India-Cremation on The Ganges, A Celebration of Fire

We traveled The Ganges at night in a wooden boat. The sun was setting and the white sky was diminishing into blackness. As usual, I can no expectations, I was just content happy to drift on the water and be able to take it all in.

Direct experience is wonderful but to a modern American it could be a bit uncomfortable. Back home it seems we have to be continuously stimulated and have our senses shocked. Watch a fast paced car commercial and count how many times they change the image or count how many 30 second ads there are during a TV program break. Is the length of our attention span decreasing?

To drift down a river in a foreign country like India, to be stranger in a very unfamiliar context , to be in a reality with no escape or off button is overwhelming. As a captive in a present moment, I tried to get my money’s worth, “I will not pass this way again”. I was on the famous Ganges River, Gandhi was here, people come to be absolved of their sins. It is sacred. I take in as much as I can with all my senses. Will it be enough?

We are told to look to our right, I see piles of wood, flames. and a lot of activity. This is the most sacred place of cremation in the India. If a person’s body is reduced to ashes here they are guaranteed eternal light after death.

The rituals practiced on this site never stop, they go on 24/7. A source fire has been maintained for hundreds of year and provides the flames for all burnings. Bodies wrapped in cloth and sometimes flowers are carried in by mourners, lower in to the The Ganges for purification, and then placed on the burning wood pyres. Later the deceased person’s ashes are returned to the Ganges.

Our journey in the darkness continues and we are told we are going to a ritual that is repeated every night by Hindu priests, The Celebration of Fire.

So much to take in, strange rituals, an unfamiliar religion. I shouldn’t judge. I have my own needs. Like all human beings since the beginning of time I, too, deal with the fear of the unknown. You would think with all our advancements we would have everything figured out and under control by now but it seems that the things that kept us up at night just keep multiplying. Everyone deals with this in their own way; materialism, power, drugs, alcohol, anything that offers escape.

I felt totally out of place in this dark Indian night until I was handed a diya, a floating votive candle surrounded by a ring of flowers. Our guide lit it and instructed me to put in the water to remember a loved one who has died. Tears came to my eyes. I placed the symbol in The Ganges and remembered my mom. More than anyone she is responsible for my trip to India. She prepared me in so many ways, giving me the skills and the strength to set out to unknown places.

Religion, let us live and let live. I will continue to learn and respect the beliefs of all people and hope others will do the same for me. My faith is how I deal with the puzzles of life. It’s so nice to know there are others who do the same.

India-Blown Away by The Ganges River,The World is Not Flat

Visiting The Ganges River in Varanasi, India was not at all what I expected. It is world famous and I have seen pictures of it but to be there, to have direct experience, is a whole other thing. I have had this disconnect between a pictorial presentation and an actual site before, namely The Great Wall of China. It was truly magnificent but somehow appeared different from what I imagined.

Once I talked to an acquaintance as he sat alone in this living room watching the travel channel. The high definition picture on a very large screen was breathtaking but the viewer’s reaction to the program really troubled me. He believed the TV way of seeing the world was adequate enough and made travel irrelevant. I’m afraid in this world of smartphones, his outlook is becoming common.

I am very visual, I look at everything. For me, a snapshot isn’t enough. I want to see the sky, hear the sounds, smell the smells, witness the movement of humans as I try to understand what they feel. I want see in all directions, be totally immersed in three dimensional awareness and feel the energy of all experiences. A flat screen or picture will never do this for me.

And with this attitude I took in the Ganges. It was so much more colorful and vibrant than I had imagined.

This area of The Ganges River is called The Ghat, the steps to the river.

Worshippers put diyas, floating candles, in the river to remember a loved one who has died.

Millions of Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in these waters. They believe it’s an act of purification, the wiping away of sins, and the the facilitation of Moksha, the liberation from the continuous cycle of of life and death.

Through traveling, I have become part of something bigger. I have become part of the sphere of humanity by reaching out with sincerity and accepting different landscapes and people. And I have come to realize that though each one of us is a small part of the whole, we are all significant.

