Monday, November 30, 2009

Back to Boats

21 November 2009 - Langkawi, Malaysia.

Royal Langkawi Yacht Club.

I was delirious from jetlag and immigration issues when [bxA] I arrived at the massive Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta farewell dinner at the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club.

Forty-eight hours ago I was posing for photos with Sikh teenagers in a rock garden in Chandigarh, India. How did I get here? One of my roomies at the ashram, Tura, a loving girl who gave great hugs and traveled with a stack of deflated soccer balls she was delivering to an orphanage in Nepal, once explained to me in her adorable Spanish accent that we travel by air, but our karma travels by camel.

I made my way through the mingling yachties out to the main area where white clothed tables were arranged on a platform erected over the swimming pool, set to the backdrop of sailboats moored along jetties. Fiona ran up to hug me and I was struck by her goddessness. I had forgotten she’s nine feet tall with a personality as untamed as her curly brown hair. She introduced me to the Sirius captain and crew and we settled in for dinner at a table near the stage where trophies were passed out for the next hour or so.

(I'm standing on my tippy toes in this photo so as not to look like an oompah loompah next to Fuzz.)

The ceremony gave way to thumping loud American-wedding-dance-music (Celebration, Dancing Queen, Greased Lightening, The Twist…) and all the sailors bounced around happily after many days of hard racing in pouring down rain. In my sleep-deprived jet lag delirium, I mostly wandered through the festivities in a daze, engaging in a few quiet conversations about things that reminded me I’ve committed, once again, to join a boat full of potential lunatics for a journey that will ultimately lead to God knows where.

Here we go…

[Alyssa: WE MISS YOU!!!]

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Chandigarh Rocks

19 November 2009 – Chandigarh, India. Rock Garden with art sculptures made from ‘urban waste materials’ by Nek Chand.

With just a few hours left my last day in Chandigarh, I made a list of all the errands I must do before leaving for Malaysia[bxA], walked out to the main road, hailed a motor rickshaw and commanded the driver, “take me to the rock garden!” Huh? Where did that come from? What about the list in my pocket? All the things I must do? They can wait. Abhishek said I’d love the rock garden.

I got there just before dusk thinking I’d wander aimlessly listening to my ipod. At the entrance there were a couple dozen Sikh teenagers who’d just finished their tour.

One of them asked to take a photo with me. This is a phenomenon I won’t try to explain now, but people love to take photos with westerners (they especially love to take photos with Alyssa, but when she’s not around, a photo with me will do.) After I posed with the first guy, pandemonium ensued.

Everyone wanted a photo. I only got a few with my camera, but they all had mobiles and the photo shoot went for a good 20 minutes, costing me precious daylight to explore the garden, but it was much fun and totally worth it. They took turns carefully asking me my name, which is now officially ‘Alexandra’ to strangers because I can no longer defend the ‘Ali’ thing. It’s a boy’s name.

Eventually I made my way into the rock garden, which blew me away. The sign said it sprawls over twelve acres, and it does. I got lost and had to be rescued by two adorable Sikh boys who made it their mission to lead me through the maze of walls and statues and rocks.

It was like Houston-Montrose-Folk-Art meets Xian-China-Terracotta-Warriors. Abhishek was right, I loved it. Made me think of Nikki’s dad and his propensity to not only landscape, but build artful constructs in yards of apartments he was only renting. A thread always weaves me back to Houston…

Link here for more photos on Picasa (click on photo to open Picasa album).

Chandigarh Rocks

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Metal & The Maldives (Esquire Explained)

Metal in the Maldives...

I just got to civilization after a few days at sea to find these great photos from Alyssa in my in-box (of the Maldives boys). Thanks, Assie! You rock. The seemingly unknown Brian posted a link to John H. Richardson's Esquire column this week. You can read what I have to say about metal in the Maldives there, but wanted to share these great photos of the guys that jammed all day every day while we were hanging out on the Addu Atoll in March. In fact, one of Alyssa's and my favorite memories is our farewell-to-Millennium dinner, where we couldn't really talk because the guys were jamming so loud. We loved it! Oh, and the Esquire article contains a great photo of Umair's band in Pakistan (Umair worked with me at BofA in London - thanks, Umair!) so check it out. [bxA]

Blackberries and Bananas

16 November 2009 - Chandigarh, India. Abhishek's Blackberry (text is blurred to protect the inncocent...and I didn't have Abhishek's permission to take this photo, for the record).

