by Jess Holl

Points South

Freedom is riding in the open-air sleeper car through the Western Ghats. There are peacocks on the train tracks and palm tree forests planted on the city outskirts. The Sabari Express is bound for Kerala, and I with it.

The train speeds past farms and cows and thatch-roof villages that pass quickly. The mountains in the distance remain mostly the same. We pass Indian Railway workers with uniform indigo turbans, happy babies being held by their grandmothers, roadside Sadhus with painted faces, buffalos with companion egrets.

A chai man serves tea in paper cups, and I meet a nice accountant who offers to throw my trash out the window for me. “Nooooooooo…thank you!” I manage, snatching it back. “Oh,” he laughs, “That’s the cultural difference between Indians and Americans.” I launch a brief presentation on environmental conservation, and when he finishes his soda, he tucks the empty bottle in his briefcase.

I disembark at Varkala as the sun is setting. The town is a cliffside sickle of pristine beach that’s been stampeded by tourists into a parody of itself, but it’s undeniably beautiful, anyway.

A few km away are quieter stretches of sand where foreigners still fear to tread due to lack of resort facilities, and here I spend the next couple days getting equitorially sunburnt among the fishing boats and tossed about by the Arabian Sea. The fishermen’s crafts boggle the mind, from large cruisers to a floating splinter.

When not rubbing aloe on my crisp skin, my Kerala shortlist includes a glimpse of the backwaters, some temple-going, and large-animal sighting. Conveniently, I soon find myself canoeing across a saltwater lake to an island temple dedicated to Shiva.

It’s said that a thief once swam to the temple in the middle of the night to steal the eyes of Shiva, which were made of pure gold. He plucked out the statue’s eyes and pocketed them, then jumped back into the water to make his escape. Halfway there, he suddenly got very tired. He couldn’t swim a stroke farther. But he found that if he turned around, he could swim back to the island. Upon reaching shore, he tried again to leave, and again had only the strength to return to the island. His thwarted attempts finally got the best of him, and in the morning fishermen found his body floating in the lake. Shiva’s eyes were never recovered. 

On a bonus excursion, I ran into “Sacred Emotion,” by Donny Osmond. It’s a river…flowing into the ocean. 

The backwaters floated upon, the ocean swum in and tributaries spotted, words of warning against messing with Shiva imparted, there was one final item, after four days on the jungly coast, that I needed to check off before continuing my journey:


Ooty’s Beauty

There is a distinct point, when driving into the Nilgiri range from the steamy flatlands of Tamil Nadu, when you feel the air change. It’s almost literally as your car turns a bend: the humidity lifts, the roadside monkeys are more energetic, and you conjure a doctor’s voice from the 19th century: “The mountain air will do you good.”

This was no doubt the advice of physicians to many a pallid and sweltering colonialist headed for Ooty, the British hill station known locally as Ootacamund, located near the highest point in southern India—and the farthest away from summer’s heat you could get.

I’d connected with a wonderful new friend, Isabelle, who’d come to India just for the ashram program where we met. She now had three days left before her flight home and wanted to see a slice of India, but had gotten quite ill and was still recovering from her stomach bug. I, on the other hand, had a grant-writing deadline and needed a quick retreat. “Come with me, “ I suggested, “The mountain air will do you good.”

Among the joys of traveling alone, the consistent quality of one’s accommodations may not number. But when traveling as a pair, there are times when a palace stay presents itself and you can say “yes!” And so we booked ourselves as guests for the weekend at Fernhills Palace, the Majaraja of Mysore’s summer retreat. 

As my stomach had also gone funny the night before departure, the palace turned out to be the perfect place to play the part of ailing expats, padding around lofty hallways and ballrooms, wrapped in a shawl and searching out the butler to bring us tea in the garden, if you would be so kind.

