Kerala: Gods' Own Country in Words

(You can find the photos to follow this travel story on a separate post here.)

It has been one week since I left India and a five month walkabout of the south. I haven't written much yet. It left such an impression, I needed time to let it settle into my skin and into my bones. India was the beginning of my travels, a place that held space for me for five months, and a place I had my heart set on for four years. It was so many things I never expected, and I didn't up doing several things I thought I might. It has brought me so many stories and friends and somewhere I will forever hold dear.  So now I'll begin at the beginning, which is usually a good place to start.

The first thing I remember of Kerala was the sound of crows in the trees at 3am. That first night we landed and were searching for sleep through the jet lag of three plane journeys and 26 hours travel from Edinburgh via London and Delhi, I woke at 3am and all I could hear were crows. Not the solitary caw that normally follows the rain in Scotland. Before I came to India, I always associated crows with a damp grey dusk; at home, they seem to be the only bird that emerges and calls after the rain and during the mist. The solitary caw of a crow always makes me feel a chill to my bone and the need to wrap my scarf tighter. But in Kerala, they are ever present and they are many. They're not the bird of grey skies and rainfall. They accompany the sun and call amongst the coconuts. The sound of crows followed me all through Kerala.

The second thing I remember is standing in a night market in Kochi (the anglicised name is Cochin) and looking up to the sky as the evening chants from the nearby temple began, to see bats as big as dogs slowly flapping overhead. The bats at home are small and flit fast with anxiety-ridden wings, only visible from the corner of your eye in your peripheral vision. The bats here were flying with purpose in one direction, one straight line on the strength of a slow, heavy beat of their massive wings. It was a natural instinct, at first, to compare birds and bats and other things from the natural world between what was familiar from home to what was new and unfamiliar. Soon, the instinct to compare faded and I began to flow easier, but India continued to take me by surprise.

What stories do I have from our wanderings North to South of Kerala? There was the time Iona and I arrived in Varkala after an intense week-long tour from Kochi through the hill country, and agreed to a slightly shabby looking room run by apparently friendly guys in a legit looking resort. Sure there was no furniture bar the bed and one chair, and there was no one else we could see staying there, and it was dark and dingy which was a hard feat considering we were on a sunshine filled beach town, but it was cheap. They offered us tea and talked about palm reading, then showed us a few card tricks and suggested we could all make fish curry later that night together. Sounded friendly enough. We did however have the advice of a good friend at home creeping in: watch out for sweet-talking sages. We slept, and took our travel weary selves to a two hour yin-yoga class the next morning. There's no better space to really just forget everything else and see how you're really feeling.

Walking back to the room after, there was heavy silence between us. One of us broke it saying “I don’t feel comfortable staying there” and the other agreed in the same breath. What had been tension and mild discomfort at staying in a place we felt uneasy in became a comedic moment of get home, pack all our stuff into our rucksacks as quickly as we could like drug smugglers, and walk out confidently handing over the padlock to our room and saying goodbye to the manager and his friends, weaving our way through the Varkala backstreets as quickly as we could, leaving the resort and dingy room behind us. We felt like criminals on the run, and were laughing as we walked quickly with our heavy, badly packed bags. A few months later, once Iona and I had parted ways as travel buddies, she texted me: “the guy that ran that dodgy place in Varkala has been arrested!" Turns out your instinct doesn't make stuff up, nor your wise friend back home.

And then there was our first encounter with The Seductive Indian. This is a phrase coined by a friend of a friend that I met in Bangalore, and comes from within India. I'm pretty sure there is The Seductive Scotsman too, and Seductive Swede or where ever you might be from. Good stereotypes exist and bad stereotypes exist, as do cultural differences. It turns out smiling and shaking a barman's hand a few times whilst passing as a friendly greeting might position you as someone willing to accept a "proposal". After declining a coffee from Ali, the man with the smile and handshake, and joining two Israeli friends on their scooters for a day trip to the Golden Island, 2 minutes into the trip suddenly this same Ali overtakes and cuts off our scooter and demands to know where my friend is taking "his girlfriend". He asked several other awful questions and seemed to be shaking with rage. Our two male friends managed to talk him down, which saw him revving his bike at least 12 times before tearing back to Varkala cliff. We were all a little rattled and checked over our shoulder for at least 10 minutes before we were clear.

