Before there were blogs, I spent a quarter studying sustainable development in southern India. I maintained an email distribution list of friends who wanted updates on my travels. Many nights involved entertainments of the herbal or alcoholic kind; there were roof-top full-moon parties and midnight swims in the ocean (the garbage floating there was harder to see in the moonlight); some evenings were spent on planting plans and composting toilet design. But occasionally, I sat down at a computer and wrote about my adventures. This is one of those stories:
Everyone says it is much easier to meet people in India. I don’t know whether it is India, or just the openness that one adopts when traveling, but I have certainly been meeting people lately.
On Friday night, Sean, Laura, Walter and I skipped the scheduled tea party and took an auto rickshaw to Pondicherry. We went to dinner at Rendezvous, the most chichi restaurant in town. We ate grilled prawns and drank vodka martinis while dissecting our experience of India so far.
At the table next to us a man sat as if frozen, staring at a picture in front of him. Two books were stacked at the corner of his table. After a while, the stony man came to life. He turned to face us. He looked every bit the wild man. Long blond hair, bushy beard and arresting blue eyes, he wore a green fleece sweatshirt with a lungi and rubber flip flops.
“Did I hear you guys say you are from Washington?”
His name was Ananda. His mother owns a horse ranch in Bellingham, and he graduated from the same Arizona high school my husband attended in 88. He was raised Catholic, but has always practiced yoga.
Two years ago, he gave up his therapeutic massage practice and moved to the Himalayas to live in a mud hut in the former state of Uttar Pradesh. Except for occassional treks into Jaipur to study with his yoga master, he lives in solitude in the mountains, practicing his yoga and reading two books- the New Testament and the Bhagavad Gita.
There he has fasted for days on end, hiked through the mountains barefoot, walked past tigers in the forest and slept in caves.
“So, I can say I’m a real cave yogi,” he notes, entirely aware of the irony.
And that’s what’s so cool about Ananda, the reason he’s more than just a weird-character travel story. Even though he is completely focused on God, he is very down to earth. He told us about his screenwriter friend who plans on building him an ashram when his movie deal goes through. Then he made a pumping motion with his hand and said, “Yeah, we’ll see, you know movie people.”
He doesn’t try to paint his yoga practice as some sort of illuminated voyage free from physical distractions either. As I have said before, India is entirely visceral, and Ananda doesn’t deny it. He freely admits his craving for protein, and dove into the banana splits we ordered for dessert with the rest of us.
Once, on one of his barefoot walks through the Himalayas, he drank the river water along his path. Then he suffered diarrhea for a month. “That was really stupid,” he says, “I was really out of my head that time. I’m a lot more grounded now.” Now he uses grapefruit seed extract to purify his water.
In Jaipur he had met some Austrians who were so impressed with him that they brought him back to Europe to teach yoga for three months. There he got to visit his mom and made some money to travel with. When he came back to India, he decided he would travel to the holy sites of the continent and only return to his hut when the weather warmed. That is how he came to be staying at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondi, eating dinner at the same restaurant as we were last Friday night.
We talked about our project, yoga, spirituality, Sept. 11, India, travel plans, life plans and monsoons, exchanged email addresses and made plans to meet at Aurodam for dinner the next day. As it turned out, our professors had planned a field trip to Mammalapuram the next day to watch a traditional dance festival and buy carved granite souvenirs. We didn’t get back until after 10 PM.
Then tonight, Ananda turned up at our house. He had shaved his beard and combed his hair. I almost didn’t recognize him. He hadn’t made it to dinner either, but he had made reservations at a guesthouse on the beach in Auroville. When he gets back from climbing a holy mountain in Kerala, he’s going to stay here for a week.
Before he left, we talked about The Meaning of Life. He said it was growth, and I said love. Then we agreed that it is ultimately the same thing. We also laughed about how easy it is to sit around talking about what’s meaningful in life, and how hard it is to do anything about it. He took a toke off an imaginary joint, half closed his eyes and said, “Yeah, man, it’s like, all about growing and pure love, you know.”
I walked him to his rented scooter and gave him directions back to the road. He bowed in namaste and said, “Victory to God.” I bowed in namaste and said, “See you later.” He started up the scooter, I turned to walk away, and he called after me, “Victory to pure love.” He had changed his wording to something I felt more comfortable with, and this time I responded in kind. Then I saw what he did there. He meant that it is ultimately the same thing.