Wednesday, February 28, 2007

You're leaving, isn't it?

It was Sunday, February 4th, which meant that the course was over and we could go back to our lives. Twenty of us had chartered a bus to take us the two hours north to Varkala. At the helipad, we all went our seperate ways, planning to meet up later, either in a cafe somewhere or on the beach around midnight. The place I was staying was on the outskirts of town, and after a few wrong turns I was dropped off. As I walked throught the swampy rice fields toward my hotel, I thought that this is where the true training begins, out of the Ashram. For a month, I'd passed my days in long periods of meditation and tough yoga poses. I'd wrapped my head around mind-blowing esoteric concepts. I'd eaten nothing but the healthiest vegetarian foods and had weaned myself off the coffee, beer, and wine that made daily appearances in my life. How long would it be before I returned to old habits?

The next couple days (when I wasn't making up for lost sleep) I spent swimming in the sea, or lurking in the shops and cafes on the town's famous cliffs. From the beach, it all looked somewhat like Santa Barbara, but without the oil rigs. Due to the backpacker bibles, the town was beginning to come into its own, and now the race was on. Will Varkala be ruined first by the foreigners with their imported desires and disposable cash, or by the locals, with their piles of rubbish on the beach and the armies of men strolling the beach ogling the forbidden fruits hidden (though not always) by bikini strings? I'd occasionally run into someone from the course, but despite our initial intent to party together, we all seemed to be keeping a healthy distance. I did hang out quite a bit with Lili, no real surprise since we'd become good friends during the course. I was amazed to see her reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Spanish one day, Paulo Coelho in German the next. When it was time to go, we shared a taxi down to Trivandrum airport. I'd carry on to Kovalam. We'd been told that our driver would pick us up at 10:45, but he didn't show up until 11:20. He started out driving the careful, cautious way they do when delivering foreigners, but Lili, seasoned by two years of Dehli-living, asked him to hurry or she'd miss her flight. So began a manic, carnival ride, weaving around everything on wheels and feet. More than a few times, we missed other vehicles by less than a foot . Lili smiled and asked me if I was scared. I just laughed, trying not too look out the windshield too much. I do remember a sign flashing past: "Accident prone area."
The driver dropped Lili at the airport for her flight (which she inevitably missed) and drove me the remaining half-hour to Kovalam. I'd wanted to visit due to the town's fame as a hippie hotspot on the road to Goa. The reality made me sad. I always enjoy the pathos of a beach town in the off season, but I've never seen a town so far past it's prime. I found myself to be the youngest person around by at least a decade. Most of the tourists here were of the moneyed Euro retiree type, flown in for a few days for the "India experience." But the place had long been picked clean and even the bones were a disappointingly dull grey. Sitting in cafes or on the beach, I frequently witnessed those relationships that appear to cut through cultural and generational and economic barriers, but have a lifespan of mere days, culminating in an exchange of some kind. This can take more sinister forms in other parts of Asia, but here in Indian, it's more Nouveau Raj. Disheartened, I stayed away from the beach--away from the sight of drooping white flesh and the sound of pomposity--and sat on the patio of my room, or hid myself away in grubby narrow rooms for my latest Ayurvedic treatment.
Waking early the next day, I decided to take a swim, and was pleased to find the beach empty but for a couple dozen fishermen pulling in two lines of nets. As they pulled, a few of the old timers were singing a song which rang out beautifully in the quiet morning air. Between their lines, a couple of large white fish were swimming. The fishermen yelled to them, but unbelievably, this European couple would not move, choosing to ignore the commotion on the beach, and paddle slowly around. So the fishermen kept pulling, eventually drawing the net around the couple, who at this point began to swim frantically for their lives. Once the nets were on the beach, I looked for what I hoped what would be lunch. Despite at least an hour spent pulling, they'd wound up with only five fish. Immediately an argument broke out, between the old timers who been pulling one line, and the younger men pulling the other. I didn't need subtitles to figure out what they were fighting about.
I walked back up the beach to my hotel to check out. The guy behind the desk had tried to overcharge me for a bunch of services I hadn't used or needed. Using my newfound ashram powers, I didn't fight, but gently refused. He backed down, then changed the subject, telling me how good and tough a man that Bush is. Turds of a feather.
Within the hour, I was again heading south.