I journeyed seven hours north of Rishikesh to meet Abhishek, a close friend and colleague from London whose wife just had a baby so they’re visiting her parents in the modern and beautiful city of Chandigarh. I got in late so Abhishek and I dined alone, indulging in work-talk while feasting on chicken, mutton and beer (after 6 weeks of no meat or alcohol).

Abhishek’s Blackberry sat on the table [bxA]and it really haunted me, the little red flashing light beckoning him to read new messages. His Blackberry is identical to my old Blackberry, which I seriously considered pitching into the Thames when I left my job last year, but decided I didn’t want to do that to the Thames. Abhishek and I had exactly the same job –both VPs covering BofA’s EMEA Healthcare portfolio, working on the same clients, same acquisitions etc.

During our recent dinner, when Abhishek went to the loo, I peeked at his Blackberry to find the same old emails that were in my Blackberry over a year ago – same clients and coworkers, not even the subject lines have changed. That tiny little appliance was like a Pandora's box containing a galaxy of dynamic problems and prospects and obligations and responsibilities and anxiety and nerves and excitement and passion...with just a tiny red light flashing in the periphery of everything I did all day and night.

My Blackberry was always with me. I checked it the minute I woke up (my analyst was several hours ahead in India), after I crawled into bed at night (many bosses and business partners were several hours behind in the US), and just about every five minutes in between. I carried it around the office with me, to meetings, to lunch, even to the office loo where there was often more than one Blackberry sitting on the sink waiting to be retrieved by their owners. After work we’d all have our Blackberries on dinner tables in restaurants or on countertops at pubs…red lights flickering as we tried, in vain, to pretend like we weren’t thinking about work.

November 2009 - Rishikesh, India.

But now I think blackberries are a kind of fruit, like bananas.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


"How 'Master of Puppets' Wins Hearts and Minds"

Not sure what what that means and why it's appearing on Ali's blog (posted by someone who appears to be stranger no less)? Then you can follow this link to find out.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Menacing Monkeys

15 November 2009 – Rishikesh, India – monkeys on the path from Ram Jhula to Laxman Jhula.

Rishikesh monkeys are mad. They’re a menace. Utterly mischievous. My sister called one morning and asked what I was doing. I was doing my laundry again because a monkey had just danced on my clothes. I’m sure the little monster did it on purpose. I’d moved to a new hotel just on the banks of the river where, unlike my last hotel, it seemed the monkeys weren’t always casing the joint. I was happy and peaceful placing my white clothes over the balcony ledge, enjoying the view of the Ganges and the feeling of satisfaction [bxA] one gets from hand-washing clothes in a bucket...

But then I spotted him – several doors down on the shared balcony, arrogantly clutching a box he had assuredly stolen from a hotel room, and casually munching on the contents. He was watching me. My heart jumped, I quickly got my camera, snapped a photo and leapt back inside the door.

Just as I fastened the last latch on the door, I turned in time to see the little devil jumping on my clothes en route to his perch – where he could sit and watch me through the window. Grrrr. There I stood, confined by four walls, metal bars on the windows, trapped…while he sat smugly outside, in the free world, observing me in my captivity. Oh how adorable.

Here’s a monkey approaching pedestrians in Laxman Jhula, likely going after the food in their bags. A Lebanese woman studying Kundalini yoga at the Parmarth Ashram across the river told me she was dialing her mobile phone with one hand when a monkey snatched the apple from her other hand.

