Tuesday, September 30, 2008


My time in Mysore this year was difficult, dramatic and, in the end, transformational (more on this in a future post).

One of the places where I found peace was the Ramakrishna Ashram, which was located between my hotel and the shala in Gokulam.

I visited the ashram almost every day.

They had devotional chanting at 7am, and when I practiced at 8 I'd go there first.

When I did the early led primary series class, I'd go to the chanting afterwords.

The temple was also open to the public every morning and afternoon; you could sit and meditate without being disturbed.

I also frequented the bookstore, where one day the gentlemen behind the counter looked in the back of a book and informed me that there's a Ramakrishna outpost in Chicago. I was thrilled, even though it's far from my house, on the city's South Side.

Between visits to the ashram I read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and began to fall in love with Sri Ramakrishna. By all accounts he wasn't merely a living saint, but a manifestation of God on earth.

I also read Christoper Isherwood's book, Ramakrishna and His Disciples, and became even more charmed by Ramakrishna and his headstrong disciple Narenda - who went on to become Swami Vivekananda (who brought yoga to the west in 1893, when he wowed the audience at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago).

I finally looked up the Chicago Vivekananda Society the other day....

And learned that it closed the day after I got home.

It's moved to a suburb I've never heard of, called Homer Glen.

And will open again soon, I hope.

* * *

Here is Ramakrishna's Parable of the Snake that Refused to Hiss.
Every time I read it, I cry....

'Some cowherd boys used to tend their cows in a meadow where a terrible poisonous snake lived. Everyone was on the alert for fear of it. One day a brahmachari was going along the meadow. The boys ran to him and said; 'Revered sir, please don't go that way. A venomous snake lives over there.' 'What of it, my good children?' said the brahmachari. 'I am not afraid of the snake. I know some mantras.' So saying, he continued on his way along the meadow. But the cowherd boys, being afraid, did not accompany him. In the mean time the snake moved swiftly toward him with upraised hood. As soon as it came near, he recited a mantra, and the snake lay at his feet like an earthworm. The brahmachari said: 'Look here. Why do you go about doing harm? Come, I will give you a holy word. By repeating it you will learn to love God. Ultimately you will realize Him and so get rid of your violent nature.' Saying this, he taught the snake a holy word and initiated him into spiritual life. The snake bowed before the teacher and said, 'Revered sir, how shall I practise spiritual discipline?' 'Repeat that sacred word', said the teacher, 'and do no harm to anybody.' As he was about to depart, the brahmachari said, 'I shall see you again.'

"Some days passed and the cowherd boys noticed that the snake would not bite. They threw stones at it. Still it showed no anger; it behaved as if it were an earthworm. One day one of the boys came close to it, caught it by the tail, and, whirling it round and round, dashed it again and again on the ground and threw it away. The snake vomited blood and became unconscious. It was stunned. It could not move. So, thinking it dead, the boys went their way.

"Late at night the snake regained consciousness. Slowly and with great difficulty it dragged itself into its hole; its bones were broken and it could scarcely move. Many days passed. The snake became a mere skeleton covered with a skin. Now and then, at night, it would come out in search of food. For fear of the boys it would not leave its hole during the day-time. Since receiving the sacred word from the teacher, it had given up doing harm to others. It maintained its life on dirt, leaves, or the fruit that dropped from the trees.

"About a year later the brahmachari came that way again and asked after the snake. The cowherd boys told him that it was dead. But he couldn't believe them. He knew that the snake would not die before attaining the fruit of the holy word with which it had been initiated. He found his way to the place and, searching here and there, called it by the name he had given it. Hearing the teacher's voice, it came out of its hole and bowed before him with great reverence. 'How are you?' asked the brahmachari. 'I am well, sir', replied the snake. 'But', the teacher asked, 'why are you so thin?' The snake replied: 'Revered sir, you ordered me not to harm anybody. So I have been living only on leaves and fruit. Perhaps that has made me thinner.'

"The snake had developed the quality of sattva; it could not be angry with anyone. It had totally forgotten that the cowherd boys had almost killed it.

"The brahmachari said: 'It can't be mere want of food that has reduced you to this state. There must be some other reason. Think a little.' Then the snake remembered that the boys had dashed it against the ground. It said: 'Yes, revered sir, now I remember. The boys one day dashed me violently against the ground. They are ignorant, after all. They didn't realize what a great change had come over my mind. How could they know I wouldn't bite or harm anyone?' The brahmachari exclaimed: 'What a shame! You are such a fool! You don't know how to protect yourself. I asked you not to bite, but I didn't forbid you to hiss. Why didn't you scare them by hissing?'

