The practice of meditation has an abundance of benefits including reduced stress, self-awareness, introspection, gaining perspective, focus, being mindful of the present moment, and increased patience and tolerance. But how often do we carve out 5 minutes to do something that benefits us for the rest of the day?
If it weren’t for the end of my yoga classes with the hopes of a lavender scented eye pillow, it wouldn’t have factored into my life at all. That is, until I reached Italy and I was invited to the Indian Embassy for a meditation presentation, Eat, Pray, Love- A Roman Experience.
Over a year later and no meditation since, I was in India and the idea of meditation piqued my interest again. It was the end of July, smack in the middle of monsoon season. There had been some seasonal rains, but I’m an off-season tourist. I had spent a few days with my friend from the U.S., Ankhit, and his family at their home in Pune. When I said my goodbyes, I had some direction where I would head next, but nothing planned and was thinking direction South. I spent the night in a downtown hostel before setting off the next day.
I think it was kismet when I met Neeji in my hostel room at midnight. She was nervous and excited to be meeting a friend of a friend, Phani, and taking a road trip to Goa. She invited me to be the third wheel and keep her company, and who was I to say no to a road trip. She was charismatic, creative, and from Northern India, bubbling with something to say about everything. (This trip will be an entirely separate blog post).
After a few days together, we landed on the topic of meditation. Neeji insisted I do a Vipassana while in India, the birthplace of meditation. She expressed feeling healthy and centered, a few pounds lighter with glowing skin, and the whole thing is free. I was dumbfounded and apprehensive, “How can this be free? I don’t understand. How is there something like this out there?”
The concept of Vipassana worldwide is a 10-day silent retreat focused on breath work and bodily experience. New students are supported by past students’ donations. The program is free of commercialization and not for profit.
To be shamefully honest I was sold on the idea of a 10-day detox with free room and board. A vanity project — shedding some pounds, having some time to sit and be introspective, and not pay for it. I applied from the backseat of the car.
The application explained the rules to abide by if you were accepted:
1. Abstain from killing any being.
2. Abstain from stealing.
3. Abstain from all sexual activity.
4. Abstain from telling lies.
5. Abstain from all intoxicants.
I could manage that. Then I read further:
1. Wake up call at 4am each day and meditations throughout the day until 10pm. That should be fine.
2. Boys and girls don’t mix. No problem.
3. No tobacco or drugs. Okay.
4. No eye contact. Umm.
5. No reading. I haven’t had a good book in a while.
6. No writing. I’m bad about journaling anyways.
7. No exercise or yoga. Does this mean no stretching?
8. No walking with other students. Fine.
9. No communication with the outside world. I understand, they don’t want outside influences.
10. Zero communication with anyone allowed, including speech, gestures, and handwriting. Oh my gosh, how am I going to survive this?
If Neeji, as talkative as she is, could do it, I’d make it through for sure. The 10-day retreat had its allure, and now I just needed to sit on pins and needles to hear if I was accepted. In the meantime, I reached out to everyone I knew who meditated to get their opinions. They all emphatically said, “Yes! Do it!” This is where prior meditation practices would have been helpful. The morning Neeji and I went our separate ways I was offered one of the coveted spots at a Centre in Kerala, in southern India.
Over the next week I was determined to run out my body since I was going to be sitting and meditating for over a week. First, I headed east to Hampi for bouldering- one of the world’s best destination for the sport. There are gorgeous UNESCO temples constructed between the rocks, a beautiful dam for swimming, lush rice paddies, and Hippie Island, a chilled-out village I could have stayed in for weeks. I spent a few days on Hippie Island and the river was getting precariously high. I had made friends with some of the local boulderers and was told if I did not leave, I would most likely be stuck on the island for several extra days and miss my Vipassana date. They set me up with some guys heading to Bengalore and I crossed the rising river in a basket boat.
We traveled overnight, arrived early in the morning and slept in the car near the train station. I was impressed with the modern train system and booked a bus seat to Allepey and spent the day wandering through the Botanical Gardens for some green time in the hectic city.
The bus dropped me in Alleppey in the dark at 4am. I lit the road with my torch and found my way to my pre-booked hostel. I snuck into my room and met the owner and manager later in the day. He took me and two British guys to a lovely lunch and shared some tips about things to do and see in the area. I shared my desire to explore the famous backwaters and the owner of the hostel told me, a free way to do that was to tie together two old tires from the mechanic down the road and float down the backwaters. This would have been a great idea with a cooler of beer and a few friends, but the others weren’t keen to go, so I would have been just be a cheap white woman floating alone in a dirty tire.
