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1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

India, Jan 18th 1998

Oh begob, let me get up and stretch me poor legs! Well, I lasted the duration of the meditation course you'll be surprised to hear and emerged with nothing worse than a pair of stiff limbs and a sore bum. Here's the rundown on it, listen up now, this may be the only important thing you may ever read in these pages!

Vipassana (pronounced vee-pash-an-ah) meditation was discovered by Buddha 2,500 years ago. Buddha was originally a nobleman from what is now Nepal and was born a prince, Prince Gautama. At the age of 29 he first ventured out of his palace grounds where up till then he had lived an idyllic life. On discovering the pain and misery in the lives of his subjects he left his privileged existence behind and went on a search for enlightenment. He studied with all the great gurus of the time, learned many forms of meditation, practised various forms of bodily mortification and mind control but nothing he learnt quite provided the answers he was seeking. So, at the age of 35, he plonked himself down under a tree to practise a form of meditation he had discovered as a child and he resolved not to move from his place until he had achieved "enlightenment", until he had discovered the ultimate truths of the universe. Well, as the story goes, 49 days later he emerged enlightened (hurray!). He was now a buddha, an enlightened one, one of many other buddhas but history now knows him simply as Buddha.

He spent the rest of his life teaching people how to lead a good life, very similar to what was taught by Christ 500 years after him though Buddhist concepts such as reincarnation and karma do not exist in Christianity. By the time of his death at 80 he had many followers across the north of India and his Vipassana meditation flourished along with his teachings.

Over the centuries however the art of Vipassana was lost and until recently was preserved in its pure form only in Burma. In 1969 a Burmese man of Indian origin, S.N. Goenka, brought Vipassana back to India and in 1975 he set up the first Vipassana centre near Bombay. Goenka insisted that the centre be run like a charity where people would be accomodated, fed and taught Vipassana for 10 days for no charge. All he asked was that at the end of the course those students who felt benefited by the meditation could make an appropriate donation according to their means.

This extraordinary system has since then resulted in over 40 Vipassana centres being built worldwide, most in India, with around 25 centres including a permanent one in Delhi's central jail, 4 in the US (CA, WA, TX, MA), 4 in Australia and one in England, France, Germany and New Zealand among others. There are also courses held in temporary centres in a host of other countries (including Ireland!). All courses taught in the centres are free of charge.

Now a little bit about the meditation technique itself. In essence it is quite simple, the meditator continually scans the body observing the sensations on the skin but, as Goenka claims, Vipassana is different from all other meditation techniques. The emphasis is on observing the natural sensations on the body without using any mental visualisations such as concentration on a certain image or the chanting of a particular word or phrase as are employed in other methods.

What's the benefit of observing bodily sensations? The theory goes like this. Say an emotion like anger arises in the mind. A traditional method of getting rid of the anger is to focus the mind on something else, to count to 10 for example. This however does not rid the mind of the anger, it simply moves the anger to the subconscious and the emotion remains. The solution Buddha discovered is to observe the emotion, the anger, with a calm and equanimous mind. As the anger is observed it loses its force and gradually diminishes. However, calmly observing the anger within the mind itself is extremely difficult, the mind will tend to get caught up in the emotion. All emotions, though, produce sensations on the body. For example, if a person is angry his breath will become heavier, his temperature might rise slightly. Whatever the emotion there are resulting, possibly subtle, sensations on the body. The mind and body are very tightly linked. What Buddha found was that observing the resulting sensations on the body without reacting to them will cause the corresponding emotion in the mind to lose its power and disappear!

Another aspect of the meditation is the training of the mind not to blindly react to sensations. Goenka teaches during the course that all misery in life is caused by craving and aversion! We crave something, we can't get it, we are miserable. We have an aversion to something, it won't go away, we are miserable. The mind is 24 hours a day receiving sensations and automatically reacting to them with either craving or aversion. The eyes see an expensive car, the mind reacts with craving. The ears hear a screeching sound, the mind reacts with aversion. Vipassana teaches control of the mind, the student learns not to blindly react to sensations but learns to first consider and then make the correct reaction.

Along with calming and teaching control of the mind Vipassana also claims to purify the mind of past, deep-rooted cravings and aversions. Supposedly, during meditation sensations can arise on the body due to some previous craving or aversion, e.g. a deeply held hatred of a particular person. If the sensations are observed equanimously, without reacting to them, then the craving or aversion loses it hold and is gradually eliminated.