I took what would be my last Ambassador ride of the trip. My driver was ancient, but at least he kept the pace sane and slow. I wondered if he'd ever heard Gandhi speak, and if Partition had affected him badly. Then I noticed the cross hanging from the rearview mirror, swinging in slow circles above the everpresent elephant figure mounted on the dash. I suppose the driver made it to his ripe age more to the help of Jesus rather than Ganesha.
My destination was Thapovan, an Ayurvedia retreat run by a friendly German named Andreas. I settled into a paradise of teak-lined rooms and large grassy lawns on which I'd do yoga. Every night, small mushrooms would sprout amidst the grass, to be eaten by either the furry legged Chinese chickens, or the larger, purple African fowl constantly pecking around. The latter, in addition to their duties as landscapers, also acted as security, screeching like banshees anytime a snake would appear. I enjoyed a couple quiet days here, swimming amidst the Arabian Sea's large rocks or getting the best messages of the whole trip. I'd eat incredible Keralan food on the hotel balcony, looking over the palm forests covering the hills. At night a cross would begin to hover above the hills, revealing a church hidden amongst the trees, its Malayalam hymns bursting from the speakers, yet never loud enough to drowned out the voice of the Mullah, rising up from the mosque far beyond. Most of the time, though, I sat in a chair out front of my room, drinking directly from a coconut and working my way to the bottom of a large stack of Indian-related books I'd acquired on my travels. I was even given another day here, after my Singapore-bound flight was cancelled. Rather than freak out, I simply accepted a taxi voucher from the airline and went back to the peace of Thapovan.
On the last afternoon, I went visit the Sikh I'd befriended. He sold Buddhist art in a small shop down the hill. I hadn't thought there were any Sikhs this far south, and it turned out he was from Delhi. On my last day, he asked me why I thought that his shop's logo was of a hollow Buddha. I said that it's because Buddha, or God, or whatever, is a mere form, and that because we all have different concepts of the absolute, it is up to the individual to give this form flesh. He laughed and patted my knee. "No," he said, still laughing, "I tell them that the Buddha on the sign is not real, but the one's inside the shop are." I smiled, and wisecracked, "Well now you have both a spiritual and a commercial reason."

I'd originally planned to spend a couple days in Singapore, but the airline had seen to that. I could've had a long afternoon of wandering the city, but instead decided to change my flight and go straight back to Japan. At the airport, I'd gotten a nice surprise. Since I'd been so understanding about the missed flight, even refusing a free hotel room, I was given a seat in First Class. Nice. Yet since the flight left close to midnight, and flew throughout the night, I chose to sleep in my park bench of a seat, partaking not of the booze or the gourmet food or whatever else is given to the man behind the curtain. As the flight gradually descended, I looked out at the lights splayed below, each of them a potential destination in a part of the world completely untramped by me. And later, I'm nursing an airport coffee at dawn, the weird eighties techno of Mark Mothersbaugh being the perfect soundtrack to the scene of zombies walking bewildered and slow, each lied to by their individual bodyclocks which contradict the 6 am rise of Duty Free shutters. And watching these people of every conceivable shape and size, I smiled to myself at the memory of how, a few hours before, in the irony of my seat in First Class, I'd read about how there is no real distinction between humans at all.

On the turntable: Ghost, "In Stormy Nights"
On the nighttable: Christopher Benfry, "The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Openening of Old Japan"

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sunday papers: Joseph Campbell

"Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existance; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world."

--The Hero with a Thousand Faces (?)

On the turntable: Link Wray, "Be What You Want To"
On the nighttable: Hillel Wright, "All Worldly Pursuits"

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"

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Your Good Name?