Crossing the pedestrian bridges over the Ganges is a feat often complicated by Times Square-like crowds cramming into the narrow space while pushcarts, motorbikes, and cows press into the madness going in either direction with absolutely no rhyme or reason as to how everyone should navigate through. The game is to try to move forward without getting squashed between people, run over by a motorbike, or hit with a filthy flapping cow’s tail…all the while not stepping in manure. Invariably I think I’m succeeding until I look up and notice in my oblivion I’ve forgotten to beware of the monkeys. They walk the railings of the bridges and I’m absolutely certain…they’re coming after me.

Here’s a link to more photos on Picasa (click on photo to open album).

Rishikesh Monkeys

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spiders and Beatles

5 November 2009 - Rishikesh, India - Abandoned Beatles Ashram.

On one of my wandering days I happened upon what seemed at first to be a little shanty town but after the turn of a corner I found a sign directing me to the Beatles ashram. [bxA]

It is closed to the public so I paid a 50 rupee bribe to the guard to get in. It’s spread over sprawling acres on the side of a mountain overlooking the Ganges and has all these big creepy abandoned buildings. Pretty spectacular – and you can imagine famous people flocking there in pursuit of enlightenment...because it has potential to be a fabulous spa.

There's a winding path that goes on probably a mile and overgrown trails to little, big and gigantic buildings you can creep into.

Two massive yoga halls are sprayed with graffiti honoring the Beatles.

There are a few massive buildings that provide housing for possibly hundreds of guest...then these funky little stone beehive-looking meditation huts.
I was alone and only spotted three other visitors when I was wandering the brush. Thought I might be in danger creeping through the dark abandoned buildings...then the security guard showed up looking for me. I was glad he was there to protect me until he started hitting on me - "are you maddied? i am bachelor" then tried to lead me into the nearly pitch black meditation caves. He told me there was some danger - wild animals attack and tigers mate but only in December and a couple months in the spring. Elephants too. Glad he came to protect me. He turned out to be harmless but I decided not to go back to his, um, room/shack place for tea. On my way back to town I ran into three friends from the yoga retreat and went back to the Beatles ashram with them, so I was there for hours.

All the tourists I talked to in Rishikesh wonder why the magnificent ashram is closed, but there doesn’t seem to be an explanation anywhere. The military guard dude told me the ashram was closed in the 90s by the government because the 100 year lease was up. I asked Kathy about it later, but all her guidebook said was not to go alone because there have been assaults. Oops. Kathy also heard something about there being a scandal with the Beatles' guru and Mia Farrow claiming harassment or something. I emailed John Richardson because he interviewed Mia a few years ago and she mentioned her time in India. Kathy found the hut number nine where John Lennon stayed and she heard they used to jam in the giant yoga hall with the meditation caves. I eventually found on the internet this great site with amazing photographs.

Someone posted an entry on that site with this explanation of the ashram’s history:

The ashram was abandoned in 1984 because the supreme court of India turned the whole place into a national park called the Shahaji National park. The Maharishi did not own this place and had it on lease. Once the ruling was passed, there was little the Maharishi could do but abandon the land. Just weeks before the place had to be abandoned, the local forest authorities told the ashram workers that they could take with them all that they could before the deadline and because of this there are no switchboards, taps, furniture and metal parts left in the ashram. Everything was ransacked and sold off in the local market.

The meditation halls were air conditioned… In the 1960’s n that too in an Indian forest! There was a helipad, a post office and a bank inside the ashram. All this made the place pretty remarkable.

A lot of private companies are interested in acquiring this property and turning it into a meditation resort but the Indian forest act does not allow this. Only government bodies are allowed to touch the place and Indian government being corrupt and lethargic, you can expect this place to rot and crumple one day for sure.

There is only one guard looking after the place. By law, no one is allowed to enter, but the guards are lenient and let people inside if you just hand them some money.

You can look at my photos on Picasa, but the site I linked above has way better photos.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Roaming Rishikesh

2-16 November 2009 - Rishikesh, India.

I hung out in Rishikesh for about two weeks after the ashram. It was great being lazy and chilling out in the town. A bunch of TTCers did yoga together at the Sivananda ashram each afternoon at 4:30pm. I met a psychologist from Minnesota and we agreed to meet for breakfasts/dinners most days and had nice talks about everything under the sun. It was pretty similar to my Beirut routine...coffees and wandering and meeting people...

