Posts Tagged ‘Ghats’

Lost in the Ghats

The trip to India started well enough with an overnight stay on a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala. Although I felt a little ridiculous at having this huge boat and a crew of 3 to myself, it was definitely worth it to just chill out on the deck sipping on a coconut and soaking up the Keralan vibe, which for me is a little less energized than what I’d experienced the previous few weeks in Thailand and Bhutan.

My first thought on arriving the next afternoon at the ayurvedic centre, a 4 hour ride into the Western Ghats from Kochi on which the driver had to stop several times to ask for directions, was that I’d made a big mistake. No one spoke much English, the doctors were unfriendly to the point of rudeness, I could not convince anyone to bring me plain water instead of tea, and I could see keeping myself busy for 14 days in the boonies was going to be a challenge. The only other patients were a nice young couple from Kochi who would be going home the following morning. I thought about arranging for a car to take me back to the city in the next couple of days, but I didn’t know what I would do there for two weeks either or if I’d even be able to find accommodation given that it was the high tourist season. Then I thought about it some more. Didn’t I come here for a reason? Could I really not handle hanging out in these peaceful surroundings for 2 weeks even if the only company was the stack of books I’d brought? Had I become some kind of stimulation junkie since leaving Canada? Would brushing my teeth with herbal tea really be so bad? I decided to stick it out.

My second day was not much better. The centre had arranged for a driver to give me a tour of the area, which consisted mostly of him taking me to the businesses of his friends and expressing profound disappointment when I failed to buy anything. His lack of success at talking me into an elephant ride, which I categorically refused suspecting I would not like the answers to the questions I would have to ask about the mahouts’ training methods (see previous post), added to his frustration, as did my repeated insistence that Canada is a country, not a city in America. I did at least get to see more of the surrounding landscape.

Things started looking up on the third day. For one thing, I met the sociable priest who runs the centre, and a new patient, Theresina, arrived who was originally from the area but had been living in Germany for several years. Between my little bit of German and her little bit of English we couldn’t communicate much, but at least there was a friendly face at mealtimes who could translate a little of what the cook had to say. My treatments started, and the therapists were much nicer than the doctors. Morning was a scrubbing with rice powder mixed with a little oil and an assortment of powders that smelled a lot like poultry seasoning (I privately labelled this the “dry marinade”) followed by a steam bath (“infusion”) – this routine was to continue for the next 14 days. Afternoons were a hot oil massage and a slow dripping of warm oil onto my forehead (“basting”) – after 7 days, this was replaced by a different kind of massage by 2 therapists. The effect was very relaxing, although it did make me feel a little like a Thanksgiving turkey.

On the flight to Kochi, I had brought along my copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I had abandoned back on Bali about 250 pages in. When I realized that the fact that I’d lost my page and had to randomly start reading about where I thought I’d left off made absolutely no difference, I suddenly felt a compulsion to tear the book to shreds right there on the plane. Fortunately there was a stopover in Singapore, and I was able to pick up some alternative reading: biographies of Iggy Pop and the Dalai Lama, one of the books from the Twilight series and Audrey Niffenegger’s latest novel. A few days into my stay at the centre, I resigned myself to giving Ulysses another try, realizing that otherwise I’d very quickly run out of material. I set myself up in a chair on the front porch and dug in. Then something happened that made me think I’d fallen asleep and woken up back at Massey College. A new patient, Jasbir, magically appeared, asked me why I was reading this book which is “not at all entertaining”, and informed me that she had a doctorate in English literature and had studied all Joyce’s works in depth (the sudden materialization of an expert in whatever subject you are currently struggling with is a frequent occurrence at Massey). Not only that, she happened to be a judge in her home city of Chandrigar. Being from Northern India, she seemed almost as baffled by her surroundings and incapable of communicating with the locals as I was, although she did have the help of her friend Tina who spoke one of the regional dialects. “It’s all Greek to me,” she often remarked. Obviously, we had a few things to talk about.

Around this time, the cook had also apparently decided I was “ok” (this was translated to me by Theresina) because I enjoyed the local food (that would be an understatement) , didn’t complain or ask dozens of questions like other Westerners apparently do, and he liked my laugh. On one of my morning walks I passed him on the road. At lunchtime, he mimed a short person (if he was 5 feet tall it was just barely) looking up at a tall person with sunglasses, then proceeded to laugh all the way through the meal. He was still chuckling at suppertime. Although we still couldn’t say much to each other, he was much friendlier for the rest of my stay.

The centre is part of a larger community development project which includes the cultivation and export of tea, spices and ayurvedic pharmaceuticals. This is to say that there are a lot of pretty plants and trees around the centre that seem to attract a large variety and concentration of songbirds and butterflies , which made walking and sitting outside extra pleasant. The times I got irritated, I tried to myself that this really was a beautiful place, that the management and staff were well-intentioned, and that at least my money was going to help a community instead of some corporate multinational-owned resort.

And so I spent the next several days waking up to cows mooing outside my window, reading, enjoying delicious food and relaxing treatments, and taking short walks in the area. I made it through Ulysses, and thanks to Jasbir and the 100 page introduction to my edition, I think I actually managed to appreciate a little of what Joyce was trying to do with it. Jasbir and Theresina unfortunately left a few days before me which made the last part of my stay drag on, but I got through it and all my books, as well as a couple of really stupid Hollywood movies (anyone seen Wyvern?).

I got back to Kochi in the early afternoon, and since my flight was not until midnight, I had just enough time to see the highlights of the old Fort, which was surprisingly hassle-free and easy to navigate, and do a little shopping before heading to the airport. Unfortunately I also picked up something while there which, let’s just say, foiled my plans to celebrate my escape from the mean ayurvedic doctors with a feast of meat and alcohol back in Bangkok. Luckily I managed to recover quickly enough to be able to travel south to Ko Phi Phi island where I’ll be spending the next few days on the beach…


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