We had driven around the state of Kerala the day before, stopping in the early morning at an elephant training center, where we watched one large and three smaller elephants being scrubbed with coconut husks in the river. They laid on their sides and allowed the small, strong men to scrub every inch of them. I enjoyed watching, until I saw the chains on their legs, and how they scratched at them. After the bath, we followed them to the training center, which looked more like a dusty, deserted girls camp, where we bought a ticket for a few hundred rupees and then stood around confused, trying to figure out what it bought us. We ended up seeing some baby elephants in cages, staring out at us with big, dark eyes, and I became more and more upset at seeing these graceful animals caged up. Without the proper language to ask questions, I was at a loss and more than happy to load the car to our next stop, the waterfall.
The ride to the waterfall was bumpy and windy, and the style of Indian driving, with it’s jerky, stop and go motion, wasn’t helping my breakfast stay down. But the falls were spectacular, so I’m glad I soldiered on. A large river plummeted several hundred feet to pools below, and the mist from the drop could be felt from the river’s edge, another hundred feet away perhaps. The short trail let us out at the top of the falls, where we took some pictures and then walked up river, where a lesser current mixed with several tiny waterfalls made a perfect place for a dip.
We were some of the only foreigners at the falls; it seemed more of a destination for locals. Many of the men and children were already in the cool river water. Just as we found a space to get in, we watched four local women, giggling as they lowered themselves in the water, fully clothed. Now came the tricky part. We had the largest bathing suits found in our country, but it wasn’t nearly enough fabric to stop the stares of the locals. Confidence comes in groups, however, so as a unit we waded into the river and sat down in the shallows, just our heads and shoulders above water. The coolness was pure heaven. “Just throw me a beer, will you?” I joked. Pretty soon, we had an audience. About 20 of the men found places in the water about 40 feet from where we were, and others gawked from the shore. Most were shy, but two were brave enough to trample over in their boxer briefs to ask for a picture with us. We granted one each, then sent them along. It was an interesting experience, to say the least, and I wouldn’t try swimming without the safety of a group. I couldn’t help think how tame the scene would seem back home, and what would happen if these men got a taste of, say, a beach in Brazil with all those curvy women in teeny tiny bikinis.
Back to today. Malas. I promised my friend that I would bring her back malas and meditation scarves. Right now, I’m wishing I would have bought them in Rishikesh, where the beaded necklaces hung from every store window and cart. But I knew I would be flying on a small plane, and that I’d have to pay for every kilo of goodies I bought (as it was, I paid extra for the six kilos my bag weighed over the 25 kilo limit). I didn’t realize that I was stepping out of an area largely Hindu in population (where malas are abundant) and flying to a colony characterized by the Christian faith. I haven’t seen one mala since I got here. Not one.
The heat is sweltering and I’m just about ready to give up, when I realize I’m lost. Where was that tea house, the TeaPot? These streets all fold together in a pattern like origami that looks the same from every direction. I turn around and walk in the direction that I came. Maybe I can find my way back to the homestay, at least, I think. Just then, I come upon a familiar face. Well, familiar glasses at least.
Two nights ago at dinner, our friend from the north, Danielle, introduced us to her new friend Steve, a local in Kochin. While we were eating dinner, his two friends showed up to say hello. I only remember his one friend because his black hair billowed out away from his head in a curly, messy, wind-coiffed afro. He was wearing standard Western clothes — baggy jeans and a bright t-shirt, and thick, yellow rimmed sunglasses with yellow lenses. “I like your hair,” I had said. “And those glasses, they are like the ones that singer from Bollywood wears, right?” He had smiled shyly and said, “Yes, I think I know what you mean.”
Right about now I was just happy to see anything familiar, so I honed in on those glasses like a lighthouse in the fog. “Hi!” I said to him. He looked confused, so I continued, “You’re Steve’s friend; I met you at dinner the other night.” I took off my sunglasses.
“Oh, hello!” he said. “I remembers you now. I remember a your eyes.”
“Yes,” I said, “They stick out here, don’t they.”
“No, no, not stick!” he said. “Very beautiful.”
I laughed. I asked him where I could find a mala. I explained what one was, because he didn’t know what I was talking about, which I found odd, but whatever. He told me he knows a place that might have one. “You scooter okay?” he asked. Hmmm, I’d seen women riding around on the backs of scooters. Sometimes, an entire family of five fit on one. The women always sat side saddle. I was wearing a new, white cotton dress and a gauzy scarf of my friend’s. Well, why not? I thought. If I’ve learned anything here, it’s to surrender to what the day has to offer. “Sure,” I said. “I can ride on your scooter.”
I hopped on the back of the white scooter, placed one hand on his shoulder and one hand on the small wrack on the back and we took off. He took me to a jewelry store similar to the ones I’d been looking in already. “This place won’t have it,” I said. “They just have gemstone necklaces.” And I was right. I tried to explain in more detail what I was looking for, and we scooted along again. Again, no luck. I explained some more. “Oh!” he said, and I could see the light bulb go off. “Like ‘shanti shanti’?” he said, and giggled. I didn’t know why it was funny, but replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
“Hmm, not those around here. But we go to the city. I drive, you look.”