This was the beginning of our search for the Golden Island which turned into the smallest adventure I've been on. We drove for hours over a very small space of land, looping and going up and down side streets, with the question “which way to the golden island?” becoming our mantra. Like Alice in Wonderland, left became right, right became left. We ended up back at the bridge we started on to find an American expat and ex-military man, accompanied by his Indian compadres, speed his giant boat towards us and pushing his Indian pal into the water as he did so. He direct us to the Golden Island, which was directly behind us. This guy had an air of Rambo meets Apocalypse Now about him, but his advice was good. We got there, we cooled down in the green strangely satisfying slimy water, and sunbathed (me under a towel as I'd burned badly the day before on Varkala beach).

But wait, my travels really began in Kochi. Iona and I had taken on a tour with GoMowgli and made two fast friends in Girish (Popcorn) and Jithin (Popeye). As they were new to Kerala, what might have been a hop-on hop-off bus tour with many backpackers was a private tour for the two of us and led by the two of them. They really allowed us to see parts of Kerala that a lone western traveller wouldn't have been permitted to see so easily.

We visited a fisherman's village as they brought in the morning catch, watching the auction of each basket go to big bucks businessmen and local sellers for their bike and basket. We listened to Freddie Mercury in Kashi Art Café drinking coconut coffee, and in the same day found a man singing morning ragas as meditation. His voice wasn't just a sound from his vocal chords but seemed to emerge from somewhere deep in his chest. We practiced yoga with Aji and Sanjee, and were mesmerised by the tabla accompanying a classical sitar performance.  Popcorn patiently took us to a hospital when a piercing in my ear cartilage became infected (I insisted on a new piercing before coming to India, don't say I'm not stubborn) in the same day that we sought out an Ayurvedic pharmacy for Iona. I met Sarah Auntie, one of the last remaining Jews living in Fort Kochi. When the Jews landed in Kerala seeking sanctuary, the King of Kerala promised them the land for their synagogue as long as the sun remained in the sky. The synagogue is still there, but most of the Jews have since left. Sarah Auntie remains, surviving her husband with no children, looked after by all the locals who see her as family.

Riju, our driver and one of the happiest men I've met, drove us fast and furiously (but ever safely) into the winding hills of Munnar. It was cold and damp (crows would have been more fitting here) but with a distinct lack of heaters to dry out the moisture and bring warmth. An unhappy sleep was forgotten on the bumpy one and a half hour jeep ride to the tea factory. It was more fun than any rollercoaster I've been on, and I would have laughed solid for the whole ride had the bumps not continued to knock the air out of me as I gripped with tight knuckles to stop myself being thrown out the back of the jeep. The fresh green tea leaves smelled like tea, which surprised me probably more than it should have. We ate thali off of giant banana leaves with our fingers, and I like to think I developed the knack pretty quickly; if I didn't, I still gave it gusto. (Use your middle three fingers to lift the food and your thumb to push it into your mouth).

Alleppey and Thekkady came and went quickly. There was time to relax on a quiet, lazy backwater boat ride; and again on a bamboo raft in a wildlife park. But my favourite part of the jungle was hiking 5km there and back, looking down and watching where I stepped (and looking out for spiders and leeches) when the sound of crickets grew louder and louder till it became the only sound inside and outside my head. It could have been the heat, but it felt meditative. Mentioning it to Iona after, she agreed the same thing had happened to her. India was full unusual noises and these noises produced so many different internal sensations in those first few weeks.

