Not Hangry – Ramadan the Fast.

Wow!  Sixteen hours without food or water of any kind, in 30 plus heat all whilst trying to explore, learn and teach. What was I thinking? Day one and it just so happens I’m in the Sahara (not joking). I feel like I’m in a movie where the damsel in distress is walking fatigued and dying of thirst across the endless sand dunes hallucinating about a mirage that evaporates before her eyes as she approaches. Okay not that extreme, but by the last hour when I am literally on the back of a camel crossing the sand dunes. I am secretly praying for an oasis and my head is pounding.
Day two is a little easier, with the long journey back to Marrakech ahead I am ushered off for a nap in the lounge with all the drivers in quite an elite little club of the Fasting Locals whilst the tourists I’m with have lunch. Said locals are always so pleasantly surprised of my fast and show their appreciation and encouragement fervently.

After this initial hurdle, it’s practically easy. Honestly. I am normally a very hangry bird when I’ve not eaten and my patience amazes even me. I don’t know if it’s because subconsciously I know it’s for God or if it is something the body just adjusts to quite quickly.

Most days I feel the fatigue from the broken sleep more than anything else and with the feast that occurs at Iftar. It’s worth the wait. Suhoor is a funny time of day. In Marrakech, my host family cook a massive meal, tagine, soups, yogurt, bread and there is always melon. It’s weird for me to eat such a stodgy meal at such an early hour. I go from being asleep at 2:55am to eating a full dinner at 3:05am. What the? In Casablanca, my hosts are more of a jam and bread kind of crew and I find this much easier to adjust to.

At day 19 I’m feeling like I’ve conquered it and then it hits… Fes has 43 degree heat, endless mazes of narrow lanes to explore and I feel like the extra seven minutes until Iftar is a lifetime. I am a grumpy bitch all weekend. Honestly. The endless, rip off approaches from the street vendors and impromptu and unsolicited guides, the haggle for a taxi that really is unnecessary combined with the heat – NOT COOL! I enjoy parts of the trip and learn a thing or two but I feel the fast in Fes and decide not to travel again until after Eid, for my sanity and that of those around me (sorry Emily). The silver lining of course is that the remaining days in Casablanca pass with ease because I am so thankful to be in the comfort of 28 degrees and for the ocean breeze.

Thirty days have been and gone and I survived! I didn’t falter, I didn’t cheat and even when I was technical excused from fasting (when you travel and when you are sick) I soldiered on and I’m glad I did. I’ve lost 3 kgs, I feel motivated to get back into the gym having not had the energy to do so for the last month and I have a new-found appreciation to this holy month and one part of what it stands for.

 

You don’t have to be religious to fast and you don’t have to be Muslim. If you fancy it try it next Ramadan and have a go, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Yours in Faith, 

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Indoctrination or Devotion – A Christian woman immersed in Islam 

It’s Ramadan and I’m committed to all things Islam for  30 days, I’ve got my Hijab. My Jellaba, English translation Quran and my host family are teaching me the salat.
 

Salat is the Islamic prayerWith a schedule of five times’ daily dependant on the moon with a timeframe that changes daily, it’s a little hard to keep up at first. But thanks to my new qibla app, the call to prayer now sounds from my iPhone and the inner compass helps me find Mecca (this is the direction that Muslims must face whilst performing the salat). 

 

I’m fine with learning the wudu – my host sister takes me through the ritual which is easy enough to remember.

https://www.google.com.au/amp/m.wikihow.com/Perform-Wudu%3Famp%3D1 

Then it’s time to pray. It’s 3:00am and we are lined up in the front room facing the Kaaba. I recite after my host the words of the surah and follow the actions like a religious round of Simon Says. We are done in about five minutes and we end with the customary greeting Salaam Alikom (Peace be upon you). I just love that.


I try on my own three times the following day and then again with the family at 3:00am. My pronunciation is not great and I’m thankful for the patience my host mum is exercising with me. The next day – day three of Ramadan I’m up to the part of my “Salat Guide Made Simple” book that explains the salat word for word in English. This is when it gets a bit awkward. I learn that I have been parsing  Mohammed periodically throughout the salat and announce him as the one true messenger of God (gasp!).



 Immediately I feel odd. Then looking outside myself, I feel odd for feeling odd. Years of praising Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour and reading quotes of the bible that condemns praising other people.  I feel icky. I can’t explain it, I just do. 

