It is my last official night in India and I am sad about it. It is truly a strange place, but it makes you want to learn how to be with it.

Today at the Taj Mahal, the driver who has brought me from Delhi- Jeetu, brings me to the West entrance which is less crowded. He goes for breakfast and shows me where to meet him when I am through. He tells me to be aware of the hawkers of course and the “guides”. I walk down the typical chaotic Indian street to the garden area where the hawking begins. I am alone thus more of a target, but I know how to look truly uninterested while not being rude so it is not a big deal. At the Taj, you pay a large sum which includes little booties to cover your feet when you actually enter the building, water, and a “guide” if you choose to use him. It is free- a scary word in India. All in all, it is not to crazy to get in and I am on my way. I let the guide hang around and it does give me some extra value.

He tells me that foreigners pay so much, Indians so little, because the British stripped the Taj of much of its riches so we are paying back. Don’t know if this is fact, did they strip it? But it is funny. He tells me only boys who are decedents of the original crew who built the Taj can guide in this official, government position, don’t know if that is fact or fiction, but it is again interesting. It took 22 years and 20,000 laborers to build. It is perfectly symmetrical. It is indeed a wonder to behold. I did not think I really cared about seeing it, but in fact it was awesome in the true sense of the world. I can see why people flock from all over to see it and find it worthwhile.

The day was perfect weather wise. The crowds are no big deal as the space is massive and has such a precision that you feel like you are floating above the earth just being in the vicinity. The government takes really good care of the operation so it is a peaceful experience. There is “shanti” there they might say in Hindi.

Did I tell you that my name is a Hindi name? No one in South India thought anything of my name as they speak Tamil. But in India everyone has commented, oh- you have a hindi name. I have asked what it means, as most names have a meaning here. Last night the waiter told me it meant “unbeatable” or “invincible”. He knew because his girlfriend is named Natasha. When he saw me name on my order (they do strange things with paperwork here, why would my name be on my food order?), they thought the order was for an Indian person and made the food regular spicy. I could barely eat it, a glimpse of how much they are taming things for us in these tourist enviorns. In truth, I have had no impulse to eat street food or the like as it seems so risky. I have had no stomach problems but indeed see how you would if you were not being directed at crucial junctures.

After my guide experience, very simple, tipped him 50 rupees. I walked around myself and sat and wrote on a bench in the shadow of the taj. A young girl came to talk to me very sweet, practicing her English. Then her sisters and brothers and cousins and parents. Before I knew it they were insisting we take pictures, they tried to get me to come to a wedding they were attending in the afternoon, and gave me an open invitation to Jaipur to stay with them. The people here just amaze me. This is not atypical.
I am behind the desk at the Holiday Inn in Agra. Know the internal feeling of a hotel well from my 13 years at Miraval. I have of course more to say, but will sign off as it is late and tomorrow i begin anew as I journey to Nepal.

Security is tighter of course as I move around. The Taj Mahal we were seriously frisked, the entrance to my hotel has tight security. This is not a Holiday inn like home, quite swank. I have seen more military as they are concerned about Dehli as a target. I feel fine though. Much more likely to get run over by a rickshaw or gored by a bull than taken hostage by terrorists. Blessings and Namaste!

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I arrive at the holy city yesterday morning and it feels truly like a month ago. Not that I know the city, it is a labyrinth. But that you see so much in a short time.
I don’t know if I have told Peter, that my camera batteries (3 of them) all went dead 10 days in. I will have other people’s photos from the group for the last portion of our trek through Tamil Nadu. The last stop a shop keeper leant me his camera as our memory cards matched and he had a charger.

Varanasi is a photographers dream. Everything is worthy of shooting. There is beauty and filth always strung together here, and in photos I am sure it will always look like art. I buy a very cheap camera from a shop and try to take old fashioned photos but it stops working for me, so I have to think of photographing this place in my mind and with words. It is just as well, as everyone wants you to pay them for the privilege of photographing them, even or especially the sadhus, and it also seems to remove me from the fact that I am here, not just for memories sake.

Yesterday, I have a hotel problem upon arrival. Did I mention that when I wrote a month ago? (just kidding). The gist of it was I was booked in a backpackers hotel in the center of the city, where it is most maze like. A sweet old autorickshaw driver came to the railway station form the guest house to pick me up and right away I knew I was in a bit of a pickle. He had no teeth, his rickshaw was barely running. At one point, it would not start and he got very quiet and slumped. I thought the man was having a catatonic episode. I asked him if he was ok and he rose and said “yes mam, I am praying to the lord”. This did not surprise me. People do indeed have so much faith here. And of course the rickshaw came to life and he took me through a harrowing drive through Varanasi towards the hidden guest house. The only reason this place included a pick up is that is the only way anyone could find it.

