You were drowning in snot and tears. You tried not to sob—so you settled for sighing, and maybe a little coughing. Coughing due to the smoke in the house. You lie face down on a hard, wooden, bed—more like a cot. Behind you, the tiny little medicine man worked energetically on your back with competent hands, hot oils, and herb-infused poultices. It felt incredible, and the tears came a-running.
Yoga camp, you admit, was not the best choice. You’d hoped earnestly that it might show you some solution to your problems, but proved only to worsen them. Well, maybe not all of them. But your back was certainly at its worst.
So bad, you couldn’t sit. Couldn’t bend forward from the waist. Couldn’t stretch it. Could not walk for more than an hour at a time before the pressure took your breath away. You told yourself all you needed was rest. So you took it. But even that didn’t suffice. No amount of rolling, massage, stretching, bed rest, lack of activity, or anything else seemed to improve your condition. You took your travels day by day.
“I think today’s a good day for the back,” you’d say to Maeva. It wasn’t saying much. Sitting hurt. Everything hurt. You’d become lazy. Moving was simply too challenging.
On a bad back day, you were bending from the waist in pitiful attempts to stretch it and relieve the pressure. Indians became concerned. “We have doctor here at silk factory,” they said. “You can come and see her. She will tell you what is wrong.” The folks at the silk factory were so, so nice. All smiles, and chai, and head bobbles. And they explained to you how silk is woven. You saw first-hand the process from cocoon to silk sari, and even the weaving of gold-silver-silk thread.
“It’s okay,” you replied. “I know what is wrong.”
Too much inflammation. Too much swelling around the SI joint. No space to move. Just pressure, pressure, pressure. And as you learned from your knee illness, pressure equals pain.
Sucks to be injured. Sucks a lot. Everything in your day centers around pain management.
There, in the smokey little house, you cried. From pain, from relief, from frustration, to confusion. And the little man soaked you in blackish-green oil. Maeva, outside, explained to your friend, Mohan Kumar, that you were in a lot of pain. Five hours bouncing around in the back of a jeep, from Mahe to Wayanad, up twisting mountain roads, had been too much to bear. The ceiling of the jeep was too low, the roads too catastrophic, and the stop-and-going so jarring. The series of seven speed bumps was always the worst: bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump-bump! And you gasped, gripped the steel frame of the jeep and tried to hold your body in the air to avoid the jarring of your spine.
You were nauseated. You’d had a headache for three days. You were thirsty, and yet the diuretics prescribed to you earlier by the Ayuvedic doctor to “chase the water out of the Kapha body” were just the worst for long journeys.
“Toilet is here!” Mohan would always exclaim. And then he’d see you rush-scurry-waddle with your tight, limpy, gimpy gait to the facilities. Pee crouching over a hole, gathering your filthy clothes about you, praying that you didn’t misfire and mottle your feet with urine—again.
Goddamn diuretics. And other little pills. Tasted like dirt. You spent about twenty bucks on Ayurvedic medicine, feeling obliged to do so, out of respect for Mohan’s recommendation, and out of desperation. Diuretics to chase out the water—two per day. Little pills for bone disorders—six per day. Horrible muddy magic potion for hyper-acidity, thrice daily. And a little green bottle of herbal anti-inflammatory massage oil for your back and your knee. Every day.
“We can cure you in fourteen days.”
You hate it when people tell you that.
“Cure” is a strong word. You doubt very much that anyone can rehydrate your multiple dessicated discs. All you wanted was symptom management. Chasing out the water sounded just fine. Get that swollen, horrible fluid out!
What the hell happened to you? Something in yoga camp reversed your problem. Oddly enough, the right side of your back has never felt better. The tradeoff, however, was an even worse condition on the left. Maybe took your right-oriented disc bulge and pushed it over to the left.
Life is full of tradeoffs.
Fucking headache! Go away!
Maybe it wasn’t physical. It could have been emotional stress. For not only were you feeling achy in all the places, you were being eaten alive by mosquitoes at Mohan’s place (always frustrating), and then you opened your Gmail to receive a very nasty email from K Yoga. They were upset that you had not yet modified your Trip Advisor review. Reminded you that during your conversation with them, you admitted that perhaps women didn’t understand the nature of a yoga adjustment. And also, that based on your dissatisfaction with the program, “reflected by your attendance,” they were prepared to redact your yoga certificate. That means to say, steal your money.
Dirty, dirty, dirty tactics. Not to mention, they accused you of openly asking to have sex with several women at the camp. It made you think of that time at the Ivanhoe Hostel in Rome, when one of the rapists accused you of being sleazy for talking to his girlfriend. You’re really not sure where this accusation came from. If saying, “Don’t stick your tongue out at a lesbian,” means, “Would you have sex with me,” then color yourself guilty!
