Travel Log

Here is the River of Sound 2007 itinerary from Gina Salá.

February 21 - Seattle to Delhi

10 of us meet at the airport in Seattle, some of us for the first time. Sarah and Leza are already enjoying Seoul (wearing Asiana blankets in the surprising cold).

From the US, we fly to Seoul, and experience the last of the spic and span chrome rails and such, as well as wild wild shopping in the fancy duty free shops, before continuing our journey to a very different airport (Delhi) arriving in the wee hours of Feb. 23 thanks to date line etc. We pile into Kwallis's and arrive at our hotel.

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February 23 - Delhi

We meet in the big green room for chai, veg pakora and sundries and singing our names - the harmonium arrives, newly made! We learn to greet in Hindu Indian culture (Namaste) and about not pointing feet and some other tidbits. We learn to say Dunyavaad among other things and have a song to the Devi and our first call and response Ganesha Mantra and Gayatri.

Ganesha Mantra - for beginnings and removing obstacles!
Vakratunda Mahaakaya
suryakoti samaprabha
nirvighnum kuru me deva
sarvakaryeshu sarvadaa Om

This day we head out in taxis and Blaires little red car (complete with Ganesha altar - all Hindu cars in India have little altars in the front - another way that the spirituality is integrated with the culture, and perhaps a way that the seeming chaos of the roads remains amazingly safe!)

On the afternoon we enjoy an amazing performance and overview of Indian Classical Music with Vishal Nagar on tabla, Ujwaal his brother singing, an amazing sarod player and Urmila Nagar - who has been honored nationally for her contribution to Indian art and culture. We find ourselves sitting and singing along with a bhajain to the divine mother, keeping track of the Indian tals (16 beat, that builds energy leading back to the one) and even dancing a divine Kathak dance with ancient mudra (sacred gestures!) What a full bodied and enthusiastic welcome to Indian culture!

We enjoy a big delicious meal at Udupi in the afternoon sun, then head back to the hotel weary and ready for a rest, after greetings by Sunny and Hunny.

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February 24 - Varanasi

We rise, chant Gayatri and Devi chant to Divine Feminine again and our names and do a check-in. Then we head out to the airport to fly to Varanasi. A short flight later with better than usual plane food, we reach the airport, met by a sign welcoming us to the holy city of Varanasi.

Piled into old ambassador taxis (rounded like cars from those old movies) and wending through wild streets with crowded bazaars and more Indian traffic, we arrive at Assi ghat, the last main ghat downstream at the Ganges in Varanasi, a sacred pilgrimage spot. We are met at Divya with Jagdish who gives us lovely garlands, and an aarti blessing (waving of the lights) and a cold drink. From here, young strong guys move most of our things to Sahi where most of us stay over looking Ganga.

Dinner overlooking Assi ghat as the sunsets - yum - at Divya! Then we all head to the Academy of Classical Indian Music where Deobrat Mishra gives us a history and overview of Varanasi known over the millennia by several names as a Holy city of Shiva and we sing together to Shiva with the city name as Kashi: Hare hare mahadeva shambho, kashi vishwanath gange! A few chants later, after a full day, we head back to bed (though Lori and Sarah stay at Divya and continue singing in the energy of the evening)!

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February 25 - Varanasi

Morning: 8am - Indian style yoga class - just to show us how its done!;-) Soren keeps his yoga mat though! Also pranayama (breathing) and brief meditation and chant Indian style. The vedic mantra recitation is profound and lovely. Then yummy breakfast at the academy followed by sargam practice with the lovely Soniji (practice of the scale - sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa) for an hour, then kirtan and chant with Debu for the second hour.

Then - in the rare spring rain - we head to Hotel Temple for lunch overlooking the Ganga. Then freetime (much shopping!)

Evening: Master Classical Indian Sitar concert with Pundit Shivnath Mishra (Debu-ji's father) and Debuji, as well as an honoring of some visiting Tibetan monks (who offer chanting blessing) and demonstration of children tabla students. Very inspiring and beautiful evening, though others are enjoying other delights of the city.

