Zen: the silent art of tea

“Do you want to wear a kimono?”

“Yes,” I replied, bowing quickly, “arigatou gozaimashita!”

IMG_20160428_210520

Kimono-clad

Tomo’s mother gracefully ushered me into one of the beautiful rooms within their traditional Japanese home, fitted with iconic tatami-clad floors and rice paper sliding doors.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. A few days ago, I had taken a bus to a distant neighborhood of Kyoto, navigating my way with lots of stumbles and broken google translate communication. Ever since arriving in Japan I have felt somewhat like a clumsy child, drifting through the sea of this culture, occasionally finding myself hopelessly lost in translation.

Sometimes, I’d be left feeling somewhat lonely and feeling out of place, but I’d find pretty often these moods to be punctuated with gifts like this one. I had met Tomo getting off the bus. I thought I had been doing well so far, finding the correct bus (after 4 tries, but I reasoned that I wasn’t limited by time at the moment, my optimism kicking in) and finding my way to the correct place understanding 0% of the kanji written to guide me.

I guess I must have looked a lot more lost than I actually felt, because Tomo took pity on me and offered to help me find my way. On our way he told me that his mother practiced the art of traditional Japanese tea ceremony and invited me to come to their home.

The ritual Japanese tea ceremony is an elegant performance of preparing and presenting matcha (powdered green tea). Elaborate ceremonies can go on for hours, my new friends explained.

Wagashi (Japanese sweets) are served before the tea to counteract any bitterness. The tea utensils (tea container, tea scoop, and tea bowl) are ceremoniously cleaned and hot water is whisked into the matcha powder. The more froth there is in the tea bowl, I learned, the greater the tea master’s skill.

DSC00405

Wagashi (Japanese sweet) delicately reflecting the beauty of spring

Tomo’s mother, Machiko, explained that the beauty of the ritual comes from its silence and simplicity. Tomo, his sister Akari, and I sat in seiza position (sitting on bent knees), as Machiko served us beautiful wagashi resembling unopened cherry blossoms.

Machiko thoughtfully and gracefully went through a series of choreographed movements as she folded a small red cloth she’d use to clean the tea elements.

DSC00408

The tea master

Each step had its own meaning and significance. Using a bamboo ladle to scoop the boiled water from the iron teapot submerged in the floor, she would pour only half of the contents into the bowl of tea, carefully emptying the rest back into the pot from a height just enough to make a loud splashing sound.

DSC00427

Traditional Japanese tea wares

My new friends explained many similar intricacies to me, and I was finally given the honor of preparing a cup of tea for the hostess herself (the family reassuring me that if Akari’s 6 year old boy could do it, then so could I). Encouraged, I tried my best to follow Machiko’s graceful example.

DSC00417

I can’t imagine a lovelier sight

There was no question that the atmosphere of the ceremony, its prescribed and orderly steps, and the simple aesthetic appeal of it all elevated this ritual to a form of art. Even when exiting and entering the room, Machiko would first kneel, open the sliding door, get up once more, kneel once again, close the door, and only then proceed.

The family explained that these seemingly superfluous movements created space, creating stillness. They were the antidote to rushing through life, blowing by beauty without noticing it. The minute steps of the ritual and their prescribed order served as a meditation. One could not go through the procedure mindlessly without making many mistakes.

The Japanese tea ceremony captured the essence of a Zen mindset: simplicity, clarity, and purity. Perhaps we could all add a few extra steps to our day and practice tea meditation.

As much as the ceremony itself, I’ll always remember the incredibly selfless kindness this family showed to me by inviting me to their home and sharing a treasured piece of Japanese culture with me. It through moments like this that Japan continues to grow on me, quietly showing me the hidden gems of its beautiful culture.

Advertisements

Mindfulness, Shattered: my misadventures in an Indian village hospital

Until recently, I had not experienced the terror of facing a serious illness, completely alone, and in a foreign country.

I believe that mindfulness has the power to calm our minds and help us through even the most difficult situations. However, when I fell ill with severe food poisoning and enteric fever in Hampi (South India), the strength of my convictions was thoroughly tested.

Something strange happened: I failed miserably at practicing mindfulness, and yet without it I would have been lost for sure.

When first admitted to a hospital in the tiny town of Hospet (a miserable, miserable jostling 70 km drive from where I was staying in Hampi), I felt a strong sense of panic through a heavy haze of delirium.

Having now lived in India for 3 months, I now know that it takes time to get adjusted to how different some things can be in this country from what we’re used to at home. But adjusting in my present state and setting turned out to be quite a difficult task.

