Namaste Sweet Friends!
Alert readers will recall that my final excursion on Weezie’s European Adventure is a trip to Kerala India to the Ayurveda Healing Ashram to participate in an Ayurvedic Panchakarma detox/cleanse. I booked three weeks at an ashram in Kerala to reboot, relax and reflect on my year-long adventure. My own personal Eat, Pray, Love story!
Kerala is the southern most state in India. It’s beaches attract thousands of tourists each year, and it’s where locals go for holiday. There are many beautiful beaches, and there is much less pollution and traffic than in the big cities up north. It’s more relaxed with lots of tourists and no Slumdog Millionaire neighborhoods, at least none that I saw. Just thousands of palm trees, coconuts, papayas, mangos and mosquitos! It’s hot, humid and relaxing, except for the traffic.
I arrived at Trivandrum airport on Saturday, March 7th and after receiving my Visa on Arrival good for 30 days in the country, I went outside to meet my driver. The air was hot and humid with palm trees swaying in the breeze. Hundreds of people waited outside the airport and the passerby’s kept staring at me. Indian’s pointed, smiled, giggled and waved at me. One family stopped to talk to me and asked if they could take a pic with me. I was asked to hold the baby and smile at the camera. Apparently, blonde hair and light skin are not the norm here. This was only the first of many times this happened over the course of the next 25 days. Overall, I found the locals to be very friendly, kind and helpful, and they did not appear to be judgmental of this weirdly dressed Westerner. Everyone I met was extraordinarily kind to me.
When I arrived at the ashram, I was met by Raviji who is the owner, proprietor and yoga guru. He introduced me to Anish, my new go-to person for day-to-day questions. Anish or Anisha (he/she goes by both) made me a green tea and took my passport to make a copy. I filled out the registration papers and was shown to my room. The room was large with a ceiling fan, wardrobe, desk and a bathroom. While it was not luxurious, it was certainly large and spacious and clean. The sheets and towels were a bit tattered and stained but smelled clean! 🙂 I put away my things and then went upstairs for breakfast. It was the first of many delicious meals! It consisted of appam (rice pancakes), coconut chutney and fresh fruit. The bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon were delish and refreshing. Agita, a lovely young girl who I would get to know over the next week, told me there were a couple of other guests there. She said that a yoga workshop had just finished that morning and new guests would be arriving in the next few days. She told me she had just gotten married five months before and that she is trying to improve her English speaking skills. I promised to do my part!
After breakfast, I waited for the “lady doctor,” Dr. Lekshmi to come to my room and discuss my ‘conditions.’ Dr. Lekshmi is the day doctor and is on hand to supervise treatments during the day. Dr. Shanavaus, or the Professor, is the head doctor who comes by the ashram every afternoon around 5:30 PM to ‘prescribe’ treatments and discuss care options with patients. Both doctors are trained in Ayurveda medicine and have received their B.A.M.S (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine & Surgery). I told them both that I was there for the Panchakarma cleanse and the only other condition that might benefit from treatment was my lower back pain. We discussed my dosha (body type) and after submitting answers to the questionnaire, Dr. Shanavaus told me that I’m a Pita with Vata on the side. You can take the same test online and discover your dosha.
The Professor is a funny guy with a booming voice and seemingly gruff manner, but he’s a real teddy bear and likes to poke a little fun at you. He and I got along well, and he liked it when I teased him back. He prescribed a lower back treatment (kativasthi), abhyanga massage and nasya or nasal therapy (part 1 of the Panchakarma). These were to be my treatments for the first week.
After meeting with the doctors, I walked around the grounds. The ashram is just 5 km from the airport. In fact, it’s under the flight path so there a planes flying over all the time. It’s set up on a hill and overlooks the ocean about 1.5 km away, although it’s usually so hazy you can’t see the horizon. There is a shrine in the meditation hall/reception, a small ayurveda herb garden and a vegetable garden. There are only 5 rooms for guests so it is small and intimate. There is a yoga room, dining room and a treatment room upstairs and everything is open and airy. There were renovations taking place in the front gardens and inside. Gardeners, electricians and handy men were busy repairing and installing the entire time I was there. It’s a nice place – very quiet and relaxing.
I met Elizabeth from North Carolina. She had been there a week and a half already and was also undergoing the three week cleanse. She looked to be in her mid 30’s and said she was originally from New York state. She told me she now lives on an island in the outer banks where she bartends during high season (April – Sept) and then travels the rest of the year. Not a bag gig! She was honest and open, kind and talkative. I liked her immediately.
That day, I received my first massage and steam treatment. It was not exactly like I had imagined. It was a cross between deep tissue and one of those old fashioned vibrating belt machines used back in the 50-60’s! You know the one that you put the belt around your waist or hips, turned it on and it jiggled the fat off of you? Yeah, that’s it. My first massage was done by two women who I would get to know very well – Lekshmi, the head therapist, and Sheena, her assistant. I was asked to remove my clothes and put on these disposable paper panties, very sexy stuff. It started with a head and shoulder massage done while I was seated in a chair. I told Lekshmi that my shoulders hurt from the trip, so she went to work. OMG, she just about killed me! She used her knuckles, elbows and I’m pretty sure a vice grip to “massage” my pain away. I almost passed out. Next, I was asked to climb up on the huge wooden table (not comfortable) and both Sheena and Lekshmi massaged me in tandem. It was like a dance, the two of them moving up and down my body using the same rhythm. This was a very fast, hard rub down with hot medicated oil that made me feel like I was going to be rubbed right off the table. I was clutching the sides of the table and definitely not relaxing! Yes, I admit, my pain threshold is pretty low and I’m not a fan of deep tissue massage as I bruise fairly easily; in other words, I’m a wimp. I would learn later in the week that I was not the only one.
After my first somewhat brutal massage, I was put into the steam machine. Do you remember the episode of I Love Lucy when she is trying to lose weight and so she sits inside a large steam machine for hours on end, sweating and panting? Well, that’s what I was in. Steam is generated from a pressure cooker on the stove next to it and piped in. You sit on a stool with your head sticking out of the box. It’s not uncomfortable and after my vigorous massage, it felt great. After my 15 minute steam, I was sent to my room to rest for an hour and then take a hot shower. No sitting, no talking, no sleeping. One hour. I did as I was told, although I may have dozed off a time or two.
After my rest and hot shower, I was invited upstairs for lunch. Elizabeth and I were joined by a couple from Japan who were there for the yoga workshops and were leaving the next day. Lunch consisted of rice, a vegetable curry, sauteed beetroot and fried okra. I will say right now that the food I received during my three weeks was excellent. Every meal was fresh and wonderful! I went to the kitchen many times and watched Beena and Sharita do their magic. They used fresh coconuts from the grounds, local veggies and whole spices (no curry powders) to create beautiful, healing food. Every single meal was wonderful!
I spent the afternoon reading my book, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. The breeze upstairs was wonderful and I quickly became engrossed in my book. I love John Irving and this is one of his best novels! I spent the entire afternoon reading. Around 5:30, the Professor came by to talk with me and Elizabeth. Dinner that night was ragi dosa (a red, African millet pancake that I fell in love with), potato curry, sauteed cabbage and warm ginger water. YUM!! Elizabeth and I stayed up a little while after dinner and talked. Afterwards, I went to my room and turned the fan on HIGH. The mattress was HARD, I mean really hard, and I knew my back pain was only going to increase. I managed to get a few hours sleep that night but not many.
The next morning began at 7 AM with yoga, followed by followed by nasay/nasal treatment at 9 AM, breakfast at 9:30 AM, massage at 10:30, lunch at 1:30 PM, back treatment at 2:30 PM, afternoon reading, doctor consultation at 5:30 PM, chanting/meditation at 6:30 PM, dinner at 7 PM. The rest of week one consisted of pretty much this same routine with times varying everyday.
Our yoga class was held with Nikhil, Raviji’s son. It began with meditating, breathing and Om chanting followed by sun salutations. It was pretty much Hatha yoga followed by cleaning breathing exercises, i.e. fire breath and more mantra chanting. It was a very good class and a great way to start my day. After yoga, I received the nasya treatment which consisted of a head massage, medicated steam breathing and medicated drops of oil or ghee in my nose. It’s supposed to eliminate toxins from the head and neck region and is part of the detox and must be done before eating.
My back treatment or Kativasthi consisted of a specially prepared warm medicated oil that is placed on the lower back inside a herbal paste ring and allowed to sit/soak for about 45 minutes. The oil is reheated a few times and repoured into the ring. It’s not unpleasant and I always brought my tunes to listen to during the treatment. Since I didn’t have to get naked for this, one of the male therapists could do this in the male treatment room. Saumesh (Sam) and Vaisakh (Mr. Me) were the two male therapists. They were both completely entranced by my iPhone. Everyday, Mr. Me wanted to touch it! Not me, my phone! 🙂
Massages that first week were the same tandem massage described above, although Lekshmi and I had a heart to heart about the pressure used. We finally agreed on soft massage with warm (not HOT) oil. It took a few days, but I finally became a little more relaxed and a little less bruised.
That week, three other guests arrived – Lisa from Israel and Christina and Mark from Portland, Oregon. Lisa was in her mid-20’s and had come to the ashram for two weeks. Christina and Mark, a married couple in their late 30’s, were on a 30-day tour of India and were only staying at the ashram for one week. I so enjoyed their company during the week. Mark and I went for a walk one afternoon. We just went into the village, but after not leaving the ashram for several days, it was great to be outside! The village is small with only a few stores and one petrol station, but we managed to find an ATM (with A/C!), a fruit stand, a flower stand and even a sundry shop. Keep in mind that these stores are sometimes just a make-shift shack with a tarp overhead and a wood burning stove to make tea. It’s a very rural area with cows, dogs and goats tied to trees on the side of the road or in the yard. The people are warm and friendly and always smiling and waving. There was some communist political rally going on in the village. Kerala is/was a communist state at one time and I think they are trying to get reelected. I was told later that it’s more communist-lite and not true communism. We also saw several Christian churches and schools, both Catholic and Pentecostal. All the kids who saw us smiled and waved excitedly at the Westerners. So cute!
One night at dinner, the four of us were talking about our respective visas and how long we are able to stay in the country. It was then that Elizabeth realized her scheduled return flight was outside her allowable stay. For the next couple of days she tried to call Air India to reschedule her flight but was not successful. Finally on Thursday, she and I hired a tuk tuk into Trivandrum to go to the Air India office in order the change her ticket. It was a crazy, wild ride into the city!! OMG, I thought several times we were going to be hit by an oncoming vehicle. Driving in India is not for the faint of heart! More on driving in a later post. And then, the driver wanted to charge us more once we arrived. I realize that an additional 100 Rs is only $3 but it still upsets me when people try to cheat you. Elizabeth was able to change her ticket and we also hit an ATM while there. By the time we got back we were both exhausted from our short adventure.
That first week I was crazy, sleepless, bruised, and restless with a caffeine-induced headache. Elizabeth, Lisa, Christina and Mark along with the staff made my first week bearable and fun. I’m grateful to them for their laughter and encouragement, their companionship and counsel. I wouldn’t have survived without them!
Check back later for more on my three weeks of detox in India! Namaste Y’all!