And what about your attendance? Was this, perhaps, because you were so fucking injured by their program that you could barely participate, even though you still showed up for classes? Hard to say.
After receiving their email, you decided to promptly delete your review, rather than “amend it.” Truthfully, between a lack of internet access and your inability to decide how to re-write your review in a manner that would have been less insulting, you’d decided to let your thoughts marinate for a while. What would you have liked to say? That you don’t trust K at all. That he touches too much outside of yoga adjustments. That he knows fuck-all about anatomy and physiology—that he openly and proudly justifies his teaching methods with his lack of understanding. That he’s running a fantastic business, probably has a foreign bank account, and that his young female proteges are drinking the Kool-Aid?
You’re angry. Actually angry. Too much pain. Too much stress. Too much bullshit.
Cry-cry-cry. And the little man massaged you. It felt so wonderful. In the next room, you saw pots and cauldrons and open fires, smoke, herbs, linens, and more. A little magician’s magic shop.
You and Maeva, just days before, had been walking along a country road with your book-laden bags weighing heavily on your shoulders. You’d decided enough was enough, and hitchhiking to the next village would do you some good. That’s when the jeep stopped.
It was a jeep filled with oranges, men, and children. The oldest of the men, Mohan, immediately broke into French with Maeva—he’d lived in Paris for 30 years. He was a painter. A very famous painter. And a social advocate for the tribal people of Wayanad. He was in several directions at once. Taking their children out to see elephants, delivering fresh organic fruit to villagers, arranging things, and so on. He described the tribal medicine of Wayanad, the organic movement he’d started there, and your eyes lit up with interest. Wasn’t this exactly what you and Maeva had been looking for?
“Let’s agree that we do not leave Kerala until we feel that we have learned something about herbal and/or Ayurvedic medicine,” you said, smiling to reassure her. And you shook hands on it.
Lo and behold! Ask, and you shall receive. Mohan invited you to stay with him in his house in Mahe, 60km away from Wayanad. He said he would return to the region the very next morning, and you could visit an authentic Wayanad. herbal medicine man.
“He knows only two things: drinking, and herbal medicine. In Wayanad, they can cure many things. Not all. Because they don’t get all types of illness there. But they are very good with bone disorders. You know, many Indians fall out of trees, work in the fields. Everyone has a bone disorder. They can fix your back.”
Done. Why not?
One night turned into three, as Mohan’s plans changed constantly. When he was talking incessantly at you and Maeva in a schizophrenic mixture of English and French, he was on the phone, blathering in his native tongue to someone on the other line. Throughout it all, he handed you green oranges, teeny organic bananas, fruits, breads, and more. He was a conveyor belt of words, information, food, and energy. This man only slept three hours per night, and then did two hours of meditation in the morning. 70 years old, with the energy of a child.
Backache. Headache. Smorgasbord for mosquitoes. You felt slightly oppressed, mostly by the lack of real information. His plans changes so frequently that you were literally at the mercy of every minute. You never knew what to expect. And yet, it wasn’t so problematic. You had no where else to be, nowhere else to go.
But there were the boys to consider… They boys you’d met in Mysore days earlier, just off the train from Hampi, were texting Maeva. It seemed they were missing you, perhaps because you and Maeva were such a badass travel partnership that no Indian could price gouge you. The boys were having trouble finding accommodations, getting an authentic experience on the cheap. You admit, the region was tough. You and Maeva were so determined not to pay 500 rupees for a single night in a hotel/guest house that you ended up sweet-talking a Christian priest into letting you take a room at a convent, for which you gladly donated 300 rupees in the morning.
“Sorry boys, for being so tough to track down. We’re still in the company of this man, taking it a day at a time, not sure where we’re going to end up next.”
That was that. It was just the two of you and Mohan, and he eventually returned you to Wayanad, after three days in Mahe eating wonderful curries, fresh fish, fresh fruit, and worrying about little beyond your painful back and your disappointment over the whole K Yoga debacle.
But the jeep was too much. And you were in tears by the end of the journey.
Rub, rub, rub little medicine man.
You were informed that you would be residing with a local tribal family. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone. By law—in order to protect the very expensive tourism industry—they were required to report your presence to the police. And then there were village politics. The villagers, you see, were very superstitious. White-skinned, cigarette-smoking Western women with tattoos and piercings and dirty feet were dangerous.
“Very clean people here, as well. You must shower several times a day. You must wash your clothing. When a woman has her menses, she must stay all alone in that room back there for seven days. The people leave food for her at the door, but do not go near her.”
Jesus. That’s actually a thing!
