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.

Kodaikanal, part 2

I hired a car to tour the local sights on my second day in Kodai.  I can’t remember the names of where we drove, but most of the spots would be called “scenic overlooks” or “nature viewing areas” here in the US – and also one golf course, where the only golfers I saw were the monkeys cavorting on the greens.  I thought it was interesting that a golf course would be a feature included in a sightseeing tour.  At least I was impressed with how lush the grass looked and they probably did not douse it with lawn chemicals like in the US.  Unfortunately this little sight-seeing expedition was where I experienced my first taste of nastiness.

The driver dropped me off at Coaker’s Walk, a path that winds up and around a hill where on a clear day you can see all the way to Madurai.  My driver said he would meet me on the other end. It was a beautiful day and I started walking slowly, enjoying the views, stopping to take pictures.  The view was fabulous and the air smelled fresh and green, really the first time I smelled “green” in the air in India.  Couples and families were walking around, and as usual, I was the only westerner.  About half way through my walk, two youngish couples walked toward me, they were maybe mid- to late 20s.  They slowed down, stared at me, then pointed and started to laugh – at me.  I stopped and looked behind me, thinking someone behind me was acting goofy.  It never dawned on me that I was the one they were laughing at.  It wasn’t just a guffaw or two, it was a steady stream of laughter and talk amongst themselves.

I knew that Indians stared at foreigners especially ones dressed like a “typical tourist” (like a man with snow white legs sticking out of khaki shorts wearing white socks with sandals or a woman wearing tight, revealing clothes), but I was wearing loose cargo pants with a traditional kurti, nothing strange about my clothes at all, and I wasn’t showing an excessive amount of skin.  At first I thought these people were just acting was strange, then my blood began to boil. I walked past them, then turned around and confronted them.  If you have seen the movie Taxi Driver, I did a Travis Bickle.  I yelled, “You talking to me? I said, ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?”  They stopped pointing and laughing and stared.  “What’s your problem?  You got a problem?  The hell you looking at?  Why don’t you take a picture? You want a picture?  Here I am!.”  I continued to yell non-stop.  They turned and walked away very fast.   I truly hoped they thought I was a crazy American woman and would tell all their friends about me.

My equanimity immediately flew out the window.   Calm down, breathe, I told myself, but I was in a rage because I could not believe people could be so cruel and ignorant for no reason.  How dare they.  What the hell did I do to deserve that treatment and who the hell did they think they were?  In my old neighborhood on the south side of Chicago their behavior would have gotten them a rightous ass-kicking, including the women.  The same person  who told me about the Kodai tribals told me that “Kodai gets a lot of young tourists, who now have lots of money and lots of confidence.  I imagine that the people who were rude to you were the young smug newcomers to India’s middle class–software, call center types, trying to impress their girlfriends/wives.  Rather like the jaded Upper West Siders of New York sneering at the tourists in Times Square.”

Their actions as well as my reaction to them totally put me off the rest of my walk and when I got back to the car I took it out on my driver.  I asked him if it was common for Kodai Indians to treat tourists like I was just treated.  I asked him if people here were always so mean. “What’s wrong with you people?”, I asked him.  He acted like he did not understand me, but I knew he did, and we drove to the next stop.

I started feeling better when we drove to waterfalls and into some pine forests.  Nature has always been my church and sanctuary. I’ve hiked the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, canoed in northern Minnesota.  But when I got out of the car and started walking with other tourists in these natural areas, I was struck by how the Indians treated these areas as if they were in an amusement park.  These were the most pristine areas I had seen during my India trips, but the ground was littered with empty film canisters, film boxes, and other non-biodegradable garbage.  I didn’t understand it at all.  These hills were beautiful, but there was no awareness or care whatsoever.