Fernhills also greatly satisfied my penchant for poking around crumbling grandeur, as a few buildings on the property had missed by the loving hands of restoration. The badminton house was one such edifice, its net still strung despite parts of the roof having caved in. I also had one of many “Wes Anderson, eat your heart out,” moments when I discovered hand-painted murals of bygone elephant and tiger hunts in dormant guesthouses. [See more in the slide show]

It was also here in Ooty that my computer, beautifully set up on a writing desk with provenance, facing west to the summer garden and sunset, died, along with my grant-writing agenda.

“You know, it was too beautiful,” said Isa, consoling me as I had a small meltdown along with my technology. “Your setup here was too perfect. Now, come out sightseeing with me—the mountain air will do you good.”

No, she didn’t say that. She’s French, and wonderfully pragmatic. It was more like “What are you going to do, sit here alone? I’m sorry your computer broke, but I’m glad you can come sightseeing with me now. Come.”

And so I left the palace and saw Ooty: the highest mountain point with strange leftover theme park debris, the tea factory and plantations, the pungent local market, the temples—check, check, check.

As Isabelle and I sat in the Botanic Gardens (the greenhouse featured exotic plants from…North America), Indian families and passersby would stop and ask us to take a photo—with them. We were as popular as the begonias. 

Suddenly having a traveling companion for the first time in weeks, my fellow India-first-timer and I got on like a house on fire. It was so wonderful to have a girlfriend to have long dinners with under the anachronistic bug zappers in the dining hall. I had heart-to-hearts with a real person instead of just my notebook.

And while making this brilliant new friend, it also really made me homesick for the first time all trip.

While these travels deeply satisfy the romantic adventurer in me, it’s the support of the people I love that helps me be and do everything I’m being and doing—I very much need my friends and family, and I don’t say that enough. So: thank you. I love and miss you, and thanks for being out there. 

DYI: Doing Yoga in India

I thought I would first come to India to Do Yoga. You know: the ashram in the middle of the jungle on the banks of a large, placid river. I wear loose cotton pants and walk barefoot on marble floors. I bunk on a hard cot in a large dorm building. I eat lentils, wake up at 5 a.m., do yoga 5 times a day, meditate, chant while sitting on said marble floors. Here is where I would find an Enlightened Practice through a little starvation and a lot of uncomfortable seating.  

And then I came to India for a documentary film instead. And in Udaipur, where the team was based, was a spare blue concrete building with a cardboard sign out front:

Yoga: 7 a.m.  8 a.m. and 7 p.m.

 Anja, my director, and I decided to go.

The floor’s short-pile green rug looked like AstroTurf, and there were person-size throw rugs everywhere. Hmm, could we Do Yoga without our Lululemon Non-Slip Travel Mats? They seemed rather out of place and we hid them in the corner with our shoes.

Turns out: yoga is very possible on a throw rug. It’s even pleasurable. And this challenging class was moreover one of the most meditative I’d ever been to. In one hour, I realized this was a very different kind of yoga than a lot of what I’d been doing. Not physically, but philosophically. It dawned on me that this was yoga as preparation for meditation, a way of wringing out the body to prep it for something next.

In Pushkar, I sought out a yoga class again, this time tucked away on the second floor of a hotel.  Also on a rug in an even smaller blue concrete room, I practiced what most NY studios would bill as a restorative class, and then we immediately followed it with meditation.  I was finally able to sit still. I even got my brain to stop chattering for a few minutes.

I began realizing maybe I’d been missing the point of yoga. The toning and flexibility and general well-being that happen—these are side effects. The purpose here is to lay the groundwork for something greater. But I’m not sure the class descriptions at the local gym chains mention that part.

Ah: I had figured it out. Yoga in the U.S. is, like, totally commercialized, industrialized, fetishized. It’s lost its focus, lost touch with its roots. I need to bring Yoga back to the People! Ahem. And so in Mumbai, when a new friend recommended his ashram, I thought: Absolutely! Bring on the cinderblocks and rag rugs! 

It was like a spa visit. My room was air conditioned, and I got a required massage once a day. There were hot showers, the food had inspired its own cookbook—there’s even a gift shop.

