Monsoon Ashram

Something stranged is happening in India. It's raining. In March. You've heard of monsoon season? Well, it usually doesn't start for at least another month. Chalk it up to GW or pretend it's just a little spotting. Either way, it's raining, and it's wet.
It had already started to rain during my 30 km rickshaw ride to Sivananda Ashram in Kerala two weeks ago. I arrived with the brilliant and shining hope of beginning my lifelong yoga practice here. A Kenyan guy with dreadlocks said, "I tink you brought de rain," as he showed me to my dorm in the first of many downpours.
The Ashram runs two-week "Yoga Vacations" (as well as month-long yoga teacher trainings.) There's an exacting schedule of 5:20 wakeup with three daily gatherings for chanting, meditation, and, puja and four hours of yoga per day. It was exhausting until I fell in with a Bad Crowd and learned I could skip the boring stuff and sleep in! Waves of contentment and displeasure would pass over the entire ashram from day to day. One day, people would be complaining and talking about leaving, the next day, the louder voices were from excited Yoga Vacationers who finally achieved a headstand.
Much of the time, I was severely shaking from a deadly combination internet and telephone withdrawal and too much chai. My relaxing Yoga Moments were occasional. It would rain during yoga classes, overnight, while we were lining up for a meal outside, and miraculously clear up for a moonlight walk to the lake. The rain, thunder, and lightning, which are a delight to the senses, are also quite hellish on one's clothing. The sweaty yoga shirt, once washed in a bucket with some Tide, would hang on the lines next to our beds, fan fan running day and night, damp for three days, turning into a lush resort for some special Indian mold reunion. The clothes do not dry. I began wearing damp clothes hoping my body heat would cure them before the mold took root. And forget about dry feet or sandals, ever. (It's amazing I've come out of the place with all my toenails intact.)
Something about being in an ashram, lax as it was, made me agitated and anxious, and I think it has nothing to do with sitting with myself and having to listen to all those inner voices screaming things like, "Why are you doing yoga?" and "Your foot doesn't belong behind your shoulder." and "Who is this elephant god we're praying to?"

Kanyakumari, the Egde of the World

One Friday (the day of the week dedicated to the Divine Mother) we took a bus trip to Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India. Spent a wonderful day with friends from Quebec, Brazil, and Colombia. We saw temples, the Vivekananda museum and ashram, a place where Gandhi's ashes were held, and best of all, the convergence of three oceans. In Kanyakumari, you can look out over the ocean, and see the sun rise and set over the horizon without moving from your vantage point. Oh, we also went to a waterfall and ate this delicious flaky desert made with ghee called Soan Papdi, which you have to try. Just do it. Seriously.

Standup India

Saturday night Sivananda Ashram has a talent show. I haven't done standup since I've been in India, and I was itching to get on stage. Oh, the "stage" is also the altar to Sivananda, Vishnudevananda and several gods. It's not your typical smoky comedy club; it's a sort of temple with 200 yoga-teachers in training, a few swamis and sadhus, and yogis, and yours truly. And I have to say that I totally rocked the temple with a set about Indian toilets and lusty yogis that ended with a hilarious and totally inappropriate bit about "being in the present." People were coming up to me for days afterward saying they were literally in tears from laughing so hard. It doesn't get better than that. (I actually captured the set on my camera and will send a link when it's up.)

Lotus Flowers along the Backwater

I left the ashram two days ago, and have been doing morning yoga on my own already.  In retrospect, it was everything I'd hoped it would be.  I made some great friends and picked up a yoga habit I hope will counter all that soan papdi. 
Yesterday, I took a boat ride along the backwaters of Allepy in a long wooden boat.  I lay on a comfy mat as my guide rowed through the canals and toward the open lake.  After some time, he made a groaning sound, waited a moment, and then said, "Madam, stick?  Use stick?"  He was asking me to row, and I said ok.  We glided by lines of houseboats, hordes of lillies, a few lotus flowers, and two pet eagles before reaching his house.  We approached a bank, and his daughter and another girl of 11 reached for my hand to pull me ashore.  They held my hands and led me to their house, picking exotic flowers along the way and lavishing me with them.  Their faces were both mature and innocent at the same time.  I sat on a chair while the girls put the flowers in my hair, drank a glass of chai made by the boatman's wife, and looked out at the rice paddies.  Water buffalo and a flock of white birds flying over them.  Neighbor children with bindis on their foreheads.  Photos with the family. 
Evening brought a raucous outing with an older French couple and some silly Indian guys, smoking and drinking (well, they did while I breathed second-hand smoke and drank mineral water.  I'm a yogini now!) This morning, I slept in, did some yoga and then went for a full-body ayruvedic massage with so much oil that was absolutely exquisite.

