It was official: When my beeswax lip balm turned from rock hard to melty and finally usable, I had arrived back at sea level from 6,000 feet in south India.
A quick stop to exchange USD to Rupiah and load up on bottled water on the 25th of February, and Greg and I were off on our six-day journey down the coast of Kerala, the birthplace of Ayurveda.
First stop was the Adiyogi Shiva temple in the Velliangiri mountains, a range in the Western Ghats. At 112 feet, the Guinness Book records this Hindu structure as the largest "bust sculpture” in the world. Adiyogi means "first yogi," recognizing Shiva as the originator of yoga. A sure testament to the captivating chants, offerings, and meditations to yogeshwarlinga (five-chakra’ed, enlightened snake) as well as the surrounding ashram/ temples, our hour-long stop turned quickly into three.
After a nap on our six-hour car ride in our privately reserved taxi (all coordinated by trusty Greg), we rolled up to the bustling city of Guruvayur, on the east coast of Kerala, at 11:30p.m.
The aliveness of the cities at night made much more sense to me as we made our way down the coast; the temperature averaged a sticky 96 degrees Fahrenheit before the sun went down. The white gates of our fancy western-style hotel in Guruvayur felt a bit out of place against the backdrop of beggars and garbage-lined streets, and the juxtaposition was more than I could process in that moment. I fell into a fast, deep sleep.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of fluttering car and motorbike horns which replaced the sweet songbirds of Tamil Nadu, signaling the real start to next phase of my journey here in India. After a traditional breakfast of dosa and chai, we embarked by foot on our first full-day adventure to the nearby Temple.
We were greeted by lines and lines of locals waiting to enter the temple, a wait-time we estimated of at least five hours. It is customary to wait in India, as there are four times as many people here as there are in the U.S.!! Greg and I are lucky to share many commonalities, including the agreement not to wait in that line. In the sweltering heat, we accepted however unenlightened and American a decision it may have been in that moment.
While perusing trinkets and treasures in the streets, local shopkeepers love to ask two questions: "What is your name?’’ and "Where are you from?" I was a bit taken aback when a kid my age tacked on a third somewhat uncomfortable question, "Are you Christian?’’ His outspokenness reminded me of some of the free-spirited natives I met while in Dharmasala. Many young Indians are undoubtedly challenging their familial and cultural upbringings by eating non-veg food, leaving home as a young adult to travel, and joining dating sites such as Tinder in pursuit of true love, as opposed to the traditional arranged marriage.
We had been dishing out several Rupiah in tips to our drivers and bellmen, and it wasn't long until I let my Capricornian friend, Greg, take full control of recording our expenses.
I am inclined to also mention that I call Greg "Mary Poppins" due to the endlessly obscure items which kept emerging from out of his modest-size suitcase. To name a few: hair elastics, rubber bands, a waterproof phone case, 3-pronged adapter, clothing line, yoga mat, full size maps of India and Bali, an inflatable seat cushion, several cliff bars, a camp light, jackknife, headlamp, stage light, alcohol swabs, and, to my mother's appeasement, malaria pills and four scripts of Ciprofloacin (a really intense antibacterial med you don't want to take unless absolutely necessary).
We paid one of several tuk-tuk drivers to take us to the recommended Anakotta Guruvayur Elephant Sanctuary ten minutes away. The elephant fort is home to 56 elephants, the oldest being 82 years of age! The 10-acre fort was home to a local ruler until a Krishna devotee named Devaswom marched these elephants in from south of the compound in 1975.
As I massaged one of the elephants using a halved and hollowed coconut shell, I was dumbfounded that there was a living being underneath that huge mass.
We had some time for a shower and a bit of work on our laptops before we were to be picked up by our next driver, Raja, who would take us through Kochi, Allepey and Villakavayu in three days.
While happily snacking on some of the one pound of tangerines we had purchased for 60 rupees (a little less than $1 USD), I googled the name of our next hotel in Kochi. Although "Fort Muziri" showed up a two-star hotel on Trip Advisor, I knew it would be fine as we had just departed from a 3-star hotel featuring modern furnishings, tiled floors, and superb AC in Guruvayur.
As we crossed the bridge to Fort Kochi I was instantly transported to driving over the intercostal on the east coast of Florida. Palm trees and tall white buildings were visible along the horizon, and the afternoon sun and soft breeze tickled the surface of the blue green water, a certain appetizer to what a gem of a place Fort Kochi would prove itself to be...
