Periyar Tiger Reserve and National Park is located on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two Southern most states in India, but it technically falls in the former. We arrived after a 4.5 hour bus ride from Munnar, a hill station at 1500 metre altitude famed for its tea and spice plantations. Now that we were coming to the end of our 5.5 months in India, we were traveling at a more frenetic pace than we had before, spending 2 nights in some cities (that gives you one day to arrive and recover, one full day to cram everything in, and then you leave the next day) and just one night in others; an exhausting pace that we had managed to avoid until then. We had originally had a carefully thought out itinerary for our final 2 weeks, one that would give us a perfect and relaxing amount of time to get from Cochi to Chennai, but it had been dashed to pieces a few days earlier by a fellow Canadian couple's recent experiences.
See, I had only ever seen a Hindu temple in Singapore – Vancouver's Indian diaspora is predominantly Sikh, and other than a few free vegetarian meals at the Hare Krishna temples (by the way – that is a Western thing only. All Hindus love Krishna, but they DO NOT shave their heads, recruit at the airport and hawk cookbooks. I have not seen a single Indian Hare Krishna the entire time I have been in India) in my poor student days, I had no experience with a traditional mandir. The temples in Singapore have huge colouful towers decorated with three dimensional sculptures of gods and goddesses, and I could not wait to step off of the plane in Delhi and start seeing them left and right. Weeks into India I had still only seen monochromatic corncob shaped temples, made of natural stone and left unpainted. I assumed that just around each corner my perfect “Really Really Indian” temple would be lurking.....and it never was. I finally piped up, and was told that the style I was waiting for is called Dravidian (the term for the ancient race of Sanskrit speaking Southern Indian people), is unique to Tamil Nadu ( it is mainly Tamils that make up Singapore's sizable Indian population) and that the prime examples were to be found in Madurai – home to the penultimate Dravidian temple, the Sri Meenakshi. I was ecstatic to have figured out the reason, and from that point onward Madurai featured heavily in our plans for the South.
That is, until we met Brad and Lisa. They were a Canadian couple at our idyllic homestay deep in the backwaters near Alleppey who were also traveling for a year, and they had recently been to Madurai. For four hours. In a manner I was familiar with, out of the pair Lisa did most of the talking, and she informed us that they had arrived in Madurai with high hopes – only to get to the temple and find out that the once-a-decade scaffolding and painting of all 12 towers at once was occurring. And had been for 23 months. The Hindus believe that a temple can not be worshiped in part – one must venerate the entire site at once. Therefore, even though there are twelve humongous, gloriously detailed technicolour towers at Madurai, all must be covered until the paint job is complete on each and every one. Stunned with this news, we reshuffled everything around to spend more time in Tamil Nadu in places like Tiruchipalli and Chidambaram in search of my elusive Dravidian dream.
Which brought us to Periyar, a place we had abandoned the idea of visiting in lieu of other, less touristy places but that just happened to lay on the best route between Munnar and Tamil Nadu for our new whirlwind itinerary of temple hopping. We were exhausted from our hair raising bus ride through the mountains, and anticipating another 8 days of breakneck speed we decided to relax with an Ayurvedic treatment and massage at a highly recommended clinic. It's a term that gets thrown around a lot in the West, and is used to hock medicines and shampoos indiscriminately but Ayurveda actually originates in Kerala and refers to medicines and treatments derived from herbs and natural processes. And, for tourists, kick ass massages.