Mohan gave out to you and Maeva about being dirty. Wouldn’t you have loved to wash your clothes if you’d been better informed about time of departure! How could you wash your clothes if you didn’t have time to dry them? And so on.
So you washed your filthy body after your oil massage. And it was chaos for a while. The man of the house took you on a walk through the plantations of bananas, coffee, cardamom, black pepper, coconuts, beetle nut, tapioca, and more. The villagers stared at you, some with smiles, others with suspicion. Then you were rushed home, and then villagers came by, one after another, to view the strange white people.
There was, of course, a massive language barrier, especially after Mohan left you alone with them. But together, the community did their best to assist the medicine man for his second treatment on your back. It involved more hot oil massage, more herbs, more poultices, and some staining of sheets and linens to protect your giant body from nudity.
“Gents here… no problem. Some gents, problem. Good gents here,” the man of the house (possessing the most English) assured you. You were not concerned about the tiny gents. Just concerned about the lack of communication, the vagueness of compensation, and so on. Maeva sat by your side, laughed at you, took pictures of your treatment process. The whole family watched the occasion, mother, grandmother, children, husband, medicine man all arguing about how to tie your linens and dress your back.
All you could do was manage your breasts. Keep them from flopping out from under the linen wrapped around your neck as they spun you in circles and tied your dressing and wielding a very large, curved coconut knife, joking, “Cesarian!”
A picture says 1,000 words.
When and how did it end?
You were told that the little medicine man could fix you up in three days. That it would be quick and easy. But then a day later, you were informed that not only were you expected to remain for seven days, the little man would be purchasing some special herbs for the replenishment of bone marrow.
“My bone marrow?” you said, incredulously. “There’s no problem with my marrow.” You have your MRI results to prove it. “And even if there were, this man could not possibly no such a thing.”
Mohan, unfortunately, was not the best communicator, even if he spoke English and French. He had a way of losing track of the conversation and of course, changing his mind.
“You must pay the family 500 rps per day. And you can pay the doctor at the end of the treatment. Each day of treatment, we think, is another 500 rps per day.”
Not too bad. You were dismayed to learn that you had to stay seven days. Mohan guilt tripped you about money, wondered why you were creating drama by only offering money to the woman of the house, and not the man as well. You were reprimanded for trying to ice your back in the river, for stretching, for washing, for not washing, and even for walking on the street.
Yes, it was a bit like being in prison. Or purgatory.
You woke in the mornings to the sound of a screaming two year old drama queen—a little boy who thrived on being annoying. His mother and father were far too lenient, never punished him for anything, and simply tolerated his terrible character. After waking you, the woman of the house ushered you to a washing room separate from the house, where you donned undies and a linen to cover your private areas, and then she scrubbed you with a hot, steaming rag. About an hour later, she served you and Maeva breakfast—modest dishes of rice and coconut, with black tea.
There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. You spent far too much time sitting or lying in bed, reading, watching episodes of Two and A Half Men, talking about whatever, and watching the hours slide on by. Some days, you spent more than 3 hours gingerly stretching, searching for improvements. Meal times were the only perks of the day, that is, until around 7pm, when the medicine man came by for your nightly full body ghee massage.
Yes, ghee. And blackish herbs. Every night, he drenched you in ghee, rubbed feverishly at you, poked and prodded all your tender spots. It was a very messy, very greasy, very appetizing routine.
“I smell like a fucking cupcake!”
“You smell so good,” Maeva said, pawing at your greasy skin before rubbing at her own. “That feels so nice.” It did.
You told her she was free to lick the ghee off your body, and she responded with her usual embarrassed blushy face.
After the ghee massage, the medicine man wrapped your back up in linens drenched in another special herb mix. You had to sleep in this every night, until it dried and became all itchy. Then in the morning, rinse and repeat. Seven days.
Did it help? That’s the question.
You’re compelled to say yes, because the back feels much better, but you are still not without pain.
You have no doubt that you received immense benefit from the massage, but your not sure the ghee or herbs or anything else had much of an effect (beyond making the skin of your face and neck break out). And the bone marrow treatment? The morning steam scrubs? The prohibition to move (one you violated daily)? Not sold on this. And your knee, which he promised to cure, remained entirely unaffected by the treatment.
You’re pretty sure Maeva could have offered you a daily full body massage and would have achieved a similar result. But one that, you admit, would be lacking the same anecdotal quality: you’d looked over at Maeva as two people smeared ghee, twigs, berries, and hocus-pocus into your skin, “Remember that time we got trapped in the Wayanad mountains and I got drowned in delicious ghee every night by a little tribal medicine man weighing scarcely more than twenty-five kg?”