Holi Festival in the Hill Country

Big K and I rolling through the twists and curves of the Texas Hill Country. The sky was grey, cloud shapes and depth marked by the dark bulges of precipitation. A soft pitter-patter that made me put on my wipers on the lowest setting. Turned off the road to the Radha Madhav Dham Hindu.

Walking up to the main area, a rumble in our bellies, we went straight for the food lines. We got our tickets and and went straight towards food. We circled the aromatic comestibles like hungry wolves circling a flock of sheep. Drooling, long tongues hanging out, eyes wide. We got kebab, Dhosas, Pakoras, and Chai or Mango Lassi to drink.

Walking around, there was multi-colored powder on the tiled floor near parking lot. We thought we missed part the Holi festival. A vendor said we didn’t miss anything, and to wait for the people praying inside of the temple to file out. We hung back and a family appeared to our right and smeared some powder our faces and atop our heads.

We make our way to the outdoor stage area and the procession began. A band started playing. Tambourines shaking, drums rolling, brass horns of various sizes buzzing and honking. A crowd formed to the left. A few people handed out or threw what must have been hundreds of bags of multicolor powder. Once everyone had several bags, everyone waited for the cue. The cue came, and everyone seemed to burst into powder. Clouds of red, orange, yellow, blue, green and purple exploding, the powder suspended in air. Colorful lack of visibility. I imagined that the air on Jupiter must look like that. The powder got everywhere. In my ears, eyes, hair, and in my mouth because I was laughing. It was bitter and tasted horrid. The band played feverishly, holding a high tempo for long periods of time. At intervals the whole crowd would shout something that sounded like “Holi hands!!!” We danced and threw powder and shouted for what seemed like hours. I took a few photos with an Olympus film camera I bought for $5 at Goodwill. Some Indian gentlemen started a congo line. I felt elated and was reminded of being back in India, a country I came to love. There were circles of people dancing Bollywood-style. Then the bags of powder started running out.

Exhausted, both of us a mess. Creatures baked under a multicolored crust. I lined my car with old clothes I had in my trunk so we wouldn’t color the upholstery. And we drove off, exhausted into the drizzling day.

I had never attended Holi. I know the University of Austin holds one. But I especially liked this one, out in the beautiful Hill Country, and at a very beautiful temple. There were many people of all ages and it was very welcoming, the food was bomb, and it was a great time. I highly recommend it if you are around Austin in the late winter.

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Laxman Jhula/Rishikesh

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Laxman Jhula, next to Rishikesh in Uttarakand. I happened to be there during a nationwide Shiva festival. There were droves of young men from neighboring villages and some from all corners of India crossing the bridge from Rishikesh to Laxman Jhula every minute. They all walked through the main street to a holy site a few kilometers downstream. They were almost all wearing orange shorts and shirts with images of Shiva. Some had big handheld decorations that they made to in honor of Shiva. While looking at the bridge every now and then I’d see one of those contraptions fall 60 feet to the Ganga (Ganges), and I was never sure if it was on purpose or because there were just so many people on the bridge. In Laxman, many men would stop and bath in the waters of the Ganga, some having plastic containers to take a bit of it with them.

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The town was much less touristy than I expected, probably due to the monsoon season. Throughout the main drag were cows walking everywhere, and when walking I had  to watch out for their excrement. The cows in India have these big almond eyes and long eyelashes. They are very pretty creatures.

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I stayed at an Ashram with a great view of the Ganga. I spent much of my time there taking Yoga classes, always with different instructors. For once in my life, the Yoga teachers were not westerners. Their teaching styles were different, more spiritual and less aerobic.

I learned some new meditation techniques. One class enphasized strong, focused breathing. After the session my right hand involuntarily curled up and was locked in that position for several minutes. The teacher said that it was because I had some trauma from childhood blocking the flow of energy through my body. Afterwards I felt very energized, yet calm and happy.

I became a regular at the Moonlight café. The food was great and the three young men running the place were very friendly. There I met Marc, Sabrine and Lamson. Marc and I would often play chess, Lamson and I would take turns playing his guitar and talking about our respective countries and past travels, and Sabrina and I had many a philosophical and spiritual conversation. I also met two nice Russian ladies with whom I practiced my Russian with. It was nice being a regular somewhere. After over 6 months of backpacking, I feel less of a need to see the sights and a stronger desire to stay put and get to know a place in-depth. After a week in Laxman Jhula, I went to my final destination in India, Agra to see the Taj Mahal…

Hanuman Sak Yant

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One of my very last days in Thailand before going to India I made a decision. I decided to get my second Sak Yant (traditional Thai tattoo) from Master Arjan Pi Bang Kating. I love many aspects of Sak Yant: The tradition and history of it, the spiritual energy and magic it possesses/endows, and the artistic and aesthetic aspect. I decided to do it now because it may be years before I come back to Thailand, if I ever make it back. There is just so much of the world to see and so little time in life. For these reasons, I paid Arjan Pi Bang Kating another visit.

 

 

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My first Sak Yant with him was Seua Liaw Hlang, or Tiger Looking Backwards. I was told that that Sak Yant would provide general protection in my life, take the brunt of any bad karma, give me courage, take away fear and scare away malevolent spirits. In choosing my second tattoo, I wanted a Sak Yant with attributes that would complement and enhance my first one, and I decided on Hanuman.

