Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Birthday #58

Uh oh…it’s my birthday again! Today, Tuesday, January 29, I have become 58 years old.

“How will you celebrate your birthday”, Jacquie asks me during our Skype conversation earlier today. I don’t really know what to say. To me, I celebrate every day!

My father in law, Harvey, used to say (very often) “I’m a lucky man.” He said it whenever he spent time with any of us, especially when sharing time with the kids! He said it when we ‘permitted’ him to take us all out for dinner, or when we gathered together for the opera or theatre. He said it when he agreed to drive Josh 300 kilometers to the Phish concert, or when he got to buy Julia her first trumpet. He said it whenever he was asked to pick up one of his grandchildren from school or to babysit during weekends when Paul and I needed escaping. “I’m a lucky man.” That was definitely his mantra!

So I’m guessing it doesn’t sound too obnoxious when I say (as often as I do) “I am so blessed!”

I feel it….really! I lead an incredibly rich life. I have a most amazing large family who, although we live all over Canada and the United States, we all make effort to see each other regularly. We love and support each other, and would, without question, be there in a time of need. I never worry about not being supported by any of my children! And I feel confident that they feel the same.

I travel extensively and meaningfully. I take every opportunity to explore the world and live in different cultures with people who are so different from myself. I make friends…good friends wherever I go, and I know I am loved by them too.

I get to work for money sometimes, and at other times, I get to work for free, sharing the gifts that I have brought into this world, with others all over the planet.

I have enough money to live by, and, I have also modified my desire for ‘things’ so that I actually have everything I could ever want. I live by the idea that “I get everything I want, and, if I can’t get it, I don’t want it anymore.”

I have the love of my life…my best friend, companion, confidant, and lover. And, quite honestly, anything we do is perfect because we get to do it together.

I’m 58 today! It’s wonderful. It’s amazing. I’ll celebrate...just as I do every day…with joy. I am truly truly blessed! Thank you!!!

Monday, January 28, 2013

LonelyTravellers...Just a Few Minutes

Wanting to have a family outing with Sajee, Aji and Vanaya, we leave early morning in the little Tata for the four-hour drive into the mountains. Munnar is one of the cities in the Western Ghats (mountains) of Kerala. Tea plantations, spice farms, coffee, chocolate and rubber plants line the sides of the hills. We are in for an adventure! The mountains are vast, and quiet and stretch as far as the eye can see. It is a peaceful reprieve from the frenzied existence in Fort Cochin.

It happens to be a national holiday, Republic Day, honouring the date when India’s constitution came to be enforced in 1950. Who knew it would be so difficult to find a place to stay amongst the hundreds of hotels and homestays in Munnar? We finally find a place a short distance out of the city. Paul and I stay the night in a small room built in a tree. We wake up in the treetops. Above us and below are trees and through them, the rolling hills of plantation growth are visible. Tea, while growing, forms bushes of treelike quality, developing strong branches and dense low foliage, spreading out across the fields. They are shaped into small plants to allow for cultivating, and to me, they make the land appear like a board game of Chutes and Ladders.
We arrive in time for a glorious sunset. Our dinner is in a simple Indian restaurant with the ordinary fare…vegetable curry, dahl, chicken biryani, and chappati. A campfire blazes on a nearby hill. Western/Indian music blares. I curiously go to the window to see what’s going on. Below me are about 25 women, dancing together around the campfire, sharing a joyous time with each other and with the full moon above. They beckon us to come, and Aji, Vinaya and I leave our meal to go down to join them. We are immediately pulled into the circle with an abundance of female energy. Mothers, Grandmothers, Daughters, all sharing the pure simple joy of dance! It is truly an evocative connection we have together. Without words we become instantly and profoundly connected. Smiling, laughing, hugging, with many hands reaching out towards one another to embrace. Women…..together. It could have been anywhere in the world, but it was right here! Eventually, Paul and Sajee join us. They too, are completely welcomed with sincere giggles and outstretched arms!

In the morning, music blares from the nearby Roman Catholic Church beginning at 6:15 am. It plays continuously through the day. As we walk through the paths of tea spread over the land, the music becomes fainter until it is just about inaudible. The mountain hills are quiet.