We heard from a friend that the seafood in Kochi is a must-try, so after seeing a local show involving traditional music, silent storytelling, expressive facial movements, and mudras, or hand gestures, we sat for a hearty meal of fresh squid roast, prawn masala, and grilled red snapper.
Traveling with another person for an extended period of time in a foreign country has proven to show me more about myself than about anyone else. As I mentioned, Greg and I have a lot in common, which I couldn’t be more grateful for. We tell each other at least once every single day how grateful we are to be in each other’s company on this unusual journey. But we have our fair share of differences as well (thanks, human incarnation) which we have thankfully managed to navigate around with finesse. Personally, this experience has affirmed my need for independence at times and the importance of honest and thoughtful communication.
Greg decided to retire for the evening in Kochi while I chose to sit in a shop with a Kashmiri and share a cup of chai. The next day we met up with Raja and our new tour guide, Anil, who would take us through some popular landmarks in the historic seaside city.
First was a visit to St. Francis Church, one of the first Christian churches established in India by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama in 1502. Although India officially gained its independence from colonial rule in 1947, there is still a significant Christian influence in the southern region. In many churches, Jesus Christ is depicted wearing bindhis and holding a golden trident.
We meandered through the Chinese fishing docks, marveling at the freshly-caught plethora of exotic sea creatures for sale. A repulsive smell to most was a warm and familiar scent to me having grown up on the ocean. Poor Greg — I couldn’t help myself from stopping at every third shop on our tour around Kochi, entranced by the multicolored talcum powder, array of organic perfumes and lines of sparkling trousers and silk dresses.
At the local laundry facility, coconuts prove to be very useful resource. The laundry workers burn them to fuel the irons and use their husks to hang their laundry. I paid a couple of the workers 30 rupees each (43 cents) to take their photo.
This may have been our fullest day, which also included a visit to a Jewish synagogue (there are under 30 Jewish people currently living in Kerala, five of them in Kochi), a two-month awaited stop for ice coffee, boat cruise, my first taste of lobster in India, and kayaking in the backwaters of Alleppey. When we finally got to our hotel at sundown we had just enough energy left to hand wash some laundry, and it was off to sleep for dreams of sugarplum fairies and buzzing car horns.
Over a breakfast of dosa and baked banana at the hotel the next morning, we caught up on the news about the impending war between India and Pakistan. I felt safe in that moment mostly because of the several readings I have had with psychics who assure me of the long life I am to live, but the news still shocked me out of the mostly blissful cocoon I had been in thus far in India.
A punt canoe took us and our slowly increasing amount of luggage across the peninsula to the Amritapuri Ashram in Vallikavu, otherwise known as home to the world-famous "hugging saint," Amma. I was more than pleasantly surprised at the five-star view that only costed us 250 rupees each ($3 USD per night).
After helping ourselves to prasadam (blessed food), I was eager to dip my feet in the adjacent Arabian Sea. Digging my toes into the fine, black sand was the perfect complement to the makeshift pedicure I had given myself in the backseat of our taxi earlier that day. I could feel the ocean refueling me after two months apart from it, and all my mini frustrations, cares and worries quickly faded.
The two-hour cat nap we took upon arriving back at the ashram was a sure sign we needed to slow things down. After all, we were both undergoing rasayana, or the process of integration involving taking rest, after a three-week Ayurvedic cleanse which we both underwent in Tamil Nadu. We would skip our fore planned day-long journey to the southern tip of India and stay in Varkala, our next town, an extra night instead.
We met a charming 30-year old gentleman named Sebastian upon arriving in Varkala whom we paid 800 rupees to instruct us through a yoga class on the beach. “Seb” was born in India and returned after living in London for almost nine years to kickstart his business as a yoga teacher and cooking instructor here in this tourist-mecca. I suggested we practice near the water, which reminded me of teaching on the beach at home on Plum Island.
I fatefully booked my flight home yesterday at a local internet cafe while digesting a cardamom, date, cashew and coconut smoothie and a fair mix of emotions. I have been traveling here in India since the first day of the new year, and will be departing this sacred, magical land tomorrow morning for Sri Lanka.
These past few days on the tropical town of Varkala have been a smooth transition to the remaining month of my Asian adventure. From desert-like Mumbai, to snow-capped Dharmasala, to lusciously Ayurvedic south India, I am now ready to rest and relax a bit in Sri Lanka before embarking with our retreat participants on a 10-day journey toward growth and tra