Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do Not Read This While Eating

I’ve mentioned what I’ve termed my “ India moment” in a previous blog entry.  It was beautiful and even a little sentimental and it came to define India for me: beauty in the midst of chaos.  Consistent with the process of Yoga, of looking at things with untainted clarity, I’ve since had various encounters that have also come to define my time here, or, if not define it, at least elaborate on it so that I get both the good and the bad of what’s unique to this place (at least relative to what I know).  I’ve decided to compile all of bad into one entry for two reasons: (1) because, though worth mentioning, they are not nearly as significant as many of the other things worth writing about and (2) to help anyone who is a bit squeamish regarding hygiene, bodily functions and unsanitary conditions avoid reading about anything nasty.
If the title has not made it clear, I will reiterate here: if you are eating, you gross out easily, or if you are the kind of person who latches onto an image and cannot let it go, it is probably best that you stop reading right here because, as curious as you may be, you will not like what I am going to describe. 
So here we go.
I knew coming here that along with the colors, the food, the culture and the people, that India would offer unpleasantries of impressive proportions.   They presented themselves immediately alongside everything wonderful about this place.  The trash, the pollution, and the stench were the most obvious and, for a week or so, managed to draw my attention to such a degree that I didn’t notice some of the others.  But they are here.  And they span various dimensions of things that would elicit disgust and aversion. 
To start easy, there are lumps of feces on every street… on every block infact.  Some are recognizably canine or feline, others clearly bovine, some human, and some I’ve not managed to recognize.
“You have to scan while you walk,” Linda warned me my first weekend here.  Making your way from point A to point B is not insignificant for someone who isn’t used to cars and buses whizzing by just inches away from them.  You can’t walk on many of the sidewalks because they are loaded with trash or have pallets of bricks stacked on them (if there is construction nearby) or they are very clearly public bathrooms.  There is a bridge I cross daily on my way to lunch and it has a more distinct stench of urine than most of San Diego ’s public toilets.  Many times I walked past men who are in the process of pissing on the sidewalk, some bother to aim away from the road.  Some don’t. 
My walk to school is laden with shit.  All kinds of shit.  So that I have to be especially vigilant in the mornings when I go to school before sunrise or on the odd evening when I leave school after sunset.  The streets are not lit well and, when they are, there are so many heaps of trash, stored trinkets or cars, rickshaws and bikes in the midst of repair scattered throughout that the light from streetlamps rarely makes it to the street floor.  Which means you have to walk slowly and watch where you step at every moment.
Oftentimes I have to pick up the fabric of my pants to lift the cuffs a safe distance from the ground.  I made the mistake of letting them drag once… and only once.  I had to walk half the day with brown and green smudges on my pants whose source I couldn’t identify entirely, but which resembled something that made it at least part way through the process of digestion.  I sighed when I discovered it and told myself I’d have to send these to wash as soon as I got to the hotel and that I just needed to pray that it didn’t stink too bad and disrupt the four classes I still had to attend that day. 
It is not practical to be so rigid here, especially with hygiene.  It is much more practical to simply adapt and understand what is essential and what is not, what is a reasonable and appropriate response and what is not.  I have stepped on mushy, brown, warm stuff and felt the surge of emotions and let the swell retreat with the same deliberateness that it emerged.  There is no use getting angry at myself, at the shit, at its source or at India .  Anger won’t clean my pants or my feet.
Because of the practice of removing your shoes before entering homes, temples, some classrooms and yoga shalas (I’ve even been asked to remove my shoes before entering a jewelry store), it is inefficient to wear any kind of lace up shoes.  So I live my life in sandals here.  My toes feel freer than usual even as my feet ache from the lack of support.  But in as much as they’re free, they’re also less protected.  Everyday, when I get back to the hotel after class I take a shower and spend half that time trying to get the grime, dust and, yes, shit, off my feet.  The soles look black by 7p.m.  After two weeks I decided to buy a pumice stone and rediscovered what truly clean feet look and feel like.  I got to enjoy it for a few hours in the evening.  Then it was back to the regular accumulation of grime the next day.  It didn’t take away from the joy of that freshness.  I looked forward to it every night.  There are simple pleasures that emerge in the respite from what wears on us.  But we can only enjoy those pleasures if something is wearing on us to begin with.
