The healing power of food

It’s a foodie’s dream so why not make it a reality?

A proper Keralan lunch

A proper Keralan lunch

My second trip to India encompassed one goal and one goal only: Panchakarma.

panchakarma

I’ve always been drawn to Eastern methods of living, thinking and healing.  At age 14, I remember paging through my mom’s Redbook magazine and coming across an insert for a book club.  It was one of those thick rough pages that make flipping a magazine an arduous process.  The page advertised ten books for $10 or something equally as economical.  A deal that seemed ridiculously cheap even for a 14-year old.  I ripped it out, picked ten books and sent it away.  The only books I remember from that little experiment were The Tao Te Ching, and The Celestine Prophecy.

I had never actually heard of Panchakarma before I went to India for the first time, but as soon as my new Indian friend spoke its wonders to me, I was hooked.  I needed it.  Ten days later I was sitting at an official Ayurveda center speaking with my brand spanking new Ayurveda doctor.

“So, Darla,” the doctor begins to wrap-up our initial consultation.  “You want to do only Panchakarma this week?”

This was something between a statement and a question.

“Well,” I respond thinking through the list of treatable ailments I read while researching Ayurveda.  I don’t have Psoriasis, Sinusitis, Ulcers…“What else is there?”

“You should lose some weight,” he says matter-of-factly.

Huh.  Nothing like a little honesty.

And that is how my friend, the weight-loss treatment, joined me and my Panchakarma for our week of detox.

IMG_1793Each day starts with the same schedule.
Wake early.
Walk the gardens.
Morning cleansing treatment.
Yoga.
Breakfast.

“Good morning madam,” the server said as he approached my table with a smile, a pitcher of Jeera water and a plate of fresh fruit.  “It is fruit day.”

jeera

A glass of jeera with a view

A glass of jeera with a view

I don’t need to say this, but when a foodie goes on vacation a foodie expects to eat tasty local foods prepared in foreign ways with lots of ingredients one has never heard of.  So, you can imagine my disappointment when my diet the entire first day consisted of fruit.  Three meals of raw fruit.  Fresh, delicious fruit, but still just fruit.

The daily schedule continues after breakfast with the first therapeutic treatment.

IMG_1818“Change,” the therapist tells me as she reaches to pull the sliding wood door closed behind me.

I am standing in a 3-foot square room with a full-length mirror on one wall and a small dark built-in vanity on the other.

“Change?” I ask glancing around the room.  “Into what?”

To me the word change indicates that one takes one’s clothes off and replaces them with something else, such as a towel or a robe.  Looking around I am hard pressed to find something that seems likely of being changed into.  Was I supposed to bring something with me?

“There,” she says pointing to a white tube the size of a cigar sitting on the vanity.

“This?!” I exclaim.  My eyes growing wide as I pick the cloth cylinder up and search her face for an explanation.

She wags her head from side to side (the Indian equivalent to a nod) and starts to pull the door closed again.

“Wait,” I say grabbing the door and trying to gather all the questions I have into one.

“How?” I manage to stutter.

She leans forward and gently unwinds the cloth to reveal its full potential.  Unraveled the cylinder is four-inches wide and about two-feet long.  It has a string on each end of one of the short sides.  She reaches around me to show me how to effectively “change” into this thing and is out the door before I can protest.

I’m not a modest person.  I adore skinny-dipping.  I’ve had many a full-body massage where I was wearing nothing under a towel.  I’ve patronized Japanese baths in San Francisco.  A large Turkish woman at a public bath in Istanbul has even bathed me.  Even still, there is something disconcerting about putting on clothing that resembles a diaper and then heading outside the comforts of my dressing room, particularly less than 24 hours after the kind doctor informed me that I need to lose 8 kilo (yup, that’s about 17 lbs.)

IMG_1817The treatment that comes next quickly makes me forget the loincloth I have wrapped around my hips.  Following a head and face rub, two therapists administer a full-body massage using so much warm medicinal oil I could have slid across a surface covered in industrial-grade sandpaper.  Forty-five minutes later I am enclosed in a wooden box with an opening in the top for my head to stick out of.  A towel is wrapped around my neck as steam begins to fill the chamber.  I perch precariously atop a wobbling stool as the thick coat of oil drips down the sides of my body.  My loincloth is somewhere between a butt-cheek and China.