I booked a kayak for the sunrise the next day and got to watch the city wake up, much like Venice, the residents live along the channels. Paddling through, I was witness to their morning routines- brushing their teeth, bathing, washing their breakfast dishes, doing the laundry, and the gnarly throat clearing hacking, all in the water I was navigating. My wet skin started to itch, but I think that was psychosomatic and I was grateful to be contained in a kayak and not floating in a tire. My guide and I pulled up to a small isolated hut for a chai and a roti and set off again passing the large wicker-style houseboats in the more open waters.
Kerala is known for its traditional Ayurvedic massage and what better way to mentally and physically prepare myself for my 10-day self-care retreat than a massage, especially after a week of climbing and paddling. I lay flat on my chest with my ribs jabbing into the unforgiving and ornately carved wooden massage table. The small Indian woman smothered my naked body in a liberal amount of oil and when asked to roll over I caught myself from sliding off the heavy wood furniture. I fell into a deep relaxation with her curiously strong hands working through all my knots and the start of a gentle rain on the tin roof. With marshmallow muscles, I was gently escorted into a wooden steam bath chamber and locked in a box with my head poking out the top like a small critter from its hide. It was comforting, cozy and warm inside my box and I could hear the rain get heavier and the thunder crack. When the electricity blew, I was keen to get out of this little box and make my way home.
Running back to my hostel the raindrops pearled on my skin and streamed down my legs– fully shielded from the water with an armor of essential oils. I patted myself off, changed clothes, zipped up my raincoat and set out for dinner at this Tandoori chicken hut with the two British boys I had met earlier.
The rain was relentless. We grabbed a tuk tuk, were dropped at the restaurant, shook out and sat down for a fantastic meal. Later that evening, the rain had momentarily ceased, so we made our way down the dark street to the beach, walked across the firm sand, and the sky opened once again. This time more aggressively with sheets of rain coming at us from above and sideways. We darted back home and it continued the rest of the night.
When I reached the hostel, I caught my breath, poured a beer, and reached into my coat pocket to find my phone in a full-on seizure with the torch light blaring. I had forgotten to zip my coat pocket and my phone was steeping in a puddle of pocket water. I’ve had several attempts with the rice submersion — it never works. I set it up, certain the phone was a goner, and borrowed a phone to call my boyfriend and my mother. This would be the last time I would have an opportunity to talk to them before my Vipassana and the following 10 days.
There had been news of monsoon flooding in the northern region of the state so I emailed my contact at the Centre from the hostel to confirm that the program was still on and was reassured that they were planning to continue.
The next morning, I debated whether it was necessary to take everything or just a day pack for the next 10 days since most of what I owned was wet. I waited it out to see if the train to Chenngunnar was running with news that the roads and train tracks were flooded. In the end, I called a taxi and packed everything with plans to hang up my clothes when I arrived at the Centre. I printed directions and the taxi drove me inland for a 1.5 hours with a small detour to a phone shop to confirm my suspicions — phone was dead. My driver made really nice company and gave me words of encouragement, telling me what I was about to do was not for the faint of heart. We pulled up to a muddy space, nothing like what I had pictured, and he carried my bag to the check in and offered to pick me up in 10 days and left me there.
The check in was just as intimidating as the application process. There were 4 westerners, and the rest of the people were Indian. Our registration paperwork was written in Hindi. One of the Indian girls translated it to English and then I translated to broken French for a Swiss woman. Our collective panic started to wear on me — what were we signing?
After turning in my registration, I sat with the guru, as everyone does, and she started drilling me on questions. “Do you drink? Do you smoke or do drugs? Are you on medications? Have you been through a traumatic event? When did all this happen? Why are you here?”
Feeling judged and maybe a bit defensive, I answered “yes, yes, yes, yes, too many times to count, and to find a practice that can help deal with struggles I face in life.” (It sounded like a reasonable answer.) When she asked when the last time was that I drank or did drugs, I broke one of the cardinal rules and lied, not sharing that it was the night before, fearing I would get kicked out of the program.
