Saturday, March 10, 2012

Rachael's first report from Pagan/Indigenous Conference in India

(This is Rachael Watchers report on her travels to a large annual Pagan/Indigenous Conference in  India. She traveled with Prudence Priest who represented  the North American branch of Romuva. Rachael represented CoG and the North American Interfaith Network. She was unable to file this report  any earlier because there were no reliable Internet connections where she was staying at the conference)
"I left home at 6AM on the 29th of February and today, March 5th, is the first moment that I have had to write anything. At that I am skipping presentations that I should be attending. Don always likes to say what doesn’t kill you makes a great story later. Nothing could be more true of our first night in India.

While our flight was uneventful, we started hitting speed bumps the moment we arrived at nine PM. Our luggage was the among the last off the flight and kept us at the wrong side of customs for over an hour. Once through customs at ten thirty, an hour later that expected, we could find no one there to meet us. Having no idea what arrangements had been made, we needed to call one of numbers left to us. Unfortunately we had no phone and the one that I had brought to put a new sim card in for use in India turned out to be locked. What’s more the sales person told us that if I were I to buy the sim in Deli, I would be paying roaming charges in Haridwar that were ridiculous. So now we had no phone, no idea where to go and no one to help.

Outside we met someone who suggested that we get a cab to the train station or just go on to Haridwar by cab since staying at a hotel in Deli would cost just as much and resolve nothing. We had no idea whether arrangements had been made for the train and we were told that it was booked weeks in advance so we decided to pay for a taxi.

Unfortunately Prudence had not called her credit card company nor bank to tell them she was traveling to India and so none of the machines would allow her to withdraw funds. We tapped my account out, scraped together the rest of the funds in US dollars, and caught a cab at what we later found out was a very high price. What we also found out was that this was probably the best thing we could have done. There were reservations for us on the train but it left at six in the morning and we would have had to wait on the floor of the station sitting on our luggage or whatever else we might have along with about a million other travelers. The train would have taken six hours to get to Haridwar and they stopped to check passports twice on the way, the delay adding to the time of travel. Add to that the fact that the seats were narrow and hard, and that the train was sold out and I really don’t think that my hip and back would and done well at all after 36 hours of travel, especially since I am told that there were many stairs and no one to help carry our luggage onto or off of the train.

As we left the airport it became apparent that there is no such thing as a freeway. The toll road out of Deli was indeed two lanes in each direction, but even that late at night the traffic was heavy. I will tell you now that that white line in the road is just there to serve as a suggestion as is the speed limit sign, in case anyone might be interested, which apparently they are not. Our driver would zip around slower trucks, cars and cabs with the greatest of abandon, honking all the time to let them know of his intentions, (apparently a part of road practice) directly into the headlights of on-coming traffic while explaining that he drove for 24 hours straight and then had 24 hours off and had never had an accident since 1975. “Don’t worry,” he would say, “you are perfectly safe.” I later discovered that its much worse during the day when the small three wheeled vehicles that they use for cabs called moto-rickshaws, or tic-tics, are on the road. These and the ever present scooters don’t even count as vehicles apparently and drivers just pass them with no room on the road at all. All of the larger trucks are labeled in the back in English “Please Honk” and the sound of horns everywhere close to a road is constant and pervasive. During the day even the divided toll road lanes with arrows to point the direction are only a suggestion as we saw cars going the wrong way several times. We stopped twice during our ride due to our passage between states where our driver had to pay road taxes and prove that he was registered to drive nationally. These places usually consisted of a shack with a fire in front of it, a few men milling around and trucks coming and going. I’ve seen a lot of these types of places in Mexico but Prudence, now on her way to car sickness from all the weaving in and out of traffic, exhausted (as was I) from travel, and not at all certain what was going on, did not want me to get out of the car at all in order to avoid drawing attention to us. However by this time I was hurting so badly from not being able to stretch out without having the weight of gravity upon me that I climbed out of the car and back into the front seat in order to put the seat back way back and straighten out from the neck to the knees at last which finally helped a great deal with the pain management.

After a three and a half hour white knuckle ride, the taxi driver dropped us at the train station in Haridwar because we had no idea where else to go and knew that someone was planning to pick us up there eventually. Unfortunately, while I never felt unsafe, it turned out that this was not the place I would have chosen to be without a translator at three in the morning. This station, too, was packed with people who were sleeping on the floor (there were no seats installed in the place) waiting for the train to arrive the next morning. The building smelled of mildew and urine and was in general pretty filthy. The street was not much help in inspiring hope, with cabbies waiting for the train to come in while standing around 55 gallon drums with fires burning in them to keep warm. Still no phone and no one apparently who spoke English. The only hotel that looked like it might even be vaguely worth investigating was closed leaving two other choices that made the brothel district of Tijuana look good. I do not mean to say that they were covered with prostitutes nor that the men hanging around were particularly unsavory; it was just the construction, lighting and a dozen other small things that that triggered those memories for me.

