Chapter 21

India

Part 6

I arrived in Ernakulam feeling the freedom of going solo for the first time in five weeks. In my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test based on Jungian psychology. I changed from ESTJ to INFP. I went from extroverted, sensing, thinking and judging type to introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving type over the course of three decades. I attribute this shift to yoga and meditation. Like the dosha and kosha models in Yoga and Ayurveda, there are no wrong or right types.

Other work I have done has helped me to understand I am an emotional introvert but a social extrovert. I am very comfortable and energized speaking in front of groups but I love my solitude. I am energized by one on one conversations that are intimate, authentic and deep. I am quickly drained with superficial small talk or even interesting topical group conversations.

I had enjoyed my group experiences and was grateful for being with people who shared a similar lifestyle and spiritual values but I was ready to be on my own. I checked into the three star Bharat Hotel on the coast of the Lakshadweep Sea. The greater area of Ernakulam in northern Kerala has over three million people. Other than small temples and I was templed out, there were few points of interest for me. I was there to take a ferry to Fort Kochi island that had many charms for me. However, Marine Drive with a sweep of sparkling lighted buildings facing the sea was pretty at night. My clean room was $22 a night with AC. It had two restaurants, an all-night café and internet access. I had a great lunch for $2! I had not watched tv on the trip and looked at some silly Indian soap operas and Bollywood shows. I quickly got my fill.

The next day I took the ferry to the island. I spent two days on the island and two nights on the mainland. Inns and B and B’s on the island were more than my dwindling budget could handle. One evening ferrying back to the mainland, I met three 20-year-old something backpackers and one was related to a family in Erie I knew. His Aunt had taken yoga with me! He lived in San Diego and was headed for Nepal. They had been in Varkala where I was headed next and instead of staying for a day, they stayed for a week. That was a great sign.

Ft. Kochi or Cochin has many charms. The 600,000 plus population is spread out over several islands and peninsulas including the cities of Kochi, Ernakulam, Thrissur and the older areas of Ft. Kochi and Mattancherry. I rented a bike each day and started my tour by visiting St. Francis Church, the oldest European-built church in India. The church was built in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars. I could feel the peaceful and devotional energy of hundreds of years of accumulated services. Rope operated fans kept the place cool. The tombstone of Vasco da Gama is inside.

I rode through narrow winding streets packed with 500-year-old Portuguese homes. At times, I felt like I was in an unusual mix of Portugal, Holland and an English country village on the Malabar tropical coast. It was a refreshing change from the bright lights and the big city feel of Ernakulam. I went to the Pardesi Synagogue, originally built in 1568 and rode around Jewtown, the center of the Kochi spice trade. The synagogue is featured in The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie. The hand painted willow pattern floor tiles brought from China in the mid-1700’s were stunning. Dozens of spice stalls and shops nearby filled the air with the pungent aromas of cardamom, cumin, ginger, turmeric, and cloves. Whole turmeric roots were piled high in heaps drying in the sun.

I rode to see the Chinese fishing nets billowing in the breeze at the tip of Ft. Cochin. They are staked cantilevered nets originally brought by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. The Malabar coast rich in spices had attracted an incredible array of countries. Fancying myself as a global citizen, I felt at home here.

The Mattancherry Palace was another special place. The Portuguese built it for a Raja in 1555. The halls were beautiful but the highlight for me were the incredible murals depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I even found an image of the character Rhadeya, my spiritual name. It gave me pause to ponder again the meaning of the name: loyalty, bravery, and giving.

The decision to start a new family with Allison was soul searching and thought provoking. I had already raised five children within the context of an unhappy marriage and a divorce, and it was not easy. Was I ready to do this again? Did I have the strength and interest to sustain the process of parenting? Did I have anything left in my tank to give as an older parent? How would it be good for me? I gazed at the murals showing heroes and villains. Allison did not have any children and I did want to share the experience. I knew our love was sustainable. I knew raising kids would be different with her. I said yes but then we could not conceive. We pursued in vitro fertilization and when that did not work we eventually adopted. At the time of the India trip, we had begun to talk about adoption. I was still not sure if I was ready.