 

Ramadan Soul Search #1 – Is praising Mohammed a betrayal to Jesus? I freeze in my own conviction and stop the salat. I ponder and confide in my Christian mentor network for a good week before I can go on. It’s this strong reaction to words that shows me how powerful faith and/or indoctrination can be. My whole life I have been told and have believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and this seemingly innocent act of learning to pray another way (of which I have done many times before) feels like an unwanted taste in my mouth. 


 So, is my faith and love for Jesus Christ so strong and true that this doesn’t sit well or is it literally just foreign to me because of what I’ve been taught for so long? Am I a product of a Christian household, secular society and Catholic schooling or am I a devotee of the holy trinity? I guess I have the rest this pilgrimage to find out. 

Yours in Faith,

 The Unlikely Pilgrim
 

No you can’t go there it’s not safe!

Dargah – A burial place for a Muslim, and in this case, Sarkar Sabir Pak, a prominent Sufi saint, and his right-hand men.

Strongly advised not to go alone by my hosts, I rolled my eyes. I’m constantly being warned about the dangers of this place or that city, and I do heed most warnings. I’m realising that the warnings normally come from well-meaning people who might not have frequented those locations. The hearsay and reputation can become a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill.  (I’m writing this from a refugee camp in Palestine).


So, off we went to Dargah, albeit I had three men to accompany me, two Hindus and a Muslim. Headscarf on, I wandered about like I belonged and very quickly was invited by the drummer to sit and chat and get a happy snap with him as he played. Dervish Drummers were the traditional way to announce the call to prayer before speaker systems were invented. Whilst I am partial to a melodic call to prayer in the distance, I quite liked this approach too.


Obligatory flowers were purchased on the way in and scattered across the tomb. Singled out (not like that was hard) I was blessed and prayed for by the Imam on duty and we ate the petals of the roses as an act of sharing the blessings. On to the main Dargah, I am told that before an Indian or Pakistani Muslim completes the Hajj they must first come here. I’ve questioned my Middle Eastern Muslim mates on Sarkar Sabir Pak and they’ve never heard of him, another example of regional interpretation of ceremony, religion and law.


Here there are many women possessed by Jinn (a bad spirit, not to be confused with GIN – a very good spirit!). This place is famous for being able to cure people of this demonization. Around me women are throwing themselves about in an uncontrollable fit. All without a headscarf I notice, which to me is odd, but I guess the demon is not bothered about the rules. Other Muslims (mainly men) stand around in a circle and utter blessings, issuing commands to the demon to leave the women. (Why is it always us ladies who get possessed? *eye roll*). I can’t ask too much because to stare would invite said Jinn into my soul and we can’t have that. Much less of the fanfare of the Brazilian exorcism I witnessed. I’m either getting used to this sort of thing or the more subdued and private approach to exorcizing demons in Islam is more appealing to me. Did I just write that sentence?


Following all the cues and rituals of our Muslim chaperone, we escape unscathed. Of course. I’m beginning to see that this fear of people’s differences is a worldwide phenomenon and yes, the area was not the most desirable of location (I’ve seen worse). And apparently, it’s the red-light district by night. I’m left feeling somewhat smug that I continue to challenge the advice of my hosts, drivers and others. Honestly some of the most interesting experiences I have had  have been on the back of a warning. The Favela’s in Rio, the Souk in Tyre, the red-light district in Manila and now the Dargah in India.


Moral of the story: take advice, proceed with caution and witness amazing things because extraordinary is just outside your comfort zone.

 

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Guru? What’s a Guru?

Living Interfaith Community – now that catches my attention.

I stumbled across this place in my quest for all things faith in India and I can hardly begin to describe what I found here. Harmony, tolerance, unity and personally inner peace and calm.


Gobind Sadan was started by Baba Virsa Singh over 30 years ago, an incredible man of God who dreamt of building a place where all men and women of all faiths can come, worship and live together in harmony. His message is simple: work hard, look after others and love God. Your way! Here they hold the Havan (sacred fire) in high regard. Around the clock three Havans are tended to and prayed upon by the occupants and passing pilgrims who volunteer.

 I dutifully sat by this fire and chanted in Sanskrit in the morning, recited the Jaap Sahib in the afternoon and sat in solitude in the evening whilst wishing well on the world and all the people in it. Trying not to forget to pour the ghee and cleanse the new wood so that no ants are harmed (after all it’s a vegetarian fire).


