Best Animals of 2011

Cow in a religious tchotchke shop -- pinch-hitting for bull in a china shop

As a tribute to the end of 2011, I would like to share my favorite animals of the year.  Now that I am living in a remote mountain area, monkeys have become the creaturely linchpin that I interact with on a daily basis.  They really know how to flashmob a place.  (See below photo, taken from my kitchen window.)

Note especially the small leaping monkey in the middle right -- trying to do some kung fu on his friend

I regularly come home to a bevy… no…  gaggle?  gang?  band?  pack??  troop???  Anyone?  Anyway, I often come home to a whole mess of monkeys on my front porch, such that I cannot even make it to the front door.  They love to take over a place and act like it’s theirs for the ransacking.  And, boy, do they know how to ransack a place.  They have several times gotten into my art room and left a mess for me to clean up, sometimes even pooping on the tables.  (Thanks, monkeys!)

You may recognize the funniest monkey ever in the background of this one!

Once a friend and I came back from a walk, opened the front door of her house, and found a large monkey — sitting on the couch!  And the expression on his face — swear to God — was like, “What are you doing here?”  As if we were rudely interrupting him.

Poor work elephant of Angkor Wat

Anyway, here’s to the animals!  May they live long and prosper.  After all, it is their house, too!

Nice author pose for your book's jacket

Happy Monkey New Year!

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Green

Monsoon greenery

Vietnamese boat and sky

Tibetan student in his green sweater

Funky rickshaw roof in Rishikesh

Moss and turquoise paint in Mussoorie

Metal store front door

Bananas!

Rice paddies in Bali

Electrical Transformers

Lizard Silhouette

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Where the Sun Don’t Shine…

… is where I am right now.

Stunning view of... clouds.

I have now been entrenched in monsoon for a month.  I’ve started a new job–teaching art at the Woodstock School, an international school in the foothills of the Himalayas (see post from last March, Winterline)–and the school year starts off with a red-carpet welcome in the form of a damp, moldy rag.

I now have a whole new understanding of the word wet. In all its soggy, rainy, misty, pouring, moist, unadulterated wetness.

It has basically been raining for a month straight, with the occasional lapse into cloudiness. I woke up the other morning to the sound of water flowing–not just on my roof, but IN MY ROOM.  There was a leak, not a drip-drip-drip leak, but a cry-me-a-river cascade.  This then wrought two days of men on the roof, pounding incessantly and yelling to each other.  This would have been fine, except I’ve been sick with a bad, chesty cold and so was home in bed trying to get a little rest.

AAAAaaahhhh….

I have a sign up in my room that reads:

On the plus side:

Adorable little ones dressed for Independence Day (my youngest students). They call me "Miss Rebecca" and I want to take every single one home.

 

Lush, verdant growth everywhere!

Wall of windows in room

Pretty pink flowers

and peacock feathers.

 

 

 

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Blue

Buddhist temple at dusk in Luang Prabang

Printers in Bagru

Royal Palace in Udaipur

Jaipur teenager at home

Tile floor in Bhuj

Loom in Thailand

 

Nepali sky

Pipes in Kerala

Thai weaver

Door in Kochin

Indigo Print

Sky and Roof in Bodha

 

 

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Patterns I Fancy

Here are some of my favorites from the past year:

Tiles from a French colonial cafe in Hanoi

Anokhi indigo prints at our hotel in Ranthambore

Rapture in turquoise

Crazy Delhi Decorative Architecture

Okay, so this is one of mine; it's still a favorite!

Color and subtle pattern at a temple in Bali

From the Anokhi archives

Gotta love the Rajputs! Black and white perfection.

Floor and wall of the crumbling palace in Bhuj, Gujarat

Balinese Batik

Printers sampling at Anokhi farm

Gujarati wall: oh my heavenly textiles!

And for the finale: a sheet in a crappy Delhi airport hotel. And this, ladies and gentleman, is why despite all of the other horrifyingly difficult things about India, I have no choice but to LOVE IT. A crappy motel???!!! This is design genius, people!

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Eat, Pray, Loathe

[I would like to apologize in advance for the longest, wordiest post yet, and no entertaining pictures to boot.  So bear with me!]

