leaving rameswaram

March 2006

I returned to my hotel after the bucket ceremony and lounged around for a few hours thinking about my past three days in Rameswaram. I sat on my little balcony staring out into the ocean wishing that I did not have to leave this place. Of course I was not under any delusion that if Fate decreed that I stay here that Rameswaram would be peaches and cream. I’m sure it would be just like when you meet a man and have a wild weekend love affair only to discover when you do try to make it work that he really hates your cats and he farts all night. I packed my bag.

Kannen returned in plenty of time to take me to the train station. I had to pay him for his three days of being my guide. When we met he told me that I should pay him what I think he’s worth, that it was totally up to me, he never asked for any money during our time together.

When he arrived he said, “Kannen wants to talk to you,” referring to himself in the third person, which I thought was quaint. He came into my room without asking. I thought that was rather bold and I left the door open as I stood close to it. He sat down on my bed. I thought that was even bolder remembering again what I had been told about South Indian culture and men. “What do you think of Kannen?,” he asked. I thought I should be careful in what I say, my guard was up. I told him that I thought he was a good and kind man, and also a quietly spiritual one. He began to tell me how he felt a connection to me these past few days, that he knows I am a spiritual woman. But then he told me that his wife did not understand him and that they always fight, that he has his life and she has hers. I groaned inwardly and I bit my lips to keep from smiling. Are men truly the same all over the world?!? Is there a Universal Male Playbook that contains these lines?

I looked at him and slowly shook my head. “You are married, and so am I,” I said very seriously. Then I said something I thought he would understand even more…”and I have a dear friend. Understand? ‘dear friend?’,” and I pointed to my heart. “He is always in here.” Kannen nodded that he understood.

We walked out and he asked me for $40. This was over and above the rupees I had given him for his guide services. I raised an eyebrow, squinted, and looked sideways at him. Then he asked me if I would buy him a cellphone when I got back home and send it to him. One would think that this conversation immediately after telling me that I’m a spiritual woman would infuriate me, but it didn’t. I actually thought it was hilarious and tried very hard to keep from laughing. For some reason it did not phase me at all.

I explained to him that there was no way I was going to buy him a cellphone and send it to him when he lives in a country where even the Shiva babas own cellphones. I told him that Indian cellphones are much cheaper than American ones. However, I did break down and give him an extra $20 in American money. His guide services were definitely worth it, and besides….his wife didn’t understand him, how could I refuse?

I gave him a bandana covered with OM symbols that was still wet from the temple water. I told him he could remember me by it. He put it in his shirt pocket telling me it would keep me close to his heart. Quaint. A smooth operator.

We said goodbye at the train station and he told me that when (not if) I return to Rameswaram, he will always be there to help me, to “please call Kannen.” Of course I will. How can I not?

I sat in non-air-conditioned First Class for my 17 hour train ride back to Chennai. My compartment mate was a businessman going home to the state of Andhra Pradesh. Compared to my first compartment mates on the train to Madurai which was a long two weeks ago, this man was very polite and talkative, and spoke perfect English. We talked about yoga and meditation, about Gandhi, and the politics in India. He told me that there are many Indians who hate Gandhi and this surprised me very much.

I loved the train ride because since it was not air-conditioned, there was no window glass, the windows had bars across them. In every station we came to along the way I heard the cries of the chai merchants or food sellers and they would hand me my purchases through the window. A magazine seller walked by and seeing the feringhee woman, he pushed English magazines through the window at me, telling me to “buy, madam, buy! Look! English!” I kept telling him “no” in Tamil as the train pulled away.

We pulled into Chennai at about 8 am and my compartment mate made sure that I knew where I was going. I did, and Suresh picked me up in his rickshaw to drive me back to my hotel. Although I loved my travels, I had missed the cacophony that was Chennai. I spent the next two days chillin’ in Chennai, and did a day trip to Tiruvannamalai, another famous temple town.

