Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Peculiar Kind

Hill stations are the places people come to in the sweltering Indian summers to cool down. Right now I am something like 3,500 feet above sea level. There is a mist in the air. I suspect it is about 72 degrees. The hills spell relief, and easing of tensions created by the heat and dust and unceasing movement of the big cities down below and all their inherent problems.

A man named Joy brought me up to the mountains. Joy is married to a woman named Dancing. I’m not sure there’s a better omen than that.

I’ve come to stay with a man named Mathew who has a beautiful new house built in the old Portuguese style with vaulted ceilings, tile roof, pointed eaves. Despite the beautiful house, when my car first pulled up to Mathew’s homestay I was, once again, slightly defeated. For some reason I’d imagined a home on the edge of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is really an hour away. My room looks out onto a lovely ravine filled with plants that aren’t yet at maturity. In another few years this property will be a verdant organic spice garden, reminiscent of the plantations of old. At the moment, though, the garden is in its late adolescence, not quite awkward anymore, but not oozing self-confidence. There are two large college dorms next door and a busy road that rings the top of this budding canyon oasis.

My host had lunch waiting for me. Mathew grew up a few towns away, but has traveled much of the world. He moved to New Zealand for a girl once. Currently he is in the throes of young love with a woman who lives in Madrid. Mathew has a very studious face; his John Lennon wire-rimmed glasses enhance the perception. His manner is somewhat quiet, always respectful. He apologizes if his pinky ever so slightly encounters a part of my hand when we exchange plates at the table. This doesn’t surprise me, as he signed his emails “Peace and Love, Mathew,” when I was making my reservation.

Mathew offers a haven dedicated to mindful living. The d├ęcor is simple and elegant He teaches mindfulness yoga twice a day as part of the room plan, along with three simple but delicious vegetarian meals. For my first two and half days I am the only guest, so I am getting private yoga lessons and one on one conversation at the dining table. We talk about travel and spirituality and forging singular paths in a world where so many are trampling over other souls to be successful in more conventional ways.

Outside, birds and frogs chirp and sing and in just a few days I’ve come to hear the calls of the wild much more clearly than the whine of bus motors climbing up to Periyar. Occasionally a cow somewhere in the distance kicks up a ruckus. Mongooses scurry across the lawn. I sit in my window overlooking the ravine watching magnificently blue kingfishers and jet-black cormorants dance in the trees; I am no longer even a bit defeated.

I wanted to come to Mathew’s early last week when I was struggling with all the noise without and within that permeates the days here in India. Not even on the houseboat was it quiet. Honking horns, cell phones, animals, cricket matches, the thwack thwack thwack of laundry being smacked on a rock, and people talking, yelling, working, fills every minute of every waking hour everywhere I’ve been.

Inside, too, the noise continues, though it is not so urgent. My mind copes with the masses, the cultural differences, the trash, the smells, the beggars, the heat. It works frantically to adjust rupees to dollars, my American time clock to Indian time, which means going to eat an hour before I will actually be hungry since service is invariably slow. My brain marvels at strange languages and tries to identify all the marvelous birds that appear out of nowhere. It processes my desire to pet all the feral animals that lurk in the streets and reminds me that they might have strange diseases and are unsafe to get close to. It runs over possible itineraries, worries about future lodging, fixates on whether train travel is better than hiring a car or is hiring a car worth the extra expense.

Here at Mathew’s I am invited to leave all those thoughts behind and to “Be Here Now” and “Bring my mind to Stillness.” In class, Mathew even sings these incantations repeatedly, his melodic voice reverberating against the arched ceilings and down into my body. I am doing my best to be here now. I’m fighting the urge to worry about what comes next and to replay scenes from the past week or month over in my mind.

Today I went to see an ayurvedic doctor about some shoulder pain and a slight headache that has been with me for the last couple of days. His name was Dr. Kumar, which was delightful as it’s impossible to be in a hill station in India and not think of Jewel in the Crown and Hari Kumar. After a strange examination of my pulses and examining my back muscles and the way they related to the muscles in my chest, which involved more touching of my breast than seemed absolutely necessary, but surprising not at all sketchy, he prescribed several exercises for my neck pain. To make sure I would remember what to do, he drew several stick figure drawings out on a prescription pad, which I found utterly charming.