After weaving our way through hill country, we reached the cliff front of Varkala. Here we found gin that probably wasn't gin, the friendliest baristas in Coffee Temple who offered me free warm milk at night over a game of cards, and a resident labrador called Tony who co-owned my guest house. I woke every morning to strangely but endearingly Italian-New York sounding "Toh-nee! No! Hey Toh-nee!" by his owners (who were Russian and Malayali, not from New York). I think of all three of them with great affection. We practiced hatha yoga with Shiva, who wanted to start a revolution. We got locked out our guesthouse and had to find our way back to a friend's hammock through the backstreets, watching out for the street dogs who own the streets and beach at night.  I got sun burned and I took a big exhale after my first ten days in India. The jet lag was only starting to wear off, the language (Malayalam) was only beginning to sound familiar, the south Indian head wobble was only beginning to come naturally as a way to say hello, agree, disagree and show interest or disinterest (when words fail).

I can remember all this from the vantage point of five months in South India and many adventures that followed after. But at that point I was still very fresh faced and unsure of what India could or would be. So far it had been a great guided tour by two very cool guys from Go Mowgli, and a week in a westernised beach town. Looking back, Kerala was one of the most beautiful places I have visited and left me with a longing to go back.

Kerala is Gods' Own Country. It is the land of green and gold, stretching from tea plantations, endless palm trees that line the lush backwaters and the golden sands along the coast. The story goes that Kerala was raised from the sea by the sixth incarnation of Vishnu. Ever since it has been an abundant land of vegetation. It has the highest level of education of all Indian states, and everywhere you look at any time of day, buses of children immaculately dressed are on their way to and from school. 

Kerala comes from the word for coconut, and coconuts are of course abundant. There are tea plantations in the hills of Kerala, and you'll find chai here as stereotype would suggest. But it's less well known that south India takes pride in its coffee, the beans grown locally. Filter coffee in Kerala is nothing like filter coffee elsewhere. A small cup, usually metal that requires delicate fingers and cautious lips to avoid scalding, made with milk and plenty sugar is a strong hit of caffeine and sugar. It became a daily ritual.

This video by the Malayalam band, Thaikkudam Bridge, is my postcard from Kerala, with stunning videography and music that moves my soul. It's the best representation I've seen of what travelling around Kerala is like by train, tuk tuk, scooter and on bare foot. And this is my own photo story where these words have fallen short.

A Collection of Words on Seeking & Purpose

If I were a collector of anything, I would be a collector of words. Other people's and my own. Cataloguing them neatly by category, or the moment in time I read them, or the reason I was so drawn to them. Well, this is something that is already done, of course: dictionaries hold all meanings but lack emotion, thesauruses expand and introduce new words like a play park of potential, books of quotations hold inspiration, anthologies expanding greater horizons containing whole narratives.

In my mind's eye, however, it is a more organic, living, breathing collection. Recording the words on first reading, my impressions and thoughts, the mark they make on me; only to be revisited later and a new meaning deciphered. A body of work.

Here, then, are some words I have read recently that have inspired me, guided me, and grounded me in my wanderings.

" 'When someone is seeking,' said Siddhartha, 'it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal... What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.' "
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
"He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how."
Nietzsche, quoted by Victor Frankl  in Man's Search for Meaning,
in reflecting upon his time in a Nazi Concentration Camp
"We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for the individual."
Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"By declaring that man is responsible and must actualise the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic "the self-transcendence of human existence."... The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and he more he actualises himself. In other words, self-actualisation is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence."
Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life
Mary Oliver, from "The Summer Day"

How Can I Serve?

Let me tell you a story. It’s a story my friend told me last April, in a New York cocktail bar. It’s the story of Hanuman, the monkey-headed God of Hinduism and Indian mythology. I’ll tell you the story the way my friend told it to me. It might not be a perfect retelling. And the version she told me was adapted and shortened a little for the scene and setting of sundown cocktails in a New York minute. But this is how it went, and how it goes.