We arrived at the clinic and within minutes had chosen our services, Sean picking a 45 minute neck and shoulder massage and steam bath and me a 30 minute full body massage followed by 30 minute sirodara and steam bath. Sean was reluctant – I am always dragging him into various massages (“ooooh, look honey. Painful Thai leg massage!”) that he is never happy with. About a year ago I even surprised him with a luxe 90 minute couples massage at Spa Utopia that should have been euphoric but ended up just plain awkward when they 'mixed things up' by giving us each therapists of the opposite sex, mine making soothing “ooh” noises. For Sean, it was not so romantic to see a cooing muscular man rub his naked girlfriend. Even our massage on a pristine Jamaican beach was spoiled by a slack jawed American couple who had dragged themselves out of their primordial trailer park ooze to spend their vacation “arguin' o'er da casino an der buffay” next to us. In addition to the unpleasantness of the strange situations we end up in, Sean is invariably left in more pain that when he began, most notably illustrated by giant thumb print bruises he received in Chiang Mai Thailand. The bruises paled in comparison to the sour expression on his face. But, knowing that a true Keralan Ayurveda experience meant a lot to me, he conceded and we entered separate rooms to get started.
Two young ladies in colourful saris covered by blue lab coats ushered me into a treatment room, consisting of a tall wooden bed, a strange box with a hole cut in the top and a changing room with its bamboo curtain rolled up to the top. I stepped inside and one of the women came forward and said “All gone. It's all off” and gestured to my clothes, up and down. She made no attempt to close the curtain, and just stood there expectantly.
“All off?” I replied, though I wasn't surprised. See, in India public nudity is extremely shameful. The tiniest amount of cleavage and the sight of shoulders or knees count as too much skin, and you never see women in anything revealing (except for Bollywood actresses and modern city girls at a nightclub.) As many women have no bathtubs or showers in their homes, they bathe in communal areas – rivers, ponds or streams – and do so while remaining fully clothed in their saris, adjusting and pushing parts of it aside to wash. Ditto for swimming – the full sari in the water, more modern girls clearly wearing a bathing suit under their clothes but electing to keep a undress or capris and tank top on, as if each swim is incidental and the bikini will be revealed at a later point. (It never is.) I have even heard tales of men who have never seen their wives naked. This all changes, in fact goes straight out the window, when it's just women around. I had had 2 massages in India before this one, and every modicum of privacy was abandoned – you strip naked and are massaged everywhere – nipples, butt cheeks, inner thighs - everywhere but your actual genitals, but they do get really close. No sheet is held up to give the illusion of privacy, no attempt to avert the eyes, no precautions at all are taken to make the masseuse and client feel at ease with the nakedness before them. It was in this atmosphere of fluorescent lighting and stained white walls that I unrobed, standing before the 2 women completely nude.
For a moment we all stood there in the charmless room, me all naked and tattooed and them completely clothed, eyes ogling my tattoos. I nervously laughed, “So,what are your names?” The first one replied “Josmy” which took me a second to get and pronounce correctly, and then I looked at the other girl. “And you?” She clearly answered “Lindsey.” I started to say it, and then realized what she had said. “Wait – Lindsey?” Josmy was quick to respond. “Yah, Josmy very difficult name for you, but Lindsey is better!”
“Well, not better,” I replied, “just easier. A famous rock n roll singer in the West was also named Lindsay, he was in Fleetwood Ma......” I trailed off, as they clearly had no idea what I was talking about. “Not so much with the classic rock...”
Josmy was fiddling with a strip of long white cloth, and asked me to turn around while she swiftly fashioned a tight loin cloth thing, prodding and poking liberally at my bum to keep it in place. Satisfied, Lindsey sat me down on a plastic stool, said a prayer and began rubbing oil into my scalp. This was not particularly relaxing, as my hair was still knotted from our open windowed bus ride earlier, and as she whipped my head around she pulled at all of the small knots and caused me a lot of pain. Sensing this, probably from the tense expression on my face, she asked me “You have many problems?” Ever the passive aggressive Canadian traveler, I responded
We moved onto face massage, and then it was time for me to hop up onto the big wooden table. The table was approximately 4 feet off of the ground, and completely lacking any padding or cushion designed to make me comfortable. Just wood. What was more, the footstool that I had been sitting on seemed to have vanished, and so I was left to scramble up onto the table, loincloth flapping around in the most undignified manner imaginable. As my ankles reached up around my ears the tiny piece of modesty I had been afforded shifted completely and began to seem more and more decorative in purpose.