Link to more photos on Picasa:

Lonely Planet says:
Ever since the Beatles rocked up at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late ’60s, Rishikesh has been a magnet for spiritual seekers. Today it styles itself as the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ – with some justification – as there are masses of ashrams and all kinds of yoga and meditation classes. Most of this action is north of the main town, where the exquisite setting on the fast-flowing Ganges, surrounded by forested hills, is conducive to meditation and mind expansion. In the evening, the breeze blows down the valley, setting temple bells ringing as sadhus (spiritual men), pilgrims and tourists prepare for the nightly ganga aarti ceremony.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


13 November 2009 - Rishikesh, India.

If you never say your name out loud to anyone
They can never ever call you by it

- Regina Spektor

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Hundred Sadhus...and Dad

My sister called early on the 6th to tell me my dad was in the hospital. I went to sleep that night contemplating the quickest way back to Houston, [bxA] but by morning Missy called to say Dad had undergone emergency surgery and was recovering. My original plan to return to the ashram would put me at least 6 hours further away from the New Delhi airport, but I decided the puja commemorating Swami Vishnu's Samadhi (the day he died) was a good place to be over the next few critical days.

Sajan had offered me a lift in the 2 jeep caravan transporting Swami Mahadevananda from New Delhi to Netala - he came in from Italy for the event. I was totally clueless and a little intimidated to join the caravan of revered Sivananda leaders, but Mathaji had said a hundred local sadhus were going to converge at the little yellow ashram, and I really wanted to be there. Sounded like the best thing to do for Mom & Dad too, since it was just about the only thing I could do.

I met the caravan at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh and got placed in the very back of the car carrying four priests, in from Kerala to bless the little yellow ashram in preparation for the ceremony on the 9th. I was really intimidated to be in the car with the priests and the flower petals (bags of fresh orange flowers for the offerings). I sat in the back seat in between Manmohan (our wonderful chef from TTC) and one of the younger priests...and I kept quiet. I learned later that the guy with grey dreds is a reeeally high ranking priest, 'the boss...the big boss' Italian Paulo told me. Turns out though, that Grey Dreds is not only super cool, but I'd venture to say a bit cheeky. A few hours into the journey we stopped for tea, but I declined a cup. Grey Dreds came over to me, all smiles and inquired, "no tea? no tea? don't be shy!" I was being so shy. When the tea was served I stood in the circle of priests outside the cafe and began, ever so slightly, to relax. Black Dreds was super cool too. I showed him a photo I snapped of him and he looked at it seriously, stroked his beard slowly and said, "mmmmm....blaaack," then grinned at me. I was totally diggin on their dreds and beards...and being from Texas it was impossible not to think of ZZ Top.

On the 8th, I walked past the asana hall to find the four priests, shirtless, sitting on the ground like happy kids in an art class, preparing the fire pit and creating the, um, colourful powder design thingy on the ground (it has a name and a great story about its meaning). I worked up the courage to ask if I could take photographs of them and they were happy to let me, but as soon as I got my camera, Mathaji assigned me karma duty and I was off...

Italian Paulo, Mahadev, Sajan and I spent the afternoon unbundling four giant bundles of about 250 blankets, and packaging each blanket in a separate plastic bag - a gift for each of the 115 sadhus expected on the 9th, the remainder to go to local school children.

After dinner the crew gathered in the kitchen, under Mathaji's direction of course, to chop vegetables for the feast on the 9th.

We did a puja on the 8th to bless the asana hall and the temple...and I received blessings from Grey Dreds and Swami Mahadevananda.

Around 11am on the 9th, the hundred sadhus (and swamis) started to trickle down the hill to the little yellow ashram.

Puja in the satsung hall...

...and then we served lunch in two shifts. I was passing out the little round sweets to a row of sadhus when Mathaji came up behind me and corrected me, "right hand! right hand. use your right hand." and the sadhu I'd just served with my left hand looked up at me and laughed heartily, "ahhh, yes...use your right hand."

