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Serenity Quest Update

Thanks for visiting the site.  If you go back through the archives, you can view many entries from the first five months of my travels.  I spent my last two months of my 6 months in India in Rishikesh which is the self-proclaimed “Yoga Capital of the World.”   If you are interested in learning more about Rishikesh, the October 2008 archives has a travelogue or two that talks about Rishikesh since I spent one month there studying yoga in 2002.  Since Rishikesh is on the main pilgrimage route, I can see Indians from around the country by just walking around….when I’m not dodging all the sacred cows and their street leavings!

Since I have long since returned from India, the most recent entries are just a photo collection from a visit to Agra and to Amritsar with a journalist friend from Seattle.  Please click  the link to her Seattle Times article about our travels which talks about Amritsar’s serene and spiritual Golden Temple and the surreal Pakistan/India border ceremony.  Kristi’s story.  If you click to see the other photos in the link, you can catch my .001 seconds of fame!

If you are new to the site, you can click on tab marked “about serenity quest” to learn why this blog even exists!  If you want to look at any of the photos more closely, just click on the actual photo and it will expand.

I am now back in my hometown of Seattle, Washington.  I am working hard on starting up my own business.  Please check out the website at www.myworkoasis.com.

Please enjoy!  Julia

Imagine if you will: The hot mid-afternoon sun warming the cool Ganges river air which is ruffling the tree leaves in a century old ashram’s garden. For me, that is easier to imagine than to even dream that I could take a nap outside in India in the mid-afternoon. Much less, to sleep on my yoga mat on a less used sidewalk with only my flip flops and a sarong as my pillow.

Yet, Rishikesh’s Phool Chatti Ashram is a magically peaceful place. For more than 150 years, the ashram was a place for Hindu pilgrims to stop on their way to the source of the Ganges up in the Himalayas. A place where they could rest, eat, pray and meditate at the temple, and meet with the resident swami. The road was only built about fifty years ago and electricity was added about 10 years ago. The ashram air and most of the quietly happy staff almost seemed to have been steeped in a soup of serenity and peace. The only sound at night is usually the roar of the mighty Ganges’ rapids a mere 300 yards away.

During the ashram’s seven day yoga and meditation courses, the silence continues until after lunch as participants are requested to maintain silence from the 5:30 wake up call and through the meditation, breathing exercises, 90 minute yoga classes, and the guided walks to a mountainous view point, a waterfall, and a swimming hole in a Ganges tributary. Blissful silence in which the only thing you hear are the birds, the river, and the yoga teacher’s voice. Our 21-member, largely Australian class maintained the morning silence up until the last two days. During the 1 to 3 pm break, I would often slip away and try to meditate along the river somewhere. After surviving the 10 day Vipassana course, I was unwilling to break the meditation habit quite yet.

During the 8:30 to 9 evening meditation, five different meditations methods were taught by either the yoga teacher, Lalita ji, or the lecturer, Sati ji. These methods included a guided insight meditation which scanned the body, a guided loving compassion similar to the Tibetan Lam Rim method, a yoga nidra meditation which can almost be similar to a hypnosis, mantra chanting, and listening to a Sikh meditation song. The 6 to 6:30 morning meditation was always silent one.

The yoga classes were hatha yoga in the morning which primarily meant the same daily routine of warming up the various joints and parts of the body. The afternoon class were a tougher ashtanga yoga style but Lalita ji varies the difficulty of the classes based on the skill levels of the students. So, the classes I attended ended up being probably considered a high beginner class. Her flat delivery and her clear boredom with the class and the routines didn’t endear her to me. Yet, the yoga hall also overlooks the Ganges and the garden so how picky should I be? This same view from the nearby balcony outside of my room charmed me every time I looked outside – which I did often as I sat on the ubiquitous plastic chair while reading from the ashram’s library or writing in my journal.

The ashram’s food was often outstanding. Lunch and dinner always had dal (the bean based soup), chapatis, and rice but often had one or two vegetable options which were always well cooked and well balanced in flavors sometimes surprisingly spicy. We sometimes got a little sweet to eat after lunch. Breakfast was always oatmeal porridge with a bountiful fruit salad of oranges, pomegranate seeds, bananas, papaya, and grapes. Meals and the walks were the highlights of our days.

