Saturday, July 2, 2011

Leaving India

The days that led up to my departure from India were as surreal as the day I arrived. I'd purposely given myself a few days after our month-long class ended so I had time to adjust, to prepare and, most important, to say my goodbyes to the people and places I'd come to love in my time there. Over those three days my friends left in waves and the goodbyes became more difficult.

On Friday night (the last day of our class) all 25 participants of "The Heart of Yoga" course gathered at Sandy's, the only Western style restaurant I frequented (largely because of their amazing chocolate desserts) and we did our rounds exchanging embraces, phone numbers, email addresses and reassurances about keeping in touch. The food at Sandy's was amazing, as always. It's the one place I allowed myself to eat meat and at that I kept it at fish. "Pesto fish" to be exact; the dish is unreal. We weren't in the main area of the restaurant that I'd come to know so well. Instead they placed us in a small private room with a dark brown door that resembled a Hershey's chocolate bar.

We asked for their wine selection.

"We have one red and one white."

Everyone settled on ordering both to suit differing preferences. Turned out they had exactly one bottle of each of red and white, which was clearly not going to serve everyone. Not that we had a class full of lushes, but after 4 weeks of intense physical, mental and, yes, spiritual exploration, most of us were looking for the proverbial release, which doesn't happen with just half a glass of wine.

"This is India." I'd used that phrase again and again to remind myself that there are places that don't follow the same rules I've been used to the last 27 years of my life, places that aren't designed to serve me. India is full of oddities, surprises and contradictions that are not familiar at all. It is a place where with few traffic signals and five times as many drivers on the road, traffic still manages to flow, where poverty and disease are rampant but people do not become animals and in fact interpersonal relationships seem to be the priority, where the dangers of the wild encroach on the safety of the city and yet people don't live in constant fear.

Where a Western-style restaurant has exactly two bottles of wine.

This is India. And India, I'd learned, wasn't there to give us what we wanted but would easily reveal and offer what we needed.

After 30 minutes or so more bottles started to appear. More reds and more whites. But all were different, making me wonder whether the owner of the restaurant had run home and tapped into his own personal supply to make sure his customers were served.

We ate off each other's plates, tasted and sometimes shared each other's wine (we had to, after all, since there was a limited supply of each) and exchanged glances and smiles that managed relief and sadness simultaneously. A few people shed tears here and there. But no feeling was indulged for too long. Something would interrupt it: the food coming out, the dessert menu, the mosquitos that had to be waved away or swatted, depending on the individual's interpretation of "ahimsa" (translated as "non-harming," it is one of the five restraints yogis are called to).

At one point, something that looked very much like a racquetball racquet was brought out. It had an odd metal mesh though, rather than the nylon strings I expected, and it had a thunderbolt-shaped emblem across the mesh and an "on" button on the handle. It took a group of us a few moments to realize that it was a mosquito swatter. We turned it on, waved it around and nothing. There were a few people who knew exactly what it was and what it did and who kept reassuring those of us that were confused that yes it was meant to kill mosquitos. Someone handed it to one of the girls, who was known to be a tennis player and she seemed delighted but equally confused. Before she could register and react to everyone's gasp and warning, she touched the mesh and from the look on her face it was clear she'd received quite a shock. She handed it off, swiftly shaking the shocked hand, as if trying to release the energy in hear hand.

Someone handed it to me and I was thoroughly terrified, having seen that it had enough power to make its improper use very uncomfortable. I waved it around and nothing. Then while holding it and talking to others about it and its lack of functionality, a mosquito flew lazily into it and ZAP!

I almost dropped the thing from surprise and shrieked like a five year old girl.

Then I was fascinated. I waved it around some more and could see the blue spark every time a mosquito came in contact with the mesh. A couple of times I even saw the bug drop to the floor.

I'm not a fan of killing things. My partner can attest to the many hours I've accumulated now trying to get silverfish and all variety of spiders (even the ones that look especially mean and hairy) out of our apartment without harming them. I even do my best with flies and roaches to get them safely out a door or window. But mosquitos fall somehow into an excepted category.

Towards the end of the evening, the waiters brought out a birthday cake with what looked like a flare in the center. Elyssa, one of the longest yoga practitioners in the class (and my rickshaw nightmare buddy) was celebrating her birthday. I'm not sure if she managed to blow the thing out or if we had to wait for it to die down. We sang "Happy Birthday" in English and then started the process of singing it in every language represented in the room. We had quite a few: Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Russian, Italian, French, Greek, German, Belgian, Dutch, Korean and Finnish just to name a few. I've never been in a room with people representing so many different cultures and languages.

Late in the night we filed out but lingered outside the restaurant, saying a second or third round of goodbyes, figuring out ways to keep in touch and even meet up in the coming months. When my group finally started to move, we did so lazily, or maybe hesitatingly. Every step got us closer to a final goodbye. And for me it was especially difficult because that night I was losing the person I'd been closest to this whole time.

I've mostly refrained from using names and (too many) identifying features. This is to protect the identity of those involved and also because there are some things about any experience like this that are best kept secret. Not everything is meant to be shared.

I am making an exception here for my friend Andrea. It is difficult to talk about some things in my experience, among them the difficulty of saying goodbye, without mentioning her.

I can't remember exactly how we met. That first moment when we exchanged names has since been overshadowed by so many moments that carry more significance. Many of these I must keep to myself because they are so personal; others seem to lose their power and meaning when put into words, but I'll share what I can in the best way I can to do it justice.

It's not enough to say that Andrea was the person that shared a writing stool with me everyday, that as every weekend approached, she was the one person I always consulted, that every powerful, beautiful, frightening and confusing moment I had in my experience was always immediately followed by a concerned or congratulatory look from her.

