Kochi is a Feeling

Have you ever visited a place and felt perfectly at home? That was Kochi, India for me. The minute that Emmi and I got off of the airport shuttle in Fort Kochi we knew that we had found a place where our souls would be intensely happy. Right off the bus we were greeted by a man named Chuppy who directed us to our hotel and asked us if we would meet him for some authentic Keralan food at one of the beach front seafood shacks. We thanked him, dropped our suitcases off in our humble room, and walked to the center of the old colonized town to meet Chuppy and his friend Appu. We feasted on crabs, vegetable curry, and vegetable korma as we told the boys about how Kochi felt like the right place for us to get our matching pisces tattoos.

Emmi and I were born 6 hours apart and we have been planning on getting matching tattoos for a little over seven months. I found the image of our tattoo three years ago and fell in love with it. I’ve always felt deeply connected to being a pisces; I’m intuitive, creative, curious, spiritual, a total dreamer, at times naive, extremely indecisive, an escapist, a people pleaser, and I’m totally grounded in water. I “go with the flow.” When I showed Emmi the image of the tattoo she loved it. “Let’s do it” She said. But the tattoo represents so much more than just being pisces. it represents our ten years of friendship, and our persistence to make our dream of traveling the world come true, regardless of how many people didn’t think we could pull it off and regardless of how many people told us that we were crazy. It represents this trip, on which we will quite literally circumvent the planet. Pretty cool, right?

Anyways, that was the original meaning of the tattoo but it ended up meaning SO much more. It represents Kochi, India, the place that filled me with wisdom, the place that will always have a piece of my heart and soul. But let me rewind a little bit. One of the things I was really looking forward to in Kochi was our visit to the Santhi school of Yoga & Vedanta Studies. The master there is a man named Sajee, who has traveled all over the world and received titles from three countries for being a renowned yoga teacher. Anyways, for our first two hours with Sajee we were sort of put into a meditative trance, during which Sajee talked a lot about how pain is an illusion. He taught me that if we could control our minds, we could control our bodies, and if we can control our bodies, we can control the illusion that is physical pain. He reminded me that I am not my physical self, rather, I am my spirit. My body is my vehicle and I must nurture my vehicle with love and care if I want it to be durable. Breathing correctly is an important part of the process. How we breathe is indicative of how we feel and it affects how we feel.

After the meditation, Sajee pushed me harder than I’ve ever been pushed with yoga. Through breathing techniques and the right mindset, he challenged me to do a scorpion forearm stand and to hold it for 20 seconds, he had me put both of my feet behind my head, and he got me to do my first split. In my years of yoga, I had never been able to do any of these things, but with the right attitude and patience, it was easy. At the end of the session (which ran more than an hour over time and cost a grand total of 6$) Sajee told us that we had a special energy and that he hoped to see us again. He also told me that I should pursue teaching yoga. He stated that it came naturally to me because I was so willing to learn and he told me that if I stayed for a month he would certify me and I would be able to  contort my body like he could (which was crazy). He’s inspired me to pursue a certification, I would very much enjoy teaching yoga if I was trained by someone like him. Sajee also kept repeating that “cosmic energy flows through our veins” which is very ironic, because the very next day we found a tattoo shop that recreated a sketch of our tattoo perfectly, and the tattoo shop was called “Cosmic Ink.”

We were lucky because in our short time in Kochi, we had already become very close with Appu, who was nice enough to tag along to our tattoo appointment for moral support. When I was nervous, he touched my hand and when I asked him what he was doing, he told me that he was passing me his positive energy. My tattoo artist Anil had an incredible energy about him, too. He was regal and wise almost intimidating, but once we began talking I learned that he too was a yogi and that he was deeply spiritual. I trusted him wholeheartedly to do my tattoo justice. Before he began he told me that he quit being a well-paid engineer to become a tattoo artist because he wanted to help people realize their great destinies through his artistic medium. He also told me that he refuses to give meaningless tattoos, the art was far more important to him.

Anil began by blessing my skin and continued to check in with me while I tried to meditate through the pain. Meanwhile, Emmi was already getting her tattoo from one of the cool female understudies at his shop. I practiced breathing and telling myself that pain is an illusion. I focused on things that make me happy, like, the people that I love and my memories with them. I smiled a lot too, especially when I realized that Sajee had been right, pain IS an illusion, and meditating through the chaos is the only way to overcome the things that bring us human discomfort. I wrote in my diary and listened to feel good music and practiced deep and purposeful breathing while Anil inked my foot. If you know me and how squirmish I am, how much I hate needles, you would have been amazed at how well I handled getting tattooed. In all honesty it felt like someone was using an exacto knife to aggressively peel off my skin, but I have no memory of that pain; my experience was spiritual and meditative. I effectively mediated through the chaos, and I loved the final result of my tattoo.

