Monday, September 24, 2012

Online Interview with Erin Reese: "I live in a mobile om"

"Erin's road wisdom goes way beyond your typical travel tips..."

Namaste, friends:

Lynn Braz of Wandering Lotus online magazine recently interviewed me for her Proust Travel Questionnaire section, inspired by Vanity Fair's regular column. Read on to find out more about how I live my life on the road, including packing must-haves, adventurous epiphanies, and most beloved books.

Love and adventure,
             Erin Reese, author of The Adventures of Bindi Girl: Diving Deep Into the Heart of India
THE NEW YORK TIMES calls Bindi Girl "Kicky, fun, and a bit random!"
Available now on Amazon Kindle and paperback.

Wandering Lotus

Flying Free

Proust Travel Questionnaire*: Author Erin Reese
Posted: 18 Sep 2012 10:58 AM PDT
Traveling steerage class across the ocean to India's Andaman Islands was a new high—and low—for author, astrologer, spiritual counselor, world traveler Erin Reese. Take a moment to ponder the realities of steerage class in India—first class travel is often rough there—where dining and sleeping and toileting and vomiting all meld together in one disease spawning space. It's really the sort of thing only someone—say an author who can spin such ghastly experiences into tales that become bestsellers on—should try.

Erin's most recent journey—she's been traveling since January—took her across three continents and to a bunch of cool countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Thailand and, like all other beings with natal honing, back to her spiritual home, the Motherland, India.

The indomitable Erin Reese inaugurates's new Tuesday column, The Proust Travel Questionnaire*, which was inspired by Vanity Fair. Erin's road wisdom goes way beyond your typical travel tips.

What is your idea of the perfect travel itinerary?

Itinerary? What's that? I jest, but the whole point of unbounded travel for me is to BE somewhere. I'm not a doer. I'm an experiencer. I simply live in places, smell the air, see the horizon, and interact with the local life and the travelers that I befriend along the way. I'm more interested in observing and learning how local people do simple things–going to market, looking after children, tending to health needs, getting from point A to point B, eating in local joints, navigating banks and bureaucracies, and so forth–than visiting memorials of the past or checking out typical tourist haunts. The way I travel can be summed up in one word: intuition.

Where, in the world, are you happiest?


Where did you meet the greatest love of your life (so far)?

Arrivals, Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, India. For me (so far), the greatest love of my life has been a nation rather than a single person.

What is the worst thing that could happen to you while traveling?
Could happen, or has happened? I've been through some pretty rough stuff–downright 
dangerous–and survived all of it. If you've been an intrepid solo traveler as long as I have, things are bound to happen in the wilderness of humans and Nature. Over the years I've spent on the road, I've been conned, attacked and robbed. I've been locked up, I've been sexually harassed, stalked, groped, and threatened. I've been circled by snakes, I've gotten fleas, lice, scabies, and parasites. So to imagine the worst? The mind can run wild.

What destination has brought out the best in you?

Mumbai (Bombay). This is the magical city where I met my spiritual guru, Ramesh Balsekar. 
He was the sage I was seeking but didn't know it. I spent large chunks of time in Mumbai the last two years of my teacher's life, before he took mahasamadhi in 2009. Most people avoid Mumbai (it's loud, dirty, intimidating, and expensive; people are packed like sardines) as I did initially until Grace took me there against my own free will. But once I got into the spirit, the cultural implosion that is Bombay came ALIVE and revealed her secrets. By the way, for a good contemporary non-fiction read, I recommend Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

What destination has brought out the worst in you?

I must have a selective memory because I can't think of a place that had such a bad impact on me. I've been in a dozen places where I've hit a wall, wondering what I am doing there, which made me cranky and miserable. One such place was Kerala.

What must-haves do you take with you regardless of destination?

Notebook and pens, earplugs, Petzl Zipka head lamp, Nalgene water bottle, Swiss Army knife, well-tested walking sandals (preferably Birkenstocks or Chacos) and a few Ziplocs. Most importantly, an open mind and no expectations.

If you could travel with anyone in history, who would it be?

The rishis of ancient India. The original rishis were sages and seers with great siddhi powers. The yoga destination spot of the Himalayan foothills, Rishikesh, gets its name from the rishis themselves. They literally downloaded universal wisdom from the ethers, including metaphysical principles of yoga and consciousness, ayurveda, alchemy, and healing, and even Sanskrit starting with the first primordial sound of OM.

If you could go anywhere, where would you go?

