Sunday, November 29, 2015

Known By Different Names

Duomo, Florence, Italy
As scenery and cultures reshape from country to country, the changes become more pronounced as continents are crossed. Dress becomes quite different, languages change, customs and taboos change, foods and the ways of its preparation differ, and worship as well. As necessary as food and clothing, so too is worship. I have noticed wherever I am—whether in America, Europe, Africa, Asia or South America, a universal need to express worship of The Creator. People come together united by a common belief to build shrines, temples, churches and sanctuaries devoted to worship. It is everywhere.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

It is fascinating to watch the transformation from churches in one land, to mosques in another, and temples elsewhere. In Italy, the epicenter of Christianity for centuries, there are tens of thousands of churches, some dating almost to the time of Christ. Step south across the Mediterranean Sea to Northern Africa and churches are replaced by mosques. Cairo, Egypt alone has over two thousand. Landing in India, temples and shrines are abundant for Hindu worshippers. The city of Varanasi has an estimated 23,000. Moving further east, to where I find myself now in Thailand, Buddhist temples are also called pagodas with an adjacent stupa. All these places have a religious order that acts to supervise and attend the holy grounds. All are created with great devotion and sometimes are awe inspiring in their artistry and beauty, shining like the crowning achievement for a community.

Baha'i Temple, New Delhi, India

The outer form changes, but what is common is the need to worship and give reverence to the Divine Being . . . known by different names but essentially THE ONE CREATOR OF ALL.
Buddhist Temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Hindu Temple, Varanasi, India

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Slight Panic

Young Buddha disciples . . . Chiang Mai, Thailand
A few days ago I was in New Delhi, India biding my time waiting to go to the airport and catch a plane scheduled to leave for Thailand at 15 minutes after midnight the next morning. I had to book my quarters again from the previous night so as to be able to relax with my luggage in the room until 9 PM. The last time I had such a flight, I missed it because the 00:15 confused me. I arrived at the airport in Rome, Italy the same day but thought the flight to Nairobi, Kenya was in the afternoon. The attendant sadly told me I had missed my flight, so I had to book again at considerable cost.
This time, I was careful and while I waited I also made sure to check Thai visa requirements. I knew Thailand does not require US citizens to have visas on entry. But on one website, a British site, mention was made of the thirty day maximum stay requirement and I was surprised to see that a return ticket must be shown. A slight panic ensued, as I did not have one. Not recalling being checked on my previous visits, nonetheless I was uncomfortable at the prospect of being turned away at the airport. I called the airline and a lady in Thailand told me to check with the embassy! This, with only five hours to go.

In this day of instant possibilities via the internet . . . I began plotting. First, I took out my map of the world and looked to see where I might go in thirty days. I have been planning to possibly visit New Guinea, but in the end I chose somewhere nearer that I could get to from Bangkok for less than 100.00 dollars. In ½ hour, I found a deal and reserved my flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where I will be near the famous Angkor Wat temple, the largest religious monument in the world, originally constructed as a Hindu temple around the 12th century for the Khmer Empire, but now a Buddhist temple.

At last, with all my proper paperwork in hand, I arrived at the airport and caught the flight to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. And guess what? Nobody asked to see my ticket out of Thailand.
Dragons, guarding a temple entrance. Chiang Mai, Thailand

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Cows roam freely and are everywhere in Varanasi, India. Photo at night.
It feels as if lifetimes have come and gone in the short span of time I have been in India. The crush of humanity, brightly colored and diverse, mostly in squalid conditions has made my Italian sojourn seem far off and long ago. I have walked narrow passages and skirted around cows while stepping over piles of manure, seen men pissing in the stinking streets, had my eyes dazzled by women in colorful saris of every color and shade, walked past many temples and smelled fragrant burning incense, become vegetarian by default and a chai drinker, and been bombasted by fireworks so loud and frequent during the festival of Diwali that dogs in America probably heard it and quivered. I have drifted in a rowboat on the Ganges River at evening with an American friend and made personal rituals, leaving candles floating in the night water, and visited cremation fires by day and watched bodies burn on pyres of flaming wood. Friends have been made, including a young man who drives a rickshaw and works 16 hour days to support his wife and two boys. Many people are like him—working long hard hours. He told me it would look bad if his wife worked, that he would meet with disapproval from family and so he does what he must. And he always greeted me with a smile, and often looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you happy?”

Lighting candles in baskets with marigold blossoms to float in the Ganges River.

