Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Farewell, faraway land!

Whoa...where did it all go?

Just I minute ago I had freshly returned to Mysore, and now it's my last day here.

It's been a normal day here so far: Started out with early rising. Making myself a wee cup of coffee with just a little sugar that I drink out of a small metal chai cup. (Helps get me going for all the asanas!) It's primary series and second series in class with guruji. Sweating all over the place. Trying to push and pull and lift my body into the new, challenging asanas I've been practicing. After practice, I put my super sweaty clothes with the other dirties in a plastic bucket, fill it up with water, and proceed to scrub them with my blue detergent bar, squatting on the floor of the bathroom. Singing little songs to myself. It's still reaaally early in the morning. A shower to wash off all the sweat and the more sweat, hanging my clothes on the line up on the rooftop (from which I look down and see the little temple across the small street, and the early stirrings of the day on the main road that is just a jaunt from the shala), and then I'm fresh and so ready to go out! I hopped on my scooter and drove to Shivaprasad, one of my favorite restaurants here. And there I ordered some delicious foods you've probably never even heard of unless you've spent time in south India. And then to the internet cafe, arriving just as soon as it opens, like usual! Oh, I'm a sucker for my e-correspondence and social networking! It's actually been really amazing to be able to keep that up here. Makes me feel a little less detached from everything in my life.

Today I'm feeling good and full of happy energy. Maybe it's my impending departure. Maybe that, combined with the excitement of an upcoming adventure in San Francisco on my way back to Seattle. Maybe it was the really good practice I did this morning. Maybe I'm just happy. (Yes, yes I am!) And maybe all of this feels extra great because it's one million times better than how I felt the other day...

Day before yesterday I woke feeling funky, so I skipped practice and went back to sleep for a while. A little bit after waking, the trouble began. Yes, you guessed it: trouble of the intestinal variety. Trouble, oh trouble, that persisted every 5 minutes or so for hours and hours. So frequently that I was scared to go to the doctor, because of the time in between one toilet and another. Oh man. I've been sick a couple times here, but this was the most extreme. I was between bed and toilet all day. In the early evening, a friend came and got me in a rickshaw and we went to the hospital together. I waited for a painfully long time, and finally talked to a doctor who thought I was fine, I just needed to drink a lot of fluids. And he prescribed antibiotics to take just in case it didn't stop. And after that night it did stop. Thank the lord! But while I was at the hospital I left a "sample" so they could check to make sure I won't be taking any parasites home with me in my guts. And wow. Filling that little plastic cup with my special 'stuff' was a nasty little adventure. Heheh. Gross!

Well, the time has come for me to pack up and get ready to leave! I can't believe it! I'm pretty much thrilled to go. I don't think I'll miss it here for a while. But I'm grateful for every moment of my experiences. For serious!

This is a place that is easy to love and hate simultaneously. This is a place of extremes. This is a place of contradictions that make you laugh and cry and stand agape in wonder. This place, with beauty juxtaposed with utter filth everywhere. This place, where magic is real and reality is more brutal than you could have imagined. This place! I will miss it someday. I will come back to it someday.

Yes, I can say lots of things that sound cliche about my experiences here. Eye-opening. Life-changing. Etc. And it's all true. And I'm sure I'll have even more insightful things to say after I've been away and 'digested' it all for a while. This place gives you so much to digest - physically, mentally, and emotionally. I can't keep up! But I'm working on it!

And this place has a way of dredging up those things that you need to face, and probably don't want to. It reaches its slippery hands inside your gut and pulls out what it finds there - maybe something you don't want to see - and throws it right in your face. For everyone else to stare at, while you figure out how to deal with it and, hopefully, wipe it all away. You know the work you need to do. Baby steps or big steps. India teaches you lessons AND gives you homework.

I've had plenty more special genderqueer moments. Lots of questions, and staring and sometimes laughing. It doesn't really phase me, though it can be exhausting after a while. I have a friend here from Iceland who is an amputee (and a power-yogi! Yes!) and wears a prosthetic leg below one knee. People stare and point and laugh and talk to her about it constantly. They don't let differences go unnoticed or unremarked or undiscussed here. But to them, that doesn't seem to be disrespectful. Cultural differences. It's been on my mind lately. I think it's because privacy hardly exists here. For starters, there are so many people in this country. There really isn't space to have the 'space' that we Westerners value so greatly. With poverty so great and nearly everyone reproducing, personal space is severely limited, and seems to be nonexistent for many people here. People are together all the time - the women working at home together, with little kids running around in packs, the men out on the streets in grimy clusters. Young and old alike - rarely alone, in public or home. There's a system here. A social order, chaotic as it seems, that keeps it all (keeps them all) in place. And they seem to keep each other in it quite well. Anything that strays from the norm is immediately noticed, scrutinized, criticized, gawked at, etc.
Have you read "The White Tiger?" I read it since I've been here in Mysore. It's a great book, and it talks about the "rooster coop" being India's best (and possibly only) innovative contribution to the world. Not just the metal cage that holds the chickens in, but the invisible societal cage that holds everyone in their places. And each guards the others, from the inside, so that no one can get out.

