100 days

(written 100 days before leaving for my third trip in December 2008)

One hundred more days and I lose myself in Ma India for the third time.  These pictures are only three out of the 500+ pictures I took during my first two trips.

the vibrant colors of flowers from a flower seller’s cart in Pondicherry…

the joy of a man dropping flowers onto another man in a flower warehouse in Chennai…

and finally the children — children who have nothing compared to many American children, yet they seem to have what is most important…

These are some of the images that are burned into my mind ever since I returned from my first trip in 2005.  There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about Ma India, the good and the bad and the ugly.  Some days I wake up thinking about her, and some nights I go to sleep thinking about her.  I can’t explain it, it’s just the way it is.  For those of you who have been to India, and love it as I do, you know exactly what I’m talking about, there is no need for explanation.  To paraphrase Louis Armstrong when he talked about jazz, “if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.”

I long for that very early morning in Chennai at the end of December when I step outside the airport and hesitate, stopping to drink everything in with all my senses, the sights, the sounds, and yes, even the smell — a damp, cloying smell mixed with green and smoke and diesel fuel that attaches to my skin like wet cloth — and then step into my freedom.

Yes, freedom, because I feel light and free in India.   I’ve just read the book Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney and she describes for me how I feel when I go to India, a solo woman traveler of a certain age…

I was alone, finally, with no one to protect me. I wanted to sing for happiness — a rare, raw, immediate sort of happiness that was directly related to my physical situation, to my surroundings, to independence, and to solitude. The happiness I felt that morning had nothing to do with the future or the past, with abstractions or with my relationships to other people. It was the happiness of entering into something new, of taking the moments simply for what they were, of motion, of freedom, and of free will. I loved not knowing what would happen next, loved that no one here knew me. I felt coordinated and strong, and the world seemed huge and vibrant. It was a relief to be alone…My happiness was a feeling of physical lightness, of weightlessness, like drifting on air…

To prepare for her trip up the Nile, Mahoney read the Egypt travel journals of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale.  She writes that she recognized in Flaubert’s notes (written about 1850) the same kind of happiness she felt.   She quotes Flaubert as he witnesses the Nile:

I felt a surge of solemn happiness that reached out towards what I was seeing and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such joy; I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking about nothing: it was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being.

Mahoney quotes Florence Nightingale’s reaction to a Nile sunrise:

It looks. . .so transparent and pure, that one really believes one’s self looking into a heaven beyond, and feels a little shy of penetrating into the mysteries of God’s throne…

rameswaram sunset #2a

This is the sunset taken from the top of a temple in Rameswaram and just beyond the horizon is Sri Lanka.  As I  stared into the limitless expanse of ocean I began to cry as I imagined the monkey god Hanuman leaping from rock to rock to rescue Sita.  Like Flaubert, I also thanked God. . .and Buddha and Shiva and Kali that I was “capable of such joy.”  Such profound joy and pleasure that it indeed pervaded my entire being.

Finally Mahoney describes Flaubert and Nightingale as neither having “any desire to fit the tediously cliched expectations that society had slated for them”; that they both “prized solitude”; and both traveled Egypt during periods of “considerable personal uncertainty and self-doubt”, agonizing “over how they would use their talents and answer their natural impulses.”

I am a woman of a certain age who travels alone, relishing my solitude.  It is possible for me to feel solitude in the chaos of an Indian city.  I also do not suffer tediously cliched expectations gladly.

Ma India, I’m coming home.

the colors spoke to me

I keep drifting back to stare at this picture I took in September 2005 during my first trip to India.

It was taken on the grounds of the Park Guesthouse in Pondicherry. The guesthouse is on the Bay of Bengal and I woke at dawn one day to do yoga outside, facing the rising sun.  Surya namaskar on the Bay of Bengal at dawn is a good thing.

This is an amazing display of Bonsai Frangipani, which are trees in India.  You might be familiar with its other name of Plumeria.

Looking at the thickness of the stems the plants must be quite old and would surely be several feet high if growing normally.

I tweaked the photo a bit to make the colors pop, but what you see is what you get in person.

I went to Pondicherry during my first two trips and it’s where I sent my yoga student and his girlfriend when I hit the road in the opposite direction.

Images of My India.


my last day in Chennai (2005)

flower sellersSeptember 2005

My last day in India was the best day I experienced in Chennai.

On my last night in India I met one of the yoga students at the Eco Cafe for our goodbyes and she told me that I was probably the only one who was not in the group picture.  She also said that a tea was given for the students at the end of the day.  But frankly, a group picture, a tea, and teary goodbyes to people I only knew for a month and probably will never see again mean nothing to me compared to what I experienced that last afternoon.