The course also featured a lecture class on aspects on yoga philosophy taught by the kindly and learned

American Sikh named Sati-ji. Since we spent the entire lecture hour on the sixth day giving feedback to him and to Lalita ji about our experience and the other lectures were free form discussion based loosely on class handouts, hopefully the lectures will be more structured and in-depth in the future. After the afternoon yoga class, the ashram has the evening puja which involves singing bhajans (religious songs) around the fire pit and everyone is welcome to attend. I went once and skipped it after that as it just seemed to drag on and on and the print out with the songs was almost useless if you wanted to sing along.

So, maybe, I just wasn’t in the right mental space to play well with others so I looked at many of the group activities with a rather jaundiced eye. Maybe, the classes were too much at a beginner level. Yet, I would still recommend this ashram to others because of the beauty, the peace, and the food and the basic introduction to yoga. Besides, anyone who has ever traveled in India for even a week can really appreciate the true rarity of a place of genuine quiet in this country…much less somewhere they can slip into a nap outside in the garden.

Logistical note: Rishikesh is located north of New Dehli and can be easily reached by three daily 4 ½ hour fast trains to Haridwar. Then, either bus, taxi, or rickshaw for about an hour to Rishikesh. There are many other train and bus options between Rishikesh and Dehli. There is a direct train from Rishikesh to Dharamsala.

For course schedules, the Phool Chatti website: www.phoolchattiyoga.com or www.healthyoga.org or their email address is phoolchattiashram@yahoo.com. Phone: (0135)6981303. Courses are generally offered from mid-February to late May and then from mid-September to end of December. The 2009 price for one week was 5,500 rupees (about US$110) which includes a largish, simple, single room with a shared bathroom, three meals a day, and all classes. People can arrive a few days early or stay after the course for 350 rupees for a double room or 400 rupees for a single room which includes meals but no classes are held. Day 1 begins at 3:30 pm and Day 7 ends after lunch.

Two hours before dawn, the bell rings at 4 at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Kerala. By 4:05, the sluggish mind asks: “Another 10 ½ hours of meditation today. How many days are left to survive of this 10-day session?” Not much time to lie in bed, the 4:30 to 6:30 meditation session starts promptly.

While the two hour session is tough, the three sessions over five hours in the afternoon are the grueling ordeals. The temperature outside is 95 Fahrenheit or 35 Celsius but the fan less meditation hall packed with 60 bodies is a few degrees hotter. The faintest wind becomes a balm to not only the body but the mind and the soul as they all struggle mightily to sit, just sit and be still. Vipassana meditation is about focusing on the breath and through acute concentration on the breath, body and its sensations, the mind eventually becomes still and thought-less…supposedly. One of the three dreaded “Hour of Strong Determination,” during which the meditator is not supposed to move the arms,legs or eye lids, is from 2:30 to 3:30. It is grueling, daily sweat bath where a meditator can discover odd personal facts such as the number of uber productive sweat glands there are in the body beyond the familiar ones in the armpit and the neck. Fifteen minute break sprawled motionless on the bed underneath the ceiling fan in the overcrowded dorm room and then back into the hall for another 90 minutes. The five pm dinner bell alerts attendees that a steel tray with one banana or one plantain is ready. After dinner, two more meditation sessions sandwiching an hour video of a lecture by Shri S.N. Goenka, an ethnic Indian who popularized Vipassana, on the small TV. His jolly humor and insightful stories illustrating a mediation related point stimulate the exhausted mind. Lights out by 10 pm although most people are asleep by 9:30.

Nine days. Nine days which often passed by in agonizingly slow second by second, minute by minute procession inside the meditation hall. Outside, if people weren’t eating, washing sweat drenched clothes or taking a shower, they were usually sleeping or at least sprawled motionless on their beds. No reading or writing allowed. No outside food. Yoga or any type of exercise is discouraged due to lack of space. On at least two days, I couldn’t have walked more than a total of 300 yards a day. I carefully rationed and furtively ate my two secret palm size bags of cashews and raisins over the 10 days so my stomach growling at night wouldn’t keep myself or others up at night. One banana from an 11 am lunch to a 6:30 am dinner just is not enough fuel for the body. For the first nine days and until before lunch on the tenth day, the Vipassana meditator is only supposed to speak once daily with the teacher in whispered Q & A sessions at the front of the hall during the meditation sessions. Otherwise, requests or problems with the facilities are supposed to written in the dining hall’s notebook.