Villages, established to accommodate the workers in the fields, offer housing for the community as well as small shops and services. We spend a fair amount of time talking with an older woman who invites us in to her home for tea. A mother, with no husband, she cares for her 3 teenaged daughters by working all day in the fields. Her housing is free, and for her labour she receives 150 rupees per day (about $3.00). With not a lot to give, she offers us tea and we have a chance spend time and learn more about her. Through some translation, we find out that she is from Tamil Nadu and feels lucky to have the opportunity that she has. After 13 years, however, she must leave, and will be left with virtually nowhere to go. She is happy, though, and loves that we are there with her!

We decide to take our time on our way home so we can stop along the way. One such stop is a coffee break at a place on a cliff where they grow and roast their own coffee. Another stop is in a small cavelike hovel where the owner brews his own toddy. It’s made from the leaves of coconut plants and is fermented to a strong and uniquely tasting alcohol. Supposedly, it can get you really drunk, but we didn’t want that. So we packed the remaining liquid into a bottle to take home.

As we wander back to our car, we hear shouts from the residents in the area. Looking in the direction of the many pointing fingers we see a wild elephant wandering on the mountain! What a beautiful sight!  Slowly and intentionally this beautiful mass of grey animal glides in his own path on his way to….somewhere. A Native Canadian friend of ours once told us to be very aware of the animals that cross our paths. They are there for a good reason. What could that elephant want to tell me, I wonder. Again, I feel blessed!

The weekend is just spectacular. Spending time with my Indian family is a gift! We have grown to love and appreciate each other so completely over the years. I will think about them often when I leave!

Sajee reminds us “We are all lonely travellers in this world, and we come together for just a few minutes” Yes……

Friday, January 25, 2013

Macbeth- Who Is That Bloodied Man?

Kochi Muziris Biennale is happening in Fort Cochin from December to March and we are here to experience it. For 50 rupees ($1.00) we buy I ticket that permits us entry in to any of the art exhibits being offered in the town. The Biennale (pronounced ‘be an ali’) is a presentation for expressions created and collected by the various social activist movements in India and internationally. Through multi forms of art, exhibited in various venues, expression of the modern trends of thought is portrayed. It is a bit like Illuminatto in Toronto, except it is not for just one night. It has been wonderful to add dimension of learning to our visit to Fort Cochin. We have seen some thought provoking presentations and have learned a great deal about modern Indian culture and ways of thinking.
This evening, a Polish Company presented an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, performed in a huge park in the town. They called it Macbeth, Who Is That Bloodied Man? Malayalam residents shared audience with travellers from all over the world to appreciate the artistic interpretation on the original play. Inferences to communist power and deceit, combined with the personal lives of Lady Macbeth, Macbeth and Mcduff was brilliant. The performance was spectacular! In the hour and a half, I, and the enormous crowd of spectators were mesmerized by the extreme drama of the presentation.

Elongated human figures, made grotesquely tall with stilts, are dressed in long black sheets covering their entire bodies right down to the ground. White curtains mask their faces, reminding me clearly, of death.

The darkness of the night with the sprinkling of the stars in the sky and the presence of the almost full moon helped create a most auspicious display. So did the loud, percussive, base music and an operatic female voice singing aria through one microphone while standing erect on the top of a scaffold platform on the side of the stage. The moon shone above her head. Fire was used often reinforcing the intensity of the drama.
Blood, represented with paint, red sheets and occasional sprinkling of red dust creatively reminded us of the force of death. The repeated gunshots from active pistols, crazy motorcycle rides on the stage, and the persistent use of oversized noisemakers from all the actors, reinforced the notion of power and control. The symbolism of the props emphasized a communist theme.

I was mesmerized throughout the entire performance, captivated by the multi sensory interpretation of Shakespeare. Seated cross-legged on the ground along with hundreds of other people I was totally enthralled. Not even the constant ringing of cell phones disturbed me! In India, people don’t not answer their phones. Whole conversations take place during performances, with no attempt to modify voice level to avoid disturbing actors or others enjoying the show. Looking around me, though, no one else seemed disturbed! People just continue to tune in to whatever they’re doing. It’s a yogic mentality…. staying focussed. In India, people practise this all the time. There is always so much going on, one has to learn to concentrate on the task at hand and avoid distraction.

I found myself doing the same thing and simply enjoying the show. Lately, I’ve been thinking about that a lot…just realizing the experience and experiencing it completely.
Avoiding interpretation, judgement, and rationalizing all contribute to distraction. Living in the very moment allows for complete pleasure and ultimate awareness. Yoga teaches me this too!

