Zach O'Brien
Zach O'Brien
India 2013-2014
Namaste! I am a native Californian with a love for new experiences, meditation, and asking questions. I'm traveling to an Indian ashram called Amritapuri to join an environmental conservation project and study Sanskrit and yoga. Read More About Zach →

On to Kotagiri and back to the ashram

My last day in Bangalore, I had no idea where I’d visit next and no plans.  However, as seems to always happen during travel, something came up at the last second: I was invited to spend a few days in Kotagiri with Davaraj, a friend of John and Solomon. I quickly booked my ticket and in a few hours I was on the road again, taking an overnight bus out of Bangalore. Next morning I awoke early, hopped off the bus in a city 30 km outside of Kotagiri,  hopped onto the back of Davaraj’s motorcycle, then held on for dear life.

The ride up to Kotagiri was breathtaking.  Kotagiri is about 8000 ft up in the mountains, so the crisp morning air bit deep into my hands and face as we raced around hairpin turns.  The further up we went, the more the scenery changed.  Although the Blue mountains are very close to the equator, by the time you get to Kotagiri the scenery has almost completely transformed from dense jungle to lush evergreen forest. Kotagiri and the surrounding area is largely a collection of tea and coffee plantations.

I mentioned to Davaraj that I was interested in seeing some wildlife in Kotagiri, and since he didn’t have any plans for the day, he took me on an impromptu sightseeing tour for the morning.   Driving down back mountain roads we saw exotic birds, bison, deer, monkeys, as well as a flora as diverse as (and greener than) anything I’d ever seen before. It was an amazing experience.  I hope someday to come back to the Nigiri mountains on a motorcycle and spend several days riding through the back roads with the crisp wind rushing rushing over my face and making my eyes water.

When we got back to Davaraj’s house in the afternoon, and I wrapped myself in like 5 layers of  blankets and curled up by the fireplace to read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” while sipping the best tea I’d ever had in my life.  I didn’t realize how cold I’d been till I was in front of the fire. It took hours for the warmth of the blankets and fire to soak back into my bones. In the evening Davaraj’s wife made us chicken soup that absolutely knocked my socks off.

Next morning Davaraj and I woke up at 4am and hired a taxi to take us to a wildlife reserve in the valley, 80km away.  The taxi driver, Davaraj, and I hopped on an elephant and made a morning safari trek into the jungle.  We saw a peacock courtship unfold, stumbled across monkeys, buffalo, and other elephants.  It was an amazing experience, but sadly I had a tough time enjoying myself because I felt bad for the elephant, who seemed like he tired of doing safaris and had to be prodded constantly by the mahout.

That evening I hopped on a public bus down to Coimbatore.  It was a two hour ride down bumpy road and hairpin turns, and I got stuck in the very back.   At one point I had to lean out the bus door and vomit.  I learned there’s nothing quite like vomiting while staring down a precipice that falls thousands of feet below you.

In Coimbatore I boarded a private bus (much nicer) for Amritapuri.  I got back to my room at 5am the next day, and plopped onto my bed, utterly exhausted. It’s amazing how much travelling on the road in India takes out of you.  It’s rewarding, it’s exciting, it’s utterly beautiful, but it requires your complete and undivided focus, 24/7.  It guess it’s sort of like life, in that sense.  I’d recommend it to anybody who likes living.

Trip to Bangalore

A couple weeks ago I decided to pack up my bags and hit the road for a week.

First on the itinerary was Bangalore.  Our family friend, John, had an aunt who lived in Bangalore as a Christian missionary (the Indians called her “Mummy”), and after she passed away some years ago, he inherited her Indian property–as well as the responsibility of managing her estates.  I took an overnight bus to the city center, then an autorickshaw over to the house of a man named Solomon.  This is where John was staying.

When travelling, there are some people with whom you only cross paths for the briefest of moments, yet whom you’ll never forget.   Solomon had one of those indelible personalities.  Within sixty seconds of his welcoming me into his house, we were sitting in his living room, his wife was offering us tea, and Solomon was asking me to share my Christian testimony.