On the tenth day, the transition back into the real world begins with conversing with people who you had avoided any eye contact or any type of communication with for the preceding days. At lunch, though, the women only talk with the women and the men only talk with the men, as they have live segregated lives. Different sides of the aisles in the meditation hall, two dining halls, and eating areas separated by the meditation hall. By afternoon tea, the women have intermingled with the men in the men’s more spacious eating area. The next morning, everybody quickly disperses back to their working lives or returns to the backpacker life.

Exhausted both physically and mentally and fighting an oncoming cold, I took the 3 hour train back to Varkala to recover for five days. My body senses were heightened and even the simplest conversations tire me out. Even now, the desire for quiet, peace, and solitude trumps any desire to venture more into the chaotic, sensory overloaded, always alert status that a backpacker in India experiences just walking across the street. Trying to find some peace and quiet both externally and internally was one of the reasons why I attended this Vipassana session. The Vipassana meditation method, often called Insight meditation, was rediscovered by Buddha more than 2,500 years ago after he read ancient meditation texts. Buddha used this method to achieve enlightenment and strongly encouraged his followers to use this method. According to proponents of Vipassana, “this technique is a simple, logical way to achieve real peace of mind and to lead a happy, useful life…its goal is to purify the mind, to eliminate the tensions and negativities that make us miserable.”

Thousands of people around the world have participated in one or more Vipassana sessions at the 60 Vipassana centers in India or 150 centers world wide since 1969. Most people consider the 10-day Vipassana experience as a life changing event. While I didn’t experience any major shifts, I consider my survival to be one of the biggest accomplishments in my life. I had not only fulfilled a 7 year old personal vow to “do Vipassana” but I proved to myself and my body that I could actually sit with only small movements for hours at a time. Now, I’m just another person who survived the experience but, like the thousands before me, I now face the challenge of incorporating Vipassana meditation methods into my life. The recommended two hours a day (one in the morning and one in the evening) is quickly tossed out my window of options. Yet, the very simplicity of the method is a powerful draw. I will keep trying to practice this method…but just not at 4:30 am nor for 10 hours a day! At least, it makes other ashram’s one hour or 30 minute meditation sessions seem like child’s play.

Logistical note: To learn more about Vipassana, where classes are held around the world and/or to register for one, please look at the http://www.dhamma.org website. There is actually a Vipassana center located between Seattle and Portland in Ethel, Washington. The fee is donation only and the money goes toward paying for future attendees. Almost all the staff are volunteers and are previous Vipassana attendees.

Unfortunately, I’ve run out of time to detail the story behind the pictures that I took at Fort Cochin’s tourist trap of Greenix Village. In one air conditioned show, a tourist can see some samples of:

  1. Kalaripayattu: Keralan’s ancient martial arts form

  2. Kathakali: a combination of facial expression, a hand based sign language, and dance and based on famous dramas or stories

  3. Theyyam: ritual dancing often performed by dancers in a trance who then mumble predictions or run around in a crazed like manner. The guy in the extremely tall head dress even ended on the top of the chairs in the audience. On the way back to the stage, he grabbed my head and yelled in my face before taking a finger to his red smeared chest and anointing a red dot to my forehead.

  4. Mohiniyattam – traditional slow dances performed by women. To me, it was very similar to the traditional Cambodian dances.

So, although I was initially reluctant to go into such a tourist trap, I am glad I did because it wasn’t that much more expensive than the others and the show was polished and informative. The sensory stimulation from all the costumes, dancing, drumming, singing, and loud exclamations from the performers shouldn’t be missed – no matter what venue you choose. When you have been walking all day in 95 degree weather, air conditioning is a welcoming respite as well. I’ve also included a photo or two of the pre-show make up session – which is always part of the show. In short, if somebody visits Kerala, a Kathakali show should appear somewhere on a traveler’s agenda. Varkala had an amateur one but Fort Cochin and Cochin had more than three different venues to chose from.