I'd rewind the clock thirty or forty years and travel overland from Europe to India, venturing 
through all the nations that are too war torn to safely travel in now.

What is your ideal length for a single voyage?

One month to get to know a new town, city, region. Three to six months to get to know a new 
nation. Three to six years to be gone long enough to un-know your own nation and see your roots objectively.

Who does your hair when you're on the road?

I do! I hate it, but I do it.

Who are your favorite travel writers?

I honestly don't read much standard travel writing, preferring literature for inspiration. That 
being said, notable trips in print that have touched me include Ram Dass' spiritual travel tale Be Here Now, solo female travel writer Rita Golden Gelman's Tales of a Female Nomad, friend Garth Cartwright's music-travel feast More Miles Than Money, and two fiction writers that wrote great road tales: Jack Keroauc (On the Road, The Dharma Bums) and Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). For its ingeniously-captured sense of place, I adore Henry Miller's Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Also, the quick-read little book Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe captures first-time Indian backpacking naiveté so well it's a guaranteed laugh-your-ass-off ride.

Where would you like to live?

That's a good question! I've been without a stable home for over ten years now, traveling 
between Berlin, India, and the San Francisco Bay Area. I like where I'm living now: between three continents, and on the move. I live in a Mobile Om.

What is the quality you most like in a travel companion?


What traits do you look for when connecting with either locals or other travelers on the road?

I'm drawn to connect with other travelers who show respect for local customs (dress, 
manners, etc.) without putting on holier-than-thou airs. I also enjoy connecting to travelers and backpackers who come to me through my work as a spiritual counselor. People who are on the road a long time need guidance to make decisions and to make sense of all that is whirling and swirling around them. I'm grateful to be able to be of service to these folks when they're at a crossroads, no pun intended.

What is your greatest travel extravagance?

When you travel like I do, there aren't many things that one could consider extravagant. But 
my biggest splurge is coffee. I'll scrimp on thirty or forty rupees here and there over a meal and then, smilingly, spring for twice that amount on a cappuccino.

What do you consider your greatest travel achievement?

Crossing the ocean to the Andaman Islands in a steerage class ship and surviving a Robinson Crusoe jungle endurance test without getting killed, or killing myself, in the process. I did lose my mind. And that was the best part.

Click here to buy Erin's first book, The Adventures of Bindi Girl: Diving Deep Into the Heart of India.

Click here to read a review of Bindi Girl.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Happy Birthday Ganesha: Special gift for you!


Today is Ganesha’s birthday… GANESHA CHATURTHI.

Shree Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, is the adorable and powerful son of Shiva and Parvati. He is widely worshipped as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune and traditionally invoked at the beginning of any new venture or at the start of travel.

In honor of the most beloved god in India, to celebrate his birthday, AND to bestow us all with wisdom, prosperity, and good fortune, I’m offering a very special gift to you for one day only, September 19, 2012:

Tarot readings via email by DONATION, just for today.

Erin reads cards in Thailand, June 2012
(My normal rate is $100 per hour.)

HOW: Email your single question (one question per donation, please) directly to me, along with any specifics about your situation that I might need to know. I will respond within 24-48 hours with a personalized write-up of your intuitive reading, plus full-color photograph of the Tarot cards drawn for your question.

WHEN: Send your question to me by end of day, September 19, 2012 PDT.

I’m looking forward to reading for you.

Om gam ganapataye namaha!

With love,
Erin Reese

Please feel free to repost and share with interested friends and family.

Here is a YouTube chant with 108 mantras to Ganesh:

Monday, September 17, 2012

Keep India Beautiful: Etiquette for female travelers

I got busted the other day by the cleaning ladies at my ashram. I had committed a monumental Indian fashion faux pas. My calves were showing.

During the past few days of monsoon rain, no sunshine had graced our terraces and all my clothes were dirty. All I had left in the trouser department was a pair of Bermuda shorts that just covered my knees. I wore them one time to go up and down the ashram stairs to get water at the communal filter.

The next day, it was still raining, and I still couldn’t do laundry. I donned a semi-clean tank top, covered my bare shoulders with my shawl, and wore the same Bermuda shorts to lunch in the dining hall. It felt so good, cool, and free to have my legs exposed that the NEXT morning I wore same said short trousers OUT of the ashram to run a few errands. For shame, for shame!  My calves were on display for all the world to see!