As I shuffled blearily into the doctor’s office, a stone-faced nurse told me to lie down on a decrepit cot concealed behind a glass wall at the rear of the office. As I lay facing towards the barred window, tears slowly running down my face, I remember thinking: what is going to happen to me now?

At that moment, the thought came to me that I was still breathing. No matter how miserable, how terrible I felt, I could count on one thing: my breath. The face of the kind Buddhist sister who had taught us to remember our breath came to my mind, and for a minute this thought gave me great comfort.

But not for long. A man had now entered to take a blood sample from me. Nobody washed their hands, nobody wore gloves. Although my arm was cursorily swabbed with some ethanol-soaked cotton, dirty fingers expedited the drying process by patting the excess alcohol off my arm. I cringed (and understandably overreacting) decided this is how it was going to end for me. In this hospital. If not from my food poisoning, then from septic shock.

I suppose it comes from working in a US hospital for some time, but so many of the medical practices at this village hospital came as a blatant shock to me.

The greatest was that I didn’t see a nurse wash her hands once. Gloves were not worn. Over the course of 3 days under a steady IV drip, I had to keep track of stopping my own drip when the IV bag ran out of fluid (once I stopped it right before a HUGE air bubble made its way down to my vein, which probably would have caused a deadly air embolism…yes, I googled that while my phone still had power).

At one point, a rushed nurse lazily flushed the IV tube for air bubbles (which I was now terrified of) upon my request. Unfortunately, she did this by disconnecting the IV from the permanent port installed into my vein, flushed the excess liquid directly onto the ground (and also my bed), and then WITHOUT STOPPING THE FLUID FLOW, reconnected the tube back to my arm.

My vein closed up. The doctor had to supervise another port to be installed into my other arm.

I’d held on through everything up to that point, accepting things as they came. The myriad of antibiotics, cycled through one by one until a horse-tranquilizer-dose antibiotic was identified as the last thing that would keep my fever down.

The communication was bad: I was just given tablets, not told what they were, or how they would help me.

After my vein shut following the botched IV flushing incident, I couldn’t take it anymore.

At this point, both my US phone and my local phone had run out of battery, leaving me stranded from the world. I couldn’t call my dad. I felt such an intense fear and anger that all liminal efforts at remaining mindful evaporated as quickly as dew under a strong summer sun.

What had I done to this nurse for her to punish me with such carelessness?

After calming down, I remembered to once again alter my focus. The antibiotics were working. I wasn’t going to die, that wasn’t a risk any longer. The infant wailing forcefully for hours on end down the hallway probably had it much worse than me. I tried to stop feeling sorry for myself, and start feeling grateful for being ok, at least in a relative sense of the word.

It was hard.

Depending on how my perspective shifted, I oscillated between periods of feeling intense gratitude for being in a medical facility, getting urgent care (at these moments I wanted to promise to come work for them free of charge upon completing my medical degree), and other times I felt the kind of terror that I’ve rarely felt before in my life. Sharp anger at what I perceived to be injustice undeservingly directed at me.

Ultimately, however awful this experience might have been, it taught me a lot. It reaffirmed for me how much perspective can influence how we react to our circumstances.

It also made me better understand what it means to ask a very ill person to practice mindfulness. In chronic cases, it is a shining beacon of hope. At stable stages of my hospital stay, I practiced Reiki chakra alignment, worked on becoming aware of my breath, and felt that these really helped.

However, following incidents that brought me great distress, mindfulness flew out the window. All that was left was my own ego. Empathy, noticing, everything else was gone.

Even though I knew I’d make it out of this place alive after the first day, I still felt these moments of hopelessness so frequently. I remember lying and thinking what it must have been like for my mom, when she knew the cancer would not recede.

If my own situation, so trivial in comparison, was still so difficult for me to cope with, what was it like for her? How can we ask someone with a terminal illness to “be mindful of your breath, change your perspective, appreciate what you have…”?

Yes, it might be possible in theory, but more than ever before I now realize how nearly impossible this can be.

Telling a terminally ill patient to “practice mindfulness” by a healthy, energetic doctor might seem like the equivalent of a pat on the back and a condescending “there, there.”

While I’ve recovered now from this whole ordeal, these thoughts that my experience has planted in my mind will remain with me. It is something I will need to revisit again and again on my path of becoming a healer.

Empathy in medicine, after all, is supreme.

Temples, waterfalls, river beaches…and monkeys: setting out on a road trip from Mysore

DSC05933

Piled up comfortably in the car, we glided into the misty morning fog on the road leading out of Mysore. The Maharajas were pretty awesome city planners, I have to say.