I hope you enjoyed my pictures. You are a traveler on the journey of life. Slow down and take the time to really see what is around you. Start from where you are. And remember, the world is not flat.

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com

Back off, Lady!!!

Spring is coming late to The North Country. I’m still waiting to take pictures of the shad bushes that, for about one week every year, break out in white blossoms. They seem to love to grow in rocky outcroppings and got their name for their coincidental appearance when the shad fish run. But this year the blossoms are late. Facebook tells me this since memory posts of the shad bushes from previous years have been appearing for weeks.

It’s been gray and rainy for the last few days. I haven’t accomplished much and this bothers me. Granted, I’ve been getting over a cold but I still feel guilty. But this morning was a new beginning, the sun was out, it wasn’t raining, and my cough was almost gone. My friend, Beth J., asks me every year to post pictures on Facebook of the spring trilliums that grow in my woods. Today was the day I would keep that promise and hike to the pond at the far end of my property to see if those lovely flowers were in bloom.

My woods was bear and sad looking. Old discarded leaves defeated by rain and snow had lost the crunching sound they had had in the fall.

I walked and walking taking note of the branches that had broken off in wind storms. It seemed winter was unwilling to let go. I followed the path across a field, through a stand of birches and, using familiar landmarks, found the trilium garden my woods always seems to gift to me each year.

Sheltered in a little rock crevice was the prized red trillium. Beth would be happy, it was particularly lovely this year.

I found the white trilliums. They seemed to be late.

But I found two flowers I had never noticed before, maybe because they only wished to show themselves after a hard winter or maybe they are the real early bloomers.

These little guys were hearty . They seemed to declare, “Back off, lady, we know what we are doing” They wanted me to know something. The last few days I had cursed the weather and wanted things on my terms, I wanted spring now. But nature doesn’t work that way. I once read a story in a book called The Zen of Gardening about a lady who planted a lilac bush where she wanted it without considering what was best for the plant. Of course, it died. David Thoreau once said, “Let us live life as deliberately as nature.” Everything in the natural world is where it is because it’s in the best place at the best time to live and grow. I need to realize that. And if we want to keep life going on this planet we better all respect that.

I went to the pond and was glad to see it filled again by all the rain we had gotten. But the beaver lodge was gone and I suspect the beavers had found better real estate in the new pond across the road from my house on my neighbor’s land.

I leaned on one of the rocks and in silence I enjoyed the beauty and peace of the moment. I was thrilled to be joined by a Canadian goose who drifted in the water in front of me.

I thought how some of my friends would laugh at my excitement in seeing such a common creature. Would it take a swan to give them as much joy? Maybe it’s true what they say, that its not the object but rather the attitude of the beholder that makes something beautiful.

I snapped pictures and at one point the goose spread out his wings. I missed the shot and tried everything to make him do it again. I whistled and tried to mimic his honk and even sang him the only goose song I knew, “Go Tell Aunt Rhody The Old Grey Goose is Dead”. I learned that song in the 1950’s in grade school. Between that kind of message and all the times we practiced hiding under our desks in case of nuclear attack, it’s no wonder I’m sometimes a little controlling!

Well, needless to say, none of it worked. And once again, nature was telling me to “Back off, Lady”. The goose was in control, not me.

I walked home satisfied with the pictures I had and the lesson I had learned.

Spring comes when it’s ready, nature’s time, not mine. I can accept that now. It will soon be here in all its glory and it will be magnificent!

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com

India-Buddha Didn’t Care What His Hair Looked Like

On my tour, we went to a place called Sarnath. As usual, I had no idea what to expect.

We went into museum and Rashid,our guide, explained that statues of Buddha all had three interesting features. The Buddha’s long ears signified the importance of being a good listener and his ever present smile represented joyful peace. What I didn’t know was that his seemly minimalist hairstyle set an example for the unimportance of outward appearances.

We passed through doors into a beautiful place of greens, sandstone and sunshine.

