After three and a half weeks away, I returned to Vaidyagrama on Tuesday night. As I had hoped, it felt like a sweet homecoming. Returning as a patient now with all of our classes and travel completed, I have a very different mindset, focused on rest, integration and rejuvenation. I can feel my mind and body heaving something like a sigh of relief. While my travels of the past three weeks (and indeed, the past five months) have been entirely smooth and fascinating, inspiring even, it was still a great relief and joy to arrive at the Coimbatore train station and see Ramaswamy, our familiar taxi driver, waiting for me after my ten hour train ride from Trivandrum – but I’m getting ahead of myself. After my weeks of silence here in blogland, I have some catching up to do.
Back on the last day of April, the four of us students boarded the train to Bangalore to visit Kalpana ji, whom you may remember from my post describing her inspirational visit to Vaidyagrama in March. She and her husband Sampath are part of the team of directors of Punarnava Ayurveda, lending their expertise in organizational behavior and visioning to the ayurvedic doctors who make up the rest of the team. After Kalpana’s visit with us in March, she generously invited us to visit her home in Bangalore to “talk some more.”
Aside from housing and feeding us (exceedingly well), she gave us an entire weekend workshop on vision, values, leadership and self-evaluation. We stayed in their lovely and incredibly unusual home (called “the Magic house” by their neighbors, and it wasn’t hard to see why…. Among other novelties of construction, they are building an ayurvedic treatment center in their back yard, literally. Unexpected things are possible around these folks). We also visited the Hanuman temple that their family helps support. Hanuman, the strong and fearless monkey god who exemplifies the ideals of service and devotion, is a fitting symbol for this amazing family, and we felt blessed to be included in their circle for a time.
From Bangalore, Emily and I left the others and set off on our own. Our plan was loose, with the intention merely of moving where the path seemed least cumbersome. Since we had only one fixed point in our travel schedule (to meet up with Dr. Ramdas and his family for a festival in his hometown) and many interesting destination options, we developed a strategy in our itinerary-planning: to trust India’s signals in the form of ease of transit, looking for the simplest path to an endpoint; the moment we hit any resistance in our planning, like overbooked trains or a lack of convenient routes to a possible destination, we took that as a sign to try a different destination altogether rather than forcing something to fit. It has been a great lesson in remaining unattached and seeking the flow of momentum – a great strategy for calming vata dosha too, which is generally agitated by travel anyway. We ended up taking a night train from Bangalore to Fort Kochi on the coast and settling in there for a full week.
While it is a tourist Mecca in the high season, during the summer Fort Kochi is rather bereft of foreign visitors. There were a fair number of Indian tourists, but even as newcomers to town we could feel the lack of crowds in the shops and restaurants, the sheer number of which served as a sign of the potential for tourists – and we were grateful for our timing. Although it was indeed HOT, we were actually happy to trade the cooler temperatures of the high season for the lack of crowds and other foreigners (who we tend to think give us a bad name, ideal tourists that we are!).
To reach the town of Fort Kochi from the train station, we took a small ferry befitting a town that makes its living off of the sea. Fort Kochi shows evidence of the varied cultures that have settled here in an attempt to control its lucrative port and its place in the spice trade. As one guide book describes it, “During a wander through Fort Kochi’s narrow lanes, you will stumble upon spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church, Dutch homes, and a village green that could have been transported from England’s Home Counties.” The Dutch Palace houses some beautiful murals painted with vegetable paints in a traditional native style, depicting Hindu gods and stories. Fort Kochi is also home to one of the only communities of Jews in India. The rare synagogue there is still functioning but apparently only has about 12 members in the congregation now, all elderly.
The center of town is a cluster of shops and old buildings snuggled against a small beach, surrounded by massive towering trees. It feels a bit like the ante-bellum south of the United States, with a similar sense of dated gentility and a slow pace of living. The beachfront is adjacent to the functioning Chinese fishing nets, elaborate contraptions that look like kites made of gossamer, which are lowered into the water and after some time are raised back up, full of glittering bounty. There were many churches and cathedrals even, signs of the Portuguese Catholic influence.
In the evening at sunset, Emily and I walked along the beachfront amidst the Indian tourists, eating ice cream or drinking chai, and watched the waves crashing and the Indians wading. Most Indians do not swim, even those living in Kerala, the most beautiful coastal state you can imagine. No one has given us a compelling explanation for why not. We were ready to dive in, were it not for the stares we were already attracting by simply walking on the shore. Some people stopped us and asked where we were from, while others just smiled or giggled – we have learned to see giggling as a complimentary gesture, not laughing at us (we hope) as much as laughing out of happiness or surprise, perhaps colored by shyness or not knowing how to approach us. Once in a grocery store here in Coimbatore as a clerk was showing me to the fruit aisle, she asked where I was from and then after a few more steps in grinning silence, she simply said, “I am so happy!” It’s humbling to have people so very happy at your mere presence.
One day, we took a day trip from Fort Kochi into the backwaters of Kerala on a beautiful rattan boat. Powered by two men with poles, the speed was leisurely and entirely relaxing. We traveled along canals through residential communities, enjoying the breeze and the views. After lunch, we got in smaller boats, more like a wide canoe, and poled along smaller waterways back into neighborhoods. It felt rather like a tropical, rural Venice. We witnessed the exception to the “Indians don’t swim” rule as children cavorted in the deeper canals.
On another day, we visited an elephant training camp where they bathe the elephants in a nearby river. They led the elephants (five of them in all) to the water’s edge and instructed them to lie down and then scrubbed them with coconut hulls. A crowd of about thirty tourists had gathered on the banks with our cameras, transported from town with similar promises of possibly getting to help bathe them. After the team of trainers had been at it for about five minutes and we were beginning to wonder how to work our way in, one of them looked up and waved me over to help, and I waded in up to my knees and he handed me a coconut hull.
When they are lying down, elephants are much less formidable and statuesque, far less likely to step on you (although rolling over you is still a distinct possibility). When they stood back up, they somehow remained approachable, as we had shared this intimate moment with them at their morning toilette. Emily and I prayed that they were happy elephants. Even in this land that reveres their elephants, seeing such monumental wild beasts in captivity made us cringe a bit. Anthropomorphizing is far too easy, with their sweet eyes and apparent cooperation with their trainers.
It was the perfect preview for Pooram, the elephant festival that we headed to next, but that will have to wait for another day’s post as I am now being called for my treatment. More to come soon….!