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Last Friday we drove to Nürnberg for the Altstadtfest (Old Town Festival)

First, though, we walked up to the castle that overlooks the city.

The boys climbed on the rocks.

I leaned against them.

The view was excellent.

You could even watch people eat. And smoke.

Then we went to the festival, which was on an island in the city center. On the way, the boys stopped for some brats.

The festival had outdoor seating and indoor seating at temporary restaurants constructed for the festival, which lasts just two weeks. But it's not half-assed; these restaurants are sturdy and loaded with decorations and quaint details. We were served by young fraus wearing dirndl, a traditional dress worn in Bavaria and Austria. Many of the male revelers wore lederhosen - without irony. Some of the younger men actually looked quite good in it.

We ate a mountain of food. I had a German version of mac and cheese. For drinks, the kids and I had Fanta. Bob and Ziggy drank beer. Vicki had a drink of half-beer and half-Sprite, which was much better than it sounds.

Then the band began to play. When they saw Bob's camera, they insisted he take their picture and e-mail it to them - and promised it would appear on their website. Not sure if that's happened yet. But by the end of the night we were all quite good friends.

It was chilly that night - about 34 degrees - but no one was serving Glühwein (warm mulled wine). Apparently they don't break it out til Weinacht (Christmas) - no matter how cold it is. But they did have hot pretzels bigger than your head.

They also had ox-on-a-spit - which Bob and his friend Ziggy both tried (and which Bob later regretted).

I, however, joined the boys in my vice of choice, susse - sweets.

* * *


Sparkasse - more than a bank. It's a way of life....

Friday, September 26, 2008


Now that the car is running (without help from the mechanic!) and I'm back online and nearly unpacked it's time to revisit the trip to Germany.

This is the packaging for Pom-Bärs, the salty bear-shaped potato chips that were such a big hit at the first grader party - and with my friend Blet's kids here in the states. Their website is worth a visit.

This is downtown Erlangen.

Their McDonald's is better than our McDonald's. (Their beer, bread, health care system and dairy products are also better....At the bakery they had pretzels decorated with pumpkin seeds and a local delicacy called frankenkorn. This part of Bavaria is known as Franken).

The lively lads, hopped up on Happy Meals.

Oscar-the-dog also moves quickly and is difficult to capture in a photo. This is during one of his walks in the woods behind my friends' flat. Oscar has his own E.U. passport, by the way.

One day Bob came home early to show me the beer store. It's wall-to-wall beer, from ceiling to floor (it's called Frank's). Too bad I don't care for beer - although I didn't mind the 50-50 combo of beer and Sprite that Vicki was drinking one night.

Later we drove out to the Franken countryside and visited some ancient villages.

These cabbages are bigger than your head.

This is a schnapps shop (try saying that three times fast). No one is ever inside. You have to ring the buzzer, and after some time a woman comes from her house on the other side of the platz and opens the place for business. She does not seem to be perturbed by the interruption.

Find the Jesus and win a prize. This is the village where every year they light fires in the hills and everyone goes to see them. I forget the reason for it. I'll have to ask Vicki-pedia.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The students were complaining about aches and pains before the yoga class. Most were in their 30s and early 40s.

"We feel like old ladies," said one of them.

The others agreed.

Except for the eldest woman in class.

"Hey - I'm the only old lady in here," she said.

"I feel great," she protested.

Then she told us about this article, about a 90-year old man who teaches yoga.

"I bet he feels great, too," I said.

And soon, you will too, I thought.

And with that we began class.

Monday, September 22, 2008


More lessons in non-attachment.....

To review:

On the night I returned from India, I found my car door unlocked and not closed properly. The battery was dead, the ashtray was missing and on the front seat was a $100 parking ticket from another neighborhood. That night, SportMarty graciously jumped the car's battery, and I started driving it only to find that the brakes made a loud, frightening thudding sound that shook the whole car. Nonetheless I drove to Trader Joe's to pick up some provisions before finally heading home to sleep.

The update:

The next morning, before teaching, I checked the car's brake fluid. It was full. I decided to start the car and drive it around and see if the brakes would improve.

But when I turned the key the car wouldn't start.

The battery was dead. There was just that awful clicking sound.

So I decided to try using the jump box charger that Dreyfus had found for me. I'd nearly forgotten about it.