If I did not attend a class, she was asked about my whereabouts. If she did not attend class, I was asked about hers.

She was there to reassure me when I couldn't stand to look at the traffic as our rickshaw swerved around it (Andrea lived in China prior to visiting India and rickshaws were not unknown to her... though she did freak out as much as I did when we bounced off a car and hit a motorcycle), she was someone with whom I could share stories of Kevin and who in fact would prompt me for them because she knew I enjoyed talking about him. We could talk endlessly about anything and more often than not those conversations delved deeper than I'd become used to these last few years of my life. In my teens I remember discussions with friends being overwhelmingly emotional, with difficult confessions, passionate aspirations and deep regrets often discussed. In my time as an adult, I became used to discussions about generally practical, banal matters; those intense discussions were less frequent. With Andrea, no conversation was trivial: each one carried the weight of what we were working through (grappling with, really) in our practice and our lives. Not that all things were heavy with us. Even the most somber discussion still had a quality of lightness to it, perhaps in relief that we'd found someone with whom we could share anything and everything.

Oddly, some of the things I most closely associate with Andrea, things which accentuate my memory of her, are surprisingly simple: "Mikey" the roach that terrorized her and Julianna (her roommate, who would also become a dear friend), the Western style coffeehouse we discovered that became something of our spot... a place to flee to when we wanted a taste of what we considered home, the smokey crystal earrings that she gave me, and the fiery red scarf that had her name on it the moment I saw it.

I could always count on a kiss "hello" and "goodbye" each day from Andrea.

On our last class of the last day of the course, as we sat side by side in meditation, she moved her hand and placed it in mine just as I considered doing the same thing to her and we both encountered a powerful, almost burning energy moving up our hands and arms, a testament, I think, to the bond we both already knew we shared. I was so surprised at the sensation, that before mentioning what I'd felt, I asked her if she'd sensed anything, just to be sure that it had really occurred, that I wasn't generating this reaction within myself. She described exactly what I had felt. That surge was real.

How do you say "goodbye" to someone like that?

I believe the only way is with tears.

I held mine back as I hugged her in the dark, shaded street in front of her apartment. The evening was cooler than usual but still slightly humid. "Comfortable" is what I called it, trying to make small talk to distract from the difficult task of understanding my feelings at that moment. Our hug lasted longer than usual and I held her hand as long as I could as I began to walk away. I looked back to see her disappear into the dark passageway that led to the stairs and sighed when I considered the notion that this would be the last time I saw her for a very long while.

In that instant I realized I was going to miss this place, these people and these moments. Despite all the training I've had in recognizing and letting go of attachments, I held on as tight as I could to the image of Andrea standing in front of her building, wearing the beautiful red kurta I'd come to associate with her (she always looked so good in red). I wanted to take that image with me, to have it as an anchor for all the others I'd encountered both with and without her.

My heart was heavy the remaining days, each goodbye a chip to the heart so to speak. Another space that can't be filled even with memories. Another piece of me that now belongs with someone else.

If I close my eyes now, I can still see her there, infront of her building, even though she's been long gone, living with her daughter in their new home in Singapore. She left her ghost, her imprint in that place that I will forever link to her. A place that, because of that link, is among the few that I could easily find my way to if given the opportunity now. An imprint so tangible, so obvious that it drew tears the next day when I left Julianna there after our last shopping excursion (trying to get the last of our gifts for friends and family). As the rickshaw drove off I looked back and did my best to imagine her standing there, where she'd been the night before. The street seemed to ache with her absence.

On my last day I went back to the KYM to drop off the SIM card that had proven an ordeal to get. That in itself was a chapter, wasn't it? I timed my arrival so I could see the friends who were staying for the following class, a two week meditation intensive. The last ten minutes of the hour are always a break. I saw a handful of them and gave out the pharmaceuticals and food that I no longer needed. The I walked back to the hotel, slowly, taking every step in with the acknowledgment that it was the last time I'd be strolling down that street.

I met up with Holly and Wyatt at the hotel, finished packing and handed off the rest of the items I wouldn't be bringing back: sesame oil I'd bought to use as therapeutic body lotion, dental floss (which you can't find in India for some reason), the pumice stone that had become my feet's best friend.

In this sorting out of what would stay and what would go, it wasn't lost on me that as we travel we do well to travel lightly, carrying only the essentials, sharing everything else. I couldn't bring India back with me. Not the KYM, the stray dogs, the nervous cows, the traffic, the noise, the smiles, the dirt, the trees, the birds, the sounds or the sunsets and sunrises that greeted me daily. If anything I could take back the memory of these things, and even that, with the passage of time, will have to fade. In truth, I knew the only thing I could really bring back and keep forever are the changes this place had initiated, coaxed and nurtured in me.

When I boarded the Emirates flight, it's star-lit ceiling a welcoming return to the amenities and comforts (and excesses) of the West, I scrolled through my memories, giving them full attention again, hoping to keep them with me a little longer than usual. As many things as I thought of (seeing my first sunset, practicing to the sunrise at the rooftop of the KYM, getting lost in the city, the temples, the music, the street life, my close call with a roach, mahamudra), they all pointed, inevitably back to that night as I walked away from Andrea, doing my best not to let my feelings overwhelm me.

Strange as it is, if I were to describe the face of India, it would not be the rich dark Tamil faces that I encountered every day, the impossibly beautiful green eyes on the almond skin of Kashmiri boys, or the stern painted faces of the Brahmins. For me, the face of India remains a sweet smile on the beautiful doe-eyed face of a Mexican girl from China.


  1. So that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship :))

  2. Words to live by. Thank you for sharing

  3. Words to live by. Thank you for sharing