I was a bit stunned at my situation. I had just traveled from Mahaballipurum to Chennai to Delhi to here. The trains (Delhi to Varanasi), first class, are indeed quite nice in India so that journey 12 hours, was pleasant. I was in a compartment with 3 older, gentile Hindus and they included me in their conversations by speaking English, rather than Hindi, and watching over me. You literally sleep on these trains, the attendants bring bedding and by 10 all of my companions were asleep, in the morning you awake, clean up, go back to sitting formation, have chi, and arrive in Varanasi.

Nonetheless, I was a bit beat and nervous upon arriving in Varanasi and the rickshaw drive and the backpackers hotel was too much for my 40 year old self. So I asked the rickshaw driver to take me to Assi Ghat, the southern most section of the city and designed for those tourists who need some luxury. And now I am staying at the “Palace on the Ganges”. I am literally in the penthouse. A little room on the roof that overlooks the Ganges. I had a large room in the basement last night, very nice but no windows. Today I am the polar opposite, on the roof.

Ok a few thoughts about what I have seen and then I will sign off.

A beautiful gift shop that looks at first like a well-organized shoe box, but has 5 rooms that flow backwards. Each room filled with beautiful items- from clothes, to jewelry, to art, to stationary. You feel swaddled in there, surrounded by pretty handmade things. -an astrological depiction of the business’s fate, given by his gurugi, framed at the entrance for all to see. -stores that have huge futons and pillows, so when you come in you sit and visit. If it looks like a good connection, a young boy is called from the street to get chi or coffee. -The internet cafe/travel agent owner just came and did incense puja and silent mantra recitation in front of the image of a shiva lingum (formless form of shiva shaped well, like a phallus) and then also puja in front of Shiva image and hanuman as well. -I need a tailor; a little boy comes and shows me a card for a tailor. He does not speak, I allow him to guide me wordlessly toward the cards address. He is deaf. We are warned not to follow these boys, but I feel like I can trust him and will go only as far as I feel safe. Everyone along the route knows this boy and I can see their warmth for him. I see the regular people of Varanasi as we walk. We arrive at the tailor shop, it is fine and good. The boy is named Rahul. He is very dear and accepts no money. I see him again today and he takes me a few more places. He makes sure no one cheats me and shows me how things are done at various junctures. I wonder how it must be to live and breathe in this chaotic place and have it be silent.

There is so much more but I should post. I walked the river today, from the south ghat (steps) to perhaps the midway point and saw things that were truly amazing. People all swimming in the Ganges like they are at the beach. Laundry being done in the Ganges and spread out on the steps, how has it come clean, cows, bulls, goats, dogs roaming. Men making cow paddies right below a lovely cafe. little shrines along the way, a very important temple, I sit and listen to live “bhajans” or chanting. A sadhu tells me to sit next to him. At this ghat I go, at the insistence of some little kids to the water and touch my fingers in- move them to my head, third eye, heart. People being burning, funerals going on, but I can’t really see that, the funerals, just the burning. In the end a young man tells me, a mans chest will usually remain as it is the densest bone and a woman’s pelvis. It does not seem morbid or gross. The garbage and filth from living humans is much worse than this.

All for now, love from here, Natasha

I think the key to blogging in this country at least, India, is to do it fast as the lines seem to stop working. I have written 2 times now, at length posts, and lost them as I tried to post….so will try to be short and sweet.

My “Ancient Oracle” odyssey ended in Mahaballipurum a few days ago. Ancient Oracle is the name of the tour company my friend Dayananda co-created to describe the way the essence of their tours.

Mahaballipurum is a beach town. We have been 2 times at the beach before this, the East coast points to the “Bay of Bengal” of course. First beach in Pondicherry- no cool breeze. Hot and humid…..Next beach was Tranquibar, where we had lunch at a beautiful, small “Heritage Hotel”. Beautiful ocean, but again, no coolness, no relief. Have I mentioned it is hot? With humidity too, something I am not used to. At Mahaballipurum, finally some cool breezes. And lots of people selling marijuana, hashish, on the beach. And lots of slick cool Kashmiri shop-keepers beckoning you into their fabric and jewelry shops, and lots of Tamil stone workers sitting and carving….

Here (in this town that has other spellings and pronunciations if you try to find it on the map, typical India) we had mostly rest from temples which people were very happy with. A few of us had a bit of temple withdrawal. In fact, after about 15 or 20 temple visits (or more perhaps, who is counting, some annoyed spouse on the trip no doubt), we finally have it down. Small bills for the pujas and darshans (viewing of the dieties, a story in itself), larger sums for the office where we can feed to poor or ask for special pujas to help propiate or strengthen various planets. We are here as astrologers of course, that is the point to propitiate the planets by being there, “seeing” some of the ancient places and forms that acknowledge them and attend to them in unique ways.

