Nani Ma. Ganga Prem Hospice. Rishikesh, India. (November 2017)
When we arrived in India in mid November, 2017, our first hangout was Rishikesh. Rishikesh is known as the world capital of Yoga and sits along the banks of the famous Ganges River, known as “Ganga Ma”. It’s a place overrun with Yoga tourists, cows, monkeys, noise and smoke. Sometimes early in the morning walking along the river, before the sun is up, you can experience a sense of what makes this place so special even with all its shortcomings. The river is amazing. It’s wide and deep and the color is something you’ll never forget. But I’d like to tell you about another “Ma” – Nani Ma, spiritual advisor at Ganga Prem Hospice and trustee of the Shradha Cancer Care Trust.
My wife Laurie worked in Hospice for 17 years prior to our travelling around the world for a year. She was keen on contacting Ganga Prem Hospice while we were in Rishikesh. They had just built a new Hospice House and I guess she wanted to check it out and introduce herself. Once the day came she asked if I wanted to go. I said sure and was positive I was somehow earning some points.
We arrived at the new Hospice House at the edge of a dried up section of the Ganges River. The building was brand spanking new and beautiful. The area is quiet and serene. It’s miles away from all the junk that makes Rishikesh so challenging. We met most of the staff, got a tour, and had chia (of course). We were there for hours. Nothing much was transpiring and the afternoon was getting late and we were getting ready to leave. The house manager was talking with us through an interpreter and it became apparent the manager’s message was not being translated correctly to us. He pressed the interpreter to tell us “Nani Ma wants to meet you. Today.” Well the sun is setting, the car back to town was getting ready to leave, but we said OK. Nani Ma wants to meet us we’ll hang out.
We didn’t know much about her except she was a transplant from the U.K. who came to India a long time ago and was now heading up this Hospice. I guess I also knew that Krishna Das did a benefit concert for them a while back. Just a moment passed and we were standing in the open air hallway when we heard a voice call out from right behind us. Nani Ma had seemed to magically appear out of thin air. She called to us, we turned around in her direction, and were struck by her presence. She was dressed all in bright white. She invited us to sit on a wall with her where we chatted and got to know each other a little bit.
From her bio on Ganga Prem Hospice website – Nani Ma is one of the guiding forces of Ganga Prem Hospice, and is responsible for the spiritual leanings of the hospice project. Many terminally ill patients have drawn emotional comfort and understanding from her loving care during the clinics and her home care visits. She is also responsible for the ever-growing volunteer base of the hospice and has inspired many people from around the world to give their time and services to the hospice project. (her complete bio is here)
During our chat she was interrupted numerous times, speaking fluent Hindi on the phone, making decisions about donations, answering people’s questions. We talked about how she ended up in India and involved with Hospice. I’m inspired by this amazing woman’s story. Moving to India from England as a young woman 40 or so years ago, giving up everything, studying and practicing Sanskrit and meditation along the banks of the Ganges River, and living way up in the Himalayas. Becoming an Indian citizen, growing the awareness of spirituality for end of life care in India, and then there’s the Hospice House which is quite impressive too.
Deeper into our conversation Laurie expressed an interest in volunteering and without any notice I was in the mix too. Nani Ma asked for a commitment from us and let us decide how many days a week that would be. There would be programs created and scheduled for staff support, community outreach, bereavement, and more. I would be leading the Yoga and Meditation portions of some the planned events and also visiting patients. Laurie and another group of volunteers from around the world met and planned the events to be held over the course of our month-long stay in Rishikesh.
Our time volunteering there was memorable on many levels. I sat with young, dying patients. I taught Yoga and Meditation to the staff. I assisted with bereavement programs and did whatever else was asked of me. When there was nothing to do I cleaned the kitchen. After the kitchen was in tip-top shape I started to help with the cooking. It was a blast and it was meaningful.
So there are accommodations right at the Hospice House for long-term volunteers. And there is always a need for volunteers. I thought about everything that Nani Ma had done with her life. I thought about what I’ve done with my life so far. Part of this year-long trip is to be open to new experiences, see what comes up for us, and think about what’s next in life for us.