We drove to another overlook where there were lots of monkeys and lots of people because tour buses were dropping off their passengers.  The monkeys – well-trained to get close because people would throw them whatever food they had – ran all over, but as soon as they got close, someone would throw a rock and then run away – yeah, real macho guys.  I was almost knocked over some boulders by idiots throwing rocks at the monkeys and then running away from them.  The women would also run away from the monkeys, screaming.  What was wrong with these people, why don’t they shut up and enjoy the view, why are they hassling monkeys?  The eyes of the monkey in my photo in the previous post say it all.  I would try to take a close-up picture of a monkey and some moron would walk in front of me, totally clueless.  I finally got so sick of what was going on around me, I sat on a rock and started to egg the monkeys on, out loud – “go ahead, get him; go ahead, bite him, bite his hand”.  I knew that some people could understand English and I didn’t care.  I was hoping that a monkey would get really pissed about getting hit with a rock and just go ape shit on somebody (sorry, just had to say that.)  I was out of there – the whole day made me wonder why I ever wanted to go to Kodaikanal.  There was nothing here for me, and my claustrophobia crept in again.  It was the first time that I truly felt alone in India.

There were a few more stops and the driver left me at the hotel.  I beat myself up for not going to Palani instead to visit the great Murugan temple.  I spent the evening wandering around Kodai, eating Tibetan food, drinking chai, going into all the stores.   I slowly walked the 3k around the lake back to the hotel.  I could not wait to get out of Kodai.

Early the next morning I left for Rameswaram where I would lose my heart to India all over again.

palani hills

Palani hills

Kodaikanal, part 1

kodaikanal mama

two of the friendlier residents of Kodaikanal

I arrived in Kodaikanal and the bus dropped me off in the middle of town.  My two old Brahmin friends who discussed yoga philosophy with me bowed their heads and placed their hands in anjali mudra and told me that these “two old jivans” were honored to sit next to me and they hoped I would be blessed for the remainder of my trip.

One of the scenarios the old jivan presented to me was this:  he looked out the window and waved his hand at the poor people along the way.  He said, “what do you think, madam?  Why is one man born a king and the other born a beggar? Is that not fate?”  I shrugged and said that karma is not fate, it is cause and effect, that karma is karma, no more, no less. I told him that the beggar could very well have been a king in a previous life, and because of his past actions was reborn a beggar, maybe because he treated beggars very poorly when he was a king.   A man sitting in front of us turned around and said loudly, “She is right! Karma is karma!”, then said nothing more for the rest of the trip.  I smiled because I loved these little Indian vignettes.  The two old jivans laughed and discussed karma between themselves, maybe discussing how it was their karma to sit next to an American woman of a certain age who was dressed like an old hippie chick and who was reading an Indian book on meditation.

I was in Kodai only for two nights and I admit that maybe this was too short a time to form a proper opinion.  But as of right now, I would not return to Kodai, at least as a solo traveler.  I believe Kodai is best visited with other people, unlike the other cities I visited.   Despite the beauty of the surroundings compared to the dry Tamil Nadu I was accustomed to, I felt claustrophobic in Kodai, I felt trapped.  This was the first city where I felt bored and antsy.  One thing that was remarkably different was that I was never besieged by touts or beggars in Kodai – that was a refreshing change!  It was interesting how I was in a relatively clean, quiet town with the least amount of people so far, not hassled by touts or beggars, but I felt uncomfortable, and I did not feel that way in maddening Madurai or busy Chennai.

The place where I stayed was considered a “resort” and was more for tourist groups or for families.  Kodai is known for hiking trails, but I knew I would not feel safe hiking in the hills alone.  The center of town is small and there’s not much to do or see.  The connections at the two internet cafes were exceedingly slow.  Walking around town I found an ayurvedic store and made an appointment for another ayurvedic massage, hoping it would as wonderful as the one I had in Chennai.  I thought it might even be better since the store was run by an ashram – they had a convincing brochure about their services but I should have relied on the old adage about not judging the book by its cover.

When I arrived for my massage, I was taken into the basement of a nearby hotel and was shocked.  The basement was cold, damp, and scary, and it really looked like just what it was — an unfinished basement.  I was taken into a small, dark room that was literally freezing, the first time I had ever felt cold in India.  I looked around, disgusted.  The “masseuse” put an old, ratty towel on the table that was a duplicate version of the one in Chennai, like a doctor’s exam table from the 1950s.  Only this time the towel was greasy looking.  No way was I going to go through with this massage.  This room looked like the photos I remember from the pre-Roe v. Wade days — it looked like a room where a back-alley abortionist would do his work.