The introductory Vipassana course lasts 10 full days. Each student must uphold five precepts during those 10 days and must promise not to kill, to steal, to lie or to indulge in intoxicants and sexual activities. In addition a vow of "noble silence" is taken where no talking is allowed for the duration except to talk to the assistant teacher and management when necessary. The day begins with the wakeup bell at 4am, with a 2 hour session of meditation at 4:30am, then breakfast followed by 3 hours of meditation before lunch, 4 hours before dinner and an hour or more after, with breaks in between. The technique is taught mainly through recorded audio tapes of Goenka's instructions. Each night a video of a Goenka "discourse" is viewed where the theory behind the day's work is discussed. Males and females are completely segregated.

The food on my course was excellent, very healthy vegetarian fare. The vow of silence, the one that scares most people, turned out to be a cakewalk in comparison to the pain and discomfort of having to sit on a floor cushion for over 10 hours a day as well as to the mental anguish of trying to concentrate the mind on bodily sensations for that length of time.

There is no religion taught during the course, the course has nothing to do with trying to convert people into Buddhists. The centre where I was for example is regularly attended by the Jesuits in Kathmandu, as Catholic a bunch of dudes as you're likely to find. Vipassana is not some sect, there is no questionable 20th century spiritual guru involved. As a method of meditation its credentials are hard to beat. Not only does it come straight from one of history's greatest religious leaders but for a course to offer its services for free, to exist solely on the donations of past students and still be able to build over 40 permanent centres worldwide in 20 years or so is a testament to its power.

So, am I now a transformed persion as a result? Nah, don't worry, I'm still the same asshole I always was, I haven't turned into some flake who can't stop spouting "spiritual" claptrap or anything. But I did find the course beneficial. The proof of the pudding is in the eating so I exhort all of you to book your 10 days of pain NOW! Give it a try. If any of you in the future complain to me about your miserable existence then don't expect sympathy from me if you haven't tried Vipassana.

Your course of pain can be found by clicking here, at the Vipassana Home Page. There is even a course being taught in Ireland on April 8th! Go on, purify your minds, yah miserable bunch of gits!

Well, that's enough on that crap, it's back now to the travelling adventure stuff, yeahhhh! One notable event on the course was that the only other Western guy doing it besides me was Rob, the Canadian guy I'd mentioned meeting while trekking a month before and who I'd first encountered in Indonesia 13 months before that! He was there with Kristie but she was in the female section. Well, I successfully managed not to talk to Rob for 10 days and after it we all ended up travelling through India for 6 weeks together.

After indulging in a final steak and a Hotel River breakfast it was time to head southwards out of Nepal and back to India. If you're thinking of heading to Asia then Nepal is a great introduction. It's very cheap, friendly, easy to travel in, English is widely spoken, it has truly amazing mountain scenery and an interesting Hindu and Buddhist culture. Go see Annapurna Sanctuary, Everest, raft the Bhote Kosi river, visit Bhaktapur town, check out wild rhinos and feed and shop yourself to death in Kathmandu.

I entered India on November 30th. First stop was the mind-blowing Varanasi, home of yoga and India's most holy city which nestles along by the sacred waters of the Ganga (known before as the Ganges). The places I'd been in India before were predominantly either Moslem, Sikh or Buddhist, this was my first encounter with a full-on Hindu spectacle. It is here that Hindus come in their hordes to bathe themselves in the sacred Ganga and the dead are brought to be cremated and their ashes spread in the river.

Apart from the craziness of the traffic and the colourful people the place is full of cows wandering all over the place. The cow is sacred to Hindus. You have cows in the streets of Nepal also but the difference in Varanasi is you spend a lot of time wandering down tiny alleyways near the river where the ground is slippy with cow dung and passing a cow in the alley is quite a tight squeeze. Take my advice and keep a real close eye on the cow's tail as you go past, if it starts rising up get out of there quick, know wot I mean? Meeting a hulking, big bull in the pitch dark is also great fun.