Full disclosure: I kind of hate Elizabeth Gilbert.  I say “kind of” because of course I don’t really hate her, I’m sure she’s a lovely person.  I can’t even say I dislike her writing, in fact I find it rather entertaining and charming, if a bit overwrought.  No, I suppose what I really mean to say is that I don’t care for what Gilbert has left in her wake.  How on earth does the Eat-Pray-Love aftermath affect me personally and why should I care, you ask?  Good question!

SPIRITUAL TOURISM.

I like to think of myself as a wayfarer and a seeker, so I suppose technically I fall into the spiritual tourist category.  Though I also fall into several other tourist categories—artist tourist, textile tourist, foodie tourist, and at times the ubiquitous eco-tourist that the likes of the Lonely Planet touts, who eschews plastic bags and carries a refillable water container and scorns the ignorant masses who litter.  There are even medical tourists who travel halfway around the world to get a root canal or some other such procedure for a fraction of the price charged in the US.  (I’ll be one of those soon, I’m sure.)

Of course, no one really wants to consider herself a tourist per se, but that’s indeed what we are, every time we leave the known purview of our home city or country.  I always kind of cringe when I check the “Tourism” box on a visa application, it seems so tawdry and one-dimensional.   (And for the same reason loved being able to check the “Research” box in India—everything I did in India, therefore, took on the lofty aspect of Research. Haggling with rickshaw drivers? Finding the best lassi in town? Buying textiles? All for the communal good of humankind, aka Research.)

Why is this, I wonder?  What is so wrong with being a tourist?

There have probably been tourists of all stripes as long as there have been people traveling to faraway lands.  (There is even a theory, popular in India, that Jesus himself was a spiritual tourist in the subcontinent.  A crackpot theory perhaps, but it does explain how he came up with such Buddhist notions that anyone can be enlightened, that life is suffering, the ideals of compassion, pacifism, etc.)  But Gilbert really turned things up a notch in the spiritual tourism department.  Read this by Indian writer Gita Mehta and you’ll see what I mean.

Case in point: in the town of Ubud, Bali, you can spot the Gilbert-ites a mile away.  Some of them are even reading the book unabashedly in a café—I know, shocking! They read it like it’s an instruction manual.  They go to the same healer man, the same herbal medicine lady (naturally, these vendors have struck spiritual-tourist gold), trying to emulate the wisdom and insight—and perhaps even the happy ending—that Gilbert found.

Anyway, what I am getting to in all this is that I had a profound experience at a Buddhist retreat, and I want to share it here, but it’s hard to write about these kinds of things without feeling all self-consciously Gilbert-like.  Thus the hatred.  You see how that works?  (I think this might be what psychologists call “transference.”)

I mean, it’s hard not to feel like you are piggy-backing on someone else’s (widely read) experience, or that it’s all become very trite and packaged and marketed to my demographic.  (I’m sure Jesus didn’t have this feeling.)  And it brings up the very idea of authenticity—of having an original feeling or experience that you can call your own.  Westerners particularly seem to love and cling to this myth, in my observation.  Which the Buddhists would say is a symptom of an ego-heavy culture.  I agree, but still fall prey to my ego to an embarrassing degree.  I don’t want to be lumped in with everybody else, I want to have a Genuine Experience, whereas maybe if I grew up in the East I wouldn’t want to stand out so much.

So when I think about it, really my loathing is not towards Elizabeth Gilbert, or the millions of women who read her book, or the fraction of those who took it so to heart that they decided to go traveling themselves down the same road.  Who am I to judge them anyway?  And who knows what is in people’s hearts and minds, and what their stories and struggles are?  What I truly loathe is this feeling that springs up of moral superiority.  It’s just the ego trying to puff itself up and make itself feel better.

Anyway, this is all a very lengthy preamble to try to describe for you a silent retreat that we did at Suan Mokkh Monastery in southern Thailand for 10 days in the beginning of May.  In sharp contrast to my schedule in Bali (see The Good, The Bad and the Wormy), here was our daily schedule:

4am – wake-up gong
4:30 – morning reading
4:45 – meditation
5:15 – yoga
7am – meditation and/or dharma talk
8am – breakfast (rice soup and some raw vegetables)
8:30 – morning chores (for me, this was sweeping the walkway around the dining hall)
BREAK
10am – meditation and/or dharma talk
11am – walking meditation
11:45 – sitting meditation
12:30 – Lunch (rice and vegetables)
BREAK
2:30 – meditation and/or dharma talk
3:30 – walking meditation
4:15 – sitting meditation
5pm – chanting or more sitting meditation (I usually sat, because I had a hard time staying awake for the chanting and for some reason my throat hurt, even though I wasn’t talking at all)
6pm – evening tea (ie, no food!)
7:30 – sitting meditation
8pm – walking meditation in a group
8:30 – sitting meditation
9pm – back to concrete cell of bed, with wooden pillow
COLLAPSE IN HEAP

So, you’ll glean from the above schedule the following:

  1. No food after 12:30pm until 8am the following day
  2. Concrete bed and wooden pillow for sleeping
  3. Except for when it says “Break” there was literally no break, ie, we went directly from one activity to the next

Needless to say, it was hard.  Really, really hard.  (Jeff says I could easily add another “really.”) Probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It was not pretty. As the head coordinator, Werner, told us in the pre-retreat interview—who coincidentally sounded exactly like the filmmaker Werner Herzog—“This will not be fun.”

Days 1-3 were basically a complete daze, desperately trying to will my body to the schedule and also withdrawing from caffeine.  (There was no coffee or tea.  The tea served with meals was made from a bitter herb of some kind, never figured out what.)  Lots of nodding off during mediation, sleeping every minute during our breaks, headaches and moodiness.

Days 4-6 I spent an inordinate amount of time doing fraction problems in my head about how much time was left in the retreat.  Also spent a lot of time breathing during meditation way too consciously and awkwardly, so much so that my chest and stomach felt an enormous pressure, like I had big invisible weight on them.

I also at one point broke the rule of no writing (you’re not supposed to read, either) and came back to my room after a particularly hard meditation session and had to physically write down every emotion or experience I had felt in the last few hours, in list form, just to keep my head from exploding.

Here is what I wrote:

Despair
Discomfort
Pain (categories: sharp muscular, dull muscular, stinging of insects, mental anguish)
Boredom
Restlessness
Joy
Annoyance
Envy
Irritation
Inadequacy
Calm
Strength
Doubt
Courage
Resolution
Tiredness
Pride
Ego
Shame
Peace
Distraction
Lucidity
Fear
Frustration
Quietude
Disappointment
Love

(And truthfully I could have kept going on and on, those were just on the very top of my head.)

Probably around Day 7 or 8, I came to the realization that this constant feeling and experiencing is probably what is happening in our minds ALL THE TIME, meaning that we have these feelings and thoughts that either come up from external stimuli, or that we create internally by having memories of the past or fretting about the future.  But we are not tuned in enough to notice that all these feelings and thoughts are constantly moving through us, just like the weather or the wind.  And none of these reactions are inherently “good” or “bad,” they just simply are.

Here’s an example: at one point, one of the coordinators came over to me during a dharma talk and reminded me to cover my knees (one of the rules is to dress modestly, and keep covered between our knees and shoulders).  I immediately felt a red-hot shooting feeling of SHAME, even though the situation hardly merited it.  But I just sat with the feeling, and let it go through me, and didn’t try to fight it or make it go away with yet another feeling or make myself wrong or make him wrong.  I just gave it some air.  And then—poof!—it went away.  No big deal.

And I realized that we create all these other reactive emotions on top of the original reaction to a given occurrence or stimulus.  And there is where the problem lies.  Most people seem to be going around reacting to their highly reactive internal state and maybe not even knowing that they are reacting.  I wish leaders of nations could get this point, it seems really vital to being a human and not harming each other.  I’ve thought about these things before, and of course read a lot of Buddhist writings about this, and it may not seem like such a revelation.  But I think we have to learn and re-learn these things over and over again, and they slowly sink in.  (Hopefully.)

On Day 9 of the retreat, the penultimate day, the whole thing was turned up to eleven. We had no dharma talk, only sitting, standing, and walking meditation the whole day long, and only one meal at 8:30am, otherwise just tea.  And it was on this day that I really got—in a palpable way—the dissolution of self.  I already felt like I was in a lucid dream for more or less the entire day.  Then at one point after sitting for some time, I got up from the meditation hall to do some walking meditation, and I wandered over to a little pond and sat on a rock.

