Thursday, March 25, 2010

un chico en la playa

I forgot to mention that, while I was back in Auroville, I buzzed off all my hair. Well I guess buzzed is not the appropriate word, though it is kiwi-short. But the barber at the "saloon" (that's what they call barbershops here. And they call restaurants "hotels." Go figure.) used the comb and rapidly-snipping scissors method. The old fashioned way. It was an entertaining experience; I couldn't believe how fast he could snip, and the sound was interesting and pleasant in its way. Tiny snippets of hair rained down all over me, and stuck fast to the skin on my sweaty neck and chest. And he powdered my neck at the end, which was also awkward because of the sweatiness. And I walked around all day with hair all over me. They sweep all the cut hair into a pile, so when you walk in you can see it all there - a big pile of hair like a lazy little monster in the corner, black black black with just a little gray here an there. And the handiwork of the barber was just a bit uneven, which made my head look a little lopsided for a while...but that's cool, I guess. Right, guys? The whole thing cost about sixty cents. I think I'll visit Boy's, the men's hair salon a couple doors down, after this. Time for a trim.

I look quite different now in a number of ways, actually. I'm so brown from all this intense sun - much different than my multi-year Seattle resident color. I've halted some of my personal grooming habits, such as eyebrow maintainance. They are thick and bushy as the tropical jungle around me. My physique has changed a bit from the yoga practice. I've been wearing beaded necklaces and manskirts (things I never would wear in Seattle...) All that combined with the shaved head. Wren sometimes notes how different I look now than I did in Seattle.

It's a little crazy to see myself in the mirror now. We're staying in a fancy hotel right now in Calicut. There are big mirrors in the room. Most of the places we've been have teeny tiny mirrors or no mirrors at all - something I've gotten quite used to. And now it's strange to see so much of myself reflected back to me.

We didn't intend to stay at a fancy place here. We didn't really intend on spending time in Calicut. It was just a good stopping point between Appelley (the last place we were staying) and Kalpetta (our next stop). We arrived from a 7-hour train ride last night and tried to find a cheap room for the night, with the help of some friendly young men (they are Indian filmmakers) who we met on the train. For the first time, we were turned away for being foreign. And again. And again and again and again. Everyplace we went. There was apparently some terrorist activity around here, so hotels have to register foreign guests through the police, and the small hotels don't want to go through the hassle. After lots of attempts to find a cheap room and lots of failures (all this in an auto rickshaw with speedy maneuvers through traffic and small spaces that felt like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride), we came to a big fancy hotel that had a room for us. Expensive for here, but only about $40 per night. And it feels like total luxury. We had the first hot showers we've had in weeks. And it's clean and there's a TV with weird and entertaining Indian programming and I didn't wake up itching like crazy from nighttime mosquito bites. I got the first really good night of sleep I've had in weeks, too. Sank into the giant, super cozy, clean bed, under the covers (which I haven't used in ages, because it's normally so hot I don't want to sleep in or under anything at all), and slept con los angelitos panzones. It felt like the first real break from my waking life that I've had in a while. (I've been struggling with some unusual sleeping problems for the last few weeks. But they are gradually lessening.) Also, the free hotel breakfast here is delicious Indian food. Not like the super lame American hotel breakfasts.

The Indian people in Kerala are very friendly. More friendly than the people in any other area we've been. Sometimes it feels really extreme, like they don't know how to respect an individual's private space in the way Americans generally do. At the place we stayed at in Alleppey, the hotel people were always hanging around and talking to us, which was annoying at times. Sometimes you just want to lie in your hammock in a moment of solitary peace. Ya know? But they were very nice people, for the most part. The people here are also often very forward with their questions, and comfortable talking about things like personal bodily things in a way the Americans generally aren't. And because my gender presentation and sex are very confusing to people, they often think they've made mistakes in interpreting my gender. And instead of blushing but not saying anything, or apologizing profusely like Americans tend to do (I hate that!), they laugh and tell you about it. Like, "You look like a man. I saw you and thought man. Until you talking I thought you were man. Haha!" And then I usually say something like, "Kind of man. Man/lady, lady/man. Both. Same-same." And sometimes they seem to understand, and sometimes maybe not. Gender neutrality is confusing to people everywhere I go. But the Indians don't seem weirded out by anything. Just curious and interested, and they like to talk about it. Though it's hard to articulate thing well when they only understand some English. (Same-same is a phrase that I've picked up here, and enjoy quite a lot).

