TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Fifteen

I’ve never travelled alone before. Well, there was that one time Ryan and I went to Italy for three weeks when we had to go to his family friend’s brothers wedding and he had to come a day late, which meant I flew on my own and slept in a hotel in Rome alone for one night.

But that really doesn’t count, does it, so this is a first.

It feels weird to be having breakfast alone in a public place. I’m not sure I’ve ever done it before. And even though I’m surrounded by backpackers doing the exact same thing, I feel like a bit of a freak.

I occupy myself with editing photos on my phone and composing a couple of texts to Ryan. He still hasn’t messaged since I left five days ago, making this by far the longest we’ve ever gone without speaking. To be honest, his silence is starting to scare me.

How did we get here…

Delete.

I hate us right now…

Delete.

What are you thinking…

Delete, delete, delete.

I don’t end up sending any of them. I suppose because I still don’t really know what to say. Or if I should even be the one saying anything at all.

I read the Times of India for a while but it’s nothing but depressing doom and gloom, so finally I opt to just sit and stare at life going by and pretend I don’t feel like a total Nigel No Friends. When I’m done with my pain au chocolat (so Indian, I know) and sweet masala chai I wander through some alleyways looking at more shawls, more oils and more tea, completely aware that I’m just putting off the inevitable. The thought of seeing David again, and this time on my own, is making me feel totally nauseous.

Eventually, I shop myself up enough courage to wander down to his little spot by the river and scan the chaos – the men selling prayer beads and mini statues of gods, the women praying on the steps by the water, a group of kids sitting in a circle chanting. I can’t see him at first, but then I spot him standing on his head by the wall of an ashram. As you do. His dreadlocks are pooled all around his head so I can barely see his face and he’s changed his nappy thing, which is now bright orange. I walk over, my tummy in a gazillion knots, and kneel in front of him.

“Ahh, sorry to disturb you Ram Baba, but it’s Magdalena. I’m here for our class?”

He stays perfectly still, but I’m so close to his head I’m sure he’s heard me. A surge of electricity moves through me. I never imagined that I’d get this close to my dad, yet here I am. It still feels like a dream. I close my eyes and focus on the dusty smell of his skin for a moment, bottling it in my mind in case it’s the last time I see him. When I sit back and open my eyes, he still hasn’t moved an inch, and I start to think that maybe he’s in some kind of trance. His stomach’s moving in and out so incredibly slowly it’s hard to tell if he’s even alive. I sit in front of him, waiting and sweating and wondering what on earth is going on.

An excruciatingly slow handful of minutes later, his knees start to bend and ever so gradually inch their way to the ground. If only I’d inherited his ab control, rather than his wonky nose. Then he rolls out to the side and sits with his legs crossed, his ankles perched effortlessly on his thighs and his hands on his knees, keeping his eyes closed the whole time.

“I remember, we talked about vriksasana. You will try it now.” He gives a curt nod.

“Umm, you mean right now?” My eyes pass over a group of tourists snapping away with their huge SLR cameras by the river, then over a line of women bashing their clothes on the stone steps by the water. It seems pretty embarrassing to have to do this in front of such a big audience.

“You say you want to understand, so you must try,” he says serenely, and I’m left with no choice but to stand up and pull my left foot into my crotch. I try to raise my hands up above my head but I wobble like a drunken teenager after one too many glasses of Passion Pop and stumble back onto both feet.

“Harder than it looks!” I spurt out a nervous laugh. Damn. Now he’s going to think I’m a total douchebag

“There’s no such thing as hard, it’s only the mind labelling it so. One must simply concentrate on a fixed point – a dristi, as we call it in Sanskrit –then completely empty the mind of thoughts so that it’s calm and still like the river. Then one can stand straight and tall and give oneself a chance of connecting with the Divine.”

What the hell, I think.

“Ah, I see,” I say.

I try again.

I wobble again.

“You’re not emptying the mind,” David chastises. I keep trying, but as I stumble to my feet for the fourth time I decide to lay it all on the line.

“You’re right, I’m not emptying my mind. But I actually have some real issues with doing that. I’ve been trying to meditate for a while now, you see, and I can do it… for about three seconds, before the thoughts all come flooding back in in an huge, ugly clump that I seen to have absolutely no control over.” As soon as I finish I regret opening my mouth at all and ruining any illusion of being a Zen master, but as I peel my eyes off the ground and look up, I see that David’s actually nodding his head.