Later, at lunchtime, I was again filling my water bottles where the cleaning ladies were eating nearby, sitting cross-legged on their mats on the floor. We smiled at each other and head-wobbled hellos as usual. Then I felt them silently watching me from behind as I waited for the water filter to run. I could feel their gaze on my back. Something was coming, I could sense it. Sure enough, out it came. The bolder, older woman piped up:


“Huh?” I replied, turning around.

“Indian dress better. You wear Indian dress,” she said, tugging at her own salwaar kameez (long kurta blouse) and loose, flowing trousers to indicate proper garb. She had seen me wearing these nice, conservative clothes in days prior, and now she was appalled at my cheeky choice of Bermuda shorts.

Haan ji. Yes, yes, I know. Ek dress I have,” I sputtered, embarrassed, and tried to explain, holding my raised index finger in the air to indicate I only had one proper Indian ladies suit on hand. “Nehi dhobi milega (no laundry possible). Tomorrow, tomorrow, ji.”  Busted. She half-smiled, half-frowned back at me, indicating that I needed to pay heed to her little lesson in dressing-for-ashram-success, pronto.

Oops. I stood corrected by the cleaning lady. This, from a Bindi Girl who literally writes the book on India travel.

Anytime I push it and try to expose more skin because it’s comfortable or convenient, I get a big kick in the butt by Mother India: I don’t care how much cooler you are in temperature, Erin. It’s not cool. Pay attention. Dress proper.

This is not because it’s wrong to show the female body. It’s because of culture and respect. Do we travel all the way to India to get the same sensation as walking down Broadway in NYC? No. We come to India because of its vast differences, the beauty in contrast, the richness of culture.

Therefore, I’d like to offer a few notes on proper Indian dressing for women travelers in traditional India, along with a few other etiquette tips. (Some of these go for guys, too.)

  1. Cover your butt. I don’t care how sexy your Bikram hot-yoga bum looks. No yoga pants without covered behind.
  2. Cover your shoulders, and cover your cleavage with a shawl. Also, if you’re wearing an especially tight t-shirt which looks chic in the West, if your boobs are on inordinate display, you can be sure you’re inviting a lot of leering attention.
  3. Shorts are a NO-NO (see my example of what not to do). The same goes for skirts worn above the calf. My jaw has dropped regularly at the sight of spaghetti-strapped tank-topped touristas with Daisy Duke short-shorts sashaying down the village lane.
  4. Ignore cat calls, whistles, “Hello, hello” as much as possible. Even if you’re wearing full coverage, young boys will invariably try to get your attention just to provoke you. Eye contact is inviting. Keep your eyes straight ahead or slightly to the ground to avoid harassment.
  5. No see-through skirts. There’s an item called a petticoat (slip) you can buy for about 100 Rs ($2) – wear it under those gorgeous-but-flimsy sheer Indian skirts.
  6. No bikinis in Rishikesh on the holy river Ganga. And please, Euro-Brazilian travelers, don’t go topless or wear thongs in India, even in Goa.
  7.  Smooching your beloved is best done in your room.
  8. IF you smoke, realize that as a lady, it looks inviting and cheap. Hardly any women in India smoke publicly. Try to smoke in tourist cafes with good ventilation or in your own guest house.
  9. Prayer shawls with mantras are NOT sarongs to wrap below the waist, nor are they beach towels. Prayer cloths can be worn on the head as a turban and as a shawl and even as a shirt, but not below the waist. Even though designers are making them now because of demand, the wrap-around trousers and skirts endowed with Hindi and Sanskrit prayers to Shiva, Ram and Krishna are considered disrespectful to the deities.
  10. Carry a light shawl at all times to cover your head to wear in temples, to protect you from the sun, and to cover your shoulders. At just a few ounces, a shawl is worth more than its weight in gold. You can also use it to shield your nose and mouth from road grime while riding in rickshaws and buses, or to stave off foul, unexpected stenches.
No doubt, women travelers who dress in a salwaar kameez/Punjabi (three-piece outfit with trousers, long blouse, and shawl) are treated better. Indians will often tell you directly how much they appreciate the effort to respect their customs.

Keep India beautiful. Cover your butt.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Amazing Grace of Failure

Success and failure may come and go, but there is a Source that is holding us far beyond any external happening.

We know we’re starting to disidentify with the ego’s stronghold on our soul when we experience no difference between success and failure. No good, no bad. I’m sure many of you have read or heard the following Taoist parable in various forms:

We'll See
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.
"Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.
"We'll see," the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.
"How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.
We'll see," replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.
The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
"We'll see," answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
"We'll see" said the farmer.