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February 26 - Varanasi

Sargam and song lesson with Soniji followed by chant and kirtan with Debuji and tabla players.

Evening: We enjoy a delicious Indian meal at the Mishra's academy, and then we all are invited for a traditional full Shiva puja and abhihekhi ceremony at a local pujari (temple). Members of our group are invited to offer the milk, honey yogurt lights, flowers and more as well as chanting "On Namah Shivaya" all guided by two Brahmin Priests.

For my part I wait outside and am really touched by how many people - over 20 - come by to offer their heartfelt devotions at the pujari. Many light little candles of ghee, others just chant, others prostrate, leaving their shoes in piles. It is beautiful to see how well used this tiny shrine to Shiva is by regular locals who pass by to remember and honor God in a familiar way.

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February 27 - Varanasi

Morning Ganges boat ride: we meet just before dawn and are given a long boat ride up and down the ghats to see the people worshipping at the Sacred Ganges. It is believed by Hindus that bathing in the Ganges, especially in Varanasi, has tremendous merit and ability be freed from the wheel of Samsara (where we are reborn to repay karmic debts and evolve).

We see men women and children splashing and worshipping in many ways: women in colorful sarees and kurtas, men in small loongies, shorts or - in the case of the sadhus - often nothing at all. It is another of Indias paradoxes, that the women bathe fully clothed and for men it is clothing-optional. The candle boats are beautiful on the Ganges, and we also offer candles on boats made of leaves filled with flowers, each with the prayers of our hearts.

Lots of picture taking and we chant Gayatri Mantra at sunrise as so many have done for thousands of years there. There are people dressed like Shiva, others making lingams of mud on the banks, others prostrating, others splashing and playing, others singing ... there are as many ways to worship here in this holy city as there are people. One of the beauties of Hinduism is a tolerance for many ways of expressing or worshipping the divine. Early in the vedas it says, "God is one, people know it by different names".

We head back to the Sahi River Guest House and eat breakfast there in the morning sunlight, enjoy a brief couple of chants before free time.

Afternoon: Class with Soniji - more sargam practice and learning of the thans (parts of the song that are like improvised sections). Then kirtan with Deobrat and some demos in differences between thumri, khayal, ghazal and dhrupad styles of singing, followed by an impromptu and participatory bhajain performance with Debu and me.

Evening: After dinner, most of us head out in bicycle rikshaws two by two to attend a concert where we are invited by a music professor of BHU who is who is also singing. Its a wild ride through the Muslim district and other areas not frequented by tourists and several say its a highlight, as we are in a long winding procession through the streets, with much giggling. We arrive to the sounds of santoor, that is meditative and soothing and has an immediate soporific effect on many of us. Then there is tabla demonstration by those being honored for their virtuosity followed by a dhrupad performance by the man who has invited us as his guests: Ritwik Sanyal.

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February 28 - Varanasi to Haridwar

Breakfast at Sahi and packing up. We are given warm farewell from Divya (chai, flowers) and then head to the train station with our helpers Shambo and Premod (who has been giving ayurvedic massages to those who have wanted them - Louise was first!).

Alas, train is late, and the station is toxic, so we had to Hotel Surya where Annette amazingly manifests that swim she's been wanting and takes a dip in the pool (is even given a suit to wear). The rest of us change money at the bank and enjoy a leisurely lunch, appreciating the service of Divya, and head back to the station.

Fumes are strong, I feel for the ones actually burning the lead pant off the walls. A small girl, like so many - maybe 3 years old - is asking for rupees over and over, even after I give her a meal and she gets many rupees. I have a sense its not rupees she needs (though whoever is sending her out may want them), and wonder how much tenderness she receives. she is so young. I offer my lap and she sits on it and several of us sing to her "Sundara Jyoti". Jyoti which means light, is her name, and sundara means beautiful - both words are totally fitting for her. She rests in the song and hug for a few minutes, then suddenly jumps down. When she leaves I shed big tears for her and all the children who work like that from such a young age. By the way there is an organization called Butterfly that is helping out these children. I'll get and send more info if you're interested.

