October in Toronto. The leaves are turning red and drying out, and so is my skin. This morning after my shower I opened a bottle of apricot oil and rubbed it between my palms to warm up before slathering it on. It smelled faintly smoky. Not necessarily how you want your body oil to smell, and I considered mixing it with a few drops of essential oil to mask the scent. But as I rubbed it on my neck and shoulders, the oil had a magical effect. It transported me instantly back to Ladakh, a timeless land of treacherous Himalayan passes and ancient Buddhist monasteries. It’s somewhere I don’t mind being reminded of as part of my daily cosmetic routine.
I spent most of June in Ladakh with my partner Scotty, wrapping up a five month journey through India: from South to North. We rented a Royal Enfield in the tourist centre of Leh and drove through snowstorms and sand drifts in this high altitude desert inhabited by Buddhists and border police.
We dared altitude sickness and frostbite to stop us as we maneuvered through whilteouts over Khardung-La, the world’s highest motorable road. In the Nubra Valley, on a steppe trampled by ancient Silk Route caravans, we listened to ladies sing in reedy little girl voices. They danced in slow, deliberate steps in felted boots with curled toes while we sipped on chang, moonshine made from sour fermented barley.
As we crept around gravelly corners, we waved to underage Bihari labourers who smiled back despite spending day after displaced day chipping Ladakh’s cliffs into smooth roads. In whitewashed villages and herders’ camps, we drove past Ladakhis watching the skies change while their sheep, goats and yaks grazed on the rough grasses.
We skipped pebbles from the shores of a landlocked saltwater lake – Pangong Tso, whose length stretches like a purple ribbon deep into Tibet. Giant Buddhas watched us from hilltop temples, and rainbow prayer flags sent their message out on the breeze: nothing is permanent.Neither was our trip. Our final stop in Ladakh was the village of Man, a farming settlement down a rocky road on the shores of Pangong Tso – about as far down the road as civilians can get in this borderland.
We stayed in a homestay with Tsering Namgyal, a modest and resourceful Ladakhi. He is a farmer who runs the village’s only “shop” out of a shed next to his cow’s pen. Tsering is also a Tibetan doctor, and his family temple has a floor-to-ceiling shelf stocked with jars of pellets, herbs, and tinctures scrawled with traditional names.With his son away working as a veterinarian in Leh, Tsering’s daughter-in-law Dolma spends her days caring for her in-laws, their teenage daughter, and her own two toddlers. Both kids were filthy and happy, playing with scissors, stray cats, and farm tools. Both had chapped, red cheeks and raw lips and nostrils, burnt by the cold Himalayan wind and the harsh UV rays. I played with them and the other village kids for hours, drawing pictures with my watercolour pencils and singing English alphabet songs. As the temperature dropped at night, we joined the family in the kitchen and sat huddled on cushions watching Hindi movies that seemed to be coming from another planet. The kitchen shelves were packed with patterned plastic thermoses and sets upon sets of decorative teacups – probably part of Dolma’s dowry – enough to serve the whole village! I couldn’t stop looking around the room and even tried to sketch the neat but cluttered scene.
The centre of the action was a small metal fireplace with an oversize kettle on top. After dinner, Dolma stoked the fire with dried dung and heated up water for the kids’ baths. We had a small bottle of apricot oil with us and gave it to Dolma to soothe her daughter’s skin. It had been working wonders for us over the last couple of weeks – protecting us from the freezing wind on the bike and replenishing our skin at night. After a couple of restful days in Man, we returned the Enfield and then flew to Delhi, centuries away. Before we left Leh I stocked up on apricot oil from a little fair trade shop, bringing small bottles as souvenirs for friends and a couple of bigger bottles to use on my dry skin in Canada.
Pure apricot kernel oil has essentail fatty acid compounds which make it a great moisturizer for body and face. It is high in vitamins E and A, and its soothing anti-inflammatory qualities make it a natural way help fight eczema and other skin irritations. My skin has been loving it!
The woman in the shop in Leh told me that an old man living in a small Ladakhi village makes the oil himself. I imagine him pounding the kernels in a kitchen similar to Tsering Namgyal’s. When I slather the apricot oil on my skin, I can smell the smoky dung fire heating up water for butter tea and imagine Dolma’s babies smiling at me with cheeks as red as the maple leaves falling outside my window.