Wait, wait, wait, I was just getting used to calm-as-marble yogis gently stretching me to a higher plane in their carpeted cells. What does this place think it’s doing with its own café?

And then I took its program and none of that mattered. Their blissful corner of the foothills in southern India was actually really nice to be in while undergoing some intensive mental exercise.

Inevitable conclusion: it’s not where but what. It’s not content but context. I have a new understanding of yoga in service to a much higher aim for your brain. Had I gone directly to Eat, Pray, Love and not passed this circuitous route of circumstance, would I have realized the same thing? Or maybe you connect the dots toward meditation as you’re ready. However it happened, I’m grateful for it. After two years of regular yoga practice, I am just now beginning.

Bombay Talkie

I instantly liked Mumbai. Maybe it was because my plane made an emergency landing on the way there, I don’t know. But this solid ground felt great from the moment I exited the airport and got ritually scammed by a cab driver.

This latter is a part of life as a solo white woman in India, but of course my responsibility to be vigilant as a savvy, if sometimes too-tired-to-protest traveler. You pick your battles. As Pernilla, my Danish friend, described her experience in Thailand: “I’m sorry to say it, but some days I walked down the street and just felt like a wallet.”

I had gotten advice from my Bombay host-with-the-most, Akshaya, to take a rickshaw to his place, or if I had to take a taxi, go for the guys in khaki and tell them it wouldn’t be more than Rs. 175. So I walked out the exit, got flagged down by some guys in white, and paid Rs. 300 for a cab that promptly got lost. Well, it had been a long day.

I was greeted with a welcome-cocktail and some conversation—and that pretty much set the tone for the weekend. Bombay is all about conversation. When I arrived here, all I had was the contact info of some friends-of-friends—and by the time I left, I considered them all my own. My first/lasting impression of this city, then, has less to do with the time I spent at India Gate and Taj Palace Hotel than it did in apartments and bars with Jan, Anil, Julius, Akshaya, and more, having candid, sincere, funny, no-topic-off-limits conversations with people I hadn’t even met just days before, the kinds of talks you value your closest friends for. 

Bombay’s apartment views: Versova & Pali Hill

Though talks ran the gamut from American vs. Indian toilets (listen: we are all essentially peeing into a hole in the ground, we’re just sitting higher or lower) to finding the guru you’re ready for (and messages that touch you), as I’ve experienced almost everywhere on this trip, the conversation tends to culminate in love. “Who’s loving you?” or “Who are you loving?” is inevitably asked. I love this question. It’s not “how is your love life/who are you dating?” but rather: who’s in your life that you have a meaningful relationship with? There’s a very different (some in the West might say forgotten) attitude and even value structure implicit in this question. And Indians are real romantics: My friend Mathilde, in fact, was allowed to transfer her job from Mumbai to NYC because she confessed to her bosses that she was in love and they thought that was great. (True!). Now that I’ve been here for awhile, I am getting a much better sense of this logic, this priority of love, and it’s influencing me to reprioritize my own heart in a way I haven’t for a long time.

The city is big, and sprawling, so in the moments I decided to motivate outside the domestic hang-time sphere, I did some worthwhile exploring. I even took the train! When I got on, this ladies-only train car was at least four straphangers to a handle. 

Unintentionally empowering sign in the ladies’ car

Mumbai’s daily bustle can be more enchanting than its tourist attractions. On Sunday, everyone was hanging out under the banyan trees, or stuck in traffic in wonderfully upholstered taxis.

My favorite spot, by far, was the treasure-hunting mecca of Chor Bazaar’s antiques market. I am STILL thinking about these solid brass cobra candlesticks, though I guess my backpack is 10lbs lighter without them.

As I felt upon leaving, so Proust writes of a traveler on a distant evening train: “…the path he is taking will be engraved in his memory by the excitement induced by strange surroundings, by unaccustomed activities, by the conversation he has had and the farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp that still echo in his ears amid the silence of the night…”

I’m OK, You’re OK, We’re OK

My hard drive crashed.