The Banyan is a women’s organization that is about an hour from where I stayed in Mylapore.  I wanted to donate money and also the clothes and toiletries that I would not be bringing back with me.  Suresh got lost a few times but we finally found it.   I thought it amusing that he never asked women for directions, he only asked men for directions to the women’s shelter.

Visiting Banyan was an overwhelming experience for me because I teach yoga in a shelter similar to this one.   There are approximately 300 women there and not just from Chennai.

I almost started crying when I walked through the gates — two dogs came running, barking loudly, protecting their home.  One dog had a bad rear leg so he ran on three legs.  The other dog must have broken her pelvis because she dragged her back end, pulling herself along with her front legs.  But she was still fierce and tried to protect her home, her paralysis did not stop her.  I watched her as she dragged herself all over, she had old crusty sores on her back legs from dragging herself.  But when she laid down exhausted she looked up at me, wagged her tail, and seemed to smile.

I was greeted by a young Finnish woman.  She told me that she came to volunteer after the tsunami in 2004 and stayed on in Chennai, learning Tamil.  I asked her about the dogs and she said “oh, we adopt them too…”  It did my heart good when she told me that they also have yoga classes for the women.

I was given a tour and I talked with tsunami survivors, to an ex-movie actress who was rescued from the streets, to a woman from Mumbai who has the same curly hair as I do — she hugged me because we had something so mundane in common, our hair.  She did not speak English, but she came up to me smiling, pointing to her hair, and then touching mine.

I lost it — I started crying because I thought about the women in the shelter back home where I teach yoga.  The woman who was the ex-actress came up to me and told me in perfect English, “don’t cry, madam, we love it here, we are happy here.”  They have nothing and yet they have everything.

I left and Suresh took me to the warehouse district where we walked through huge warehouses filled with fruit and veggies and flowers.  I was the only Westerner and Suresh made sure no one crowded me too much.  I took my most favorite photos of India at these warehouses.  I was mobbed everywhere I went, people wanting me to take their pictures, then crowding around me to see their face on my camera.  Surrounded by 20 men at one time and never hassled once .  They yelled their thanks to me and kissed their hands and touched my cheeks, some bowed and made anjali mudra to the OM tattoo on my wrist.  One old man saw the OM tattoo on my wrist, kissed his fingers, then touched the tattoo.  He put his hands to his heart and bowed to me.

Attend final classes that afternoon?  Scheduling classes after our graduation ceremony in the morning was anti-climactic.   I never would have given up the experiences I had that afternoon for anyone or anything.  The best part was experiencing it alone, on my own terms, deliciously secure as only a woman of a certain age can be.

leaving Rameswaram

I returned to my hotel after the bucket ceremony and lounged around for a few hours thinking about my past three days in Rameswaram. I sat on my little balcony staring out into the ocean wishing that I did not have to leave this place.  Of course I was under no delusion that if Fate decreed that I stay here that Rameswaram would be peaches and cream.  I’m sure it would be just like when you meet a man and have a wild weekend love affair only to discover when you do try to make it work that he really hates your cats and he farts all night.  I packed my bag.

Kannan returned in plenty of time to take me to the train station.  I had to pay him for his three days of being my guide.  He told me on the first day that I should pay him what I think he’s worth, that it was totally up to me, he never asked for any money during our time together.

When he arrived he said, “Kannan wants to talk to you,” referring to himself in the third person.  I thought that quaint.  He came into my room without asking and I thought that was rather bold.  I left the door open and stood close to it.  He sat down on my bed and I thought that was even bolder remembering again what I had been told about South Indian culture and men.

“What do you think of Kannan?,” he asked.  My guard was up and I knew I had to be careful in what I said.  I told him that I thought he was a good and kind man and also a quietly spiritual one.  He began to tell me how he felt a connection to me these past few days, that he knows I am a spiritual woman.  But then he told me that his wife did not understand him and that they always fight, that he has his life and she has hers.  I groaned inwardly and I bit my lips to keep from smiling.  Are men really the same all over the world?  Is there a Universal Male Playbook that contains these lines?

I looked at him and slowly shook my head.  “You are married, and so am I,” I said very seriously.  Then I said something that I knew he would understand: “and I have a dear friend.  Understand?  ‘dear friend?’,” and I pointed to my heart.  “He is always in here.”  Kannan nodded that he understood.