So I gave him my testimony.   I told him how I had grown up in the Christian church but had come to find a powerful peace in eastern spiritual practice.

Solomon proceeded to share about how he had been raised in the jungle by a Hindu priest.  Solomon saw his first white person in his teens when a Christian missionary came to Solomon’s house and converted Solomon’s family. Solomon saw his first city a year or two later when his father moved the family so that Solomon could attend a Christian boarding school. Today, Solomon is head pastor over a large church network, and his children are living the western dream, working as journalists, iPhone app creators, and Zynga employees.

As Solomon spoke, I was struck by a sense of sublime irony. After all, I was coming from an ashram mostly populated by westerners, 95% of whom seemed to be deeply disillusioned by western consumerism, philosophy, and lifestyle.  I’ve heard so many people at the ashram tell how spiritual practice and devotion to the ashram’s guru has changed their lives, just as Solomon spoke of how following Christ took him out of the bondage of Hinduism.  Solomon’s early years  in the jungle, devoid of societal conditioning and attachment, would have seemed to so many ashramites the perfect existence.

For me, talking with Solomon highlighted the dialectical tensions at the heart of India.

Anyway, I spent the next two days being shown around Bangalore by Solomon’s friends and family, shopping, eating amazing Indian food, and visiting some of Solomon’s churches.  For all the differences in perspective between Solomon and the people at the ashram, the church services seemed very similar to  services at the ashram.  There was chanting, eastern-sounding worship music, and a talk, just as there would have been at the ashram.  As a person who was friends with John and therefore connected to mummy, I was given a seat of honor and asked to say a few words to the congregation at the end of the church service.

After Bangalore I boarded an overnight bus for Kotagiri, which I’ll write about soon.



The Hug

The ashram I’m staying at, Amritapuri, is headed up by a famous guru named Amma. About a week ago, Amma arrived at the ashram, back from her annual tour of the US. In a matter of days, the ashram was transformed from a large but very sleepy spiritual center into a place bursting at the seams with with tourists running about. It was amazing to see the population of temporary guests at the ashram increase from about a couple hundred to several thousand.  I’ve talked to more than a few disappointed tourists who had expected Amritapuri to be a quiet place where they could relax and do yoga.  Many tourists leave when they see the chaos.  For me personally, the excitement at the ashram has been a welcomed change–not just because it’s exposed me to many new and interesting people, but also because it’s been a litmus test for my meditation practice, showing me places in my daily activities where I need to cultivate more inner peace so I don’t have to rely on the external circumstances to feel joyful and calm.

A few days after Amma arrived, I went to visit her for “Darshan”.  What is darshan?  According to Wikipedia,”Darshan is ultimately difficult to define, since it is an event in consciousness—an interaction in presence between devotee and God/guru ... which focuses and calls out the consciousness of the devotee.... A heightening of consciousness or spirituality is the intended effect.” In Amma’s case, she gives Darshan by simply hugging the people visiting her.  I’ve spoken to people at the ashram who say they cried for hours prior to, during, and after the hug. Some have said Amma’s darshan was the most profound experience of their lives.

Personally, I was highly skeptical.  For one, the suggestion that a hug could “heighten my consciousness” (read: make me a wiser and more present individual) conflicted with much of what I’ve come to believe as an economics major: namely, that “their ain’t such thing as a free lunch.”  Anything worth having in life, whether spiritual knowledge, emotional well being, or material possessions, seems to take a lot of long and hard work in the getting. Furthermore, the implication that Amma is some sort god made me very uncomfortable. Certainly in the West, the Jim Jonses of the world have given people claiming to be god a bad rep.

Despite my misgivings, I waited in line for 3 hours and finally received the hug.  It was nothing spectacular–Amma simply hugged me for about a minute then went on to the next person.  I didn’t cry, I didn’t speak in tongues, I saw no visions.  It was nice though.  Amma seemed to be a very nice person, and I felt happy to experience an expression of love from another human being. After the hug, I went about my day and that was that.