And it was there that I had the most profound experience. In reality, I was simply watching the light, the clouds, the water, and the trees.  But “watching” is the wrong word, really I felt like I was a part of it.  It was so beautiful and surreal, and I felt like my breath was part of it, too.  I can’t say that I’ve ever had an experience like that, and I only realized afterwards that there wasn’t any “self” there. I think I must have been sitting on that rock for 30 minutes, maybe 45 tops, but I also had no feeling of time whatsoever, so it may as well have been a few seconds or a few days.  It wasn’t like time stopped, it just seemed immaterial and permeable.

Slowly, since the end of the retreat, “normal” life has crept back in, though I still keep that Day 9 experience with me, in particular.  It was the Genuine Experience my ego was looking for, only in order to be a true spiritual tourist you have to be willing to throw that ego out on its keister and change the locks.

(Next post will have pictures and be highly entertaining, I promise!)

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The Good, the Bad, and the Wormy

Balinese cremation ceremony

Me and a local guy with his prize-fighting rooster

{This was written several weeks ago, before going to a Buddhist retreat in S. Thailand, and then on to Vietnam.  Because of various technical difficulties, I am only posting it now.}

So now that I’ve left India and find myself in the tropical paradise of Bali at an artist residency for the month of April—

(And by the way, here is my average day:

8-9am—Wake up and have breakfast of fresh tropical fruit, whole grain toast with homemade pineapple and papaya jam, scrambled eggs, and strong coffee, all served with a smile by the loveliest people.

The POOL!

10am—20-minute meditation down by the pool.  That’s right: the POOL.


Close up shot of a drawing

11am-1pm—Work on my little drawings.

1pm—Lunch, usually vegetables, fish or chicken, and rice.

Another drawing detail-- ink and stamps on rice paper

2-6pm—Work, swim.  Repeat.  Shower.

6pm—Dinner, similar to lunch.

Our digs in Bali

7-11pm—Read, internet, play cards with compadres.  Eat chocolate if I have it.

Midnight—Read, go to sleep.)

—as I say, now that I’m here in this insanely kick-ass situation, I find myself able to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly of this year.

I’ll start with the Bad/Ugly:

  1. Lingering Goon Symptoms.  I still have remnants of that mosquito-borne virus that we acquired, Chikungunya [pronunciation: chicken-GOON-ya].  (Jeff and I have been calling it “The Goon.”)  I continue to have painful wrist and ankle joints.  Doing a downward dog hurts in my wrists.  I still sometimes hobble when I first get up in the morning.  As I said before, symptoms can last up to a year! Or even longer!  NOOOO!!!!!!….
  2. Remember the ATM fiasco in the very first post?  How I never got the money I innocently requested from the ATM in Delhi, and how they first debited and then credited my account. Well, Citibank has gone back and reversed their previous decision (which they now say was only “provisional”) and have taken $220 out of my account!  A full 6 months later.  THEY STOLE $220 THAT I NEVER GOT IN THE FIRST PLACE FROM MY CHECKING ACCOUNT!  And my bank could do nothing to stop it, because they supposedly provided “proof” that I got the money.  I can’t even bring myself to start calling and emailing.  I started trying to write it all down in a word doc entitled “Citibank Fiasco,” and I can’t even bring myself to type anything out for fear that it’ll just upset me.  I’m really pissed.  (Any ideas out there for what to do?)
  3. Parasites, possibly worms.  (Enough said. Trust me.)
  4. Related to #1: Muscles have completely atrophied from underuse, and I don’t know how I’ll ever get in shape again.  The idea of running a single mile seems farcical and harebrained.
  5. Related to #4: I’ve lost all vanity. Though, come to think of it, this may actually be a good thing.
  6. As bad as India was at times, and as horrific as the poverty can be, every time I read the American news I get depressed about living in the US.  I don’t really know what this means.

    View of island volcano

    Medicine man's stall in local market in Bali

The Good:

On the good front, I’ve been going through my pictures of my travels, and I’ve come upon a theme: collections of colorful objects.  Here is part one of a series on COLOR.

Enjoy!

Pink flowers yellow lemons

Pom Poms

Beads

Plastic jugs in Madurai

Pink crackers

Powder for Holi

Temple Tchatkas

Crazy plastic spaghetti in Pondicherry

Last but not least -- me and my rugs!!!!!!!

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