I closed my eyes, surprised and relieved that the table was not as hard as I expected. A few deep sighs and I was ready for relaxation. The room was quiet, darkened and peaceful, and I could hear the soft tinkering of the women preparing the herbal oils and compounds for my treatments as I lay still and calm.
At that moment a few things happened. There was an auto rickshaw depot right outside the clinic that I had noticed on my way in, and there began a scuffle of some kind. Motors the approximate volume of helicopters roared into life, loose parts clanked and moaned, and men started screeching at one another in Malayalam (the language of Kerala – less 'ticka ticka' than Hindi, and more like 'marbles in your mouth yet you are struggling to speak around them while underwater' sounding.) Then the chanting Arabic of call to prayer at a nearby mosque began howling through the air. At the same time Josmy, whose English was better than Lindsey's and so she seemed to have been promoted to the speaker of the two, asked me “What is your good name?” followed by the popular litany of questions about marital status, employment and parentage that inevitably come after. I kept my eyes closed and my answers curt, hoping that the hint would be internationally understood, and after another minute of questioning they fell silent and I felt a 'whoosh' of hot oil splash up both sides of my body at the same time.
The oil was a moderate temperature, and smelled like pralines (brown sugar and pecan candies) and felt wonderful. Two sets of hands smoothed the oil up and down my body, picking up speed until it felt like they were going to fling me off of the table and into the glass wall behind me. There was no kneading or actual massaging of a particular muscle group, just fast rhythmic gliding from my head to my toes. More oil was lavishly drizzled over me every few minutes, and in addition to the 'ready to launch' feeling, soon I was slithering and sliding around the slick wooden table and their hands, rather than keep me in place, actually seemed to be aiding in the slipperiness. My eyes popped open as I felt myself hula-ing against my will, limbs flying akimbo, and at this point they said “okay – now turn over!”
Things on my back were a little more stable due to the fact that I planted my balled up fists and tried frantically to anchor myself. The girls, now whispering to one another in the international language of heated local gossip, began a similar set of movements that were now accented by foot tickling and gentle pinching of my thighs and bum. A Hindu temple on the same block, perhaps competing with the call to prayer and rickshaw commotion, began blaring a devotional song heavy on the tabla drums and bell ringing. It complimented the bum pinching quite nicely. “You feel relax?” Josmy asked, all the while shimmying me like a rag doll.
“Oh yeah. Very relax.” I replied, wondering when the 'relaxation' massage would end.
Sirodara was next, the treatment I had been waiting for ever since I had seen a picture in a posh Thomas Cook guide of Kerala. Sirodara is an ancient Ayurvedic treatment in which a brass pot is filled with heated medicated oil (or sometimes ghee – clarified butter) and placed over a patient's forehead. The pot is swayed back and forth in a hypnotic rhythmic motion and the oil streams out onto the forehead from a small hole drilled in the bottom. The oil flows backward into the hair, saturating it completely and then collecting in another pot below, to be transfered back to the heater for the process to start again. The thirty minutes of continuous flow are thought to be good for cooling the body and aiding in sleep.
The Sirodara was much more relaxing than the massage, probably due to Josmy leaving the room for most of it and me being left alone with Lindsey. I smiled at her beatifically, thankful that she spoke poor English and was too embarrassed to use her limited skills to ask the questions about my weight/age/paleness that I knew she was aching to ask. Normally I would have engaged her, and told her her English was very good etc, but at this point I was dying to maintain the silence and couldn't bear to answer any questions about how often I bleach my skin (to the shock of many Indians, I don't. Of course I don't.)