“Yes yes, the monkey mind, the scourge of the west. So many worries and concerns always jumping about in there making such a racket.” He taps my right temple with his index finger as he says this, and I feel a jolt of electricity run through my body. It’s been almost 20 years since this man has touched me. “So perhaps what you need to do first is calm these monkeys down, then you can simply sit and watch them and see what they get up to.” He stares intently at the ground for a few seconds, then seems to come to some sort of decision.

“Come come,” he commands, and I find myself following his dirt-streaked, naked torso away from the ghats and down a dingy alleyway. Eventually we come to a halt and he tells me to wait as he slips through an impossibly narrow and grimy doorway. When he returns a minute later, he holds a small silver cup in his hand and motions for me to follow him back the way we came. We pop back out by the ghats into a blast of golden sunshine and fold ourselves back into the same spot.

“Now, we’re going to smoke a chillum to help you calm those monkeys down,” he announces.

“Umm, smoke a what?”

“A chillum. This.” He magics a conical clay pipe out of a fold in his orange turban. “We sadhus have been using these since at least the 18th century. We smoke cannabis out of them.”

“Wait, so you’re saying you guys get high?” That doesn’t seem right.

“No! No, no. You must understand that we use them for spiritual reasons only. In fact, most westerners don’t know this but the cannabis plant has an ancient history of ritual use, mostly as an aid to get into a deep trance state. That’s what we’re going to do this morning, use the cannabis to get you into that trance state so you can observe your own consciousness. Cannabis alters the brain, you see, tearing off its veil of habits, allowing you to see through the illusion.”

“I see,” I say in my low Zen voice, bowing my head reverently. So the long and the short of it is yes, we’re going to get high. Like father like daughter, I guess.

He pulls some weed out of the silver cup, followed by a plastic pouch of tobacco from a fold in his lap lap undies. Then he mixes them together and stuffs the concoction into the wide end of the pipe.

“Now, please light a match for me and then pass me the white blanket it’s sitting on.” He jerks his head over to his little pile of possessions by the wall. Jeez, I never imagined my dad would be so bossy, I think as I follow his instructions. “We’re going to place this over our heads to make sure the wind doesn’t blow the chillum out.” He throws the thick, course blanket over our heads like a tiny tent. This is so intensely weird. I’m about to get high with my estranged father, who doesn’t know I’m his daughter. I light up to distract myself from the craziness of it all. David cups his hands around the base of the pipe, leaving a little opening near his thumbs and the tip sticking out the other side of his hands. He huffs and puffs a few times then takes one long suck before passing the pipe to me. He holds my hands in his dry, papery ones, showing me how to cradle the pipe, and my insides flip at the familiarity of their touch.

“Only take a little at first, it’s probably stronger than anything you’ve had before.” Clearly he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. I take a long, deep pull through my hands and pass it back, holding the burning smoke in my lungs. As I breathe out I realize he wasn’t lying: this stuff is supercalafragalistic.

A minute later I’m taking another puff, then another and then whoosh, there I go down the rabbit hole and into oblivion. My head gets all light and fuzzy and floats up into the leaves of the trees above us.

How amazing are trees, I start to think. I used to love climbing them when I was a kid. I’d always go up higher than anyone else; I was never scared of falling. Once, when I was right up the top of the jacaranda in our backyard I found a bird’s nest with a little speckled blue and white egg in it. No one was around for me to show it to, though. Mmm eggs, I’d love an omelette right now. A Spanish omelette with tomato and olives and onion and lots of cheese all the way through. Spain’s somewhere I’d really love to go actually, Ryan and I always talked about going to see the running of the bulls in Pamplona but we never quite…

“Be awaaare of your consciousness.” David’s hypnotic voice cuts into my daydream. “Noootice what those monkeys are up to.”

Now that he mentions it, I see that the monkeys are having a field day. Swinging from one branch to another, picking up some rotten bananas along the way and mashing them up between their spindly little fingers. I go from thinking about Pamplona to my friend Paloma who’s just bought her own day spa in Paddington, to Paddington bear and his fabulous pea coat, then to how I should have bought the pea coat I found at Portobello Market in London that one time and how much I regretted not buying it… Arrghh! It’s complete and utter chaos in there.

“What’s happening? Tell Ram Baba.”

“Did I just scream? I mean, I did scream, but I thought it was just in my head.” Unless he’s listening in on my thoughts. He’s probably totally capable of that. Uh-oh, don’t get paranoid now…

“Yes, you did scream. Tell Ram Baba what your frustration is.”