Ladakh has gotten under my skin, and the memories of Tsering Namgyal’s cozy kitchen in the village of Man will keep me warm through the Canadian winter.
Queenie wears a gold housedress and oversized bifocals. A pink embroidered floral arrangement blossoms on the collar beneath her jowls and runs down her front. On the second floor of Queenie’s home on Synagogue Lane in Kochi’s Jew Town, a spacious dining room is set up for the Sabbath meal.
This room’s former grandeur is evident in the fine rugs and the carved wooden chests, but now Queenie’s family photos cover every tabletop, shelf and counter as well as much of the room’s ample wall space. She doesn’t hesitate to display her real valuables. A son and daughter – both married and living in America – smile from puffy haired 80s wedding portraits. A sole granddaughter poses with a hula hoop in some faraway Long Island portrait studio.
A Hindu servant heaps food onto my styrofoam plate and pours some kosher grape juice. The Friday night meal is a mix of foods that would not be out of place on my grandmother’s Shabbat table – coleslaw, potato salad and braided challah bread. Having lived in Asia for over a year, it’s been a while since I’ve eaten challah. The sweet crumbs speak to my soul, chanting the Friday night blessings in grandmothers’ kitchens worldwide. Queenie’s feast is accented with fragrant biryani, chicken curry and coriander chutney. Some of the dishes are made from ingredients brought over to India by a middle aged American whose company monitors kosher food products manufactured in India. The rest were cooked according to old Paradesi Jewish family recipes and are as tasty as one would expect in this world famous city of spice. (Queenie’s recipes have been in the New York Times!)
The meal and Sabbath blessings are presided over by a Hasidic Chabbad Rabbi with a bushy red beard who has come from Israel with his Bombay-born wife and two kids. They are here on a short assignment, from Purim until Passover, to keep the synagogue running on holy days and play host to a handful of elderly Jewesses and the occasional businessman or backpacker. Kochi must be a bottom of the barrel posting for this uncharismatic Lubovitcher. While Indian Chabad houses in Dharamsala and Rishikesh are buzzing with young wandering Jews, this one – home to an actual historical community – is ignored by the swarms of Israelis on the tourist trail.
Earlier this evening I took a rickshaw from Fort Kochi to Jew Town to attend Sabbath services in the heritage synagogue down the street. It was locked when I arrived, so I sat on the curb chatting with the Kashmiri shop owners and watching a little alleyway cricket. When the time for the evening service arrived, a caretaker unlocked the building, but there was no quorum for prayers. Only one Jewish man lives in Kochi these days.
The Rabbi’s wife and her preteen daughter Devori Leah were getting dressed, so I sat in the women’s section with one other tourist admiring the hand-painted blue and white Chinese tile floor. Multicolored glass lamps hanging over the central bimah have illuminated this community’s prayers since the Paradesi Synagogue was built in the 1560s. Jews may have lived in this region since the time of Solomon, and a community of intermarried brown skinned Jews speaking its own Judeo-Malayalam language has been living on the malabar coast for at least a millennium.
Different waves of Jews came to this busy spice route port from Iraq, Portugal, Holland, Spain and England. There were merchant princes and mystic poets. Families like the Sassoons, Cohens and Koders ammassed forutnes and held positions of influence. In the 1500s, the Hindu Raja of Cochin granted the Jews a protected tract of land adjacent to his palace, and for hundreds of years they lived, studied, traded and prayed in this portside pocket still known as Jew Town.
And now, says Queenie, “It’s over.” A community of 5000 reduced to seven: four widows and three of their unmarried middle-aged offspring.
The Rabbi mumbles incomprehensible biblical parables to the businessman and I study the faces of the women at the table. One of the daughters is here. She is in her forties and has a drawn, hollow-eyed look and frizzy black hair. She works as a ticket seller at the synagogue museum and is dying to emigrate to Israel, where an estimated 5000 Indian Jews live.
Looking around this table is like being in Jurassic Park. Face to face with the extinction of this small corner of global Jewish culture, I stare it down defiantly. There is one other young Canadian traveller here, and we whisper excitedly about our schemes to bring about a Jewish revival, discussing our vision for hours back at my hotel.