I opened the car trunk.

To my surprise, the ashtray was inside.

But the jump box was nowhere to be found. They even took the bag of accessories that went with it.

Also missing was my favorite (raspberry-scented) yoga mat, in its hot pink Wai Lana Chinese print bag.

The mind was livid. It really loved that mat. And the bag. Especially the bag.

A call was placed to the car's so-called caretaker.

Words were exchanged.

The caretaker came over immediately and jumped the car.

Then he spent the next 1.5 hours driving around with me, in the hopes that the charge would take and my sense of outrage would subside.

We went through the car wash (it was on him of course), in the hopes that it would clean the gunk off the brakes.

It sort of worked.

We also ate lunch outside, and watched the car idle in the loading zone.

And I learned that there has been a wave of car break-ins in his neighborhood over the past week. Plus my friend Blet's house was broken into.

And I thought, Maybe it's not so bad after all.

* * *

The car started again today.

But I was still worried about the brakes.

So I called the mechanic and explained the problem - and the fact that the car hadn't been driven for two months.

He told me not to bother coming in.

"Drive it for a few days and see if it improves."

He thinks it's a rusty roter.

I like that mechanic.

But the mind couldn't help but wonder, Who in the hell would steal a smelly old yoga mat full of divots and scrapes from a long-ago run-in with an industrial-strength washing machine?

It also thought, Well - I suppose it's a blessing in disguise if they actually end up using the thing.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


The return has been bittersweet.

It was sad - SAD - saying goodbye to Vicki and Bob and their elder son, who was up with us at 6:30AM.

It was also sad to say goodbye to Germany, where people seem to know how to enjoy life (and where the election campaign cycle is just three weeks long!).

The ICE train to the airport was fine - until everyone got off at Frankfurt Main, the stop just before the airport.

I looked around in terror, and started asking people, "Fleurhof? Fleurhof?" (Airport? Airport?).

A beautifully-dressed, multilingual gentleman from Africa motioned that yes, I should get off along with everyone else as the train was on its way to Munich.

How can I do this with three suitcases, I wondered.

With God's grace I managed to do it, stacking the carry-on suitcase on top of the gigantic one, and pulling them all along on their wheels towards the train station. The arms felt like they would be pulled out of the shoulder sockets as we ran towards the train.

It turns out the gentleman, who spoke French, English, German and other languages, did not know where we were going.

But I noticed people with suitcases getting into another train on the same track. Its cone-shaped engine car was head-to-head with the one from our train.

I read the sign on the side, and saw the German words for "Cologne" and "Airport."

I stuck my head in and asked, "Fleurhof?"

"Yah, Yah, Fluerhof," said the man on the train. He even helped me with my bags, and I motioned for my well-dressed friend to join me.

My new friend helped me with my bags when it was time to get off.

At the airport, we helped each other find our way to check-in. Turns out he was going home to visit family in western Africa - which he said was just a seven hour flight from Frankfurt.

Both of our airlines were located in terminal 1B - the small-airline ghetto, which seems to be organized by size and geography; near to Air India was Air Qatar, Jordanian Air and MEA, which may or may not be Middle Eastern Air.

There we parted.

In line I met a kind gentleman from South Bend, whose wonderful stories made the two-hour wait to check in fly by.

The plane ride itself was uneventful, although they didn't give us much food. There was a free seat next to me, which meant I could put the bag under it and stretch out the legs - which were restless, especially during the excellent Aamir Khan movie they showed, “Taare Zameen Par: Every Child Is Special” (“Stars on Earth”), in which he plays a teacher who helps a dyslexic child.

But they only showed half of the movie. Just when it started getting good, it stopped.

They eventually got it going again - starting in the wrong place - and just when it got to the point we hadn't seen, it stopped again.

The screen went blank, and that was that.

I guess I'll put it in the Netflix queue.

* * *

While I was waiting to claim baggage. the Cubs won the division title. (This is both a blessing and a curse if you live near their baseball stadium, Wrigley Field).

Just after getting through Customs, the cell phone died - again.

As I was changing the battery, it fell on the floor, bounced a few times and exploded.

I think it's dead for real this time.

I had no way to get in touch with Jammu, who'd offered to pick me up at the airport.

We'd been texting each other before the phone died. The last I'd heard, she was in something called the Cell Phone Parking Lot, waiting for me to call.

I had no idea where this Cell Phone Lot was, so I got in the queue at the Information desk.