After Buddha meditated for forty-nine days under a Bodhi tree, he came to Sarnath to preach for the first time, speaking about the doctrine of suffering and the eightfold Middle Path to enlightenment.

  • Right understanding
  • Right thought
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

Buddha had actually lived in this place and I was in awe. The sandstone was the remains of the Buddhist monasteries that once existed here. And the large domed building was a stupa, an ancient shrine used for meditation.

Rashid pointed out a Bodhi seedling growing out of a crevice in a tree.

I chose to immerse myself in the experience and I wander through the site alone.

I came upon a group of Buddhists who had come there as part of a pilgrimage.

I noticed the bits of gold leaf that worshipers had left on the stone to pay homage.

Later, Rashid took us a short distance away to the tallest statue of Buddha in world.

I am so glad to have had this experience concerning Buddhism. There is so much to learn about all the different ways of the world. I not only want to know them but also understand them. As Buddha said, I guess I am looking for a “right understanding”.

Copyright 2019@ theautonomoustraveler.com

The Pull of the Anchor

I haven’t written since April 8. I haven’t really lived the life of The Autonomous Traveler in the last month. I have had to do things and things have happened to me. There were unexpected car problems, repairs to my rack and pinion steering, a flat tire that led to four new tires and new brake pads.

After spending nine winters in St. Augustine, I decided to give up my rented condo and try something else next winter. Because of this, March consisted of “good byes” to a lot of great people. Then there was the packing up of my stuff to take back up north. I hate packing.

On March 21, my 92 year old ex mother-in-law, who was really a mom to me, died as a result of a car accident. A week before, I got to spend some time with her. She and my 96 year old ex father were a RV rally in Georgia. She was an extremely kind person and everyone at this yearly convention loved her. She always smiled and took a genuine interest in everyone she met. Her love for me was unconditional and she really took an interest in who I was. She frequently called me to see if I was okay and each year when I made the 1300 mile trips to and from Florida she checked in on me daily. She was a person of substance and I miss her.

When I arrive at home I had to unpack all the stuff I had just spent so much time packing. And then I had to fulfill the civilized obligation to clean my house after its long winter of being empty.

And it snowed yesterday morning. The flakes seemed almost embarrassed to be falling at the end of April and were very tiny in size. They didn’t have the power to cover the grass and they moved on to somewhere else or maybe they just gave up. It’s been a long winter

On top of everything, I’m sick. I have caught something from my youngest grandson. Just before be went to urgent care and diagnosed with viral pneumonia, I held him in my arms and read him stories. He is fine now. I’m staying put and nursing a nasty cough. Grandmothers will do anything for love.

I am feeling the pull of the anchor, something we all feel from time to time after traveling or taking a vacation away from home. Traveling is so wonderful, it is movement and experiencing new things. It is present moment joy away from everyday routine. It involves interaction with new people and for the most part, discovering the kindness of strangers. Michael Crichton in his book, Travels, talked about travel as an human equalizer in which economic status, past mistakes, education level, history etc. are unknown and we are only judged by the warmth of our smiles and our kindness to others.

I am feeling the pull of the anchor. I am back home, at my base camp and there is so much to do. There are good people here but there are others I must deal with. Some people irritate me and I know I irritate them. And then there is our country’s politics and an election is coming. We are in a state of conflict and there is horrible news everyday of people calling each other names, hurting each other and even killing.

I am feeling the pull of the anchor. Why can’t I have the life of a tranquil wanderer when I come back home? I’m tired and I have this terrible cough. Anchored here, I have time to reflect on some solutions.

12/1/2001 I took a day long class on Psychology of The Mind “Thought is neutral until we take it personally.” “What other people think of you is none of your business.”

Al Anon (My dad was an alcoholic) “Live and let live.” “One day at a time.” “Keep it simple.” “First things first.” “How important is it?” “Easy does it”. “Keep an open mind.” “Think.”

Posts of Wisdom from Facebook “Anything you can’t control is teaching you to let go.” “When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening.”