We soon became the curious center of a group of cab drivers who could see that we needed to go somewhere but could not communicate. Did I mention that we were trying to accomplish all this while freezing and needing a bathroom at the same time? Finally one man who was a bit older than the rest and about our age walked over and asked in English if we needed a ride. I asked him if he had a cell phone and might call one of the numbers that I had to ask for instructions as to where we needed to go. He dialed the phone and gave it to me. I told the person that I was talking to that we needed to know where we were going and he said to take the train to Haridwar in the morning. I told him that we were already in Haridwar at the train station, we’d be traveling for over 36 hours at this point without rest, we were freezing and totally lost. “What!!” he said. “ You are already in Haridwar? Ok tell the cab driver to bring you here.” “I’d love to but I have no idea where ‘here’ is and we don’t have any money left.” “Ok,” he replied “tell the cab driver to bring you to…” “Wait” and I handed back the phone to the person to whom it belonged.

There were a few seconds of conversation and the next thing Prudence and I knew our baggage and we were herded into a tic-tic, (open to the environment except for a roof) and off in directions totally unknown to us. We did arrive at the University safe and sound and were met by a friend who said that he expected to pick us up at five in the morning when the train got in. He was horrified to hear our story, paid the driver, and took us directly to our room in the guest house of the University where other early arrivals were staying.

Now I would love to say that at last we had arrived and our trials were over, but that would not quite be the truth. When we got to the room we discovered that it was actually group of guest rooms clustered around a common room which held the sink, toilet and shower to be shared in common. Well, said sink had a leak that had totally flooded the carpet in the room and, having removed our shoes as good visitors do, our socks got sopping wet. When I sat down on the bed to take them off I nearly broke my hips. The ‘bed’ consisted of a piece of ¾ inch plywood with a one inch thick horsehair pad on top. I swear to you on all that I hold holy that this ‘bed’ was harder than the floor in my living room which is cement with a foam pad and carpet. The one blessing was that the toilet was an American style commode. We were finally in bed by four AM and despite sleeping on such a hard surface and though I was freezing most of the night I finally got to sleep around six just as the sun was rising and morning chants were beginning all over campus, just 48 hours after leaving home.

Day 2
It seems that I have just closed my eyes when a helpful gentleman is knocking on our door telling us that breakfast is ready and there will be a tour to Rishikesh leaving at nine. NINE I wonder, what time is it now? Well that proved to be eight in the morning just two hours after I finally got to sleep.

I staggered down to the room where “breakfast” was being served to find that this consisted of a piece of cake, as in dessert cake, a rice based, tasteless, sort of mushy cake, a sourdough and caraway seed cake,and a horrid sort of instant Chai. I passed and because I didn’t want to miss the tour returned to the room to put on dry socks, (having forgotten that the floor was wet from the night before thereby getting my socks sopping once again while trying to get to my shoes outside the room).

As it turns out I needn’t have rushed. It took another couple of hours to get under way during which time Prudence and I made our own tea out of the hot water tap available on the Chai machine and ate some soda crackers that she had had the foresight to bring along. (I should mention at this point that most places in India seem to have installed reverse osmosis filtering machines in their buildings which purify the water within the entire building.) While trying to wash our faces and brush our teeth, we discovered that the sink did not work at all and that there was no hot water available in the shower. Heavy sigh.

While awaiting our transportation and our guide we met others who had arrived early and I discovered that I already knew one of our fellow sojourners; Elizabeth is Mayan and part of the Council of Mayan Elders with which Don and I are already working. We met in Barcelona during the Parliament there in 2002.

On the sidewalk we were passed by two young men walking monkeys that were about two and a half feet tall at the shoulder (on all fours) on ropes. These turned out to be the “monkey patrol” that regularly walked the campus in order to chase away a smaller type of monkey that turns out to be a real pest. We were told that occasionally these smaller monkeys even get into houses and attack and eat newborns but more regularly steal anything not glued down. The larger monkeys are a lovely shade of very light beige and referred to in the common vernacular as “black assed” monkeys.

The van finally arrived and we all piled in. Due to my inability to crawl over and around I got the front seat and promptly climbed aboard. Everyone laughed and the cab driver politely told me that I wasn’t allowed to drive in India. That was when I realized that the steering wheel was in front of me and I was on the wrong side of the car, or rather the driving mechanism was. Slightly embarrassed I changed sides and off we went.

Driving had not improved but now I had a first-hand view of the chaos from the front seat of the van, up high, close and very personal as it were. This morning instead of just headlights (which everyone leaves on bright by the way) there were massive lorries heading directly for us as the driver ducked quickly at the last minute between two tic-tics missing everyone on all sides by a foot at the most. This might have been complicated by the pedestrians, cattle, and monkeys in the street, but our driver carried on undaunted, as though these obstacles were invisible, which, it turns out, to him they were. I doubt that the pedestrians, nor the monkeys would have made much of an impact, but I still shutter when I contemplate the damage that one of the large Brahma bulls sleeping in the middle of the road would have done. They tell me that cattle like to sleep in the middle of the road because the constant passing of the vehicles keeps the flies from settling on them.

