Monday, January 31, 2011

My India Moment

I’ve heard it said many times that you know you will love or hate India the moment you set foot in it.  Some people I’ve spoken to get here and feel like they’ve come home, even though they’ve never been here before.  Others talk about immediately planning their return trip even as their present trip is far from over.  And then there are others who describe India as a terrible place that no one in their right mind would ever visit.  There’s no in between. 

For me this wasn’t the case.  When I arrived, I found a congested and chaotic place.  But I had a purpose here and with that purpose I was willing to suffer any inconveniences that may present themselves… and a number of them did.  I didn’t hate India, but I also didn’t feel any elation upon my arrival.  I was fairly level headed about it.  Being here meant achieving something that for a long time has meant a lot to me.  I didn’t need to worry about how I felt about the place, nor whether I planned to return. 

And then on my third day I had what I will always refer to as my India moment and I knew what side I was on.  As the last of our classes came to end at 6p.m. and all the students quietly filed out of the classroom, I heard the blare of an instrument I didn’t recognize involved in a melody that was equally alien.  I stepped towards the window to see if I could find the source of the sound, but instead I was faced with an orange sky and a burning red sun that hovered just over the horizon.  From the fourth floor window I had a vantage point that I hadn’t experienced yet.  I could see everything, even above the tallest buildings that peaked here and there above the tree canopy that otherwise blanketed the city.  An odd variety of black birds with glistening black feathers except on their ash-colored heads rose and fell in the sky as far into the horizon as I could see, their motion oddly synchronized with the music, whose source was not identifiable and so seemed to come from the city itself.  This moment was only possible here.  In the midst of the filth, the poverty and disorder all it took was to stand back and see the dance of the whole to appreciate that ugly parts can still make something deeply enchanting.  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Getting Here Was the Easy Part

My first experience with the inconveniences of India came as I tried to set up a wireless connection from my room.  The hotel has a “business center,” a term I put in quotes because it amounts to a tiny un-air-conditioned room with one computer and a trash can.  The way the room is set up, the computer desk and chair are aligned along the short of axis of the room, which is short indeed.  A large person could not use this computer because the chair hits the wall behind it almost as soon as it clears the desk.  And that’s without sliding out the keyboard tray, which makes even someone as small as me feel slightly claustrophobic.

Not that I care about any of that.  My real issue is privacy. My sole purpose for using the internet at this point is Skype (, the only way I have to communicate with Kevin and my family.  For those not familiar with it, Skype is a fabulous service that allows free calls (even video calls) between Skype users.  Before leaving the U.S. I had Kevin, my brother and my parents set up on Skype.  They’d be able to see me and we’d be able to chat for as long as we wanted without worrying about cost.  The walls of the business center are thin all around, though, so both the front lobby and the people outside the hotel can hear every word I utter.  That and the business center is shared, so there is no guarantee that I will have access to it or that I will be able to be there for any lengthy period of time before someone else who wants to use it shows up. 

To connect from the room, you need to buy a “quick access card,” which again is in quotes because it’s “quick access” in name only.  You buy the card, which comes with a serial number and a password that you see only after scratching off the coating over it.  Every time I use it I feel like I’m playing the lotto.  When you find the internet access website you realize that you have to enter both these fields into the page, along with your cell phone number and a new password will be sent to your phone.  You then enter this password into the access page and get to re-enter the original serial number and password and THEN you have internet access… for an hour.

I’d had the foresight to have my Verizon phone set up for international roaming before I left the U.S., but the rates are awful.  Sending and receiving texts is about the only reasonable option ($.20 to send and $.05 to receive).  I figured this would be for emergency use only, and in the first days of my stay at that.  I’d brought an additional phone a friend lent me that I could set up to use in India.  Or so I thought.

On Day 1 I went out to try to get a SIM card for my phone and found it very difficult to communicate with anyone about where to do it.  There were plenty of places that seemed to advertise phone services but few of those actually LOOKED like places you’d be able to set up a phone through.  I instead focused on other endeavors.

On Day 2 I decided to ask around and before I left the hotel, mentioned to the doorman that I was looking for a place to buy a SIM card.  He took off his little doorman hat and was out the door with me.  I thought he was going to direct me to the right place and leave it at that but instead he went from place to place trying to figure out for me what I needed.  We hit three places and in the third a very disinterested woman relayed that I needed to have a copy of my passport and a photo to submit to them so they could give me a SIM card.  So off we were trying to find a place to get both.  Thank God he was leading because the guy who would eventually take my photo had to be fished out of a completely different store and dragged upstairs to the studio, a fine little set up with two soft boxes and a selection of backgrounds.