We were asked to deposit our valuables, books, phones, cameras, and even passports in the office and we would collect them at the end. I had extraordinarily little insight into this whole thing and like hell I was going to let go of my cash, credit cards, or passport to these people — those stay with me. I zipped up my dead phone and my books and checked into the women’s dorm, said hello to my new roommate, looked around the grim atmosphere. Our dorms were set up with cement block walls that reached two-thirds of the way up and beamed ceilings covered in dust and daddy long legs. I hung up my damp clothes and washed my dingy mosquito net before the first bell.
All of us were new and a few of us were wondering what on earth we were doing here. We gathered for tea and got an opportunity to chat before we began. After tea, the students gathered in a covered courtyard where the registration had been and were introduced to the program and the teachers. The rain started clanging on the tin roof, making it difficult to understand what was being said. I heard one of the teachers mention that usually the meditation room is hot and stuffy, and the rain will cool it down. Ooh, what a relief — this could be really nice. From there we were escorted into single-sex lines. Boys and girls filed into the Centre from two separate entrances, and we sat on opposite sides of the room, split by a wide aisle. Without much context, we sat quietly on our thin square pillows, which would be our designated seats for the next 10 days with our eyes closed in the quiet room. Meditation at 8:00 pm. Silence from here on out.
We sat for over an hour in complete silence. I sat in the front row, my mind wandering, with my knees and hips starting to ache. I stretched my legs long in front of me, my eyes still closed, and was startled by our mentor gently touching my legs prompting me to fold them back again or move them to the side. It was later explained that having the soles of our feet directed at the image of the guru is a sign of disrespect. Towards the end of this eternity a recorded chant was played on a CD player. What is going on????? I thought this was a guided meditation? I am feeling completely lost. Do they not talk us through this?
We filed out of the room the same way we came in and retreated to our dorms. I tried to sneak in a question or two with the only answer being a shh’sd finger. Overthinking, “Oh no, what did I get myself into?” I planned my escape; I really don’t need that phone, I can get a new sim card, and my book wasn’t any good anyways. I lay in bed with my mind racing and was startled by the wake-up bell rang at 4am.
I brushed my teeth, stayed in my stretchy pants and brought warm, dry socks for our first meditation of the day. Being comfortable certainly makes the meditation better, a lesson from the first night. As the day went on, I made a small tick next to each completed event. Meditation, Check. Breakfast, Check. Meditation, Check. Individual meditation, check. Tea, Check. Group Meditation, Check, Dinner, check. I felt like a fraud making my little tick marks on the small schedule they had given us, but I made it through my first whole day feeling accomplished and ready to conquer day 2. I love a good list. The crummy weather and persistent rain confirmed my feelings that I didn’t have a better place to be.
That night my roomie and I lay in our beds listening to our guru and her apprentice gabbing the whole night with the radio on full blast on the opposite side of our shared wall. We pursed our lips, pounded our pillows, and shushed them, trying to get some sleep, unaware of what was happening in the news.
The 4am bell rang and one of the gurus told us to quickly pack our belongings. The boys left their flooded dormitories in the middle of the night and slept on the floor of the meditation room. Now everyone was evacuating to higher ground. Phew, I was able to talk again. One full Day of Silence and now the flooded Centre was buzzing. It seemed that I was not the only one who thought a day without communication was overwhelming. We quickly queued to gather our belongings from the safe, packed our bags (my clothes were still damp), and rolled up our pants. We thought there would be a break in the rain, but the water level kept rising.
We spent a few hours getting to know one another and a plan was hatched to evacuate everyone to the home of one of the local teachers. The rain was not powerful, but unrelenting, and 40 students and teachers set off, leaving the meditation Centre that would be completely flooded later that day. Wading through the snake- and leech-infested waters, we crossed the property to a construction site with a second story and a roof — no walls, but some elevation. We witnessed the community banding together and evacuating their homes and watched as large cooking pots guided by young men floated down the “roads” with the elderly inside them.
Fortunately, the house was large and had a large open top floor with a roof, similar to the construction zone we had just left. We hung our clothes across the rafters to dry and got to talking. A WhatsApp group was established with everyone there and I attached my mom’s phone number. I sent one or two cryptic messages to my boyfriend and mom letting them know I was safe, since the international media coverage was starting to share the devastation of the monsoon.
