Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Little blogging recently, because I no longer have a guaranteed internet connection bigger than a Blackberry, life got hectic and Goa is fun.

After two months, I am Prati-less. She left to resume real life Monday evening. I spent one more night in our hotel by party central Baga Beach, planning to fly to Hyderabad the following afternoon.

I awoke the next morning for a private yoga class with crazy Osho yoga guy to an e-mail from Prati's friend in Hyderabad, my planned host, saying he had a cold and could I delay my arrival until weekend?

I got angry and panicked simultaneously and called Prati at 6 a.m., waking her up.

"Figure it out," she said, voice groggy with sleep, as my panic morphed into guilt. "There's nothing I can do at 6 in the morning."

I decided not to go to Hyderabad and be dependent on somebody who confirms and then flakes on expensive travel plans a few hours later. To arrange a longer stay in Goa, which is beach paradise full of kind, helpful people and fresh fruit, a fellow American who moved to Goa a few months back lent me his Indian cell phone. (I'd met him the previous day over our last shared morning chai; he walks daily from Candolim Beach to Baga and then stops at the restaurant by our hotel to drink a morning beer.) He offered to show me Candolim, where he lives. so we hopped on a local bus (wall sign: "No standing, no spiting (sic)"; Hindi music blaring) and departed.

Candolim is less of a party scene then Baga; there are fewer beach-front restaurant shacks open, but the whole vibe is calmer without feeling as old as the South Goa crowd. My American buddy introduced me to his pals, who own a guest house steps from the beach and offered me a decent rate. I moved in and planned to spend more than what I'd saved to do a few days of yoga at Rolf Naujokat's Candolim studio. He wrote one of the chapters in the Guruji book I read just before departing for India.

I checked out the shala location last night, since their directions read to the effect of "turn right on the dirt road by the pink wall."

"He's German, but he's been here so long we call him Narayan," said the jovial neighbor who helped show me the way.

I walked there for a 6:30 a.m. practice this morning. It was still dark when I arrived, and it was impossible to see what was going on inside. There were just one or two people there and nobody in sight behind me. Then, as if by magic, westerners began appearing out of the murk, from all directions, and filed one by one into the shala.

Since it was so early--and, I learned a bit later, I was that day's only new arrival--nobody bothered to explain where to go until I asked, despite deploying my clueless face. (People were super friendly once I did open my mouth.)

I settled in and observed my fellow students. Nobody spoke, but there was plenty of noise as people rushed to surround themselves with all forms of mosquito repellent, lighting sticks on the floor around them and slathering on creams and sprays. Then, a few advanced students began to practice and everybody else sat and waited. The gate squeaked, a male throat cleared, and then the teacher stalked in, said good morning and began the Ashtanga opening chant.

"Is anyone new?" he boomed as everyone began to practice. I raised my hand. He came over, figured out I was the chick coming for three meager days, and asked me to pay up in advance. "Why are you here for so little time?" he asked me.

"Because I figured three days is better than no days," I told him. He looked me in the eye, placed his hands in anjali mudra and bowed his head as though to say, 'you've got a point there, kid.'

Sunday, October 24, 2010

the meditation thief

The yoga teacher lived up a couple flights of stairs in an alley by Baga Beach, Goa, in a spare apartment with a serious flat screen in one corner and a poster-sized photo of Osho framed on the opposite wall.

Prati had met him on her last trip to the area and described him as a deceptively fat man who led excruciating asana practices. I expected a bumbling ancient along the lines of the Indonesian holy man in "Eat Pray Love" (now playing in Indian theaters). The man that greeted us was on the younger side with a head full of unruly curls and fun gleaming in his eyes.

He embraced Prati, served us some cinnamon tea and told the following story about leading a meditation retreat on the bank of the Ganges:

Every day, the little group would go to the river around 4 a.m., enter meditation on rocks dotting its edge and remain still until the rising sun's warmth snapped them to awareness a couple hours later.

"You naturally expand just sitting beside the river," he told us, cross-legged on the cot beneath Osho.

They meditated each morning, but something "freaky" began happening: every day, one member of the group would awaken to discover something missing. A scarf disappeared, and a flashlight. Nobody could figure out why items vanished.

The teacher investigated, and a local informed him that, every morning before sunrise, one wild elephant ambled down the hill to drink from the Ganges right where they meditated. It appeared he was departing with the yogis' belongings. The teacher decided not to tell his students that their mystery thief was not an astral body or a God playing tricks, but a thirsty, potentially dangerous elephant. If they knew, their proximity to such a massive wild creature would make meditation impossible.

On the retreat's final day, instead of trekking down the hill to the river's edge, he told his students they would watch sunrise from the top of the hill, and that with it would come Ganesh, the Hindu God who takes an elephantine form. The students watched, and soon the elephant appeared for its morning drink.
They never recovered their goods, but the elephant never hurt or bothered the crew, leaving that morning, once again, in peace after its thirst was satisfied.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

melange 2010

We and our hosts went to a concert at Bangalore's Chowdiah Hall last night, a concert venue shaped like a violin! It was a concert in its second year called Melange 2010, an east-west fusion with six performers from all over the globe. There was a sitar, drums, electric bass, guitar, violin and keyboard. The percussionist was a well-known Indian musician who, when soloing, put Dick van Dyke to shame.

The concert was amazing; musicians from very different traditions completely in sync and enjoying the challenge of creating a musical stew that sounded like classical Indian and American jazz simultaneously. The jazz guitarist played a Gershwin tune; the drummer played a raga. The violinist played a haunting piece that involved singing and playing. The sitar and guitarists had some dueling banjo moments.

I love cities.

yoga yoga

Credit: Lou Gaccione
Before I embarked on my trip to India, I was nervous about ending the consistent yoga routine I'd established, which left me feeling centered, thankful and physically strong. I sat down with my teacher, and she told me to try, every day, to do two surya namaskar A, two B and  final seated breathing poses from the Ashtanga sequence. Look at any additional poses that happen as a gift, she said.

I have done my yoga some days. But more often than not, I haven't, sometimes because I haven't had time or space, sometimes because I'm lazy. I definitely feel different without a steady, dedicated practice--more fragmented and more prone to back and neck pain. I've also uncharacteristically gained some weight in the past month and a half with so much amazing Indian food around and no consistent exercise, a change that makes me way uncomfortable.

But I've been thinking about yoga all the time, both because in India, it's hard not to and because Prati is preparing to enter a two-month yoga teacher training near Bangalore. This means she's been talking about yoga a lot--what it is, what it isn't, and how it should be. I find myself getting defensive of my practice when I disagree with her, and then I feel ashamed of that reaction, since shouldn't yoga be all about encompassing everything rather than creating divisions? I've been trying to think through my take on yoga and explore why I'm not currently as open to hearing about the great big world outside the Ashtanga tradition as I feel I (or anyone who presumes to call herself a yogi) should be.

I did have a little bit of a practice, though not a philosophical, background when a friend who is also a yoga teacher first introduced me to the Ashtanga series. I started to go with another friend to a studio in Rhode Island. Then, when I moved across the state, I happened to move minutes from what was then the only studio in Connecticut, as far as I know. Slowly, I turned into someone who was there so often that a teacher there mistook me for an instructor. The thing with Ashtanga is that it  introduces asanas first, and everything else follows. That worked for me better than any other approaches I'd encountered. I started doing yoga as physical exercise. Now, I'm slowly learning about the practice's philosophies, reading its classic texts. This urge to learn stemmed from my physical practice, feeling like a natural next step.

Lots of people will say, though, that asanas are the least important part of what yoga is--that brain comes before body. This makes me cringe, because asana practice worked so perfectly for me as an entry point for all else, but I don't feel like I have a strong enough philosophical grounding to argue that I disagree, especially since what works for me is not necessarily what works for everyone else. And I could make the "Pattabhi Jois just based the system on tradition and the sutras so it's a solid approach" argument, but the truth is that Ashtanga is also supposedly based on a long-lost book that may or may not have been discovered, once, hidden away in Calcutta with crucial pages missing. And I may love the practice, but that doesn't mean I can completely overcome my natural skepticism (it doesn't matter to me where it all came from, just that it works, but that's often no basis for debate).

So this past week when Prati took private lessons from our Bangalore hostess' teacher, I didn't join her. I said I was just too lazy, but the truth is more that I didn't feel that I could be fully open to accepting other perspectives while feeling like I'd have to defend what I feel passionate about in my head. That sentiment may be my immaturity or lack of yogic growth talking, but I'm OK with that.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

random quick hits list

Credit: zz77 via Flickr
Things I love about India:

Rajasthan mustaches
Bollywood films' irrational choreographed dance numbers

Fresh idly, masala chai, fruit juice and almond halva

Udaipur's rooftop lake views

Heritage hotels

Eyeliner on babies

The motley crush of camels, cows, mopeds, auto rickshaws, cars and trucks in the streets

Sikkim's lush greenery

Things I could do without:

Cow poop land mines

Lack of road rules and roads full of potholes

Sharing of bed sheets and towels

Constantly feeling like folks are trying to swindle me

Sunday, October 17, 2010


I feel like my stomach is betraying me, and I feel old.

Since about four years ago--when I first recovered enough from an eating disorder to feel like my body was my friend instead of something to destroy and that eating could be a delicious, social thing instead of a terror--I've been gleeful about the fact that I have a fast metabolism, a stomach that always rises to the occasion (though I'm always bested by Emma's Doritos-and-salsa stomach, which is a monarch among abdomens).

My first day in Bangalore today, I ate breakfast at a local institution and a thali lunch at a fancy hotel, laughing as Prati's friend refused to buy her chai on the street, calling the delicious beverage we've been consuming in mass quantities for the past month and a half "dirty chai."

I've had an upset stomach all afternoon.

This, on the heels of overeating Prati's mom's delicious food in Beawar, which left me full and lethargic and food-bellied enough to have to think about curtailing my consumption for the first time in my life instead of struggling to eat or eating whatever I felt like. Yes, my pants all still fit and yes, I still have my now-underused yoga muscles. But I feel like my stomach's non-compliance with my desire to try as many different foods as possible by refusing to be bottomless and refusing to digest within hours may be the first step toward a shift from scoffing at women constantly monitoring their figures to joining them. The possibility of needing to exercise self control in my eating when I feel like I fought so hard to enjoy it scares me more than traveling by moped and more than my go-to fear, nocturnal animals.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

blackberry prose in udaipur

Udaipur is my favorite city in India thus far. Its classic Indian architecture wraps around two lakes that give the whole place a serene atmosphere. At night, the lake glimmers with lights from the adorned window frames and music echoes from various destinations, creating a jumbled hum somewhere in the middle of the water. The area is touristy enough that most people speak English (and there is coffee and diet coke!) But it's still full of uniformed children walking to and from school, small temples tucked among the vendors and locals riding recklessly on mopeds through the narrow roads.

That last bit of consistency gave us a scare yesterday when we exited an auto rickshaw right across from our hotel. Prati's four-year-old nephew darted into the street and was struck and thrown by a motorbike rushing down the hill. He was only scraped but he was quite frightened, and the incident cast a pall over the evening, which ended with Prati and me getting buzzed at a fancypants heritage hotel, the first time since arriving in India I had alcohol that wasn't nasty beer. Exorbitant Indian prices are still cheap in dollars.

We walked back to our hotel, giggling, after 11, and stopped in the lobby to speak with its kindly owner. I ended up telling him, in unnecessary detail, about the afternoon I was wrestled by a lady in Beawar on a mission to hand-feed me a second bite of food after I made the mistake of politely deeming the first bite "very good." American manners are a liability when navigating Indian culture, more often than not.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

baking in beawar

The saddest cake ever?
The smell of banana cake permeated the house in Beawar.

"Wow," Prati said, twirling into the kitchen where her sister and I were cleaning up, her eyes alight with sarcastic mischief. "How amazing!" She mimicked the cadence of a video in Cayden's "distract him so he'll sit still" repertoire. "Overcoming obstacles in Beawar to bake a cake -- no proper mixing bowls or anything!"

Dunkin Donuts muffin. Photo Credit: graciepoo via Flicker
Last year when we stayed with her sister, Priti, in Delhi, she made a big show of wanting to buy me a muffin. But the goods she so proudly displayed were packaged, puny, heavy things, not the mammoth Dunkin' Donuts monstrosities that are a guilty pleasure at home. So I decided that, this year, I would bake her a moist, fluffy, American-style cake coated with glistening icing. And I decided that I wanted to do it in Beawar, in a house without a fork or oven, much less an electric mixer. (In high school, my friend and I baked chocolate chip cookies in China. We had to go down the street with our cookie sheets and persuade a local baker to let us use his oven. These things can be done.)

I found a basic yellow cake recipe on Epicurious and convinced the sisters that they were going to help me make it happen. The following morning, Priti set to work, sending her family servant to find the ingredients that weren't in the house. We borrowed a hand mixer from across the street. Before I knew what was happening, Priti had a whole setup on the kitchen floor and I had lost control of my project. She started measuring and adding ingredients into a pan in a way that looked disconcertingly haphazard.

"If this doesn't work, it's your fault," I told her.

"Ah," she said, "but it's your recipe."

But it wasn't, really. We couldn't use eggs in their mom's vegetarian kitchen, so we substituted bananas, turning yellow cake into banana cake from the get go. And, I was told, there was no buttermilk available, so they were substituting yogurt. There was no vanilla either, though there was a spice freshly ground in the mortar.

"This we will substitute," Priti said. "It's a spice you use in America a lot, no?"

I took a whiff: cinnamon. Which is not at all vanilla extract. OK then. My grand cake-making plan found me relegated to sifting, onto newspaper on the floor, the dry stuff that somebody else selected and measured.

(Priti wanted to conserve water by having fewer bowls to wash. Just once in more than a month, I'd selfishly wanted to reclaim my sense of American abundance, not worrying about every scrap in a grander project. In India, people reuse newspaper to wrap parcels, and the conservation, which I admit is a good thing, goes from there. But I'd hit a wall in the previous few days, with a head cold, too many people around all the time and a strong desire to curl up in a silent New England living room drinking alternating sips of coffee and wine and understanding every damn thing the people around me said. Oh, and there'd be no cows, nobody staring at the Western apparition among them and I wouldn't have to worry about being cheated or whether my clothes appropriately cover my boobs in a country where every other woman has a bare midriff. But India doesn't suddenly become the tri-state area just because a visitor needs a breather; as if to hammer home that point, when we went out last night to buy baking powder, Beawar's market was overtaken by a raucus religious parade, complete with an elephant, a camel, dancing men on floats and yet more people staring at me.)

Anyway, the ingredients got combined and put into an "oven" that sat atop the burner. And in the end, we ended up with a slightly burned, sad-looking little cake that didn't fill its pan. But it felt like cake and tasted like cinnamon and bananas. And I guess, when attempting to kick a hint of homesickness by baking a cake, ending up with one suffices.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

in which our heroine, dear reader, arrives in pushkar

Friend: What's that old adage - that there's nothing a good Diet Coke can't fix?
me: yes, that sounds right, but i can't for the life of me remember who said it.
Friend: some Cokehead
Our little crew -- Prati, baby Cayden, Prati's mom and I -- arrived in Pushkar this evening, a small, old lakeside town and Hindu holy site in Rajasthan that is a big foreign tourist draw. For the first time in about a week, I'm not the only foreign face about town, fruitlessly searching for toilet paper and weathering endless language and culture barriers and street-side staring. (The experience wasn't nearly all bad; though as a guest, I've been spoiled without respite, with Prati's mom even indulging my fondness for Beawar's fresh milk though she thinks it makes me a five year old, I started to feel a sense of cultural immersion.)

In Pushkar, things are different. The area is so popular with Israeli tourists that many of the signs in the market area are in Hindi, English and Hebrew. The place is full of pale-skinnned wanderers in abominable street-stall harem pants. The first language I overheard as I sated a Diet Coke craving in giant gulps and Prati replenished our toilet roll stash was crisp Castilian Spanish.

But instead of feeling more at home, I feel like I left "real" India for a tourist-geared version. The stores are all filled with trinket souvenirs instead of the stuff of quotidian existence. And while I've been wearing kurtas in Beawar because I stand out less if I cover a little more skin with Indian-looking clothing, when I arrived in Pushkar (wearing a kurta made by a Beawar tailor) I instantly felt like a westerner trying too hard to go native, a step removed from those awful pants, uncomfortable in the same garment that acted as security blanket a few hours prior.

Monday, October 04, 2010

one other little note about chandawal

There is a lower standard of medical care in much of India than we're used to in the west; Prati's mom is the same age as my grandfather's girlfriend, but the mom looks a good two to three decades older. Accordingly, many of the folks I met in Chandawal (and in Beawar, for that matter) were missing teeth, limping and clearly coping with all sorts of pain and illness.

Americans tend to emphasize appearances, going beyond fit and healthy in favor of beauty aids like Spanx and cosmetic surgeries. I know I've been guilty of judging others for "letting themselves go." But when things we take for granted, like keeping your own teeth, are unfeasible, they cease to matter, and I was struck by the impression that people approach others as the human beings that they are, not the outer bodies.


Jaya stands at her kitchen doorway in her home in Chandawal.
We visited Chandawal, a tiny village an hour's train ride from Beawar, because it's where Prati's father grew up, and he donated a lot of money there throughout his life. In Beawar, I can't speak much to anyone other than Prati, and I was apprehensive about spending a day in an even smaller place which, when we jumped from the train, looked like a couple dirt roads traversed by toothless old folks.
But I ended up loving the visit, because there were at least three residents who spoke fluent English, and I didn't have to guess at the meaning of vague hand motions and Hindi repeated as though, the fourth time, maybe I'll suddenly understand it.

One of those three residents was Jaya, our hostess for the afternoon, a 43-year-old mother of two who had been raised and schooled in Mumbai. I was drawn to a woman I could talk to and she was curious about her foreign visitor, and we instantly connected and began an easy, joshing cameraderie, though I was distracted by her deferential habit of draping her sari over her head every time a man older than her husband entered her view. How, I asked her as she crushed ginger and cardamom pods with a pestle in her darkened kitchen, did she end up living a traditional life, with its saris and mannerisms, in Chandawal, a 14-hour drive from her childhood home and a million miles from its urban cosmopolitanism?

Jaya looked into my eyes with what I read as sadness and sketched a line across her forehead with an index finger, just above her eyebrows. I nodded as though that cleared things up, though I hadn't a clue what she meant. Prati later clarified; the gesture means kismet. Destiny.

Kismet was at work for her that day, because Prati accidentally left her cell phone in the village. Jaya traveled to Beawar to return it to her the following afternoon and lingered here, running errands with us at the market and eating roadside panipuri. She stayed long enough that it grew dark, and her husband told her to stay overnight.

I used the bonus time with Jaya to try and further understand a life so far removed from mine. She is unhappy living in a teensy village, telling me that she wears western clothing when she visits her parents and doesn't take good care of herself because she wants to die as soon as possible. If my American self ended up in Jaya's life, I wouldn't think twice before divorcing and starting my own life. Where I come from, women are independent and we have the resources and the options to make our own decisions. But for Jaya, who has never left India (I told her about how the leaves change color during New England's autumn, and I'm not sure she believed me) tradition dictates that marriage is forever, and she has no idea how she would survive without her husband acting as family breadwinner, just as it would never occur to her to keep her head uncovered before an elder man.

She said she rebels within her limits, not covering her face as she drapes her head, despite her husband wishing she would. And Prati noted that Jaya's cholis, the shirts worn beneath a sari, have cheekily skimpy backs on them. Still, as we chatted about trivial things--Tom and Jerry, winter weather--I could intellectually understand that people do what they can with what they have, know and believe. But emotionally, I wanted to shake her until she understood that living a life outside of tradition's strictures is an option.