Monday, March 22, 2010


As I pushed through the crowd at the Kottayam train station, a short man stood at the top of the stairs, holding a sign with my name on it. Mathew had made arrangements for a driver to fetch me and I at first had given a deliberate stare to another man holding a sign that read "Vanilla Country." I'm white. Country is kinda like Courtney ... okay, maybe not. Anyhow, I followed Phillip to his beautifully air-conditioned, white mid-size and smiled when MJ soon accompanied us on our drive; "Heal the World" had never sounded so heavenly as we drove past swaying banana trees, smiling villagers with large jugs atop their heads and an occasional cow.

The Mundax home stood on a green mountaintop, surrounded by sprawling tea and rubber plantations and hosted a welcome breeze that gave merit to the Keralite slug "God's Own Country," for it truly sounded like someone or something whispering throughout the trees.

I had been speaking to Mathew Joseph over email for a few days beforehand, and though I could tell from our correspondence that he was a caring and gracious man, I wasn't expecting an Indian man with a moustache to come through the front door when we pulled up to the end of the dirt road. I feel embarrassed by my sociocultural blunder -- I had assumed he was Caucasian given his Biblical name. Euro? Australian? I think I had even asked him where he was from in one of our email exchanges. Had I not been challenged over the previous weeks with an unexpected personnel change aboard the ship, I might've been able to actually listen to Global Studies to learn that Kerala is not only a communist state within India, it is also a primarily Christian one.

One of the psychologists on the ship had made a quip about Indian spiritual travel during his pre-port presentation (which was consequently the longest pre-port in the history of Semester at Sea), joking how people in the 60s and 70s came flocking to India in search of answers, studying with people falsely claiming to be gurus. I heard some of this criticism in my head as I entered the Mundax home. Was I nothing more than a lame, lost American clinging to an age-old cliche?

Maybe I am, but I felt my heart well up in my eyes as Mathew unexpectedly said to me, over a plate of fresh oranges and dahl, "no person is ever going to make you happy," as if he has somehow seen me crying in the shower and knows my lifelong struggle of falling for women that are either straight or uninterested. With eyes as soft as marshmellows and the physical grace of a monk, his words felt like tings of comfort, and in that moment, as we continued to share stories and fears, including his battle with cancer that had resulted in the loss of two ribs, it's as if we knew each other.

As we walked through his spice field and drove around the countryside, we had the kind of two-day conversation that I am used to finding between myself and the pages of a self-help book. He too is the black sheep of his family, not having married and having chosen to build a homestay on his family's land for a living, and the courage and dedication with which he stays true to himself is an inspiration for anyone endeavoring to live a more present and content existence; something that many of us Westerners seem to be grappling with as we sit back and realize that this life of consumption we've been born into is leading us down a path of disappointment and unfulfillment. If things are what we're after, we will simply never have enough.

Looking back, I can honestly say that I lived all of my twenties "waiting for it," as if something would one day happen in my life to make it feel more real. More full. More happy. But really, when I've tried to break that it down into tangible terms, I'm not even sure what I think it would look like. Nobody says at the end of their life, "I wish I would've had a bigger car, a bigger house, or a bigger career," yet we somehow live each day aspiring to be something more involving the "what" of our existence versus the "who." I feel trapped sometimes when I cannot respond to the simple questions like "what do you do?" or, my favorite, "what are you doing after you get off this ship?" But not only does it not matter, nobody ever really knows. All we have is this breath, this moment. And instead of letting the world pass by while I fret another moment regarding what's next, I'm trying to just enjoy what's in front of me. I could have a corner office with an Aeron Chair or work at a soap factory, either way, I'm still me.

I made a brief visit to the Sahyadri Ayurveda center, which was nestled in the beautiful countryside and offered me a tour of their pharmaceutical division in addition to an oiled-body massage and Lepam treatment. I could feel my pores bursting open as the women slathered a muddy, spicy herbal concoction all over my body. Typically used as an herbal remedy to reduce inflammatory diseases, I'm not sure what my limited consultation with the Doctor might've signaled diagnostic-wise, for I'm not aware of any health problems outside of my hypothyroidism and chronic pink eye, but my skin felt rejuvenated as I watched the mud fall down the drain along with three days of dirt and sweat. India is a country you wear at all times -- she sneaks into your clothes, hides beneath your nails, latches onto your teeth, your shoes, your watch, and just when you think you've bid her farewell she sneaks into the bottom of your purse.

Mathew's idea of meditation is that it doesn't have to be formal. "If you take a cup of coffee and just be present with that cup of coffee," he says, "that's meditation." So on my last afternoon at the Mundax I sat on the porch and drank my coffee, looking out at the trees for hours, trying to focus on nothing more than their existence. Birds flew in and out of their branches like little hellicopters on a joy ride and as the smell of ginger would occasionally hit my nostrils, I further witnessed the leaves occasionally being sucked into the vortex of the whistling wind. I don't stare out the ocean nearly as much as I should, and until that afternoon I can't even begin to think of the last time I starred at a tree and listened to birds.

A British couple soon arrived and while they were incredibly friendly, I felt very aware of their demeanor. They took us down memory lane at the dinner table without stopping for one second to see if we wanted to purchase a ticket. And in between all of the "remember whens," I couldn't help but cringe at the mere thought of probably having been that person on multiple occasions myself. And I also felt like, while they had every right to brag about their impressive array of globetrotting, they were speaking of it in the home and presence of a man who, most likely, will never have the passport or means to see it for himself. Which is why, I would imagine, Mathew has found a way to bring the world to his doorstep.

1 comment:

endicott said...

ah india. we loved kerala. nice read.

still at the hospital, thanks for the good thoughts. safe travels.