It could’ve been karma or just dumb luck. As we were checking into the ashram of Amma, the Hugging Guru, I fell and twisted my ankles requiring a cast on my right ankle and wrap on my left knee. I’d had on my big backpack, which had grown unacceptably heavy during our travels, and was handing my sister’s pack to her when I fell on a step, and the added weight exacerbated the sprains. When the wheelchair arrived, the name of the manufacturer was….Karma.
In any case, I’d long wanted to see Amma, known as the Universal Mother, and get a hug from her, and I thought it would be great if Elise got to see one of India’s few female gurus. We were disappointed to learn that she was leaving for a US-Japan tour, but we decided to stay one night at the ashram, a sprawling campus with pink high-rise buildings and a temple surrounded by dense palm trees that is home to 3,500 followers, most clad in simple, but elegant white saris, to understand a bit more about Amma’s philosophy. We were in luck, however, because she appeared in the temple for 1.5 hours of devotional singing that evening. (No photography is allowed at the ashram, so the photo below is from amma.org.)
The songs were melodic and thought-provoking and sometimes a wee bit terrifying. We could follow the lyrics, translated from Malayalam, on large screens. After the first song, Elise applauded..but was the only one. Everyone looked at her and she curled up in a little ball of embarrassment, poor Sweet One. One line, in particular, struck me: At the end of time this one is alone and afraid and asks: “Why have you not yet come for me, Mother?” The question remained unanswered. Other songs made clear that we are part of a universal whole. There were many references to lotus feet, a metaphor for the divinity of spiritual beings. I thought about how we all need a Universal Mother to heal us and to comfort us, most especially my own Mom, who had had a terribly unhappy childhood thanks to an unloving mother, and tears streamed down my face.
From time to time, Amma would ecstatically throw her head back and her hands up on the air. For some reason, I loved that. One of her musicians was a dude with long white hair and beard wearing an orange kurta and Hipster frames whose vocal accompaniment – a kind of droning – my Western ear could not follow or comprehend. I bought one of Amma’s CDs, in part, in the hopes that I could figure out whether there was rhyme or reason to the accompaniment.
When we’d registered, we had to give our real names as well as our spiritual names. I had never been asked that before so I spontaneously adopted the name of a friend, Shanti (Peace), I’d met long ago in Japan who’d been a follower of Osho. My sister gave her Jewish name, Rachel, and Elise chose “Unicorn”. A devotee we met from Westford, MA, whom we know only as Sreya, was like a guardian angel, giving us the lay of the land, wheeling me into the temple to see Amma, shushing followers who insisted that I be moved to another spot, and explaining how to get food and supplies. After Amma had left the temple, she tried to wheel me to a spot where I might get one of her famous hugs, but, that night, it was not meant to be. We met another American, Gina (her real name), who was in India studying classical Indian dance. She and Elise took to each other immediately – they were like big and small versions of each other. She was dressed in gorgeous flowing prints and had a dot on her forehead. When I asked her about the dot, she said, “Oh this?” as she touched it and it fell off. “I bought it. It’s for dance.” Looking at the ground, “Doesn’t matter. I have a bunch.”
I’d been in pretty good spirits in spite of the injury up until I was back in the ashram’s tiny hospital that night waiting to get my cast. It was pouring rain outside and wretchedly humid and the pain in my legs had spiked. I started crying. When the cast was finally on and Lisa, Elise, and I returned to our room, the crying got worse. The room was a bleak little cell with fluorescent tube lighting and only 2 beds. Even in my pathetic state, I knew that the point of the place was not to enjoy luxury but to transcend the physical world, but it was too much. There was a large ridge at the base of the bath door which I could not hobble over on my own. “I won’t be able to go to the restroom by myself or even brush my teeth!” I wailed. Elise said, “There’s a sink right behind you.” “Oh,” I said (and I think they may have chuckled under their breath). But the crying continued until after I’d gone to the restroom with Lisa’s help, brushed my teeth, and gotten into PJs, and a cool breeze had started to bring down the temperature in the room. But poor Lisa had to fetch an extra mattress, which came with no bed frame, so she plopped the thing – a big icky vinyl slab – down on the floor and tried to cover it with sheets as best she could. She worried that the gecko we’d seen and other insects would crawl over her at night. It was about as bare bones as you can get and I’m surprised she wasn’t crying, too.
In the middle of the night, I used a blue bucket that was in the room to go to the restroom, rinsed it well, and hobbled back into bed, pleased that I’d found a solution that allowed my sister to sleep (and which fellow wilderness campers would appreciate).
The next morning I woke up refreshed and in a great mood! I suggested that we stay another night, but Lisa and Elise shut down that idea immediately, which I guess I understood, so I packed up. I told Lisa what I had done with the big blue bucket thinking she’d appreciate that I’d let her sleep, but she looked terribly distressed. “How am I going to shower?!” she cried. Luckily, unlike our previous lodgings, we discovered that the bathroom actually had a shower head on the wall and so the bucket was not needed for bathing.
En route to Alleppey where we wanted to do a houseboat tour of the backwaters, we kept an eye open for medical supply stores so that I could get some crutches. The first one we stopped at had only walkers, but the second one had crutches for just $17. The name brand? Again…Karma, lol.
In Alleppey, we checked into the Ramada, which had views of boats plying the backwaters. The food was decent and Lisa and I enjoyed our first tall, cool beer in ages. After the hardship of the day before, it felt good.
The next morning we decided to do a 3.5 hour day tour of the backwaters instead of staying overnight in a houseboat, since the one we’d wanted that looked super clean was booked, and, anyway, all the houseboats dock at 6pm, so there’s no being lulled to sleep on a moving boat.
