Namaskar, once more. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The story unfolds as the story does. I’d like to invite you to this present moment. I last left this story having sampled the delights of the tea plantations in Munnar and an impromptu Christmas sing-song in Kochi; strings of lights hanging from trees and the hottest winter solstice that I have ever experienced.
I left Kochi on the 28th December, following the coast south. Just before I left, on what we call Boxing Day (26th December) in the UK, I remember hearing drums beating one morning. Just a block over from where I was staying was a temple, and I grew curious enough to investigate. But the drums weren’t coming from the temple. As I followed the sounds around the streets, I finally came upon what I understood to be a wedding procession. Let me tell you at this point that I didn’t take any pictures. I wish I had.
So here’s the scene: the bride is wrapped a stunning cream and gold gown, dark hair gleaming, jewels glinting golden in the morning sun. She seeks shade under an umbrella every now and then and is surrounded by women in pale sarees, a few who are foreigners like me. Relatives, guests, onlookers seem to emerge from behind palm trees to join the procession with each step through the streets. Everyone is dancing to the beat of the drums. At the head of this halting procession is a man whom I take to be the groom (I calculate this presumption purely on his interaction with the bride). Whoever he is, he appears to be the happiest man alive, dressed in a bright red and white Father Christmas outfit that is cut off at the knee (it is pushing 30 degrees C after all). The outfit is completed with hat, it’s rim trimmed with fur and attached to this a fake plastic mask that depicts St. Nick’s face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as surreal or wonderful in my life. This is one of the many things I love about India – life just is, no holds bared, it’s on show and to see that celebration, that joy, made my week. (And the uncanniness of the plastic Santa mask will haunt me till my dying day.)
A couple of days later, after balancing my self and my 80 litre rucksack on the back of a scooter to get to the bus stop (I never knew I had the skills / core muscles to stay upright with 19kgs strapped to my back while weaving through traffic), I boarded a bus and travelled 50kms down the coast to Alleppey. If you’re looking on a map, you’ll find it as Alappuzha. It’s famous for its houseboat cruises around the backwaters, and its beaches. Alleppey is considered to be the oldest planned city in the region and, due to is lagoons and canals, is also known as the Venetian Capital of Kerala. However, the canals are now no longer used, though the greenery is amazing.
I remember the first evening walking around Alleppey in search of something to eat and, although I’d heard that Alleppey was a popular tourist destination, it was for me the first time that I felt completely away from western influence. There was nothing familiar to orient me. I wrote in my journal at the time:
“So,… this is probably the most out of my comfort zone that I’ve been. Why? I’m finding it hard to get my bearings – the city is simply laid out but I keep taking different turns to the ones that I mean to.”
Searching for a dabha (cafe) that had been recommended by the guesthouse owner, I noticed that each dabha that I found was inundated by groups of local men, and that part of me that labeled myself as an ‘outsider’ here was too scared to go in. As the sun set, and my feet took me roughly in a direction that I intended, I watched the men congruate after their day’s work, listening to the singsong rise and fall of Malayalam (one of the 22 languages of India), witnessing one of the other things I love about India – the coming together of community at the end of the day, many people spilling out onto the streets to eat, talk, put the world to rights,… so different to the culture I’m from.
It didn’t take me long to settle, to release whatever uncertainty I’d been holding and I wrote this a couple of days later:
“When I arrived in Alleppey, my instinct was ‘this is my least favourite place’ but two days in I LOVE it. Tea and samosa: Rs 21. (about 24p). The best curry I’ve had yet (mushroom masala for interested parties). The chai wallah at the top of the street who I go to for my morning ‘shot’. (No cups here, chai comes in shot glasses.) And the people are so friendly. Walking along the beach there may not be many people, but those I do pass almost always greet me with that beautiful Indian smile, a hearty ‘Hello!’ and a barrage of questions: ‘What is your name? Where are you from? How old are you?’. Three elderly ladies wouldn’t let me leave the beach at sunset last night without selfies with each of them. I feel like I’m finally stepping over the edge of my comfort zone. And it feels good!”
I stayed at a little guesthouse and the owner, Anju, just happened to be a yoga teacher. One of my intentions on travelling around India was to get back into my physical yoga practise. Here was my opportunity. Anju was creating a website to promote his yoga school and asked me to proofread some of its content. In return, I got three mornings of yoga classes. Overlooking the beach. In the sun. Pinch me, is this real? (I even saw dolphins one morning.) I love those kind of exchanges, they don’t always have to be based around money. (If you’re ever in Alleppey, and in need of a good yoga teacher, seek out Anju at Aham Yoga Hostel. You won’t be disappointed.)
On New Year’s Eve, I went for the most divine Ayurvedic massage that completely wiped me out. I had intended to go to a beach cafe to celebrate the new year, but instead found myself in bed by 10pm and fast asleep! Best laid plans and all that. However, I needn’t have worried about missing New Year, for at about 1230am, the very excitable family staying in the next room rushed into the dormitory (I was the only guest staying in it) to wake me from sleep and wish me a very happy new year, insisting that I come dance with them.
Them: “Ma’am! It’s New Year! You must dance!”
Me: “Erm,… it’s New Year,… I’m sleeping!” (At least I thought it was pretty obvious that I was sleeping. Did the darkness, earplugs and eye-mask not give it away?)
That New Year’s’ morning, I rose early and went to the beach, wanting to be with the sea and with Spirit. The beach was nearly deserted as I stood with the waves lapping over my feet, asking the water to take that which no longer serves me and bring in that which helps me be the best version of me that I can be. A total Zen moment.
About twenty feet down the coast were a group of teenagers, hip deep in the sea, holding hands, laughing and shrieking each time a wave came too high. I laughed with them, and went back to my meditation, watching the waves ebb and flow and draw sand over my feet, grounding into the moment, drinking in its serenity, allowing the connection with myself, allowing space for what needs to come, for guidance.
I happened to glance back towards the teenagers, and between me and them was a man squatting in the shallows, performing his morning ablutions.
With that observation, I realised that perhaps my themes for this year would be to healthily define my boundaries and to expect the unexpected – in honouring this, I retreated out of the water and vowed never to swim in the sea.