I told the woman who brought me that the room was disgusting and cold.  She turned on a heater that looked like it couldn’t heat up a closet much less a room, and she changed the towel to one that had smaller grease stains.  I shook my head and told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted my deposit back NOW.  She shrugged, didn’t try to argue, said no problem, and I left. So much for my wonderful ayurvedic massage.

I walked around town and met Tibetans for the first time.  The ones I met were open and friendly, very different from the Indians I experienced in Kodai.  I found a wonderful Tibetan restaurant where I would hang out and enjoy the warmth and I’m not talking about the temperature.  Fabulous steamed momos and an awesome soup that was so thick I ate it with a fork, all for less than $1.

I felt an underlying tension in Kodaikanal, an almost imperceptible violence that was waiting to explode.  I had never felt this before in my travels and I’m a good one for picking up the energy of a place.

An IndiaMiker told me this when I told him my feelings about being in Kodai:

“Most of those people selling fruit and trinkets to tourists in Kodai are tribals.  The only other source of employment in the area is the coffee and tea plantations, and the contracts are usually indenture.  So they are bonded laborers who try to scrape together a little cash when they aren’t picking leaves or beans–it’s either that or starve.  They live with all the caste discrimination and violence you would expect.  They’re even included in Human Rights Watch reports.  It’s genuinely cold in winter, at which time it also get the monsoon.  Roads wash out. Living in a thatched shack isn’t easy.

There are also plenty of monied interests–hotels, property development and luxury real estate, the plantation owners, etc.–that keep a firm hand on Kodai with bribes, violence, and other incentives.  The place is really a cesspool of corruption and environmental waste, with the people at the bottom little better than slaves.”

And here I was…

on to Kodaikanal

I moved on to Kodaikanal after Madurai.  Perched atop the Palani range, about 120km from Madurai, Kodaikanal is what is called a “hill station” surrounded by temperate forests of pines and deciduous trees.   Kodai’s wooded – and not so wooded anymore – slopes contain waterfalls and rocky outcroppings.  According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, it’s the only hill station in India that was established by American missionaries.   I had read about the greenery, the different climate, the different geography, and I was looking forward to a change of scenery from the dry, dusty Tamil Nadu I had become accustomed to.

The bus ride was once again an adventure.   I got on and the few seats left were in the back, along the long row.  I have long legs and did not want to spend hours with my knees up around my chin sitting behind one of the back seats, so I parked myself right in the middle of the long seat, my legs out in the aisle.  We picked up more people and two older men came toward me — I could tell that they expected me to move over to the window.  Not way, not a chance with my long legs.  They shrugged and proceeded to squeeze past me.  One sat next to the window, the other was trying to squeeze in next to me, on my left, next to his friend.   He had a hard time doing so because the person on my right would not budge an inch.  I got up a little, and as the man was squeezing in between me and his friend, I pushed him in next to me, like shoving someone through a door.  “Thank you, madam!”, he said with a big smile.

Within 10 minutes we started talking, the first question always “what country, madam?” and then “what job, madam?”. “America.”  “Yoga teacher.”   The man next to me translated that for his friend next to the window.   Big smiles all around.   “We also do yoga, every day,” and my old friend told me that just that morning he had done headstand AND shoulderstand.  These men appeared to be in their 60s.  They also made sure to tell me that they were Brahmins, the highest caste.  I always found it interesting that people (always men I realized) would tell me that.

My old friend told me that his friend has a brother living in the ashram of Swami Nirgunananda in Chandigarh, which is close to Delhi.  Before I know it an address book is pulled out and I have the Swami’s cell phone number!  Outstanding! Life is all about the connections we make and that seems so especially in India.  You can bet that I have that scrap of paper with the Swami’s phone number tucked away in a safe place.  Google and ye shall find so I found that not much information came up, which to me means he’s the real deal.  That tells me he’s not a show biz guru.  Another time, another trip, I have the rest of my life.

We settled in for the three hour bus ride to Kodai.  I pulled out a book I had bought at the Ramakrishna Math in Chennai, Meditation According To Yoga Vedanta.  My old friend saw the book and asked to look at it then he showed it to his friend.  I never got to read another page because for the next two hours because I was grilled like a school girl before her school masters.

laundry day

laundry day in Kodaikanal

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