“The best I can do is just listening to them. I can never ask them not to shed tears even as death stares them in the face.” – Nani Ma
Kapil Swamiji. Shree Swaminarayan English Medium School, Vapi, India. (February 2018)
This one’s a little different in the sense that I met Kapil Swamiji in our town of Webster, NH., before we left on our trip. I’m not kidding. Some Indian friends in town mentioned that some swami’s from India were visiting their home. They invited us. We hit it off with the swamis and told them we’d be in India sometime in the next year. They have a school in Vapi, India. Vapi is a place that is not on anybody’s radar. Until now. Laurie and I were headed to Bombay in early February, Vapi is only 2 hours from there, so we emailed Swamiji to see if we could visit. For a complete picture of our experiences in Vapi check out my previous posts – An Education in Education and Vapi? Where’s that?
From my perspective, the focus of Kapil Swamiji’s purpose in life is educating extremely poor Indian children, providing food for poor people’s families while they are hospitalized, and facilitating a proper traditional wedding for Indian couples who could never, ever afford to get married. The campus is home to schools and colleges. There is a lot going on and that’s only a portion of it.
We planned to spend a few days here but ended up staying 10 days. We spent our time visiting all the schools on campus, went to remote village schools, and some affiliate schools. The scope of Swamiji’s efforts is vast. We met with students, teachers, principals – and they all had one thing in common – respect for this great soul doing all this great work.
So there were really nice accommodations for us right on campus in Vapi. The staff shared that we were the first non-India westerners to stay on campus. We have an open invitation to return for an extended stay and get more involved with the wonderful work they are doing. I thought about what motivates a person to dedicate their life helping extremely poor people. And again, I thought about what I’ve done with my life so far. Part of this year-long trip is to not have any fixed plan, see what opportunities come our way, and think about what the future holds for us.
“For the generous, the whole world is their family.” – Kapil Swamiji
Hartanto Gunawan. Wat Arun Rajvararam Community Learning Center. Bangkok, Thailand. (March 2018)
One of the top 2 or 3 tourist temples in Bangkok might well be Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). It sits across the river from the famous Grand Palace in Bangkok. I found it more relaxing and laid back than the crowded Grand Palace. We strolled around the grounds and had a pleasant visit one afternoon. On the way out Laurie and I remembered seeing a red door with a small golden sign that read “meditation center”. We looked at each other and thought, “well let’s see if it’s unlocked”. I guess we were thinking we might be able to get our practice in right here, at Wat Arun.
I pressed on the door and it was open. We took our shoes off and walked into a large area where it seemed monks were living, working, cooking. One monk waved us in. We walked through another couple of areas and took some rights and lefts and came upon a small, screened in meditation room where 2 people were practicing. A young girl led us inside, got us some cushions and we sat down.
After our practice we stepped into the common area which was now crowded with young students and an asian man. The students filed into the meditation room and sat. The man introduced himself to us. Mr. Hartanto Gunawan. We spoke for a little while about this strange new place we stumbled upon, what his role was here and Vipassana meditation and his approach to meditating. I found it fascinating. I asked for his contact info and we headed back to our apartment.
A few days later he agreed to meet us again and talk more about meditation. We spent an hour or 2 with him and took away a teaching that would help us take our practice deeper. I originally came back to meet with him because I was so impressed by his knowledge, approach and philosophy about meditation. But I ended up being equally impressed by his story. He’s originally from Indonesia, was a CEO of various companies, gave that up and became a monk living in the forest for 2 years, gave that up, came to Wat Arun to start a school that caters to poor, underprivileged girls, who are vulnerable to human trafficking. The school and the meditation center occupy a section of Wat Arun. Read a good article about the school here.
As we were leaving the center some of the students were gathering around us. We tried to speak to them in English but they managed only a tiny bit or they were just a little shy. The conversation with Hartanto turned to tutoring the students in English. He told us the opportunity always exists for people to volunteer here teaching English. He’d even provide accommodations. He’d even arrange the proper visa if it were long-term. I thought about what motivates a person to give up a successful corporate career, train as a monk and meditator, and open a school whose main objective is stopping the flow of human trafficking. And again, I thought about what I’ve done with my life so far. Part of this year-long trip is to see what doors open up for us, stay open to learning new things that come our way, and contemplate our role in the world. Stay tuned.
“We are truly in a position to help them get a better life, better future, better jobs without expecting anything in return” – Hartanto Gunawan
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