Karen Ohayon – India (2012) ‡

Kerala

As I am waiting for my returning flight to Los Angeles, I am thinking of the ineffable trip that has passed. I landed in the Bangalore airport one month ago, unsure of what to expect. Once greeted by potent smells, loud noises, and a familiar breeze, I knew I was in for a life-changing journey.

In front of the Parassinikkadavu Temple on the backwaters of Kannur.

I took an overnight bus to Kerala and arrived to a welcoming and accommodating host family, Ranjit and Katija. Ranjit is a Kerala native and Katija is a German native that moved to Kerala 7 years ago. Through Ranjit’s ability to explain Kerala’s beliefs and customs through his own experiences, and Katija’s ability to compare and contrast those same customs and beliefs to western views, I was able to gain great knowledge on my surroundings. They were key in the way I came to understand and perceive Indian culture.

Kerala is filled with verdant colors and scenic landscape, making for a picture perfect sight. The city is congested with traffic and the streets are lined with trash. Still, it is beautiful, and exudes an uncanny comfort. I felt welcomed by the place and people surrounding me. Citizens would often approach me to learn my name and where I came from. Being in a relatively traditional area, my light complexion and western clothes had me standing out. Regardless, the stares and conversations were out of genuine interest and curiosity.

Mondays through Fridays my schedule was fixed. I would wake up in the morning around 8 am, eat breakfast and drink chai. Then I would take the bus to the medicine man’s clinic. Gurukal (meaning teacher or master) specialized in muscles, bones and joints using the traditional system of Ayurveda. I spent the first few days observing his techniques (given that he didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Malayalam, observation and hand gestures were my only options).

Eventually, I began to assist in bandaging limbs and providing the hot oil massages.

Providing a hot-oil treatment with gurukal watching.

By 2 pm, gurukal and I would take a half hour lunch break to enjoy the traditional meal that his wife prepared for us. We would use our hands to eat the rice and often-spicy curry that she made. Then we would return to the clinic and continue treating patients. Normally, I left at 4 pm, but the gurukal worked as long as patients were outside, sometimes that went as late as 10 pm.

After taking the bus back home, I would take an hour to decompress, drink chai, read a book. By 6:30 pm my yoga master, Sri, would arrive for my one on one yoga lesson. He spent a considerable amount of lessons teaching me the appropriate way to breathe and transition slowly. Once yoga concluded, I would join my host family for dinner. We would pass the time sharing stories and conversing until bedtime.

Host family’s daughter that I stayed with in Wayanad forest.

The weekends were spent relaxing and sightseeing around Kerala. I was fortunate enough to take a boat through the backwaters of Kannur, stay in a cabin in the Wayanad forest, and experience a more secular city, Cochin.

My trip to Kerala was planned to expose me to a traditional medicine system different than what I use in my nursing practice. Ayurvedic medicine proved to be exactly that; with a concentration on herbs, oils, and massage, I learned alternative ways to heal the body. After a month of such experience I can say that I am far from an expert on the complex and ancient medicinal system. But it helped me gain perspective and greater understanding of the body functioning as a whole. Additionally, the trip taught me far more than just traditional medicine. It granted me exposure to a new culture, helped me gain perspective, and challenged me.

Without the Globetrotter Grant, I wouldn’t have had the funds to purchase a flight to this divine destination and wouldn’t have found my home away from home. I fully appreciate the opportunity! As they say in Malayalam, nanni (thank you)!

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