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Mysore Diary, 2002

In which the author writes about her first trip to India.

India Diary, Part I
Greetings From Kovalam, Kerala, South India
By Kali Om

Read Part I (Kerala) here
Read Part II (Mysore) here.
Read Part III (Mysore) here.

Over 20 hours after leaving JFK, Bob Eisen (the former-Chicago improv dancer) and I finally made it to India! Our luggage, however, was not so lucky.

After nearly missing our connection in Frankfurt and spending an extra 1.5 hours at the Bangalore airport (going through customs, changing money and filling out lost-luggage forms), it was nearly 3 A.M. when we finally "arrived." Yet we found my friend Devdutt and his pal Tom waiting patiently for us, which was like Xmas and birthday rolled into one. While I expected hostile weather and people--I've read far too many travel guides--the people were welcoming, as was the air, which was humid and warm and smelled vaguely of mildew and incense.

*Photo credit to Randy Parrish
Devdutt, who's from Bombay and lives in San Francisco, had booked a hotel with warm water and cable TV (posh by Indian--and our--standards). But once I got in the shower broke down crying and couldn't stop--I missed everything, especially my brother and boyfriend and luggage, and wondered who I thought I was, going to India. While feeling sorry for myself I breathed in some water, which gave me visions of parasites taking root in my innards and made me cry more. During a night of little sleep I realized, "Well, I do have control over my breathing and my water intake. That's something." So I drank water and tried to fall asleep by breathing my way through the primary series (never once making it through the standing poses).

The next day we feasted on exotic (to me anyway) fruit before getting two auto-rickshaws to Devdutt's aunt's house. If you haven't ridden in one of these, imagine a miniature, three-wheel UPS truck driven by a madman--in heavy traffic. During that trip we saw what seemed like a sped-up film of Bangalore life--families on motor scooters, brightly-decorated trucks, old Ambassador cabs, battered tanklike buses, and other zigzagging auto-rickshaws, all honking and jockeying for position. The air and noise pollution movements of the 70s seemed to have skipped India, and the trip was all about near misses, honking horns and heavy exhaust fumes. Devdutt's aunt was gracious, as was his grandmother and her sister, whom we also visited. They gave us food, which was excellent, and showed us their homes--cool tile floors, elegant furniture and overhead fans--and it was a great introduction to India. It was all a blur, of course, because of the shock and lack of sleep, and I'm sure we used the wrong hand to do all kinds of things. Also, we were still wearing our travel outfits. We spent the remainder of the day in the shopping district e-mailing and tracking down yoga clothes, since we had no idea when (or if) our luggage would arrive. I ended up buying a pair of men's swim trunks in which to pract\ice, and a camping mat on which to practice. At dinner Devdutt reminded us to eat with the right hand and drink with the left, while barefoot boys kept refilling our banana leaf thalis.

Next day, still wearing the same outfits, we took the plane to Trivandrum, the closest airport to Kovalam and Lino Miele's Mysore-style astanga vinyasa yoga workshop. While reaching (some might say grasping) for my water in the trunk of the cab, I banged my head hard, drawing blood and creating a big hole just left of where a bindhi ought to be. "A third eye," Devdutt said, and it caused much commentary over the next few days. This happened among a captive audience of cabbies, and I was brought not to one but two first aid stations at the airport, given a plaster (bandage) and sent on my way (by the way, Band-Aids here have turmeric on the pads).

In Kovalam we checked in to our spartan digs--twin beds, cool tile floors, sunken bathroom with a cold-water shower over the toilet--and located the yoga shala, which was right next door and up many flights of stairs, past chickens and kittens and children. On the way up we ran into a woman from Portland, Maine, named Jennifer, who lost her luggage last year and offered the use of two extra yoga mats. Later we ran into Lino at Lighthouse Beach (the Arabian Sea is rough, warm and very salty). He gave us advice for not getting sick: stay out of the water for a few days, don't drink tap water, eat at the Lonely Planet Café, which has healthy vegetarian fare, etc. The beach is a big destination for German and English tourists and is lined with hotels, restaurants, tailors, ayurvedic hospitals, Kashmiri stores and yoga centers. The local men all seem to have moustaches and wear a sarong-like thing called a lungi; boys promenade arm-in-arm down the beach. The women mostly wear saris and braid their hair a certain way, and step gingerly into the water if at all. Bob and I spent a lot of that first day buying toiletries and new clothes to wear. At lunch we noticed a cow grazing next to us, just as the guidebooks promised.

Although the yoga shala is called Silent Valley, it's anything but. It is next to a rice patty (that seems more like a malaria research center), and much of the time the air is vibrating with screeching birds, amplified temple music, cricket matches, catfights and dogs in heat. Our starting time for yoga was 8:45; we waited on the stairs until a spot was open (the first group started at 4:45!). After the trauma and disorientation of travel and lost luggage, it was like coming home as Lino, Gwendoline Hunt and their assistants worked the room, giving adjustments to students from Brazil, Italy, Australia, Germany, England, Finland, Denmark and the U.S. For the first time ever my lower back did not protest as I finally went into backbend (though on the first day there aren't any dropbacks). And after class I was treated to my first coconut (the walla hacks off the top and pops a straw in; after you've drunk the milk, he cuts it in half and you use part of the shell to scoop out the "meat."). For a fruit-in-the-morning person, it's the only way to go.

The next several days were spent doing yoga--wearing the same outfit each day, along with my glasses and the Band-Aid above (an important lesson about ego, I suspect). But I soon graduated to a 6 A.M. slot, which required ascending all those flights of stairs and going past all those people's homes in the dark. Fortunately, my torch (flashlight) was in my carry-on bags; it also comes in handy for the daily random power outages, or "load-shedding."

The rest of our time was spent trying to call Lufthansa and going on excursions. It took many rupees and nearly as much paperwork, but Tom, Devdutt and I visited Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in busy Trivandrum, where women are only allowed to enter after 5:30 P.M. (after first professing they're Hindu, signing something to that effect and donning a sarong-like dhoti). The temple was built in 1733 and was a maze of deities, camphor lamps, gold and granite columns, men prostrating chest-down on the floor and people handing us stuff and asking for rupees. After a tour, which included viewing an amazing six-meter-long reclining gold Vishnu through three windows and a priest saying puja (blessing) and breaking a coconut for each of us (mine took about eight tries), our tour guide said the place was closing and waited for a tip. Tom, who didn't have anything smaller, gave him a 500-rupee note (around $11). Suddenly, after this "baksheesh," the temple wasn't closing, and there was more to see--including a procession with music and fire that was attended by tons of pilgrims and locals and three people from the U.S. Our guide even packed our prasad (blessed food, flowers and whatnot) into doggie bags, and the next day I offered some of it to the yoga shala's Ganesh figurine.

Another day we took a road trip to the Chinese-influenced teak and rosewood Padmanabhapuram Palace (also dedicated to Vishnu), which was begun in 1550 and is stunning, especially when you're traveling with two architects who can help you see things you'd normally miss. Then it was on to see the sunset at Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India where the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea (though the sand was two different colors, we found it to be overrated). Again, most of the tourists were Indians, who bathed in the (holy) water. We were too late to see the Vivekananda Memorial but did manage to visit the museum devoted to the charismatic Hindu teacher (he brought yoga to the New World when he spoke at the historic World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893). The return bus trip took forever and seemed far longer because our seats were behind the rear wheels (making for lots of bouncing). On the way to Trivandrum we passed scores of Catholic churches and Hindu temples, not to mention the occasional mosque. Flashing past us we saw people sitting in their homes, doors open and interiors glowing blue from the TV monitor, and many buildings were decorated with lighted paper New Year's stars. One thing we did not see was a lot of women, especially on the busses. When they do take the bus, they usually sit together. Indeed, the more time I spend here, the baggier I choose to wear my clothes, and the more I gravitate towards other females (groping is a problem here, and there's safety in numbers).

We made some more trips to Trivandrum, buying female necessities, "Mysore" rugs, and contact lens solution--still no luggage--and visiting the Puthe Maliga Palace Museum (beautiful, yet a letdown after the Padmanabhapuram Palace). We also saw the wonderfully designed Veli Tourist Park, which includes a beach where boys on ponies offer rides and men who live near shore load ochre-colored sand into dugout boats and pole them towards the backwaters (and where again we were the only Westerners). Our biggest trip, though, was an eight-hour backwaters cruise (where Devdutt was the only Indian not on the crew). During the totally relaxing trip we saw scores of fishermen and people living their lives along the waterways that run parallel to the Arabian Sea--the so-called "Venice of the East." Along the way, boys raced alongside the boat and screamed "School pen, school pen!"

*Photo credit to Randy Parrish
After a night in Alappazha, my friends went north to Cochin and I took a three-hour train ride to Trivandrum by myself. (Like the buses, the trains are like old steel tanks, only they have toilets and guys selling food and chai and coffee, which is big in South India). Waiting an hour for the train was a sobering experience, as I was the only Westerner for others to stare at, and I had nothing to read but a travel and immunization guide (turns out I'd been doing everything wrong--petting kittens, eating street food and drinking fresh juice). When I got on the train I made sure to sit near another woman, who told me when to get off (stops are not announced, and not once was I asked for my ticket). Once in Trivandrum I found a rickshaw back to Kovalam (it turned out that my driver was night-blind, and kept pulling over every time he saw a truck coming; the experience was far scarier than the train ride). I was quite despondent after saying good-bye to my travel buddies, especialy when I got home and found I had three new room-mates: a ginko and two tablespoon-size cockroaches, which my shoe soon dispatched (so much for ahimsa). But the next day Lino gave me--unbidden--some second series poses, which were more than welcome after four years of struggling with the same 30-odd asanas. (Using Indian toilets, which look like Barbie-size in-ground pools, is a great way to prepare for the deep squat required for the first intermediate pose, pashasana [noose]).

