Tag Archives: Ayurveda

Into the backwaters of Kerala…

Kochi to Alleppey

I leave Fort Kochi in Kerala with memories of birds waking me up to witness early monsoon showers. Coconut palms bathing in the rain against the backdrop of a vast sky. And my last night in Fort Kochi, crows on the beach, Chinese fishing nets and fresh fish on the harbor, delicious, and cooked and served without pretense. The kind of goodbye that makes me smile. Hello Fort Kochi, Goodbye. It was nice to meet you.

I use public transportation to get to my backwater hotel in Alleppey, south of Kochi – a ferry, a train, another ferry. A short, crowded ferry from Fort Kochi takes me to the train station in Ernakulam, the big industrial city on the mainland from where I’ll catch the train to Alleppey. In between the ferry landing and the Ernakulam train station, a bit of early morning comedy. A rickshaw ride where the guy tries to charge me double the standard fare because he thinks he can. Um, no, I tell him, the fare is fifty rupees, and that’s what I’m giving you. He takes it, without argument. Always worth the try though, I suppose.

The train to Alleppey is inexpensive, quick and comfortable enough – fifteen rupees (around twenty cents) for a one and a half hour journey.

Kochi - Allepey train

A view of the backwaters from my train to Alleppey

Even the coffee on the train cannot compete in value – it’s ten rupees (fifteen cents). I thought it would be good to have a real train coffee experience in Kerala. Now I know – it’s horrible. Horrible. But it’s quite the experience…I’m sitting by the window, looking at the lush backwaters and coconut palms outside, while inside, horrible coffee in my palms and across from me, stretched out on the facing seat, a man is fast asleep and snoring loudly. In a minute, a slight rain adds to the experience.

The rain starts off slow, then stronger and then begins to come inside. I pull down the glass window but it doesn’t close all the way. A couple of fellow passengers sitting near the aisle begin a debate on whether the outer, opaque shutter should also be pulled down. The sleeping man has now woken up, glaring at the debaters. One helpful Johnny, seated furthest from the window, steps up to take charge of the mildly intruding rain. With all his might, he secures both the glass window and the outer shutter. Now, instead of the backwaters, all I see are the slats of a dull, grey, unevenly painted, old metal window. Really? I think, the rain and the backwaters and the coconut palms are outside and you’ve blocked them with this stupid shutter? But I keep my annoyance to myself…I’m traveling…all experiences are part of the adventure. 

Pleased with himself, Johnny returns to his seat, looking around for appreciation from his fellow passengers. None is forthcoming from them or from the window shutter, which slams itself back up – it’s a loose latch, not an act of god. A few seconds later, the rain stops. The formerly sleeping passenger returns to his slumber, but not before slowly warning the aisle seaters with a wagging index finger that they should leave the window alone from here on.

We are now at the Alleppey train station. I take a rickshaw to the public ferry which will take me to my backwater hotel. For a real Kerala backwater experience, the public ferry in Alleppey is simply the best deal around. Most rides cost between ten to a hundred rupees – around fifteen cents to a little more than a dollar. It’s safe, and like most public transport, not luxurious, but comfortable enough for anywhere from a twenty minute to a two and half hour journey. I’m now traveling like a local, alongside real locals from the backwaters who use the public ferry to commute to and from work in Alleppey.

From inside the ferry, I see the houseboats I’ve been told are a “can’t miss” item. Everyone I know has said, You have to do it, once in a lifetime, etc. Looking at them right now though, the houseboats…they seem pretty boring. They look like smaller, bamboo-tented versions of cruise ships. Exotic looking but frankly, quite…boring. It feels like a contrived, “exotic” experience with no real, unfiltered interaction with local people.

On the backwaters. All the way at the back is a houseboat. In the middle, moving to the right, a shikara, a modified fishing boat. In the foreground, moving to the left, a motorized, commuting canoe.

My backwater hotel in Alleppey is better than I expected. A two-story, elegant and comfortable place on one of the little islands, about ten minutes from Alleppey. The owner of the near-empty hotel – it’s off season – offers to upgrade me, for a charge, to his best room. I pass, the room I have is good, and good enough. In case you change your mind, let me know, etc. He offers a shikara ride, a four-hour excursion in the backwaters on a comfortable, modified fishing boat. Or a kayak trip for four hours. Or, he could arrange a houseboat ride through a friend. For four hours. Four hours is the magic number for all his value-added offerings. I decline my host’s generous, customized offers. I’ve been on the public ferry already. I know what’s going to work for me.

After lunch, I walk down to the public ferry pier, wherever it will take me. The first boat comes by. The signs are in Malayalam, the language of Kerala. A villager standing on the pier translates for me. Both Malayalam and English are spoken in most places in Kerala. It makes it easier to get directions. The villager tells me this boat is going to Kottayam, on the other side of the backwaters, a two to three hour long journey. Oh, that would be fun, I think. From Kottayam, I could take the bus to Kumarakom, another backwater destination where there’s a bird sanctuary. But the boat leaves while I’m lost in translation. My translator tells me the next boat will arrive in a couple of minutes.

Once we get onto the next boat, my helpful translator suggests I go to Ayiravelly bridge, a small island hamlet in the backwaters of Kainakary district. The boat conductor tells me in English that this ferry will go right to Ayiravelly after a stop in Alleppey. It’ll be about 2 1/2 hours. But, he adds, take the ferry to Kottayam if you can – the view is really good.