To my surprise, the hot oil spirographing its way around my forehead actually did feel cooling (I often find Ayurvedic suggestions full of crap. For instance, there is a common consensus that drinking hot liquids with a new tattoo will heat the blood and cause sickness. Ditto for cold liquids and other situations, and no amount of reasoning can convince people otherwise.) I started to feel very loose and calm, and was able to tune out the cacophony outside and let my mind wander. That is, until Josmy returned. “Nice tittoos! How much you pay?” I paused and thought about how to best answer this delicate question – this is a girl who probably makes in a month what a tattoo session in Vancouver costs for 2 hours. I started to say
“100 US....” per hour, but her shriek when the sentence was half out of my mouth stopped me from completing it. I decide to let her believe that my entire sleeve cost 100 US dollars, rather than the actual, much higher figure.
“Wow!!! So expensive!” She exclaimed, and translated for Lindsey, who clucked in agreement.“You like Sirodara? You feel relax?”
“Yes. Very relax.” I was thankful that my eyes were closed so that she could not see them rolling.
Soon it was time for my steam bath – but first the girls had to wring out the gallon of oil that was soaking my hair. Again, this was entrusted to Lindsey, who clearly had never had anyone pull on her hair before and therefore had no idea that it hurt quite a bit. (Or, she had had many people pull on her hair and she did this job as a way to cleanse her emotional demons by enacting the same torture on other people.) Josmy was keeping a watchful eye on the situation. “Oh! You have many hair fall!” 'Hair fall' is a national obsession in India. Besides being a perfect example of strange Indianized English, it is a mix of consumer manipulation and an actual problem for many women due to pollution in the air, filthy water and a genetic predisposition (probably exacerbated by the small gene pools of caste restricted marriage.) Pantene, Garnier Fructis and Head and Shoulders all cash in on this panic by marketing their own products guaranteed to 'fight hair fall.' I have been shedding more strands than usual, due to a side effect from my anti-malarials, and I started to explain.
“See, I am taking anti malaria pills – you know malaria? See, um, you know the mosquito disease? Bzzzz?” She finally understood the word and gasped.
“Oh! You have!?” I sighed, and tried to backtrack.
“No – I mean, I have to take pills to stop malaria, stop malaria...ummmm – prevent? No malaria pills? And these pills cause hairfall. For us, its common. Malaria. Ummm, westerners are getting malaria very easily, and so....” I paused, as she looked at me with eyes completely glazed over, probably feeling sorry for me about my malaria. “...yes. I have many hair fall.” I finished. Moments like these – moments when a complete language barrier goes up and there is nothing you can do to take it down – are common in my life. Being misunderstood is hard for me to handle, and it inevitably leads to me trying to remedy the problem by using a lot of confusing words and strange hand gestures and I end up making it worse. Like here, I am surprised that she didn't end up thinking that I had syphilis and a midget fetish or something due to my long winded explanation.
The steam bath was actually one of those personal saunas that were a popular fad item at swingers parties in the seventies, essentially a big wooden box with a seat inside and a hole at the top for your head to pop out. I sat inside the box, which had obviously been designed for a much taller person, with my legs swinging around at the knee and only my nose-on-up sticking out of the hole. Beautifully scented steam began to curl around my still loin-clothed body and waft out the top of the sauna, steam that actually smelled a lot like a Christmas supper. There was rosemary and a lot of sage in the herbal compound added to the bath, and my stomach began to growl nostalgically for something from home – something Western that did not come out of a schlocky phone book-thick hotel menu offering “Israllie/Continantal/Chineese/Maxicon/Indian/Pezza” choices. I realized that Sean's treatment must have ended at least 30 minutes earlier, so I said to Josmy, “Is Sean, my boyfriend, is he sitting outside?” She nodded. “Can you grab him? I was hoping he could take a picture.” Her expression turned to pure horror.