Mysore is a striking south Indian city – small, and so beautifully planned. Sprawling historic bungalows line wide roads, a canopy of arching rain trees shooting into the sky overhead. They call Bangalore the garden city, but I think Mysore has a better claim to that title.

The first order of the day after our 5:45 am start was to order some piping-hot steamed idlies – a delicious and popular south Indian breakfast dish, served with coconut chutney and sambar.

We had some delicious vadas too – savory spicy fried doughnuts, green chilies hiding inside.

Half the fun of this trip was hanging out the car windows, trying to capture the rural village life that flickered passed us along the roadside. Pastoral snapshots of the grain and sugarcane harvest, cattle-pulled carts on the road, brightly colored simple village homes.

IMG_8991

Sharing the road with some hard workers

DSC05895

One of our first stops once we had left Mysore was to stop to take pictures of some women washing clothes in the lake, inside an old abandoned roadside stone hut. Usually I would have been shy to approach such a scene, but G and the children had already ventured inside to watch, while A and I had been busy snapping photos from afar (I’m omitting names, out of respect for the privacy of my friends).

DSC05833

This place was hauntingly beautiful, especially in the morning mist

DSC05847

Women and men will take clothes in for washing to earn money. Very hard work for little pay.

DSC05854

Despite the hard work, people are happy. The laugh, smile, and joke in between work.

A beautiful landscape of tall swaying sugarcane fronds, fiery marigolds, and coconut palms in the distance next captured our attention. We pulled up by a rustic roadside stand, and walked towards the fields.

DSC05919

A man stood off in the distance. Catching us watching him, he stood observing for a moment. Then he waved. We were a novelty to the people living here, people just the same, yet so different too.

DSC05929

Fields of marigold

DSC05941

What’s a bicycle without some flowers?

It was still pretty early in the morning when we arrived at our first (planned) sightseeing stop: Kesava temple. This was a beautiful and ancient Hindu temple, intricately carved out of stone.

IMG_9099

The amount of detail in the stone carvings is incredible.

DSC06000

Lathe carved stone pillars adorning the temple gates

Walking through the main entrance gates, we beheld the majestic temple. We walked clockwise around the structure before entering it, taking in the temple’s beauty. The exterior carvings were made in tiers around the temple. On the bottom layer, stone elephants held the weight of everyone above, which included peacocks, dancers, warriors, and deities.

DSC06010

DSC06003

IMG_9171

Lively young soul crosses the path of light shining into the temple, photo credit to A

The winding road next took us to see Bharachukki falls. A told us that during the monsoon season, the waters gushed forth with unbelievable strength. Now, in the peak of winter and dry season, the falls were not quite so full, but we still had a spectacular view to the pools of water below our viewing platform.

DSC06073

Bharachukki Falls

There were a few more visitors to the falls apart from the regular tourists. We cautiously approached one friend who had been treated to some watermelon by a fellow visitor. Later, when the children were climbing up a tree, said friend also decided to join, scooting right past J on his way up (freaking out both children).

DSC06068

We got pretty close, but still tried to keep our distance, the monkeys can be aggressive sometimes. Our friend here, however, seemed perfectly content munching on a cool slice of watermelon while posing for photographs.

After a refreshing tender coconut drink, we climbed back into our trusty car. Talk of biriyani began to make frequent debuts in the car conversation, so by popular demand we found a nice hotel to make a stop at for some food (hotels are synonymous for restaurants).

We had awesome chicken biriyani and the most delicious kebobs I’ve ever tasted, all in a very simple roadside eatery, just feet away from the dusty road.

As the sun began to head for the West, we finished our adventure on the sandy banks of the Cauvery River. I’ve not yet visited the banks of the Ganges, but our visit gave me a little glimpse into what the crowds might be like.

IMG_9436

People crowded the shores, swimming, splashing, screaming, laughing, and watching. Coracle boats bobbed near the shoreline, and we eagerly piled into this basket boat. The boatman guided us away from the crowd using a tall wooden pole.

IMG_9520

A’s amazing photograph of the boatman

On a sliver of an island in the middle of the river, we saw beautiful white egrets and black ibises resting amid tall grasses. The coracle had taken us away from the human crowd and brought us closer to nature. Some brave souls had also swum to this opposite bank on their own, climbing out of the water with glistening bodies.

IMG_9481

Enjoying the boat ride

As a last treat, much to little A’s delight, the boatman used the pole to spin the coracle around in the water, leaving us dizzy and ecstatically happy as we clambered back onto shore.

We saw lots of food stands on our way back to the car, selling chat (snacks!). We tried a chickpea flour-battered, deep fried green chili and the kids ordered a newspaper cone filled with sort of crunchy puffed rice with masala seasoning.

