every case, the kitchen tent was always a serious source of laughter and glee. Phunchok Dawa, father of twin 12 year-old girls, is from the same place as our local guide, Jigmath Dawa, Zanskar, as well they are cousins and both radiated a kindness and peace that made them a positive and inspiring presence on our journey.

Phunchok Dawa and I just before we parted, in the distance Jigmath and the dog who accompanied us of his own accord for 3 days over 2 peaks.

 

While I highlight here specific members of the camp team, truly each of them was magnificent in their personal way and added context and texture to the fabric of our journey. Stanzin with his rock star glasses, jaunty walk, and anything can be done attitude pitched our tents and dug trenches to make them waterproof. As first assistant to Phunchok Dawa in the kitchen he was often the first of their team on the daily trek acting as the teams scout. Jigmath and Chojor the all around helpers were mini phenomenon; each distinctly different and both full of joy and kindness. Jigmath sweet and shy, Chojor full of mischief and mirth. The latter was always available to lend a hand and put a smile in our hearts. On our last evening we shared our decadent dessert in the meal tent and Jigmath led his group in song with a voice so ethereal my heart nearly wept; each of these men in their way contributed to our journey and as I write about them more than a month later my heart swells with gratitude and love.

 

The environment around us played its role in landscape and experience as well, each day presenting us with something at which to marvel. One  evening there began the bleating of a single lamb, she was running toward the horizon. As we all looked in the direction in which she was bleating, what we saw was a mass of fur charging towards us and our camp was drowned in the sounds of sheep.

Top center the sheep invade our camp en route to their home, the enclosure you see behind on the right; bottom center the lone lamb in her headlong run to her mommy; to left and right the sheep descending upon our camp.

 

To recount the daily events and surprises would make this into a novella, here I share with you a brief narrative to give an idea of the magic of my journey in the Himalayas. Concerning my fellow travelers on this leg of my trip, I am mostly silent on purpose. While I am personally profoundly affected by each of them as a soul and for the gift of this shared experience, I am equally respectful of their personal journeys which I will not pretend to know or understand only be grateful for the chance to have accompanied them each in some way on their path. I bow to each with humility, gratitude, and love.

 

The final leg of this trek included a full days drive from our last camp to the town of Manali, over the Rohtang pass.  If you take a moment to watch the video clip you may get a small sense of the road, when there is a road, crammed with mostly buses, oil tankers, and minivans. There are also cars, and as of late, troops of motorcycles as crossing this pass on motorbike has become fashionable. Honestly, I am pressed to find joy in defying death and rattling my bones on a motorbike on such a road, and a few days after I showed it to Claudio he was on about going over on a motorbike. For me personally this was treacherous, terrifying, possibly the scariest part of this trip. Claudio gained major points for his driving after this ride. Our driver, Surcha, was a crack pro and still twice I clutched both of Bunny’s hands and channeled Claudio there hugging us both. My love strategy worked and when we reached the hotel in Manali my gratitude was in full bloom. Bartolomeo had jested that when back to ‘civilization’ it is interesting to see how the group behaves. For me, this sense of gratitude prevailed for the remaining three days together in Manali and Delhi, three and a half days of total clarity in the embrace if a love fest. The easy joy and kindness we shared together as we moved about these places like an amoeba was for me a clear priority, a chance to share peace and harmony in everyday situations.

 

Each day, each moment, each encounter and experience presented new and different emotions and experiences on this journey, and overall the opportunity to completely disconnect from the everyday minutiae of life and be 100% connected to the moment, the nature, my heart were one of the greatest gifts of my life.

 

Before this trip, I had a few weeks on my own in distinctly different capacities and environments, I call them phases. The spiritual trek phase I have written about above began in Leh.

Arriving in Leh, which stands at 3,500m, I was struck at the desert like landscape as seen from the air. Hiking about, the fertile green of the valley astounds. Our (mine & Bunny’s) time is Leh was peaceful and fun, 12 days on our own we made friends quite naturally, and when I say we I mean we. Walking with my backpack in front Bunny was constantly being greeted and spoken to by random people on the street, and for sure whenever we entered a shop or restaurant. The playful, open nature of the people there took for granted that Bunny is real and important, magic?

 

The characters that populated our days in Leh were many, including the industrious Wangmo and her band of smiling staff at the Wonderland cafe and Moona across the street in his gem and jewel shop. Bunny and I spent much time in both places, the former for food (usually breakfast), beverage (terrific coffee and lassi), rest, writing, reading, and the welcoming service of Bunty & Sunil. Moona’s shop was full of magic, stones, gems, and Moona himself.

Center Moona meets Bunny for the first time right there in his workspace, he greets her in Russian. Top left some precious new friends for Bunny; middle left all new friends including Moona; bottom left dosa breakfast at Wonderland; bottom right super lemon mint at Wonderland.

 

Left to my own devices I would have stayed in Leh on my own the whole time, and ‘by chance’ at the birthday party of Dali Lama we met the Basque Birds. Three wholly different and equally vibrant spirits who shared their magic with us in travel, food, and adventure. We visited monasteries, walked to palaces, shared meals and culinary delights, and even a few mishaps with constant mirth and magic. In another ‘coincidence’ one of them, Eider, has the same birthday as Claudio (4.10) and before I left for India we booked a trip, part of which is to be in the Basque country for Claudio’s birthday! We shall see these biodynamic dancing birds again soon.