The performance was phenomenal. Hundreds of Indian spectators circled around an impromptu stage. We sat with them on theground. Behind us people stood watching, about 5 rows deep, awestruck, and silent (except for when the cell phones ringing and the conversations that followed) watching performance art in action.

What a great experience tonight, sharing Shakespeare with Malayalam community under the night sky in India! 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Just Sayin'...

Just sayin’……

Teachers, working in private schools earn about 25,000 rupees (less than $500) per month. Government employed teachers, working in public schools earn about 6,000 rupees (about $110). In Fort Cochin, alone, there are about 20 schools. Some of those are private schools and some are public. Population is 12,000 living in a radius of about 10 square kilometres. I have been in grade 1 classrooms with 70 kids and one teacher. I have also been in grade 8 classes with 13! The overall literacy rate in Kerala is 97%! That’s incredible!

The Malayalam word for ‘thank you’ is nanni. It is a word I rarely hear. People just don’t say ‘thank you’ very often. There is, however, a perpetual tone of gratitude. Maybe it has to do with the cultural attitude about God. I remember once, when I thanked my Yoga teacher’s mother for cooking our meal, Sajee answered with what seemed like a correction, “Thank you, food.” Ultimately our gratitude is to God, without whom nothing would exist.

Traffic in the streets is absolutely chaotic anywhere I travel in India! Allocated laneways seem to be merely a suggestion with vehicles riding willy nilly on the roads without order. Horns blare constantly. “I’m coming”! they seem to say. “Watch out”! And yet, there is no road rage…no middle fingers thrusting out of car windows, no vulgar curses being shouted to one another, no angry assaults on fellow drivers. People remain calm and forgiving. And, eventually I have become more comfortable with the crazy driving!

There is a different sense of personal space here. On public buses, men and women are encouraged to sit separately with women in the front, and men in the back. Yesterday, I board the bus to find that the only empty seat is towards the back.  I am not discouraged. I sit in the single empty seat, even though I am surrounded by men. I feel okay. So why does the ticket taker insist on standing right on top of me so close that he pushes me right up against the window. He could have stood anywhere. Why did he have to stand so close to me?

Elaborately decorated buses and trucks display colourful lettering giving praise to God. Glittery ornaments dangle from windshields along with sparkly pictures of the driver’s favourite deities. It is common to see trucks packed with standing men moving through the streets. They must never be afraid of falling because they’re stacked so close together they hold each other up naturally.

There is no reprieve from populated areas throughout the province of Kerala. Travelling from one town to another means travelling through one town and another. They all look the same. Colourful displays of women in saris scurrying through he streets, men in simple dhotis drinking tea together and hanging out, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and cars, ornately decorated buses and trucks, and cows and goats fill the streets.

On beaches woman wear full saris and, if they choose to go into the ocean, they do so fully clothed. Men wear whatever they want, usually western style bathing suits, or stripped down to their underwear. Respectfully, when I go to the beach I wear my typical western clothing, which isn’t the least bit provocative, and I go in the ocean fully clothed. It’s not so bad, although I still prefer the freedom of bathing suits.
I think the thing I notice most here is the lack of choice. Though people are generally satisfied with life, they really know nothing different. Sandia, the woman who oversees our homestay, has never been out of Kerala. “Fort Cochin, Kollam, Kalikut, I go only there.” Generally, people here have little desire to leave India. Vacations, if they are lucky enough to have them, usually happen in other parts of the state. People just love their country...and know nothing else.

I am continuously reflecting on the cultural diversity that we share with these wonderful people. So much of how we behave is so different. I have finally gotten to a stage where I try not to think too much about it. Life here is just the way it is….it isn’t good or bad….it just is. If I think too much about it, if I try to understand, I end up creating stories that might not be true. I am finding it easier to just let the experience happen. Why question? I am letting go of the need to understand. I don’t understand! I just live, and learn and embrace! I’m just sayin’…….

Saturday, January 19, 2013


“Another power outage!”, says the woman who lives downstairs. “Does this happen also in your country?” “No, not really”, I reply. “Only when the weather gets vicious!”

The village is in complete darkness except for the few battery-operated lights sporadically evident in homes and shops. Big batteries are designed for those who can afford them, to take over power for refrigerators and televisions and larger electrical appliances. The tailor across the street like most residents, lights a candle, to continue his work. He has been there since 8:00 this morning.