Anyway, no pujas in this last town, we rest and shop. The town is famous for hand carved stone statues. They have all sizes from miniature to giant size, they make all the Hindu statues for use in temples or simply decorations, through out India and the world. I realize a candle holder Rajeesh and Nabin gave to Peter and I one year came from this place and it gives me an interesting sense of the past, present, and future coming together for a moment. We meet an amazing young carver; Murugan is his name, which means Mars. He is truly an embodiment of Mars- brimming with energy, vitality, enthusiasm, and optimism. A third generation carver, the patriarch of his family at the young age of 27 or so. I buy 2 statues from him, mainly because of his energy in them.

Ok, I am not being brief….I am in Varanasi now, another story. Perhaps tomorrow I will be clearer to write, excellent Internet service next store to my luxurious hotel. I considered staying in a back packer’s hotel in the heart of the old city, but realized I don’t have it in me. The city is dirty and crazy and I need a place to relax into at the end of the day. I am never tired here though, I feel like I meditate through the nights, just floating until the next day comes and some new and fantastic mundane event will occur.

Thinking about Thanksgiving this week. Eating dinner tonight the Sitar, tabla, a violin player perform ragas and then slip in “jingle bells”. I am the only one to notice in the group of tourists eating, the tabla palyer nods and smiles and I am suddenly home-sick.

Happy Thanksgiving week, I will try and post again when I have a clearer head.

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We are in a town called Mayiladuthurai tonight. There are so many towns with a similar, unpronounceable names here in Tamil Nadu, India. On the average map of India this town would not show up. We are in the best hotel in the town and everyone is miserable in our group as it smells of something toxic, bug spray/ moth balls/ mold? Our tour leaders begged our understanding 4 times before- hand as they knew the hotel was sub par for Westerners, but we had to stay here to be close to the Mars temple and the Nadi Astrologers….

Anyway, it is quite comical. We just left KumbaKorum which is a small town in the center of many temples. We stayed at a place called the “Paradise Resort” and it was a bit of Paradise. Perhpas how it feels to be in Indonesia. The grounds were lush, the rooms big with heavy wood doors and furniture. Big bathrooms with Western toilets and bathtubs and a swimming pool we all felt safe enough to swim in….the staff was wonderful there and our movement from there to what we jokingly called the “heartbreak hotel” was jarring.

Anyway, you can’t really expect to be comfortable in India can you????? We in truth have been, but then you are only a few steps always from the other side of this coin. Tonight my room-mate and I laugh hysterically as I have stepped in some kind of waste while walking the streets, this is highly probably/practically unavoidable in almost any walk, and now must figure out what to do about the matter. The waste could be cow dung, dog poop, goat poop, or human origins- we just don’t know. And we are adverse to start cleaning it off. We don’t have a brush or a proper drain and don’t want to spread it in our bathroom. I will leave you in suspense as to what we do, but tell the story to let you know what it is like to walk the streets. It is as you may have been told- but until you experience it, unbelievable- cows walking around, people walking some with shoes and some barefooted, people riding bikes and scooters and motorcycles, goats, dogs roaming, cars, auto-rickshaws, buses. Homing, honking, and honking. There are traffic police at certain intersections but I have noticed no street lights or signs that anyone seems to adhere to. The traffic police sit in the center and sip chai, directing nothing that I can see? Lots of little shops and fruit/flowers/vegetable venders along the way….

In this town we are all stared at with amazement as there are not many tourists that come here. We stare at them and they stare at us. We smile and wave to break the surreal nature of the two way gaze. Last night, after we arrive, my roommate and I ask the hotel for an electronic shop as I need new camera batteries. Two young men from the hotel become our guides through the town in search of not so common lithium batteries. “Johnson” and “Jaffe”- they are dressed western style. Many young men are but not young women of course- they all wear saris or “salwarz/Kameez” (long shirts with matching pants and scarves). Our guides take us to no less than 20 electronic shops- they make calls, the shop keepers keep referring us to another place, in the end nothing but lots of people who get the amusement of seeing us come around. As a result of our fruitless foray, our guides have shown us the whole town, we have met their brothers and friends, seen the bus station and the local markets where people really shop, and been given a farewell gift which is a plaque with a line of Christian scripture- they do not think we are Christian, in fact they are.

I have met 3 Christians in India so far, a very different thing than ours it seems, interesting for sure.