A little while later, a westerner with a guitar starts playing. A Tibetan monk puts a coin in front of him as a joke, to pay him. We join in. A crowd forms. We are all singing: an Indigo Girls song, a Beatles song and some others. Then we start some Indian songs - muslim and hindu and sing along. Once again, music has turned a group of strangers into a bunch of people connecting. Suddenly someone mentions that train is here, and almost all the group assembled runs for the train - almost having missed it! Several of us continue with a few Indians with some chant and chat until our train arrives.

Then - the allnight ride to Haridwar! Many of our group say its the best sleep they've had so far in our little compartments. Something about being rocked to sleep and having no where to go but our bunks and visiting each other nearby. Karen and Leah and I are in a compartment with a lovely swami who, before our arrival, has converted the area into his little peach colored hermitage. Very restful - much needed after the noxious fumes that at least did their number on me and a couple others of us. Thanks for all the support!

Later in the morning, many of us sleep late. After some time, I offer some chants with my harmonium on the train. Then some Indian people poke their heads around and soon join in and then offer some of their own.

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March 1 - Rishikesh

Our train arrives in Haridwar, where we are blessed with some big drops of rain to again freshen and clean the air. Our wiry and strong porters dressed in red jackets carry our mounds of luggage on their heads as big fat drops of rain fall and clear the air. The fresh air feels great.

We pile into taxis and head through the Holy City of Haridwar (favorite home of my Guruji, Poonjanji). We drive through town, crossing over the Ganges river where the current is so strong that there are chains for pilgrims coming for their holy dip to hang onto. We pass a giant Shiva with a cobra around his neck, and again the Ganges river. Everything seems more spacious here.

We are heading to Rishikesh. Both Rishikesh and Haridwar are pilgrimage sites for the Ganges and great centers for the study of yoga. Swami Sivananda - a great swami/yogi saint who was the guru of the spiritual leader of the ashram where I lived as a child (Swami Sivanada Radha) - built his ashram and many service facilities here, along the gorgeous banks of the Ganges.

Where Varanasi has an intense Shiva energy – the energy of transformation (and destruction, as in the burning ghats, where we release what is ready to be released and feel the powerful Shiva energy) - Rishikesh to me has a more mellow “Ma” feeling. The Ganges is clean here, and it is surrounded on three sides by mountains - the beginnings of the Himalayas.  

We reach our ashram/hotel Yoga Niketan at Muni Ki Reti in Rishikesh, leaving our passports with Kukretiji who is writing the numbers and telling us where to sign. Our rooms here are spacious and clear and clean. The air is clean. Feels good to be here and, as we open our doors and windows onto the yard and the Ganges, we discover grass and a garden, which is rare here! Several of us greet the Ganges, grateful for its cleanliness. I feel a buzz from the Ganges River - millions have come to these spots to bathe and receive the blessings of the Ganges.

We shower and clean up, then head to what becomes our new favorite restaurant: The Madras Café! Yum! Kaju (cashew) curry is my favorite! After dinner, we walk across the Ram Joula bridge (dedicated to Ram), and go to the very large Parmarth Ashram. It so happens that we are here on the first day of the International Yoga Festival. We enjoy the aarti, including waving huge heavy holders of burning lights to the Ganges, celebrating the inner Divine Light in Ganga and each other. There are wonderful bhajains and kirtan, people offerings to the water, dogs and cows in the street, gorgeous baby calves, and more.

We listen to the chanting and festivities, each with our own prayer. Some of us attend a garwhal (Himalayan tribal) music and dance performance after a gatekeeper decides to open the gate to us. Jens is surrounded by young monks in the same shade of golden rod clothing as his shirt. They kneel and press all around him to watch the girls and boys dance as him! He blends in like a sunflower in summer!

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March 2 - Rishikesh

We awake to the gorgeous Surya – sun peeping over the Himalayas. There is a mist on the Ganges that is magical. We watch the sunrise at this sacred pilgrimage site as people have done for several thousand years, and chant together and meditate.