We never know what is going to bring us real happiness so why not be happy no matter what the external circumstances? 

Believe it or not, I came to realize I had made real progress in my humble evolution when I fell flat on my face and failed miserably in front of a crowd of 2,000 people, and lived to tell about it. The ground did not swallow me up. I did not go to Hell for all eternity. People still spoke to me the next day. I probably dropped a few levels down in their rating book for about 20 minutes – then they forgot. People, and the world, all have A.D.D. these days – no one remembers what happens, the past doesn’t exist too long; most folks are so self-involved, it hardly matters what occurs. So it all goes back to the spiritual axiom, Keep the focus on your Self.

The day I failed miserably was the grand finale of my yoga teaching certification course at the Swami Vivekananda Yoga University in Bangalore, India. On the last night of the one-month course, a massive talent show was held for the students, faculty, and staff. The few of us foreigners were a tiny minority of the populace. Sara, an Austrian actress friend of mine and I decided to perform an experimental art piece in front of the school, based on poetry in motion. In the piece, I would half-sing, half-rap  a piece I had written on personality, and my willowy, talented friend would perform modern dance movements behind a screen with backlighting, creating abstract shadow effects. We recruited two of our male cohorts, Eduardo and Kamal (a long-haired Spanish hippie and a North Indian from Himachal Pradesh, respectively), to play “drums” for us on massive overturned plastic buckets.

All afternoon in rehearsal, prior to the evening performance, we were on fire! The song was strong, the visuals were intriguing, the beat added soul. We were excited to share our passions with the rest of the crowd.

The night of the gig, the Indians at the event – both the audience and dozens of other acts performing – were in typical Indian “fever pitch” mode. This is when it hardly matters what is happening, there is sheer revelry in adrenalin, loud music and extreme acts however vulgar or sublime. The crowd went wild as students performed Bollywood pieces, folk dances, and comedy sketches in Hindi. As the night played on, our little four-piece Euro-Indo-American experimental ensemble was discriminated against as we were consistently edged out and nudged off the lineup. Pushy broad that I can be (ignoring the adage, don’t push the river), I argued with the MC, feeling it imperative: “Our show must also go on!” Though it was getting late, the crowd had clearly hit its peak, and the four of us had also lost our spark, somehow, I felt the hands of the gods with us. We had to perform!

After the audience was entirely spent from three hours of chaotic hysteria…they finally let us go on. And that’s when everything went wrong.

The screen behind which Sara was to move was too small, and the shadow-dance effects were blown. Our Spanish drummer was missing his cues, distracted by a gorgeous Indian girl in the audience he’d just fallen in love with. I was doing my best to keep time, out of time, and perspiring buckets under the spotlights, having stupidly chosen to wear jeans for the "cool" factor. Flop sweat.

And two thousand pairs of big brown eyes stared back at us. What in Lord Shiva’s name are these people doing up there? The whole dang avant garde shebang went right over their heads. Mixed media? Modern dance? Garage band bucket drumming? Spoken word rap? What the heck is she talking about?


Culture clash. Burn and crash!

Yes, we were the bomb. And not in any hip sense. We actually BOMBED.

A meager clap or two came when the stage went black at the end of our piece. As we walked off stage it was clear to me: we had failed. Especially me. I was the lead, the writer of the piece, and the provocateur of the whole damned thing.

As I gathered my things and walked into the night to my dorm room, a few pals walked past without making eye contact. Surely, they were embarrassed for me. One friend gave me back my camera (I had asked her to take a few pictures of the show) and scurried away without so much as a good night.

Yes, it really was that bad.

Then, it washed over me in a flush of realization: FANTASTIC LESSON! One of the most important teachings of my yoga teaching course, implemented surreptitiously the final night – a timely coup de grace, indeed. I had failed, big time, and I was still alive! Breathing. Nothing had changed! I was still the same person I was before I went on stage and no one came and murdered me, the Earth didn't bury me alive. No! 

I’d just had a firsthand experience that WHO WE ARE is not outside ourselves. It is not others’ approval or disapproval. Success and failure may come and go, but there is a Source that is holding us far beyond any external happening. Staying connected to the Source (God, Universe, Higher Power, Existence, Consciousness) at all times is the only job. When that connection is unshakable, NOTHING can throw us. Nothing.

In that moment of realization, I felt, Heck. You know, I could have been on Oprah, live on national television at that moment, and bombed. It would have been okay. I would have survived.

I had learned to fail, with Grace.