I feel sooooooo privileged.

Yes, I could go on and on about all the ways in which this travel experience has reminded me of my many privileges in this life. But I don't have all day! (and, well, I've already spent hours of my day at this computer, to be honest!) India throws another thing in your face that I neglected to mention before: all your blessings in this life. Yes, mine were apparent to me before, but it's all so much clearer now. My life is amazing! And the gratitude I feel...whoa. I can't even begin to tell you. Instead of telling you, I'll make it my goal to express it in every action I perform in this world. To you, to strangers, to no one in particular. Through the grace of the god inside. God (whatever you call that, however you see or understand it) is truly in everyone of us. And "this place" throws that right in your face too, with everything else. Hang on to that one.

Mysore, let's spend one last amazing, hilarious day together! (For now...)

India, it's been REAL. Thanks for...everything.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

exhaustion hits me like the raindrops

I've been back in Mysore for a week now. And I'm exhausted.

So many things here are exhausting. The polluted air and polluted everything outside...the people staring and laughing and asking where you're from and what your name is as you walk past, and sometimes giving you dirty looks and often trying to sell you everything and trying to rip you off all the time...the overstimulating markets...the overstimulating smells and sounds everywhere and all the time. The garbage, the poop, the dirtiness. The sweltering heat. The feeling like an alien outsider all the time. The language barrier. The same food and same stuff everywhere you go, in little stores and restaurants that are all pretty much the same. The vermin everywhere and mosquitoes biting you and the itching and the scratching. The men peeing on the streets wherever they please and I have to walk past them everyday! The cultural differences that are so hard to get accustomed to. The digestive "adventures." Oh, such adventures!

Don't get me wrong - I'm still enjoying myself.

But all of these things in the outside world here are so much more exhausting right now, because my 'inside' world is so exhausting. I've started the second series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa asanas, and it's kicking my butt a little. You wouldn't think holding a handful of extra poses for about 30 seconds each would make that much of a difference, but strangely it does. And I'm taking pranayama classes with the guruji too. You might not think that a little extra breathing would take that much energy, but strangely it does. It's 7:30 pm now and I'm totally pooped.

It's nice to be back in Mysore again, with some familiar faces and places. But I feel some emptiness being here without Wren now. This is the town she knew and introduced me to and showed me around. And we lived in a little apartment together. And I miss her a lot now. Things are back to being wonderful with us now, I would say. And this is a huge relief. Though now we have to miss each other and pine away a little bit. Again. Like before. But only a couple more weeks this time! And we are so lucky to have the internet and skype! Skyping has been a godsend.

Yes, I'm feeling ready to be home. Not crazy or unhappy, just ready to be home. Enjoying what I do here, for the most part, and still feeling so very lucky to have this experience. But I miss my people - my family and friends, my sweetie, and my Seattle with it's familiar beloved places. I miss feeling comfortable and relaxed when I'm out walking around. I miss being able to walk around without being stared at and talked about. I miss being openly friendly and kind to strangers without awkwardness because of such huge cultural and language differences. I miss being able to walk around without being stared at and talked about. I miss toilet paper and soap in public restrooms. I miss cleanliness around me. I miss washing machines. I miss health food stores with organic foods I want to buy and cook for myself. I'm SO spoiled! Yes, I'm very aware of the priveleges of my U.S. life now. So very aware.

I also miss being vegan. I recognized that it would be torturously hard to be vegan here, having to eat out at restaurants where there is ghee in nearly everything and the people barely speak enough English to even take your simple orders sometimes. So I've relaxed my normal standards. I don't eat blatant dairy, and I have no desire to. Just some ghee here and there, mostly. And I still eat eggs every now and then, these days. I still crave them sometimes. It's such a different diet here, and I have much less control and fewer options for what I can eat to fulfill my nutritional needs. Good news: I've started eating wheat again and it seems to be going fine. Yes!!!