For three days I immersed myself in the culture of Gobin Sadan. This involved quite a tight schedule that seemed to keep me busy but not bored and not tired. Up at dawn for the first round of prayers (ok so I slept through that the first day), followed by prayers and prasad at the Havan at  8:00am. Then it was over to the Gurdwara to hear the recitation of the Guru Granth Sahib and chanting by the main Havan as the Guru – Babaji made offerings to God. The words were repeated over and over in unison (tan tan a baba siri chand sahib) with the other followers. It was such a beautiful sound and there was a feeling of being in a trance. I could have sat for hours, watching the flames flicker and dance with each other along with the swaying of the Chaur Sahib (second nature after such a short time).


Quick brekky and 10:00am snuck up on me. Time to recite the Jaap Sahib – a Sikh morning prayer; complicated at first with Hindi Sanskrit and Arabic. This is sung, the leader first, then us in chorus after him. Then it was rest time and reflection. Back to the Havan for midday prayers, lunch, rest unless you’re on fire duty – I was. Then a round table reading of a passage of the Guru Granth Sahib and reflection of what those words meant to us. Off to Jesus’ place to pray at 6:00pm and the cycle continues into the night and actually starts again at 2:00am.


The Guru – of which I would say there was two, Mary an incredible woman of the lord. Check out her story below; and Babaji, who I was lucky enough to have an audience with…twice. Of course, the first time I was feeling quite overwhelmed and wasted my opportunity to chat with such a wise and awesome man of God. Instead of going deep we discussed trivial history of the farm of which I already knew and of course the pilgrimage after being prompted as to my ‘purpose’ in life. Is it my purpose? But the second time, feeling more at ease, I just waltzed up and asked if we could have a chat and thankfully and graciously he agreed.


So, what do you ask when you have the Guru’s attention? Well my heart is repairing from my previous relationship. Healing advice? I’m dating a Muslim. Interfaith advice? And I’m dedicating my life to spreading tolerance. Protection and wisdom? I go for the hat-trick. I asked if the soul tie ever really evaporates following the loss of a great love or if a part of your heart dies with that end? I’m serious. He ponders. I can hardly catch my breath hoping he really does have the answer, suddenly immersed with more heartache than I thought I had left. He speaks, “The heart overflowing with love is a gift from God. You are blessed to have had this person to mould and guide you for the period you had. I will ask God for healing.” (Don’t weep, don’t weep).


The Guru continues, “In a partnership of two faiths you have the opportunity to learn and grow in tolerance and the children will know the love of God from more than one source. Should they experience negativity from their peers, society and others, they will know through the love of God and strength of their parents that they operate on a higher field than those who judge others for their faith.” Whoa!


And finally he hits me with this,“God is always with you, I will pray for your protection but in the arms of God who is Allah, who is Shiva and who speaks to us in many forms. He will always protect you, his daughter, so be at peace.”

WOW! How can that be so heavy yet so enlightening all at once? I feel free, I feel no fear and I feel FAITH. I offer my life into the hands of God. I will succeed, I will be safe and my longing for a family WILL happen.


I think I found a Guru…. make that two! 

https://youtu.be/P7XaacSD1bg  
Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Varanasi – Spiritual Enlightenment or Soul Destroying?

I know, heavy title, right. Hear me out.

India always presents such stark contrasts, but Varanasi is a paradox to me. It is a holy place. It is a sacred city on the banks of the holiest of holy Mama Ganga, goddess of the Hindus. It is a giver of life and sanctuary for the soul in more ways than one.

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Wandering the endless narrow streets (much like Venice without the canals) and the addition of countless cows and consequent cow shit (holy land mines, as per my host). I came across temple after temple after temple. On every corner there was a shrine to Shiva, the creator of this town. Or the telling orange clothes of an approaching sadhu. They are holy men who have dedicated their lives to God. Not to be confused with a priest; only a Brahmin can be a priest (their caste system is a whole other post).  But a holy man, who eats, sleeps and breathes prayer whilst sitting for hours chanting Sanskrit scriptures. He relies on the kindness of others for food. He is happy to offer advice and counsel if asked, but more so a man of solitary devotion to God. 


Then there is the river itself, a holy living Goddess flowing for 2500 kilometres providing life and spiritual hope to all those who adorn her banks. Or better yet to bathe in this mighty river is said to cleanse the soul. Of course, I indulged in this opportunity to cleanse some sins away. I’m the Unlikely Pilgrim after all. Holy yes, pure … not the word that comes to mind when submerged in this water, especially with a buffalo within spitting distance. 