We passed rice fields, small villages, men unloading boats, women up to their waists in water washing clothes, and an old woman in a sari fishing with a simple stick and string. There were tiny canals and large, busy waterways where the houseboats chugged along, one after the other, some with blaring music, others with groups of kids waving and screaming Hello, most with a few relaxed passengers. My injuries were no issue on the boat. I lay down on cushions and relaxed to the point of almost falling asleep. It was pretty wonderful.
Next stop was Munnar, famous for its tea fields. We checked into the Parraket, which had balconies with fabulous views of the sculpted, mountain-side tea fields, which were like an ever-changing canvas as the mist appeared and disappeared, and the fields went from muted green to glimmering emerald.
That evening, we saw a classical Indian dance performance called Kathakali, with elaborate costumes and highly stylized movements and facial expressions. The staff carried me down the stairs on a chair – my first Bat Mitzvah moment! At one point, Elise was called on stage by Lord Shiva’s wife, Parvathy, dressed as Kattalasthree (performed by a male actor). She handed invisible items to Elise, who was supposed to handle them appropriately. She managed to eat the right way, but when Parvathy gave her a drink, Elise squished it like food and the crowd roared. Afterwards, Lord Shiva, disguised as Kattalan, fought Arjuna. I loved the vocals and drumming and Lord Shiva’s sprightly personality (below in green and black).
We moved downstairs to a martial arts arena to see a Kalari performance. Lisa was enthralled – here were three of her loves rolled into one: yoga, martial arts and gymnastics. The guys battled it out with swords and metal whips and poles, and then jumped through rings of fire. Afterwards, the performers let the audience take pix in the fight pit and then took their own selfies with Elise. Then they made quick work of carrying me up two flights of stairs to the entrance where our favorite driver and tour guide, Shefi, was waiting for us in his trusty Toyota.
We returned again to Kochi, and Lisa packed for her return to the US. She also very kindly took our camping gear and other stuff with her that we weren’t going to be able to use anymore thanks to my injury. After 10 days together, it was very hard saying goodbye!
Shortly thereafter, my orthopedic doctor discovered that I had deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in both legs due to the week of little activity while my sprain healed. I was admitted to the hospital immediately and given blood thinners and compression stockings. While I waited in the ER, scared, Elise returned to the Marriott with a hospital staff to pack up our stuff, and then came back to the hospital in a hotel car with some warm soup, which the Marriott had gifted us. I was so grateful for everyone’s help. Elise had a little bed in my room, and the nurses made sure we were comfortable. The food was surprisingly good – freshly made masala dosa for breakfast and Aloo Gobi and dal for lunch or dinner. Given that the DVT was in my lower legs, not, thank God, in my thighs where risk of pulmonary embolism is significantly higher, I was discharged two days later.
I recuperated for a week at our beloved Kochi Marriott, where we had come to know many of the staff on a first name basis. They helped me at the breakfast buffet while I was on crutches, carried items to our room, presented us with pens with our names on them and a photo mug, recommended Ayurvedic treatments, answered questions about articles I’d read in the Times of India, treated Elise to soup and spring rolls, and even brought surprise desserts to our room! It became a home away from home.
I had a number of random impressions that week. En route to the hospital, we passed a shop called Women Love Dots (a bindi or fabric shop or something more salacious?). There were billboards with students’ faces and their test scores, and the paper ran a full-page ad showing the results of the national engineering exam, in which the girls had beat out the boys for the highest scores. Signs offered aerated not carbonated beverages and big stores were hypermarkets not supermarkets. Instead of the present tense, the present progressive was often used, eg instead of Where do you come from?, Where are you coming from? It took me some time to understand that a head nod that seemed like No might actually be a charming, friendly Yes, and I was surprised when I started catching myself nodding.
At the nearby LuLu Mall, I came across some Indian tunics and dresses I considered buying. When I posted them to Facebook, I was told by a resident of the SF Bay Area, where the cultural appropriation debate is raging, that it would be “inappropriate” if I wore them, as it would be if Caucasian women wore African dresses or non-Latinos wore Day of the Dead face paint. I was relieved when my expat friends nonetheless encouraged me to buy them, and a friend of Indian origin living in SF wrote that she found it “endearing” when non-Indians wear them, particularly the shorter tunics, and that it would be inappropriate only if, say, an ornate dress meant for a wedding were worn as a costume. Similarly, an African-American friend told me that it is fine if Caucasian women wear African dresses, so long as the intent is not to buy something inexpensive and then recreate it to sell at a profit. In my own experience overseas, people seem genuinely pleased to see visitors embracing aspects of their heritage. When Elise went trick-or-treating in Cuzco in a Day of the Dead costume, dozens and dozens of Peruvian parents asked to photograph her with their kids, of whom many were dressed as Elsa. It was beautiful. (My blog post about this is here.) What I take away from this is that, while the debate has an important role to play in the US, I am heartened that there are people there, as well as many overseas, who still appreciate such well-intentioned instances of cultural exchange. They can help break the ice, foster discussion and even friendship, and, in turn, challenge stereotypes – all basic building blocks of civil society.
On a lighter note, that week I also discovered an Indian comedian, Hari Kondabolu, on Netflix, who proclaimed that Indians LOVE mangos. He said he wanted to do a show in which people sat around eating mangos and commenting on them. When asked who would watch such a show he said, “Oh I don’t know…one BILLION Indians?” Indeed, when we shopped for groceries at the hypermarket, we saw a dozen different varieties. I felt ripped off that I’d only ever seen a single variety in stores in the US.
After a few more follow-up appointments, both my orthopedic surgeon and cardiologist gave me the green light to continue traveling, so I donated my crutches to the hotel, took a deep breath, and booked our fights to Thailand.