In retrospect, I think much of my skepticism was unnecessairy.  Amma’s hug may not have changed my life, but I think that if more people hugged each other the world would probably be a more conscious and compassionate place.

I spoke with a swami who assured me that everyone is a god, most of us are simply less aware of our divine identity than Amma is.  The swami made things sound more benign still when he said that enlightened beings/gods experience their divine identity by realizing they ARE the universe.  Although this still sounds pretty esoteric, I can actually relate to this.  I’ve noticed at times when I’ve been extraordinarily present–say during a beautiful sunset or while doing meditation/yoga–I’ve undeniably experienced my sense of self-identity fade a bit and felt it become replaced by a sense of connection or “being one with the universe” .  I’ve talked to other people who have spoken  about having similar experiences while surfing, playing basketball, or even while coding computer programs.

In conclusion, I’d say “the hug” was a success. I’m certainly not on my way to becoming a devotee of Amma, but I appreciate what she does, and more than that, I appreciate that her ashram exists to give humanitarian aid across the globe and to provide people like me with a place to do community service, meet new friends, and practice meditation.

Settling in

Now that I feel fully settled into working in the ecovillage and living at the ashram, I’d like to pick up my story where I left off with my last post.

When I arrived at Amritapuri ashram, the staff decided to pack me into a room with two other men–one of whom turned out to be a very quiet, nonviolent Frenchman named Bernard and the other of whom turned out to be a very loud German named Weiland.  I immediately began to wonder if the ashram staff was secretly trying to run a small scale simulation of the battle of Normandy.

Luckily we are all getting along swimmingly so far.   I feel I have a lot to learn from Bernard.  He goes through his day very focused, aware, and at peace.  And Weiland is so entertaining to have around–I find myself constantly laughing when he’s present.

Weiland has lived an incredibly interesting life.  To cut to the quick, he’s sort of a German new age hippy mountain man and hitchhiker who possibly consumed a few too many hallucinogenic drugs in his day.  This is not to say Weiland is crazy–he might be a little but but he’s highly intelligent. Besides German, he speaks almost perfect English, and is fluent in Portuguese, French, Spanish, as well as who knows how many other languages.

I’ll tell you a story to give you a better impression of his vivid personality.  The day after Weiland arrived, he and I were groggily sitting on the porch. We’d both just awoken, and I was reading while he was listening to music through his headphones.  It was very tranquil.

Suddenly out of nowhere Weiland started humming along with his music really loudly and out of tune.  Things proceeded this way for a few minutes, then with no warning he raced into the dorm room, then jumped back onto the porch, and SHOUTED off into the distance “I want you to feel what I am feeling right now”.  Thoroughly taken aback, I looked out over the porch to see if he was trying to communicate with a passerby, but I saw no one.  I began to wonder if this was what an acid flashback looked like.  Then I began to wonder if he had been actually talking to ME.  Suddenly he handed me a pair of headphones, and wordlessly I put them on and began listening to his music.  Picture  Phantom of the Opera-esque organ music fused with jungle/tribal noises.  It was epic. We listened for a few minutes then headed off to our daily work at the ecovillage.

I work in the ecovillage about thirty hours a week.  We generate and sell compost, clean up around the village, sell recycled goods to the government, and even have our own shop where you can buy ecologically friendly goods such as eucalyptus oil mosquito repellent (I go through like a bottle a week).  All the proceeds of the ecovillage go to the Amritapuri organization, which as I understand has three arms:  an ashram, a university, and a humanitarian org that provides disaster relief all over the world.

Anyway.  Currently I’m working in the composting area.  Everything I do is incredibly physical–sometimes I’ll spend hours just turning over heaps and heaps of decomposing food and manure. Other times I’ll have easier tasks like riding around in a truck picking up biodegradable waste items for composting.

