Getting My Sea Legs
The rest of my first day at the ashram is a blur except for a short foray up the mountain with a few others from the group. I was game at first but found that the loose-fitting cotton Ali Baba-style pantaloons and top that I had purchased back home for the trip, kept getting hung up on shrub thorns that were at least 1½ inches long. I could barely take five steps before needing to stop and disentangle myself again. I realized that I didn’t have the patience or energy to deal with this frustration, and I didn’t want to ruin my clothes, so I requested that we save that journey for another day and return to the ashram. The others good-naturedly complied.
At some point in the day I learned that Jay, my companion in line at Emirates Airline who had been bumped from our flight, had resolved his ticket problems and would be flying out from San Francisco that day to join us tomorrow. I was cheered by this news..
We gathered in the broad walkway outside the temple hall to wait for dinner, which was supposed to be served at 6. At 6:30 we were told it would be delayed for another hour. Too exhausted to wait any longer I went back to my room and dined on dried apricots, figs, part of an orange and some trail mix and fell into bed at about 7. I finally slept – the first time in about 2½ days..
Going to bed early, no later than 8 p.m., became routine, since I (and everybody else) was awakened before dawn by chanting being broadcast at full volume over a loudspeaker. I lay there in the dark allowing this development to sink in. It was 5 a.m., and I definitely was not going back to sleep. I am not normally an early riser, but it was clear that I would be from this point on. I learned later that the chanting came not from the Suddhananda Ashram but from a temple across the street. Later in the early morning that chanting was countered by more chanting broadcast from another location in the opposite direction, creating a cacophony of dueling voices and instrumentation. It persisted for the better part of the day. Not the quiet environment I had expected.
I showered, dressed and ventured out to get some hot chai, which was put out in the dining area at 6 a.m., then went up to the rooftop to meditate.. Daylight was breaking as I approached the old house, and by the time I was seated in one of the plastic chairs, the first rays of sun were beginning to fan out behind the mountain, casting an spray of soft pink light up onto the peak of Arunachala, as though in homage to the mountain. It took my breath away.
I turned my attention inward and took stock. I was still sleep deprived and feeling jet lagged, and I was both excited and apprehensive about what lay ahead. Although I knew that what I had traveled all this way in search of -- a deeper realization of the Divine -- had nothing to do with my physical comfort or discomfort or my mind's projections about the future., I was still caught up in mental activity.. The tourist in me also was curious about this very foreign place I found myself.
We had a week of free time before the formal retreat with Devaji was to begin. The first two days after our arrival were wide open. The following several afternoons Deva would be giving public satsang (a Sanskrit word meaning “in the company of truth”) at a hotel in town, which most of us would be attending. Then we would settle in for two weeks of silence and twice-daily satsangs in the ashram temple.. After the formal retreat began, we would, for the most part be staying on the grounds, which meant that whatever shopping and sightseeing I wanted to do had to be done this week.
I I was anxious about getting some Indian money, so after breakfast (I’ll write about food later) I went out with two others from the Mt. Shasta sangha, Uma and Richard, to exchange dollars for rupees.. Uma, who had been to India several times before and knew the ropes, was our leader. The three of us walked to the ashram entrance and snagged one of the small bright-yellow open-air motorized vehicles called tuk-tuks that were waiting outside the wrought-iron gates.
You haven’t lived until you’ve been a passenger in a tuk-tuk on a highway in India. There is no ride in an amusement park that could compare for thrills.. Cars, buses, vans, motor scooters and bicycles whiz along on the road intermingling with pedestrians, dogs, cows and an occasional monkey -- nobody seemingly concerned about safety or order. Horns are blaring, but not in an aggressive way, more as a form of communication – “I’m here;” “I’m behind you;” “I’m passing.” Vehicles constantly darted in and out in a kind of insane dance.. On a two-lane, two-way road, vehicles passed one another with no regard for oncoming traffic. I cannot tell you how many times I looked up to see, for example, a truck and a bus side-by-side coming straight at us in both lanes with the shoulders on either side occupied by pedestrians, bicyclists, animals. or all of the aforementioned. Somehow, miraculously, our driver would dodge and weave and leave the danger behind us. It was so surreal and the driver so calm that I couldn’t even be alarmed – at least not until I got safely back to my room and reflected on what had transpired. Even then, I could only shake my head in disbelief.
Coming next: Buying custom-made clothes and visiting Ramana’s ashram.