School's closed. Teachers are leaving. It is very sad looking at the empty playground and listening to the silent sounds of the ashram. The early monsoon is bringing back dreary memories of Washington winter depression. So, now the Chad that wanted no more than to stay in the ashram forever is gone for the moment: I am pretty content with my travel plans for the next month.
So I set out to Kausani with one of the ashramites, Ruchi. I tried to keep count of the times that Ruchi vommited on our winding, excessively long (16 hours via 3 different shared taxis and two buses) trip through the Himalayas; I lost count at twenty, the poor thing.
But we made it to Laksmi ashram an all girl boarding school founded by a British disciple of Gandhi. The school is essential a British hill station bungalow set on an expansive plot of vegetable fields, flower gardens, cow sheds and the like, completely surrounded by untouched pine forests. The school is basically a child's haven for about 60 girls ranging from 1stgrade to 12th. They are taught in the school and also responsible for rearing the cows, farming collecting wood, etc for the ashram. Ruchi parted after the first night, but I stayed for a couple more days which actually coincided with my birthday. The beautiful ashram povided me definitely with one of the most memorable and special birthdays to date.
So basically I found out that it is not just the children in our ashram that like me, apparently my likeability with children is pan-Uttarakhand. Within probably a half hour they were at complete ease around me as I was with them. The first morning, I joined about 20 girls to gather firewood in the forest, well I didn't really have a choice, some cuties, Pooja and Diksha grabbed my hands and led me to the forest, giving me a rope to tie the wood that I would collect. Diksha was adorable, she could not pronounce my name correctly, it came out 'child' so she was leading me through the forest saying, 'come Child, come Child.' The forest was covered with fallen pine needles, so it was pretty treacherous, but the paths that Diksha chose were ones where she slid down on her side, a big load of sticks on her shoulder. I basically just fell down these paths sending sticks everywhere, bloodying my hands and delighting of all of the girls watching me from down below. We then tied our stash into about twenty pound stacks which we then carried back to the ashram. The girls were also delighted to see the awkward whitey carrying the heavy load on his head. After we got back, it was wool spinning time, an artifact of the Gandhi influence on the ashram. It was really difficult for me and one of the girls basically spun most of my wool stack, but gave me encouragement whenever I got it a strand right. During this time, they found out that I knew how to sing some of the songs of our school. My mentor, Anand ji, has written over 40 songs that the children sing daily in the assembly, and he had actually come to Laksmi Ashram and taught them a few songs. He had also given them a song book of his songs which they shoved in front of me telling me to sing them. So basically I had to sing two or three songs, completely in Hindi for about 80 people. Pretty embarrassing but they seemed to enjoy it.
After that I took a break from the ashram and kiddies to check out Anasakti ashram, where Gandhi has stayed and written the book where the ashram got its name. The ashram is at one of the highest points of Kausani where I saw the most spectacular view of Himalayas that I have ever seen.
Then it was back to the ashram where I spent the afternoon climbing trees in the cool forest, picking kaphal, this moutain fruit that is like a raspberry cherry with the girls. In all honestly I must have eaten about 400 of these damn delicious berries; the girls folded their salwaars making little pockets in the front and were constantly forcing berries from their stash down my throaght.
As the sun went down, we went back to the ashram for evening prayer. When prayer concluded, one of the teachers asked me to give a presentation in front of all of the girls about my life and 'aims.' I said in my best Hindi, which is still pretty bad, that Lakshmi ashram was a very special place and that I had an amazing time working and playing with the children. I said that in the whole world, Lakshmi Ashram was my second favorite place only after my ashram and that the experience would stay in my heart forever. Then a couple girls stood up and gave speeches filled with hyperboles about how great I was. After all of the nice words, about 15 of the younger girls surrounded me and gave me hugs. They said not to forgot them and their berries when I left and to come back as soon as possible. Break my heart. Best B-Day Ever!!
But I am coming back sooner than they expected. I was invited to a village wedding in Kausani so I will be going back in a couple days. I plan to spend the whole day playing with the kids then go to wedding at night. I can't wait.
I realized just after leaving the ashram that I hadn't spoken a word of English the whole time I was there and could fully communicate with the girls, there was very little lapse in understanding. Quite honestly, the last year of rigorous Hindi studies paid of fully for the experience I had in being able to talk with the girls teachers in the ashram.
And more days of only Hindi speaking in sight. I will be staying with two friends that know almost no English in their village with their parents who I assume are in the same position. Here is a schedule of the rest of my time here.
Friend's village visits:
Ashramites Ruchi and Vimla are from villages in Kumoan. Uttarakhand is roughly split into two regions based on language and ethnicity: Garhwal and Kumaon. While I have lived and travelled in Garhwal extensively, I know nothing of Kumaon and am looking forward to the ridiculously hospitality I am about to receive.
These are two famous hillstations of the British Raj. Admittedly, I have a space in my heart of these vestiges of British Colonial rule. I love living in the village, but the American in me also like to kick back with a beer in an old British clubhouse watching socialites and white collar tourists playing golf or yachting on the lake.
A million miles away, after I am through with my indulgence, it is off to Rishikesh for a retreat with a Swami that I met a couple months back. He is actually Belgium, who has spent considerable time in a Christian monastery, became disillusioned to a certain extent, embraced Hinduism, became a Swami, and now runs an ashram. Although he is Hindu, he holds very inclusive religious views; at the inauguration of the ashram, monks of several faiths were invited to celebrate and chant together, the alter in the meditation room displays statues of the Buddha, Jesus, and Shiva. I draw my religious views from multiple traditions and I am excited to sit down with him a while and live in their community.
Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation, typically associated with Hiyana buddhism practices in SE asia, although it is practiced by many regardless of faith. I am going to participate in a ten day silent meditation retreat in Dehradun. Ten days in complete silents, no outside stimulus in the forms of books, pencils, television, etc. and 12+ hours of meditation might sound a little intimidating, but I feel prepared enough for it. My meditation has been stagnating as of late and hopefully this will give me a boost; when I meditate in my ashram, I always have something to look forward, my bed, the day's work, the children, a book, but there it will just be me and my thoughts. I also have a lot to figure out about what I am going to do when I get back, so the reflection I believe will be helpful.
Then back to the empty ashram.
Then off to Corbett National Park, a famous tiger reserve to meet up with the rest of the fellows. Luckily it is located in Uttarakhand, so I can swoop back up to the ashram for another couple of weeks with the kiddies and friends, then it is back to states. My plane ticket is for the 23rd of July. Gawd, this year has flown by.