And then my first glimpse of India, in the form of the moon reflected in a small lake far below. Lights began to appear and before long, our pilot announced our arrival in a voice not unlike Ricardo Montalban. On the ground, I’d expected the madness I’d found in Sri Lanka, but unbelievably, I was in my hotel bed within the hour.
The next morning started slowly, then accelerated. I had breakfast downstairs in the hotel dining room, served by a staff who wouldn’t stop calling me "sir." Walked out into the street, muttering, "Here we go," yet passed the day unmolested. Down the street, past the massive Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and its ghats where people were in the midst of their Sunday bath. Walked the perimeter of the temple, noting the Ganesha head-shaped marks on the fences, a mark which would reappear at various spots throughout the city. Then up MG road, mad and bustling. The bus stops were especially crazy, riders literally throwing themselves on and off moving vehicles, objects of various shapes and sizes hanging from hands, arms, or heads. I passed a spaced-out white man with a dot of kumkum between his eyes. While walking, I noticed how, despite lack of sleep, I didn’t feel even a little tired, yet I often feel sleepy when I spend a day reading. Went on down to South Park Hotel, and had myself a chai. It was a posh place, and as I was about to use a desert spoon to stir my tea, the waiter stopped me, offering to get a tea spoon. I told him it was fine, but he said, "Not Fine" and dashed off. Back on the street again, past the saluting Sikh doorman, almost getting hit by a tuc-tuc as I stared at the amount of bricks the brick-walla had on her head. At the top of the street was a park. A line of schoolgirls was entering the Reptile House to watch the cobras have their guinea pig lunch. Nearby was the beautiful, high-ceilinged Napier Museum, itself more a work of art than what it housed. While sitting reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's "Heat and Dust" at the base of a nearby tree, I was chatted up by a cluster of skinny schoolboys, lanky and clumsy and seemingly connected in a Siamese-twin kind of way. Under some trees, young couples exhibited their intimacy without any physical contact, and under others, men demonstrated Kerala’s incredibly high literacy rate. Back on the street, a beggar woman moved quickly from the periphery, hand extended. She was the only beggar I saw that day, but I met her repeatedly throughout the city. What she lacked in persistence she made up in mobility. Had an eight curry lunch with dessert, then walked the narrow side roads back to my hotel, dodging cars which had all their wing mirrors folded in. Took an Ambassador taxi out of Trivandrum and into a landscape familiar to me from Sri Lanka. Ganesha on the dash and a sadhu beside the road, good portents as I sped my way to the Sivananda Ashram, my home for the next month....

On the turntable: Zakir Hussein, "The Mystic Masseur"
On the nighttable: Nick Jans, "The Grizzly Maze"

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

While making feet for children shoes...

Singapore. Caught my first glimpse from the plane, of a large flotilla of ships all facing the same direction. It looks as if they`re fleeing. Inside Changi, I catch the familiar Asian scent of long airport carpets going moldy in damp climes. I put on my iPod, Tom Waits. I look for this city`s eponomous song, but not finding it, settle on "Shore Leave." After this single track, I turn it off, wanting instead to hear all the languages around me. (This includes the Japanese spoken at a cluster of tables near "Genki Sushi.") I change money without knowing the going rate. And I walk the smelly carpet, rubbernecking, amazed at the size of this place. The smell of mold is overwhelmed by perfume near the Duty Free shops. I walk past three small men carrying large machine guns. (In a tight spot I`m sure they`d rather go for the kukri tucked into the back of their belts.) I`m not in Japan anymore.  As I board my Trivandrum-bound plane, a woman eyes my wrist, and says something to her companion. I make out the word "mala."

On the turntable: Buffalo Springfield, "Retrospective"
On the nighttable: Lynn Schooler, "The Blue Bear"

Friday, February 16, 2007

What if they had a blog and nobody wrote?

OK, so I'm back. No mean nasties camped in my digestive tract. No limbs severed on kamikaze bus rides. No fangs, teeth, or claws tattooed in my flesh. (I was almost decapitated by a falling palm frond, but that story can wait.)

Despite my head still being firmly affixed to my sunburned neck, I don't have much to say yet. I've written here (or in my journal[or in my head]) that it is impossible to write about something if you are immersed in it completely. During intense spiritual training, there is no distance from which to watch the action. After all, the goal of any spiritual practice is to get to the point where the watcher watches itself. And this quiet continues, like those proverbial ripples on that proverbial pond. Only this time the pond is frozen.

Will be back after the thaw. This being the material world of samsara, it'll be soon, I reckon...

On the turntable: "Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm..."
On the nighttable: Rudyard Kipling, "Plain Tales from the Hills"
Sarah MacDonald, "Holy Cow!"
(and way too much philosophy)