…The smell of incense, BBQ chicken, and dung grew stronger and changed, like a location signature, as we passed through different villages (none of which had traffic signals, just crazy round-abouts with no yield signs). We made many abrupt stops for men riding elephants and herds of goats and sari-clad women in the middle of the road balancing baskets on their heads, and then we arrived at the Sivananda Yoga Vendata Dhanwantari Ashram in Neyyar Dam (www.sivananda.org/neyyardam/generalinfo.html)
I realized that I hadn’t practiced converting rupees to dollars in my head, so I paid the curry-scented cabbie the amount he quoted, unsure how far we’d traveled and if I was overpaying with the wad of play money in my fanny-pack. The cabbie took my money, unloaded my gear, and sped away leaving a cloud of dust on the unpaved road.
It was hotter than India, and the steps up to the ashram were as steep as the ones that Uma Therman had to climb to reach her Kung-Fu master, Pai Mei, in Kill Bill. I was a panting, sweaty mess when I reached the top and took a moment to collect myself and soak in the surreal scene. Again, I was overcome by an intense gust of reality.
Beautiful trees and flowers with pink and orange blossoms filled the entrance. The scent had changed. The incense smelled somehow holier, there was no smell of grilled meat in the air, and the subtle notes of dung had been replaced by a strong, blossomy perfume.
A marble temple was tucked back behind the trees. A communal bunk house and vegetarian snack shop stood to the left, and the shaded camp grounds lie to the left – it was the place I would be calling my home for the next month - beyond that were the ‘facilities’ which were fed by the unfiltered lake water. A communal bucket with boiled iodine water was to be used for brushing teeth (I opted to brush at my tent with my liquid gold Evian instead).
These ‘safe water’ buckets were located throughout the ashram with rules posted for proper drinking etiquette. You were supposed to hold your mouth just below the spigot (not touching the nozzle) and turn the handle to release the strange tasting red water. Every student in the teachers training program was assigned a ‘karma’ task to be performed each afternoon. One of the jobs was to boil the water and carry it to each of the water fountains. I was not assigned to this cushy post.
I realize that I am bouncing in a non-linear fashion as I tell my story – but you’ll have to just deal because it takes too long to craft it just right.
I was assigned to garbage detail which involved collecting trash and carrying it to the burning mound located in a clearing in the forest. The long path to the smoldering dump was a cloud of mosquito escorts who could be carrying any one of a vast array of plagues. I shouldn’t have been concerned since I’d had my shots before leaving the states (Japanese encephalitis, Hep B, typhoid, malaria, they had no vaccination for cholera since there were thousands of varieties in India), but I was still a little concerned.
We had to sit Indian style on the dung packed patio floor by the lake for meditation (5:30am and 8pm) and theory classes (10am-12 and 2pm-4). One of the students scratched some mosquito bites on his ankle until they were bloody, and they got infected from being rammed into the dung floor for so many hours a day (so we thought). His ankles blew up like grapefruits so they took him to the ayurvedic doc in town, and it turned out that he had to be rushed home because he had TYPHOID!
I’d scratched bites on my ankle to bleeding too, so not taking any chances – I petitioned for a new karma job. I was assigned to be a (waitress / assistant to the assistant cook) at the ashram snack shop. It was a decision fraught with regret.
I knew that Indians did things slower (like they do down south in the US), but the slowness there was even more exaggerated. I’m from Chicago where things move fast – I walk fast, talk fast, type fast, and could take a McDonald’s order for a family of six, ring it, and serve it in less than 90 seconds. But the disorganization and deliberate sluggishness in India was insufferable. Why? I couldn’t figure it out. All of the Indians I'd worked with in IT had been real whiper-snappers and gained my respect.
However, I questioned the competence of my bosses the first day on the job. I’d redesigned the process flow of the snack shop in my head in less than an hour. If I'd had my way, it would have flowed just like a McDonalds at lunchtime. I shared my ideas with upper management, and they listened patiently – turning their heads from side to side in unison to signify that I had their attention. When I finished, they told me ‘no, no, no - that’s not how we do it here’ and looked at me like I was crazy for even suggesting the changes. So I was forced to endure the frustration for the next three weeks. I was even tempted to ask for a transfer to swab the toilet holes with my friend Eva, but decided against it…
(India - Part III will be posted soon)