Some of the most exqusite adjustments I've ever had came from Gwendoline, a petite New Zealander who's rumored to be in her 70s (but looks 50 and is as strong as ten men). She and senior Britain-based teacher John Scott began holding Mysore-style intensives at Kovalam in 1992. Three years later Lino was passing through and "looked at the place and liked it." The next year he brought his family and stayed for a month. John wasn't able to continue, so they asked Lino to teach. "Gwendoline wanted to build a yoga shala, and slowly it grew up," says Lino. He's not kidding; over the course of this year's eight-week workshop he, Gwendoline and his wife, Tina Pizzimenti, taught 190 students, and had to turn some away. Next year they're moving to a new, larger space, and the workshop will run for three months (the trio will teach in December and January, and teachers from their schools do so in February).

As in Mysore, everyone did primary series on Fridays, and there were no dropbacks. On my first Friday, the studio was lit with votive candles (the sun rises around 6:30); I realize now it must have been the result of more "load-shedding." Except for an occasional video screening, kirtan or pranayama workshop, there was no yoga in the P.M., which made me feel a bit disconnected from my practice (or maybe it was just being in India). Anyway, the rest of the day was ours to waste any way we saw fit. After class people either stopped next door for coconut milk or hung out at the nearby Mermaid Cafe (many students come every year and know each other well). Some chatted it up at the round table for hours, while others were off to meditation, satsang, the Internet, town or ayurvedic treatment. At night many restaurants showed movies on DVD--Harry Potter was playing every night, it seemed--and during the day there was the beach, where women sold bowls of fruit for 40 rupees and others hawked everything from peanuts to sun umbrellas.

Kerala is a center for ayurveda, and there were scores of places that offered treatment. After awhile I finally gave in and got an assessment; as I suspected, I'm primarily pitta (fire) with a touch of kapha (mucus/water). To raise my energy level (I'm always exhausted), the doctor--who must study for 5 1/2 years before being licensed by the government of Kerala--prescribed a series of Njavarakizhi treatments, which began with a vigorous herb-oil massage (by a woman, or a man if the patient is male). That was followed by plopping a scalding bag full of special rice and herbs (which smells to me like papier-mache) onto my skin, until I resembled an oily white whale. After I had a brief savanasa she scraped it off and gave me a sponge bath with warm water--a rare luxury. After I got dressed, they sat me down and gave me a viscous brown herb drink that had the same immediate effect as a shot of good single-malt Scotch. Then an orange-red powder, which smelled like unflossed teeth, was rubbed into my crown chakra. Did it give me more energy? For about 45 minutes--or just long enough to watch the sunset. After I caught a bad cold and went back to the doctor, he prescribed more viscous liquid, plus a less vigorous oil massage with different herbs and a medicated steam bath in a chamber the size of a large bread box. One of his assistants also heated some limewater and powder in a spoon over a candle--giving me flashbacks to all the heroin movies I'd ever seen--and poured it onto the crown of my head. Then he advised me to leave it there (so I smelled of unflossed teeth for the next 24 hours).

Every other airline brings your luggage to you, but Lufthansa made us go to the Trivandrum airport to claim ours; maybe it had something to do with the fact that we bought our tickets from consolidators. We had a scare when the frowning Customs Manager took a dislike to us and claimed it hadn't yet gone through customs (this time I felt like we were in a bad drug movie). But we finally were allowed to schlepp the stuff back to our rooms, and after a toast of orange Emergen-C drink we realized we didn't need most of it. So Bob and I found some boxes, filled them, and had a tailor cover them with cloth before making our way to the post office, which required lots of paperwork and pasting. It's supposed to take anywhere from three to six months for the packages to get to our homes via surface mail (which wasn't all that cheap, by the way). Later we visited the over-airconditioned Lufthansa office, where they gave us each less than $40 for our troubles.

So we are counting the days before we go to see Pattabhi Jois in Mysore. Bob has had a nasty bout of traveler's flu, for which he's been using ayurvedic treatment (light massage, drinking rice water and coconut milk, etc.). My Cold That Would Not Leave became a sinus infection, for which I've been using conventional Western treatment (antibiotics and decongestants). Yet somehow Bob talked me into taking the train--18 hours--rather than the plane (one hour). We're going 3rd tier AC, which means we'll probably get to meet some locals (and save $100). One of the veteran workshoppers from Germany advised me to wear a salwaar kameez when I travel, to avoid stares and because "people will respect you more." But I feel like the one I have--it's cobalt blue with silver stars and fit for a princess--is too nice to wear on the train (also how will I sleep in it?). In the meantime, I continue to do yoga at 6 (I've been given two more poses, my renditions of which at first made Lino laugh or roll his eyes, depending on his mood), read books (I've gone through three Narayan novels, as well as Jhumpa Lahiri stories and Bob's copy of A Passge to India), catch up on sleep, take treatment and wonder what I'm doing here.

Read Part II (Mysore) here.
Read Part III (Mysore) here.