After adequate steamage my oil-laden body is gently lead to a shower.  Washed, changed (back into real-life clothes) and refreshed, I am sent on my way.

“Afternoon therapy 4 o’clock,” the therapist says with a smile and a wave.  The treatments in the week to come consist of so much warm oil that I begin to think I should buy stock in it.

Making dosas is difficult when you can't eat them afterwards

Making dosas is difficult when you can't eat them afterwards

The daily schedule gracefully trudges along with adequate reading and resting time in between activities as well as regular batches of Ayurveda medications.  Morning treatment is followed by another yoga session and then lunch – if you can call my second plate of fruit for the day lunch.

Lunch is followed by meditation and afternoon treatment, which thankfully doesn’t require a loincloth.  An early dinner of, you guessed it, more fresh fruit, is served as a rainstorm floods the view from the open-air restaurant.  Monsoon season is upon us.

Before falling asleep I glance at the printout of my diet for the week.  In three days my entire caloric intake for the day will consist of eight small bananas and 12 glasses of water.  Two days after that is a day of as many tomatoes as my heart desires.  The days in between are mostly filled with steamed vegetables, vegetable patties, vegetable soup and more vegetables.

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The line typed under my breakfast for day two brings a smile to my face as I my head hits the pillow.  It reads simply “One boiled potato.”  Never in my life did I think I would be so happy to eat a boiled potato.

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The diet seems to pay off though.  Two nights before I leave I join a friend for an evening touring the city of Bangalore and the nearby hills.  As soon as he sees me he begins to exclaim excitedly about how good I look, how much I am glowing and how many kilos I must have lost already.

“Really?”  I say with a smile.  “I didn’t really notice.”

“Yes!” He calls out.  “When I saw you last you were fit, but definitely bordering on pleasantly plump!”

It’s like heaven, but better

There are few things in this life better than India.  And at the moment I can’t remember a single one.

Sunset over Whitefield

Sunset

You may remember a couple posts back that I traveled to India for my first time.  The trip was 48 hours in duration – long enough to get a good taste, but short enough to leave me yearning to return.  So, last week, I did just that.  I returned.

Here is the train of thought:
I love India.
India is only three hours away.
My Dubai friends will be in Venice for the week.
I might as well go back to India.
Have I mentioned I love India?

I booked my flight.

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Koi pond at Aurveda Gram

Koi pond at the Ayurveda center

There is something to be said about hopping on a plane when no really knows you are leaving and flying off to a foreign country in which no one really is expecting you.  It’s a freeing experience.  No husband to keep track of, no friends to entertain and no kids to sedate.  No one to check-in with because no one knows you are somewhere that warrants a checking-in.

Just little ol’ me in big ol’ India.

After retrieving my luggage from baggage claim and exchanging email addresses with my new friend from the 3-hour flight, I pushed through the doors at the Bangalore airport and walked out into the cool evening.  In front of me, below the warm glow of the overhead lights and the moon just beginning to rise, stood a 40-foot throng of Indian men holding placards with names emblazoned across them.  As I walked towards the line I glanced around me and counted on one hand the number of white faces among the crowds departing the airport sidewalk.  Ask my parents, being different is basically one of my favorite pastimes.  A sigh of relief escaped my lips and I began the search for my driver.

IMG_1819Anyone who has done this before knows what an awkward experience it can be.  You have to start at one end of the line and walk to the other, staring at every placard to see if it contains either the name of your destination (in this case the Ayurveda center at which I was residing for the week) or some variation of your name.  I’m not delusional.  With a name like Synnestvedt I don’t often expect a proper spelling.  Hell, I can barely spell it.

What is really awkward about the experience is that in a country like India, at an airport where 99 percent of the people are Indian, the names on the placards are so very obviously not mine.