In Varanasi the main action happens along the ghats, the many places by the river where steps lead down to the Ganga and where people come to bathe. There are "burning ghats" also where bodies are cremated on a big, wooden pyre. Tourists can take a boat ride up and down by the ghats to observe the whole spectacle, especially good just after dawn. Anyone know what that white, frothy, bubbling stuff that dribbles out of a burning human skull is? Anyone?? :-)

On from the pressure of Varanasi we next hit the laidback village of Khajuraho, site of 25 1,000 year old temples, among the finest in all India. Most are built from fine sandstone and the statues and carvings covering each shrine are quite superb with amazing detail. Khajuraho is particularly famous for the erotic nature of various of the sculptures, some of which were a revelation I must say, they gave me quite a number of ideas for the future! :-)

On the way to Agra and the Taj Mahal we stopped a night in the quaint, pink town of Orchha. What's extraordinary about the place is that it has an excellent medieval fort palace, very large, but which is in poor condition. What in another country would be a major tourist attraction is just one of many other fort palaces in India. We wandered around it for a couple of hours and had the whole place to ourselves except for the host of parrots, vultures and black-faced langur monkeys that were perched in various places.

In Agra we had to wait out some rainy weather for a couple of days. In fact the weather in India at this time of the year was suprisingly cold, we froze on a number of overnight bus and train journeys. Well, the sun peeped out eventually and allowed us our first decent view of the Taj. Probably the world's most beautiful building, it was erected over 300 years ago by Shah Jahan as a monument of love to his wife Mumtaz who died at the age of 39 while giving birth to their 14th(!) child, God love her.

Made from luminescent white marble it is extraordinary for its attention to detail, from the marble being inlaid with precious stones to the lettering on the outside whose letters were skilfully enlarged and lengthened as their distance from the ground increased to give the illusion of uniform size. The inside has superb acoustics and letting out a big "aaah" gives a fine, satisfying echo. An impressive edifice indeed.

Agra had more to offer than just the Taj. There was the excellent Red Fort, the beautiful marble tomb I'timad-ud-Daulah as well as the nearby "ghost town" at Fatehpur Sikri. It was here, at the bottom of the entrance steps to the Friday Mosque, that my eyes alighted on the grinning, ugly mug of Dave "Hello Cleveland" Munro, famed fellow traveller, who first joined forces with me in the bustling bazaars of Kashgar from where we set off together along the ancient Silk Road on the majestic Karakoram Highway, survived AK-47 machinegun fire in the lawless Khyber Pass, dallied at the magnificent Golden Temple of the Sikhs in the Punjab, before braving the Moslem war in Kashmir until we reluctantly parted among the towering Tibetan monasteries of Ladakh (not forgetting enjoying the apple pies of Islamabad, the V-Channel in Rawalpindi and last, but no, not least, the delights of the famed Oasis Cafe - gibber gibber)!

Spent the rest of the day reminiscing with Dave who I discovered was now a veteran of 4 Vipassana courses in the last 8 months! He obviously suffers from a craving for pain and an aversion to pleasure. As he headed east we headed west, to New Delhi. Didn't do much here apart from buying a return flight to Sri Lanka for the end of January. After one night (and a welcome visit to Pizza Hut) we took the overnight train into India's most colourful state, Rajasthan.

First stop was Jaipur, the "pink city". No it's not India's answer to San Francisco, it's just that many buildings are painted pink, the colour of welcome. It was on arriving at my hotel that I discovered I'd left my indispensible sun hat (the one now viewable on my home page) back in Pizza Hut, New Delhi! A day spent in the searing sun of Jaipur convinced me I had to return the next day to get it!

Spent a busy day seeing the sights of Jaipur, the usual bunch of palaces and beautiful buildings as well as catching a Hindi (Indian language) movie in one of India's plushest cinemas, the Raj Mandir. There used to be over 300 Hindi movies produced by "Bollywood", the Hollywood of Bombay, each year but business has been poor recently and the number is down to below 100. No bad thing some would say, there is only so many marathon 3-hour Hindi musicals with outrageous storylines that the world can take. However, somehow I find myself curiously addicted to their often ridiculous music and dance scenes. Odd that for a heavy metal head like myself. What's more, I also happened to catch the filming of a scene in an actual Hindi movie that day at the City Palace, one which starred a famous actress, Hema Malini. It was a right old Hindi movie-fest day indeed.

Next day it was up early for a 6 hour train to New Delhi, then over 2 hours in a queue to book a train ticket back down south, bought a bunch of traveller's cheques at AmEx and then went to Pizza Hut to discover if my hat was there. It was so after dinner and having bought a warm shawl for the journey I hopped on the night train to Rajasthan, this time to Pushkar. What can I say, it's a good hat!