But Queenie is resigned to her fate. She will die soon, and Jew Street will belong to Muslims selling fake pashminas. The spice warehouses will still smell of cardamom and clove. The synagogue lamps will illuminate a museum. Queenie’s children will fly from America to pack her family photos in boxes. Jewish Kochi’s mark will hang like the blank spaces on Queenie’s walls, slowly fading into the colour and noise of India.
*Sorry no photos in this one…cameras are prohibited on the Sabbath! For more on Jewish Kochi see Who are the Jews of India?
The first time I heard about Amma was when a friend told me he spent a day in the Toronto convention centre waiting in line with thousands of people to get a hug. The idea of a hugging saint tickled me, but I certainly never thought I’d be visiting her on her home turf. But India does things to you. It blows your personal boundaries to smithereens and leads you to explore with an open heart.
It was in this state that I stepped off the ferry and crossed the bridge to Amritapuri, Amma’s pink ashram in the Kerala backwaters. Built on and around Amma’s childhood home, the centre of global Amma-nation regularly accommodates around 3000 devotees and visitors from around the world. The Ashram is situated between the coast and the backwater, with magnificent sunsets on the beach. (Unfortunately I was not allowed to swim – even on the gender segregated beach, fully dressed in long sleeves, I was told that my wet clothes would be immodestly clingy). Communal activity in the ashram centres upon an auditorium hall with open sides and a stage, where everyone comes together for meals and meditation.
We checked in to our simple room on the fourteenth floor and got into the ashram groove. For two modestly dressed days, we joined Amma’s devotees eating bland prasad food blessed by Amma, singing bhajans led by Amma, and gazing upon the guru, feeling the love. There are yoga classes, study sessions with Amma and her swamis, as well as a few shops and restaurants. Despite the constant flow of visitors, long term residents seem peaceful and happy in their routine. When we were there, Amma was officiating an Indian wedding – apparently this is quite common. Her following is a mix of Indians and Westerners, although the Indian contingent seemed more matter of fact in their devotion. Some of the westerners were putting on a pretty dramatic display – swaying, crying, moaning in ecstasy.
The Amma effect is not bound by Amritapuri’s pink walls. She travels regularly and has hugged more than 32 million people. Like other contemporary gurus whose sphere of influence extends beyond India’s borders, Amma has faced her share of accusations about financial and moral corruption. I have no idea whether these are true or not, but the literature at the ashram is full of stats and stories about Amma’s domestic and global humanitarian projects, enacted through her Embracing the World foundation. It sounds like on top of the hugging, this woman has made a dent in alleviating suffering in India and worldwide. Her projects include hospitals (both western and ayurvedic), schools and vocational training centres, disaster relief housing projects, environmental efforts, and more. Amma’s meditation technique is taught for free, as this celibate yet motherly figure believes that “Spiritual knowledge is the birthright of humankind and that to charge for meditation classes is like charging a baby for breast milk.”
Of course, no visit to Amritapuri is complete without hugging Amma, so I dutifully stood in line awaiting my turn. I checked my cynicism and was fully open to the possibility that this embrace might change my life. It would be a bit out of character, but hey – it happens to lots of people when they encounter the divine spirit incarnate. At the end of the day, I was not moved to join the ranks of devotees (huggees?) but I did recognize a certain blissful quality in the cuddly Keralan. Here’s a poem I wrote about my experience.
Amma loves me in German
She encircles me
She of 108 names
She who is an ocean of divine qualities
In her earthly female form
Dark and round faced
With a gold nose ring
She has blessed my food
And as i approach in line
A devoted hand, firm and steady
Jerks my head into her lotus breast
And she whispers to me only
“Meine liebe, meine liebe
Meine liebe, mine liebe“
The streets of the holy city twist and loop an collide into each other like the golden coils of a jalebi sweet. Walking them is a dance, turning shoulders, hopping over piles of dung and garbage, jumping aside to let a motorbike rumble through or to give way to a man with a yoke of birdcages, a woman balancing a milk jug on her head, or a sadhu doing his mad Shiva jig. These are streets you roam at a pace dictated by cows. The only people who walk quickly are the corpse bearers, chanting their call-and-response as they carry the dead, shrouded in gold and orange, down to the burning ghat.
But the Varanasi streets are cool, so narrow that the rows of houses, shops and temples defend the ancient pavement stones from the white heat of the Indian sun. When the rare brave shaft shines its way into this maze, it assaults the senses, raising a stench from the gutters and beads of sweat from my skin. Momentarily blinded, my pupils adjust to scan the ornate balconies draped with a rainbow of drying sari silk above my head.
Back at street level, a glossy smear of sunset red paint coats a thigh high temple; inside it, oil lamps flicker and fresh wreaths of marigold, jasmine and roses caress a Shiva lingam. I dance my way past shops selling orange, red and gold offerings, past men who spend their lives cross legged in cubby holes folding paan leaves, past silk merchants, sweet shops, and children playing in front of their homes.
In this incarnation, we spend only three days here, too quickly gone up in smoke from a chillum with Shiva’s face glowing through the carved pink stone. Sun rises and sets on the river, as we row past ghats – each one with its own purpose and character – and dip our mortal limbs in its waters.
Drinking endless lassis to stay cool, and stopping to sample sweets and small meals from the street vendors, we saturate our days with Banaras’s multi-sensory elixir.
At a nighttime fire puja at Dashashwamedh Ghat, men swing blazing oil lamps in a synchronised spectacle of devotion. One night, we entertain the stoned local youths with impromptu ‘baba yoga’ session on the concrete platforms at Meer Ghat. In the afternoon heat, droop eyed cows and lean wild dogs wander among the ashes that smoulder and reveal shrivelled feet and greasy skulls at Manikarnika, the burning ghat. A lone young monk paces his rooftop at sunrise; another blows a conch at sunset to end his puja in the upper window of a Mughal palace-cum-luxury hotel.
And everywhere, people immerse their bodies, clothes and babies in the Ganges, raising and lowering brass jugs, fresh blossoms and flickering lamps to take their place in this 6000 year old dance.
I was a fifteen year old bridesmaid at my cousins Robin and Jeff’s wedding. A skinny teenager in a chocolate velvet and satin gown with a sweetheart neckline that hid my flat chest. The newlyweds took six months off and packed their backpacks – off to India. They explored the subcontinent and took striking photos that still hang on their walls today – nearly twenty years later, as the eldest of their three boys prepares for his Bar Mitzvah.
A few years later, ready to bust out of my awkward teenage life and see the world, I headed to Costa Rica on my first backpacking adventure. Robin lent me her backpack for the trip – a green canvas Serratus front-zip with two side pockets and smaller zip sections on the front. Fifteen years and dozens of adventures later, I am still carrying Robin’s pack. She has travelled the world with me and has seen me outgrow my awkwardness and become a confident, mature woman. It’s time to bring my baggage back to the motherland: back to India. I feel as though I am taking an elder statesman on a final tour of duty.
Robin’s pack has held my stuff in diffefent climates and continents. We have hiked in Australia and hitchhiked in Iceland together. Travel buddies and boyfriends have come and gone, but she has been my constant companion. In 2002, fragile and worn out in a Genoa train station at 3AM, I huddled behind her bulk while a man raced down the platform pursued by fierce police dogs.
Twice she has been lost in transit. In 2008, Robin’s bag arrived two days late in Lisbon, and I spent the afternoon in H&M acquiring a new wardrobe courtesy of Air Canada.
In 2004, she disappeared en route to Belize. I whiled away a long Caribbean day with some smiling Rastas who worked for the airport hotel, listening to music and acclimating to the lilting patois in their tin roofed shanty. Meanwhile, my mother frantically called the aiport and airlines. She located Robin’s bag at Pearson, never having taken off because the baggage tag had been zipped inside the flap that covers the straps to prevent them from getting caught in the conveyor belt. I had to head upriver the next morning, having arranged to WWOOF for a month at Maya Mountain Research Farm near Punta Gorda. Luckily a previous volunteer had abandoned most of her torn & filthy wardrobe in the bedroom above the open-air kitchen. A week or so later, Robin’s backpack arrived in a dugout canoe, pushed upriver by our Mayan neighbours.
But the backpack is no stranger to canoes. Summer after summer, I paddle and portage her around Algonquin Park, then hang her in the Canadian summer sun to to air out the smell of campfire and damp.
She has scars and stitches, missing buckles, and a few mysterious stains. In New Zealand in 2011, I stored peanuts and muesli bars in the side pockets. While I slept in my tent on the Abel Tasman trek, hungry birds pecked through the heavy canvas for a midnight snack. This past year in Bali, she hung in the closet of my bamboo house at Green School growing mould.
In January, I left Bali with my partner Scotty Ze to take this journey to Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and, at last, India.
I nearly parted with Robin’s pack when I bought a knockoff Northface 75L in the market in Phnom Penh. The new bag looked flash, but the straps dug, the material was thin, the frame buckled in the hollow of my back. So I reloaded old Serratus, with everything in its right place. Books and rarely accessed items at the bottom. Ziplocs full of clothes next. Shoes in one side pocket, toiletries in the other, and various sundry items (leatherman, headlamp, tampons, sewing kit, chargers) in the small front sections. And I checked her in for the flight to Chennai.
I know it’s just a thing. A dirty old bag with a blue ribbon on its handle and a pink fake flower safety pinned to its lapel like a rumpled old dandy. Stitched, faded, worn and stained – a deterrent to thieves on Indian sleeper cars. But while I have lived in Toronto, DC, Byron Bay, Montreal and Bali, Robin’s Bag has been a constant home. My hermit crab shell when the ocean of the world swells around me. Offering logic, comfort, a place to sit and rest on a dirty sidewalk.
So almost twenty years after she took her maiden voyage, the old dame is back in India. Maybe I should abandon her to float down the Ganges, toward some life beyond this corporeal existence of endless lugging and straining. Or maybe Robin’s backpack still has one more canoe trip in her…
We’re moving to a farm in India. It is a place of abundance and compassion, where the water springs from the rock and the energy is solar. Terraces unfold down to a sweeping view of the neighbouring mountains and over the plains, out to Madurai on a clear day.
We will buy a plot and build a simple earthen hut to start, just something with a warm hearth to keep us cozy at 2000m. It’ll have an outdoor kitchen where we’ll have to protect our food from thieving monkeys, and a loo with a view just outside. We’ll spend our days building a sustainable system and nurturing its growth. When the sun is too hot we’ll head inside and brainstorm workshops to offer the travelers and seekers who pass through.
My step will become more certain by the day as I skip along the trails, crossing streams and drinking in the cool shade beneath the fruit trees. Sometimes we will climb up to the top of the ridge in the eucalyptus grove and take in the view of the Earthship and the collage of homes and gardens that make up Karuna Farm. I may even have an encounter with a bison grazing in the forest. My feet will get tough and my arms will grow firm and freckled from working with the land. On hot days I’ll cool off in the rock pool.
We will start the day with meditation and a good stretch, and end it with a cup of tea and wool socks under endless stars. Sometimes we’ll have campfire jam sessions and the village lights will twinkle in the valley.
Eventually we’ll build another hut with a broad patio. It will be a cafe and I’ll call it Bison’s Pantry and serve produce from the garden, eggs from the chickens and spice from around India. The workshop menu will grow to include the art of fermentation – I’ll make the best kosher dills in Tamil Nadu! Travelers will sit and share their stories over a steaming chai.
This is no utopia – it really exists. And after spending just five days at Karuna Farm, near Kodaikanal, we began to wonder: could this be our life? Land is cheap and the soil is fertile. The climate is delicious and the view…oh, the view! Karuna was started over 20 years ago by an Indian named Neville who left cosmopolitan Delhi in the heady hippie days. He travelled the world, joined the Hare Krishnas, and bought this property – a former potato farm – seeking a quiet place to live and meditate. He immediately set to work planting and shaping the land, and today it is a forest full of fruit trees.
His hermitage attracted like minded friends, and over the years it became a sort of unintentional uncommunity. An international group of families and singles, nestled in their own little slices of paradise, supporting themselves through independent small enterprises and meeting up for weekly Bhajans and sporadic gatherings.
Karuna’s vision is continually evolving and, with their first two workshops behind them and a steady trickle of guests eager to get involved, it seems like a promising time to jump in. For us, it’s just a vision at this point. But as we search for a lifestyle that fulfills and sustains us, Karuna or a similar setup feels pretty right.
We’re not moving to a farm in India just yet. But if we do – want to come along?