Today I rented another moped. I have been only walking around for the last week, but I'm so tired all the time! And for about a buck a day I think it's totally worth it. (And yes, everyone, that includes a rental helmet!) I'm very happy to be scooting around again!

As awkward as it was sometimes, I rather enjoyed being seen as a boy in other parts of India. Here in Mysore, I am a "madam" again. That's how they address female people here. You walk past a store front: "Yes, madam! What do you want?" It's a little abrasive, the way they say it. And oh man. I never want to be called madam, ever. Never ever in my life!

It's been raining here in the evenings. I think the monsoon season is just about to start. I've been rained on a couple times on the way home. I've sat out back at the shala with my friend and watched beautiful brilliant lightning shows. I got totally drenched the other night on the way back to the shala with my takeout dinner. I was smiling as I trudged through puddles in my flipflops, until I thought about the puddles - the rainwater swishing around and steeping all the garbage and shit on the streets. Lovely! But it was still kind of fun. And luckily there is a hot shower at the shala (amazing!) so I could wash it all off.

Yes, wash it all off. That will be my first order of business when I'm back in the states. I will retain all the magic and beauty and spirit and flavor and wonderfulness I've experienced here, and the rest I'll wash off. Like dirty poopy puddle water! I can't wait to be clean.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mysore muscles! (GET IT?!)

Oh man. Where to begin?

I left you last in Calicut. Wren and I did hardly anything there, though we stayed for several days. Just wallowed around in the luxury of our nice hotel with its super-comfy bed and cable tv and room service. (And hot water and toilet paper! YES!) We saw half of an Indian movie in a theater (we left at intermission - we had seen enough of it and couldn't understand the dialogue anyway...but the dance scenes are always fun). I got my haircut at the man "saloon" and though I got busted for it by another customer, it was a lovely experience all around. There was a little shopping (I bought myself some super-sweet man shirts!), and a lot of relationship woes/fallout. And processing. Things were pretty low with us by the time we were leaving Calicut.

Trying to keep our chins up, we proceeded to Kalpetta, a little town in the mountains. The bus ride there was intense and super fun. Packed full of people, and we were standing the whole time, with our big bags in everyone's way in the aisle. Crying babies next to Wren, which made me laugh, in that "of course" sort of a way. We scaled the mountainside, going a little too fast for comfort sometimes on the steep road with its hairpin turns. It was a blast. Worth standing up for hours and sweating like a pig.

We weren't super active in Kalpetta either, but we did manage some sight-seeing. And continued our yoga practice in our hotel room. And discovered a tiny and amazingly delicious "hotel" (and by this they mean "restaurant"), which ended up being one of our favorite places of our whole trip. (Best waiter, too!) We saw a beautiful little lake, and the next day a little island area that we had to wade over to with hiked-up britches. We visited a mountain temple (though it was not majestic or exciting as I thought it might be. It's just an important one to the Hindi people). My favorite adventure we had there was visiting Edakkal Caves, where we marveled at 6,000 year old etchings on the walls. Amazing! They were intricate and so beautiful. And we had to climb, climb, climb up rocks and little metal ladders to get there. Something you would never experience at a tourist spot in the U.S. It seems like there is an unspoken "use/enter at your own risk" understanding here. They just don't go out of their way with safety precautions like Americans do. Probably because people here aren't lawsuit-crazy like us 'mericans.

Though we had a rough start there (some pretty emo moments/days), things between me and Wren were on the mend and felt much much better by the end of the week in Kalpetta. We certainly have a very special connection, and acknowledged that. I think we will always have special places in each other's lives, regardless of what the 'label' on our relationship might be. No expectations for the future of things, but no worries either. Though things between us might be different than I thought they might be, I feel like no matter what, we "made it." In our way. And I feel so much stronger for it.

Kerala is full of Christians and meat. Way more churches and meat eateries than the other places we've been. And the people continued to be forward with their questioning of our backgrounds, our travel plans, my relationship with Wren, and my sex/gender, in hilarious ways... "Are you brother and sister?"... To Wren: "He is your brother? Son?" (That one was reeeeeally a stretch!)... "Are you two girls, or one boy/one girl?" (To which I answered, "Yes!")..."You are coming from?" - "U.S.A." - "Boy or girl?" - "Both." - "Ah, boy. Yes, boy."

