What a difference a day — in this case, a 14-hour flight and a 6-hour layover — makes. I left Coimbatore, South India, and climbed aboard a flight to Sydney, NSW, Australia on September 3, 2015 in the wee hours of the morning. Swamini Pramananda (Ammaji) and I had returned to the Coimbatore ashram just two days earlier, after spending almost a week at Swami Dayananda’s ashram on the banks of the Ganges River, in Rishikesh. (Situated on the banks of the sacred Ganges, Rishikesh has grown tremendously since my first visit in 1982. Considered the gateway to the Himalayas, Rishikesh became a well-known spiritual destination when the Beatles dropped by for a visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram (now in ruins). Seekers and tourists still flock to Rishikesh in hopes of finding a teacher or teaching that will help them ‘find’ themselves.)
Ammaji, Swami Siddhabodhananda and I traveled to Rishikesh after learning that Swamiji had elected to stop the dialysis treatments he had been receiving for the past 3.5 years. We understood that when someone stops dialysis they typically have between one-to-four weeks to live. Not wanting to take any chances, we rushed to Rishikesh to see Swamiji before he dropped his body.
Swamiji’s ashram was filling up with visitors when we arrived. Current and former students from India, the U.S., England and other parts of the globe were still arriving, as well as devotees from throughout India. During the week I was there, it seemed as if everyone; including many of those who had taken Sannyas (renunciation) and were now wearing orange, had shown up. Everyone was concerned and saddened about the poor state of Swamiji’s health. Throughout his life, this generous teacher had taken thousands of us under his wing and freely shared the life-changing wisdom contained in the Vedas.
Others with whom I had studied under Swamiji’s tutelage in Northern California and several who had been students at his ashram in Pennsylvania, where I was a staff member, were there, too. Although the occasion that brought us together again certainly wasn’t a happy one, it was good to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen for such a long time.
The morning after our arrival, and thanks to my friends who invited me in to his room, I saw Swamiji for a few brief moments. It was difficult to see my first and most beloved spiritual teacher in such frail condition; he had always been so vibrant and full of life. Although he was almost blind, nearly deaf and lying in a hospital bed, when he squeezed my hand, I felt that he knew I was there. Whether he truly did or not, the belief that he did gives me comfort, even now. I thought then that the unconditional love we shared and the heartfelt gratitude I felt toward him had been acknowledged.
On another personal note, one of the things I love about his ashram in Rishikesh is the daily evening Arati (a ceremony during which camphor wicks are lit and the light offered, in this case, to the sacred Ganges). After the puja (prayers) in the temple, the priests and the gathered ‘congregation’ turn to face the Ganges as it flows past the ashram. While singing Ganga Stotram, the joyful song in honor of this holy river, the Temple priest shows the light, the gates below the temple open, and the Ganges appears. There is something magical about seeing Ganga when they open the gate that touches my heart every time.
Within a few days of our arrival, word went out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called Swamiji and urged him to continue his dialysis treatments. While I knew that Swamiji was a highly respected spiritual teacher throughout India, I had no idea until then that Modi considered Swamiji his guru. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every countrys’ leader(s) had a guru or spiritual advisor? Perhaps they do. In any case, at the urging of Modi and others, Swamiji tentatively agreed to continue dialysis, for the short term.
Because I had already scheduled my flight to Australia, I had to leave Rishikesh in early September, not knowing how much longer Swamiji would be with us. Ammaji graciously traveled back to the Coimbatore ashram with me, escorted me to the airport two days later, only to return to Rishikesh and Swami Dayananda’s ashram. I deeply appreciated the kind and loving send-off that she, Parvathi, the ashram cook and the driver, Sringarvelu, gave me at the airport. When I left India, I had every intention of returning in January.
After a brief layover in Sydney I took a puddle-jumper to Coffs Harbour, a charming beach-side community midway between Sydney and Brisbane, where my host friend lives. She and I had met at a spiritual retreat center in North Carolina several years earlier and she had graciously invited me to visit her sometime in the ‘land down under.’ We connected while preparing meals at that center and since Australia is much closer to India than it is to the U.S., I decided to accept her kind invitation on my way home.
This would be my first time in Australia, and I had a small bucket list I hoped to check off. Ever since my childhood, I have been fascinated by the call of the Laughing Kookaburra. I’m not sure where I would have heard about that bird or its call as a child, but I was thrilled when I heard it at my friends’ home and retreat center, Hill of Fire Sanctuary. I heard that laugh almost every morning at dawn and then again at dusk. Their call sounds like a variety of trills, chortles, belly laughs, and hoots. It starts and ends with a low chuckle and has a wonderful shrieking “laugh” in the middle.
One of my greatest thrills happened one morning when a Laughing Kookaburra flew in while we were feeding bread to several Magpies that called Kamala’s land home!
This ‘Kooka’ landed on a tree about 3’ from where I was standing. When my friend told me what it was, you have to know that my heart skipped several beats. OMG! A real Laughing Kookaburra. I had no idea they were so big or that one would simply sit there, within just feet of me. I love bird watching — and to have what I considered a life bird so close was a thrill beyond belief.