Once I was on the chair, both men urged me to smile for the picture.  The flash went off and when they reviewed the picture (I found it very funny that the doorman was involved in the picture review process, which even I wasn’t privy to) they both grimaced and then urged me to smile without showing teeth.  They clearly did not like my braces.  A second picture was taken and the photographer pulled up Photoshop 7.0 and cleaned off his Epson photo lab.  When he pulled up the two pictures of me, he gestured for me to select one.  Without even looking at me, the doorman jumped up and urged him to use the toothless smile picture.  It was only as an afterthought that he turned to me on the photographer’s urging to get my feedback.  Toothless smile it was.
I have to say here that though the rest of the excursion was a complete bust, I did get a very nice photo of me.

When we left the place, we headed to find a photocopier to make my passport copy.  That place was easy to find.  The word “Xerox” was prominently displayed outside and the room we walked into had nothing but a tiny desk and exactly one copy machine.  The doorman handed my passport to the attendant who quickly made a copy of my information and VISA pages, handed them to the doorman, and then requested 2 Rupees.  My smallest note was 100 Rupees.  The guy shook his head and said “No change.”  The doorman turned to me, shook his head and said “No change.”  I told him this was the smallest bill I had.  So he shrugged, and led me out the door, photocopies in hand, without paying.

We went back to cell phone place but this time there was a very disagreeable man at the counter next to the disinterested woman and he was insistent that I needed Indian ID to be able to get a cell phone.  The doorman, disagreeable man and disinterested woman went back and forth and the woman, whose English was better than anyone else’s there, communicated to me every few minutes the status of the conversation.

It turns out that getting a phone in India is not easy by design.  As a security measure, access to cell phones requires Indian identification (either the person’s or a sponsor’s).  I explained that I was here to study at the KYM and would be here for a month, making a cell phone a handy thing to have, especially since my current internet access was dependent on it.  Remembering from my handy "Culture Shock! India" book that Indians tend to only answer the exact question that is asked, I also mentioned that any venue they could suggest I pursue to get a phone would be useful.  The three consulted each on this and the woman finally told me that I should get proof that I was staying here from the hotel. 

So back to the hotel it was.  At this point I was exhausted.  We’d criss-crossed the nearby streets multiple times trying to resolve this issue and I was losing hope that I would get my cell phone at the end of all this.  At the hotel, the doorman had a discussion with the front desk guy and the front desk guy gave me a receipt for the 5000 Rupee deposit I’d made for the hotel.  Then it was back to the cell phone place, where the disagreeable man essentially said that it wasn’t good enough.  Somewhere in there the doorman offered to put his own name down for me but I’m not sure what happened with that because we didn’t end up doing it.  In some ways I’m glad because he was already going out of his way to help me and I was uncomfortable with him having to vouch for me when he didn’t know me past our greetings at the hotel entrance, which, it was not lost on me, was not being manned this entire time.

We went back to the hotel, where the front desk guy suggested I get some kind of proof from the KYM that I am studying there and have THEM vouch for me to get a cell phone.  I sighed, thanked the two of them, then headed to the business center to contact Kevin to let him know the bad news.  As I went to walk in, I realized there was someone there already.  She was picking up her stuff and ready to leave so I backed off enough to make space.  It was a lady I’d seen before who, by her voice, sounded American.  We greeted each other and I went inside.  Seconds later there’s a knock at the door and the doorman opens and asks me to come with him to the front desk.  The front desk guy looked very animated and he relayed that the lady who had just walked out was also studying at the KYM, that she had a cell phone, and would perhaps be a good resource for me.  Then they gave me her room number. 

India’s formality is clearly selective.

I went back to my room, called the lady’s number and introduced myself.  She laughed, as did I, at how odd this whole situation was, then told me to come down to her room so we could chat.

We spent the next two hours talking and laughing about yoga, India and food.  I told her about my teachers and she talked about hers.  It turned out we had Mark Whitwell in common and that she was a student of Srivatsa Ramaswami’s, whose books I’d discovered via Mark’s recommendation, and remain the best I’ve come across on the topic of yoga.

We finally got to the topic of the phone and she mentioned that the Mumbai attacks had changed a lot of things in India, among them the ease with which someone could get a cell phone.  She has a personal driver who gets the SIM card for her and after that it’s easy enough to buy minutes.  She suggested the whole KYM letter thing would be a bust and that getting someone local to buy a SIM card would be the most effective way to get a phone.  A great suggestion but I don’t know anyone.

So after a long chat and setting up dinner plans for the next day, I left her room certain that I would not resolve the SIM card issue today and willing to brave the charges of international roaming to see if I could at least get an internet connection that way. 

THAT, at least, was successful, if expensive. But it was worth it because it allowed me to show Kevin my room via webcam and to communicate a lot more openly. 

At this point I am on my second “quick access card” and I’ve been turning on my phone only long enough to get the text message with the necessary texted passcode that punctuates the horribly inconvenient process of using the internet here.  

The day was not lost, of course.  At the end of this process I’ve made two new friends: the doorman, who I feel I owe dinner to for his troubles, which were not insignificant, and Linda, the yogi, who I will be having dinner with, and who has given me plenty of tips on how to make it in India.

“Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll find here,” Linda told me.  So far, my experience has proved her right.  Despite the lengthy and painful process of getting a VISA when I am a U.S. citizen who was not U.S. born and who does not use the same name now that is written on my birth certificate, there’s no doubt in my mind that getting here was the easy part.

I'm Here

I remember reading once that upon arriving in India, the senses are assaulted.  That was all I could think of when I walked out of the airport last night and was immediately immersed in all of Chennai’s chaos and strangeness.  The first thing that struck me was the noise.  Car horns never seem to cease here.  Their use is not reserved for the rare circumstance when you have to alert another driver of your unnoticed presence or protest their careless driving.  No.  The drivers here use their horn as a way to demand the right of way from other cars and pedestrians alike.  The horns come so varied and so often that they are sometimes indiscernible in the cacophony and it’s questionable whether they achieve anything at all.

And then there is the smell.  It would be inaccurate to say that the city streets stink.  There is a mix of food, spices, dirt, sweat, exhaust and excrement that somehow manages to be less offensive than it sounds.  It’s simply alien.  And that combination of smells permeates everything and everyone. 

In the midst of the more concrete senses, there’s also the feel of the place, which is probably what I was least prepared for.  It is neither threatening nor welcoming, but something that manages to be the two.  As I walked through the crowd looking for a sign with my name on it signaling that I’d found my cab driver, I realized I was the only non-Indian I could identify.  But rather than stick out awkwardly, I noticed that it was only the odd individual who would even bother to glance at me.  Most people looked far past me, searching for someone they knew perhaps.  They didn’t seem to notice me at all, even as I was headed right towards them, and moved out of my path only as I pressed into them to get through.

After only a couple of minutes I realized I had a shadow on me: a dark skinned Indian man with a stern look who walked uncomfortably close to me.  “Taxi?” he asked.  I told him I someone was supposed to be waiting for me.  “Someone waiting for you?” he repeated.  And even though I confirmed, he stayed right on me, moving alongside me as if we knew each other. 

I had read in “Culture Shock! India,” a book Kevin gave me for Christmas so I could prepare for my trip, that taxi drivers in India are aggressive: they will fight, often with each other, for your business and offer the lowest rate and a reassurance that they know exactly where you’re going.  But once you’re in the cab, all of those agreements go out the window.  I wanted to avoid this as much as possible but the hotel was not going to make it easy for me.  “Where are you going, sir?” he pressed.  So I told him my hotel’s name and when he asked for an address, I pulled out the sheet with the hotel information.  He asked me about three or four questions that I couldn’t easily make out but I generally understood that he wanted to know if I was sure they would be here.  I shrugged.  He pulled out his cell phone and looked at the hotel number then handed me his phone.  The guy who answered was unmoved by my predicament.  He stepped through the situation with me: I was at the Chennai airport, I’d asked them to send me a taxi, I didn’t see anyone here waiting for me. 

“Can you take a taxi, sir?” 

I remembered another line from “Culture Shock! India”:  Indians have a hard time saying “no” and an equally hard time following through on what they agreed to do.  So I just hung up the phone and asked my shadow how much he’d charge for a ride to the hotel.  “Rs 560.”  About $12.  I agreed.

He pushed the cart with my bags through the crowd, across the street and into an area where various taxis were coming through.  We stopped by a car that I initially thought was his but was not.  “Where’s the car?” I asked.  And he blabbed something off that roughly communicated that we were actually waiting for someone with a cab.  I had not been picked up by a taxi driver but rather by a taxi pimp. 

Making conversation with this guy was not easy.  He clearly knew only enough English to fulfill the necessities of his trade.  But he tried anyway.  As we waited, another guy came up to me.  I was clearly standing next to my shadow, who had both hands on the cart with my luggage. “Need a taxi, sir?”  Oh boy, I thought, here we go.  So sure enough, within 10 minutes of landing in Chennai, I’d had two experiences the author of “Culture Shock! India” had warned about: I’d been promised a ride that never showed up and now had two taxi drivers fighting infront of everyone else for my business.  Excuse me, a traxi driver and a taxi pimp.  The shadow won the argument and the new guy walked away.  Soon after a car pulled up with a driver who managed to speak even less English than my shadow.  The taxi pimp said something to him and we were off, then the taxi driver asked me where we were going.  I told him the name of the hotel.  Clearly it’s not a well known hotel because he had no clue what it was, so I pulled out my information sheet again and showed it to him.  He was still not sure.  So I pulled out my hand Chennai map and pointed to where the hotel was.  He nodded and we were off.

At this point I’d lost all confidence that I would get to my hotel in a decent amount of time.  I’d asked the hotel how much time to expect the ride from the airport to take and they’d suggested 30 minutes.  I’ve since learned that Indians would rather give an inaccurate answer than no answer at all.  The taxi managed it in less than 20.  In that time I had my first glimpse of the rampant poverty: trash lay strewn along the sidewalk, women in colorful saris walked barefoot along the filthy street, stray dogs, mostly emaciated, roamed freely, looking for food in the trash piles.  There are cities that, despite their decline, still manage, in their architecture or street art, to offer a glimpse of what they were at their height.  But Chennai offers no such insight.  It’s hard to imagine what this place was like when the streets were not crumbling under the vehicles and the buildings weren’t crumbling around their inhabitants.

When I finally stepped into the hotel I took my first real breath in this country.  The room itself and the hotel in general were not especially impressive, but I was at least where I was supposed to be.  It has the essentials: running hot water, air conditioning, a comfortable bed, windows I can close to shut out the overwhelming amount of stimuli, and the reassurance that I will have these things until I leave a month from now.  In this country that is not something to be taken for granted.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

From: India, With Love

On May 18th, 2009 Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, father of Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga, passed away.  I never met him in person but I felt like I knew him.  Every yoga studio I trained at had his photo prominently displayed on the wall.  He had the same mix of tenderness and sternness I see in every grandfather I know.  Men who have lived long enough to know precisely when to be soft and when to be hard.  And then there were the stories, which I heard time and again from my teachers, enough so that they were more like legends and less like memories.  They often came with impersonations that, if not accurate, seemed at least to be consistent across the board.

I am sure I have had many lessons in impermanence in my life, but none have stayed with me the way Patthabhi Jois’ death did.  I am drawn to yoga for partly practical and partly mystical reasons.  The latter I rarely talk about because I think most people would not care to hear about them, and, if they did, I’m not certain I could articulate them well enough anyway.  I was drawn to Jois in much the same way.  Part natural curiosity and part inexplicable drive, perhaps an attraction via the link of his teacher-student lineage (parampara in Sanskrit) that I was now a part of.  And, though it cannot be compared to the deeply personal loss that his long time students, friends and family faced when he passed, something for me changed in that moment.  Two opportunities to meet Jois passed me by with the reassurance that there would be yet another chance.  In life, sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t.

Among that flurry of activity as my teachers readied for their trip to India to attend Jois’ funeral and navigated the logistics of finding the right substitutes for certain classes… in that empty space created by the loss of a guru and the departure of my own teachers whose council I’d come to count on almost daily, the resolve for this trip was born.  No more excuses.  

Though my practice for the last ten years has focused on Ashtanga-Vinyasa, I’ve been blessed to have teachers that had been trained in other styles, namely Viniyoga and Iyengar.  These are sister styles to Ashtanga, born of the same source (Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya), though promoted through different teachers.  Viniyoga, in particular, is dear to my heart, as have been the teachers that exposed me to it.  Where Ashtanga gave me technique and discipline, Viniyoga gave me a context and purpose for them. 

The class I’ll be attending is titled “The Heart of Yoga,” a symbolic title for me since, in one way or another, that is precisely what I’m after.  As has been true of my yoga practice all these years, I have no idea what I’ll find.  I can only pursue the drive to look.  There have been moments when I’ve been afraid, and when I’ve questioned both my motivations and sanity in doing something like this in such a foreign place for what seems like such a long stretch of time.  I fear as much what I’ll be away from as what I’ll be exposed to.  But facing that fear, I think, is my yoga right now.

When my teachers returned from India after Jois’ funeral, there were endless stories about both the specifics of the funeral and the oddity that is India in general.  I loved hearing all of it in part because it was the last remnants I had of that lost opportunity and in part because I already knew I would be in that exotic place they were describing very soon.  There was a feeling in me that I can only describe as a deep sense of gratitude in those days.  Gratitude for what all my teachers had offered me up to that moment, for the time and effort they had spent learning these techniques and this philosophy from their own teachers, for the wisdom of the learnings themselves, and for the way God plants these seeds that seem to bloom at just the right time. I felt like some small transformation had taken place inside me.  I was seeing things differently and I knew that every person and event leading up to that moment, when I’d decided to set aside my apprehension about traveling to India, was an offering of sorts, and one for which I should feel deeply thankful.

A few days after my teachers returned from that trip, I went to open the studio in the morning for Mysore practice and found a small bag behind the desk in the greeting area.  It was a gift from my teachers from their trip: a deck of cards, each with a quote of Vedic knowledge.  What drew me most, though, was the small tag made of brown recycled paper on the bag’s handle.  What it said may as well have referred to (and perhaps in some way it did) what I had felt in the previous days.  Adorned with three bindi jewels, it simply read “To: Oreste, From: India, With Love”