Pushkar rocked. Stayed here for a week. There isn't too much to see but it's a very nice, quiet (for India) town which encircles a picturesque holy lake. It's nestled in the (scrub not sandy) desert and has several exotic touches like camels and monkeys which wander the street along with plenty of turbanned men and the usual bevy of women in magnificently coloured saris and kamizes. Add to this three eating establishments which have daily well-stocked, all-you-can-eat buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all for $1 a feed, very cheap accomodation as well as a few excellent bookshops and you have all the ingredients for whiling away a well-fed, relaxing month or two of reading and living in comfort for just $5 (3 quid) a day! Yowseh! Some great desert sunsets here too. And those hankering for a tourist attraction can simply visit the tomb of Khwaja Mu'inuddin Chishta, half an hour away in Ajmer. It is considered Islam's second holiest site after Mecca and even infidels like me are allowed in, unlike at the holy cities of Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

It was coming close to Christmas and we decided to spend it in exotic Jaisalmer, the westernmost town of any significance in India in the midst of the arid and forbidding Thar desert. Like Pushkar Jaisalmer rocked hard. It has a great medieval feel to it, all buildings are built from local sandstone and the town is dominated by an impressive hilltop fort. The people are the most exotic I've seen so far, it's a colourful turban-fest here and the usual quota of camels and cows wander the streets. No monkeys though. There are some amazingly ornate town houses (called "havelis") to be seen along with beautiful sunsets. The classic Jaisalmer activity is to do a several day trek on camel back but we declined to go.

So Jaisalmer was where we spent Christmas, a relaxing day where we had some good food, saw a great sunset and generally enjoyed the romantic atmosphere. I wondered what my Christmas present would be and I soon found out, a healthy dose of diarrhoea! Thank you India.

From there we headed back inland to Jodhpur, the blue city, where so many of the houses are painted a pastel blue. Every city of Rajasthan seems to have its signature colour, Jaipur is pink, Pushkar white, Jaisalmer brown and Jodhpur blue. We spent a few days here mainly suffering from sleep deprivation. Apart from often being woken up due to odd noises in the alley just outside my room, at 5:15am each morning an old man from the house across the way would begin with some outrageously disgusting gargling and finish by singing at the top of his voice for quarter of an hour stopping only for occasional hacks and spits. Aaahh yes, I still remember with affection the various things I dreamed of doing to his skull with an unfeasibly large club! It brings to mind one of the great abilities of Indian people, they can horrify you with the most disgusting, stomach-churning sounds of a person being horrendously sick until you spot a large gob of phlegm shooting from their mouth and only then do you realise that all they were doing was clearing their throat! Nice party trick!

Another India trick is annoying conversations. Here's a typical one:

Indian: "Your good name sir?"
Me: "Mike"
Indian: "Mike! Which country?"
Me: "Eye-land" (I found pronouncing it this way usually avoided confusion with Holland)

Now this is where 90% of conversations ended and once you realise that you might have 20 of these encounters each day then you can start to imagine getting a tad annoyed by the time "converser" number 20 arrives! However the conversation sometimes progresses like so:

Indian: "Eyeland! ... Near America?"
Me: "No, near England."
Indian: "Aaaah, England! In Britain!"
Me: "No, not in Britain. It's separate."
Indian(going for gold): "I like your country very much."


Next up was Udaipur (colour: white!) which, once we arrived, appeared to be famous only for being the setting or the substandard Bond outing, Octopussy. Half the restaurants in town used video screenings of this dud to lure customers. Thankfully the town's charms extended beyond this, being nicely situated by several lakes and having the usual repertoire of impressive palaces, most notably the City Palace. New Year's was spent here and there was a pretty darn good fireworks show that midnight especially those emanating from the picturesque Lake Palace perched on its own in the middle of Lake Picchola. We declined to spend the evening at the palace, the $150 buffet was a little too rich for our blood.

My Christmas present was still with me and I decided to go to a doctor who gave me the traditional Indian treatment, a long prescription of all pills that have ever been known to cure my ailment. Needless to say the regime did the business. Aaah yes, there is so much we have to learn from Eastern medicine.

Little Christmas, my 21 month anniversary on the road, was the scene for Rob, Kristie and I to go our separate ways, they to head to Nepal for their flight to the beckoning beaches of Thailand with a first stop at Pushkar (lucky bastards) with me heading further south alone. Hasta la vista dudes, they weren't a bad couple of Canadians all the same.