My month in India was finally over and I cried the night I had to leave. But I knew I would be back. I can not stay away from My India.

out with the old karma, in with the new

March, 2006

Kannen and I walked to the ends of Dhanushkodi, almost to Sri Lanka, in the noonday Indian sun, but I was too hot and too exhausted to walk back to where we had started. I opted for the 30 rupee truck ride back. Other people joined us in back of that truck and at one point we got stuck in the sand — we all got out and the men pushed and pulled the truck until we were free. Using the rope that was tied to the top of the truck, I grabbed it and swung myself back up, enjoying every moment of the ride back. I did not understand a word anyone was saying, but I felt comfortable, never out of place in the back of an old truck on a beach in India.

My right-out-of-the-ocean fish lunch was waiting for me – and for Kannen, of course, since I paid for his lunch and the ride back – and it seemed to me that I had never had a more delicious meal. Sitting at the fisherman’s makeshift lunch counter in front of his open fire, I watched him cook as his daughter cleaned the planks that were used as seats and tables. Kannen told everyone that I was an “American yoga teacher” and everyone smiled and nodded their heads and asked me if I liked India. “I love India!,” I said, and that brought even bigger smiles. One Indian showed me his Bible and asked me if I knew Jesus. I told him that I certainly did know Jesus and the man was satisfied with that, he did not try to convert me. When we left, the fisherman asked me to stay in Rameswaram to teach his daughter English. I laughed and told him I would if he could find me yoga students. If only I could have stayed…

I got back to my hotel and that night Kannen and I walked to the great temple. The Ramalingeshwara Temple was built in the 12th century, and has magnificent pillared walkways, 1,212 pillars on the north and south sides. This temple is different from other temples as it is a temple for worshipers of both Shiva and Vishnu. The temple contains 22 temple tanks (like wells) each with water where one can “bathe”, that is, three buckets of water from each tank are poured over you by a temple attendant. Each tank is said to have special benefits: one gives you relief from debt, one gives you “complete wisdom”, one gives long life to a woman, and other things. I was to go through this dunking early the next morning.

Kannen and I sat and talked for a long time. Once again, as in all my travels, I was the only westerner. We sat by a tank where a man was pouring water over a boy and Kannen pointed out that was what I was going through tomorrow. I felt very much at peace in this temple, I felt like I could have slept there all night. Kannen told me about his life, his children, how his sister lived in Germany, how he likes meeting so many people from all over the world. He said he would arrange for my bucket ceremony. He told me it would cost 300 rupees, which I knew was a scandalous rip-off, but I did not care. I saw what the price was on the sign outside the temple and the cost was at least three times less than that, but I also knew that prices are automatically increased for foreigners. Besides, when would I be here again?

Kannen picked me up at 6 AM the next morning. We walked to the temple and I met my “bucket man”, a friend of Kannen’s (of course.) We stopped at each tank with the rest of the pilgrims and my man would put the bucket in the tank three times and pour the water over my head. However, he was practically running from tank to tank! I figured he was thinking, OK, I got my money, let’s get this show over with, and I told him to slow down, that I did not want to fall because the floor was sopping wet from the dripping clothes of all the people. He got the hint and we walked a bit more reverently. I was going to take as long as I could to get through all 22 tanks. I noticed that one tank was all about Brahma and it said that water from this tank would extinguish my past karma…I liked that. I must say that I did feel a bit more cleansed after that bucket of water washed over me.

The last stop was going into a temple room with other women where I wrung out my salwar kameez before meeting the temple priest for a puja. I bought flowers and fruit and made him an offering; and he then smeared sandalwood paste on my forehead, blessed me, and gave me a packet containing “temple things” including a little container of temple water.

I was done. My bucket man had disappeared, my 300 rupees in his pocket together with a new pen. I think he appreciated the “new pen” more than the rupees. I found my sandals and started to walk back to the hotel, knowing that I was in a different state of mind.

I slowly walked along the beach, stopping every so often to watch the pilgrims bathing in the ocean before they walked into the temple. Halfway to the hotel I looked up and saw Kannen walking toward me. “You look beautiful,” was all he said.

He told me to rest, to not take a shower for a few hours, that I should just let the energy from the temple water soak into me. My train to Chennai was leaving at 3 PM, and he said he would come back to take me to the train. “Beautiful,” he said, as he walked away.

walking to Sri Lanka

March, 2006

I woke up early and Kannen picked me up for our walk to Sri Lanka. Not literally, of course, but we would be close enough – we would be walking to Dhanushkodi, on the most eastern tip of India, less than 20 miles from Sri Lanka. He asked if I wanted to ride in a truck out to the point, but of course I didn’t, I wanted to walk all the way. This woman of a certain age was going to walk along the Indian beach no matter how long it would take me to get there.