It's interesting to be read as a boy more often now. In public, men touch me sometimes (like to move me out of the way) and push me around to get ahead in line, like all the other men push each other around. (They don't touch women, because it's not culturally appropriate) It was weird for me at first, but I'm more used to it now. I've been laughed at and yelled at to get out of ladies-only spaces. (which I myself thought was pretty funny). The other day, as I was walking out of the ocean in Alleppey, a young boy invited me to play cricket on the beach with a group of young boys. He thought I was a young boy too. I smiled and shook my head and walked on, feeling amused, though grateful. And I watched the game for a while from a platform above the hammocks at our beach hotel, and there was something so perfectly sweet about it. A beautiful setting to see such picturesque joy of youth.

We stayed in a little hut in Alleppey. Only a small stone wall between us and the beachfront. Hammocks outside to lounge in. The sound of the waves at night was soothing and lovely. But in the very early morning (still dark) after our first night there, I was laying half awake and heard a small sound at the window that was by the head of the bed. It's a small window with vertical bars and no screen. I looked up and saw the black silhouette of a man's head and shoulders. I put my head back down, and it was then I realized how creepy it was. I looked back and he was gone. But I didn't feel like our safety was compromised, so I went back to sleep. The next night, I hung one of my lungis (manskirts) up across the window, to try to prevent anyone from seeing in. Around the same time the next morning, I looked up and saw a similar silhouette, meaning the man had reached in far enough to move the fabric out of the way. I said "Go away!" and he immediately did. And I spent the day feeling grossed out about a peeping tom. Later, when we were packing to leave Alleppey, I noticed that a small bag of half-eaten snacks that I had left near the window was missing. Turns out the perv was actually a theif. Or perhaps a combination of both. But he only made off with some Indian sweets already bitten into. Maybe he needed them more than we did. A slightly creepy experience, but neither Wren nor I were really phased by it. Just momentarily disappointed we didn't get to finish those sweets, but we bought more today and they were delicious.

Before Alleppey was our houseboat ride from Kollam, through Kerala's beautiful backwaters. The highlight of the experience was walking through the little village that we spent the night docked beside with our cook from the boat, whose family and friends lived in the village. It was a sweet and quiet little village with fields of rice and some cashew, almond, and jackfruit trees. The cook introduced us to everyone, and they were friendly and sweet and the children were very interested in us and very shy. A group of young men convinced Wren to play her uke and sing for them, which she did. And one of them showed us his impressive Michael Jackson moves. All in all, the boat ride was a lovely and super-relaxing (i.e. lazy) experience, if a bit overpriced.

Next, we leave beach for mountains...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wow. So much has been happening since my last update...

At this very moment I'm in Varkala, in the state of Kerala. It's a beautiful beach town on India's west coast. Wren and I haven't yet spent any time in the actual Indian village here - we're staying near the beach, a short walk from a clifftop full of places for Western tourists (there are LOTS of them here) with a long set of switch-back steps that lead down to the beach below. The beach here is surprisingly clean for an Indian place. But you have to pass by heaps and heaps of garbage to the side of the stairs on the way to and from the shore.

I'm even more tan now. Just a little burned. The sun here is fierce, but I love it. The waves are strong, and being near the ocean is magical, as always. The Western tourists here like to wear really skimpy swim clothes on the beach, and some Western women sunbathe topless (something I find quite rude, considering this country's feelings about body exposure in public). Some of the Indian men swim in trunks, but many of the Indian people I've seen in the water are fully clothed in their day clothes. Women in beautiful full saris, soaked in sea water, laughing and holding hand with their friends. Circles of little children in wet clothes, gleefully enjoying the waves. It's lovely to see.

We arrived here on train from Kanyakumari, the little town on the southernmost tip of India. We spent only a couple days there. I wanted to go there to watch the sunset (we never made it out to watch it rise, as i thought we might), at the point where three bodies of water meet: the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea. It is a small place teeming with Indian tourists. Much different from the expensive, Western-tourist places and vibes here. We took a short ferry ride (which was rocky and exhilarating and the women squealed and Wren got drenched in sea water, even though we were sitting in the middle of the boat) to a little tiny island (or rather, a very large rock) out in the water, on which we visited a temple and a memorial to Sri Vivekanda, who is said to have swam out to the rock long ago, where he sat for days in meditation. We visited an ancient temple on the mainland near the water. It was the oldest place I've been here so far. Over 1,000 years old. The energy inside was powerful and wonderful and intense. And the energy in Kanyakumari in general was good and healing, though the people were not the most kind and the touristy-ness was quite annoying at times. Still, I enjoyed it greatly. The train from there to here got so crowded that there was at least one man hanging out of the door the whole way. Wren and I had luckily secured seats before it got so crowded, and we were right inside the door, so I could see the people spilling out of the train just beyond Wren's head as we traveled.