A few days ago we opened up a new worm composting facility in a nearby village.  I’m hoping to maybe spend some time at one of Amritapuri’s dozens of sister organizations that are looking to start their own ecologically responsible waste management facilities.  It would be fun to spend some time in another section of India, even though I’m making some amazing friends at the ashram. Fingers crossed!

And so it begins!

When I sit down to reflect on these past few day, it sends me reeling. Monday I took the biggest, hardest test of my life–the P1 Actuary Exam–and, according to the preliminary results at least, I passed!
Tuesday turned into a mad dash to get packed for my trip to India. Mosquito netting, water sanitization kit, antibiotics, all terrain shoes, power chord adapters–these are just a few of the tings I realized Tuesday I had somehow managed to avoid tending to until the reality of my departure for India drew within 24 hours.
Wednesday I woke at 4 am to head to the airport. Three sunrises and 35 hours later I found myself early Friday morning in Kochi. I had flown from San Diego to Washington DC to Dubai to Doha to Kochi. Somehow I managed to sleep a few hours on both the red eye flight from DC to Dubai and the red eye flight from Doha to Kochi thanks to Dramamine. Despite this success, I found myself exhausted, overwhelmed, and scared as I waited outside the airport for the taxi I had hired online. The driver seems to never have managed to locate me. I consider this a feat since although I was surrounded by about a thousand people trying to leave the airport, I was likely both the only person with the last name O’Brien and the only person with skin 15 shades lighter than everyone else. Luckily I managed to find a taxi driver who was willing to take me four hours south to Amritaprui ashram for a little over 3000 rupees.

The drive to the ashram proved to be breathtaking in more ways than one. The scenery was beautiful and exotic. Southern India is so green and alive and there seemed to be flowers, vines, trees and wildlife everywhere I looked. At one point we had to change lanes to avoid colliding with a very slow moving vehicle that turned out to be an elephant. Which bring me to the other reason the ride was breathtaking–driving in India is CRAZY. I know everybody says the roads are crazy and dangerous, but you can’t appreciate VISCERALLY what that means unless you’ve actually been on an Indian roadway. I lost track of the number of times my driver drove into oncoming traffic on the highway in order to pass a vehicle, slamming on his horn like he had the right of way, and forcing oncoming driver to merge out of their lanes in order to avoid a head on collision with my driver.

The poverty we saw as we passed through some of the rural villages was astounding to me. There’s that often-told story about the Buddha, how he had been sheltered inside his father’s palace till his mid thirties when he sneaked out for a first glimpse of the outside world. The Buddha had been extremely protected his whole life–to the point where he wasn’t even aware of the existence old age, sickness, and death–and as he walked through the surrounding villages he saw all three of these things for the first time. These sights disturbed him so much he left his palace and family to try to understand and find a solution to these basic human problems.
I didn’t see any dead people, but the sight of burning plastic, beggars, huts in the mud, and malnourished people everywhere made me feel even more frightened than when I walked out of the airport. I was frighted because I felt out of control. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I had underestimated the amount of suffering out there in the world.

Eventually we arrived at the ashram, which was by far the nicest place I’d seen since arriving in India. The ashram has a permanent population just south of 2000 individuals, and a transient population sometimes several times that, so the grounds are HUGE.

The first person I ran into was a short, bearded European.  I had some difficulty communicating with him until I realized he had taken a vow of silence. He tried to explain to me how to get registered using only gestures.  Eventually he gave up on his attempts to do this silently and simply explained in verbally.  I walked away from this encounter with a new appreciation for ASL. 🙂

After getting settled into my room, taking a nap, eating a large bowl of curry and rice, and an hour of meditation,  I felt like a new person.  Not only had I loosened up, but I began to see myself adjusting to my new life in India.  While I still felt disturbed by the sights I had seen on my drive to the ashram, I realized that behind all that aversion I had been feeling, there was some compassion as well.


To be continued next week!