Class on Mindfulness, March 2019 “Stay in the present moment.” (Studies show this practice can enhance your health and add years to your life.)

My “sickbed” reading, How to be A Stoic, Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci. (A lot of simple but clear presentations about Stoicism on youtube.com) “Remain calm under pressure and avoid emotional extremes.” “We suffer not from events in our lives but our judgement about them.” Four pillars of Stoicism-Wisdom (practical knowledge), temperance (moderation), justice (fairness and the belief in shared humanity), and courage. Life is difficult but each of us is stronger than we think and we will get through it.

My memory prods me with these messages over and over and I choose to forget them. I need to practice. I need to pull up anchor.

“Bridge over Troubled Waters” by Simon and Garfunkel (1970)
“Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way”

Copyright 2019 @theautonomoustraveler

India-The Hindu Salutation of the Dawn

I am a gatherer, not a hunter. I wander and obtain things randomly. This trait may have been influenced by ancient ancestral memories. I first realized the roots of this when I read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Aurel. I loved that book because of its informative portrayal of life in caveman days. Back then, primitive males seemed to be focused on the hunt and ultimately stalking and bringing down animals for food. The main character in the book was a prehistoric woman named Ayla who became an observant gatherer and a skillful medicine woman. She was a part of early human culture in which the women of the tribe collected things in their wanderings; berries, feathers for ornamentation, plant fibers for binding, herbs for flavoring and healing, and any found objects that through ingenuity and inventiveness could be put to good use.

Modern shopping may have been influenced by these prehistoric habits. Some people decide on a specific goal and go to the mall just for that one thing (example, a craftsmans saw at Sears). And then there is another group who chooses to wander through shops and stores to see what will show up.

I am in the second group. Wandering, with no set outcome in mind, not only sets the pace and scope of my traveling adventures but also dictates how I acquire things.

I love thrift stores. My short term ancestral memory draws me to them. My parents lived through The Great Depression. In my family, the stretching of dollars was practiced with great enthusiasm. This has become my life approach and causes me to direct funds toward what I really I want, namely traveling. I also love the triumphant feeling of out smarting big corporations when I find an almost new designer blouse for a mere $3.99.

Like Ayla, the attentive and cunning cavewoman, I’m a gathering huntress focused on the moment, confident in my ability to find treasures.

Yesterday, I had a particularly rewarding day. I decided to stop at a thrift store I fondly call “Sal’s”. I came up with this name in my early years of thrift store gathering when I was embarrassed to admit shopping there.

Friend:”I love your blouse. Where did you get it?”

Me: “Sal’s Boutique!” And then I’d quickly change the subject.

Yesterday, I walked into “Sal’s”, a big, bright place filled with color. It smells a particular way, a bit like old things with a faint scent of baby powder. I love the place because I know there is always a good chance I will find something both unexpected and cool.

I first scanned the jewelry case. I have learned to ask the clerk to put things aside for me until I can checkout. I have seen too many male customers carefully examining the pieces and quickly taking away the good stuff. I suspect they are undercover antique dealers.

I passed the long line of purses on the front wall. I have both bought and recycled many there. I pass the shoe racks and the hats ( I feel my nose is too big for a hat!).

And then I move on to the side wall that stretches way, way to the back of the store. Its shelves hold all sort of things grouped by color; mugs, vases, notebooks, candles, frames, etc. etc. etc. I have always loved the blue section where I have been lucky enough to find lovely pieces of Polish pottery.

The book section, because of online shopping and digital reading, is now the only “book store” in town.

I decided not to look at clothes. Real finds take time and involve going through the rack one item at a time. I was content to do the back wall with its electronic gadgets and lamps, miscellaneous stuff sorted into zip lock bags, and piles of framed pictures and prints.

Something caught my eye, a framed picture with some kind of writing on it. It was a Hindu prayer! Here I was back home in the US at a thrift store 7000 miles from India and I find this mystical piece. It spoke to me of what I had learned in India, to live in the present moment. It confirmed what I now believed, that I must squeeze the life out of everyday with no expectations or fear. And it reminded me to be thankful for all that comes my way, planned or unplanned.