Gayatri Mantra - mantra of light/enlightenment!
Om Bhur Bhuvah Suvah
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi
Dhiyoyonah Prachodayaat

In earth, atmosphere and the realms beyond, we meditate on the sacred light of the effulgent Source. This inspires us and we are inspired along with the light of all aspects in all the realms to enlightenment and wisdom.

Bhuh – earth
Bhuvah – atmosphere
Svaha – heavens
Tat - that
Savituh (savitur) – of the source
Varenyam - to be held sacred
Bhargo – light
Devasya - of the effulgent
Dheemahi - we meditate on
Dhiyah (dhiyo) - thoughts intentions, prayers
h (yo) - which (source)
h - Our
Pracodayaat – should direct, urge, inspire

From Vyaas Houston, Vagesh Shastriji and others as taught to Gina Salá.

This is a magical, beautiful morning - we also chant some call and response kirtan. Breakfast at Madras, including amazing Himalayan pancakes and muesli with pomegranate seeds. Some of us go and hear a teacher from Montreal at Sivananda Ashram who offers satsang.

We meet in the grass by the Ganges to connect in heart and voice and share insights and feelings and satsang. Then we head out to explore … many people shopping and exploring this town, some getting ayurvedic massages, etc. Some of us meet a wonderful ayurvedic doctor who describes our doshas and gives us insight and suggestions. He goes every day to volunteer at a clinic and his giggle is wonderful.

We meet later for more yummy dinner … family style now! Evening time some chanting outside, connecting with each other and sharing of chocolate before bed.

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March 3 - Rishikesh and Himalayas

Sunrise and chanting again at the gorgeous Ganges River. I share the  “Light Invocation”. This is the practice that is a translation from the tantric text “Saundarya Lahari”. The words came to me via Swami Sivanada Radha, who met her Guru Swami Sivananda and practiced with him just meters from where we are sitting, and the melody is something that came to me (Gina) and which I sing ever day. It is:

O Divine Mother, may all my speech and idle talking be mantra
All actions of my hands be mudra
All eating and drinking be as offering of oblations unto Thee
All lying down as prostrations before thee
All pleasures be as dedicating my entire self unto Thee
May everything I do, and all I am, be taken as Thy worship.

10 of us meet again for breakfast at Madras Café and - after a slow start where I am feeling into some different possibilities for Holi, and where Lori and Leza decide to stay in Rishikesh area - we pile into two large Kwallis taxis (like giant landrovers), with our wonderful Garwhali guide Mahavir, whom I met in Vasistha cave a year before.

We head out and find our new favorite place to eat: a little stop on the side of the road near Deoprayag. We are served beautiful dahl, rice, chapatti and sabji (vegetables) and curry with luscious chai. A group of men and women gather across the street and just stay in a big huddle watching us with friendly faces. The town is beautiful. We eat, use a bathroom all painted blue – traipsing through a spare home that someone has offered - and then pile back into the kwallis. We sing Amazing Grace for our lovely hosts.  Karen and Louise, who had thought they’d only come for a day trip, decide to continue onward, so we all decide we will spend the night.

We continue driving on winding roads, filled with humorous and caring cautionary signs like

Hurry makes worry
Speed Thrills but Kills
Mind Your Driving
If you are married, divorce speed
Speed thrills, speed kills
License to drive, not to fly
Round the bend, go slow friend
Sixty-six always sixer

This is one way to grow in faith! :)

At Deoprayag, we wind through narrow streets and see the beginnings of Holi festivities, as dogs and cows are colored with some holi color. A few of us buy warm shawls. Deoprayag is another main pilgrimage site. Here the Alakhnad and Bhagirathi rivers come together to form the Ganges. And what a union it is! Swirling and gushing. Many people comment on how they could feel the energy. I ring the bell and dip it in Ma Ganga as folks release abundantly laden flower boats made of fresh leaves with ghee candles and incense, along with prayers, singing:

