Darkness at Fort Kochi beach, Kerala, southern India. It’s half past eight. The extreme humidity of the day has subsided. The beach is quiet. Except for waves loudly lapping the shore – high tide is still some time away. Chinese fishing nets sit silently against the Kochi harbor.
Shaheer, the owner of a fish stand on the beach suggests butter fish, a local specialty. Price 200 rupees, just under $3. Shaheer hands the butter fish to Fakhruddin M Y, the chef at Cafe Balbba, a busy kitchen shack on the water, just behind the fish stand. Fakhruddin will grill the butter fish, medium spicy, with local herbs. For 150 rupees, just around $2.
The view of the Chinese fish nets, the waves lapping the shore and the sand below my feet make it the most satisfying meal in two days in Kochi. Even with the mosquitoes around. And far more satisfying than the unappetizing food and ambience at the expensive and highly rated seafood restaurant in the heart of Kochi. It’s just the simple things…
I couldn’t wait for the monsoon to arrive in Mumbai. So I’ve headed down to Kerala, God’s Own Country, all the way in the south of India. It’s been an exciting and delightful first day, heat, warmth, smells, sights. But I’ll cover that another time. For now, enjoy the sounds of my first taste of the monsoon here in Kerala, outside the window of my homestay in Fort Kochi.
A brown carpet made of jute fabric sort of says Welcome to My World on a road being dug up in Sherly Rajan, Bandra. Mumbai. Maybe all the digging is for a telephone or television cable, maybe it’s for a water main, maybe it’s for construction.
Or maybe it’s just because in Mumbai, utility companies and their contractors love to dig up roads perennially to keep themselves in business.
A steamroller is parked not far from the action, its driver engaged on his mobile phone. Maybe he’s chatting with his family, maybe he’s watching a movie, maybe he’s gossiping with other steamroller drivers.
Further down the street, a bunch of managerial level utility company employees debate the pros and cons of the ditches they’ve dug, after they’ve dug it. First dig, then discover. Life, unfiltered, in Mumbai.
A yoga class to help me see where I am, to help me be where I am, and where I’m not. Happy with where I am some days, not happy on other days. It feels hard, it feels challenging, it feels right.
A WhatsApp message from a friend, a forwarded message saying with anguish that human beings aren’t supposed to work so hard and wait for another life to live — its energy as tortured and aggressive as the modern life against which it rails. So many people trying to help, so many people telling you how a better life is to be lived, so many anti-modern life people vomiting from the mouth, vomiting from the liver. So much anger. As much anger as some modern life people spew from their intellectual minds, their clever, social media savvy minds. Both enervating energies stridently staking a claim to the truth.
I met a man when I was in a dark place in my life. He was an empowered man, comfortable as himself, comfortable in himself. He showed me around, a brief guiding light. I grew from the interaction. But, he would not let go. He saw me once as struggling. That’s how he continues to see me. Needing his help, dependent on his wisdom. I have my own wisdom. My silent words ring true for me. I was stuck once. Now, he’s stuck, unable to see another as empowered. What then will he do? What role will he have left? He tells me, I love you, brother while he offers me unsolicited sympathy. Camaraderie — he calls it.
I met another man many years ago, a healer, a brilliant man. Everyone said he was evolved. A helpful man. Until I saw he needed to save me more than I needed saving. He railed against therapists. They’re a crutch, he said, they want to make you dependent on them. While he offered me friendship mixed with dependency, anger, misogyny and homophobia. When he told me he’d met a reincarnation of Lao Tzu, I knew I’d arrived at the outer reaches of sanity.
I met a recovering alcoholic. His recovery and his identity depended on convincing every person he met that they were alcoholics waiting to happen. He, too, wanted to save me. He tried hard, and, while freely quoting Machiavelli, he tried to rent out his dank, dark basement to me. I’ll give you a deal, he said. I passed.