It isn’t only the remnants of bodily functions that you come across.  At least once a week I walk past someone urinating on the street and once almost ran into an old man who came to a full stop as he walked infront of me, lifted his dhoti (the traditional wrap men wear here), squatted and began to shit right infront of me. 
I’m used to this now, mind you, and glad for it.  Yoga philosophy tells us that aversion is no better than attachment.  So when I see any of this in the street, I do my best not to entertain the feeling of disgust.  It just makes me more attentive.  There’s nothing more embarrassing than bumping into someone who is urinating or defecating.
This visibility is strange even now but with every passing day, it’s also taken on a different dimension.  I realized I’d never seen someone else defecate.  It is such a private process.  But here it is treated as a necessity that can’t be avoided.  And in a place with few public bathrooms to be found, there is no option but to do it wherever there’s an urge and an option. 
The streets are cleaned here daily, hosed down at least in some places in the early morning soon after trash is picked up, so the remnants of the day are cleared to create space for the next day’s.  It’s as good a place as any, it seems.  The streets it seems are a macrocosm of the same process my feet go through.
Many of us kid with each other about going native and giving public urination a try.  We don’t even joke about defecation, that’s how much of a hang up it remains.  Most of us, truth be told, can’t even allow ourselves to drop trash on the street the way some folks do.  We get funny looks from the locals carrying our trash for blocks until we find a large trash bin to drop it in.  But sometimes necessity drives changes in behavior.  My friend Wyatt told me that in his travels through the northern part of the country he came across even worse conditions than we’re used to here.  He became ill during his trip and had to use a public “toilet.”  The term is in quotes because it was open air, didn’t even have a hole, and was only really recognizable as a place to defecate because everyone else’s shit was piled up there.  With toilets we get to sit.  With holes we have to squat.  With THIS you squat… but not too low, lest you get somebody else’s stuff on you.
Even if you don’t allow yourself the liberty, though, you have to deal with everyone else who does, or with the mere reality that we can’t control what other people do or what situations others may run into.  My friend Ellyssa (the one who shared the rickshaw ride from hell with me) was on a bus to Pondicherry when the woman across from her became carsick and started to throw up uncontrollably right on the floor.  The bus never stopped.  Just kept going.  And the woman kept hurling every 20 minutes or so during the 3 hour ride.
“It was a lovely trip except when she was vomiting,” Ellyssa reassured me. “Or when the wind would blow throw the window and send a whiff of her vomit my way.”
We take the good with the bad here with the understanding that we don’t get to separate the two and, sometimes, with the suspicion that it wouldn’t be quite right to have one without the other.  It would be in an odd way incomplete. 
This is as true when you consider the condition of people’s lives here.  The very rich, the very poor, and the very ill live side by side, at each moment infinitely aware of each other.  It is an exercise in self acceptance to exist with these extremes presenting themselves so regularly and blatantly.  In the tangle of cars at an intersection you will see rickshaws, motorcycles, ox-driven carts and a brand new Jaguar.  No one does a double-take.  No one even bats an eyelash.  Every other day you see people on the street sporting one form of deformity or another, sometimes genetic, sometimes from accidents, sometimes from leprosy.  Alongside them you might see a person who is strong, vital, even beautiful.  To see both side by side enhances the qualities of each in a way, like putting complementary colors in the color wheel next to each other.  Green makes red look redder, and red makes green look greener.  But despite being opposites they offer balance; the partnership of the two makes for the presence of every wavelength in the gamut of visible colors.  In the same way, rich, poor, healthy, sick, old and young… none exclusively represent this place.  It is the mix that characterizes India for me.  It is the mix that gives this city more balance than I’ve ever detected in any city.