...the women sadhus, who waited for the second shift to eat, started an assembly line to move the food stuffed gift bags into the asana all. Those bags weighed a ton.
...then we passed out the blankets.

...and then I indulged in photographing as many of the sadhus and swamis as I could during the hustle bustle outside the temple after the lunch. They were all so cool and happy to let me photograph them. There were over a hundred of them and only one of me, so I only got photographs of some. Link to this Picasa album for more great faces:

A Hundred Sadhus
'>Picasa Photos

...and just as they trickled in, the trickled out again.

Just before the event began, I told Lilaji about my mom & dad and that my dad was recovering from major surgery. She took me by the arm and led me straight to the tea spot where Grey Dreds and Black Dreds were packing to leave for Kerala (they did not stay for the puja). Lilaji told Grey Dreds about my dad's surgery while tears welled up in my eyes. Grey Dreds looked into my eyes then silently walked away, to his bag, and pulled something from a small bag. He came back with a brown dice and told me to shake it, then roll it onto one of the red plastic chairs in the tea spot. I rolled a five. He closed his eyes, looked into my eyes again and did the Indian head wiggle. The head wiggle?!? I don't understand the head wiggle!!! Is it good, is it bad??!!??? What is he saying? He did the head wiggle again, took my wrist, pulled me close and said, "do not worry. your dad is getting better. the medicines is working," Phew, thank goodness. The weight of the world lifted and my worry vanished. Lilaji told me I should/could prostrate at his feet, so I thanked him, kneeled down and prostrated at his feet, touching the bright orange Indian-version-of-Crocs he was wearing.

I spent the day grateful for the Dreded Priests and Lilaji for pushing me toward them (and my sister for keeping me in the loop back home). The ashram often reminds me of my parents Texas size backyard, which my mom decorates with Diwali style Christmas lights year round and my parents spend most nights on the patio, listening to Texas music and Adam Flint music, serving feasts and passing out drinks from the fridge in the garage.

Mom & Dad, I'm thinking of you and looking forward to my next backyard barbecue at the Flint house. Love you!

...everybody's gonna show
for another party on the patio.
-ZZ Top

Friday, November 6, 2009

Rafting Rishikesh

3 November 2009 - Ganges River, Rishikesh, India. (this is the raft behind us so don't try to find me)

It was the day after the car ride from the ashram so I wasn’t sure I was up for anymore adventure, but [bxA] decided it’s a rare opportunity to raft down the Ganges with friends. I’ll be traveling alone again soon. For now Rishikesh is crawling with Sivananda TTCers, but everyday another one of us heads off onto the next leg of our respective journeys. Five of us from the TTC joined a raft of strangers that morning. It was a great day, beautiful and relaxing except for the occasional exhilarating rapids with names like Return to Sender, Roller Coaster, and my favorite, Cash Flow. The raft guide would shout orders, “paddle forward, paddle forward!” Then right before the rapids whisked us away, he’d yell, “relax! relax! relax!” The first time we heard that instruction, Alejandro joked, “i am relaxing my toes and my feet… my toes and my feet are completely relaxed,” which is part of the dialogue we’ve all learned to guide the relaxation at the end of each yoga class.
This is Tristan & Krista - they're from Houston! Krista was in my dorm with me.

Alejandro's from Mexico, Carlos is from Guatemala...we are all from the Americas;)

Tristan was jumping off the rock into yoga positions. I did not brave this part of the adventure, but now I wish I did. It was all I could do to jump off the little rock at the ashram.

The day was peaceful until we could see Laksman Jhula Bridge up ahead and hear the faint sound of cars honking, motorbikes revving and see the crowds of people crossing the pedestrian bridge by the giant temple. It reminded me how much I love approaching cities by boat. It’s been a long time. Alyssa and I have gotten word from Captain John of Millennium. He’s still in Africa but I haven’t had time to read the email. I miss Millennium. Maybe I can convince Alyssa to meet me in South Africa for the sea passage across the Atlantic?

I am relaxing my brain, my brain is completely relaxed….