Varkala

For such a small tourist enclave clustered tightly around the majestic red cliffs hugging the beaches of the Arabian Sea, Varkala seems to be the nexus of backpackers in Kerala. If a backpacker is in Kerala, somehow and some time, and maybe even a couple of times, he or she will arrive in Varkala. If the backpacker practices yoga, then Varkala becomes a load stone as either a resting place before or after a stay at the nearby Sivananda Neyyar Dam ashram or as a place to find 10 different yoga teachers within half a mile. Finding a good teacher, though, is a journey in itself.

Varkala visitors have many accommodation choices from high end ayurvedic resorts to low end basic guest houses with corresponding prices ranging from US$100 down to US$8. The biggest cluster and tourist destination central is the North Cliff area which is located between the helicopter pad and the end of the high cliff paved sidewalk near Sunshine Inn. For those who want a more reclusive, non-touristy experience and are willing to walk to restaurants and internet connections, the areas north and south of North Cliff are best. After a few days of strolling along the busy North Cliff sidewalk, one does tire of the shop owners and restaurant staff trying to lure you into their places.

Varkala saw a rapid rise in tourism and corresponding rise in accommodations and rates over the last three or four years during its busy season which is usually November to March with a peak between mid-December to mid-January. All the locals that I spoke to said that the 2008-2009 season only had 10 days, around Christmas and New Year, due to the financial crisis and the Mumbai terrorist attacks. Later, I read that tourism is down more than 50% in Kerala, self proclaimed “God’s own country,” this year.

Yoga practitioners seem to be bucking this year’s trend though as they keep coming in a steady stream. We ended up trying different yoga teachers as a cheap way (90 to 100 minute classes run from US$3 to $4) to experiment with different teaching styles and yoga schools. After trying more than six different ones, the only ones that we would recommend would be Sri Ullas Kumar in Progressive Yoga and Santosh in the hotel roof behind the Juice Shack. The Namaste Yoga teacher isn’t bad but not great either. Don’t bother with SM Ayurveda’s yoga class – one of the worst yoga classes I have ever had. If you want a pure Sivananda yoga class, the teachers on the rooftop of Hilltop Resort and Keratheeram Beach Resort can provide that.

After yoga classes, a leisurely meal is a visitor’s only option. Working with too small kitchens, too few chefs, and too many slow paced waiters (only men provide food service in India), even a solitary, hungry diner can not expect to enter a restaurant and leave within an hour. That just doesn’t seem possible. Typically, between getting the menu and actually receiving the food, we waited about an hour to 90 minutes – even if the restaurant wasn’t crowded. So, time just keeps slipping by in lazy, slow paced Varkala. After all, if you are spending four hours just eating two meals, how much more can one do in a day when you have to squeeze in swimming, yoga, beach lounging and reading, and email? I had hoped to do the parachute/wind gliding experience but the owners got busted by the police after I was here two days. I had hoped to catch the local dance/cultural show but the 6:30 viewing time always conflicted with the derigeur watching of the sunset over the waves.

So, I’m back for a second visit in Varkala but on the South Cliff this time. I’m going to the intensive 10 day Vipassana meditation class outside of Allepy from February 7 to February 18 and I think I will retreat back to Varkala to recover from that experience. For me, Varkala has become my own personal retreat town and my Keralan nexus…and I don’t even like sitting out on the beach!

Logistics if you ever come to Varkala:

Keratheeram Beach Resort on the North Cliff. Very centrally located as it is next to but behind the Hill Top Resort. It is run by friendly Priji and his sister Sanji. Her husband owns and run the next door Cliff House. We paid 500 rupees for double rooms but rates for the same room can range from 2000 in high season to 300 in low season. Contact information: keratheeram@rediffmail.com or mobile is 9447271382. If you stay a while, ask for Sanji to make dinner for you – her Keralan seafood curry and vegetarian dishes are wonderful!