Train travel here is fun fun fun! Dirty and sweaty, sure. But fun. Beautiful scenery and interesting sights flashing by, usually with a moat of garbage between the train and anything it passes. Everyone just throws it out of the windows. The locals encouraged us to do so. And the toilets on the trains (some Western, some squat-style) are basically just holes through to the ground below. It's kind of fun to see the tracks rushing by below when the train is moving. And I understood why many of the train station platforms smell like poop. And pee. And garbage. And gross. But what a fun adventure to travel this way! We've had 2 overnight train journeys on our travels so far. There are small, vinyl-covered 3-tiered bed platforms (the middle ones fold down during the day for seating) to sleep on. They are hard and a little dingy, but it was fun to sleep on them, in a summer camp sort of a way. Wren and I made some friends on a train ride. An Indian mother/son pair. They talked to us a lot and looked through my sketchbook and made Wren play her ukelele and sing and seemed to be fascinated and entertained by everything we did. For hours. Evening and the next morning. When it was time to sleep, Helen (the mother) decided "little children on the top" (even though I told her how old we were....), and so Wren and I gladly climbed to the top bunks. Ooh, and also, the snacks on the train are good. Men pass by every now and then, selling chai, coffee, fried Indian goodies, dosas, etc.

We've been in Varkala for a week now. The time is really flying! We left Mysore about 2 weeks ago, hopped on a train to Pondicherry (a very French-influenced city on the east coast), and then an auto rickshaw into Auroville, to visit my dear friend Ethan. Wren wrote a lovely blog entry about the place and our experences there, if you want to read more about it. (The Wiki article is worth checking out too.) Some highlights of our stay there: the 3 of us riding around together on a tiny moped, eating Western hippie foods (tofu, kombucha, raw Indian food, salads, etc. omg!), hanging out on the beach, visiting an energetically inspiring Ashram in Pondicherry, singing in an OM choir (yes, all we 'sang' was om) (this experience was made all the more interesting and poignant for me by the addition of some intense intestinal cramps that began to occur during the singing....oh, India....), seeing the Matrimandir (which looks like the Indian Epcot), watching DVDs that we bought for 25 rupees each (just over 50 cents) on Ethan's laptop (Wren was especially overjoyed to watch New Moon), singing songs with Ethan on the guitar... etc. Auroville itself is such a fascinating place. An experiment in human unity. I felt a strong connection to the ideals and founding principles of the place, though I'm not sure how I feel about the reality of it all in practice. It seems just a little cultish and odd, and the Westerners there seem quite unfriendly to outsiders. Still, quite an interesting place to experience. We were only there long enough to get a little taste of it.

I don't think we planned on being in Varkala for so long. It just kind of happened. It's easy to be lazy here. Back and forth between out hotel and the cliffside business and the beach. Eating lots of good food, playing and lounging on the hot hot beach. Yeah, that's about all we've been doing. We found a hotel room with a ton of space in which we can do our asanas in the morning. Wren had been helping me with some of my practice. She's naturally quite a good teacher. I've started to do dropbacks (from standing) into backbends, with her assistance. I don't think it will take me too long to be able to do them on my own. And since I've been here I've been doing headstands without the help of the wall, finally. I was quite pleased with myself! :D

Wren and I have made some spontaneous friends here and there on our journeys. I had an especially great time with a French man named Bruno who I met on the beach. He and I immediately hit it off, and spent a lot of time together before he had to leave to go back to France. We were super silly and playful together and laughed a lot and played on the beach, jumping into waves and building things in the sand (like a mermaid tail for Wren, after we dug her a hole to sit in...and then she haggled with the lady who walked by selling fruit, and bought us mangos that she and I ate side by side on the beach, all while she was a mermaid. Ha!). Bruno's presence was like a breath of fresh air for me. It felt like one of those serendipitous meetings of spirits that happens just at the moment you need it and feels like a gift from god. For serious. What fun we had!

Tomorrow morning Wren and I are leaving Varkala to take a trip through Kerala's backwaters on a houseboat. It will be just the two of us, plus the driver and a cook, who will prepare us all of our meals. Two days and one overnight. I'm so excited to be on the water! And excited to leave Varkala as well. Time to go!