The group of people was incredibly varied, coming from all over India. People in film, finance, stay-at-home wives, wildlife conservationists. It was fascinating to hear what brought each person there, what they were hoping to achieve from the experience. A handful of people chose to meditate with the teachers, but many of us accepted that this meditation was a bust, we’ll reach enlightenment another time.
Every few hours a group of us walked down to the train station to get the news and smoke cigarettes away from the gurus. The stations north of us were flooded, with no trains scheduled anytime soon. That evening, the boys slept on the roof and eight of us girls, and the other females in the program sprawled throughout the living room, bedrooms and hallways in the house.
We woke up with bananas, naan, and chai for breakfast and no news or power to hear if any of the roads were clear. Our female guru (the intimidating one from the interview) and her apprentice had spent so much of their lives meditating I felt they had lost their ability to communicate with others. Filled with fear, I would have expected them to handle the scenario differently. Calmly and mindfully, rather than stirring up more fear in some of the other students.
Many of us recognized the severity of the situation and knew that being a sitting duck would not do any of us any good. We walked back down to the train station, smoked, and contemplated the distance we’d have to walk along the tracks to get to the next large village. Later in the day, six of us decided that, if we could not get a rickshaw from the house, we would walk south along the tracks and catch a bus or rickshaw from there.
It was mid-afternoon and still no news from anywhere, but we were ready to set off for the 20 km hike in the subsiding rain. As we were ready to set out, a very brave tuk tuk driver came to the house and started shuttling us out. Every 1.5 hours he would return for another group of 5 people crammed in the tuk tuk with bags in laps and our knees wedged and interlaced between one another. After his third run, another tuk tuk joined him and my Vipassana roomie, Chinmai, Sophie, the Swiss-French woman, and I were determined to get our tuk tuk. We shoved our way in with two of the boys as the second tuk tuk filled up and off we went to the next village south.
Our driver’s first stop in town was the train station — out of commission. I asked him to swing by the ATM and started to panic when my card was rejected. I am stranded in southern India with no cash, no plans, no phone, nowhere to go, in a natural disaster, but luckily I’m with 9 other awesome people in the same boat (or two tuk tuks). Cash is king when a city has no power.
We arrived at the next town’s bus station. A few days wait until the next bus arrived. So we all carried on to the next town.
None of us had a real plan except travel further and further south. Most of the people in the state of Kerala seemed to have similar plans. Each bus that arrived was swollen with people and could squeeze in one or two more. After a few hours of sitting on the filthy curb, all of us were able to get on a bus. I have been in some tight places before, this time I was crammed between my new friends for the next 4 hours. I tried to distract myself from the discomfort in my legs and feet with laughter and conversation and would occasionally close my eyes and focus on the practices from my meditation experience. The other bodies leaning into each other. Chests, backs, shoulders, knees all shmushed, keeping us vertical on the swift windy roads and the overtaking driver. The air was humid and thick, filled with hot breath and sweat. It was every man for himself, and by the evening four of us were able to sit on top of the luggage next to the bus driver. They don’t call it the red seat for nothing. Dodging cows, people and tuk tuks, I had to shut my eyes to the horrors that could be committed.
Our friends slowly started to disperse, getting off at various stops. Chinmai and I decided to stick together and we made it down to the beach town of Trivandrum. The outdoor airport was littered with people arranging flights out. We scored two seats on a flight to Delhi the following night, booked a cheap guest house across the street and spent the following day being tourists in Trivandrum. I spent the next 5 days with my Vipassana roomie and her family in Delhi, before exploring the sites northern India has to offer.
Travelling in the off-season can have its own complications. Knowing it was monsoon season led to cheaper travel and getting an opportunity to be with more locals. Without the floods, my trip would have been completely different. I would have stuck it out for 9 more days of meditation, I would have spent the rest of my time in southern India, and I wouldn’t have bonded with the beautiful people from across the country that kept this catastrophic situation lighthearted. The friendships and resilency of the people that came out of this natural disaster has been captured as one of the highlights of all my travel experiences.
We would later find out that the devastation of the Kerala Monsoon of 2018 was the worst flood in Kerala State since 1924. Roughly 483 people died, 15 missing, and more than 1.4 million people displaced. For more information about what to do during a natural disaster while traveling please visit the Center for Disease Control and prevention.
For more information about Vipssana meditation, what it entails, how to apply please visit https://www.dhamma.org.