County Inn on the South Cliff. This place just opened about 9 months ago and they are trying hard. Rooms are very clean and come in a range of prices due to three different buildings. I have a nice single room for 400 rupees. The County Inn is on the cliff with no side walk in between and has a wonderful yoga pavilion halfway down the cliff, hammocks and sitting areas along the top of the cliff, and very friendly staff. They have a restaurant on site and County Inn abuts the posh Oceano Cliff Resort which has a more expensive restaurant with small gazebo eating areas. Dhanaraj is the friendly County Inn manager and he can be reached by 09744476003 or by email at kannandhanraj@gmail.com.

Rickshaw rides between the railway station and South or North Cliff seem to be fixed at 50 rupees. At night, it costs 50 rupees to get back to the South Cliff from the North. We found a very nice and reasonably priced rickshaw driver named Gireesh. He is studying economics at a local university and is trying to support his family. He speaks excellent English and is very responsible and prompt. His mobile number is 9995570472.

Some restaurant recommendations: Hungry Eye, Sunshine Inn, Blue berries, and Cafe Del Mar. For the best espresso, Tower or Temple of Coffee. The Juice Shack has great fruit juices and charges 10 rupees to fill up your water bottle to reduce plastic bottle waste.

One night on a houseboat from Allepy to explore Kerala’s backwaters is a “must do” for backpackers and tour package participants alike. After talking to many people, we decided to do the poor man’s version and far more environmentally friendly canoe and public ferry routes. So, we missed the armada of house boats leaving around 11 am and returning in the evening to sit cheek by jowl at the Aleppy port until the tourists are disgorged 22 hours after their embarkation. We also saved about US$80.

After leaving Amma’s ashram via rickshaw and train, we arrived in time to catch the 9:30 public ferry from Allepy to Kottayam. The ferry ride was an often magical 3 ½ hour cruise through lakes and canals which costs us about less than 25 cents each. We didn’t get a tour guide but we did get a close up view of the locals getting on and off the ferry at the countless small piers on either canal side as they went about their daily business. Some slept, others talked in a desultory manner with people sharing their padded bench, and only a very few occasionally watched the many foreigners click away with their digital cameras with air of resigned bemusement. We also got to see daily human life along the canal. Bathing, washing clothes, working in the rice fields, moving products via long narrow boats or on their heads, or just watching the world go by. The bird life was actually even more fascinating. Watching the all white egret and all black cormorants searching for their meals in the canals, catching the occasional brilliant blue flash of the kingfisher speeding by, and seeing the many dark on top but white on the inside birds flying around. We saw several other birds that were identified by our guide the next day but which names I’ve already forgotten.

Yet, I won’t soon forget the very tasty thali (the all you eat rice plate) at Kottayam’s Anand Lodge because of the four different sauces, yogurt, rice pudding, and three different vegetable servings. I now even like cooked cauliflower! After the much needed lunch, we traveled on to Kumarakom by rickshaw so we could visit its bird sanctuary which often hosts many migratory birds from as far away as Siberia. We figured we could combine bird watching, backwater tours, and quiet village life in one side trip. So, for about US$8 for a two hour canoe ride, we blindly followed our guide in the darkness at 6 am from our River View Cottage to a roadside chai stand. He then led us to his canoe and informed us later that he wouldn’t go into the park itself as “there are no birds there.” So, down a long waterway and into Vembanad Lake (India’s largest lake according to him), he paddled us as the rising sun slowly burned the morning mist off the water.

If our guide ever chose to shoot any birds, I have no doubt his superman like eyes and steely calm would devastate the abundant bird life within a month as he could spot the smallest bird hidden in the jungle like foliage more than 30 yards away. To overcome the language barrier, he had an English birding book with pictures and descriptions of birds found in south India that we kept with us in front. He would then point out the bird, say the English name, and then the page number in the book so we could actually understand what he said and see the bird close up. If he didn’t remember the page number, he had a handy cheat sheet in his chest pocket. Until about 7:30, we didn’t see any tourists and only a few locals. The only noise were the birds and the sounds of his paddle or pole pushing us slowly through the water. We could often get within 20 yards of birds.