In due course we arrived in Rishikesh which is located in a steep canyon on either side of the Ganges. We parked on a hill above the town and began a walk down to a foot bridge (I use the term very loosely here, as Prudence refers to it as a motorcycle freeway). By this point I knew that I had pushed my luck as far as the walking went and so I said that I would wait on this side of the bridge while everyone walked across.

Those pesky monkeys known as “pink assed” monkeys were everywhere and totally fearless. Though they left people alone for the most part they would run right behind me on the wall upon which I was leaning while reading, brushing my head and the back of my neck in passing. A man with two dogs came by and I watched as two monkeys stood off against one dog, then the other dog joined the fray and the monkeys chose the better part of valor seeking sanctuary in the high towers supporting the bridge. Of course as soon as the dogs were gone they were back, a large male showing his distain by scratching his balls and then proceeding to jack off.

By the time they got back from the walk across the Ganges our young guide decided that we needed to go shopping and have lunch, which apparently was best accomplished on the other side of the bridge…go figure. So despite my best efforts to avoid more walking the party re-crossed the bridge. At this point one of the multitude of honking motorcycles caused Prudence to back into the side of the bridge to get out of the way and into a monkey that took a healthy swipe at her with its nails catching in her sweater and connecting with her skin. Luckily no skin got broken.

Once safely across the bridge our guide told us he wanted to show us two temples, and I told him that walking was fast becoming an issue as we had already covered about one and a half klicks and he appeared to be planning about two and a half more. His solution was to hire a jeep that drove us about 10 blocks to the temple that he wanted to show us.

He lined us all up and before entering the temple he gave each of us a Hindu name. This was not just an idle game for him but a sincere effort to honor each of us. He considered each of us carefully before naming us and continued to call us by those names for the duration of the conference as which he was ever present to help me get from place to place most quickly and easily. Me he named Upasna which he told me means Worship or Worshipful..

Digression alert! I’ve been a working hand on cattle ranches in my life and Brahma bulls were always something to be respected and kept at a very safe distance, preferably with a very sturdy fence between us. Keeping this in mind you can imagine my surprise when, feeling something nudging me from behind, I discovered a young bull pushing at me begging for a handout. I almost soiled myself right on the spot. Prudence later assured me that it would have been alright as it would doubles have been holy defecation. Cattle of all ages and surprisingly different breeds were all over the place. They were in good health and weight for the most part as well. I watched as street vendors fed them the remains of ground sugarcane stalks, dried out fry bread and other food stuffs that could not be sold. With pickins this easy its no wonder that they beat feet back to the city as soon as they can after the government rounds them up and tries to move them out to the country.

We walked through a maze of shops and shrines to various Gods. At one restaurant apparently named after some minor deity whose image was enclosed in a glass case, we saw two men totally painted, dyed and dressed to look exactly like that god and sitting in high chairs. They had bald heads save for one braided queue right at the crown of their head that stuck straight out for over a foot in length, enough to give the spiked punk hairdos a real run for their money. I am told that they sit there throughout the day during the operating hours of the restaurant and I have the impression that they are monks of this dignitary god serving him in this way. Two attendants stand at either side of these two men. The only thing that was not clear to me and still cannot be answered due to language barriers is whether it is presumed that these young men are actually considered to be carrying the God during this time.

And still we walked on. The young guide was kind enough to offer me his shoulder but I was clearly reaching my tolerance for further travel by foot and finally threatened him with having to carry me back if we went much farther. We finally stopped for lunch at a restaurant that allowed a view of the Ganges or Gange (both ‘g’s are hard in this pronunciation with a soft ‘a’ and ‘e’) as they call it, from the roof. Prudence and I told everyone to go ahead but we were NOT climbing the stairs as the large picture window was view enough thank you. We ordered a bottle of water and I ordered a spicy tomato and herb soup which was as good as those long ago Peruvian potatoes Don and I once had after a hard couple of days of travel. Hunger really is the best spice.

Hydrated, sated and rested we began the trek back. This turned out to be not half so grueling as we took a boat across the river where, after but a very brief walk our taxi was waiting to take us home.

We arrived around three in the afternoon and I immediately did drugs and laid down. At some time during the rest of the afternoon Prudence wandered out and I awoke with the usual result of too much exercise. Poor Prudence, never having actually witnessed this before despite long years of acquaintance, was beside herself trying to help. She finally got my drugs to me and then covered me up again with all the blankets she could find.

I remember nothing else until the morning when I was awakened by the morning chanting from around the campus.


  1. To clarify for those who don't know Rachael well yet, Rachael was seriously injured in a horseback riding accident that causes painful muscle cramping when she over-exerts herself, which obviously happened in the course of the Indian trip.

    the Parliament of the World's religions that took place in Barcelona happened in 2004, not 2002 as stated.

    1. Thanks Anna, guess I'm still a bit disconnected and catching up.