Hanuman is the monkey-headed God, and devotee of the King Rama. He loves him like a brother, like literally, oh my I love you so much I would do anything for you please here have my heart. So one day, Rama’s wife is stolen by a demon from Sri Lanka. Hanuman tells Rama “dude, don’t worry, I’m going to get her back for you.” So he goes to the tip of India that’s closest to Sri Lanka and he jumps. He doesn't know if he's going to make it, but he jumps anyway. And he does makes it! So he’s there, and he finds Rama's wife and the demon and asks the demon for Rama’s wife, Sita, back. Then Hanuman basically loses it, there's a lot bloodshed, an ongoing saga of trying to get Sita back, and a battle. So towards the end of the battle, Rama's brother gets injured. Hanuman realises that if Rama's brother dies, Rama will probably give up himself. But there's this herb that can restore vitality and life, and it grows on a mountain in the Himalayas. So Hanuman is like, "ok, don't worry, I got this” and runs off to find the mountain, and find the herb on the mountain. The whole time his only thought rests in his heart: that he’s gotta get Sita back for Rama, and save Rama's brother, and basically he’s got to help Rama his best and most loved friend. I mean, Hanuman will literally do anything for Rama. So he’s searching and searching and he finally finds a whole bunch of herbs, but he doesn't know which herb it is that he needs!  So he goes back to the battlefield, and he's brought the whole frickin’ mountain him saying “look, I couldn’t find the  flower or herb you need so here: I brought you the mountain.”

I think the storytelling was diverted into excited chatter on India, Sri Lanka, and an upcoming wedding. But this story, and the way this story was told to me, really stuck. I went home and read more on it, discovering more intricacies (Hanuman is half-God as he’s the son of Vayu, the God of the wind; but he doesn't know he's the son of a God. And so when we jumps to Sri Lanka, he doesn't know if he'll be able to make it and so it's a leap of faith and love; but he does makes it as he has the power of the wind within him.)

Regardless of how the story is told, or even if some bits are missing or evolved, what pervades is this: Hanuman was so devoted to Rama that his love for him could literally move mountains.

For the last five years, I've had a yoga practice and journalling practice. Often, one informs the other. At their foundation, they are both a tool of self-reflection, development and growth. For three of these five years, I had largely been focussing on healing. An addiction to running, a hectic lifestyle, unresolved echoes of things gone wrong in the past had left me with some deep-rooted physical, emotional and mental wounds to heal. At that level of healing, a large amount of your attention is needed to focus on yourself.

After I heard the story of Hanuman, and whilst contemplating it in the days that followed, my thoughts went like this. No matter which way we spin it, human beings need love. A lot of our behaviour, activities and desires come down to this: the need to be loved, and to love. In the time of Tinder and the buffer of irony and sarcasm, romantic love is still seen as the main goal that we can either chase or laughingly reject. Hanuman is a figure that represents a fierce, pure kind of love, a love that isn't often considered: devotion and service. Not a self-seeking or full-circle "love me and I'll love you" love. Pure service, for the love of the other.  

For a long time, my thoughts had been on healing and loving myself (as I think everyone should spend some time doing.) But then I realised, I was caught in a cycle of self-help and self-service. My yoga practice was devoted to healing my overworked body and stressed mind. The time I'd manage to carve for myself each week out of a busy work and social schedule was dedicated preciously to me-time and alone-time. What was once a necessity was becoming a cycle that fed only itself and started to feel a little hollow. Apathy grew. The healing was done, but I hadn't thought to look where to go beyond it.

I realised then, that my focus had to shift. I had a new mantra, and a new metaphorical figure to guide me. Hanuman, the God of love and devotion, and these words: how can I serve?

The surge and popularity of yoga in the West as a largely asana-based practice, and the adoption and adaptation of Hindu deities, religious texts and spiritual doctrines has been something of a curiosity to me. As with all things in the West, if there's a money-making opportunity on something that is culturally popular, it will happen. And it has. There's endless discussion on this, and the sincerity of a yoga practice if it is steeped in, or contains, a large apparent focus on the image of the practice rather than the quiet, humble practice that can take place offline without the need to shout about it and Instagram it. That is not to say if you do promote or post about your practice it makes it insincere. But rather, we know that media leads the minds of many and if a largely visual-based practice is what is seen, on some subliminal or subconscious level the belief forms that our practice should be an external one done for the sake of the practice (improvement in asanas, nailing an arm balance, your new $70 leggings or cushy mat, a practice done on an idyllic beach or up a mountain).  Do we practice for the sake of the practice? Or do we practice with something beyond the one hour spent on the mat or in meditation? In my most extreme moments, I began to feel uncomfortably that spiritual seeking was portrayed and consumed as a luxury that only the middle-class West could afford. I continued my yoga practice, and continued to teach.