We walked out and he asked me for $40.   This was over and above the rupees I had given him for his guide services.  I raised an eyebrow, squinted, and looked sideways at him.  Then he asked me if I would buy him a cellphone when I got back home and send it to him.  One would think that this conversation immediately after telling me that I’m a spiritual woman would infuriate me, but it didn’t.  I thought it was hilarious and tried very hard to keep from laughing.  For some reason it did not phase me at all.

I told him that there was no way I was going to buy him a cellphone and send it to him when he lives in a country where even the Shiva babas own cellphones.  I told him that Indian cellphones are much cheaper than American ones.  However, I did break down and give him an extra $20 in American money.  His guide services were definitely worth it, and besides….his wife didn’t understand him, how could I refuse?

I gave him a bandana covered with OM symbols that was still wet from the temple water.  I told him he could remember me by it.  He put it in his shirt pocket telling me it would keep me close to his heart.  Quaint.  A smooth operator.

We said goodbye at the train station and he told me that when (not if) I return to Rameswaram, he will always be there to help me, to “please call Kannan.”  Of course I will.  How can I not?

I sat in non-air-conditioned First Class for my 17 hour train ride back to Chennai.  My compartment mate was a businessman going home to the state of Andhra Pradesh.  Compared to my first compartment mates on the train to Madurai which was a long two weeks ago, this man was polite and talkative, and spoke perfect English.  We talked about yoga and meditation, about Gandhi, and the politics in India.  He told me that there are many Indians who hate Gandhi and this surprised me very much.

I loved the train ride because since it was not air-conditioned, there was no window glass, the windows had bars across them.  In every station we came to along the way I heard the cries of the chai merchants or food sellers and they would hand me my purchases through the window.  A magazine seller walked by and seeing the feringhee woman, he pushed English magazines through the window at me, telling me to “buy, madam, buy! Look! English!” I kept telling him “no” in Tamil as the train pulled away.

We pulled into Chennai at about 8 am and my compartment mate made sure that I knew where I was going.  I did, and Suresh picked me up in his rickshaw to drive me back to my hotel.  Although I loved my travels, I had missed the cacophony that was Chennai.  I spent the next two days chillin’ in Chennai, and did a day trip to Tiruvannamalai, another famous temple town, visiting the famous ashram of Ramana Maharshi.

My month in India was finally over and I cried the night I had to leave.  But I knew I would be back.

I can not stay away from Ma India.

out with the old karma, in with the new

Kannan and I walked to the ends of Dhanushkodi, almost to Sri Lanka, in the noonday Indian sun, but I was too hot and too exhausted to walk back to where we had started.  I opted for the 30 rupee truck ride back.  Others joined us in back of that truck and at one point we got stuck in the sand — we all got out and the men pushed and pulled the truck until we were free.  Using the rope that was tied to the top of the truck I grabbed it and swung myself back up, enjoying every moment of the ride back.  I did not understand a word anyone was saying, but I felt comfortable, never out of place in the back of an old truck on a beach in India.

My right-out-of-the-ocean fish lunch was waiting for me – and for Kannan, of course, since I paid for his lunch and the ride back.  It seemed to me that I had never had a more delicious meal. Sitting at the fisherman’s makeshift lunch counter in front of his open fire, I watched him cook as his daughter cleaned the planks that were used as seats and tables.  Kannan told everyone that I was an “American yoga teacher” and everyone smiled and nodded their heads and asked me if I liked India.  “I love India!,” I said, and that brought even bigger smiles.  One Indian showed me his Bible and asked me if I knew Jesus.  I told him that I certainly did know Jesus and the man was satisfied with that, he did not try to convert me.  When we left, the fisherman asked me to stay in Rameswaram to teach his daughter English.  I laughed and told him I would if he could find me yoga students.

I got back to my hotel and that night Kannen and I walked to the great temple. The Ramalingeshwara Temple was built in the 12th century, and has magnificent pillared walkways, 1,212 pillars on the north and south sides.  This temple is different from other temples as it is a temple for worshipers of both Shiva and Vishnu.  The temple contains 22 temple tanks (wells) each with water where one can “bathe”, that is, three buckets of water from each tank are poured over you by a temple attendant.  Each tank is said to have special benefits: one gives you relief from debt, one gives you “complete wisdom”, one gives long life to a woman, and other things.  I was to go through this dunking early the next morning.