But people aren’t the only contributors to the affront on Western sensibilities.  Chennai can feel feral at times, with animals roaming the streets, making them home.  The animals in the streets carry themselves with a confidence that suggests they know they belong there.  No one shoos the crows here or calls animal control about the strays.  The streets belong to all. 
The streets and often the living spaces.  All of us in the class have learned to live with bugs and other vermin in the guesthouses and hotel rooms. 
My friends Andrea and Julianna have a roach in their house they’ve named “Mikey,” who seems to show up at inopportune times.  Andrea has encountered Mikey in the bathroom while she showered.  He was headed right towards her and she didn’t want to step on him (at least not with her bare foot) so instead she took the bucket that all of us have in our bathrooms but none of us really understand or use and she placed it over Mikey to keep him confined while she finished her shower.  She left him there for the ladies that clean the guesthouse to deal with.  Later on Julianna had a scare with Mikey when she went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, only to find him scurrying from the toilet. 
Wyatt has his own roach who he constantly tries to coax out of his bedroom, but who constantly makes it back.  I’ve had my share of roaches as well.  It’s impossible to keep animals out of my room.  The bathroom’s vent consists of a large hole that leads to the outside directly.  I can see the sky through it.  There’s a fan in it but when off there’s plenty of room for animals to come in.  My policy is that as long as they’re not on the bed, they can share the living space with me.  Many of them were likely in that room before I ever took up residence anyway, so it’s only fair. 
I did have a big scare when I saw something almost six inches long run across my wall and hid behind the books I’d collected on this trip, which were stacked nicely on a shelf.  My heart sank.  I don’t like killing anything but I also don’t like having something big that can bite or sting sharing a space with me.  So I wasn’t about to ignore it.  I went over to my books and started removing one at a time very slowly.  One by one I pulled them out, hoping to get a glimpse of the thing without scaring it or sending it scurrying away.  Finally I pulled one book out and got a glimpse of a fat tail, swinging cautiously from side to side.  Reassured that snakes don’t crawl along walls, I started to remove another book but the tail swiftly disappeared.
This wasn’t going to work.
So I put the book back in place and started to walk around the books, trying to get a glimpse of whatever was back there.  I started to see a head shaped like a snake’s, but, to my relief, I also saw webbed feet with knobby ends.  A little closer and I had a clear view of the big reptilian eyes starting up at me suspiciously.  It was a gecko.  Good! I thought.  These things eat bugs.  So as far as I was concerned, it was welcome here.  From that day forward I was careful wherever I stepped and whenever I put things down so I wouldn’t crush the little guy.
This may sound odd or like resigning myself to living with filth but I don’t think any of us would describe it that way.  We are spending hours a day learning about and discussing the connectedness of all things.  It’s only one more step to live that connection.
In Ashtanga Yoga there are eight limbs (hence the name: “ashto” is “eight” and “anga” is “limb” in Sanskrit), the first of which is Yamas (sometimes translated as “restraints”).  There are five Yamas and the first, which serves as a foundation and context for the others, is “ahimsa” (non-harming).  This is often used as the motivation and justification for vegetarianism.  It’s an aspect that is often disputed from both sides of that practice.  Whas is NOT in question is that stepping on a bug or lizard because you feel you are entitled to a vermin-free existence is a violation of ahimsa.  Living this concept in modern times is difficult and especially so in first world countries where sterile environments are valued.
Perhaps this is where countries like India shine: they highlight the connectedness between you and even the smallest beings.  You share the environment, quite closely, with a number of other beings.  And you learn to share it gracefully.
Ahimsa can be intellectualized, discussed exhaustively and nitpicked, but ultimately only means something when tested in life.  To what extent do you value life in general?  To what extent do you strive to be someone who leaves a light footprint in the world? 
This happened to me in my second week here when I was out doing the temple and church tour with Andrea and Bradley.  We’d seen a nice restaurant on our way to the Basilica St. Thomme, where the apostle Thomas’ body was said to be buried (it has since been moved).  We made it a point that we wanted to have breakfast there when we left the church.  But when we found it on our way back, it didn’t look the same as we remembered it.  It looked much dingier.  This is often the case here.  Things look different in the morning, middle of the day and at night.  Just depends on how the light falls on the place and how many people are around or how many vendors have set up their tents.  This place transforms from day to night multiple times, making streets almost unrecognizable, especially if you are not intimately familiar with them.