The man in front of me was waiting for his fiance to clear customs. She was meant to be on a plane from Beijing that had landed 90 minutes earlier, and he still hadn't seen her. He was getting anxious.

As was I, fiddling with the phone - which would not recognize the American SIM card - and waiting for him to finish.

Finally I got to the front of the line.

The kind gentleman told me I'd have to take a train to the Cell Phone Lot.

"I can't do that," I said, pointing to the bags.

He took pity, and actually let me put my SIM card in his phone. Even though it was the same type of phone, it didn't work, since he has T-Mobile service and I have Cingular. (One couldn't help but think, f--- these American mobile phone companies for not allowing users to switch services). The kind man also let me call 411, but no luck.

So I went outside and took my chances.

And there was Jammu, in her new mini station wagon.

I was so happy to see her.

It turns out that her newly-adopted baby (from Mysore) is thriving. She was at home, hanging out with Mr. Jammu.

All was well until we went to pick up my car.

The door was unlocked and not closed properly.

The battery was dead.

The ashtray was missing, along with my insurance card (which is full of personal information).

And there was a $100 ticket from mid-August on the seat.

Not exactly a fine how-do-you-do.

* * *

Later, despite the thirst/exhaustion/hunger/jetlag, I got the cell phone to work for ten minutes and called SportMarty. (The phone actually worked just long enough to leave a "What the hell?" voicemail for the car's caretaker, unload on Catesey, and check in with Dreyfus. The last call ended abruptly when the phone died again and could not be revived. For some reason the landline isn't working, either).

SportMarty agreed to help, and graciously picked me up.

By the time we got to the car it was dark.

But somehow he managed to jump it and get it going again.

Then I tried to drive it.

Bad idea.

The brakes are shot; every time I used them there was a loud bang each time the wheel turned to a certain spot. It made the whole car - and me - shudder. It actually sounded like a blown-out tire.

While I waited in the alley for SportMarty to check the brakes, I saw the family who'd rescued me during The Great Bike Accident of 2005. The whole family was out, taking a late summer stroll. It was lovely to see them, but the mind was focused on the problem at hand and would not give in to positive thoughts.

And one couldn't help but think, possessions are a pain in the arse.

And, of course, I wish I'd stayed in Germany.

The photo depicts a sign in downtown Erlangen and one's general mood.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


It already smells and feels like fall here. You can get pretzels decorated with pumpkin seeds.

Yesterday we walked the dog along the trails in back of the house.

Well, Vicki walked the dog and I trailed along.

Along the way we saw pensioners out "vandering," or walking with two ski poles. (Apparently retirees earn as much as 3000 Euros per month)

We also went into the city center to pick up school supplies. (Children must write with an old-fashioned fountain pen, by the way).

The teenagers waiting for the bus were all wearing skinny jeans and Vans or Converse All-Stars.

We had lunch at a vegetarian store-cum-restaurant. When VIcki's older boy walked in, he said, "It smells like b.o. in here." He didn't mean body odor but "bio" - as in organic. The boys ate with Bob at McDonald's.

Afterwards, many older people were enjoying a mid-afternoon pastry and coffee at one of the many bakeries.

So we decided to join them.


The photo depicts the Huguenot church in Erlangen, where you catch the bus. The German grandfather mentioned in the last post was actually a Hugenot whose ancestors probably fled France after 1685's Edict of Fontainebleau.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Yesterday was the first day of school in Erlangen.

It is a big day for first-graders. The parents and grandparents give the child a paper cone or Schultüte filled with treats, toys and school supplies.

At school, the second-graders sing songs for the first-graders.

After school (which ends at 11:20 all week). first-graders have first-day-of-school parties.

Vicki was invited to such a party for one of her younger son's friends. The invitation promised coffee and cake.

The adults sat in the beautifully-designed kitchen, drinking strong coffee and eating home-made chocolate cake and cheese cake. The cakes were dense and filling, and less sweet than their American counterparts.

Upstairs, the kinder - all boys - yelled and raised hell.

Downstairs, the adults' conversation flew - in German. Although the maternal grandfather was from Hamburg, I didn't learn much from him (he died when I was a toddler. Cancer of course).

Occasionally I picked something up, or they spoke English to me. Here, "bio" means organic. Apparently very little pesticides are used, and most things are "bio." There's also far less packaging in general (not to mention less consumption and waste and fear-mongering than in the US).