“Veenu Rangan”
“Faizal Malhotra”
“Venkatesh Balasubramanium”

Yeah, not me.

The eyes stare at me as I pass by reading each card.  I know what they are thinking.  Or, I should say I know what I would be thinking if I were them.  “Your name is definitely not the name on my placard little foreign girl.”  I get to the end of the line and my shoulders fall in defeat.  No one is here to pick me up.  Okay, maybe he’s running late I conclude.  I’ll go sit down on an open bench and see if he spots me.  He should be able to spot me.

Sunset over Nandi Hills

Sunset over Nandi Hills

There was a purpose to my trip however unresearched it remained.  One of my friends put it most eloquently when I spoke to him the night before my departure.

“So, let me get this straight,” he said.  “You are checking yourself into a hospital in India and I’m not supposed to tell your family?  Okay, I can do that.”

Upon arrival I quickly found that the Ayurveda center I checked myself into was more like a resort and less like a hospital, but being under the care of a doctor and receiving two “therapy” treatments a day for a week will make anyone feel like they are getting psychiatric help.

ayurveda

Raw cotton

Raw cotton

A very informative little sign

A very informative little sign

The tree that goes with the informative little sign

The tree that goes with the informative little sign

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After some time of no one spotting me and considerable attention given to ensuring that my Dubai mobile definitely did not work in India I got up to walk the line again.  Maybe the driver arrived, I thought.  Maybe he walked right by me and now he is standing there holding a sign with my name on it.

Three minutes later I find I am at the end of the line again with no sign of my name anywhere.  Hmmm…now what?

I decide I need to search out a phone and call the Ayurveda doctor with whom I was emailing in the few days prior to my departure.  Re-entering the airport proves difficult due to the armed soldier outside who is pretty convinced that I am not allowed back in unless I have a boarding pass for a flight departing today.  I make my way over to a rental car counter and inquire about the location of a pay phone.

Following the simple directions of, “You just walked by the phone.  It is being behind you against the wall,” I find the phone.  To be fair to my fragile ego though, there is really no way for me to have known that this was a pay phone.  Before me is a green desk phone sitting on a 3-foot tall shiny metal counter.  Perched behind a small desk next to the phone is a boy of about 14 with what looks to be a piece of computer equipment in front of him.  I look at the phone and up at the boy.

“Can I make a phone call here?” I ask wrinkling my forehead.

“No call,” he responds with a tilt of the head.

“Is this a pay phone?” I try again.

“No make call,” he repeats.

“So, are you saying that I can’t make a call here?” I attempt one last time, this time raising my hand to my ear in the universal phone receiver sign.

“No phone,” he says.

My eyes drift back to the phone sitting in front of me and then up to the boy.  Defeated again.

A Kerala villa at Ayurveda Gram

A Kerala villa

I decide to go through the humbling experience of checking the names on the placards yet again.  Three minutes later, at the end of the row – nothing.  I walk over to a bench and take a seat to wait it out again.  Maybe he’ll find me here.  This might be in a better spot.  Ten minutes later I am still sitting – alone.

Now what?  I decide to try to use my charm and personality to woo a stranger into helping me out.  I turn to look at the hundreds of people milling about the sidewalk and set my sights on an attractive boy of about 18 who looks like he might be a helpful individual.

“Hello.  I’m wondering if you can help me,” I begin.  “I need to make a phone call or get an Indian SIM card for my phone.”

“If you would like to make the phone call you can just use my mobile,” he replies with a broad smile and in perfect English.  “If you want the SIM card you need to walk…”

“I would love to use your phone,” I cut him off with a gleaming grin.  “Thank you.”

After some assistance dialing the country code and number, the phone rings.

“Hello,” a voice on the other end responds.

“Hello!” I say as a smile opens up on my face.  “Doctor, this is Darla.  I am checking in today.  We emailed this week.  Do you remember me?  How are you?”

“Of course Darla.  I am well.  How are you?” He responds calmly.

“I am great,” I reply as chipper as ever, “however I can’t seem to locate my driver.  Did you send someone to pick me up as we discussed?”