We were hungry.  So we went in anyway, despite it not looking as attractive as we remembered it.  This was definitely a local joint.  We were the only non-Indians and it wasn’t air conditioned.  We looked at each other to make sure we really wanted to eat here and it was unanimous that hunger trumped any hesitation we might feel.
The first thing I ordered was a sweet lassi, a drink I’ve become all but addicted to.  It is yogurt based, sweet and good for the digestive system (I’m told), especially if you’re a foreigner and not used to the food.  It is also more effective than water at cooling the heat of the spicy food here.
There is only one bad thing about a sweet lassi: it is dense and opaque and you cannot see what is floating in it.
I took my first sip through the large straw (you do NOT touch your lips to glasses here, since there is no guarantee about whether or how the glass was washed; also, straws are often larger than in the US to accommodate denser liquids and suspended objects, like nuts and bits of fruit) and immediately sensed something different in the texture in my mouth.  There was a sizeable object in that sip, an object with a mix of surface qualities I couldn't quite place.  I thought for a moment before swallowing, trying to go through all the ingredients of a lassi to determine what it might be.
Yogurt? No.
Water? No.
Sugar? No.
Some fancy spice like cardamom? Unlikely.
There is sometimes a film, like pieces of curd or something, that lingers in a lassi but that is thin.  This thing in my mouth was round and dense.  I kept it there, on my tongue, looked around to check that no one was looking and put my right hand in my mouth (the left hand is a no-no here when it comes to eating), delicately grabbed the object and pulled it out.
I looked down.  It was a tiny roach, covered in yogurt, its legs kicking furiously.  Suddenly all of the sensory input fell into place: the density, the papery wings, the tickling legs.
I dropped it from the shock and it fell on the table, still on its back and unable to turn over (it is a very strange feature of roaches here that, once on their back, they are stuck there).  I couldn’t speak and then suddenly a strange but lovely thought crossed my mind:
Thank God it’s alive.
Andrea saw that I’d ceased to be part of the conversation.  She looked down, saw the roach, picked up a napkin and gently brushed it off the edge of the table.  “See, honey, it’s gone.”  She thought I was being a little diva; that I'd seen the roach and been disturbed just by its proximity to my glass.  She had no idea of the gravity of what had happened.
The roach managed to crawl back onto the table top.  Andrea grabbed a napkin again, visibly annoyed, but before she touched it I asked her not to kill it.  “I thought of just that,” she said.  So she picked it up and dropped it gently on the floor.
We kept talking and I didn’t touch my lassi for a few minutes but eventually considered that the worst had already happened.  I’d had a roach in my mouth.  But that moment had ended reasonably well.  I had not bitten down on it nor swallowed it.  The roach had escaped the situation with its life (and all limbs intact, I should add!) and I did not have roach guts in my mouth or stomach.  The karmic release for both of us could’ve been much more severe.
So I kept drinking, but this time modifying how I drank so I sucked the lassi through the teeth, using the latter as a sieve.  If there was to be another bug in my lassi, it would stop there.
I finally told Andrea and Bradley what had happened and they were both horrified (more, I think, at the fact that I’d continued drinking than at the initial incident) and a bit impressed that I hadn’t gone ape shit in the restaurant.  I’ve told a few people about this incident since and have always gotten the same question: Why didn’t you complain to the staff?  Here’s the thing: I have enough trouble trying to communicate to the waiters exactly what I want to eat.  Modifications to an order are non-existent and, if attempted, will never be followed like you expect.  So relaying the intricacies of having sucked a roach through a straw but done my best to keep from harming it is outside the realm of possible communication.
Besides, that wasn’t the relevant part of the experience.  I had surprised myself with my reaction and learned something about the effect that this place, this class, my teachers here and the students who’d become my friends was beginning to have on me. 