Again, I climbed on the scooter and off we went. The Kochin and Fort Kochin area are very similar to San Diego geologically. They are on the western coast of southern India, and there are many bays that separate different pieces of land from each other. We rode over many bridges, through wide crowded streets and narrow crowded alleys. We stopped at many stores, but none had the malas.
We talked as we drove. I was amazed that someone I ran into on the street would take his afternoon to shuttle me around town, looking for what I needed. He asked me how my country was different from India, and I replied, “Well, for starters, I don’t know many people in America who would have spent the afternoon helping me.”
“Why not help?” he asked.
“Well, people are busy, I guess. We have different priorities there, different things are important. Like people’s jobs are very important,” I replied.
“But helping people important. Making happy the people, that is important,” he insisted. “I know that if I help you and you smile and are happy, then God make me happy and show me more the way,” he said. “And God not want the people to be sad, He like the smiling the people,” he added.
This young man, who I learned later was only 24 years old, understood and lived this truth everyday. This idea, of fulfilling your dharma or God-appointed service to the world, is one that many of us, me included, are searching for. To have the courage to live this truth everyday. Many of us strive to do this, to serve others and to follow the life path that is true in our heart, but so often we are distracted. We are distracted by all the choices, rules, regulations, and obligations that our culture provides. For example, if our places had been reversed and it was he who asked my help, chances are I would be obligated to work a certain number of hours, or have an appointment I simply couldn’t change, or just not think it’s important to help a stranger. The kindness of his time — it was a gift, really — was so moving that I thanked him endlessly, but he only seemed embarrassed by my gratitude. “I was only doing what is the right,” he said.
When we realized there were just no malas to be found, he drove me into the country side to show me authentic Kerala culture. Here, they’ve taken a river and separated it into large, man-made ponds that small, sturdy village houses back up to. He took me to his mother’s house and showed me the pond in front where he swims, and the one in back where he fishes. His family was out, otherwise I would have loved to meet them.
Frightening as it was at times, riding on the scooter was exhilarating and I felt an immense sense of freedom. Others might think it foolish — jumping onto a motorbike with a relative stranger, none of my friends aware of my absence, and weaving through dangerous roads — but I felt so safe and confident in the presence of my new friend that I did not feel afraid at all.
We spoke about a lot of things, that day and the next, when he drove me to the nice beach about 20km away. “Can I ask you one thing?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “You can ask me anything at all.”
“When I met you before, at the dinner, and now today on the street, and I see ah your eyes. And your eyes they are very beautiful. But it is like your eyes are a there is a saddness in them. In your heart. Are you sad?”
So he makes three. Three people here have looked into my eyes, or my chakras, or read my palm and told me they see the sadness that I know is there. The issue of the sadness aside now, I find it simply incredible that the people here, the good hearts, can see what is truly inside. I am around people at home everyday — friends, family, teachers, students — and no one else sees. It makes it so easy to disappear when everyone is blind, so easy to become distracted with pretty things and not take the time to fix what’s important, what’s inside your heart. That same thing is so very difficult here, because people see. I almost feel I like I’ve been transported to Pandora and everyone is walking saying, “I see you.” Because they do here. Not everyone, surely, and just as surely my soul has drawn these people to me to teach me what I need to grow further spiritually, but these people, who’s lives are brilliantly simple and so much less cluttered than ours, have more space in their heads and their hearts to see what we can’t.
As I ride on the back of the scooter, people look at me and a smile plays on their lips. I smile in return, and their lips turn to a grin and they wave. I wave back and they laugh. Crowds of boys walking home from school erupt in cheers and laughter at the site of us, and groups of school girls wave and shout. I feel like a celebrity. People are so happy to see me riding on the back of a local boy’s scooter. I can’t help but think that if he were to come to my country, with his caramel skin, eyes like pools of melted dark chocolate, and crazy, wind blown hair, people may not take notice. And if he were to walk down the streets of a small neighborhood in states less liberal, like my home state of Utah, people may shut their doors, afraid of his difference. And in doing so would miss the best part of my new friend, his heart, which is so good and so pure it almost makes me cry.
He says he has never met a U.S. girl like me before — one with an honest heart. I tell him that there are many, many U.S. girls and boys with good hearts, but it’s a big country, and often even those with good hearts get distracted by pretty things. I am wary — I think he has fallen in love with me, or with his idea of who I am, this boy with a pure heart, and now I must use mine to ease his pain about my departure. So I tell him that it is part of my dharma — to come to India, to learn, to grow, to meet new friends and ride on his scooter, and to go back home to share what I have learned. And I tell him that we shall surly remain great friends, and that whenever people ask me about India, I will tell them what he has taught me about really living — not just talking about living — with a selfless and open heart.