“Of course we sent someone.  Is he not there?” He asks concerned.

“Well, I haven’t been able to locate him yet,” I respond, “but maybe he’s running late…or I missed him.  I don’t know really.  What would he be wearing?”

“I have spoken to him,” he answers.  “He is there and he has a placard with your name on it.  He is probably wearing white on white.”

I turn to peer at the line of men holding the signs.  From the back I can see that 90 percent of them are wearing the normal Indian driver uniform of white on white.

“Oh, right,” I say slightly amused.  “Well, I will look through the signs again and give you a call back if I can’t find him.”

“Okay, I’m sure you will find him,” he concludes.

I put the phone down.  Thank the young man and turn to make my way back over to the dreaded line.  Three minutes later…still nothing.

A farmland view from Nandi Hills

A farmland view from Nandi Hills

I head back over to my friend with the mobile only to find that he is nowhere to be found.  Scanning the crowds hurrying by, I see no sign of the familiar face.  I ask someone passing if they know the location of a pay phone.  Understandably, they point me to the boy next to the desk phone.  I let out a small laugh and decide to attempt this one again.  Nothing like a little humiliation to humble oneself.

This time a man in his thirties is standing next to the boy and apparently understands English much better than his young counterpart.  He ensures me that I can make a local call and explains in Hindi to the boy what I want to do.  I show the boy the number and he picks up the phone and dials for me.

After one ring the doctor answers, “Hello?”

“Doctor.  This is Darla again,” I say with a humored smile spread wide across my face.  “I still cannot find the driver.”

“Darla,” he says calmly.  “How long have you been waiting there?”

“Oh, over an hour now,” I respond with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders.

We decide that I should wait near the pay phone and that he will call the driver and tell him where to locate me.  I hang up the phone and turn to the boy.  After a quick glance at the meter on the table in front of him he looks up at me.

“Six rupee,” he exclaims.

“Six rupee?” I ask.

“Six rupee,” he confirms.

Six rupee is equivalent to about $0.12.  I reach for my wallet knowing full well that the smallest rupee note that I am carrying is a 500.  That’s about $10.  I pull it out.

“Do you have change?” I ask, already knowing the answer to this question.

“No,” he responds with a broad smile displaying a full mouth of glistening white teeth.  Change is not a common occurrence in India, at least not in my experience.

“Of course not,” I say with a smile in return as I realize that there are worse things than paying $10 for a $0.12 phone call.  Before I have a chance to hand the note to him, I feel a touch to my hand.  I turn to see a man standing behind me waiting to use the phone.

“I’ve got this,” he says.

“Oh, no,” I reply.  “You don’t have to.”

“It’s six rupee,” he says emphasizing the minuscule cost.  “I’ll get it.”

“Okay,” I say flashing a pretty smile his way.  “Thank you so much.”

Please come in

Please come in

Several minutes later I catch a glimpse of a sign with my name (spelled correctly) across the front.  I look up and smile excitedly at the man holding the placard.

“That’s me!  That’s me!  I’m Darla.” I exclaim jumping towards him.

Within 15 minutes I am in the car on my way to the Ayurveda center.  My driver, wearing a blue striped shirt and green corduroy pants (not white on white), sits in the driver seat and fights his way through Bangalore traffic on our way out of the city.  The paved highways turn to dirt roads as we bump along to the outskirts of town.  The small food carts and shops housed in tiny huts are a glowing blur as we speed by.

My porch for one wonderful week

My porch for one wonderful week

An hour later, under the warmth of a moon a couple days shy of full, we pull into a grass and stone driveway and a large metal gate closes behind us.   I have arrived.

More quaint beauty at Ayurveda Gram

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For the next week I will have daily full body massages, warm oil baths, and medicinal facials.  I will consume massive quantities of herbal medicines, drink more liquid than a fish, perform yoga, meditation and breathing exercises for hours each day and try, as hard as humanly possible, I will try to turn my mind off from all the stimulants in the world that I know.

48 Hours is Never Enough

Dear reader, if at all possible please read while listening to a piece of music composed by A.R. Rahman.  If not possible, pretend.