Center, Izaksun, Eider, and Vanessa cradle Bunny as we walk between the Thiksey Monastery and the Shey Palace. Top left Bunny & I at the birthday celebration of the Dali Lama; middle Bunny at her sized prayer wheel; bottom left all four of us; Bunny & I pray at Thiksey; Vanessa the goddess of the valley; far right us amongst the buddhas.

 

On the 14th of July my group arrived and my time in Leh took on new contours as we began our journey together. On our last full day in Leh as a group I bought a special thanka, the Buddhist wheel of life rarely painted on an all red background. It’s story, the narration in images of human evolution, inspired me to bring it home, to remind me.

 

Magical India, is this a platitude?

 

Maybe what is most magical about India at large is that it presents the opportunity, insists really, that one must face one’s self. There is no hiding behind convictions, convenience, or comforts in India. India does offer plenty of comfort and luxury, and even so, the meeting with one’s self is inevitable for any foreigner visiting this diverse, dynamic, enormously populated country. Long before my adventure in India, the magic manifested.

 

Asked to explore a work opportunity for two days I was at first totally closed to this trip, travel 18 hours one way for 2 days, insane! When the horizon opened to me, the abundance of the universe was unmistakable. In short, someone else flew me to India for a two-day business opportunity and then I went on to experience five weeks of India in places I had never been before, in ways I had never imagined.

 

Rewind to the beginning of my journey in Mumbai, a city like NYC in its immensity and energy. While I have been there three times before, last in 2008, Mumbai dumbfounded me on this trip. Partially, as I was in an area of town which barely existed beyond vast patches of green when we were there last, and partially as I was there for a completely different purpose. My work was challenging in ways I had not expected, partially as I was not given the full story in my preparations with the home office and due to this I did a 360 with my program on the second half of the second day. I do hope I met the actual needs of the participants.

 

The Westin hotel where I stayed exceeded my expectations in many ways, as most chain hotels are homogenous, and bland. This one, in large part due to its location – Mumbai, India – retains a certain kind of charm and individuality. At my third and final breakfast it took only 15 minutes to get my chai with condensed milk, as opposed to the 30+ minutes on the first 2 days – explained by the fact that this product lives on the fourth floor with the dessert chefs. While a part of me wanted to ask them, for the time I am here please keep some here on the 18th floor, there was a part of me which appreciates the quirky way things are organized; like the 4 young boys who came in a row to ask what I wanted to eat, then none of them delivering and me having to get up and ask the chef directly.

Breakfast at the Westin Mumbai, masala and coconut chutney my favorite!
 

 

The same thought struck me as a I witnessed countless motorbikes with helmetless drivers, some with the helmet slipped through their arm while they navigated traffic. Passengers on these 2 wheeled wonders are unanimously helmet free. Western me was wondering, do they realize the danger? Zen me thought, this is their way, they have a very particular kind of faith.

 

These together with random other situations that may perplex the average western thinker, brought me to a singular idea: among all this chaos is a fundamental connection to the human soul. Patience, compassion, understanding for the fallibility of human beings, the very connection with human souls that perfection and “organization” threaten to distinguish. While I am not advocating total chaos as a global norm, I do believe that the connection to the uncertainty, the uncontrollability of life and its circumstances can go a long way to keep us closer to our nature, to the fragility and uncertainty that is actually the magic of life – the willingness to live, to thrive, in the unknown.

 

This sentiment continued with me to Delhi where thanks to Elisabeth, Mom, and the monsoon I had the chance to enjoy the luxury of a hotel that sets a standard in its class. The Imperial Delhi is simultaneously stepping back in time and experiencing all the best of the moment, a most elegant and safe place which made this city seem tranquil. At 44 Celsius with 100% humidity in July, Delhi is not a place to stroll about casually. Equally, with the bustle and density, it is not a place I would personally hang out alone as a woman for too long. That said on our first evening we were quite happy to take a walk, colors, sights, sounds, and then to the lush quiet of the hotel for a light soup for dinner with a dessert that was simply indescribable. Three days in Delhi, at the Imperial, were a dream; I allowed myself to fully enjoy a different kind of experience, one where I took pleasure and delight in my immediate surroundings with little interest to explore further afield. Content with the smooth, vast interior, the pool, and the spa, I allowed myself to bask in the richness of this historical hotel and its standard setting service. The breakfast alone was enough to satisfy all my possible desires, I sat for a minimum 1 hour each morning and for 4 hours one morning doing some work.

Center Bunny meditates poolside at The Imperial; top left Imperial breakfast with the queen of dosas; bottom left Bunny & I floating down the stairs to the pool; next welcome tea on our first arrival at The Imperial; middle bottom at the Sikh temple in Delhi; bottom right Bunny on our final departure from the Imperial in August taking a rest before 01.15 pick-up for the plane home.

 

On one brief excursion out of the hotel, I took a private half day tour, the highlight of which was a visit to a Sikh temple. Lucky me it was a feast day and there was singing and joy all around, families lounging about being together, the entire atmosphere was of harmony and joy.  Food of course spurred my other excursions, after the sun went down, and just across from the Imperial was a place that had a line of Indians any time of day or evening when it was open – Saravana Bhavan

Thali to start and  to end. There are three of these in NJ!

 

Upon our return to Delhi, after my time with the group at a Japanese Buddhist monastery Bunny and I returned for our last 13 hours to the Imperial where we had left our professional case, including laptop. Here, at the imperial and Saravana Bhavan, we began and ended our magical journey in total gratitude and bliss.

 

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