I park my bicycle on the front porch for the night. Our homestay, while we are living in Fort Cochin, is owned by a lovely family. Benson, his wife, Shainey and their two sons live across the street. There are several rooms rented daily to travellers, as well as the family who rent the apartment downstairs. Our room is one of 3 accessed by the stairs from the front gate. A small kitchen allows us to keep basic foods refrigerated, and makes it is easy to prepare simple meals. We usually eat breakfast and lunch at home. We make tea whenever we want.

Sandia is the woman who takes care of the travellers’ accommodations. She arrives at 9:00 and stays until 5:30. A young boy, Raoul, comes in the evening and, when everyone is settled down for the night, he lays his mattress and sheets on the floor of the common area, and sleeps until morning. It is wonderfully safe, and we feel well protected and secure.

We’ve been here now 2 ½ weeks, and developed a close relationship with Sandia. She is eager to hear about life in Canada and is interested in learning about us in every way. She knows our children from photographs, has heard our backgrounds and we often have serious conversations about the differences (and similarities) that our lives share.

Yesterday, Sandia invited us to her home. After work we walked over there together. For gifts we brought packages of Uno for the children, a cake for the family and a rattle for the new baby. The entire family waited eagerly at the entrance as we approach. The cement home, encased within a solid wall is old and worn. A ladderlike staircase leads upstairs. Though I didn’t go up, I assume that is where the family, 7 members in all, sleeps.

As we enter we are immediately directed in to the main room of the house...the puja room. Covering the walls are pictures of various sizes and colours depicting numerous deities. A puja lamp burns in the centre of the main wall, and incense burns continuously. The new baby, 6 months old, is asleep in an oversized blue clothe sling that is fastened by a rope and dangles from the centre rafter. He is definitely the focus of attention!!!
We question the black make up painted on the baby’s face. The black makes him look a bit scary to me. “That is to make the baby look ugly so he will not get a lot of attention, and will avoid getting sick or stolen.” Sandia explains. It is a somewhat primitive mentality, seriously embraced and practised.

As we sit on the wooden bench, facing the sleeping child, Sandia’s sister in law offers us delicious dosha with coconut chutney and hot, sweet chai masala tea. They watch us with huge smiles as we eat. No body else is eating...just watching and smiling and eager to talk. They want to hear about how much we love India, and also about our lives in Canada. It seems to be the custom here that while guests eat, others do not. I don’t understand it, but it seems to happen often!
We take many pictures and I am excited to make prints to present to them. The na├»ve gaiety that is expressed during the photo takes makes us all laugh. They are so thrilled to be in pictures! Cameras are definitely a luxury here, and it is unusual to see photographs in peoples’ homes. They giggle and joke as they run to see picture of themselves each time the camera snaps.

Ravesh, Sandia’s grown brother in law invites us to hear his concert at the local Kathikali Centre. The centre is committed to presenting traditional Kerala culture. 365 days a year, some form of music and/or dance is performed there. Ravesh is a tabla player, and last night he performed with his uncle, Raghuraj, a vocalist, and another musician playing the harmonium.  It was wonderful to hear him play and to connect with him after the concert. There is an enormous sense of pride for the culture. Ravesh offers to give us both tabla lessons. Paul is even considering it!

As we leave for the concert we are sent off with joyous waves and promises from us that we will return to their home. “We must.” We say. “We have to bring you all the pictures!” Plans for Sunday night dinner are created. Everyone is happy!

Thursday, January 17, 2013


“It’s not what you know that matters. It’s who you know! This phrase is such a common one, particularly in the business world when searching for employment or attempting to get into some place or some thing new in your life.

In my work, (and in my life) it is all about relationships. The more I take the time to listen to people I meet, the more I am enthralled by them. People’s stories are what differentiate us from each other. I am regularly enriched by the people I meet during my travels I feel privileged to have intimacy with so many people throughout the world.

I have known Danaja for 3 years, meeting her the first time I came to Fort Cochin with Paul in January of 2010. At that time, I became involved with the local Ayurvedic clinic, taking advantage of the various treatments and processes designed to enhance health. Dr. Sree Devi is the main Ayurvedic practitioner at the clinic, and we have developed a loving and caring relationship as well. Danaja is the senior technician at the clinic. Previously, although I saw Danaja regularly, she was never my therapist, encouraging, instead, interns and students to perform the prescribed treatment.