When I asked about my headaches, Dr. Kumar asked, “Do you think a lot?”

I said, “Yes, I guess so.”

“That’s the problem.”


“Yes. You are always thinking, I think. You are the most peculiar kind. I think you look around and you see everything, things other people don’t see. Observation is good. But you are the most peculiar because you always make a question of it, I think.” And here he drew a question mark on his prescription pad. “You make a question of everything you see and want to understand it. This is the problem. You must learn to take it in and let it go. Instead, I am thinking, you see things and you think on it and little things become sometimes bigger than they are. This is the problem.”

He took my pulse again and looked at me for a moment before continuing. “You also, I think, don’t like to share your problems. You smile and want everyone to think you are ok, but in your eyes there are worries. This is also a problem. You must share your worries with your friends.”

I couldn’t help but smile at this.

“Also, I think you can be very nervous.”

“Nervous? I don’t think I’m nervous.”

“I think you are a little nervous. Little things become big things. You don’t sleep well and this is a problem.”

Hmmm. Maybe he had a point. Last night I slept terribly; I was overcome with a strange feeling of disquiet that some might call nervousness. This man had known me less than an hour and he was more direct and diagnostically astute than any shrink I’d ever been too. He didn’t really have a cure though for my ailments except to get more sleep and to stop thinking so much. For that he gave me some kind of ayurvedic relaxing pills and prescribed two massages to accompany my yoga at Mathew’s.

Mary Kotti was the young girl assigned to do my massage. A shy little wisp of a thing, she sat me down and poured oil on my head and face and gently began to massage my stress away. After the sitting part, I laid down and she went to work on my achy shoulder and found other knots with her expert hands. Surprisingly, though she was the youngest and smallest of the three women who have given me ayurvedic massages, she was the strongest and most specific. I began to feel quiet and still in her care.

Ayurvedic massage uses a large quantity of herb infused oil and so much is left on your body that a post-massage shower is mandatory. Unlike my other masseuses, Mary Kotti actually bathed me herself with a gritty yellow turmeric scrub. Even though I am a full foot taller than Mary Kotti, I felt like a small child, tender. There were no questions running through my head, no worries to sort out, just the sublime gift of being cared for, tended to. For a few moments I was completely in the now, my mind utterly still.

I have struggled a bit with being mindful, getting quiet, with letting the world whizz and whir around me while I learn to meditate and do yoga and get massaged. Doctor Kumar is right, I have been nervous about letting the outside world go. But I suspect if I can learn how to get quiet enough here I will be happier when I return to the hustle and bustle of the plains on Friday, especially if I take the yoga practice Mathew is gently drilling into my body with me after I leave.

One thing I won’t be able to take with me is the rain. The last two afternoons, showers have drenched the ground, and me, for a handful of wonderful minutes. I had begun to think I would never know rain while I was in India, since I leave a month or so before the monsoon season. But India has blessed me with a taste of fog and damp, I can hear crickets singing in the wet grass. The air smells clean, fresh. It’s like getting to know a new friend better because they allow themselves to let down their guard, to be moody with you. That’s a skill Dr. Kumar would like me to learn, letting down my guard, being a little more moody with my friends.

I will try to let that directive sit next to me without making too much of it. I will try to observe without questioning. That’s a difficult thing to do when thinking too much is your problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i settled in yesterday with coffee my cozies, back from my own adventures to catch up on yours. i read...every word.... fresh from my own vulnerabilities in a land with a foreign tongue and my spanish not yet so good, i laugh a little to myself as i follow along on your journey... certainly gives some perspective to 3rd world and all that embodies that. my humor comes in comparing the small hurdles i confront, along with the victories, as a homeowner in a foreign land...there are comparisons in the noise, poverty, and cachaphony, but geeze, morgan: you are on an epic road and i've just got the utmost regard for this journey of yours... godspeed girl, and i will enjoy your trek from afar. blessings, leanne