Kannan and I sat and talked for a long time.  Once again, as in all my travels, I was the only westerner.  We sat by a tank where a man was pouring water over a boy and Kannen pointed out that was what I was going through tomorrow.  I felt very much at peace in this temple, I felt like I could have slept there all night.  Kannen told me about his life, his children, how his sister lived in Germany, how he likes meeting so many people from all over the world.  He said he would arrange for my bucket ceremony.  He told me it would cost 300 rupees, which I knew was a scandalous rip-off, but I did not care.  I saw what the price was on the sign outside the temple and the cost was at least three times less than that, but I also knew that prices are automatically increased for foreigners.  Besides, when would I be here again?

Kannan picked me up at 6 AM the next morning.  We walked to the temple and I met my “bucket man”, a friend of Kannen’s (of course.)  We stopped at each tank with the rest of the pilgrims and my man would put the bucket in the tank three times and pour the water over my head.  However, he was practically running from tank to tank.  I figured he was thinking, OK, I got my money, let’s get this show over with, and I told him to slow down, that I did not want to fall because the marble floor was sopping wet from the dripping clothes of all the people.  He got the hint and we walked a bit more reverently.  I was going to take as long as I could to get through all 22 tanks.  I noticed that one tank was all about Brahma and it said that water from this tank would extinguish my past karma…I liked that.  I must say that I did feel a bit more cleansed after that bucket of water washed over me.

The last stop was going into a temple room with other women where I wrung out my salwar kameez before meeting the temple priest for a puja.  I bought flowers and fruit and made him an offering and he smeared sandalwood paste on my forehead, blessed me, and gave me a packet containing “temple things” including a little container of temple water.

I was done.  My bucket man had disappeared, my 300 rupees was in his pocket together with a new pen.  I think he appreciated the new pen more than the rupees.  I found my sandals and started to walk back to the hotel, knowing that I was in a different state of mind.

I slowly walked along the beach, stopping every so often to watch the pilgrims bathing in the ocean before they walked into the temple. Halfway to the hotel I looked up and saw Kannan walking toward me.   “You look beautiful,” was all he said.

He told me to rest, to not take a shower for a few hours, that I should just let the energy from the temple water soak into me.  My train to Chennai was leaving at 3 PM and he said he would come back to take me to the train.

“Beautiful,” he said, as he walked away.

walking to Sri Lanka

I woke up early and Kannan picked me up for our walk to Sri Lanka.  Not literally, of course, but we would be close enough – we would be walking to Dhanushkodi, on the most eastern tip of India, less than 20 miles from Sri Lanka.  He asked if I wanted to ride in a truck out to the point, but of course I didn’t, I wanted to walk all the way.  This woman of a certain age was going to walk along the Indian beach no matter how long it would take me to get there.

Rameswaram is an island in the Gulf of Mannar at the very tip of India. Rameswaram is the place from where Lord Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue his consort Sita from her abductor, Ravana.  It is also where Rama worshiped Shiva to cleanse away the sin of killing Ravana.  Dhanushkodi, named after Rama’s bow, is at the eastern end of the island about 8 kms from Rameswaram.   Legend has it that the boulders in the sea between Sri Lanka and the place known as Adam’s Bridge were used by the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, to leap across the ocean to Lanka to rescue Sita.

Before we left for the beach, Kannan took me to the street market where I bought fruit for our trip.  Everyone knew him – I’m sure I wasn’t the first westerner he brought there – and I sat with the fish sellers as they told me about their catches of the day.  I was again glad about how different the people here were compared to the ones I had met in Kodaikanal only two days before.

We got to the place on the beach where we would start our walk, but before we left, Kannan took me to the fisherman who would cook our lunch when we got back.   The fisherman took us behind his hut and I picked out my fish that he had caught that morning.  It looked like a makerel to me and one could not have gotten a fresher lunch than that.   I was so hungry when we returned that I would have eaten that fish raw.

We started walking and by this time it was close to noon.  The sand was blazing hot and it kept getting into my shoes, the sun high in the sky beating down on us.  Thank goodness I had plenty of water with me.  Kannan and I had an easy conversation – as I said, he was a smooth operator.  He kept asking me how I was.  I asked him what he would do if I couldn’t walk any further.  “Carry you,” he said.

We rested in the shade at the old ferry stop that had stopped running ferries in 1964 when the area was hit by a cyclone.  I had a thin cotton sarong with me that I used as a dupatta and Kannan tied it gently and carefully around my head so that my scalp and forehead would not get sunburned.

We met up with other travelers walking along the way.  Once again I was the only westerner and I trudged along the Indian beach with old men, women, and childen, all of us sweating in the noon sun.