I carried my lovely new treasure to the front of the store and paid for it. I hung it in my bedroom by the eastern window where the new sun always greets me. I will say the prayer every morning and soon I’ll know it by heart. Why did I acquire this beautiful bit of India? Coincidence or blessing? I have always preferred to believe in the latter.

India-Overcoming My Ignorance

As I stated in previous posts, I went to India with little preparation. Sure, I had the required shots including the one for typhoid and also I had prescription pills to ward off malaria. ( I was told this medicine might produce crazy dreams while I was taking it, months later I am still plagued by night dramas with intriguing and intricate plots.) I bought a new pair of shoes carefully broken in before the trip. I wisely carried bottles of hand sanitizer and peppermint oil for odoriferous street smells.

What I didn’t bring was enough historical knowledge. As a person who thinks she knows enough to “wing it”, I found my head spinning when I saw the tremendous Muslim influence in a country I had thought was purely Hindu. This was a pleasant surprise since I always hoped to see Islamic architecture in my travels and in India, of all places, I did.

It’s funny how little I was taught in school about Islam or, maybe being a teenager, I didn’t have the motivation to pay attention. Finally, the Taj Mahal caught my attention.

The Mughals

The Mughals were Sunni Muslims who conquered Delhi, India and ruled northern India from 1526 to 1707. Akbar, the grandson of the first emperor believed in religious tolerance and ruled over the Hindus with diplomacy. He abolished the tax on non-Muslims, banned the slaughtering of cows, and promoted Hindu warriors in his army. He became a vegetarian and married a Hindu princes. He also established a place where religious scholars of all faiths could meet and share common beliefs.

Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, ruled from 1628-1658 and loved to build. He constructed the Tahj Mahal as a mausoleum for his dead wife, the love of his life, Mumta Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is made of ivory white marble and is the most famous example of Islamic architecture with its minarets (spire towers). a dome, and pointed arches. No images of living things are allowed in the Muslim faith but marble and inlayed flower designs are everywhere plus Islamic calligraphy.

Shah Jahan lived in the sandstone and marble Red Fort, which he also built during his reign.

Here I was able to see more Islamic architectural features including Moorish multifoil arches and muqarnas vaulting with its textured detail.

The fort was massive and fascinating.

Unfortunately, the romantic, creative Shah Jahan would have further tragedy in his life. His tyrannical son, Aurangzeb would become the last Mughal emperor. During Aurangzeb’s reign, Hindu temples and images were destroyed and the playing of music was forbidden. He imprisoned his father in the fort where legend says Shah Jahan died of a broken heart in 1660. As a prisoner, he could see the Tag Mahal in far distence but was never allowed to visit his wife at her final resting place again.

I learned both beautiful and tragic lessons in these historic places. We, as human beings, have clear choices in life, either we can create beauty or we can spend our lives destroying things, other people and maybe even ourselves. This sunny day in Agra, India made this lesson extremely clear.

India-Nuclear War?

This map courtesy of indiadefencereview.com

When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, a plan was made to make Pakistan an Islamic state and divide Kashmir into two, half Pakistani and half Indian. These two areas are separated by The Line Of Control , a heavy militarized unofficial boundary. These divisions brought about a lot hardship and resentment that still exist today.

On February 14 of this year, Islamic militants staged a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir killing 40 people. On February 26, 2019, India retaliated by bombing an airstrip in Pakistan used by these militants. The world is calling for restraint since both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons. An Indian pilot was capture by the Pakistanis but was released. Indian national elections will be held in April and May and this appears to be also holding things in limbo.

The bad feelings between Muslims and Hindus have a long history. What are the keys to compromise and cooperation? These conflicts bother me since I see the same themes in my own country. Is violence and destruction the only outcome? I hope not, for the sake of all future generations no matter what part of the world they live in.

Mughal (Islamic) Architecture in India