Now I am realising and understanding the value of a strong practice, if the focus of the practice is not wholly your own well-being and development. If you can practice, and iron out the mental kinks of anxiety and doubt, and build a strong foundation of good self-esteem and mental soundness, and a physically strong body that can carry a calm and focussed mind, it puts you in the best place to then turn your attention outwards to helping others. This process could take months or years. But we are past the stage, culturally and collectively, of needing to endlessly heal ourselves. Self-healing needs to take place. And it is an ongoing process. But we need to know what lies beyond it, to give us something to aim towards, and to know that we have purpose outside ourselves and our practice. And for some, that may be the need to help and heal others.

These are the colours of my mind both over the last year, and into the start of this one. All largely in reflection of my own past and present. Not in contemplation of any other one individual or even group, just the cultural trend I see at large. As I strengthen my voice and courage to speak my mind louder, and expand my knowledge and horizons of what there is in the world to be done, I hope to find my place in how I can serve and help and heal others.

I'm still wandering, and as I write this I'm in Bangkok. My writing has moved from what I've seen to what I'm thinking and feeling. Sometimes the external things I see intrigue me, and other times I seek a quiet corner to go inwards and make sense of the swirling impressions I've collected, to sort and sound them out before I can continue to wander with a clear mind.

"Wherever you go, there you are." And here I am.

India 4: You Won't Do Much Yoga In India

You may or may not come to India to do yoga. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, you do. If you come on a retreat or with the express intent of studying with a teacher for a month you will most likely do yoga every day, carefully packaged, planned or curated. If, however, you strap your yoga mat to your rucksack and lovingly carry it from street to street, hostel to hostel, train to train, nine times out of ten you won’t find the right space or time to roll out your mat for your practice. That one time that you try, your ujayi breath is cut short by the dust. And you might feel like you’re not doing yoga! In India!

Early feelings will arrive of guilt, frustration, even loneliness and wondering “what’s it all about, man, if it’s not about yoga?” You visit temples. You are cleansed with sweet holy water. You dodge goats and begging children in the street. You hear the call to morning prayer from the mosques. You hear the chanting to Shiva from the temple at dusk. You rise with the sun and drink chai on the street from paper cups with the locals, turning heads as you stand there clutching tea and a cigarette (you never smoked before you came to India, but the stress of the streets might make it inviting). And still you might feel like you’re not doing yoga!

After the hustle and heat and dust of the streets, you’ll find pockets of quiet where your mind is lulled into a state that you could call meditation without even trying; and isn’t that the golden egg of western seekers, to achieve that blissful state of non-thinking, without effort? You could be walking in the jungle on a safari trek, looking for tigers and monkeys and avoiding the spiders as big as your face, and watching your feet and following a steady pace, only thinking of the heat and the quiet when in a moment (you don’t know which moment it was) the humming of the crickets becomes louder and fills your ears and your mind and even your eyes, the buzzing becoming a vibration and you become so aware of every leaf and flower and bug and smell and the brightness and you know what it means to go wandering or walkabout, to commune with nature and find stillness and contemplation there, and then you think about how this might be yoga and come back to thinking of your mat and your backhanding practice, and you lose concentration and you stumble.