All this talk and nothing about the temples, the pujas, the Nadi (palm leaf) astrologers….that will have to wait I guess as I am off to sleep. Let me simply say that they call this town “Mars town” in the western astrology world because of the large,Mars temple here. We went and visited Ganesha first there, a live elephant who bleesed our heads, then various other dieties, including Shiva in the form of “doctor”, Dhanvantari the sage who gave us Ayurveda, Parvati whose staure was over 1000 years old, and various aspects of Mars called “Mangala” and other names as well. These temples are 1000′s of years old and still very active. We had a small, speedy priest rush us around. In the end we go through the official routes of the office to give money for daily feeding the poor and personal pujas people may want for the year to propitiate or strengthen Mars energy in their charts. This is all very established, this way of giving. The highlight of our office visit today was the Barak Obama collection we did which gave us enough money to procure 4 years worth of pujas for him and to offer “Annadhana” feeding to the poor in the temple area on his inauguration day. I don’t know where we had them send the ash from those pujas (they will ordinarily send them to your home) we assume it would never make it past his security detail.

As they say in Tamil, the language here in south India, Vanakum (Hello/Goodbye)

I barely know what day it is….Jupiters day, Thursday. We have progressed from Chennai to Pondicherry to Kumbakoram- Kumba means “pot” in sanskrit and is the term for the 11th sign of the zodiac, what we know as Aquarius. The people here beleive this is a place where a piece of the pot that held “amrita” the nectar of immortality fell and hit the earth. It is considered one of the 4th holiest places in India and is surrounded by 1000’s of temples.

Our hotel is called “The Paradise Resort” and is paradise. I am sitting outside, behind the front desk, which is outside, typing on the hotel computer. There are two reliefs behind me on the wall depicting Saraswati the goddess of music, art, literature, arts and an equal image of lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Money “rupees” are considered the physical manifestation of Lakshmi and thus handled with reference. Ganesh is back here too. Ganesh is everywhere and then there he is again!

Many of us are a bit ill at this point, not so much with the food or stomach stuff but the air, the pollution, perhaps the incense and puja fires. The air is so nice now, I am sure my own congestion is almost over and I will be officially acclimated.

How many temples so far????Shiva in Chennai, Ganesha in Pndicherry, several rounds of Ganesha there as our leader Komilla seems to have a total soft spot for him so she had special events done for herself and family 4 times, and each time we got to be there and participate. The last one culminated in a live elephant named “lakshmi” being included in the puja (fire) ceremony. Then we went to a famous Shiva temple near Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, in the city with Ramanas’s beloved mountain, Arannachula. This was an ancient Shiva temple, huge, and as we progressed to the center for our puja, is was hotter and hotter, like being in the bowels of the earth. That expereince is still resonating within me, I can’t articulate it now.

I won’t try to write more now as it is late and the front desk man probably wants to get on himself. Tomorrow is my roomates 50th birthday- she is wonderful and we feel very lucky and blessed to be in this altered state- no pun intended- with each other. She is an ER nurse, energy worker, and vedic astrology person- many have borrowed her drugs so far and I have benefited immensely from her body work. We go to Tanjavor tomorrow if you want to track us. South India, Tamil Nadu state, is its own world with its own language, nothing like Hindi, it feels like you could indeed spend your life right here and be forever trying to understand what is going on.

Goodnight for now, Namaste or as they say around here “ta ta”.

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Hello Friends, did I just sound like John McCain there? John who……

It was beautiful to follow Obama’s win from a distance and to be here in a land of dark skinned people who love Obama and perhaps the USA too. One small example says it all. I am leaving the Ganesha temple in Pondicherry yesterday morning. We went there to get Ganesha’s blessings for our journey deeper into Tamil Nadu. A group of young Indian school boys, on a field trip, probably 40 of them, are following me and a young guy in my group. Not following, but walking the same route and staring at us intently and asking questions. At first we don’t know what to say, it seems strange that they would be interested in us at all, but they are. Everyone is, they just stare at us sometimes, finally we talk to them, they want to know our name, where we are from, when they hear USA they say “Do you like Obama?” We say “Yes, we like Obama very much.” and they all break out in a cheer, the whole street echoes with their cheer….

It is like a rushing river here, the streets and traffic, if you think too hard you would be afraid to walk in the street. Fear being washed away. The current is fierce. The noise, the horns, truly like nothing you can imagine in the states.

At the temples, the priests for Ganesha look like Ganesha. Everyone is willing and able to be devotional. They know what to do, there is no pretense. they prostrate themselves at the entrance, they wave their hands over the flame of the many fires to bathe themselves with smoke and light and heat, they touch their fingers to the water and then to their lips, forehead, crown, or heart, they circumambulate, they sit and meditate, they give flowers and coconuts and bananas and grass and rupees, Ganesh is big and hungry you know, they use their third finger to rub ash across their forehead, they allow the priest to put the red dot on their forehead, before the ash/after the ash it does not matter. The bell begins to clang in the temple at certain points, the sound vibrates your whole being from any vantage point, you are shook and your mind goes still, who knows what is happening but it feels good, you are barefoot, you are smiling, muttering, crying, humming, in the end you are back on the street, back to work, back to another carnival.

All for now, sweet dreams.