I arrived in Pushkar, India today after the longest train ride of my life—22 hours. That in itself was a sort of lifetime experience. The train was full . . . so densely packed that it was four hours late on arrival, probably because it could not go fast. I was in a more costly air-conditioned sleeper car that squeezed six berths in each compartment and the coach had perhaps 12 such compartments. The only clean items were the sheets they gave. The bathrooms would make some people ill on sight. Imagine the second class coaches. Anyway, I am going native and roll with the punches. I made friends with a family sharing my compartment, and they helped me when I arrived at the station, staying by my side until I got a rickshaw to the bus station where I caught a bus that was similarly packed with people. Now I am in Pushkar and arrived just before an important festival, and this might be good luck.

Herding camel, Pushkar, India

Sunday, November 08, 2015


View of the Ganges River from a Hindu Temple on its bank

How different Varanasi India is from Venice, Cinqueterra, Florence, and Rome, Italy. No longer the neat cobbled passages and thoroughfares. No longer the testimony to grandeur in high art and architecture and civic pride. Varanasi is a cacophony of sights and sounds with seemingly no order. The dense population of 3 ½ million people that live on the bank of the Ganges River are too many for the resources that exist. “Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: 'Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together' ".  "Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. Abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati, the origins of Varanasi are yet unknown. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals."

Street life
Just being here is giving me spiritual insights and transforming my consciousness. I know that I must let go of my agenda and surrender to the Divine. Even having a slight agenda is not permissible. I will give an example in a moment.

The streets teem and if you are in a hurry or expect orderliness and sophistication, reality will dash these hopes in a hurry. Almost every inch of the roads and passages are with people or beasts. All the traffic is dodging other traffic, and even people must skirt around each other. Pedestrians much watch not to step in waste left by animals or trip on an upturned stone. Sometimes a strong stench is inhaled as the gutters often are sewers flowing to God knows where. Shops are everywhere, as are street vendors cooking tasty treats and offering the ubiquitous chai tea. I sometimes think to myself that the garbage and sewage are too close for comfort. Yet the people are lively and do not hesitate in living. To be in the street is also to be accosted by a rickshaw driver or someone who wants to show you something.
Daily pre-dawn prayer offerings

Now, my story about surrender:  Every morning I go before dawn to the banks of the Ganges, at the foot of Assi Ghat to be among worshipers and also to take photos in the supernal light and try and capture the poetry there. I begin at a pre-dawn ceremony of young men and women, set on a stage. The lads stand in a line, performing a prayer ritual that entails specific movements, swinging lamps, waving fans and blowing on conch shells. The young ladies stand aside, singing and chanting. Then I wander the river banks as the light changes and the sun rises over the horizon. It is a perfect time for picture taking. The other morning I sat near groups of colorfully clad women praying and making offerings, and sometimes stepping into the river to bathe. It is thought to bathe in the holy river is to wash away ones sins. I took photos as the sun rose over the opposite bank. I also took pictures of holy men while the sun rose. Alas, when I returned to the hotel, all the pictures I took from that morning were mysteriously missing, but photos from earlier remained. I had seen them all on my camera, but now, those from the morning were gone. Frustration came over me at the thought of losing some gorgeous photos. At last, I surrendered to the Divine and said, “Please accept my loss as a sacrifice to your holiness.”


I have wondered what the lesson is and think that the holy spirit is so strong here, the devotion so great, that my agenda of picture taking was reprimanded. Perhaps some holy beings were offended in some way and asked that the pictures be cleared. Truly, I have been gracefully guided to surrender while in Varanasi.
Smiling girl with the ever present holy cows.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

On The Horizon

View of Vernazza, Cinqueterra, Italy

India is on the horizon. Tomorrow, I leave Rome, Italy to fly through the night and arrive in New Delhi. Thus will end my six week sojourn in Italy. The journey began in Venice, continued on to the Cinqueterra region and its five villages hugging the steep cliffs at the Mediterranean Sea, and ended in the Eternal City—Rome.

Rainbow over Venice, Italy

Friends in Venice welcomed me, and I made new acquaintances. Delightful characters emerged all along the way, and I tasted some of the best food anywhere in the world. The art, from thousands of years ago to the present day has filled my senses and stirred my imagination. Experiences will dwell in my heart and storehouse of my mind for years to come, feeding my imagination and calling forth transformation in my perceptions and creative pursuits.

Roman Forum, Rome
Indian civilization is perhaps older than Italy . . . and will work its own special magic. I do not expect the same qualities as Italy, and may have fewer comforts, but I know what to expect from having visited before, (see the blog Surrender). And I will be experiencing Diwali again on the banks of the Ganges River . . . in Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India and one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

I eagerly anticipate being awestruck.