In a town that is holy but feels anything but amongst hoards of tourists (local and foreign), Blackpool-like beach fronts, bad food, bad restaurants, no place to rest, here is where the three seas meet and there is the holy rock that a holy man prayed on to the Goddess and so the rock became holy squared, blessed to the moon and back. The heat is heavy in your limbs and you plod down the road, till you find that point where the seas meet and the sun sets, and sliding in from a big rock to the water, clothes clinging to you, waves tossing you against sharp rocks, you stumble amongst waves back to the sand and laughing, dazed you watch the sun sink into the seas as it paints the sky a hundred layers of lava. And more than in the jungle, so much more, your mind simply switches to a state of deep relaxation and nothingness. The sky is orange and red and purple, the moon is a luminous blue behind you, and there is a buzzing, a vibration again in your lips and your teeth as you settle into the stoned-like feeling of emptiness, that lasts all evening. You’ve forgotten all about your yoga mat. And still you’re not doing yoga in India.

You begin to find gratitude easily. You don’t need to sit at the end of a long day that was filled with coffee meetings, sushi or tacos as standard for lunch, wine or cocktail as standard after work, the smiles and stories of friends filling your ears, wracking your brain for five things to be grateful for. You are filled with a rush of gratitude when a stranger speaks English with a smile, you buzz with contentment to sit down after walking for 5 hours in the sun, you eat gratitude with every bite of papaya after a week of rice and spices, you fall asleep with no mobile phone as there's no wifi, and fall heavy and deep, to wake 8 hours later at sunrise. You're grateful for silence, for a shower, a bucket of hot water, of cold water, of clean air, of sunlight that doesn't burn, of a clean toilet, of any toilet. And witnessing others, you realise how much you have to be grateful for at home. 

Gratitude will seek you out in India, mindfulness will follow your every step, and there is no other way to be but exist in the Now amidst the tuk tuk filled roads, watching your step ahead and under foot, navigating the dust and the heat and the beeping and shouting of "ma'am, good offer", steeling your face to avoid unwanted attention but opening your heart to take it all in. 

You won't do much yoga in India, if yoga is the one hour that you unroll your mat to move your physical body. Or if that one hour on the mat is the anchor you need to remind you how to practice off the mat for the other twenty three in a day. You won't do much asana on the road, amidst the dust and the heat. But you will find yoga in the momentary silence between each tuk tuk horn, in a bucket of hot clean water, in your walking and breathing and every moment you are mindful, which will be every moment, for there is no room for a wandering mind on the rushing, hustling, happy chaos of India. Amidst the horns and the shouting and the three songs blasted from megaphones competing for airspace and ears, amidst the coughing and dust you’ll find yoga. For the heavier an object that lands, the deeper an imprint it makes. The hotter water boils, the cleaner it will purify. The intensity of the pressure effects the totality of change. The louder the noise, the deeper the silence that follows. And India is all noise and then all silence.

India 1: Kochin, Kerala

Kerala is the sound of crows in the trees at 3am. It's the smell of ayurvedic oils and incense. It's the sight of bats as big as gulls slowly flapping over your head amidst the bustle of a night market. It's masala dosas and chai for breakfast at 7am, drinking cold coconut coffee to the soundtrack of Freddie Mercury in a Kochin art gallery café, a thali platter and parrotha for dinner. It's persistent sticky heat and overhead fans, lazy mosquitos and inquisitive eyes following, the organised chaos of drivers, the precarious carefree pedestrians taking centre stage in the road, the honking of the car you're in, the honking of the motorbike that rumbles by loaded with a family of four. It's women wearing saris, the chatter of many school children, talking to your driver about arranged marriage, comparing cultural differences and learning never to get married on a 10th age (20, 30, 40 and so on). The word Kerala comes from "coconut", which you discover to your delight is in everything. Kochin gets its name from the Chinese, along with its fishermen's nets. Christianity landed here in or around 7AD and is embraced with the same colourful passion as Hinduism. Mother Mary, Krishna and 7pm evening calls from the Mosquie exist within metres of one another in peace. Kerala is green and gold, the contrast of life-giving colour and happy disrepair. Backwaters, sprawling jungle greenery and palm trees, beaches, street dogs, street cats and bats. Kerala is surreal and sublime.