I met a man who warned me about the dangers of Ayurveda and alternative remedies. He’d never tried any. He was convinced they had no utility. Unproven benefit, he said with definitive finality. Give me three days of yoga training and I’ll master it, he said. Be careful, he said about alternative remedies, don’t say I didn’t warn you. I felt he was issuing a fatwa against Ayurveda and alternative remedies. Like people who burn books they’ve never read. Because it could be dangerous. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’ve met several men like these over the years, and sometimes, women. Whose identity depends on saving me, saving you and saving the world with their intellectual wisdom, keen on telling me and you that their intellectual wisdom should be my intuitive wisdom and your intuitive wisdom. I know my intuitive wisdom. I experience it, and it evolves. And I’m fine with it. Mostly, it tells me to not accept another’s intellectual wisdom as my own truth.
I continue to meet people like this. There’s nothing to do about it. Just watch, breathe and let them go on their way.
Migratory Indian flamingoes are spending the remaining days of May in the Thane creek, an hour and a half from Mumbai. They are from the state of Gujarat in western India. Every year, in the month of November, the flamingoes fly south to the waterways in the Greater Mumbai area. They return to Gujarat at the end of May.
Here, the flamingoes put on a performance against the mangroves in the Thane creek. They had no dress rehearsal for today’s performance, nor was there one for the amateur photographer observing them.
It was a long, plodding ride in bumper to bumper traffic on a tropically hot Saturday afternoon. I was on my way to the Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Centre in Airoli, Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai), an hour and a half from Mumbai. To see flamingoes from a boat in the Thane creek. Before they head back to Gujarat, the state in western India where they will stay until winter.
The Thane creek is the largest in Asia, extending 26 kilometers and separating Mumbai from mainland India. Part of the creek has been declared an eco-sanctuary and is home to life-sustaining mangroves, and host to hundreds of migratory birds each year including the iconic flamingoes, which were lovely to watch from my boat.
Today though, I will not document the beautiful, graceful flamingoes or the egrets or the rare bird species I witnessed up close.
Today is dedicated to an unknown man, a working class toll-booth attendant in a blue shirt who stands in the hot Mumbai sun in the middle of May, readily offering his warm smile to motorists along with the change he dispenses.
After a long day on the road from Mumbai to Dharamkot, I sleep soundly at the backpackers hostel. The outside temperature has dropped below freezing overnight, turning some of yesterday’s melted snow into black ice. Inside, I sleep like a baby, under a thick blanket and a heater beside the bed. Though a bit of a night owl, I tend to wake up early when traveling and feel refreshed even with minimal sleep. It’s the exhilaration of being on the road, perhaps, and in a new environment.
Last night, the hostel manager told me I could use the exclusive shower outside the dorm – it has instant hot water, he said. Well, he kinda lied. The water is hot but turns freezing cold in a few minutes. Exclusively for me! I burst out laughing at the comicality of his sincerity.
All showered, I head to the dining hall for breakfast. One of the hostel staff is seated by the door, furiously sending text messages, laughing at his screen. I inquire about breakfast. Without looking up, he calls out to the kitchen, Eh Prakash, koi aya khane ke liye. Eh, Prakash, someone is come for breakfast.
From the dining hall, there’s a view of the lower end of the Dhauladhar mountain range, part of the lower Himalayas.
In a couple of minutes, Prakash, the cook comes out, a big, well-fed, bearded man with a full head of hair. We have a bit of verbal tussle. He’s trying to push the preset Indian breakfast, pav bhaji, I want an omelette from the a la carte menu. Pav bhaji is buttered bread that you dip in a heavy, greasy gravy of overcooked vegetables, overcooked potatoes and boiled out of their mind green peas. Prakash has determined that I’m not quite fully Indian – from my AmerIndi accented English, perhaps (I’d like to take credit for inventing the word, but it was a friend of mine who did). He’s talking to me like a street vendor selling overpriced goods to tourists, and pushing that pav bhaji like it’s nirvana. You will love it, saar. Come, come. Delicious. I switch to my anglicized Hindi and ask for an omelette. Apparently thrown off by my ability to speak Hindi, accent notwithstanding, Prakash returns shortly with an excellent omelette. Breakfast done, I’m headed to Tushita Meditation Centre, a renowned Buddhist meditation center not far from here, and after that, maybe a hike.