“Here? Him in here?” Her eyes darted to Lindsey, who seemed equally stricken with panic at the idea. They rushed around the room, tidying it up and tugging at the curtains to ensure that they were properly sealed (a precaution I had kind of hoped that they had taken before they insisted I strip and then coated me in oil.) Not wanting to offend them, I said
“It's not like he can see me! I'm in a box! Is it okay?” They looked at me like I was crazy, and said
“OK, OK. It's OK,” nervously, as Lindsey started shoving an orange towel into the small gap between my neck and the rim of the sauna's head opening. I will point out that it was so dark inside that even I could not see my own torso when I looked down into the steam bath, and there was no way Sean could have seen even if he craned his neck. The idea that my 'husband” would see me naked, or partially naked, or perhaps see a small shadow of something that maybe could possibly be a breast or elbow was unimaginable to them. When they felt I was sufficiently covered they called Sean, twittering in disbelief as he casually strolled in, took a few photos and left. I couldn't resist. “It's OK – he couldn't see anything! And he sees me naked all the time, so it's no big deal.” I'm not sure that they understood me.
Josmy was suddenly interested in Sean. “How old is your husband?” She asked me.
“Twenty five.” I replied, awaiting the inevitable.
“And how old you?”
“Twenty seven.” Her hands flew up to her mouth in shock.
“No! No! You twenty two! He twenty five, you twenty two!” I had no idea what she meant. Did she mean I looked twenty two, or that if Sean was twenty five I should be younger than him and therefore should be approximately twenty two?
“Ummm, well, in the West its common for women to be a little bit older than their husbands, um, not always, but, y'know. Sometimes.” I sighed. “How about in India? Is this common?” She vehemently shook her head.
“Oh no! Wife always younger than man.” She looked at me seriously. “You twenty two.”
“Do you mean I look twenty two?” I was genuinely at a loss.
“Yah. You twenty two.” Lindsey now nodded in agreement.
“Umm. Thank you?”
The steaming was over, and I slid out of the contraption, slick now with oil as well as steam. Josmy and Lindsey, armed with thin towels that I hoped were stained and not dirty (you know you have been traveling in India for a long time when a stained towel becomes the preferred option.) Vigorous would be a mild term for the way that they began drying me off, sloughing off grey dead skin cells in droves. I began giggling, and even that began coming out stuttered from the movement “hhhh-eee h-hheee hhh-eee.” Off came the loincloth and - ! - there was no sparing even my privates from the onslaught. To my pleasant surprise, the intense drying-off job actually seemed to have left me feeling fresh and clean rather than sallow and greasy like massages usually do. My skin, though slightly dewy, did not feel oily or gross in any way, but my hair was a different story – hanging in strings and coated in thick oil. Josmy advised me to wash my hair “in a day or two” and then she regarded me with eyebrows furrowed in confusion as I began dressing, trying to read the writing on the bum of my panties. It is a cute quote from a popular movie, though a little rude in that American Eagle double entendre sort of way. I quickly hauled my pants up, nearly bailing on my slippery oiled feet rather than have to try to explain what “Flute Soloist” meant, and how it related to the the 'Pinewood Band Camp' crest on the front of the panties.
I stepped out of the room into the equally dingy waiting area, only to see Sean already up and ready in anticipation. I called a quick “Thank you!” to Lindsey and Josmy, who were already off with another client. We walked down the street, past the bickering rickshaw cartel, past the Hindu temple still blaring devotionals and past the mosque, now quiet but surrounded by Muslims munching on kebabs. “So?” I asked Sean, “how was it?” He grimaced.
“My shoulders hurt more now than they did earlier. It was a baffling ordeal. I didn't get my steam bath and no one could explain to me why not. The guy massaging me didn't listen to a thing I said. He actually did the opposite of things I said.” He paused. “How was yours?” I thought for a second.
“It was great. It was a terrible massage, and the sirodara was sucked of all of its relaxation by all kinds of loud noises and questioning, and I think that they may have insulted my age, but it was an experience. A true Indian experience.” Sean laughed. We walked down the street toward our guesthouse, eager to get to sleep in preparation for the hellishly hectic days ahead. I stopped and looked at Sean.
“Did I mention they pinched my bum?”
(If you live in Vancouver and you want a great massage with a professional who, I can assure you, will not pinch your bum - click here.)