I had prayed and contemplated adoption in temples, shrines, caves, churches and now a palace. India never ceases to try to enrich us with its multi-cultural resources. I had looked for signs that my Dharma included adoption. As I looked at my namesake, I felt the power of the name and the clarity that comes from the strength of conviction. A convergence of positive emotions flowed through me and I knew I was ready. I was also hungry!

I rode to the Kashi Art Café that had great food and coconut lattes. I spoke with a photographer from Milwaukee whose stunning photos were on the walls. I chatted with two women from Holland while eating omelets – a first in India. I was beginning to hang out with new folks from Europe and America for the first time. I was easing back toward home. A group of us went to the Malabar House Boutique Hotel ($120 a night at the time) for dinner. It was said to be the best boutique hotel in the country. It was near St. Francis Church and was beautifully furnished by a German art dealer.

I fell in love with Keralan cuisine. Kerala has its share of Christians including Syrian Christians so there are many non-vegetarian options. My favorite were the spicy fish stews called meen molees. We were on the coast and the denizens of the sea were plentiful. Six types of snapper, blue marlin, butter fish, prawns, and pomfret were caught daily and available for dinner. We were on the spice islands. The Cardamom Hills were down the coast. I was in food heaven. There were chicken stews to die for with chicken, potatoes and onions simmered gently in a creamy white sauce flavored with black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green chilies, lime juice, shallots and coconut milk.

We enjoyed prawn curries and pumpkin and lentil curries. Banana fritters and sweet rice kheer were common desserts. For breakfast, there were rice flour pancakes with thick spongy centers and crisp edges. Their version of Idli’s is Puttu, a cylindrical steamed rice cake cooked in a mold with grated coconut. It’s usually served with kadala curry, a dish of black chickpeas made with shallots, spices and coconut milk, that can also be served with ripe bananas and grated coconut. Ginger lemon chai was also a treat.

I ate my way down the coast with gusto. That evening we went to a Vina trio concert followed by a Kathakali dance performance which was more mime than dance but a very colorful way to tell stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Just putting on their makeup can take hours. It was very different from the Bharata Natyam classical dance of Tamil Nadu. I could have stayed another week in Kochi but the next day I hired a driver to take me to the temple beach town of Varkala. To learn more about Kochi, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kochi.

As much as I enjoyed Kochi, Varkala was probably the hippest place I have ever been to. Think Greenwich Village on the Arabian Sea with European, Tibetan and Indian overtones. Though there are a sleepy temple and ashram nearby, it’s all about the beach and the Ayurvedic facilities. A mile of beach is framed by the sea and 100-foot red toned cliffs. It was February and daytime temps climbed into the low 90’s. The sea by the beach was 75 to 80 degrees. I had booked a private concrete wigwam perched at one end of the cliff looking down the beach and the sea for $20 a night. This included a beautiful queen size bed made from tropical wood, a shower, and a ceiling fan. It was the perfect chill situation. I met lots of vibrant folks from Europe. The atmosphere was Bohemian. At times, it felt like being in a parking lot of vendors outside a Grateful Dead show.

Indian ladies roamed the beach in saris selling pineapples and coconuts. A skillfully handled machete chopped it up and placed the pieces on a banana leaf for less than 50 cents. European women clad in string bikinis and chain smoking cigarettes contrasted with modest Indian women dipping their feet in the sea, saris cautiously raised a few inches. Indian men in long sleeve shirts and pants stood just feet away staring at the European women practically drooling. I had to talk to a few about not being so obvious.

I would rest on the beach in the early morning and late afternoon. Mid-day was too hot. The afternoons were a good time to sit in the coconut and palm forests that stopped at the cliffs. I was fond of a treehouse café that had wonderful smoothies. One place had pizzas and another, French pastries. There were folks from England, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France engaged in lively discussions about politics. Tandoori Barracuda was popular and delicious at a cliffside café overlooking the Arabian Sea. A breakfast joint had French, Italian, Jewish, Indian and American dishes. One restaurant was showing a Robin Williams movie on an outdoor screen.