I've noticed how much less attention I get when I'm walking around on my own here. Like I almost blend in, and only the people who really look at me seem to notice ways in which I stand out. It seems that I'm like an anonymous boy on the streets to them here. Which is kind of nice. Wren got a lot of attention because of her fairness, which greatly contrasts most of the population here. And that gets a whole range of interesting responses, from excited children to giggling teens to creepy leering men to older people who just stare, stare, stare. Just before leaving the Edakkal Caves area, we were bombarded by a whole busload full of laughing teenagers, who immediately started taking photos of us (and with us), like a wee and totally silly paparazzi. It was intense and really amusing all at once.

This whole country is SO INTENSE. Really, everything. Sometimes I really miss the U.S., where a person can usually be clean and left-alone if they want to be. But really I'm quite content here, still. Having good times, and feeling comfortable in India in general, despite the great differences in culture. (Though I have to admit that the thought of returning home in a few weeks is getting more and more exciting...)

Our first attempt to leave Kalpetta turned into a terrible karma travel day. It involved being misinformed many, many times about bus departures. A nasty little town called Mepaddi, which was full of creepy and unhelpful "helpful" men. A hotel that turned us down when we tried to think of a plan B. I ripped off half of a toenail with my rolly-bag, and it ached and bled. We waited for hours. We had planned to go to Ooty as our last stop before Wren's return home. We made a plan C. Ended up going back to Kalpetta, to the very same hotel we had left earlier that day (after trying, and failing, to find a room somewhere else). We got the last available room. All the people there laughed at us. I think they found us entertaining the entire time, but most especially when we came crawling back with our tails between our legs, weary from the day's hardships. But all in all, we enjoyed ourselves in spite of things. It was one of the best bad days I've ever had. We found joy in complaining about India's many exasperating things, and laughing about all the lousy things that happened to us. Ended the day with a memorably delicious dinner, and enjoyed that mediocre hotel more than ever.

The next day we got on a bus back to Calicut, where we went to the railway station. Took a train to Kannur and transferred towards Bangalore. We thought it would be a 6 or 7 hour ride, judging by the number of kilometers. But our estimate was WAY off! It ended up being about 16 hours long, overnight. And because we weren't aware of this, we didn't purchase "sleeper" tickets. So we tried to sleep in our "Second Class" train car, which ended up being packed with Indian people, who slept in piles with each other on the seats, luggage racks, and ALL over the floor. It was amazing and hideous and a little bit sweet and definitely overwhelming. You couldn't get up to go to the bathroom without stepping on sleeping people, as much as you tried to be careful. We were all really packed in there. Luckily, Wren and I had secured seats. But unfortunately, we had to sit next to and across from some large men with bad breath who leaned over to sleep on me with all their weight (that's what the guys do with the other guys...without asking) and passive aggressively groped Wren with elbows and dirty bare feet while feigning sleep. Etc. Eew! It was a great feeling to get off that train. Though I was grateful that I got to witness it. Not grateful for the nastiness Wren had to deal with, but she handled it quite gracefully, considering. We had some coffee and decompression time at the train station before finding a hotel.

It was another nice one. Another comfy bed and cable TV and all of that. And we felt we deserved a nice experience, after that! We were determined to enjoy Wren's last few days in India. And enjoy we did! We hung out mostly in a commercial district in Bangalore. Some shopping, natch. Drinking coffee with soymilk (Yes! Finally!) at some of Bangalore's many Western-style coffee shops (those are not common or even existent in the other places we've been). Enjoying good food, a nice hotel, and each other. A lot. Realizing that we would have to spend the next few weeks so far away from each other, after everything we'd been through, made us really appreciate the time we had left together.

My favorite thing we did in Bangalore was visit a GAY BAR! Yes, really! OMG! We had been to a couple bars in little towns before, which were dark, shady, dirty rooms full of only men. Not really even any young men. But this place was different. No dance floor (to my dismay! And even a sign on the wall that said "NO DANCING," which I thought was quite funny, though it disappointed me) but they were playing some great dancable music. It's called NASA and it looked like a spaceship inside. The waiters were dressed like captains. It was full of mostly well-dressed, young men. I drank several whiskeys, with gusto. (I've hardly been drinking since I've been here, so I was pretty excited about that!) Men made eyes at me from across the room, and I loved it. They stared and smiled and seemed to be trying to figure out what my relationship with Wren might be. And maybe trying to determine my gender. It was kind of like getting to be a gay boy for an evening. Well, sort of. Whatever it was, I had a lot of fun. I avoided using the bathroom there, to avoid awkward gender moments. Using either bathroom is awkward for me here, when they are separated by gender. After we left I scooted into a fancy coffee shop next door, and quickly slipped into the ladies' room. But before I reached a stall, a young lady came in to inform me that I was in the wrong place. I nodded with understanding and left. Used the "Gents" room, with a smile on my face.