India, being the IT capital of the world, would be where they would be able to salvage said hard drive and recover things I didn’t back up, such as all of the writing, interviews, and photos from this trip. Right? Nope.

So, here I sit, writing on a brand new, baby-smooth HD. It’s beautiful in its virginal condition, anyway, and India lives in my mind. I’m so grateful that I’ve posted what I have so far, that the first part of my trip has been extensively documented, and that I was too lazy to transfer the last 400 snaps off my camera before it all went down. So what this means for you, dear readers, is: more posts! More photos! Let’s get on with it.

SCENE OF THE CRIME: At least it went out in style. 

Pushkar 1974

“I am not sure what you are perceiving,” said my guru, “but why are you so negative in your writing?”

Varmaji had not been following my blog. But in the first Reiki session he performed on me, he read me like a book. He brought things up that I had barely mentioned to my closest friends but had been recognizing in myself for a while now. My mind was blown, and I spent the next few days in intense practice with him.

For anyone who ever wanted to live in (or re-live) the ’70s, now you can, thanks to Pushkar. I spent three blissful days working for hours on yoga, meditation, and Reiki practices, and in between received honest well-wishes on the streets and had two pujas (kind of assisted prayers) at the Ghats, wherein (to simplify) you’re given a flower, explained that you make a wish or a prayer on the flower, toss it in the holy lake—holy because it sprang up  where Brahma himself dropped a flower—and get a ribbon tied around your wrist. It was rather magical in its consistent peacefulness.

I felt so much here. The Brahma temple, one of the only ones in the world dedicated to this god, had an intensely powerful energy. When I would wake up in the morning in my pink hotel room (at the sweet Bharatpur Palace Hotel) overlooking the lake, I felt more grounded and centered than I ever have in my life.

My last night in town, I got a dinner recommendation from the son of the hotel owners, and the only other people at the food stall at that late hour were three fellow travelers—Marc, a weathered French expat living all over India, and Jamie and Pernilla, a bike-riding couple also traveling around. They were kind, and playing chess, and we made happy chit-chat for half an hour or so and I went on my way.

The next morning, I traveled to Jaipur. Again my room booking was confused and I instead landed at a random place by the train station (though it had a lovely window, see below). Resisting the pressure of my rickshaw driver to go to the shops and factories that give him a commission for bringing customers there, I thought I’d just wander around by myself.

Turns out, Jaipur is not a small place. I got lost for a couple hot and sweaty hours after discovering the scale of the map I held was quite larger than those I had previously been referencing. At one point a motorcyclist pulled up next to me and offered me a ride: “It’s my duty to God,” he explained. “Please, let me help you!” Unfortunately, I knew I was imminently about to reacquaint myself with an earlier lunch that made me feel queasy, so I kindly declined his offer and threw up behind a tree instead.

But eventually, I reached Anokhi, an air-conditioned oasis of printed cottons, recommended by my savvy textile-designer friend, Caroline. After shopping a bit, I realized I hadn’t any lunch left in my system and ordered a coffee and rose-cocconut cake at the adjacent café. And then Pernilla sat down at the table next to me.

It was totally wonderful to see this recently familiar face. We shared some time together and had a beautiful conversation about life. I feel, now, it was an extra gift from Pushkar, a nudge to keep going on my path. 

The next morning I checked out of my shanty hotel, a murky fish tank coughing in the lobby. The owner happened to be sitting there, and he chatted me up. He told me he lived part time in Venice, and he used to be a singer. “Do you know ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” he asked, and began singing in a smooth baritone, “There’s a lady who’s sure /all that glitters is gold/and she’s buying the stairway to heaven/When she gets there she knows/if the stores are all closed/with a word she can get what she came for/Ooooh ooh ooooh/and she’s buying the stairway to heaven…” And then, “Do you know ‘Norwegian Wood?’ I used to sing that one, too. Ravi Shankar played on that song.” But then my rickshaw pulled up and I bid him adieu, funnily humming “Norwegian Wood” on the way to the airport.  