By the front desk, two young women are waiting to check out, one apparently Chinese, the other apparently Caucasian. I overhear the manager asking why they’re checking out. You just checked in last night, going so soon? The women reply there’s no hot water. I commiserate with the women, Emma and Jess, who, to my ear, sound either English or New Zealanders, I can’t tell. They help me out – they’re half Swiss, half Chinese and live in England. Best friends, it appears. Just come from a three-weeks long Panchakarma in Lower Dharamsala. A Panchakarma, they explain, is an Ayurvedic detox of the body which also strengthens and rejuvenates the immune system. Ayurveda, which originated in India between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, is a system of natural healing that approaches health and illness holistically, addressing balance of the mind, body and spirit. The word Ayurveda translates from Sanskrit as “knowledge of life” or “science of life” (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge). I have just been edumacated.
Emma and Jess are headed down to McLeod Ganj to look for new accommodations before going to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, the holiest Gurdwara (Sikh temple). I accompany them as the Tushita Meditation Centre is on the way to McLeod Ganj. We navigate treacherous black ice down a gravel slope near the main gate and are lucky to escape without injury. I get the sense I won’t be staying here another night – it’s near where the hiking trails begin but too isolated from everything else.
On the way to Tushita, my new found friends tell me they are sisters – fraternal twins, one has inherited more of their Chinese father’s features, the other, their Swiss mother’s. I learn more about Panchakarma. Emma has been studying Ayurveda for quite a while, is a certified yoga teacher and works in the fashion industry, while Jess is in the performing arts and entertainment business. We discover much in common in spite of our different geographic and apparently different cultural backgrounds.
In a little bit, we’re at Tushita. A mini-motorcade with an apparently important Buddhist teacher is leaving the center. Everyone at the center is waving at him, and benevolently, he waves back. The Pope and his pope mobile come to mind. Someone hurries towards us and whispers we are to observe silence because meditation programs are currently in session. Then he hurries back to wave at the departing Buddhist teacher.
The daily meditation sittings at Tushita and chantings by Buddhist monks I hoped to attend have been canceled for a week because of full-time programs. The three musketeers then walk down to McLeod Ganj, along a concrete and slowly winding road. The center of McLeod Ganj is busy and buzzing with activity. It looks chaotic but cars, auto rickshaws, scooters and motorcycles all manage to squeeze past each other in a coordinated disorganized manner. It looks like it could give Mumbai a run for its money. The intersection has five to six of McLeod Ganj’s main arteries meeting at one point, with a single policeman monitoring all the traffic on this overcast morn.
Each of the five to six streets has a different market place. Fruit and vegetables here, a butcher there, electronics on another street, alcohol and laundry on this corner, and restaurants, chemists (drugstores) and tourist shops on all streets.
We walk down one of the main streets, taking in the sights while looking for a place to grab a bite.
None look inviting. The ladies suggest the Four Seasons Cafe. Didn’t know there was a Four Seasons in McLeod Ganj and it’s not quite my lifestyle but sure, I’m up for it. It’s just a few doors down. When we get there I look up and laugh out loud…it’s Lobsang’s Four Seasons Cafe, a Tibetan cafe. This is going to be fun. My first time in a Tibetan restaurant. It’s a pretty busy establishment but we manage to get seats. Lemon ginger and mint teas for my friends and Tibetan tea for me. The Tibetan tea is milky and buttery with light spices. Later I find out it might have been yak butter. That’s a first!
