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?"

Friday, February 11, 2011


It’s Friday morning and I am sitting on Mathew’s veranda looking out at the trees which have been swaying wildly in the wind for the past 12 hours. The electricity has been out for most of that time. In the middle of the night it was so dark here in the hills of India that when I rearranged my blanket on the bed bright sparks of static electricity would light up the room like sparklers on the Fourth of July.

Yesterday, my day of No Motion, was actually full of movement. I ventured further up into the hills with a British couple, Katie and Ash, who are now also staying at Mathew’s. We went Trekking in the Periyar Tiger Reserve hoping to see wild elephants. As there are only 36 tigers left in the area, we were pretty sure they were gonna stay hidden.

Our guide was a lovely woman named Gigi. Gigi is about 35, tallish, slender, with the perfect posture that so many Indian women have. She walked softly and with a quiet strength that I imagine all good animal trackers have. She listened actively and I knew that she was prepared for anything that might happen.

We started our journey in a little tribal village where folks still live in houses made out of thatch. They speak their own tribal language and even to this non-Indian, they seemed extra exotic, with faces that spoke of generations stretching back to the beginning of time.

When we had reached the jungle, Gigi said, “These roads are not manmade. Only elephant and bison make these trails. If you are lucky you will see animals.” She said this last bit, the bit about being lucky, with a little added twinkle in her eye. I don’t know what she meant by her twinkle, but I interpreted it as meaning, “Can you handle the next three hours of jungle walking with the possibility that you won’t see any animals?”

You wouldn’t believe how narrow the trails were. It was very difficult to imagine that mighty giant elephants navigated through walkways no wider than a foot. But they’d left plenty of evidence to prove Gigi right; elephants had walked where we were walking.

If you are ever going through a spell where you are struggling to stay in the moment, I highly recommend tracking elephants, well, tracking anything would probably work. But if you are nuts for elephants the way I am nuts about elephants, then elephant tracking might be best. Each step was a step closer to discovery, every bend held the anticipation of bliss, but in order to ensure that a sighting had the best possible chance of happening each step had to be executed as quietly and deliberately as possible.

Because Ashe and Katie had a slightly slower pace than I did, I followed pretty closely on Gigi’s heals and I soon became aware of how her breathing and footfalls changed when she sensed an animal might be close by. Gigi would slow; I would slow. Gigi would stop; I would stop. She would listen; I would listen.

Sometimes, Gigi would hang back to make sure Ash and Katie were okay and I would venture a few feet forward on my own. What exhilaration. There I was in the jungles of India, carefully moving through bamboo and bush, listening with every fiber of my being for any indication that a herd of elephants was somewhere close by.

Several times Gigi would stop to whisper that an elephant had been at the spot we were standing two days ago. She’d point out droppings left by baby elephants (BABY elephants!!!). Ash and I both took pictures of the giant elephant print recently left in a puddle. At one bamboo grove, Gigi informed us that only the day before she’d seen 7 elephants feeding there. Obviously, they’d now moved on.

About an hour and a half into our three hour trek, Gigi admitted that it was sort of late in the morning to see any animals, they were all hiding in deep shade to keep out of the heat, she reckoned. I’d begun to suspect as much myself.

But that didn’t ease the sense of anticipation. I silently chanted to my friend Ganesha, hoping he’d create a clearing in the brush so that we could be blessed with an elephant siting, even though it was against the odds.

Suddenly, Gigi got very still, very very still. I stopped. Ash and Gigi stopped

We all listened.

I was looking down the valley into the brush. Gigi was looking up. Slowly she pointed. In a tree, quite a ways away, were two giant squirrels. From our vantage point, they looked, to me, a little like black and yellow panda bears with long tails. The squirrels got wind of us rather quickly and darted off.

Another time, Gigi stopped to point out giant hornbills. These gray birds have huge beaks, like stunted Toucan beaks. They make q bit of a racket, a bit like a kookaburra.

Ash and I stopped when Gigi found a spectacular pair of red bugs, mating.

It was looking like no elephants were going to make an appearance, despite the fact that there was evidence of their existence everywhere we went. So, I let go of the idea that I was going to meet a wild elephant and I just focused on the forest, the vines, the sweeping views of India (INDIA!) that appeared through breaks in the trees. I listened to the wind that would whip up every once in a while, delivering a welcome breeze to cool our increasingly weary and overheated bones. I watched leaves flutter down to the ground, looking and feeling like little missives dropped from the heavens, each saying, “Look at this moment, look how beautiful this moment is, and this, and this, and this.”

Just before we reached the valley floor, all four of us heard what sounded like the movement of a large animal just to our right. We all became very very VERY still, except for the silent smiles and expectant looks we passed around. Gigi moved forward, then went off the trail, taking us, her ducklings, close behind her. The expectation, the hope, was almost unbearable. Surely elephants were only a few feet away.

Gigi stopped. We stopped. She listened. We listened. Slowly it dawned on all of us that there was, in fact…….nothing there.

So…… we kept moving.

Soon we reached the valley floor where the paths opened up into small meadows, encircled by creeks and bamboo. I knew, now, that the elephants were not to be found. We were nearing civilization. Car horns and human voices were drifting closer and closer.

The meadow, though, touched me and offered a sort of satisfaction. I was struck by the uniqueness of that meadow; it was unlike any other, an Indian meadow. After climbing and scrambling and hoping and living in each deliciously agonizing moment of our trek through jungle hillsides, we were being held in the loving embrace of the valley. There was no need to scramble or even to yearn for an elephant siting. All we needed to do was relax.

Walking out of the jungle, I realized that I’d come to a decision about my weekend’s itinerary. I knew that I didn’t actually want, or need, to go to Amma’s. My reasons for going were suddenly blatantly superficial. I wasn’t deeply interested or invested in the spiritual aspects of visiting the ashram; I wanted to go more as an anthropologist, to study it from the outside in and not from the inside out.

Nor did I want to stay at Mathew’s all weekend. Instead, I could see quite clearly that I wanted another day and night at Mathew’s, but then I wanted to go back to Leelu’s, to Fort Cochin, to the sea. I wanted a few days to be on my own, catching up on correspondence, calling my mom and doing yoga by myself and for myself before I head to what I’ve been told is a completely different country, Northern India.

That was the morning of No Motion. Tomorrow I will tell you about the afternoon. When I have wifi and picture uploading ability.

1 comment:

auntiemao said...

Wow! I'm so proud of you! Trek on...xo....