Twameva Mata cha pitaa twameva
twameva bandhush cha sakhaa twameva
twameva vidyaa dravinum twameva
twameva sarvam mama deva deva

You are my mother and my father
You are my friend and my Beloved (companion)
You are all wisdom and all my necessities
You are the all in all, the God in all

This is high shakti energy. Then we return back, past the cave with the sadhu who welcomes us, up the streets to the taxis. We drive some more in the beautiful mountains. Beautiful goats are all over the road in front of us, and one sweet calf who keeps running in front opens our heart and thankfully pulls over. At one point, we encounter a landslide rock pile that the car can’t go around, but Mahavir has arranged two more rugged vehicles to meet us on the other side, so we continue our journey without a hitch, and land at a spot that Mahavir says is the “short walk” to his village.

We look across the value and see a few neighbors houses across the valley. Men playing a game while drinking chai and children playing on a roof welcome us with smiles. We have biscuits and chai. Then we set out, and before we can wonder about the long walk ahead, an elderly woman with a big bundle on her head emerges, climbing up hill toward us with great energy. The greens and colors are gorgeous, and the air and birds crystalline. So we walk and enjoy the gorgeous approaching sunset. Mahavir is clearly glad to be coming home, and tells us some about the people and land. We see the sunset in the Himalayas just before we arrive at his home.

We arrive in a beautiful rustic home, along small paths. Drummers meet us to celebrate our arrival. We are given drinks and sit around a fire. Mahavir regales us with wild puranic tales of the Hindu gods.  One he recounts is the origin of Hanuman - he’s called son of the wind because Vishnu blew him in a whisper to the belly of a clear holy woman, after he caught Shiva’s “power”. (These stories are later representatives, symbolic of the Divine as it relates to manifestation and go deeper than reasoning. They are meant to stir the heart and cause remembrance and connection to a real sense of divine energy and power.) 

Later that night, we dance under the full moon as is traditional at Holi – the festival that is being celebrated all over India with colors, and connecting with people to mark the clearing of any tensions in relations, fresh beginnings and love and joy in community. This, Mahavir tells us, is the true spirit of Holi. So as drummers sing and play, and goats and cows bed down, and an adorable dog keeps watch, we dance under the bright moon. When we stop dancing, Mahavir encourages us to continue by raising his fingers in the air. Jens jokes that there’s a camera and we’re being broadcast on the interenet, “Hi Mom – see I’m doing a traditional Indian dance”. Then he really dances up a Shiva storm.

After another yummy supper, we head into the house which is small but welcoming, sleeping on mats and beds.

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March 4 (Holi) - Himalayas

Annette wakes up and finds the lunar eclipse in the wee hours, and tells Louise, who is sitting outside but has not noticed it. Then Sarah, her bedmate for the night, also gets up and watches it. They tell us it was incredible.

The goats jump around in great vertical hops that send us giggling. We are served a delicious breakfast, including the world’s best porridge. We practically lick the pot, as the milk is sweet and fresh from the cow near us. We all put on our white Holi clothes, and laugh that we’re dressed up so traditionally (since no one else dresses like that). 

We process up to Mahavir’s Durga temple, and chant some more to the Divine Mother, as he offers prayers and incense. Then we have a delicious meditation in the sun, overlooking the valley and the Himalayas. We start to hear the festivities of Holi – people laughing and singing, across the valley.  Then the colors come out! Gathering handfuls of Holi powder, we “bless” eachother and hug, along with the locals who are with us and whom we meet on the way, until we are all decorated with green, pink, yellow, grey and red all over our faces and on some of our clothes. Ahh…so that’s the beauty of this clothing!

Then we change clothes and prepare to travel up to the roadway. It looks like a long and steep walk, but our guides and Mahavir take our time. Anything is possible. We are able to travel at our own paces, and support each other without feeling a rush. Soren is a slow guide. We like that pace. Louise is practically lifted up by a group of angel women at the end, after passing a gorgeous tree. Some of us sing on the way.