After Emmi and I had our tattoos, Anil took us and Appu to a nice restaurant nearby for a beer. We ordered dinner and drank and had incredibly intellectual and spiritual conversations, and I learned Anil’s life story; about his struggle with dyslexia, his unhappiness with a career as an engineer, and about his mantras in life. He was brilliant and he had an amazing energy. When it was time for Emmi and I to leave, I went to pay and Anil refused to let me. He insisted that he wanted to treat our dinner because we were some of his “soul people.” He felt like my soul people too, and I couldn’t have asked for a better person to give me a tattoo, he was a friend. I never thought that I would get a tattoo, but I can honestly say that my tattoo harbors so much meaning to me and I’m happy that I’ll be reminded of Kochi and everything I learned there whenever I look down at it. I’m happy that it will be on my skin forever.

On one of our last nights, Appu and Anu took us to hang out on a rooftop, where we listened to the call to prayer in their muslim neighborhood. The following day was Ramadan and both of them were muslim. Eventually they asked us if we wanted to go drive around in Anu’s tuk-tuk and we happily said yes. We were driving for around 30 minutes or so when Emmi and I decided to ask them where they were taking us. “It’s a surprise” they said. It was a long and beautiful drive through nature, and when we finally stopped it was totally dark out. They took us to a beautiful and desolate white sand beach where the waves clapped aggressively against the shore. The sky was big and beautiful and the stars were radiant. I felt my affinity to the ocean and I felt the fish on my foot craving to swim in her waters. I smiled. I was thankful for the moment disconnected from society. We walked for a while and then went to the only shack by the beach to get dinner. No one at the shack spoke English, only Malayalam. We told them to bring us whatever was good, and they brought us a couple of yummy dishes. It felt like Appu, Anu, Emmi, and I were a wolfpack. Like we had been friends forever. There was comfortable silence and good conversation during which we hit a couple of hilarious language barriers. They taught us a Malayalam saying; “Shanti, Shanti” Which quite literally means “Peace, peace.” They told us that in Kerala, people say that “Kochi is a feeling.” It is a divine and spiritual and wise feeling and I will always remember it.

On our last night in Kochi we had dinner by the beach with Appu and Anu before heading to the airport, heartbroken. We could have stayed forever and we were so sad to be leaving India. Kochi was home and it will always be home. I will never forget the friends that we made; Appu, Anu, Anil, and Sajee. I will never forget their wisdom and how Kochi helped me to grow and become a better person. I will never forget the feeling that is Kochi, it’s inked on my foot forever, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Mumbai Travel Vlogs 1# & 2#

Mumbai was a special city that left quite the impression on me. Although we had a hiccup upon arrival involving getting put up in a scary hotel with unfriendly people at 3AM, our experiences in the city were wonderful. I’ll never forget the kindhearted people, the crazy drivers (what are red lights, anyways?) the incessant honking, the confusing gestures, and the rich culture and history…. Up next: Kochi, India.

 

 

Being an American Tourist in Mumbai

 

I think that the biggest culture shock that Emmi and I have experienced in Mumbai is getting stopped constantly to have our photo taken. People approach us frequently and ask; “Can I take a selfie with you?” and then a line of people who also want a photo with us forms behind them. We’ve also experienced people sneakily photographing us at restaurants, or walking in front of us while facetiming someone to show us to them. It can be endearing when little girls ask us for photos, excited by our willingness, but all in all it has been a conflicting experience.

I often felt overwhelmed or like a zoo animal when people screamed at me to look at different cameras so that they could take a selfie with me. It was hot and sticky out and I would be trying to take in a breathtaking landmark, or to talk to Emmi. While at first it was flattering and frankly incredibly funny, I began to wonder what the hundreds of people who took photos with us would do with the selfies anyways, would they post them on Facebook and say that we were friends? Would they look at it and think back on that fleeting moment? Or was it to say, look, I met/saw someone with light skin?

Many of the people who stopped me specifically would ask “What are you?” I’m ethnically ambiguous with olive skin and loose curly hair and nobody seems to be able to guess that I’m half-Mexican and half-American. Rather, random strangers approach me and ask “Are you Indian? Are you Asian? Are you Middle Eastern? What….are…you…?”

Then it hit me why we were being photographed. We were only being stopped for photos because we have lighter skin than the people in India, which is terrible for a number of reasons. It shows how having light skin is idolized around the world, and it subsequently shows the negative effects of westernization.  I don’t support that idolization of white skin. In fact, it makes me feel very sad. So while it can seem funny to have people quite literally chase you down the street for a photo, it also brings into question the residual effects of Westernization around the world.

The Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 5.14.52 AM

My words will never suffice to explain the day I had yesterday, but I will try my best to do the experience justice. When I left the country, I knew one thing for certain; I wanted to be exposed to the truth of the world. Sometimes the truth hurts, but I refuse to turn the blind eye and be ignorant. I want to feel the weight of the world because I, like everyone else, am responsible for its condition.