Rameswaram is an island in the Gulf of Mannar at the very tip of India. Rameswaram is the place from where Lord Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue his consort Sita from her abductor, Ravana, It is also where Rama worshiped Shiva to cleanse away the sin of killing Ravana. Dhanushkodi, named after Rama’s bow, is at the eastern end of the island about 8 kms from Rameswaram. The boulders around the sea between Sri Lanka and the place known as Adam’s Bridge are believed to be used by the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, to leap across the ocean to Lanka to rescue Sita.

Before we left for the beach, Kannen took me to the street market where I bought fruit for our trip. Everyone knew him – I’m sure I wasn’t the first westerner he brought there – and I sat with the fish sellers as they told me about their catches of the day. I was again glad about how different the Indians were here compared to the ones I had met in Kodaikanal only two days before.

We got to the place on the beach where we would start our walk, but before we left, Kannen took me to the fisherman
who would cook our lunch when we got back. The fisherman took us behind his hut and I picked out my fish that he had caught that morning. One couldn’t get a fresher lunch than that! I can tell you that I was so hungry when we returned that I would have eaten that fish raw.

We started walking and by this time it was close to noon. The sand was blazing hot and it kept getting into my shoes, the sun high in the sky beating down on us. Thank goodness I had plenty of water with me. Kannen and I had an easy conversation – as I said, he was a smooth operator. He kept asking me how I was. I asked him what he would do if I couldn’t walk any further. “Carry you,” he said.

We rested in the shade at the old ferry stop that stopped running ferries in 1964 when the area was hit by a cyclone. I had a thin cotton sarong with me that I used as a dupatta and Kannen tied it gently and carefully around my head so that my scalp and forehead would not get sunburned.

We met up with other travelers walking along the way. Again, I was the only westerner and I trudged along the Indian beach with old men, women, and childen, sweating in the noon sun.

We came to a fishing village and Kannen introduced me to the “oldest man in Dhanushkodi” – I knew that I was not the first westerner he brought to him. Kannen told him where we had walked from, and the old man told Kannen that I was a “strong woman”. We sat in his hut for a long time, and his sons came in with the old man’s pet monkey, a baby that I wanted to hold, but I knew that would be a bad idea, as a bite would mean automatic rabies shots. Seeing that little monkey with a chain around its waist made me sad, but I suppose it had a better life on the island than in a cage in Chennai. We sat a while longer and a Shiva baba came into the hut, another old man who had walked even further than we did, all the way from Rameswaram proper. I gave him some of my water and he blessed me when I told him om namah shivaya, jai jai shiva shambo.

We came to another fishing village and Kannen and I walked around talking to people he knew. We sat for a long time with a family who spoke no English — the woman made me chai, and the man repaired his nets. Kannen did most of the talking and I stared out at the ocean. I couldn’t believe I had walked all this way, almost to Sri Lanka. I left him and walked along the beach, picking up shells that I had only seen pictures of in books. Those shells and a sea urchin are now on my altar in my yoga room.

I felt very lucky to be here, I was filled with gratitude and awe because I am always drawn to the ocean. Some people are drawn to mountains or forests, I am drawn to the ever changing face of the ocean. I feel the rhythm of the waves inside me. I’ve always felt like I can walk out into the ocean, dive beneath the waves, and survive, returning only when I feel like it.

Kannen told me that he brought two western women (“Swedish”) out where we were and they stayed for three days, that he had set them up with a beach hut and water. The family we had sat with cooked their meals, and it only cost them 500 rupees per day. He told me he would do the same for me, that I could wear a “swimming suit” and swim in the ocean. I looked at him and said that I thought women are supposed to stay covered up in this part of India. I told him that people told me to stay covered, that South India was conservative – I pulled out the strap of my camisole that I wore under my sleeveless kurti and I asked him, “you mean I could walk around with this top on, no problem?” He said, yes, no problem, no one would care. I asked him why that’s so, and I waved my hand to encompass the whole area. All he said was, “we have freedom here.”