During our month, here, in Fort Cochin, I am focusing on healing. Yoga, healthy eating, biking around this fantastic village, learning massage, and engaging in Ayurvedic treatment have been the gist of my daily routine.  Massage treatments, focusing on my joints and muscles, relaxation and sleep has led to a series of various forms of massage; full body massage followed by hot steam (3X), Shirodhara (3X) - a continuous stream of special oils passed over the third eye for a minimum of 1/2 hour. I’ve had this treatment before and it is truly unbelievable! (Check out my blog, October 18, 2011)  Kizhi  (7X) (pronounced Kiri), is a massage with hand made packs that are filled with specifically prescribed herbs, medicinal leaves and therapeutic oils. (Blog entry November 17, 2010) The therapist heats the 2 packs and gently pounds them, one at a time, over the body. All 13 treatments over the next 3 weeks are costing $170.00! I feel like I’m in an exclusive spa, just affordable!

Approaching the end of my treatments, with 4 to go, I have been with Danaja almost every day for the past two weeks. We meet each morning. I completely disrobe. She lovingly and carefully massages my body. She puts eye drops in my eyes daily to treat an eye infection and softly places cucumbers on my eyes to reduce the big black bags that I carry under them. Each day she finishes with a gentle but deep face massage. These are all extras!

We talk some, too, although Danaja’s English is not that great, and my Malayalam is almost nonexistent. I know that Danaja is 48 years old. I know she does NOT colour her hair. It is naturally black. I know she has two children, one boy (18 years) and one girl (15 years). (BTW – I don’t know how they do it, but most Indian families have2 kids…. a boy and a girl) I know she’s been practising Ayurveda massage for 25 years. I know that she lives a five minute walk from the clinic.

My Kizhi treatment starts daily with a head massage. I am seated on a stool. Danaja stands behind me and massages my head. We are both facing the mirror.
“How is your husband?” asks Danaja.
“Paul is great. Thank you. How about your husband?”
“I have no husband.” She says.
“Where is your husband, Danaja?” I ask.
“He die.”
“How long ago?”
“Before 4 years.”

I moan a little, a sort of compassionate sigh. I hear her tears and see her deep sigh. I cannot help my own tears from forming. Both of us succumb. No words are needed. We each wipe our eyes, lift our eyebrows and share a caring, meaningful smile.

I discover that every single rupee that Danaja earns goes for rent to pay for their small home, some food for simple sustenance and education for her two children. Her eldest son is preparing to go to post secondary school. That costs a lot of money for an Indian resident!!!!!

 In India, women do not re-marry! It is not encouraged and it is not supported. Widows remain widows forever, usually, and there isn’t any compassionate support. Danaja’s son is committed to become a teacher. That will take 6 extra years of study. Her daughter is still in 9th grade and goes to a government run school. For us, tuition is minimal ($250.00 a year). For Indians it is exorbitant.  Maybe there is some way that we can help.

There are many, many people I meet and talk with as I travel. Some of them have become good friends over time...forever friends! It makes travelling so much richer and enhances my life with each new love I get to share. Our stories are unique and are most valuable when they are shared. I am constantly inspired to listen, and learn and love. My life is charmed! It is definitely who I know that makes it so!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Just Another Saturday Night

The first time we met the Rafik family, it was early morning as we drove through the backwaters of Kerala. A hand made rowboat used daily to catch their evening meals is easily accessible from their modest home, perched on the water’s edge. Sajee had met these people just a few months back and has enjoyed their friendship ever since.
Typical for Indian life style, married children live with the husband’s parents. Living in the house now are the older couple (mom and dad), their son and daughter in law, and their two kids. Their daughter, abandoned by her husband after the birth of their second child, has returned to the family home. Nine people live in this one room cement house. An outside kitchen has a double burning gas stove, and a floor spout for washing.

Our first visit we found them all asleep. It was early morning, (about 7:30 am) and though they are obviously surprised to see us, they quickly welcome us. Almost immediately, bustle begins to prepare our tea and welcome us with smiles and conversation. The hour we spend there is filled with playful time with the kids, gorgeous, joyful children who so appreciate our being there. We take a slow paddle ride in their simple boat while singing “Mr. Sun, Sun. Mr. Golden Sun, Please shine down on me.” The children laugh and sing and beam with pride for learning the English so quickly! Our voices, heard as we row down the backwaters, invite others along the shore to join in.