Nonetheless I cleansed, I bathed, and I even headed to the temple to be blessed.
Like my previous entry (Cremations and Corpses) describes. There is commitment to the ceremony of this place. The dedication to rituals in ensuring the soul is clean is paramount. Pilgrims from all over India, and in fact the world, come in the millions to soak up the energy of Varanasi. In theory it is beautiful and spiritually charged. 


However both times I’ve been here I’ve felt an underlying sadness; not a surface bad feeling, but a deep sorrow in my heart.
A sorrow for the conditions here: the streets are filthy with animal mess, rubbish and general grime. Children as young as three years old beg on the streets well into the night.

 Seedy and uneasy feelings down by the river after dark surrounds me and the lower castes are avoided and disregarded. An example, the Aghori the men who work down at the cremation sites to ensure the masses get their golden ticket to heaven work tirelessly, yet I’m advised not to talk to them or risk being tainted by someone else’s woes. Superstition or discrimination? I’m undecided.


With all the colour and spirituality, Varanasi is certainly an incredible place to visit. I can’t help but invoke feelings of helplessness when I think of Varanasi though. A place so full of hope and maybe that’s why the poverty is more obvious to me here than in other parts of India. Albeit the divide is everywhere in India. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life here, because all the people need is their God. 


Find out for yourself.

http://www.visitvaranasi.com

Yours in faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

 

Cremations and Corpses.

Got your attention! Well the cremation Ghats in Varanasi certainly had mine. Having visited this chaotic city before, I opted for a guide this time round. I had limited time and didn’t want to miss anything. Thank the Lord for Rohit, such an endearing, kind and super knowledgeable guy.

(Checkout my FaithChat with Rohit here  https://youtu.be/XfOb42mYDWA )

We headed to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation Ghat. There were to be no photos, I was advised (fair enough). Here the pyres burn 24 hours a day with a constant stream of bodies (people) arriving to have their life’s dream realised. For Hindus, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi is said to break the cycle of reincarnation. You are no longer a product of your karma and no longer a victim of deeds of past lives, but on a one-way ticket to heaven.

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It is men only in this place. Women are deemed too emotional, too overcome with grief to be still and quiet as to not disturb the souls of the dead. Therefore, the men carry the corpse through the streets down to the Ghat and immerse the body in the river. A series of rituals unfold. The eldest man is shaved: head, face and neck. Various oils, herbs and specific fabrics are sourced and all have their place.

When the body is fully cleansed and prepared, it is placed upon 200 to 300 kilos of wood and set alight with a special flame. There is no fixed price for, it fluctuates by the minute 200-500 1000 rupee. Whatever the price, dependant on the day the family pays willingly.

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I watched five corpses arrive and be prepared. I witnessed the men as the family members chatted amongst themselves and oversaw proceedings in such an official and disconnected way. I bet within their hearts the grief was screaming.

But it is for the good of the soul of their loved one. An outward calm sits upon their faces. I’m not sure I could contain my grief with such control and dignity. No girls allowed; a smart move.

The sobering realisation is that in fact I’m surrounded by death, and that that stick is a leg burning before me evaporated my feelings of admiration for the families. This prompted a quick departure to the famous Blue Lassi Cafe to collect my thoughts and process what I had just seen. In my reflection, I do admire the ritual, the steadfastness of the men and the commitment of the Hindu people to journey here to die and reach salvation. I wonder if other religions were given just one act to attain salvation would our commitment be as strong and as widespread?

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I visited the Ghats just once as I felt within myself a need to respect the process that was occurring and not overstep my privilege to be part of it. The families happily allow us tourists to stop by and witness their culture and it’s up to us to do this respectfully by not making it a spectator sport.
Yours in faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim

Harassed and Man Handled at Holi.

I have two tales to tell of Holi celebrations in India. I opted for Vrindivan, the home of Holi and the birthplace of Krishna to play Holi. Here thousands of people descend to celebrate the colours and chaos of Holi; the festival of love or the festival of colour. A commemoration of Krishna and Radha’s love (his girlfriend, not his wife). A two-day festival; but in this area celebrations start well before the actual Holi day and extend a couple of days afterwards.

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Day 1 – Mathura

I wanted the whole experience so I checked into the ashram and headed down town. Day one was quite tame; visiting the local temples I experienced the fanfare of the festival with people approaching to smear coloured chalk on my face and give me a hug. Others playfully threw colour from tuk-tuks and rooftops while hollering – Hare Hare or Happy Holi.  Fun, playful, festive.