At the top of the hill, we meet the road where the truck will be waiting, but more rock falls mean we will need to walk from there the short 10 minute walk to our vantage point. We meet Nepali boys who are working on the road, and I sing for them some songs I learned in the Himalayas of Nepal. Then they sing along and share more songs. They are beautiful, and working so hard breaking and moving rocks. We can tell they enjoy us and we enjoy them.  We hike to a spot, get more tea and chai and look out over to the bigger white Mama Himalayas. What a view.  Then we hike back to the cars and head back to Rishikesh, this time more brave on the windy roads.

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March 5 - Rishikesh

Sunrise gathering at the Ganges in front of our hotel. Every morning is an incredible light show!  More chanting, including sargam and akaram (the movement between the notes in slow ways, it feels like a massage of the body and soul to me - and I feel blessed to be there).

Breakfast for most of us at Amrit on the banks of the Ganges, with the effusive light all around which you can almost touch. We make plans for a celebration of Leza’s coming “motherhood” and Shankara agrees to buy the garlands in town.

We head out, people shop, and enjoy our day in Rishikesh. I end up walking a lot, meeting with my Rishi friend Puneet, who is simple and lovely in his wisdom: “Think, who can be happier than me, love and peace to all?” One person says she feels he looks right through to her soul. He’s a deep well and I’m glad to know him.

Then at evening time, sunset, we gather at the banks of the Ganga. It is India time, so some of us are a bit delayed in preparations, but we meet and chant at the Ganga, and then enjoy the aarti and chanting that is happening directly across the river from us (and which we attended our first night.)

We then walk to Amrit Café again. Shankara brings us warm drinks, and Lori with her abundant Ma heart of blessing begins the process as a Mama blessing a mama. This is a “surprise baby shower”, and we all offer Leza garlands, gifts and blessings, as she will leave the next day (as she had arranged before the trip began) to begin her life as a new mother! She will be wonderful we know, as she has been sharing her generous mama heart with children and animals all along. 

Then we have a delicious meal. The Puja part of the meal is going to buy food for the local sadhus. One policeman, who has been partying mad celebrating Holi on his day off, city-style and a day late, is very taken with the “chief guest”. We have photos, and head to bed, as the big orange moon - caught on film by Lori - rises.

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March 6 - Rishikesh to Delhi

This is our day of departure. We get up and pack up, and pile into taxis to Vasistha Cave. This is the cave where the great sage Vasistha and many others meditated in silence and power.

(The seer sage Vasistha was a guru for Lord Rama of the Ramayana and of Vishwamitra. Vishwamitra was a king who met Vasistha on a hunting expedition and saw his magical cow that would produce bounty. Vishwamitra’s mix of his good heart and strong ego caused him to begin to want to overpower vishwamitra over the years, but that very ego, according to the legend, is also a blessing that fueled him on his spiritual path, even as it caused him suffering. Finally, in frustration, he is about to kill Vasistha, and overhears him blessing him. In that moment, he humbly realizes the great heart of the sage, touches his feet and receives Divine inspiration. His practices have brought him to the point of surrender, and at that point the Divine pours through him as the Gayatri Mantra, as a grace to all for enlightentment and the support of the light of all the beings in all the worlds.)

After the story, we meditate in the cave, where candle lights an ancient shiva lingam. Amazingly, we have the cave to ourself, and the power is palpable. Some head out to the Ganges and others follow later just as some Indian pilgrims arrive about an hour later. Most of us dip and swim in the beautiful power of the Ganges, with hawks circling and gorgeous mountains. Its hard to leave. I feel cleansed and ready for the next part of our journey.

We head back to the hotel and gather our bags, taking two lage taxis to Delhi. After a stop at kind of a surreal fancy restaurant on the way, we make our longish but scenic journey to Delhi. Delhi seems a bit of a shock to the system after the peace and clean energy of Ganges and Vasistha cave.

The taxi arrives for our beloved Leza and she leaves us to go to the airport. Sarah and Lori head to a 5-star hotel, feeling the effects of the toxic smells of the road and cleaners. The rest of us hit the hay.

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<To be continued...>