I loved Australia, the people I met there, and, of course, their wonderful accent. My friends’ place was a 15-minute walk to the beach and about that long a
drive to the center of town. We began every day with an hour of silent meditation, followed by a simple shared breakfast. We alternated lunch preparation and made that the main meal of the day, leaving me with time to assist her in her gardens, read and keep up with friends around the world via a reliable internet connection.
I had gone to Australia with the idea of assisting Kamala with some projects, mainly helping her clean up the gardens on her five acres of land, as well as experiencing some of the sights. After several weeks in Coffs Harbour, I rented a car and traveled up the North Coast toward Queensland. This was an adventure in itself since Australians drive on the other (left) side of the road, while the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. Fortunately, Kamala had taken me out for a driving lesson, so I had a somewhat educated sense of what it felt like to drive ‘English style,’ and through the ubiquitous roundabouts you’ll find in Australia.
I had two goals in mind on my driving tour; 1) to visit the Crystal Castle and Shambala Gardens, a spiritually based tourist attraction, and 2) Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. As soon as I learned about the Crystal Castle, its strong energetic pull called me there! Situated in Mullumbimby, in what is known as the hinterlands of Byron Bay — a charming, albeit tourist-filled town boasting a hippie/
tourist-vibe and tons of restaurants and shops — the Crystal Castle has its own unique energy, created in large part by the presence of monolithic gemstones, a 4-meter tall Buddha from East Asia, and the first Kalachakra Stupa in the Southern Hemisphere, dedicated to world peace and the Tibetan people. (Sorry about this long, long sentence!)
My wonderful airbnb hostess, Pamela, accompanied me to the Crystal Castle, a short 10-minute drive into the foothills from her home. We arrived at the Kalachakra Stupa in time to listen to a recorded message and prayer byThich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Vietnamese teacher and Zen monk. Following this, we circumambulated the Stupa, spinning the prayer wheels as we went.
Strolling through the gardens, we walked a peaceful Chartres Cathedral-based labyrinth, and listened to the fascinating sounds of plant ‘music.’ I could go on and on about the Crystal Castle, but no words I might conjure could do it justice. Brief commercial: If you can get yourself to NSW, Australia, I highly recommend a visit to the Crystal Castle! To learn more about the Crystal Castle and how it came to be, click this link: http://www.crystalcastle.com.au/
Another of my hearts’ desires was to see Koalas — those cute, lovable tree hugging leaf-eaters that so many of us adore. Because they are nocturnal, extremely shy and endangered — due largely to destruction of their habitat and the Eucalyptus trees whose leaves they eat — I quickly understood that seeing them in the wild would be pretty unlikely. As much as I dislike the idea of seeing meant-to-be-wild creatures in zoos or enclosed environments, I accepted the fact that if I wanted to see Koalas, I would have to drop my resistance and travel to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, just over the border in Queensland.
In spite of my initial reluctance, I was glad that I went to Currumbin. The Koalas were delightful and seemed well fed and compassionately cared for.
Their enclosures were clean and they seemed relaxed; one reason for that might be that they get ‘stoned’ from the Eucalyptus leaves that make up their diet & generally spend their time sleeping it off! They moved like little sprites from tree to tree, snuggling up and sharing branches with their mates.
Before returning to Kamala’s and my impending flight back to the states, I stayed at a second airbnb; a beautiful home nestled deep in the Rainforest with a lovely young couple.
We hit it off from the moment we met and enjoyed each others’ company so much that instead of staying only one night as planned, I stayed for three! I experienced such a wonderful, peaceful, spiritual energy there; enhanced by the many Buddhist and Hindu statues, oriental style bridges and little stone gardens surrounding the house.
It’s fascinating to see how easily strangers can become friends and brings to mind the quote: “There are no strangers; just friends we haven’t met yet.” This was my experience in both airbnbs as well as throughout my Australian journey. If there is a particular take-away from my journey over the six months of travel in India, Australia and in-between, it is that the majority of people are genuinely kind and caring. The kindness of strangers is not a myth at all, but a wonderful reality everywhere I traveled.
I had one more bucket list wish to fulfill before leaving Australia: to see kangaroos in the wild. While I saw a large herd at Currumbin, as well as a couple of tree kangaroos — something I didn’t even know existed until then, I was told that ‘wild’ kangaroos often frequented a neighborhood not too far from Kamala’s home. And that was exactly where I found them, grazing like deer on someones’ front lawn. The most exciting thing about this particular sighting was the bonus element:
the largest of the two ‘roos on the lawn had a joey in her pouch . . . when mama bent over to eat the grass, herlittle one popped its head out of the pouch and munched on grass, as well. I had been warned that kangaroos can be quite aggressive, especially with a joey in the pouch, so I took this photo from the safety of my rental car.
A week or so after my return to Kamala’s, I received an e-mail from a friend who has been living in Cuenca, Ecuador for the past year. In that e-mail he invited me to visit him in Cuenca, and stay as long as I wanted.
Since I had decided that 2016 would be my year of saying YES to whatever presented itself (within reason), I am now in Cuenca, Ecuador. I invite you to travel with me in my next post and share the adventure as it unfolds here in South America! Until next time,