He told me if I wanted to do the beach hut next time, to call him, that he would pick me up in Madurai and we would drive to Rameswaram. The idea was extremely tempting to me, but the thought of being alone on an almost deserted beach at night where drugs and people were trafficed gave me pause. Besides, my gut told me that I would not be alone in that hut for very long.

smooth operator

He was a smooth operator the way he showed up just at the time I was going to leave to walk to the great temple.

Kannan told me that he speaks 5 or 6 languages and he has a sister in Germany, so he is smoother and savvier than most of the men of his type that I met. He is also married and has children, and acting as Rameswaram’s official unofficial tour guide is all he does. He has carved out a niche for himself, a good enough niche to be mentioned in the popular India travel guide, the Rough Guide.

I was exhausted by the time we got back from watching the children dance. Kannen and I had been out for about four hours, and this was after a day of traveling seven hours from Kodaikanal up in the Palani Hills to a place that was only five miles from Sri Lanka. We walked to the hotel’s restaurant and Kannen started to tell me about where we were going the next day, how much the bucket ceremony would cost me on the morning of the third day, how much I should pay the rickshaw driver he used, and all I heard yet again was how much money another Indian wanted from me.

So I did what I rarely do in front of anyone — I started to cry. If I was a child I would have been told that I was over-tired and cranky. I was almost shaking and I yelled at Kannen that I was not made of money, that despite the fact that I could afford to go to India, yoga teachers don’t make much money, that I was tired of Indians looking at me and seeing only dollar bills and I hated that. He looked shocked and hurt and his eyes got very wide. He put his hands to his ears, then to his forehead as if he had a headache, and started to shake his head and say “no no no no no no….”, a low murmur at first, then gradually louder. He looked like he was going to cry. Suddenly he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled me close, and kissed me. Not a passionate kiss, not even on the lips, but close enough. Remembering what I had been told about South Indian culture, and especially about Indian men, I stood there amazed. “Tomorrow,” was all he said.

He smiled and said I should get some sleep because we had a long day tomorrow, walking the beach to Danushkodi. Still speechless I walked into the restaurant to relax, and ordered black tea, not chai. I wanted comfort from something familiar from home. I closed my eyes, started to take long, deep, calming breaths, and felt someone behind me. I did not turn around because I knew it was Kannen. I opened my eyes and his hand was in front of my face, holding some flowers. I slowly turned around, looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and half-smiled. “From the bush outside,” he said, “I could not leave you sad.”


I heart Rameswaram

I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .being caught in a “cattle crossing”, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can’t remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was famished and scarfed it down as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles and watched me eat.

Got to the Hotel Tamil Nadu in Rameswaram, showered, and took a nap. Woke up about 5 pm and was going to walk to the temple and find dinner somewhere. The phone rang — being alone in India, getting a call in my hotel room was shocking — and a man told me “if you want to see the temple, I can take you.” Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that’s what I’m going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who’s calling, where are you, what….? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.

I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and there was the clerk behind the desk and another man waiting, as if just for me. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said “R. Kannen, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services.” I asked the hotel clerk if he knew R. Kannen, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, “this is Kannen”. Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah…delicious serendipity. No….most likely he got the call, “foreigner in da house, come on over!” I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens…

As it turned out, I spent about 4 hours with Kannen that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug for in the sand. Kannen and I planned my weekend all within one hour — I was to spend it with him.

As we were driving back, Kannen asked me if I wanted to see the children dance — of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people — local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.

So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and where I had been in the morning, Kodaikanal, was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.

We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is — a very popular Tamil actor. You’ve heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Tollywood with their own set of popular stars.

There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures. Of course that started a riot! “Madam, Madam, take me, take me!” I yelled “dance like Vijay!”, and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choregraphed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they all ran over to me wanting to see it, then ran back to start dancing again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren’t watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.

We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannen asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone’s hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.

We turned around and Kannen asked “can you jump?” “Jump?” “Yes, climb and jump,” and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. “Sure, why not, what choice do we have?”

Kannen jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high, barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low “ooooohhhhh” coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder “ooooooohhhhh” now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. Now how often do these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of whatever, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.

The young Vijays exploded! Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling “Yes, madam!”, as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, furious swirls of rainbow colors.

I turned around, curtsied, and ran into the Rameswaram night.