We came to a fishing village and Kannan introduced me to the “oldest man in Dhanushkodi” – I knew that I was not the first westerner he brought to him.  Kannan told him where we had walked from, and the old man told Kannan that I was a “strong woman”.  We sat in his hut for a long time, and his sons came in with the old man’s pet monkey, a baby that I wanted to hold, but I knew that would be a bad idea — a bite would mean automatic rabies shots.  Seeing that little monkey with a chain around its waist made me sad, but I suppose it had a better life on the island than in a dirty cage in Chennai.  We sat a while longer and a Shiva baba came into the hut, another old man who had walked even further than we had, all the way from Rameswaram proper.  I gave him some of my water and he blessed me when I told him om namah shivaya, jai jai shiva shambo.

We came to another fishing village and Kannen and I walked around talking to people he knew.  We sat for a long time with a family who spoke no English — the woman made me chai, and the man repaired his nets.  Kannan did most of the talking and I stared out at the ocean. I couldn’t believe I had walked all this way, almost to Sri Lanka.  I left him and walked along the beach, picking up shells that I had only seen pictures of in books.  Those shells and a sea urchin are now on my altar in my yoga room.

I felt blessed to be here, I was filled with gratitude and awe because I am always drawn to the ocean.  Some people are drawn to mountains or forests, I am drawn to the ever changing face of the ocean.  I feel the rhythm of the waves inside me.  I’ve always felt like I can walk out into the ocean, dive beneath the waves and survive, returning only when I feel like it.

Kannan told me that he brought two Swedish women out where we were and they stayed for three days, that he had set them up with a beach hut and water.  The family we had sat with cooked their meals and it only cost them 500 rupees per day.  He told me he would do the same for me, that I could wear a “swimming suit” and swim in the ocean.  I looked at him and said that I thought women are supposed to stay covered up in this part of India.  I told him that people told me to stay covered, that South India was conservative – I pulled out the strap of my camisole that I wore under my sleeveless kurti and I asked him, “you mean I could walk around with this top on, no problem?”  He said, yes, no problem, no one would care.  I asked him why that’s so, and I waved my hand to encompass the whole area. All he said was, “we have freedom here.”

He told me if I wanted to do the beach hut next time, to call him, that he would pick me up in Madurai and we would drive to Rameswaram. The idea was very tempting to me, but the thought of being alone on an almost deserted beach at night where drugs and people were traffiked gave me pause.  Besides, my gut told me that I would not be alone in that hut for very long.

smooth operator

He was a smooth operator the way he showed up just at the time I was leaving to walk to the great temple.

Kannan told me that he speaks 5 or 6 languages and he has a sister in Germany, so he is smoother and savvier than most of the men of his type that I met. He is also married and has children, and acting as Rameswaram’s unofficial official tour guide is all he does.  He has carved out a niche for himself, a good enough niche to be mentioned in the popular India travel guide, The Rough Guide.

I was exhausted by the time we got back from watching the children dance. Kannan and I had been out for about four hours, and this was after a day of traveling seven hours from Kodaikanal up in the Palani Hills to a place that was only five miles from Sri Lanka. We walked to the hotel’s restaurant and Kannen started to tell me about where we were going the next day, how much the bucket ceremony would cost me on the morning of the third day, how much I should pay the rickshaw driver he used, and all I heard yet again was how much money another Indian wanted from me.

So I did what I rarely do in front of anyone — I started to cry. If I was a child I would have been told that I was over-tired and cranky. I was almost shaking and I yelled at Kannan that I was not made of money, that despite the fact that I could afford to go to India, yoga teachers don’t make much money, that I was tired of Indians looking at me and seeing only dollar bills and I hated that.

He looked shocked and hurt and his eyes got very wide.  He put his hands to his ears, then to his forehead as if he had a headache, and started to shake his head and say “no no no no no no….”, a low murmur at first, then gradually louder. He looked like he was going to cry.  Suddenly he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled me close, and kissed me. Not a passionate kiss, not even on the lips, but close enough. Remembering what I had been told about South Indian culture and especially about Indian men, I stood there amazed.  “Tomorrow,” was all he said.

He smiled and said I should get some sleep because we had a long day tomorrow, walking the beach to Danushkodi. Still dazed and speechless I walked into the restaurant to relax and ordered black tea, not chai. I wanted comfort from something familiar from home. I closed my eyes, started to take long, deep, calming breaths, and felt someone behind me. I did not turn around because I knew it was Kannan.  I opened my eyes and his hand was in front of my face, holding some flowers.  I slowly turned around, looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and half-smiled.

“From the bush outside,” he said, “I could not leave you sad.”