The first week
Trip Start Sep 28, 2005
55Trip End Feb 21, 2006
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I have class six days a week, every morning except Saturday. We're always done by 8am, when I eat breakfast and clean up. I wash my yoga clothes every day and usually whatever I wore the day before. I brought very little. There is a clothesline behind my house and I leave my clothes there to dry during the day.
The heat usually dries clothes quickly
Gokalam is much wealthier than I expected. The houses here are huge, easily larger than where I lived in Atlanta. Many are larger than my parents' house. I feel a bit like I'm in Indian suburbia. There are a lot of doctors and professional types here -- many houses have nameplates. I think that also many are probably second residences or retirement residences. The town is quiet, accessible, and close to a decent-sized city. There is also a lot of construction of more swanky houses everywhere, although the technological level is much lower. Women often carry smally buckets on their heads and dump dirt or sand in piles on the street. Men use hand tools to unload a truckload of dry cement on the ground or dig small ditches for fiber optic wires
Regardless of how much wealthier residents here are than the average Indian, certain aspects are unescapable. Touts everywhere. Many students have a preferred rickshaw driver, someone who is reliable and helpful and not so quick to take advantage financially. I'm still a little wary and am equal opportunity (and suspicion, sadly) about people. Being a foreigner here means that everyone will ask for money: young and old, male and female. Kids are especially persistent and will often follow for blocks. Some of the kids who have decent homes, however, are quite friendly and always say hello on the street. Adults are not so interested.
Another inescapable feature is the litter all over the sides of the streets. My house is across from a large green area, not really a park, although it has some benches and an area where kids play. The local wildlife often come through and nibble on the trash. Not just birds, but larger creatures such as cows, pigs, goats, and sheep that I've seen so far. For this reason, all houses have a heavy, latched, iron gate and cement walls to keep out the animals. No one has a yard to speak of, and all the walls touch. Many people also hang signs saying "beware of dog" (in English). There are many dogs here, but so far I haven't seen many large ones
(Unrelated to the grazing animals, one morning I saw a man leading on a leash a muzzled black bear. It was shocking and sad as well.)
I had the good fortune to meet a long-term resident/yoga student my second day here, Peter from New Zealand. He splits his year between Mysore and home, and he left Saturday morning. Even though he was obviously very busy before his departure, he spent an evening showing me around the city (he has a motorbike). I'm so glad that the shala is no longer in Mysore. Even though it's a small city (approx 800,000 people), it's noisy and busy enough for me not to want to visit that often. Peter brought me to the huge vegetable market where nothing is packaged until someone buys it. I like meandering around there, just soaking in the sights and smells and sounds. Like anywhere else, if I so much as glance closer at anything, someone tries to sell it to me.
The city is pretty easy to navigate and I hope to visit some museums after this week. At the moment it is Dasara, a national festival time. All the schools closed for two weeks. Mysore's festival is considered the finest in the country, and I'm told there are half a million tourists here at the moment. I went only one evening into town, where I sat with a friend, Carla, and listened to live music outside the elaborate palace. The sun sets early here, just after six. Just before seven, a procession of elephants walked through the grounds up to the palace, and the palace is illuminated from seven to eight. We lingered only to take a few pictures and then escaped the crowds.
One of the perks of Gokalam is that many restaurants are accustomed to cooking for westerners. I don't know of anyone who's had any food-related illnesses. Most places offer free filtered water and wash vegetables in hot water. Several restaurants feature whole wheat bread and homemade peanut butter. Thanks to my health-nut mother, that's the food I grew up eating. Other than ghee (refined butter, in which nearly everything is cooked), I'm pretty non-dairy here. And someone somewhere is looking out for me because a place offers vegan chocolate pie -- no sugar, only made with chocolate and fruit. I won't miss R. Thomas (a really good organic restaurant in Atlanta) desserts nearly as much!
I cook on occasion, although I only have one propane tank with a burner, kind of like a camp stove. At the supermarket I found powdered soy milk, which is nice to have. There are two stands selling coconuts nearby -- one guy parks a small truck across from the shala every morning. He cuts open the top of the coconut for you to drink the juice, then will half it so you can eat the flesh lining the inside. I love coconut, and it'so refreshing late in the evening. My fears of spending loads of money on bottled water (and thus creating tons of trash) were relieved when my landlords arranged for water delivery to the house. Nearly everyone does this because it's absurdly cheap: Rs 70 (less than US$2) for 25 liters. Granted, everything here is cheap, which fits very well in my lifestyle as we all know.
Before certain people (you know who you are, SK) start thinking how cheapskate Stephanie is right at home in cheap India, know that Indian people are unbelievably thrifty. People routinely go downhill on motorbikes in neutral, engine off. At night, drivers often turn off their headlights at stoplights. I witnessed a near accident last week because a car was waiting to turn right (across traffic here because people drive on the left side) without both turn signal and lights off. I mean, even I am not that cheap.
I would be remiss not to mention all the students here. Mostly the people are Americans, Brits and other Europeans, and then scatterings of everything else: Filipino, South African, Israeli, Italian, Costa Rican, and Malaysian that I've encountered. I am probably on the young end of the spectrum, although I've met one girl who just finished high school. Most people are probably in their 20s and 30s, but there are many in their 40s. One man is in his 60s at least. He's very inspiring to me.
Even though there are lots of Americans, Carla is the only other East Coaster here. I'm a bit of an anomaly being from Atlanta. Not surprisingly, there are tons from California -- people from the same area of the same city who'd never met until here. The ashtanga community in Atlanta is much smaller. Some people are here for a month, some for years. The vibe is a bit like summer camp, or undergrad study abroad. Lots of students have scooters or motorbikes and zip around town. Many also have cell phones. Both items can make life convenient, but they were two things I felt excited not to have while I'm here. I've learned that all communities have cliques and gossipy types. I was incredibly homesick and antisocial the first few days, but thankfully have found some good, grounded people to spend time with.