Phew.

“Ok. Well you see whenever I focus on my mind, I’m just reminded of what a big dirty mess it is. It makes me feel so powerless and actually pretty friggin’ scared. It’s just all over the place and I… I just want to make it stop.” I take a shallow breath and realize I’m almost out of air. My chest is tight and sore and my head’s starting to get even more fuzzy. Uh-oh, I think this might be the start of a panic attack.

“Actually, I’m finding it kinda hard to breathe,” I whisper. David doesn’t waste a second. He scoots over to my side and starts rubbing my back very softly and in small circles. Then he starts chanting, low and slow.

“Ommmm, shanti, shanti, shantiiiii,
Ommmm, shanti, shanti, shantiiiii,
Ommmm, shanti, shanti, shantiiiii.”

On and on, getting louder as he goes. I focus on the chant and his hand on my back, until my breath and my heartbeat start to miraculously slow down.

“Wow,” I breathe out slowly. “That was amazing. What was that?”

“That was a prayer of peace. It begins with ‘om’, which is the sound of the universe, and then ‘peace, peace for all of us’. And you see? It did bring you peace.” He stops rubbing my back, and I immediately feel like crying. “Now I know why you have trouble with vriksasana. Your mind is wobbling all over the place, which is making your body wobble too.”

“Mmhmm,” is all I can muster. I’m too emotional to say more – even though I know he’s totally right about me being a scatterbrain – and I’m suddenly getting very sleepy. I lie back on the ground, so warm now from the late morning sun, and close my eyes.

“I’m just going to close my eyes for a minute,” I mutter, and then I’m gone again, this time into a deep, dream filled sleep.

I’m on the summit of a mountain, so high that the valleys below me are invisible. Soft grey clouds are wafting all around. I reach out to touch one but feel nothing; maybe they’re not as close as I think. I turn around and a couple of hundred metres away spot a small, rundown shack. I’m hungry so I start to run towards the shack – there might be food inside. As I get closer the sky darkens and I hear a heavy, loud thunderclap right above me. I run faster and get to the door just as torrential rain starts to pour down. I step inside and look around: it’s dingy and dank and I instantly know I’ve made a mistake coming in here. In the corner I see a ladder, maybe it leads to a second floor, but as I reach it I see a long, slippery black snake coiled round the upper rungs. It slithers down a little and stares me right in the face. It flicks its forked tongue at me and I scream.
                                            
“Young lady. Young lady!”

My eyes flutter open and I see David’s face a foot above mine, his dreadlocks tickling my face. My dad, so freaking close I can smell his sour breath.

“What… what is it?”

“We were taking a nap and then you screamed again. Are you ok?”

“Oh yeah,” I say, rubbing my face. “I’m fine, I was just having a stupid dream.”

“But you can never call a dream stupid, young lady. Sleep is actually an excellent school, a school one has to go through so that the inner being may become free of the physical form.” Prayer hands again, accompanied by reverent bowing with half-closed eyes. “If you can learn how to use your nights as you use your days, you will become very powerful. Tell Ram Baba what you dreamt of.”

I sit up and rub my shoulders. Sleeping on the ground is just as painful as I always thought it would be. How on earth has David been doing it for the last twenty years?

“Listening to other people’s dreams is always such a bore…” I trail off. But by the look on David’s face there’s no getting out of this one.

“Well I was on a mountain, there was a storm, I ran into this cottage and there was a snake inside.”

“A snake!” David’s almond eyes become macadamia eyes. “The snake is a veeery important symbol.” He looks rather alarmed, which is making me rather alarmed too.

“The snake indicates an energy, sometimes a good one, but most often a bad one.” Awesome.

“But the snake is always symbolic of the unconscious. So you see, the chillum worked, by opening up your consciousness. Your dream definitely indicates that. The ladder is another very powerful symbol of rising from one stage to another. For you, I think this means from one level of your consciousness to another.”

“You think so?” I ask, immediately wishing my voice didn’t sound as eager and needy as it does. David shakes his dreadies in a yes. I’m pretty chuffed, maybe all my inner work over the past few weeks hasn’t been for nothing after all. Maybe he’s actually impressed by me. He motions to a small boy a few metres away to bring us two tiny plastic cups of sweet, spicy masala chai.

“Yes,” he says. “But when I look at you and feel your energy, I also know that you have work to do. A lot of work to do. Luckily, Ram Baba can help you.” And just like that, David has a disciple, and I’m one step closer to having a dad.