Only after three hours did the topic of my profession come up - and it was prompted by me.

It was refreshing, not being judged by how one earns a living.

Near the end of the afternoon, the hosts brought out the salty snacks; pomme bears (bear-shaped potato chips) and crisp olive pretzel-crackers.

We washed them down with a wonderful lychee soda made by Bionde.

It was tart - and bio, too.

* * *

Read about Vicki's younger son's Schultüte here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The luggage scale died just before I finished transferring things between bags so that everything was 50-50(lbs). It refused to be resuscitated.

It was difficult to say goodbye to QE, esp. since her husband is out of town. If only I'd known, I could have stayed another week....

It was Suresh-the-driver's first trip to the sparking new Bangalore airport. We left at 8:15 PM. The route was not well-marked. He found it on his first try. I was through the doors by 9:30.

The luggage got through. The boarding passes were issued. The seat was in back, which did not please us, but at least it was on the aisle.

There was a Cafe Coffee Day and some other vendors downstairs, just after check-in. I ignored them and went up the shiny new escalator to security. The line for ladies was shorter. The computer had to be taken out of the suitcase. The cell phone and liquid items did not. We were frisked by an officer of our own gender. Finally,they hand-checked our carry-on bags.

Once through security, the pickings were slim, although the AC was on high. The only bottled water was Rs 90 or $2, at the Illy Coffee spot. There was also a Pizza Hut, a sports bar and some high-end shopping. Nowhere to buy chai. So I sat at illy and had a croissant, water and hot chocolate for Rs. 300 ($7). It was worth every paisa, because they left you alone to sit and reflect (and also were quite pleased with the dress and attempts to speak Kannada). Plus they let me consume the home-made pizza QE sent with me. Sadly, the airport's free internet was not working.

The flight was at 1AM and uneventful. We arrived in Mumai at 2:30. We went through security again, and again the line for ladies was shorter.

The connecting flight to Germany didn't leave until 8. What to do? A man offered to guide me to a first-class lounge, where I could shower and nap and eat snacks with the best of them -- all for the low low price of Rs 2000 (around $50). I declined, and instead bought two bottles of overpriced Bisleri water (Rs 80, or just under $2) and four hours of internet (Rs 500, or just under $12). The next few hours were spent posting the Bangalore traffic photos.

The flight to Frankfurt was not full - at least in the back of the plane - and one had two seats to herself. Sleep was possible. And as always the food was excellent.

After landing in Frankfurt at 12PM, the luggage was collected and a cappuccino was consumed, along with a sour cherry pastry and kasse (cheese) sandwich.

A train ticket to Nurnberg was purchased. Second class, I said to the ticket agent, not first.

"Weak dollar," I explained.

"It will improve," she said.

"First we must change presidents," I said, and we both laughed.

While waiting for the train, I met a Catholic priest from Kerala, whose flock is in Delhi. He thought I was German.

The train ride was quiet and efficient.

For the first time in two months, I looked like everyone else in the immediate vicinity. No one stared, despite the bright Indian dress and disheveled hair.

Most people on the train wore black or gray, and were involved with their books or computers. They were all in their heads, and it was utterly quiet.

It was quite unlike the lively, crowded second class trains in India, where everyone talks to each other and lives in the moment.

I miss it already.

* * *

It was cold and rainy outside of the Nurnberg train station, so I went inside and bought a cap so I wouldn't catch cold. Then Bob arrived, and took me to he and Vicki's lovely Erlangen flat.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


One spends a lot of time in traffic in Bangalore. But only the very lucky get to ride shotgun in a tall diesel mini-van that doesn't have sliding doors (they were outlawed due to a rash of kidnappings; apparently the sliding door makes it easier to pull the target into the car. Very dark tinted windows have also been banned for the same reason).

Read the statistics and weep; many mishaps are there.

Riding sidesaddle - in a sari, with fresh jasmine in your hair - is the only way to go.

Here, there is no limit to what you can carry on a two-wheeler; from five people to umpteen parcels.

The trucks are pretty.

And so, sometimes, are the rickshaws.

Women usually ride in the front of the bus. Sometimes the busses are so full that men hang off the sides. Sometimes, someone nonchalantly sticks their head out the window and womits.

Other methods are less crowded.

Not so pleasant on the garbage truck, though.

This "Caring for you....always" sticker seems to be on every other car. But what's it for? Insurance? Even our driver didn't know

Good luck with that.... in India.

you. don't. say.

Making more roads.