I was sad to see Wren leave! I knew I would miss her (and I have been!) I went with her to the airport, but I wasn't allowed inside at all, so we had our moment of socially unacceptable PDA (not that we were being inappropriate by American standards...it's just that almost any PDA is unacceptable here) and she headed off. I took a taxi home and enjoyed one more night in the nice hotel, but this time strangely, all-of-a-sudden alone.

I spent the next day visiting Ethan again, because he and the students in his program from Auroville were staying at a farm outside of Bangalore. I had a great time hanging out with all of them again - they're nice and funny and bright young college students. And Ethan is an amazing friend. The couple who own the farm (a Bangalore native and her American husband, who she met in Auroville) were so lovely and hospitable and welcomed me to their home and fed me delicious food. They had 2 kittens and a 3-week-old baby calf named Nandi. So beautiful! And the mama cow licked my sweaty arms all over with her rough scratchy tongue while I laughed and laughed. I saw her get milked, and had a couple of tiny cups of masala chai that were made with her fresh milk. And I enjoyed it and didn't feel ethically opposed. We slept on a raised platform under the stars. I woke up a couple times and enjoyed seeing the moon directly above me for little moments before I drifted back to sleep.

The Auroville kids and I had to go our separate ways the next day. I left Bangalore with the intent (and the ticket) to go to Mysore, where I am spending the last few weeks of my trip to learn more asanas (the Ashtanga second series!) and pranayama (yogic breathing exercise to control the 'life force') with my beloved guruji. I got on the train at the platform the displays told me to go to. Didn't ask anyone about it, because I had gone to the right one, right?

Wrong. I somehow got on the wrong train. I'm still not quite sure why that happened. After several hours, some kind people asked me where I was going, and when I said Mysore, they kindly informed me that I was not on the Mysore train. I didn't know where I was. Somewhere not on the map I had. And they couldn't even point to the area on the map. And all of a sudden I had almost everyone on the train car gathered around me, speaking to me adamantly in languages I couldn't understand. At all. And it was really intense, but also really funny, and I did a lot of smiling and shrugging and shaking my head and saying "Only English." And they repeated that to each other: "English, english, english"...like the telephone game without the whispering. Only one of them could really speak any of it. And they were all talking about me (which was embarrassing and kind of fun at the same time!) and, luckily, trying to help me. And they did. I wasn't sure how things would turn out (having experienced some very unhelpful "help" recently), but they were just fine. I got off in a little town called Arsikere that was charming and lively, even though it was after 9pm. I could've caught the last bus of the day to Mysore from there, but instead decided to stay the night and leave in the morning, rather than arrive at 1 am.

I got myself a small, dirty, and slightly creepy hotel room. The whole place seemed to be staffed entirely by two 12-year-old boys, one of which wouldn't get off his cell phone, and the other of which had some serious boundary issues (at least in my opinion... But it seems like most of the people at the hotels here do. Even at the nice ones, they don't know how to leave you alone!). Because of its location next to the train station, the room was overpriced for what it was, but cost me a little less than 5 U.S. dollars. I endured (and appreciated, on some level) the creepiness and grossness, and even managed to practice my yoga in the morning, before stepping out to have a fresh coconut and an amaaaazing breakfast, and no one tried to rip me off in that town, like a lot of people do in a lot of places here. (This was especially nice after Bangalore, where everyone tried to rip me off SO much!).

I finally made it to Mysore! Took a bus here (after bad luck on the last couple train rides), and happily arrived at the yoga shala, where I am staying for most of my last few weeks here. It's been nice staying there so far and I've made a few new friends already, without even trying. And we've been doing fun things together. I haven't even had time to be lonely, even if I wanted to be! I still miss Wren a lot, though. So strange to go from 2 intense months of togetherness (almost 24-hrs a day, the whole time!) to being on opposite sides of the world again, with only email communication. But I am enjoying myself a lot so far - enjoying new people, enjoying practicing with my guruji again, and enjoying a little bit of alone time. (though not even that much so far...)

This place is extremely intense. This country, and its people, are extremely beautiful. And a lot of other things, extremely. And these things are challenging and wonderful all the time.