We have such a good time together that we decide to to share a dinner together. I insist on cooking!

Indian cooking is different for me. Spices, native to India, such as turmeric, curry, cardamom, corianders, as well as the special mixture of garam masala make the tastes quite unique. I am eager to learn to cook here whenever the chance arises.

On Saturday, I spend the afternoon with Amma. We shop and cook all afternoon, creating a full course meal for the entire family and ourselves. We make dinner for 15 people! Vegetable curry, beet salad with coconut, rice and chappati comprise the menu. Paysam, made with rice, coconut, raisins, cashews and cardamom and lots of jaggery was our dessert. The family supplies the fish, fried to a crisp, spicy finish..

In the evening we pack all the food into Sajee’s little Tata, along with his family. We are six in all. Four of us get in to the car and pack in all the food.  Ajee and Takuy follow on the scooter. Driving through the narrow, winding, rocky backwater roads to the now familiar house, we follow the setting sun to the now familiar house.

When we arrive the outage of electricity has everyone sitting outside. Still, the welcoming, “Come, come! Sit!” The children are pulling on us by the arms until finally they discover the collection toys we brought for them. Colourful balls, paddles for racket sports, playful tattoos, and squishy balloons are received with laughter and gratitude. We play together, first rolling the balls, then tossing them until they have had enough. As I look around, I notice there were no other toys around - not a priority for a family with so many other needs.

The children, 3 girls and 1 boy all under the age of 6, beam with joy. Shiny faces and broad smiles convince me, with no doubt, how happy they are. I have rarely heard an Indian child cry, come to think of it! Most of the young ones I see are as happy and content as the four children in this backwater home. No money… and not poor!

After play, we all sat on the ground of the front porch to eat. With not enough plates for everyone, they insist that we eat first. Reluctantly, we do. I’m always happy eating Indian style. Using my right hand, (never with my left…that’s for washroom usage) I am becoming more adept at scooping the mixtures of tastes with my thumb and first two fingers. I think the food tastes even better this way!

They never end up eating the food that night. When we are finished, we carefully empty all the food into their plates before washing our containers. The food will be there for them when they’re ready. It is a little strange, but I am avoiding thinking about it. I’m sure they have their reason.

I feel blessed to be a part of this family’s life. We will certainly see them again. Next time, I promise to paint all the girls’ toenails blue, just like mine!

So often I am impressed by the similarities we share with people all over the world. We look different - sometimes very different. The clothes we wear set us apart, and we speak in different tongues. In India, especially, these surface differences seem so profound. Basically, though, what matters to us is similar; love in our family, health and happiness for ourselves and our children, and hopes for an ever better tomorrow. And of course, everyone likes to laugh!

Sunday, January 13, 2013


While we’re in Fort Cochin, we have our own bicycles for getting around. We’ve been borrowing bikes from our Yoga teacher’s kids so we don’t even have to rent. We invested in repairing one of the bikes, so we could leave them a usable bike when we are finished with it. I would rent if we didn’t have Sajee, because there is no better way to get around. The village is not very big, but having a bike gives us the chance to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. It helps us to feel open and gives us a sense of freedom to explore.

I peddle vigorously down narrow, bumpy roads passing pedestrians strolling leisurely along the way. I’m more able to experience different places. Occasionally I pause somewhere to talk to shopkeepers or enter a church where puja is taking place.

I’m never afraid of getting lost on my bike. In fact, getting lost is half the fun. Each road looks the same, and with the absence of numbers on the houses and limited street signs, it is inevitable. Getting lost gives me opportunity to ask for directions. Often, as I ride, I shout to a person on the street, “Palace Road…this way?”, Usually, this results in an outstretched arm indicating the right direction and a friendly, “This way, this way. Go straight.”

On my bike I pass the busy markets, sometimes stopping for a freshly made pakora or warm samosa. The masala chai tea maker is an artist in his field. The tea is delicious and he chants proudly as he pours the tea midair in a long stream from cup to cup, before he hands it to me for drinking. What a joy!

Waterways of all sizes…. small ponds, lakes, and streams are all a part of the scenery as I ride. And the Arabian Sea borders the entire area. Occasionally, green parks with old monumental trees offer a reprieve from the concrete buildings. Football and cricket games are usually in action, and people finding shade are, seeking rest from their busy workdays.