After a side trip to Ranakpur to see the spectacular Jain temple, the Adinatha, with its many intricate carvings and decorations and an extraordinary array of 1,444 engraved pillars, all different, I headed down to Bombay, a 20 hour bus ride distant.

Officially known as Mumbai, it is the largest Indian city and its size is quite horrifying. After being driven an hour into the city I was deposited off the bus at a point still 8 miles distant from downtown Bombay. The taxi ride from there passed through various pitiful slums and by miles of pavement dwellings where people had erected sometimes two-storey shacks all along every square-inch of roadside space, a sharp contrast with the very impressive downtown Bombay with its many beautiful, stately buildings, clean(-ish) streets and relatively calm traffic. Smoky auto-rickshaws are banned from downtown giving Bombay the distinction of being one of the few Indian cities that is not slowly poisoning its inhabitants with billowing lead fumes.

Cheap accomodation is hard to come by here so I only spent a couple of nights before leaving for Aurangabad. I had an interesting encounter at the Bombay railway station with a guy who wouldn't give me my change for a packet of biscuits I'd bought, refused to return my money when I gave him the biscuits back and eventually I had to grapple with him and rip my money out of his till, an unusual occurrence for India, shopkeepers are normally fairly honest.

Aurangabad is notable mainly for being situated close to a great series of cave temples at Ellora but it also has the poor cousin to the Taj Mahal, Bibi ka Maqbara. Built by Aurangzeb, son of Taj-builder Shah Jahan, for his wife it is uncannily similar to the Taj from a distance but closer inspection disappoints as the decorations and detail is nowhere near as good which is understandable since it is estimated to have cost 300 times less that the Taj to build!

It was in Aurangabad that I discovered that the flight I'd bought to Sri Lanka didn't exist but the dudes at Indian Airlines were very helpful and they squeezed me onto a Jan 21st flight, 5 days before I'd intended leaving India. The incident simply illustrated a previous conclusion of mine, that the very worst scum you can meet while travelling are nearly always travel agents, a fact worth bearing in mind.

Ellora caves proved to be amazing. These Hindu, Jain and Buddhist "caves" are a bunch of 34 temples all completely carved by hand out of a cliff of volcanic lava. Cave 16, the 1200 year old Kailasanata temple, in particular is outstanding. It's not really a cave at all but a complete free-standing, ornate, two-storey temple building measuring 165ft by 110ft and rising to 95ft in height and it amazes the mind as you stand in it to think that it was all carved from a single piece of rock. Ming-boggling!

Time didn't allow a visit to the Buddhist cave art at Ajanta unfortunately as I had to catch a train ride to my current location, the imaginatively named Bangalore. Turns out this place is the computer software capital of India, I assume it has gadzillions of programmers feverishly writing software for Western companies, all for a handful of rupees each month. The nearness of all the programming has caused me some bad nights of sleep as I am being tormented by horiffic flashbacks to the distant days when I had to work for a living and I often wake up in a cold sweat screaming "Noooo, I never freed the dynamic linked-list memory in the virtual destructor, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" Well, I exagerrate but not about the screaming. Last night, at 4:30am, while I was asleep a mouse in my room bit down on my index finger, I kid you not! Only in India.

Well, India has proved one of my favourite countries (despite some obvious low-points), there is so much to see, so much exotic colour, it is so cheap, the food nearly always good and sometimes great and the people often exasperating that it's never boring for long.

The plan for the foreseeable future is to spend 3 weeks in Sri Lanka until I return to India on February 11th and travel up the west coast to Calcutta where I should be meeting my old buddy Niall Murphy - he of the freckly arse - who's flying in for a spot of trekking near Darjeeling where hopefully we'll get to see 4 of the world's 5 highest mountains including Everest (yet again, yawn) and then head through Varanasi and Agra to Delhi where Niall will fly home at the end of March. After a bit of visa organising and maybe spending some more time in India it will be time to head homewards through the Middle East, specifically Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt and eventually hitting Ireland before the year is up. Yes folks, the end is in sight, the dream is in its final phase. No need to cry, be assured I'll cry enough for all of us!

I'll soon be lying on a palm-fringed beach of paradise in Sri Lanka and please know that I'll be thinking of you all ... and wondering why in hell all you plebs are slaving your lives away behind a desk!

Catch you later dudes, my masseuse is calling ...

1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

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