Dancing, Elephants, and More Gobi Manchurian

My time left in India is shrinking!
In the last week, I've been traveling to a new place almost every day, making my way to Sivananda Ashram ( http://www.sivananda.org ) this afternoon, where I'll stay for a week or two to do some yoga. So many quite remarkable things have happened that I'd like to present them for you in a montage. Hum your own favorite montage song while reading ("Chariots of Fire", "If You Want to Sing Out" from Cat Stevens, a little Miles Davis… whatever you go in for) and imagine me Making Progress Toward a Goal, Learning Valuable Life Lessons, or Having a Ball.
Auroville… entering the Golden Golf Ball of Utopia (Google the Matramandir) for a bit of meditation, riding my moped around and feeling really independent in a new way here (Auroville is a small place with very little traffic, so for those of you who were worried imagining me without a helmet, it was fine and it's all over now) …. saw a traditional Indian dance concert, sat on the beach having my palm read by a German amateur palm reader, ate fresh shark with a Slovenian couple and watched an old Russian slapstick about escaped tigers on a ship…. visited the energy healer in Pondicherry, ate an extravagant meal at the hotel where international embassadors stay in Pondi…
Took the overcrowded bus to Villapurum and the third class (open seating) train to Trichy… met a family on the train whose daughter had a human growth hormone deficiency who asked me to help them get cheaper HGH ($180 a month for 10 years) but I wasn't able to connect with them…. stayed at a hotel with a swimming pool for the first time, and that was the day it started raining here… rested in Trichy, watched In the Line of Fire on cable and had a long hot shower……
Train to Madurai, stayed at the Hotel Supreme… bathroom smelled like puke (but fine otherwise)…. met a woman from Jersey (near England, where the cows come from) and we strolled around the temples at night and had dinner on the roof… in the morning, I went to the flower market and bought lotuses and roses and took pictures of the bustle… saw the Gandhi museum, felt inspired and humbled….. walked outside and videotaped a soundbite for a P.S.A. on eye care (I looked into the camera, with generosity and care in my eyes, and spoke this line for them: "We, too, donate." Can we get a grammarian out here please??)
Took the 4 hour bus to the Periyar Wildlife Preserve…. but on the way I was listening to Sean Hayes on my iPod, and, overcome with a sense of expansion and love, I turned to the woman next to me and gave her a rose from the flower market…. she invited me to her home for tea in Cumbum (yes, Cumbum)….. her daughter called me Auntie, and I met everyone in the neighborhood and spoke to their whole family on the phone….. one family fed me sweets, the next showed me how to make dosas and applauded when I did it, then ten people watched me eat….. the girls pumped up the Indian music and danced for me (!!!) and then I got up and we all danced together–they know all the moves from the Indian music videos, and it was just like choreographing dances to Young MC in sixth grade, but with added hip shaking and Indian head nodding…… JaiLakshmi invited me to stay, and I said yes…. she made the bed for me and they slept on the floor……
Took the morning bus to Periyar and stayed at Coffee Inn where I stayed in another raised thatched-roof hut overlooking the wildlife sanctuary….. met people, toured a spice and flower garden….. bought great spices and teas…. I feel a bit like a successful version of Columbus…. took a boat tour and spotted FIVE wild elephants!! ate a feast with friends at Ananda Bhavana, some paper dosa, gobi manchurian (hello Gobiji), mulai kofta, coconut rice…..
Stood for six hours on a crowded train to Trivandrum as the rain poured down, saw water buffalo… met a guy named Francisco here who is working on his PhD… he helped me find a room here, and we had dinner…… his FIRST time ever eating with a woman!
So I'm off to the Ashram for a week or two…

The Golden Golf Ball of Utopia

Two days ago, I left Thiruvannamalai.  I'd tried to leave the day before, but that place is magnetic and I didn't make it out the first time.  The bus ride to Pondicherry was again driven terrifyingly fast, but for 130 rupees, there were reclinging seats, AC, and bottled water.  I think so many people reach enlightenment here because they're constantly having near-death experiences on the road.
I got the last room at the Park Guest House, which is part of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and my room overlooked the Indian Ocean.  Walking along the beach, I asked some French people where the best restaurant is, and they said "You're standing right in front of it."  Cool.  (And my years of high school and college French are coming in handy.)  At a the fancy French place The Promenade, and I ate freshly caught sear fish, a lime soda, and white chocolate mousse on the rooftop for about $12 US.
I went to see an internist who is an energetic healer the next day and then took a rickshaw to Auroville. My guest house, The Waves is a collection of raised thatched huts, and I can see the ocean and the orange sun rising from my balcony in the morning.  (I also got the last room here.) 
Last night I was invited to a campfire get-together on the beach.  It looked like a Rainbow Gathering.  We were celebrating the festival of Shiva Ratri, so we were all singing baijans.  And then I asked what people's names are.  Someone suggested we sing everyone's name, so we went around the fire and improvised a song for each person for at least an hour.
And this is big:  I rented a moped in the morning, learned how to drive, rode around Auroville to see the Matrimandir, The Golden Golf Ball of Utopia!