Thursday, February 22, 2007

What Is Your Country? Ah, Beautiful Place!

Fast forward one week. It's Friday, our day off at the ashram. Forty-one of us have chartered a bus to head south to Kanyakumari, India's southernmost point. Rajid is our guide. He's a fully trained Brahman priest, but is now working as ashram staff, in particular as the Malayalam (language as palindrome) translator. Today he also helps us find toilets and chai, plus backs us up when we scream at the bus driver to "TURN THE DAMN MUSIC DOWN!!!"

Just after daybreak, we have a swim at a series of waterfalls. I climb behind the falls into some caves with floors dangerously slippery with lichen. I'm tempted to dive off the higher rocks, but large stones line this pool, just below the water line. A small group of us follow the river awhile to a small Hindu Temple. The grounds are lined with trees and shrubs whose leaves are ground to make those patently smelly Ayurvedic treatments. (Later in the day I'll injure my foot, and in turn recieve an oil which smells like pesto, making me crave pasta for the rest of the month. [Mmmmm. Venugopala....]) It's the day of the Divine Mother, so we line up to take kumkum between the eyes and three streaks of ash across the forhead. The day is hot, and despite not wearing a shirt, it's all soon washed away by my sweat. Outside, another bare-chested man breaks a cocunut on a stone in front of the Naga statue. This is the soul's symbolic release from a skull bursting in the heat of a funeral pyre. The crows swarm on the bits in seconds. Naga statues represent fertility, so has our friend already lost his head over a woman?

We have a spicy breakfast of curry and chai, the first real flavor to pass my lips in a week. Then back on the bus, heading south. Typical India scenes pass. An old woman sits in her doorway reading a paper. Three myna birds perched on the gate of a burned out house. Multiple churches and familiar hammer and sickle crests hint at Kerala's foreign flirtations. Many billboards. Sorry Ma'am Men's Wear. Reliance Gas (US foreign policy slogan?). Saraswati Hospital. The biggest billboards seem to be for jewelry. Bathers and buses, tuc-tucs and Ambassadors, palm trees and wandering cows. Etc etc etc. And as I try to scribble my notes in an undecipherable hand due to the road conditions, I wonder, Why even write at all about this? India has been captured in words for centuries, by people with far more talent than I. Then again, so has Japan, yet this blog lumbers on.

We eventually reach the southern tip. Massive construction is going on, due to this area being wiped clean by the tsumani of a few years back. Odd for this country, not much is happening on or near the water. A small ferry boat makes its way slowly to a pair of small islands. More like piles of rocks really. The surf is high, and the boat bobs and weaves like a boxer. These islands are dedicated to the man who once meditated here, and eventually brought Vedanta philosophy to the west, Swami Vivekananda. In his honor, I find myself humming an Elvis tune. Most of the other people here are what I think of as Men In Black. A week before, I sat beside one on the plane and had been intrigued. These men are pilgrims on the way to Sabarimala Temple, one of India’s holiest sites. During the pilgrimage, the men take a 41-day penance, abstaining from meat, sex, and swearing. Some of them seem to have trouble with the prohibition against smoking. Besides the tobacco, there is no vegetation here at all, but there are a couple temples, plus a cave where I too meditate awhile. Then I destroy all merit earned by buying a dozen cheap books. Yet materialism is present in other forms here as well, notably in the 133 foot high statue of a poet on the other island. We decide to give it a pass and head back to the mainland.

The temple here is huge and busy. The door facing the water is closed since ships would often mistake the candles for a lighthouse and crash onto the rocks. Outside there is a small park, filled with folks gearing up to watch the sunset. I pass a small tsunami memorial and make my way to the point where the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal all converge. Facing north, I'm stunned by the thought that there are over a billion people between me and the Himalayas. But my revery isn't long because lots of young men keep wanting to take picture with me. Using my camera. I escape after awhile to a beach further north and west, to take a sunset swim. I need to pee, and make my way to a place between fishing boats, only to be chased off by a pack of angry, snarling dogs. Your beach, man. As I get into the water, one of the Nepali guys screams and mentions spotting a seasnake as thick as his arm. I'm not sure if he's joking or not, but as I swim out, I'm too nervous to completely appreciate the surface of the sea shimmering turquoise and silver in the fading light. There are alot of us in the water, and I'm trying to get a little distance so I can empty my bladder, but not too far since I'm still thinking about that damn snake. The waves are coming up now and getting back to the beach is tricky. Large underwater rocks line the shore, and as I step on one, a wave knocks me sideways, shoving my foot into a hole. I pull it out of the water to see one of my toes is bent downward at a right angle. Great, there goes my yoga training. I crack the toe back into place and within seconds, it swells to the size of my thumb. It will be two days before the doctor decides to show up for work and tell me that rather than a break, I merely have a bad sprain. Yoga is back on.

Well after dark, we make our way to Suchindram Temple, where the combined trio of Siva, Brahma, and Vishnu are worshiped. What intrigues me most are the musical columns which ring out in a different tone when struck by open palms. I jam awhile, then set out to find the rest of the group meditating in an enclosed space near a huge statue of Hanuman. Outside, a group of musicians is playing beside a cart reminiscent of Gion's festival hoko. Near the bathing ghats, a group of schoolgirls waves to us from their bus. Behind them, the temple’s dark black tower stands tall against a darker, blacker sky, looking ominous like something more often found in Mordor.

It is already 9:30 when we make our third and final meal stop of the day. More masala chapattis and chai. After a week of no spice, my stomach is doing a funky mambo. Next door, some of our group are buying chocolate, but I hold strong. I figure that I’d enjoy it for a few days, but then would have to quit eventually.

Rare for me, I doze on the drive home, then climb into bed close to one a.m. Meditation in five hours...

On the turntable: Yo La Tengo, "I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass"
On the nighttable: Tom Kizzia, "The Wake of the Unseen Object"

No comments: