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Horror Stories from Abroad: Mysore, India

This posts kicks off a series I’m calling “Horror Stories from Abroad”—stories of which I’m not proud, but since I happened to survive them all I figured they could at least provide some entertainment. Disclaimer for all these stories: do NOT emulate them (don’t know why you would). Disclaimer #2: I like to think of myself as an intelligent person and an experienced traveler, but no matter who we are we all make mistakes, so if you can manage not to judge me I would appreciate the benefit of the doubt. Without further ado, a near-death experience in Mysore, India.

 

Led Primary at KPJAYI

Mysore is a magical place. It is a haven for truth-seekers and yogis, counter-culturalists and artists. There you can find anything the mystic in you desires: group meditations, manifestation workshops, philosophy talks, yoga shalas (Mysore is the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga), Sanskrit language courses, Vedic studies, massages, Ayurveda, cleanses, vegan food, Kirtans, gong baths…the list is nearly endless. In short, I was Alice and it was Wonderland. I lived in Mysore for a month in 2015 studying yoga with Saraswati Jois at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (for more on this institution, read my post here), and when I wasn’t practicing yoga I was quenching in any manner my thirst for Eastern spirituality.

Mysore is fairly safe compared to many places in India. It sees throngs of Western yogis seeking to practice under the venerated Sharath Jois each year, and still more hoping to escape Westernism for other reasons. However, it is still an Indian city, and there are customs and precautions by which any traveler need abide. These include avoiding going out at night—especially alone. There have been stories of yogis on their way to an early morning practice who were assaulted by men on motorbikes. There have been muggings. Women need wear modest clothing in order to avoid unwanted attention. Women should travel in groups, especially when venturing outside the city center. Women are not commonly seen in chai shops, so it’s best to partake only in the direct sight of the street traffic. All taxi and rickshaw drivers cannot be trusted similarly and extreme caution must be taken if you choose to hitchhike. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to walk alone.

While very aware of these unwritten rules now, it took me a while to catch on to them then. You could say I learned the hard way.

Patchouli the Dog

One day during my second week in Mysore, I was returning to my apartment after a particularly moving meditation. It was about noon. I had befriended the stray dog who lived outside my building—a ridiculously playful pup who I’d named Patchouli (and proceeded to adopt, only to be thwarted at the airport all the way in Bangalore…), and he bounded up to me as usual on this day. Patchouli must’ve only been about one, but he’d gotten in a fight with something bigger than him which left one ear with a patch missing. Hence, Patch.

I was in such a good mood, I rolled around with Patch for a while until a rickshaw driver with amber eyes like a tiger and dressed all in white approached me. His name was Hakim, and he was touting Ayurvedic massages for a ridiculously cheap price. “Free sample massage!” He also mentioned pure essential oils and incense, all handmade at his shop. I was feeling so light from my practice, meditation, and from this adorable pup that I decided to give Hakim the benefit of the doubt. He seemed kind enough, and he offered me a free ride in his rickshaw to get to his shop for said services. Not having anything planned for the rest of the day, I went.

Off we drove in his rickshaw, about half an hour out of the city through ramshackle adjoining towns. The further we sped from Mysore, the more anxious I became. “Hakim,” I said. “I’d like to turn back. I didn’t realize your shop was so far away.”

He waved his hand at me, assuring me over and over it was “just up here.”

Keep your cool, I told myself. Panic won’t get you anywhere…

After what felt like an eternity, we arrived at a concrete, two-story structure with no doors and shattered windows. When we stepped inside the noise from the street fell away. It was dark and cool. There was an old Indian woman squatting on the dirt floor, hunched over a pile of hand-rolled incense sticks. So, the tidbit about handmade incense was true. “My worker,” said Hakim, gesturing to her. The woman kept her head bowed over her work.

I shivered to think what “worker” implied. The place seemed more like a sweatshop than anything else. Still, it comforted me that there was a witness in the room. This was the state of my psyche.

Hakim showed me to a ratty couch. I sat gingerly on the edge, afraid of what that couch may have seen. There was graffiti on the walls in a handful of languages, some of which I couldn’t identify.

“No worries,” he said, noting my discomfort. “I have travelers all over the world come to my shop.” He passed me his cell phone—already opened to WhatsApp—for me to read over the conversations he’d had with past visitors.

 

This was the strangest part. All of the exchanges were with foreign women, and all of them involved bold advances from Hakim—“you are so beautiful,” “I love you,” kissing emojis, and such things—while the women, if they replied, would say things like “you are making me very uncomfortable,” and “please stop messaging me.” Why would he show me this? The only purpose it served was to increase my anxiety about a hundred-fold. I quickly passed the phone back, quite disgusted, and demanded he take me home. My palms were slick with sweat.

“You don’t want my massage?”

“I want to go back. You promised.”

“Come upstairs to my massage room. I won’t charge—all for free.”

I rose, ignoring his outstretched hand. I don’t know what I would have done if, you know…

There was no wifi in this part of town, and I had no cell service. Nobody spoke English, either, because we were so far outside of Mysore, and I hadn’t seen any other rickshaws on the streets outside. But it didn’t matter—I just had to get out of that shop before he got any more aggressive.

Hakim saw I was serious. He thrust his hands in front of him as if to pacify me—impossible at this point. “Okay, Mary,” he said (I had given him a false name, of course), “I am sorry you didn’t get to enjoy my services. But I will take you back if you wish, and you can come back tomorrow.”

And he did. On the way back he had the nerve to ask for my number. What didn’t he understand? I snatched his phone from him without a word and typed something which wouldn’t have passed for a phone number in any part of the world. I just wanted to play the part until we got back, avoiding any action that might cause him to turn back around.

I directed him to a building that was on the other side of the city as my actual apartment, just in case.

“I’ll message you. Tomorrow I will show you the oils.”

I gave him a hateful look as I stepped down from the rickshaw and walked away.

I still curse myself for my stupidity that day. I can’t say exactly what went through my head when I hopped into a stranger’s rickshaw to God-knows-where. If I had to guess, I’d say all my uplifting experiences in Mysore up to that point gave me the naïve perspective that only good could come from such a place. My confidence in its security had outgrown reality.

Patch was waiting for me when I got home. I’ve never been happier to see anyone in my life. The moment Hakim whisked me away could have been the last time I ever saw that excited tail and half-eaten ear. I could have disappeared in India without a word. Or I could have come back but with pieces missing—just like Patch.

By nothing but a twist of fate, these things did not happen. I came away unharmed but frightened into a more cynical and shrewd attitude towards travel. Better to keep your guard up and your confidence close at hand. When you travel alone, the only person whose trust you can be certain of is your own. And sometimes not even that. 

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A Vegetarian Abroad: Gili Trawangan, Indonesia

I’ve been vegetarian for most of my life. And while I can’t speak about the specifics of meat production in other countries, I can speak with a semblance of knowledge about how it goes down in the ole U-S-of-A.* In America, the vast majority of meat comes from factory “farms,” where animals are commodities: means to an end. As such, their lives are spent in space-efficient pens, and they’re fed what’s cheap: byproducts of subsidies like soy and corn, or worse: recycled parts of their fallen comrades. (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out the documentary “Food, Inc.”) They are given antibiotics and hormones to ensure their meat stays juicy despite unnatural diet and unnatural living conditions.

More than this, factory farms contribute about 10% of our carbon emissions, and the number is growing as natural habitats–from rainforest to desert–are converted into pastures.** What’s more, consuming meat from these animals posits dangers to our own health. Of course, large government subsidies to these farms means their affairs are kept largely hush-hush, a whisper drowned in boisterous campaigns advocating Meat! It’s What’s for Dinner, Goddammit! [Emphasis my own.] In fact, compared to every other world nation, American meat consumption ranks highest or second highest across the board (in the categories poultry, pork, veal, and beef).*** That’s more than the [former] European Union combined. Thanks, propaganda!

But I digress. Believe it or not, the purpose of this post is NOT to mount my soap box nor to scold the omnivores in the house. My mission is quite the opposite, actually…

Lombok, Indonesia

 

Strange & tasteless, the snake fruit

A week ago I arrived in Lombok, an island in Indonesia that gets largely overshadowed by its neighbor, Bali. Especially in the coastal towns and offshore islands, the native people have a distinct cuisine based on native crops: coconut, spicy pepper (and I mean spicy), tropical fruits, green beans, rice and, of course, the sea. I visited several markets where fish and seafood is brought in daily and offered to customers, charged per 100 grams and barbecued over a fire pit for you to eat on the spot–often whole. But instead of recoiling from such a display (as I might in America, scurrying past the meat aisle as though the butcher had her wily eye on me, next), I found it inspiring (aside from the Giardia I’m still coping with). Without the ocean, the locals wouldn’t be able to survive, period. They rely on it for food, transport, supplies, diversion and livelihood. Though Muslim, they still show gratitude towards the gods of the sea and the creatures within it. And although they are grateful for the sea, they don’t hesitate to consume its inhabitants. It would be a foreign concept.

Yeah, this just wouldn’t fly in America.

A big disconnect in American culture is lack of appreciation for our food. In Japan, too, (where I was a few weeks ago, and where eating from the sea is like breathing air), food and the ocean and nature at large are shown respect–a bow before and after eating, before and after swimming, climbing a mountain, et cetera. In America, there seems to be a sense of entitlement for food, potentially due to a disconnect from our food sources. Have you ever seen an animal carcass at the grocery store? What about even a picture of the animal on the label of a meat package? Don’t think, just do.

I wouldn’t argue when someone says humans are “designed” to eat meat. Our ability to eat widely is what helped us to the top of the food chain. And, when animals are treated with respect, killed with compassion, and consumed for subsistence rather than desire, it becomes a very natural process. All things in moderation, of course.

Humans, however, are capable of subsisting without meat. We also are endowed with a conscience which allows us to choose what we will and will not eat. Such has been the practice of Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Jews, and many other religions around the world for centuries. Ultimately this is the choice that I’ve made, too. So no, I did not eat the market meats, but only because years of vegetarianism-for-a-cause has lent me sympathy for the critters who happen to sit below us on the food chain. It was a personal choice more than a boycott-the-man one. Because despite my emotions, the process in these Indonesian markets feels very…natural.

To reiterate, I’m not preaching vegetarianism. Everyone has the right to choose what they eat and how they live. But until America in particular cleans up its act and learns some respect (which I believe will come hand in hand), I can only hope more people will cut back–in any small way–in their support of a tasteless industry. That, or move to Indonesia.

Contemporary Indonesian farming methods?



*Experience gained from extensive book-reading, documentary-watching and lecture-listening on the subject.

**Statistics from EPA 2015 official report.

***Statistics from OCED 2016 official report.

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The Ashtanga Yoga Kool-Aid: An Outsider in Mysore, India

As I write this, I am sitting on the cold tile floor of my wide-open, one-bedroom apartment in Mysore, India, where I have been living the past month for the purpose of studying at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute. I practice Ashtanga yoga every morning at sunrise, here and back home in Florida, and my yogic training is rooted firmly in the Ashtanga tradition. But despite my fondness for the practice, and my trust in its methods, I am disheartened with the current managers’ business scheme and with the community here as a whole.

Let me first say that the guy Sharath who is essentially CEO of today’s KPJAYI is making bank. Every single student that walks into his shala (which this month is around 500) brings in 30,000 rupees. That’s equivalent to about $450 per month, per student. If a yoga studio in the United States—where everything is about five times more expensive than India—charged this per month, everyone would think they were insane. A month unlimited pass at the studios where I’m from in St. Petersburg, Florida, is about $75 per month. Granted, it is not with this venerable guru, but six times the price?

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The actual process of achieving a coveted “certification” from KPJAYI is arbitrary, to say the least, but seven years of consecutive trips to India is considered a short amount of time to attain the title. And, despite the monstrous amount of cost this entails for the practitioner, the certification is only valid if a $2000 fee is paid. Per year.  It seems cost should not be the prohibiting factor that it is, for shouldn’t everyone be able to benefit if the goal is really to attain enlightenment? The Tibetan monks are claiming the same thing, but you don’t see them charging shit for their services.

I realize that the Ashtanga certification is taken very seriously because the creators want to preserve the tradition, trusted in the hands of only very experienced practitioners. They want to make sure those that bear the reputation of KPJAYI are of the highest training. What I am talking about is not the commitment, but the money involved—just what they do with it all that dough is a mystery to me (though it’s certainly not being used to buy toilet paper for the shala). I do know that Sharath lives in a mansion next door to his equally impressive shala.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/footfun/3114565003/in/photolist-4UzbFD-9qiRPE-7Mvrm5-7MrvHZ-7Mb7Qa-6bcnR4-5KdXEB-5Hqusv-7Mf25N-7MvwqY-68wWox-b7j9zc-b7j56c-b7iXJZ-b7j1J8-b7iVWB-5Kiei7-5KdZsg-5KidPh-8fxBoX-9yP465/lightbox/

The scary thing is, nobody here sees it. KPJAYI has become an exclusive empire, where troops of gaunt yogis from across the globe eagerly shed the bills to take part in and behold this master. As I said, I love the Ashtanga practice, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the lineage and the knowledge it embodies. But I can’t bring myself to drink the damn yoga Kool-Aid. I’m content to learn from my teachers at home, whom I trust because they do shell out the money each year to make the sacred pilgrimage, although I admit the esteem I held my teacher prior to this trip has faded slightly since coming. She, too, is as member of the cult—a cult marketed exquisitely to Western audiences. In fact, I have encountered just a handful of actual Indians while here, in a crowd of around 500 white faces. I do not need to spend that money myself, on continual flights and shala fees to support who-knows-what. I do not need to join the cult and earn the sacred blessing from Sharath. I’d rather enjoy the fruits of the practice for my own benefit.

What exactly is going on behind the doors of that mansion? It’s a mystery to us mortals, but if you’re willing to shell out enough money, you might just find out.