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I read a lot about Hanuman and there are many meanings that I extrapolated from stories about him that really resonated with me. Hanuman is a very interesting deity in Hindu history. Many of his exploits can be found in the ancient story the Ramayana, in which he faithfully serves King Rama in his quest to defeat the evil king Ravana who stole his wife Sita. He was Rama’s strongest warrior, and led an army against the evil king of Lanka (Sri Lanka). As such, the Hanuman tattoo fosters fearlessness in the face of adversity and protects the bearer from bodily harm. He was a faithful servant of king Rama, and this tattoo also evokes humility and selflessness.

Hanuman is supposed to be a monkey deity, although, I don’t believe he was really a monkey, I believe he was a real supernatural being that may have existed thousands of years ago. The only way humans at that time could fit the existence of beings of his kind into their perceptual reality was to liken them to things or other creatures they knew existed and could compare to.

As a monkey deity, he has a savage or animal side. Despite this, he is the image of a selfless, realized being that transcends anything wild or savage. This duality to me means that anyone, including you or me can rise above our animal instincts and transcend this lower plane of existence. In my free time I like to meditate and Hanuman reminds me of an analogy I was told during a Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat. Hanuman is a monkey-like being that can fly. Goenka said that our mind is like a monkey, never sitting still, constantly grasping from branch to branch (thought to thought) without any discipline. Again, despite his simian nature, Hanuman has perfect control over himself and transcends the animal qualities that one would normally associate with monkies.

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Once again, the tattoo process itself hurt quite a bit more than tattooing with a modern machine. The pain seemed to shoot to other parts of my body. I even experienced weird spasms on my right side when he was tapping away just to the right of my spine. I was worried that the spine was going to be the most painful. Well it wasn’t. The most painful areas were tender spots where the latimus dorsi muscle begins near the protruding bone at the bottom of the nape of my neck. Directly above this bone also hurt more than other areas.

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When Arjan Pi Bang Kating was finished, just as last time, he began chanting. He would chant in a low, monotone voice very rapidly with his index finger pushing on a golden leaflet he had placed on the finished tattoo. He would periodically pause to blow on the tattoo. I realized that he was programming the tattoo with the power that that particular Hanuman Sak Yant is supposed to have. It made me think of how one programs a crystal, holding it in the hand and focusing on the qualities one wants the crystal to give the wearer. In this same way, he was programming my new Sak Yant. It was a very powerful experience and I’m glad I went to see Arjan Pi Bang Kating again and I’m very grateful for his masterful work.

 

Angkor Wat?

 

 

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I finally got around to seeing Angkor WatWhilst back in Bangkok recently, unsure of where to go, and honestly a little tired of being in SE Asia, I decided that it would be a shame if I didn’t see Angkor Wat before leaving. In Bangkok I found a barbershop that also sold bus tickets to Siem Reap, the town that is the base for exploring the Angkor Wat ruins.

Getting There:

1) Don’t pay more than 250 baht ($8 US). That includes a minivan to the Cambodian border, and a large bus to Siem Reap after you get through passport control.

2) Don’t let anyone else handle your passport. The minivan driver or his associates will try to separate each person in the minivan to take care of the visa process for you. DON”T LET THEM. Take that f#$*in’ passport and do it yourself. It costs about $35 US.

3) Do bring a passport size photo. I didn’t and they were going to fine me 100 baht, but an official ended up patting me on the shoulder and saying “don’t worry, you can go” and I went through without paying extra.

4) Don’t listen to the minivan drivers on the other side. They will tell you ” your bus will be here in 4 hours but…you can take my minivan right now (at 200 baht, which if you want you can bargain down to 80), and get there early.” This is bullshit. Your bus will be along much sooner than 4 hours.

5) Once you arrive at the small bus station, ignore the persistent tuk tuk drivers and walk towards the canal in the city center. After walking 100 meters you can grab a tuk tuk for $1 (much cheaper than at the station) to your hostel/guesthouse/hotel or walk it, it’s not that far.

Once there I met an American guy, and a couple from Argentina. Together we decied to avoid the in-your-face tuk tuk drivers and walk the 2 km to our respective hostels. I ended up staying at Siem Reap hostel, a giant monstrosity with an indoor pool and decent bar. At this bar, I met two other Texans. I’d been in SE Asia over 4 months without meeting another Texan, and then voilà there’s two of them. One of them was from Austin, my longtime home.

About the ruins. They’re very impressive. I got the three-day pass for $40 US and set about exploring the ruins with my American friend Corey. While walking around the different temples and buildings, I enjoyed contemplating the hidden nature of the place. To me, all the impressive ruins of the world have a sense of mystery to them. To me no matter how much we dig around the site, events took place there that we may never know about. In my opinion our ancestors were much more advanced in many ways than we give them credit for. I liked analyzing the Khmer culture through the ruins. The mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism is evident in the wall reliefs and statues scattered around the complexes. I thought about how anytime a new religion comes along and gains popularity with the locals, it assimilates and absorbs the previous religion of the people. For example, Celtic beliefs and celebrations got absorbed by Christianity and became expressed through the holidays Christmas, Easter, Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. Contemplating history and trying to read between the lines of the official version of history we are told is one of my favorite pastimes. I also believe that all the large, ancient historic sites such as Angkor Wat were built in the location they were not only because of access to a water source and good land, but also because that site has/had a highly concentrated spiritual energy which the priests. holy men or monks and others could use to their advantage.

Anyways, nerd rant over. I really enjoyed walking around the temples and taking it all in. The age of the buildings is evident by the enormous trees growing over the temple stone. They must’ve taken centuries to reach their current size. I did the small loop with my friend with a really nice tuk tuk driver we hired for the day. The next day we rented fully electric scooters and did the large loop.

After three days there, I went back to Bangkok, again… I applied for my visa to India, which I am patiently waiting for. Until next time!