I think the most important thing that has changed for me in the last few days is acquiring the ability, perhaps the mindfulness, to see beauty in all things. When I look back at my writing now, I do see a level of negativity, a point of view that came from a different place.

My guru related a story that I’ll paraphrase here: Krishna was known for seeing beauty everywhere. One student, disbelieving, led him to a dog, lying dead on the street. “Teacher,” he said, “Tell me, how can you see beauty in this?” To which he replied, “Look at his teeth. They are like a string of pearls.”

Jodhpur Telegram, 18 February

Today I wandered around a fortress palace that had never gotten sacked.

I met an Aussie director who got lost as he led the way there from our hotel, during which time he told me a good friend of his had died and he was cutting his trip short to attend the funeral. He recommended the audio tour.

The palace rooms—decorated with painted flowers, glittering mirrors, gilded everything, crushed-shell wall plaster that shone finer than polished marble—were indeed perfectly intact, preserved in their age of decadence. It was expansive and did not have in its bones the feeling of ruinous chaos that other castles are energetically battered with.

I wish I could say the same about the rest of Jodhpur, but frankly, this town is for the birds.

Admittedly, I got in at 5 a.m. after an overnight bus ride. What for the first half hour seemed like a deleted scene from The Darjeeling Limited, with tinny Hindi-pop playing from invisible speakers and the driver’s windshield-shrine strung with marigolds and fogged with incense, soon became nothing more than cold and uncomfortable, with me rolling like a crayon in my little sleeper bed with every lilting turn.  

Judging from the condition of my backpack when we unloaded at an empty gas station outside of town, the bus’s “luggage compartment” was merely an extension of the wheel well. I tossed the bag with a dusty thud into a rickshaw that brought me to my hotel—which was full. A sick woman occupied the room they’d booked me, apparently, but oh, the owner and my driver knew of a room in their friend’s run-down hostel a block away. My skin too tired to crawl, I crashed for 3 hours, then wrangled a room at the delightful Singvhi’s Haveli, resuscitating myself with a masala omelet and saffron lassi on the roof.

After I returned from Mehrangarh Fort, I booked my flight to Mumbai (the gateway to the southern half of my trip), and then decided to go to the nicest restaurant in town in an effort to erase the accumulated ill will from the morning.  No such luck.

Five minutes into my walk, two boys came up to me and told me they wanted to f— me, more delighted by the dirty word than its meaning. Every child whose “Hello!” I returned immediately asked for cash, and two men walked into me, hard. Stopping at a chai wallah, I was quoted 10 rupees for the standard thimbleful (we can talk American v. Indian drink portions later)—twice the price I’ve been paying. The streets are an intricate and ancient maze, filled with the same chaos of by-comparison-wildly-friendly Udaipur—motorcycles, cows, wedding processions—but with the edgy undercurrent of a city still uncomfortable with its place on the tourist map.

Like a character out of Romancing the Stone, I was stumbling by the end, turned around, slipping on cow shit and rubble, massaging a deepening stress line between my eyes, shawl flapping off my shoulders. And then I emerged into the Clock Tower square and spotted Pal Haveli by a serene and late-working basket-weaving market.

Thankfully, at the end of the day, you can usually count on a $5 dinner in a palace somewhere and a view of a fort with unscalable walls. But I’m still getting the hell out of Jodhpur first thing in the morning.  

Part the First: Fin

USA-BOUND: Dear Mom & Dad: This is the last time I mail you a buffalo skull I found in the desert in Rajasthan—sorry, but you have great taxidermists in Western Mass.

Our first leg of filming for Dressed in White has wrapped—and I’ve decamped to Pushkar, where I’ll be posting a serious cliffhanger on the docu-blog as the penultimate installment. We now return to regularly scheduled programming on Ease of Movement—portraits, places, and postcards coming up next in Part the Second: Rajasthan. 

Ultralite Powered by Tumblr | Designed by:Doinwork