As we started our return to the starting point, some Indian tourists on the shores of the sanctuary asked us if we had seen any birds, when our guide reeled off the more than 20 different birds that we had seen, they responded that they hadn’t seen any. In turn, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t quite trusted the guide but had accepted not going into the park as there had been no point in arguing. All that talk in the ashram about “adjust, adapt, and accommodate” worked out well on this leisurely backwaters adventure. I won’t regret missing the houseboat experience, I will just regret forgetting all the bird names already.

Two nights sleeping on the 13th floor in Amma’s ashram got me closer to the sky and the highest that I’ve been since my departure from Seattle, but didn’t get me any closer to the famous “hugging saint” who has embraced more than 30 million people. Of course, if she had been physically closer, ie actually at her ashram, I may have experienced something more than the hug. I left with fond memories of cheap but excellent cappuccinos, tasty khichari (lentils cooked with rice), sunset meditations, and interesting conversations with fellow travelers and Chaitanya, a former Seattle resident who has called Amma’s ashram home for 10 years.

Amma’s full name is Mata Amritanandamayi but Amma means “mother” in Malayalam, India’s state of Kerala’s local language. She has certainly become a type of mother as she and her various organizations have given birth to hospitals, universities, charity programs, mass housing projects, and disaster relief assistance programs throughout Asia. After the tsunami in 2004 which hit the Keralan coast and flooded her ashram on a sliver of land off the shore, her organizations poured more than US$46 million into Kerala to assist with disaster relief including wide scale housing development.

The 30 minute introductory video at the 5 pm orientation for new residents provided an excellent overview of all of her work – complete with a clip from a Peter Jenning’s evening news program. The video also showed the mass adoration and the long lines of people who wait to receive a hug and some whispered words from Amma either at her ashram or see her during one of her world tours which take her out of her ashram for seven to eight months a year. Some of my Madurai classmates have seen her in Germany, America, and in India although they haven’t joined the 400 strong Amma groupies who travel where ever she goes. For the groupies and Amma devotees, they can always console themselves with the many fawning books written by various Amma disciples since she first started to gain prominence in the 1980s. They can buy lots of memorabilia too including key chains, pendants, pens, bags, organic products including chocolate to keep Amma with them always. If they don’t live in the ashram, many come visit at least once a year. The ashram’s all pink two tall towers and many adjacent dorms can house more than 4,000 people. About 2,000 of the residents though are university students attending Amma’s computer science or medical related schools. When Amma is there, I’m told that the ashram swarms with people and the services and the accompanying ringing music can last far into the night or all day.

So, yes, it did feel a bit cultish there at the ashram but the long term devotees were refreshingly down to earth and earnestly kind and helpful. When Amma isn’t there, the place becomes a quiet, relatively unstructured and very cheap (US$3 for accommodations and two Indian meals) Western respite from the Indian travel circuit. There is a lot of time to talk to other travelers there and, for the first time in this Indian trip, I actually heard a fair number of American accents.

My traveling companion and fellow Madurai TTC student, Anne Mette from Denmark, and I didn’t wake up for the 4:50 to 6:00 am chanting of the 1,000 names of Durga or the Divine Mother. Since we didn’t go to the morning service and/or we didn’t have our own cups, we missed out on the 6 am and the 4 pm teas served out of big steel cannisters. We always got to the 9 am breakfast at the western cafe though! Since our community service, which is called “seva” at Amma’s, wasn’t until 2:30, we were free to wander around, do internet, hang out outside of the juice stall, and wonder where everybody went until lunch was served at 1 pm. Our seva was dumping the western cafe’s trash and sweeping and mopping the floors. We accomplished the tasks in an increasingly sweaty but efficient manner. Then, the unguided hour meditation, 5:30 to 6:30, at the ashram’s nearby beach to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea – which was a very spiritual experience actually. We went to the women-only 6:30 to 8:00 pm bhajan (devotional songs) at the temple the first day as we didn’t know the women could join the men at the Darshan hall. The bhajan experience was rather painful as we didn’t receive any chant books nor any cushions and the three switched on fans in the temple did a poor job of cooling the slowly more crowded temple. On the second day, we just prolonged our stay at the beach to watch a stunning but calm inducing sunset. After experiencing those vividly colorful sunsets, how can an individual really believe that they are not supremely lucky to be alive while at the same time being gently reminded that our one life is just a microscopic sand grain on eternity’s beach.