Other commuters on the ferry chime in, in Malayalam. Some are eager to help with travel suggestions, others are just plain curious at this local-looking fellow who doesn’t speak the language. What village in Kerala are you from? someone asks in Malayalam. Someone else translates the question for me. I respond in English that I’m from Bombay. It reminds me of Sheila Menon, a Keralite colleague in Bombay, from a lifetime ago, who’d asked me where in Kerala I was from. When I told her I was from Bombay, she didn’t quite believe me, she thought I was lying. Really, you are not from Kerala? But you have a very Mallu cut. 

I wish I could speak Malayalam right now. It sounds fascinatingly tongue-twisting and aurally exotic, even more so because I don’t understand any of  the words – it’s pure sound to me.

At the Alleppey ferry hub, it turns out the next boat to Kottayam is three hours away. It’s decided, Ayiravelly is where I’m going. It’s a long ride. Along the way, we pass a man in a canoe, ferrying milk to his village on one of the islands in the backwaters.

Milk delivery in Allepey

A man in his canoe, ferrying milk to his village on one of the islands in the backwaters

We pass extensive paddy fields alongside the backwater canals, and people washing pots, pans and clothing along the water’s edge.

Backwater paddy

Paddy fields on land alongside the backwater canals

Paddy bw

More paddy fields

Finally, after around two and a half hours on the boat, we get to Ayiravelly. There’s just enough time to go for a quick walk around the island before the boat heads back to Alleppey. A local shop is just yards away from the pier. I’m hungry but all they’re selling is packaged goods from a factory far away. I was hoping for something more local. Oh, well. Instead, I go for a walk down the island.

Not far from the pier, on the banks of one of the inland canals, a man is sitting on the ground, trimming the leaves of a coconut tree to make brooms. We nod and smile. Neither of us speaks the other’s language but we communicate through hand gestures, head tilts and tone of voice. He’s Govindnathan. He’s been doing this a long time. He’s from here, Ayiravelly. He points to me…And you, where in Kerala are you from? I laugh – by now, I sort of recognize the phrase in Malayalam, even if I’m not able to repeat it back to myself. Bombay, I say. Ah, he nods. Okay, I have to get back to work now, Govindnathan says, and waves me off.

Govindnathan - Ayiravelly bridge

Near the Ayiravelly bridge, Govindnathan makes brooms from the leaves of a coconut tree

Past where I’ve met Govindnathan is a long canal, with canoes on either side, personal canoes belonging to local families, often a preferred mode of transport from village to village in the backwaters instead of waiting for the ferry.

Ayiravelly narrow

A narrow section of the backwaters, behind where I met Govindnathan


Local canoes in Ayiravelly

Behind dense foliage are houses, and villagers going about their business. I don’t stay long, I don’t want to pry, and the ferry will be leaving for Alleppey soon.

It’s a long ride back to Alleppey. Returning along the same canals and waterways, the sights are lovely. But after already seeing them on the trip down here, my eyes are slightly glazed over. Reminds me of this thing I have about famous palaces. Once you’ve seen one of a certain style, you’ve kind of seen them all. Pretty much. The trip back to Alleppey feels somewhat similar, though sitting at the very front of the ferry, the open waters are relaxing.

Back in Alleppey, I take a rickshaw to the nearby beach for a taste of toddy – palm wine derived from the sap of palm trees. Can’t find an open toddy shop at 6 in the evening. Some public holiday or a local rule or something. And then, the rickshaw driver gets indignant and hostile when I refuse his demands of more than double the agreed fare. After he repeatedly threatens to call the cops on me and I keep saying, rather comically, I think, Please do, he accepts just a little more than what we’d agreed to and takes off, muttering loudly in Malayalam. Don’t burst my bubble, dude, I think.

Now, there’s no toddy to be found but the beach is just there. And then the skies open. Thunder, lightning and I’m laughing out loud in the rain, wondering what the hell I’m doing out here in the first place. Go home, get some rest. I’m lucky to find another rickshaw in the pouring rain. A nicer man, and chatty. He lets me off at a good restaurant about five minutes away from the ferry terminal for the ride back to my hotel. A local meal of fried beef, local bread and plantains. A pretty full day so far, and now, a pretty full stomach.

Back at my hotel, the owner is still gently trying to sell me his customized trips. He’s also somewhat surprised that I’m skipping the next day’s included breakfast in favor of an early morning outing to Kottayam and Kumarakom.

In the next room from me is a traveler from the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar. She’s on her way to northern Kerala for a panchakarma treatment – an Ayurvedic course of healing that lasts several days.

I find out that Réunion has been a French territory for about four hundred years, and from the 1960s to the early 80s, hundreds of Creole children were taken from their families in Réunion to rural France to boost falling populations. Their families were promised good education for their children but most of the children were provided as free labor to the bourgeois class in rural France and kept deliberately disconnected from their biological families in Réunion for most of their lives. The missing children. Stolen and disappeared.

My fellow traveler tells me that at the beginning of this century, lawsuits were filed against the French state but they failed because the statute of limitations had expired. Colonialism, classism and blindness of the law in the service of evil never fail to surprise me. But we all know it’s not just colonialism, or capitalism, or socialism, yes, and that forced labor goes on in all cultures and has been going on since the beginning of time. Ah, fortunate are we who have had the accident of being born in the right place at the right time…

Good night, Alleppey. See you tomorrow morning.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

What do you do when they come for you?

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.

© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.

A Dharamshala Odyssey – Following the Road

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.

From the dining hall – a view of the Dhauladhar mountain range 

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.

The main intersection at McLeod Ganj

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.

Local, tropical and some imported fruit and vegetables

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.

Marlon de Souza Ⓒ 2019. All rights reserved.