Had this occurred in the U.S. a month before, I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted but I suspect it would’ve been different.  I would’ve been angry.  Indignant.  Entitled.  But there it was different.  Whatever I felt about that moment, of the two of us, the roach had been in the worse situation so in a way I’d been lucky.  And even as I walked out of the restaurant I was still happy that nothing had happened to it.
In that moment I’d learned the implications of ahimsa, or at least one dimension of it: that life has value no matter how it manifests… even if it manifests as something seemingly insignificant or inconvenient.
As we walked back towards the next set of temples, away from the roach experience, we came across the original restaurant we'd noticed.  We hadn't even been in the right place.  Just a block away, the sign and storefront that we'd originally seen looked bright, inviting and clean.  I am not sure I am the kind of person who believes that things are "meant" to be or not.  But I do believe that some experiences are more useful than others.  What I learned about myself in that restaurant was worth more than any dish this nicer restaurant could've offered.  It is also true in a greater scale: in the U.S. our sterile conditions can actually cheat us of experiences from which we could learn significantly.
To say that Chennai is a study in extremes is not inaccurate, but it misses the point of this place.  The contradictions, the visible presence of qualities we consider opposites, serve the greater purpose of studying life and ourselves.  In the West, we are often inclined to isolate what we want to study.  Here we are forced to study it in action and in the presence of everything else.  We don’t get to pull something out of context because it is within context that it belongs, that it functions, that it has power.  The effect of something, its purpose, is only really clear in the process of life and living.
In class, we’ve discussed the conditions in Chennai and they were unabashedly referred to as “dirty” by the teacher.  But those conditions are not deemed unnecessary or useless.  We were reminded that the drive to avoid any exposure to contaminants leads to a weak immune system.  It is through sickness that we achieve health sometimes.  This isn’t a completely alien concept to us in the U.S.   There are plenty of parents who have exposed their kids to chickenpox when they are young and their bodies better able to fight the virus and control it and, through that process, gain immunity to a condition that would be infinitely more destructive in an adult.
Perhaps most relevant is how the conditions in this city reveal that things that we tend to closely associate are not related at all.  Walking down the street at noon, the sun beating down on the few of us headed to O’Kady’s, our restaurant of choice, we came across a woman sowing garlands, her infant, naked and covered in dust, at her feet, playing with a large pot.  He would crawl along the muddy ground, wet from the leaky pipes that ran outside their house, dragging the pot with him.  Now and again he’d sit and bang the hell out of the pot, making such a loud noise that it woke the sleeping dogs nearby.  He had a wild look in his eyes and a large mischievous smile that betrayed the pride he felt in making such a ruckus. 
“He looks so happy,” one of the students mused.
He did.  Elated actually.  Much more so than the kids I know in the U.S. who have rooms full of toys, a warm home and parents who have read at least a handful of parenting books to help them do the best job they can.  Seeing him it was clear that joy did not require possessions.  That childhood does not require props.  And that the safeguards it could benefit from are likely basic and few.
“It’s because he doesn’t know any better,” another student said.
I didn’t say a word, largely because I wasn’t sure of what it meant to see this, to compare to what I knew back home.  As we walked though, I kept wondering: Does he need to?


  1. Must say I'm a little shocked regarding the feces. Didn't know that was all over the place. Thanks for an honest and informative post.

    1. Hi Sakhina. Thanks for checking out the blog.

      I was surprised by it as well when I got there. There are some areas of Chennai that are very well kept and clean. The area where I stayed would have a few very nice blocks and then a few really filthy ones. I never figured out the pattern but learned that I had to keep my eyes on the floor to be safe.

      It's worth mentioning that since my visit there have been multiple efforts to ban and fine public urination and defecation in India. In September of 2012 there was a movement that looked especially serious and likely to pass. I haven't followed it so I can't say whether it did. But public opinion is changing and officials are more and more concerned with public health and its link to this practice. So things are starting to change.