Food carts at Kovalam at dusk.

Food carts at Kovalam at dusk.

I went to India for the weekend.  Yup, I said the weekend.  Even people in Dubai find that to be a surprising statement.  We boarded a flight at 3 am on Friday and landed back on Emirati soil on Sunday at noon.  It was a whirlwind.  A dream and at the same time an awakening.

Sometimes it seemed that I was as much of a tourist attraction as the palace.

Sometimes it seemed that I was as much of a tourist attraction as the palace.

I have a strong belief that we all have locations in this world that belong to us, or more properly stated, that we belong to…at least for a period of time.  Such as the way my Dad feels about his little town.  When he and my stepmother visited Osceola for the first time they knew that this rural town on the New York-Pennsylvania border was for them.  My friend, Leen says that when she’s in New York, she feels the city inside her.  She has yet to find that feeling again since she left NYC.

I arrived in India and knew that I had to come back.  Landed.  Walked out of the airport into a sea of brown faces and started planning my next trip.  The only other time I felt this was when I arrived in Salt Lake City a couple years ago.  I had never been to Utah.  I arrived.  Met with my mortgage broker and started looking at houses with my realtor.  The first night, after a scrumptious sushi dinner (which I didn’t even know was possible in Utah) I was driving down one of the Wasatch foothills and saw the night skyline stretch before me.   I started to cry and four days later signed the papers on my new house.

autorickshaw fixed backwater fixedelephantpalace graffiti fixed

Alright, enough of my warm and cozy feelings about India.  What did I actually do there?  I toured some palaces.  I visited a private museum.  I rode an elephant.  I took a boat ride in the backwater.  I watched the sunset on the beach at the southern-most tip of the country.  I smashed a coconut in a Hindu temple for Ganesh.

ganesh

Ghee roast dosas.

Ghee roast dosas.

And I ate.  A lot.  I’m not sure the last time I consumed so much food.  I thought I ate a lot when I was a guest in a home in Turkey, but that was nothing next to this stockpile of calories.  In the 48 hours I was in Kerala I ate nine meals.  Nine meals in two days.  My body is used to four meals in two days.  Seven meals were at home and consisted of multiple courses of chutneys, curries, yogurts, rice, vegetables and various breads.  Lunch and dinner was always followed by a mean dessert prepared by two wonderful women and served by our trusty Mohan.

kerala

The varied streets of Trivandrum.

The makings of Trivandrum.

Even though I’m a sucker for new, authentic experiences, the routine of sitting down for a meal is especially welcome when there is nothing in one’s surroundings that resembles anything even remotely familiar.  The streets, the houses, the people, the languages, the clothing – it was all pretty foreign to the likes of a sheltered American such as myself.  But, a meal?  Now, that I know how to do.

The first meal was a way to be introduced to the intricacies of dining when someone serves everything that touches your plate.  The second meal was a way to get to know our host and I can confidently say one of my new bffs (that’s “best friends forever” for those of you over the age of 40).  If conversation ever waned (which is a rare occurrence, after all we all know I’m not the shyest of people) we could discuss the preparation or ingredients in a certain local dish.

meals ready fixed

Food brought us to the table and started conversations about the origin of the ingredients and the sustainability of the production.  It led to conversations about cultural norms, stereotypes, religion and racial privilege (yes Mary, I’m discussing white privilege beyond the end of the semester).  It brought me into the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning to learn how to prepare dosas without the aid of one word of a common language.

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As I finish this post I am sitting in a Starbucks in Dubai listening to a song from the Indian movie Guru.  The melody makes me feel like I am speeding down the lively streets of Trivandrum as the three-wheeled taxis rush by and the horns blow continuously.  The words put me back in the lush green twisting backwater as the monsoon rain pours into the sides of the boat and soak my skirt.  People are all around me.  Ordering their frappuccinos, sipping their coffees, having their meetings.  But I can’t help the tears from falling down my cheeks.  Leaving India was like saying good-bye to a good friend.  It was like burying a beloved pet.  I can still feel India inside me.