As the sun rose the next day, we descended from our airy eerie in the wheezy small elevator, dropped off our sheets and pillows in the laundry carts, and walked over the beautiful and now flood proof bridge back into the real world of India. Hugless but rested.

To learn more about Amma, you can visit her website at:  http://www.amritapuri.org/

Logistics:  Some trains stop near the Ashram and it is about 150 rupees to get to the ashram.  Or, you can take the backwater cruise run by Kerala tourism that leaves from Quillon’s boat jetty every am at 10:30 and arrives around 2 pm at Amma’s ashram – about 150 rupees.  Heard very conflicting reports about whether or not this tourism boat is good or not.  Can take it all the way to Allepy too and it arrives at 6:30.

An ayurvedic rejuvenation massage in Varkala, India is a greasy, Hoover®-like experience which bares your body and your bathing practices to the masseuse.

My masseuse, who had three years of training and three years of experience, was a petite young woman who had been told by both the ayurvedic doctor, Dr. Manoj of Sanjeevani Ayurveda Hospital, and me that I wanted a stronger massage. She did give a strong massage but I felt more like my body experienced a vacuuming by a pronged roller rather than detoxified and energized.

First, I was asked to take off all my clothes and lay on a somewhat greasy, green plastic covered bed with a white gauze runner down the middle which covered about 75% of the width. The room is completely bare and is furnished with two massage beds, a small burner to heat up the oil, and ropes suspended from an iron loop on the ceiling so the masseuses could balance themselves when walking on people. That type of a massage is called a “foot massage.” Within 15 minutes of the first oil being massaged in, the bed was very greasy and the gauze seemed to be soaked through by the faintly camphor scented oil.

She started with the right foot and did a little shiatsu type pressure work but with no discernible patterns or similar repetitions on that or later the other foot. Then, the hoovering began. First, just around my foot and lower calf. Then, the figure “8” motions started in quick, non-stop sweepings between my foot, thigh, waist, and upper rib cage….clearly, underwear would have not only soaked up too much oil but would have acted like a throw rug under a vacuum. First the right side, then the left. Then, some twisting of some thigh fat, cellulite, and muscles. Then, flipped over to the back and she did the figure 8 sweeping all over again. When she completed the lower half, she moved to my right arm. Some more potentially random shiatsu like pressure on the palm and then the figure 8 began at my wrists, around my forearm, over my bicep, crossing around my shoulder and then down to my waist. Then, the left side and then flip over and do the back. She never really did any special focus on my shoulders nor on my neck which had been my specific request. She hadn’t really touched my neck nor worked on my head at all. Instead, my thoughts had shifted to “Geez, my bathroom in the guest house will now be a greasy skating rink for days to come!” The shower is in in the middle of the bathroom. So, obviously, I was no longer “in the moment” of the massage and it was time for the de-greasing to begin. By the time she had finished with a “take bath now,” I just didn’t feel like laying on the oily, sweaty bed in 95 degree weather any longer so I that I could try to explain that my shoulders still felt tight and my neck was not relaxed.

The unexpected bonus was that she then prepared a hot water bucket in the adjoining bathroom and gave me an unopened bar of soap and a small, already opened, single use packet of shampoo that turned out to be this black, glue like mixture. I began to scrub what body parts I could reach with the bar of soap and judiciously using my one bucket of hot water to try to get rid of the layers of oil in successive rinses. She returns to the bathroom and begins combing her waist length hair about a foot away from me – which, yes, rather does violate a westerner’s sense of space. She then takes pity of me or maybe she wants me to finish up and she proceeds to give my back a strong rub/cleansing with the bar of soap before returning to her hair administrations. Finally, I feel somewhat de-greased and I leave.

Since I’m on “India time” and my Dubai bought wrist watch with only half of a wrist band had disappeared yet again, I have no idea how long I was in there. I just was US$9 lighter in my wallet, a light layer of subcutaneous oil thicker, and tired when I left to go lay down for a little while. Hours later in yoga class, I could still smell the camphor scented oil as it sweat out of my body but I was able to stretch further and bend deeper than usual so maybe the massage did press out some muscles knots…like a vacuum smooths out a rug.