Kerala is known for its extremely high literacy rates (97%). I can’t even count the number of schools I see along the roads…everywhere! And they’re all full. I can hear the singing and the choral reading going on in the primary classrooms. The senior schools don’t sound much different. It sounds like the students are having fun, playing music, interacting with each other, and finding learning in their play. On my bicycle I hear it all as I pass.

There is nothing so wonderful as an early morning ride along the shores of the Arabian Sea. Fort Cochin is known for its fishing boats, and in the mornings, it is typical to see the nets being hauled in. Strangely enough, I have rarely seen fish in the nets. More obvious are the plastic water bottles and garbage that is thoughtlessly thrown into the waters. We have heard, lately, that fishermen are paid by the government to go through the motions of hauling in the nets to appeal to the many tourists who visit the village.

Undoubtedly though, fresh fish is everywhere in the restaurants. One of my favourite places is a small outside kitchen called Maxim’s. There, the grilled calamari is deliciously seasoned with Kerala spices and perfectly grilled just to a touch of brown. That, with frites and a fresh veggie salad, and a ginger soda is satisfying and delectable. All for (about) $6.00.
Villagers here are eager to help. They do so with a broad, friendly smile, and a typical shake of the head. People are the commodity in India, and in Kerala most people are extraordinarily welcoming and helpful.

We have discovered an old man, dressed in a scant dhoti and bare chest. He repairs and builds bicycles in his small cluttered booth hidden in a tiny space in a wall of a building. Though he doesn’t speak English at all, it seems easy to communicate with him, and several times he has come to our rescue and fixed our bike. Whether it is refilling the air in our tires or reconnecting one side of a handlebar, Rajan helps us feel secure that our borrowed and very useful vehicles are safe.

I am thinking about Rajan tonight as we decide on a place to eat our dinner. Paul’s bicycle is in his shop once again. We are limited to walking. Our choices are diminished. Thank goodness we’ll have his bike back soon, leading again to boundless opportunities in Fort Cochin.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Sunday Outing in Kerala

Our first full Sunday in Fort Cochin is dedicated to exploration and new experience. Instead of early morning Asana practise, today is about travel!

Sajee is our yoga teacher and has, over the years for me, become a close dear friend. His extraordinary ability to share his yoga knowledge is what drew me to him in the first place. His friendship and love is what keeps me close. I have become an extended family member to his family too. His wife Aji, and I are close friends, and his daughter Vinaya and I have spent many playful hours, traversing the streets of Fort Cochin on our bikes and visiting nearby villages and sharing adventures together. At 13 years old, she is appreciative of my western attitudes and, together we share good conversation and experiences. Taku, his son, is often around too, although, as an 18 year-old teenager he often chooses to be on his own. Sajee’s mother Amma, and I also spend time together. Although she’s not that much older than me, I consider her to be my ‘mother’ while I am here.

Our trip this morning takes us south, to the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. The area is nicknamed, “the Venice of India” because the primary means of travel is by boat. There are narrow dirt roads for land vehicles, but most people who live in the villages don’t even have cars. Sajee has recently purchased a car. With the whole family this morning, we pack ourselves into the little black Tata car. The car is capable of manoeuvring its way through the challenging roads and laneways of India. Though early morning activities are not my favourite, Sajee insists that in order to avoid crowded roads and busy traffic, it is a good idea after all. By 6:00 am we pack ourselves into the car, piling on top of each other to make our way the 60 kilometers or so to Kumarakom. With empty streets and quiet passages, it takes us 3 hours to reach our destination.
That’s the thing about India travel. Short distances that would take minutes in North America take hours here. The roads are narrow, winding and rocky, with extra high speed bumps (they call them humps here!) to keep us slow. As we ride I become more aware of the sameness of India. The villages all look the same. It’s crowded, with no empty land. Everywhere there are villages, vehicles of all sorts, animals and people.

Kumarakom is set along the shores of the Vembanad Lake, which is the largest fresh water lake in India.  The narrow walkways and lush flora make the area a lovely place to walk. Various species of butterflies flutter freely, also enjoying the lush greenery and trees. A bird sanctuary, a major attraction to the village usually offers sightings of various types of birds. A sign indicates the bird activity for each month of the year. Of course, for January, it said ‘No activity’. It didn’t matter though, the 2 kilometre walk was a wonderful reprieve from the scrunchy, long car ride, and it was particularly wonderful to be out in nature. Spending leisure time with everyone was perfect!

There is life everywhere in India. Covering the land are shanty homes. Shops line the roads and people bustle about carrying on with their days. Life is evident in every space as we pass along the road. Music shouts from the churches and people are either going or coming. The villages are alive with work and play. To me every neighbourhood looks the same and I wonder how anyone is able to navigate their way from one place to another. Streets are crowded with almost identical looking storefronts packed with identical items. Colourful baskets, pails, typical kitchen wear stuffed into small shops. I wonder how anyone here makes a living.

It’s nice to be in the green of the country. The trees are so old. Coconut, cashew, and palm trees line the narrow strips of land that intersect the waters. Rice paddy fields are lush and bright. Kerala is known for its natural beauty and it is evident this morning as we drive.
Our long drive is mixed with short stops for ice cream and fresh coconut. It gives me a chance to stretch my legs and talk to the local people. On our journey home, we stop for a visit with Amma’s brother and his family. I feel so lucky to be a part of it all, and grateful for being here and included in Indian life. Sajee and his family have certainly made my times in India richer.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Settling In

The first sounds of the morning, the sounds to which I awaken, I hear even through the droning of the ceiling fan above my head.  The tweeting birds settle outside our window. They are the first to arrive. It is 4:43. If I stay awake, soon the birds that caw will join them. And then after that those that cackle and squawk. By 7:00 there will be a cacophony of sound.

The village awakens and I do the same. The bird music is my alarm, beckoning me to make my way to yoga. I don’t commit to a morning practise. If I am awake. If it is right, I go. So far, I haven’t missed a morning. 
Adjusting to the time change is always a challenge for me. This year the heat in Kerala is oppressive and my body is slower to adjust. Still, I am happy to be here. The ceiling fan lends relief to the intense heat, except during power outages when there is no possibility of finding cool except under a shower.

Being in Fort Cochin I feel a sense of home. It’s really hot. The culture shock is experienced more in the climate change than in the people and the language. Sometimes I feel so familiar to the Indian people. It is easy for me to interact and communicate. I get a sense of belonging, as if I have been Indian in some previous existence. And at other times, I feel so different and I know that we really don’t understand each other. Or perhaps I simply don’t understand. Usually, it doesn't really matter.

We have settled in to our homestay. Our room is simple, with a window that faces the next building's wall. It is covered with a mosquito net so we are invited to leave it open. There are two single beds, which we pushed together and a desk with 2 drawers. A cubby space on the wall has 3 shelves for our belongings and a few hangers on a metal rod.

The bathroom is small. The toilet, sink and shower are all in one space. When we shower, we need to close the toilet seat and remove the toilet paper from the room to keep it dry. A hose in the wall is for use after using the toilet, a typical Indian practise and a way to eliminate the use of paper. It is really very civilized and extremely clean. We don’t have hot water, but we don’t miss it. The weather is just so hot. The cool water is a reprieve.

Our focus for the next month in Fort Cochin is healing. Yoga, Ayurvedic massage, dental appointments, eye doctor examinations, are all part of our agenda. We borrowed two bikes from our friends here and we’ve been getting around beautifully. There is nothing like riding my bike through the streets here. Paul gets a little frightened. Driving on the left side of the rode is unfamiliar and he thinks I’m a bit reckless anyway!

I’ve been going to yoga twice a day, getting my body back into a regular routine. I definitely have some work to do while I’m here. I have lost my sense of self over the last few months. My Yoga practise has been limited to the classes I teach each week. I have been feeling ugly, out of shape, over weight and out of control. I strive to get to a place where I remember the beauty in the world and focus on the inspirations that excite me. I want to be satisfied and appreciative, and revel in the small miracles that abound. I want to remember how wonderful is life… my life, and to be grateful for all that I have and all that I am.

I am finding more and more, that when I lose joy, it isn’t really lost. It is being ignored. Joy is inside me. I can’t look for it anywhere else…. not in my work, my social life, my books. I won’t find it in my relationships with Paul, or my children or with my friends. I am needing to look within for that joy and re-establish connection with my own goodness. Then I can share what I find. That’s true joy! I think I am in the right place for that.

Home for now…Fort Cochin.