I got swept up in the dancing at the temple as the bells and drums played, chanting echoed the walls and even the constant request for selfies with the locals was palpable at this stage. I explored the temple in Mathura and attended the Holika ritual, the ceremonious burning of an effigy. Holika was a demoness who tried to kill a young Prahlad and in an elaborate attempt to burn him, she herself went up in flames. A great start to my Holi experience and feeling a little coloured out but still excited, I was ready for the big Holi day.

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Day 2 – Vrindivan

Day two was a completely different experience. All ‘saried up’ and feeling very Indian, my new friend Alessandro and I headed to the Banke Bihari temple in town that is said to have the best celebrations in town. Not that I would know as we never made it … and that’s where the dark side of the story starts.

Like the day before we were assaulted with colour from every angle and today the coloured water was also out in force. What started out quite fun rapidly deteriorated into a nightmare the closer we got to the temple. The streets were jam packed and as very few foreigners were around I felt like we had massive targets on our back. The boys were either stoned on Bhang or drunk and seemed incredibly rowdy compared to the day before. And if the constant battery of coloured chalk in your every crevice, ears, eyes, mouth, wasn’t enough, the wandering hands in the crowd started. Not fucking cool!

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As we approached the temple we got caught in what can only be described as a stampede of people. The type of situation that ends in headlines ‘10 Killed in Crush During Holi Celebrations.’ Thank God for Alessandro. His quick thinking swept us onto a little ledge where others were seeking refuge and he protected me like a bull and kept me safe.

 

Once the crowd dispersed we both agreed: fuck the temple, let’s get out of here. But it was not as easy as it sounds. Wandering the labyrinth of laneways, we were battered again and I copped a massive handful of chalk directly in my eye, not to mention opportunistic grabby hands in the crowd, resulting in more than one Indian boy copping an earful from me. Cheeky little shits.

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Exhausted, feeling completely harassed we eventually found our way and sought refuge in a more subdued street. We massively overpaid for a tuk-tuk to escape, which at this point did not bother me. I was tired, violated and soaked to the skin. We were still attacked intermittently on the ride home from the street whilst in motion, including an entire bucket of water as we slowed for a cow just to ensure the small dry bits were now drenched.

 

As a final gift some little bastard threw cow shit at us. The driver went nuts but it didn’t stop the shit from being on my sari now, did it. Safely back at the sanctuary of the ashram a few teens were out the front and attempted to colour me and they copped all the wrath from the morning and backed off very slowly. I felt like as soldier retuning from battle being safe in the barracks as we debriefed with the staff who said the centre of town wasn’t the smartest idea. Well, no shit (pardon the pun). Now you tell us. I was left feeling quite violated and wondering why people would come here and hoped that the next day would be less violent … it was. Thank God!

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Day 3 – Barsana

I welcomed day three with stained pink and blue skin and hair. We headed to Stick Holi (Haurunga); a tradition celebrated in a town 50 kilometres from Mathura where it is said Krishna made fun of Radha and her friends, so they beat him up. So, to commemorate that, men parade through the Dauji temple and get covered in red water and the women rip the men’s clothes off and beat them withtheir clothes. We managed to score a spot on the roof with the soldiers and had a bird’s eye view of the whole event which was incredible.

The fanfare was again chaotic and colourful, however this time I was safe out of harm’s way. Thousands of people participate and it felt vibrant and light. The chalk was still freely thrown but with care and playfulness, not malice, and my personal space today remained intact. I really enjoyed the celebrations at Barsana and highly recommend making the trip if you’re here for Holi, I even got interviewed for Indian television. Bonus!

In the evenings, everything calms down and I had the opportunity to explore the many temples of the area and chat to some Hare Krishna’s who explained to me the importance of Holi. In summary, I think Holi is well worth the visit and the rituals at the temples, Barsana and Mathura, on the peripheral days are enjoyable. My tip would be to stick to the back streets if you’re in Vrindivan and you will enjoy it a lot more.

Girls, don’t go alone. I rarely say that as I traipse around the world on my own, but I am so thankful for having Alessandro by my side because it was quite a difficult situation to be in alone and he deterred a lot of the carry on, and still it was rowdy and unacceptable.

So was it Happy Holi – I think yes but I’ll be rethinking my plans for Deepvali to ensure my safety and comfort during these mass celebrations.

 

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim