Ah India …

I wrote the piece below upon my return from India several months ago. I have been “readjusting” as I am now back in the US, and for some reason, have been putting off posting this. I believe it is because once posted, my adventure in India will not only FEEL over but BE over. And at this point, I can only say, until the next time …

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Dawn approaches with streaks of lightening. The rain comes down in waves as if the gods were dipping their buckets in a great cask of water and tossing out the contents on the world. It’s monsoon season in India; the air fresh and finally the heat subdued a bit. But wait … through my window, I see an airplane passing low, its landing gear at the ready, and clarity comes to my groggy early morning mind.

Ah, India … I’m gone from you now. This ache is real. I feel displaced as if a veil has been lowered muting the colors of my world.

View from my flat

View from my flat

I close my eyes. Fishermen are lined up in their small boats at the shore of the backwaters lowering their nets for the morning’s catch. Birds are calling hoping to snag a fish tossed back. Bolgatty Island is just visible through the mist, and on the other side, the Arabian Sea calls to the ships to take them to other exotic places. To the north, the Chinese Fishing Nets are lowered and raised again in hopes of a good morning.

Chinese fishing nets

Chinese fishing nets

Ah India … she calls to me, catching me off guard and I find myself drifting back, forgetting my current world in an attempt to hold on to the other.

Lake Erie is vast as I gaze out the window of the Cleveland office building. Sailboats dot the horizon, their sails billowing in the summer breeze.  The office is deathly quiet, as if I’m the only one working here.

I close my eyes. Sounds erupt; chatter, laughter, the noise of our teams working together.  The energy is palpable. I smile and the noise is replaced with a heaviness that is nearly tangible.

Ah India … the sights and sounds and colors. The uniqueness of it all will never leave me.

The colors of India

The colors of India

I smile at the memories … the cow with long blue horns riding in the back of the pick-up truck, the flashes of beautiful silk sarees adorning the lovely women as they walk quickly across the streets between the cars, autos, motorcycles, goats and other pedestrians. The trucks and buses of all colors imaginable.

Colorful truck

Colorful truck

Tea and spice shop

Tea and spice shop

Ah India … the cord that connects our worlds is strong but you are so very far away. A part of me was left behind while the part of me that remains has been forever altered.

I close my eyes. I see your beautiful faces, your eyes bright, your smiles engaging, your friendship and passion real. In the midst of tears, I laugh … my heart is full … my desire to see you presses upon me.

The Birds of Kerala

One morning I awoke from a bit of racket outside on my balcony. You see, I’ve taken to sleeping with the windows open when there’s a breeze off the ocean.

A crow was sitting on the railing looking as if it wanted something. I propped myself up and said, “Good morning, what are you doing here?” To which he replied, “Caw!” and promptly flew away.

I got up to take a look and saw a lovely yellow parakeet, clearly frightened and distressed, sitting on the balcony floor. It watched me as I closed the windows, but beyond that, it didn’t move.

Little yellow parakeet

Little yellow parakeet

After breakfast, I went back to check on it and when it saw me this time, it tried to fly up to the air conditioner, but it wasn’t able to get enough lift, and ended up landing in a corner, thankfully obscured by any passing predator birds. I left it alone so it could hopefully regain its strength, and I got ready for work. When I checked again about an hour later, it had gone.

I think it may have been a caged parakeet, as I’ve seen many of those here, and I didn’t find this particular one in my Birds of Kerala book (by C Sashikumar, Praveen J, Muhamed Jafer Palot and PO Nameer).

Except for the color, it reminded me of the parakeet my sister and I had as children. Ours was green and so we named her Kelly. While her cage was covered at night when she slept, during the day, our mother let her out.

Kelly had a small rug at the bottom of her cage with a Ferris wheel and other toys. She used to fly to the top of the Ferris wheel and ride it down. She would fly through the house, perching where she felt safe, but her favorite spot was on top of a lamp shade on a dresser in our parent’s bedroom. Here, she could look at herself in the mirror and say, “pretty bird.” She had quite a vocabulary, but her words had an interesting lilt to them thanks to our English mum.

One day, Kelly got out and was flying around the neighborhood. We had everyone calling to her, trying to get her to fly down and land on one of our outstretched fingers, but she seemed to be enjoying her freedom. Our mother said she would come back home before dark because she had no other home to go to. So, we put her cage on the front porch with the door open and sure enough, as afternoon faded, she flew back ‘home.’ We closed the door and took her back inside and she never ventured outside again.

In my mind, I see this little yellow parakeet flying back ‘home.’ After its experience with the crow, I’m sure it was missing the safety of its cage.

The Birds of Kerala is a very large book, filled with amazing birds of all kinds with long tails and bright colors. Many of them are marked as vulnerable, threatened, near endangered, or endangered. Some are near extinct with dates from when and where one was last seen.

I doubt I’ll see many of the birds from this book, but I do see quite a few water birds and one magnificent Brahminy Kite that presumably lives nearby at the Mangalavanum bird sanctuary and frequently flies over the waters near my flat.

I first saw these amazing raptors last summer at Alleppey and thought they were Eagles because of their bright white heads. I was told they were Hawks, and while they are listed in a category with Hawks and Eagles, the Birds of Kerala shows them as Brahminy Kites. They have beautiful rust colored bodies, with black triangles on their wing tips. I can see the triangles clearly on the one that glides below me on the wind currents.

Brahminy Kite

Brahminy Kite

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a whole row of Bee-eaters sitting on a wire, and beautiful Small Blue Kingfishers that look nothing like those in the Northeastern US. Each night at dusk, Swallows fly outside my office window catching mosquitoes. (I’d like to invite them in to take care of the pesky ones inside my office!)

Birds on a wire (Blue-tailed Bee-eaters)

Birds on a wire (Blue-tailed Bee-eaters)

The other night, I dreamt about a magnificent bird with iridescent blue feathers and a very long tail. Upon waking, I looked through the Birds of Kerala to see if I could find it, but it wasn’t there. I guess that’s what I get for reading Dr. Seuss before bedtime.

Today the Brahminy Kite was back with a friend. It must be mating season in Kerala.

Birds I’ve spotted and have been able to identify:
Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Median Egret, Cattle Egret, Indian Pond Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Kite, Brahminy Kite, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Sandpiper, Brown-headed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Tern (not sure which one), Small Blue Kingfisher, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Common Swallow, Large Pied Wagtail, Red-whiskered Bulbul, House Sparrow, House Crow and many, many Pigeons — but not as many as in Rittenhouse Square.

Captured in flight

Captured in flight

GaGa over LuLu

No, not the Lady! As a matter of fact, no celebrity was necessary to bring out the crowds for the grand opening of the LuLu Mall in Cochin, Kerala. Touted as the largest mall in Asia, LuLu opened on 10 March.

On a Sunday afternoon, in a wild and crazy moment, Aswathi, Megha and I decided to go see what it was like. Hey … we did wait a week! But, clearly, we needed to wait a LOT longer!

LuLu has shops on five floors with a total size of 3,900,000 square feet. It has a cinema complex, a 5,000 sq ft ice skating rink, a food court that includes a dozen a half ‘kitchens’ plus three fine dining establishments and parking for 4,800 cars. All of the parking spaces were taken when we got there!! Ha, ha … no wait, I’m not kidding!

It took us about five hours to get in and get out. We were probably in the mall a total of 45 minutes. Most of our time was spent sitting in the car waiting for the traffic to move so we could just get to the corner to make the turn. Aswathi pointed out that many of the cars had license plates that identified them as coming from outside of Kochi.

The entire experience was really just too funny! We kept saying things like, “Aswathi, we’ll just get out here and walk the rest of the way. When we come out, we’ll easily find you because you’ll still be right here.”

When we finally made the turn at the corner, we ended up in another long line which led to the parking garage. We got behind a car that had a sticker on it identifying it as a new purchase. There was a little rise in the road as we entered the LuLu complex and the (presumably) new driver kept stalling the car to the point where three security guards rushed up and began pushing on the back of the car so it wouldn’t roll backwards into ours. We would have moved out of the way, except there was nowhere to move to!

LuLu Celebrate

LuLu Celebrate

About an hour later, we finally pulled into the parking garage, wondering why we were still doing this, but really, where else were we going to go at that point. Once you’re in a queue like that, there’s just no chance of getting out of it, so you just go with the flow!

So the big to-do at LuLu is their hypermarket, which is a huge grocery on two floors. But we plowed our way through the crowds in the opposite direction, as it was at capacity when we came up the escalator and found ourselves deposited directly in front of it. The five of us (Aswathi’s daughter and her mother were also with us) grabbed hands and wove our way through the crowds. I led the way and felt like a salmon desperately trying to swim upstream.

At this point, I can’t really tell you what the hypermarket has, but I can tell you that all of the grapes vanished on opening day and none of them were actually sold! It seems that everyone was taking a taste … but they were just taking one grape … what would that hurt? Well, apparently there were so many people taking ‘just one’ that all of the grapes disappeared pretty quickly.

I doubt much got sold on the opening weekend, except perhaps in the hypermarket. The weekend we were there, although it was very crowded, the shops were fairly empty. People were just looking around; doing some window shopping and taking lots of photos. And in the midst of the chaos and charm of the largest mall in Asia, we saw a number of young lads (early 20s perhaps) wearing sunglasses and ‘striking a pose’ in front of signs like Marks & Spencer. Seriously! And this particular shop wasn’t even open yet!

Crowds inside

! Crowds inside

We did stop on the top floor at the ‘food court’ to have a quick coffee, but they were pretty nearly out of everything and all Aswathi and Megha managed to bring back to the table we were desperately trying to hang on to, were two diet cokes, a juice drink and a Sprite.

Glass ceiling

Glass ceiling

When we left it was about 8:30 p.m. and traffic was still pouring – well, really, creeping (very, very slowly) – into the lanes for the parking garage. I said, “Well, that was fun!” to which Megha replied, “I’ll come back in about six months.”

Outside - a changing wall display

Outside – a changing wall display

The man with a most unusual hat

About a week ago, I was traveling the typical route to work, my camera at the ready to get any interesting drive-by shots, when I saw him.

We had almost come to the by-pass and there he was, standing by the side of the road with what appeared to be a very large hat upon his head. As we got closer, I couldn’t quite make it out, but it was quite colorful and very grand indeed. Now, we were upon him and I could see that there were, in fact, chickens festooned upon his head. I raised my camera and just then, the shutter closed and I missed the shot.

I know, sounds rather astonishing, doesn’t it? Well, I can tell you it took me by surprise!

The man was tall and very thin, with a disproportionately thick mustache. He was dressed in a maroon shirt and was wearing a typical Indian ‘skirt’ (dhoti) pulled up above his knees and tied at his waist, as is the custom on very hot days. His ‘hat’ was brilliantly balanced on his head.

The chickens were laying in such a way as to appear sleeping, but clearly they were not, as they weren’t moving at all, and it would have been a fine trick indeed were they still living. I don’t know how they were tied together, but you couldn’t see their feet at all, only their bodies and heads.

They were plump with beautiful feathers in an array of colors; feathers the color of saffron with the ends tipped in India ink. Others followed in burnt sienna, burnished gold and a mottled coffee and cream. They were lying, with one head resting against the next one’s wing and so forth in a circle, like a big feathery wreath of chickens.

I wanted to ask him how he came to be wearing such a unique head dress, but he had disappeared into the crowd before I had the chance.

I look for him every day now at the same place hoping to catch sight of him so I can confirm my story, but I fear I shall never see the chicken man again.

I’ve seen so much here in India and most of the things I’ve seen, I see again. But I have told many people here about the man with the chicken hat and they seem astonished as well. So even though I continue to look for him, I believe that was one sight that will live only in my memory.

For now, I hope I’ve described this well enough for you to see it too, if you just close your eyes.

Wellness through Ayurveda

Ever since I arrived here, I’ve heard about the marvels of Ayurveda. Actually, I’d heard about it before I got here, but apparently Kerala is the heart of it, so I decide to sign up and see what it’s all about.

They recommend a minimum of seven Ayurvedic treatments, one per day lasting about 1.5 hours. The first day, you see an Ayurvedic physician (or vaidya) and tell her (mine happens to be a woman) all about your aches and pains. My vaidya doesn’t ask for a medical history and I don’t have to sign a disclaimer or provide any written anything. Even though she speaks very good English, I “visibly demonstrate” my issues. I want to be clear about where I’m broken so I can be sure they will fix me right up!

Day 1:  I meet my masseuse (I’m not sure that’s what they’re called here), Dipti (meaning Light) and she takes me to a changing room where I … well, let me just say, there are no robes here ladies, so if you’re shy, you don’t want to do this! I follow her to the chamber (my term) that consists of a rather large, teak table.

I sit on a chair while my head gets massaged with hot oil, followed by my shoulders. Then, she points to the table, I climb up and lay down on my back to receive a massage with lots of hot oil: front, back, face, hands, feet, you name it. I will say that the table gets really slippery and is really hard!

The massage ends and I’m directed to a room for a steam. The steam “room” is actually one of those really old units where you sit on a stool and a piece of wood is inserted around your neck and the “door” is closed; your head is the only thing that’s showing. You remember these, I’m sure, from old movies, right? I’m completely soaked with oil and, well, actually, it reminds me of “cooking a goose.” (I told my friends at work later that I was oiled up and then sent to the broiler! They found this VERY funny!)

I am supposed to be in the steam “room” for 10 minutes, but honestly, when Dipti returns (probably less than five minutes has passed), I say, “I feel faint.” To which she replies, well, actually, she just looks perplexed. Clearly, we have a communication issue. So, I say, “Faint … you know, ahhhhhh” and I close my eyes and drop my head to one side. OK, a little dramatic, I’ll admit, but honestly, it is really hot in here. So, out I come and that ends my first day.

Day 2:  Today, I awake with a slight headache that thankfully goes away quickly, but during the night, I had a muscle spasm in my right thigh whenever I rolled over. I have a large bruise on my left thigh and my ribs are sore. I relay my ailments to Dipti, whereupon she presses on my thigh, presumably to make sure it still hurts.

There are two masseuses today and they are so in sync it feels like one person with many hands (like one of those goddesses you see everywhere over here). At the end of the hot oil massage, they do a synchronized kizhi treatment, consisting of small herbal pouches in cloth that they place on a heated plate and tamp on my body to release the healing herbs. They tell me that this will reduce the pain and swelling. And actually, the pain does go away once they stop the pounding. [OK, I’m just kidding here!]

I say to the doctor, “This is a process, right? So, by the end of the seven days, I’ll actually feel good, yes?”

I liken it to getting beaten up with small bags of sand and tell my work friends that yesterday I was oiled up and today I was tenderized with a hint of spice. The herbs smelled of, well, I’m not quite sure, perhaps Cardamom? Garam masala? I assumed I’d be ready for the broiler again, but they skipped that part. I’m hoping that gravy doesn’t make its way to Day 3 or I’ll be in real trouble.

Here’s a photo of the teak table and my healers.

Teak tables and my 'healers'

Teak tables and my ‘healers’

Day 3:  I am very sore today, with more bruises appearing, maybe because I bruise easily, maybe because I’m so pale you can see them! They do seem to be surprised by the bruises though. So I basically have the same treatment as yesterday, with one exception: when I am face down on the table, they put a pillow roll under my ankles. They clearly understood my whimpering yesterday about the pain in my knee caps as they pressed down on my legs, so I am really thankful for this.

Day 4:  I awake with a headache again today, but it goes away quickly. I REALLY don’t want to get up! I feel like I could sleep for another 12 hours! I am feeling really drained … probably because I go through these treatments and then go off to work a 12 hour day. Probably not the best way to do this! I tell Dipti that I need some energy today!!

What I get is another day of hot oil and kizhi, but I realize I am approaching this all wrong.

I decide I need to be one with the table. So, drawing on my brief Tai Chi experience (Judith would be proud … Calen will relate), I visually move the table to a forest (by the lake with five mountains). The table legs push their way through the moss into the soil, growing roots as they do so. Vines form on the legs and rise up to the top of the table. Flowers burst forth as I melt into the table top, drawing on the earth energy and becoming the table.  Outside noises disappear and all that can be heard is the song of the birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees.

When they begin pressing down on my arms as they lay across the edges of the table, I no longer feel the edges cutting into my skin … there are no edges, only the table, as we are one.

Today is a good day!

Day 5:  Hot oil and kizhi! The bruises are getting paler. My ribs are less painful. We may be getting somewhere.

Day 6:  As the kizhi treatments continue, I decide to follow the pain to its origins. During the hot oil massage, I reflect on the pain. I look internally to where it’s coming from. I’m afraid I’m not as good at this as I was at becoming one with the table. It seems to be less painful the more I focus though. Maybe I need more practice.

The kizhi seems to be hotter today. The pounding is the same, but the hot cloth feels like it’s on fire when it touches my skin. I decide to become the shaman who can walk over hot coals and not get burned. I envision myself lying on a bed of coals and not feeling the heat of it. It makes it bearable and in the end, there are neither blisters, nor red marks from the kizhi pouch.

Day 7:  The last of the treatments starts out the same. The kizhi is equally as hot today, so I encase my body in ice so that when the pouch touches my skin, it cools down immediately. I find myself smiling with the coolness of the touch.

The end of this day’s treatment is a therapy known as Sirodhara. This rejuvenating therapy is specifically designed to eliminate mental exhaustion and toxins. Thick threads are laid over my forehead just above the eye brows and wrapped behind my ears. Cotton is placed in my ears and wet pads across my eyes. Oil is then poured in a stream onto my forehead from a hanging golden urn some distance above me. The stream of oil sweeps slowly back and forth, like a pendulum swinging to the rhythm of some unknown universal music.

It is quite calming and I was given to understand that many people fall asleep during this therapy. I do not. I am whisked away to the outskirts of the universe where I see the planets moving in rhythm to the swinging pendulum. From here, I am pulled back to the top of what appears to be the Himalayas. The sky is crisp and clear and I can see the path before me. I have clarity of vision and feel like many pieces of a complicated puzzle are falling into place.

As I leave with my driver, Shaji, I am very calm and centered. And quite suddenly, as the colors and contrasts fly by, I realize I am looking through the chaos to the beauty beyond.

Namaste

Happy Women’s Day!

To all my wonderful women friends, I wish you an absolutely wonderful day filled with special moments and endearing memories!

To be honest, I didn’t even know it was Women’s Day until this morning, when I was on my way to work.  I saw a ‘parade’ of women wearing the traditional Kerala sari of crème-colored cotton with gold edging (real gold I’m told, woven into the fabric) walking along the road with umbrellas to shield against the sun. They were following an open lorry with music playing from the back. My driver, Shaji, said, “They are walking in honor of Women’s Day.”

Women's Day March

Women’s Day March

I arrived at the office to find several young men and four or five women standing around the security desk where I sign in everyday. This was not usual, since typically, I come in at an odd time and no one is EVER standing by the security desk, except of course the security guards. In my usual fashion, I took in the scene, made a determination that they were engaged in some sort of photo shoot (someone had a camera) and began stepping aside, moving back, basically doing everything I could to avoid them.

They were all looking at me, which is not unusual, and then the young men started coming toward me.  One of them handed me a rose and said, “Happy Women’s Day!” while another took a photo. I replied, “WOW, this is pretty cool; thank you!” It turned out that the women were waiting around while they unwrapped a box containing chocolate bars that they were also handing out.

As I walked into the office, all the men that I saw said, “Happy Women’s Day” and they actually truly meant it! One of our team members came in and quite sincerely said he was really happy that I could be here for Women’s Day and he wished me all the best. Extraordinary!

One of my colleagues explained that in India they see women in the form of power. In the temples there are a number of very important devis (goddesses). He mentioned three Hindu goddesses, Saraswati (goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, prosperity (material and spiritual), fortune and the embodiment of beauty) and Prithvi (the mother goddess, in Sanskrit meaning earth). Prithvi and Lakshmi are both wives of Lord Vishnu.

When I looked these up, I found that two are part of what is called the triplet goddesses of Hinduism. Brahma is creator, so he needs knowledge or goddess Saraswati to create. Vishnu is observer, so he needs the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi. And finally, Shiva is destroyer and re-creator, so he needs the goddess Kali (aka Parvati or Durga) for power.

My Hindu colleagues have mentioned 330 million deities. I’ve asked if they know them all, and I get very interesting answers.

The firm sponsored 100 of our women employees to attend a session and High Tea at the Crown Plaza from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (They were all dressed up for the occasion!) A presentation of 100 key women in history was included (our creative team put it together) and I understand they did other empowerment kinds of things.

Several of us decided it was a good day to not actually do any work … and then we all laughed and went back to work!! But later, we went outside for photos; here are a couple.

Gidget, Asha, Neelima, me skipping work

Gidget, Asha, Neelima, me skipping work

Gidget, Asha, me having a coffee

Gidget, Asha, me having a coffee

And so the day was bright with acknowledgement and you could tell that the men of India were happy to have such wonderful women around!

[Post Script: I was telling a friend about the High Tea at the Crown Plaza and said it was at the Crown Royal. After our laughter subsided, I said “I haven’t had a drink since I’ve been here and clearly I’m in need of one.” And then we laughed some more.]

Moving week

After moving from the Le Meridien (no more rooms available) to the Holiday Inn (in retrospect, a nicer hotel, but no Starwood points 8-), I moved into my flat this week.

It’s located on the backwaters with Bolgatty Island the only piece of land separating me from the sea. I can see the Port of Cochin from my balcony and the massive ships that come in regularly. One such ‘cargo carrier’ moves back and forth all day and night from the Port to the North side of Bolgatty island on the backwater side. It’s carrying containers that have been off-loaded from ships that can’t travel the more shallow waters of the backwater. Now that there’s a new road that connects Bolgatty Island with the city, the containers can be lifted from the carrier to trucks that will take them to their final destinations.

Barge carrying containers

Barge carrying containers

Behind my building is a bird sanctuary, so lots of green, but I can only see a portion of it from the ladies health club on the 14th floor. Next to the sanctuary is the fisheries department and the National Institute of Oceanography.

Indian Pond Heron

Indian Pond Heron

The flat is not in the building I originally looked at last August, as none were available. While this one is on the same road, the other was closer to shops and within walking distance of restaurants and markets. There’s a walkway out front that runs by the water that should be completed in the next month or so. It will connect the walkway that started in front of the previous building, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to walk down to the shopping area at some point. I’ve been told that it would be unsafe for me to walk along the road, and so, I’m trusting my colleagues’ instincts and use my driver when I have a need to go somewhere.

The building I’m in is fairly new and the space is pretty large. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a half bath off the dining room for guests and a half bath off the laundry room for the help. I have a washer, but no dryer, only lines strung across the laundry room (Val would feel right at home).

As colleagues arrived this week from the US, it took me until Friday to find the time to go shopping for some of the things that weren’t included in the furnished flat. Things I needed were towels (I had one), dishes, flatware, kitchen knives and other cooking utensils, frying and sauté pans (a couple of pots were left), glasses, coffee pot, tea kettle and hairdryer. To be honest, the two biggest things were the hairdryer and coffee pot, although I’ve been drinking mostly tea since I’ve been here. And, it’s a good thing I had my hair cut really short, so it didn’t look too terrible!

I also bought some food, so now I can start packing my lunch and actually having breakfast before heading off to work.

Technology has been a real issue, as I don’t have internet connectivity, so therefore, no WiFi at my flat. I met with an internet provider this week and they are starting to work on that. Fingers crossed!

So, I’m settling in, and will be figuring out ways to put my own personal touches on the place. I need to buy a Kerala cookbook so I can begin my training in the fine art of India food.

Sunset view

Sunset view