I went to a couple of rooftop sitar and tabla concerts surrounded by the jungle. Dozens of candlelight lamps illuminated the musicians who would perform two or three extended Ragas followed by a few short folk tunes. At one, I announced I would offer a free yoga on the beach class at 7 am. About 20 people showed up including a few dogs who stayed in savasana most of the time by my blanket. I went to one cliff-side yoga studio that was a thatched hut with open sides and a grass mat floor. The teacher was okay but the setting was incredible.

Before I left, I booked an Ayurvedic treatment. Kerala is world renowned for its Ayurvedic facilities. It was like the one I had had at the Ideal River Resort but lasted most of the day! In addition to the oily massage, there was also a deep tissue massage near the end of the treatments. The power shower to remove the oil and flour was outdoors and felt like a firemen’s hose! To get acquainted with Varkala go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varkala. It was not easy to leave this fantasy tropical setting but I was homesick. Staying in the moment helped but I always wished Allison was with me. I missed my students too.

Next was a quick stop to Thiruvananthapuram, population about a million. It was noisy, polluted and chaotic like other big cities, but after Kochi and Varkala was a shocking transition. I was there for a day and night. I wanted to go to Vivekananda Rock in Kanyakumari where three seas flow together: The Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. I also needed to fly back to Chennai for my international connection to NYC. The Cardamom Hills were in the distance. 

Kanyakumari is about two hours south. To learn about it go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanyakumari. I went to the Swami Vivekananda Memorial situated on two rocky islands several hundred feet off shore. Swamiji meditated on a rock here in 1892 and decided to come to America. He spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and was the highlight.

He earned a BA in Western Philosophy from Scottish Church College in Calcutta. He received a Master’s in English from Oxford. He had served the Bengali Saint, Ramakrishna for six years. In 1896, he was offered the Chair of Philosophy at Harvard and Columbia but declined because he was a Monk. In 1896, he founded the Vedanta Society which still has centers in America and a great website bookstore: https://www.vedanta.com/store/Catalog.php.  Allison and I visited the Vedanta retreat center in Northern California during our honeymoon. He died at the young age of 39 due to diabetes and pneumonia. His public life was only 10 years but his legacy is vast. I have cherished his writings and talks on Jnana, Raja, Bhakti and Karma Yoga for many years.

Vivekananda began the process of introducing and adapting Yoga to other cultures and started the global Yoga movement. The process of adapting yoga continues as I write. I wonder what he would think about how yoga is presented in American gyms and studios today. He probably would not recognize it. As I sat there, I wondered what it must have been like for a 29-year-old monk to decide to go to America to share the wisdom of the Vedic Dharma. I was inspired by his trust in something greater than himself to guide him. I looked out at the convergence of three great bodies of water and reflected on my Dharma. I was told I was born to teach Yoga. What would that look like in the coming years? How would that merge with starting a new family?

I said goodbye and prepared to fly to Chennai the next morning. I flew on Jet Airways and enjoyed first class service in coach. The food was terrific and as we flew over the countryside of Tamil Nadu I had a huge grin on my face. Why? They were playing Rubber Soul by the Beatles. If you recall, Norwegian Wood featuring George on sitar was one of my earliest references to Indian culture all those years ago. I had flown full circle. It was the perfect goodbye to the land and people I had fallen in love with. Tears of joy streamed down my face as I looked out the window at beloved India.

I would enjoy a day at the Krishnamacharya Mandiram, taking some yoga classes and receiving a private therapy session from TKV Desikachar. I stayed at a 5-star hotel near the airport and booked a massage to prepare for the 20-hour plus flight home. I tried to get some sleep but pulled an all-nighter watching a Bollywood movie in my king size bed. I felt complete. It was time to go home.