Yesterday Emmi and I decided to take a tour with “Reality Tours & Travel” of the Dharavi Slum. We chose Reality Tours because they donate 80% of their profits to the community and because they seek to expose the reality of Mumbai. They also do not allow pictures to be taken during their tours out of respect for the people in the communities we visit. We met our tour guide Rakesh in Colaba and began the tour with a drive through the red light district in Mumbai.

Although prostitution is illegal in Mumbai, authorities tend to turn the blind eye. 90% of the prostitutes in India are trafficked from neighboring states within India, while 10% come from neighboring countries like Bhutan and Bangladesh. They target poor families from low income states by telling them that they will send their daughters to important jobs in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai.

According to Rakesh, they target girls as young as nine years old. These girls are then sold to brothel lords for around 50,000 rupees, or around 800$ a piece. The girls are locked alone in a room for days, or weeks, or months, or until they are brainwashed- and if they won’t comply, the brothel lords threaten to kill them. They are forced into believing that their only chance at living is to sell their bodies for around nine and a half dollars per “session.”

As we drove down the streets of the red light district, I saw dozens and dozens of worn out girls sitting on the curbs outside of crumbling buildings with their backs hunched over. None of them had light in their eyes. Although they were cloaked by colorful saris, they had been robbed of their bodies. I wondered to myself what it would feel like to have my body stolen from me repeatedly, every single day, with no means of protecting myself… and in that moment my heart broke.

After our drive through the red light district we headed to the Dharavi Slum, the third biggest slum in the world next to Neza in Mexico city and Orangi Town in Pakistan. 11 million people in Mumbai live in slums, or more than half of the city’s population. The Dharavi Slum houses approximately 1 million people. It is also known as the slum where the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was filmed, but I promise you that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ doesn’t do it justice. We were lucky that our tour guide Rakesh had been born and raised in Dharavi, so we got an insider’s perspective.

We began our tour in the business district of Dharavi and as soon as I stepped out of the car, toxic fumes filled my lungs. I could smell burning rubber and toxins in the air and my sensitive skin began to itch immediately. We followed Rakesh through a narrow passageway between the cramped corrugated metal buildings. Men covered in soot balanced stacks of flattened plastic and cardboard on their heads as they sweat profusely and as I peered into open doorways, I could see men slaving away at their work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. In some of the rooms, men slept face down on cardboard, utterly exhausted. Many people smiled and shook our hands as we walked through their workplace. Small and frail children followed us down the filthy little alleys, watching, confused, as we passed by them.

I was walking around in a daze and not a single thought or judgement crossed my mind until Emmi grabbed my arm and whispered “Isabela, this is SO intense.” For a second my brain didn’t process where I was or what I was seeing, or why things were this way, and I felt confused by Emmi’s comment. But as we continued walking, a strange sensation overwhelmed me and I felt tears sting in the corner of my eyes. It was intense. It was so intense, and it hit me hard. I had never seen anything so intense in my entire life.

It was sad to see the world in such conditions. It was heartbreaking to see how little the Indian government cares about the people in the slums. To know that children had to grow up inhaling toxic fumes, living in their own squalor, without the promise of education. To see how hard people worked for so little money. At the same time, it was exhilarating and empowering to see that these people were thriving anyways. Dharavi runs many successful businesses including recycling cardboard, plastic, and tin, and making pottery and leather.

 We followed Rakesh through an open shack, up a couple of unstable ladders, and onto the roof of one of the slum buildings. From up top, we could see hundreds and hundreds of roofs with trash bags piled on top of them. Dust and cardboard blew around in the humid hot air as Rakesh told us about Dharavi’s thriving business enterprises. He showed and explained to us how plastic palettes were made and recycled. In the distance, we heard an eerie and beautiful call to prayer and Rakesh told us that within the slum both Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully.

After seeing the business district, we were taken to the residential district of the slum. People took my hand and children touched my legs as I walked through the filthy passageways, trying to avoid stepping on sharp objects. Everyone said “hi” to us as we passed and little girls asked me for rupees. It hurt to say no. The homes of the slum were small and lacking light. None of the homes have bathrooms, instead, there is one common bathroom area for 15,000 people. I thought to myself that the next time I was consumed with my own problems, I would think of Dharavi, and how people managed to be happy there regardless of the conditions in which they lived.

Then there was the pottery district which was beautiful, and regarded as the “rich” district of Dharavi. The families there had more money. We watched as men jumped and played in large pools of clay, and women painted intricate designs on the hardened pots. It was a beautiful sight to see and I felt utterly confused by how I was processing the experience.

Dharavi was a beautiful place, rich in culture. It’s people, though lacking some basic resources, were kind, hardworking, and to at least to some degree, they were happy. They had chosen to make the best of the neglect and poverty with which they were faced. They smiled as they sweat through their hard work. They lived an existence that would break me, but they were resilient and happy regardless. I felt no pity, only admiration. Humans are incredible. I felt thankful for everything that has been bestowed upon me, and I will never forget the truth of Dharavi. I will never forget the profound love that I feel for Mumbai.