It’s nearly noon, we are hungry, but the options here don’t quite suit my new found friends, so we sit there chatting and nursing our teas while we wait for restaurant inspiration from the gods. After about fifteen minutes, an older gentleman, maybe in his seventies, stops at our table and asks us if we like Mexican food. I recognize him as the diner who was at the table across from ours. He has a Tibetan companion and an American accent. He tells us the owner of the Four Seasons cafe also owns a Mexican restaurant across the street, a few doors down. We say we might check it out later but Emma and Jess and I are looking for accommodations as our hostel stay wasn’t quite a match, hot water, etc. Introductions all round. Michael is from Portland, Oregon and has been living in Dharamkot, north of McLeod Ganj with his Tibetan wife, Tashi for the last year and a half. His landlord runs a homestay with rooms for 500 rupees a night (approximately $7) and they come with hot water. Exciting. A place to stay. And the promise of hot water. The little things, the little things. I ask for directions and though he’s American, Michael is giving me directions like an Indian. Up to Dharamkot, make a right at Tushita, next to the Himalayan tea shop, on the lane above Trek and Dine restaurant, then a left for two minutes, then a slight right for a minute, then a left near the stones and finally a right. And a left. Got it? Ummm, nope. Can I find it on Google maps? Oh yes, there’s Himalayan Spice and there’s Trek and Dine. I’m all good, I tell Michael, see you this evening.
Emma, Jess and I walk down to the Snow Lion Restaurant for lunch. Several of the diners there are foreign tourists, many of whom have probably come to Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj for Buddhist teachings, meditation and yoga. A couple in their sixties smiles peacefully at me. Another diner ask us to shut the door behind us. As we’re looking around for seats, a woman who’s been watching us moves her belongings and asks us to join her. She has a bus to catch and time to kill. Our lunch companion is Dutch, not to be confused with the Germans, she gently warns us, and has been living here for several years. She tells us how much she likes and feels connected to India, mostly through angrily declaiming how the West has decayed and is rotting. She also makes it clear she’s not too keen on Indians and their confounding ways. It appears that in addition to lunch, spiritual growth is on my menu. The lunch is long, but life is short so I refrain from adding fuel to her fire. Lunch over, we head back into the bustle of McLeod Ganj’s streets, looking for a hotel. I might join Emma and Jess if we find a good hotel but I feel I’m going to hold out for Michael’s palace in the sky with hot water.
We look at a couple of hotels but they’re overpriced and dumpy. And then, third time’s a charm. Emma and Jess are lodged in their new place and I take a 70 rupee ($1), ten minute rickshaw ride to Dharamkot to meet Malkeet, Michael’s landlord.
I tell the rickshaw driver I’m going to Himalayan Spice. Himalayan tea shop?
No, Himalayan Spice, next to Trek and Dine restaurant. I show it to him on Google maps. Google maps is wrong, he says, so he’ll drop me off at the Himalayan tea shop. I suddenly remember that Michael told me to mention Malkeet’s name to my rickshaw driver and I’d be fine. Oh, I’m Malkeet’s cousin. No problem, I’ll take you there.
Small world or have I just fallen for a tourist scam? Not sure. I’ll find out. He calls “Malkeet” to say we’re on the way. He hands me the phone and I speak to Malkeet. Apparently Michael had already told Malkeet about me, so it feels more legit. Let’s see. In ten minutes, I’ve met Malkeet. The room is good enough, hot water, blankets, a view of the hills. Michael also happens to be around and steps out to greet me, along with his wife Tashi. It’s all good. I’m relieved I have a reliable place for tonight. I retrieve my bags from the backpackers hostel, not far away, and return to my new room. I’m all set for the next few days.
That night, over dinner with Emma and Jess, we exchange more stories about life, about travel and different cultures. Between them, they’ve been across India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, China and the Philippines. I’d never thought of visiting any of these countries but now I’m intrigued. We continue talking till late. On the rickshaw ride back to Dharamkot, I reflect back on this eventful day, unplanned and full of surprises. Feels like the start of an unknown adventure. Pretty cool, pretty cool. I check in for the night at Malkeet’s. It’s quite cold and I take an extra blanket from the empty room next door. There’s no heater, so I keep on my sweater and thermals. My eyes are closed but sleep is just not happening. After an hour of tossing and turning, I realize I’m cold and I’m not going to get sleep. My weather app says the outside temperature will remain below freezing until morning. It’s going to be a long night. I almost second guess my decision to leave the hostel but something was just off there, so no regrets. I toss and turn all night, no sleep, no sleep. Pretty cool. Pretty cool.