I’m amazed by how much we were able to see on our journey, and I will cherish the feeling of blissful peace I think we all experienced on this adventure.

Most of all, I enjoyed meeting people from villages we passed. G often made a point to drive slowly, giving us a chance to take pictures and even chat with the locals. One brave girl sat on the back of a bicycle, chatting away happily with us as her friend peddled alongside our car. Some village boys came to sit on a little bridge, smiling shyly when they noticed me taking their picture.

DSC06146

DSC06047

DSC06132

DSC06050

DSC05961

Every day, life brings me reminders of how lucky I am to be in Mysore, in the company of such awesome friends. Their humor, kindness, beautiful and lively spirits make each day simply a pleasure. And then there are little gems like this trip, nestled amongst my Mysore days, such wealth words can’t describe. In India, I’ve found my home.

DSC05898

Adventures in a South Indian town lonely planet’s never heard of

DSC05423

Palms of paradise

There I was, sitting on my bus from Mysore to Kalpetta, a small town situated somewhere between Kozhikode (Calicut) and Mysore. Suggested to me by a friend (thanks Priya!), I decided to venture well off the beaten path to explore some of India’s beautiful natural landmarks.

My bus somewhat resembled a schoolbus, but instead of glass in the windows, there were just bars. Some natural air conditioning! We bounced along for three hours, keeping me on the edge of my seat as we weaved in and out of rapidly oncoming traffic at a good speedy pace.

Driving along this wide road, we passed some small villages and settlements, separated by farmland and coconut tree plantations. At one of these hubs of civilizations, I saw an interesting scene: monkeys sitting quite close to the small stone houses and an untethered wild boar. I’m not sure what the boar was doing there, but it was certainly cool to see!

At another point, an open plot of farmland was being upturned by a farmer guiding a plow pulled by two oxen. The further we moved away from Mysore, the more frequently I began to see herds of animals: goats, cows, a donkey here and there, being guided by their herders, who mostly consisted of women clad in bright fabrics.

DSC05588

Some wandering bovine friends

As we passed through a nature preserve, I spotted a few monkeys sitting by the side of the road. When the bus was stopped for inspection, a few more curious souls clambered through the tree branches nearby to see what the commotion was about.

Kalpetta itself was a very small town. After spending a few weeks living and traveling in South India, I’ve come to this conclusion: most of the small towns are like nodes along a main arterial road/highway connecting cities.

Kalpetta was just this: lots of shops, little bakeries, fruit stands, tourist homes, hotels sprung up along the main road. A symphony of patchwork construction, bustling with schoolchildren, goats, the occasional cow walking ON the road with the other vehicles, shopkeepers, auto rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds, motorcycles, cars, buses, trucks, women and men going about their day. I felt like an ant in the middle of a well-established ant trail.

I stayed in a lovely homestay with a family who not only made my stay very pleasant, but also offered to show me around the area. So, together with the family’s nephew, we set out on a “motorcycle safari,” to visit some of the local natural landmarks.

First on the list was Chembra peak. The travel itself was not without excitement. I sat on the back of the motorcycle clutching the rear hand-holds for dear life. The best/worst part was going up the winding road leading up the mountain. As nearly every turn was a blind one, we honked each time to give warning to the unsuspecting autorickshaw, motorcycle, or car zooming around the corner…But we were rewarded with spectacular views of vastly stretching tea plantations.

The hike up was lovely, and not too long. Apparently during the rainy season, leeches come out and attack people’s feet, but luckily it was pretty dry and no creepy crawlies were detected…The peak itself isn’t accessible for hikers, as there are many rare orchid species and medicinal plants used in Ayurveda that grow at that altitude (our seasoned guide explained).

DSC05545

A view from above

As a consolation, we did reach a cool heart-shaped lake that contained very tiny and very hungry fish – when I held onto a cookie with my hand submerged in the water, they swarmed, vying to take chunks off of the cookie (and my hand, which was less crumbly than the cookie, luckily for me).

Winding further through the small rural roads, we also visited Soochipara falls– a beautiful waterfall amidst many scenic tea plantations. An easy walk compared to the morning hike, the falls were a popular destination for many tourists – many braved the cool water to take a bath in the waterfall.

This awesome journey and stay in Kalpetta was followed by a much less pleasant 9-hour bus journey back to Cochin, but I’ll spare you the details. In the next few days I plan to join my Kerala friends for a road trip through South India. Keep your eyes open for some more travel stories, this time we will again be off of the beaten path for sure! 🙂