Twenty: Arrival

The train to Galle, from Colombo

The train to Galle, from Colombo

I arrived to Chitra’s grandfather’s house just outside of Bentota on the New Moon. Chamra, the conventionally good-looking driver was waiting for me the airport, a sign with my name on it, preceded by « MR ».  His spotless car had high ceilings, a new golf umbrella tucked into the pocket of the back passenger door and fresh bottles of water for whichever seat I might choose for the three or four hour trip to Chitra’s. I saw the decal signage on this back window- he was a wedding photographer. That made sense. The car felt like it would hold a lot of equipment or a bride with meters of fabric in a big merengue around her. After long work days leading up to departure, and my ten hour flight, I sat in the darkness of the back seat, wanting to take everything in. But in my ppst flight fatigue, I succumbed and wandered in and out of sleep and dreams while we made our way south on the Colombo-Galle Road.  Each time I came out of sleep, there were blurry glimpses of village life that I’d have difficulty telling apart from my dreams. Women in bright, swaying clothes. The Muslim village with the women moving with their flowing black robes and hijabs looking like habits, evoking nuns from another part of the world. Boys with scull caps spinning fire wheels in a local festival. Traffic and oncoming cars? Too tired to register said oncoming car was in the same lane as ours, I’d fall back asleep. We’d arrived just past 9PM, thought it felt like it was well after the date change. Chitra greeted me with her brother, whom I’d initially thought was her husband.
Chitra and her husband now live in a nearby house and keeps this house for receiving guests. Her brother and the night guard slept on the grounds.  I’d spent the wee hours of a weeknight a few days before departure to find something that would suit this part of the trip. Something comfortable. Something simple. Something by the beach. A place offering airport pickup. A train headed south along the coast figured romantic in the picture of my mind, but what remained of my waking brain had decided arriving alone with luggage at dusk without knowledge of how the trains worked- would be a poor and exhausting ordeal. So, a car.

I’d grown suspicious to websites and properties boasting glamorous rooms which were just good angles onto what was less than ordinary. I unpacked my nightgown from my carry-on case, and laughed at myself at the thought that my eye had been accidentally trained by inflated profiles on dating sites. It was the only thing that I could think of that gave me a sense and the eye to identify the hotel rooms simultaneously photogenic and disappointing, online.  Chitra’s price was very good, what a fancy lunch or inexpensive dinner would be in Tokyo. It was Las Vegas style- low enough you'd spend on what the house offers- the gambling- or in Chitra's case, the Ayurvedic treatments. The online photos showed a sparse, white room with high ceilings, cold tile floors, a big, high bed with post, a large mosquito net, and a ceiling fan. Nothing else. Air conditioning. Mention of the beach and the Indian Ocean one hundred meters away, and some photos of the exterior that had a colonial beach house feel to it. It had a very simple bathroom with a shower. It didn’t seem to advertise itself as something it was not. And she accepted me for two days- much shorter than what a conventional Ayurvedic stay would be. All of the large Ayurvedic places had turned me away with a template email after I mentioned I would not be able to stay a full week. Perfect. So I took it.

Chitra’s Ayurveda hospital was a home-converted-hotel with an Ayurvedic treatment facility on the grounds. The treatment space was a small affair- a one-room house with four mahogany treatment tables and a steaming bed. Her certificate was flanked by photos of her graduation. The photos showed a bright-faced Chitra, beaming and youthful. I imagined she was happy to take over where her grandfather had left off in his practice. I somehow felt close to her, as it’s something I’d wanted to do- follow my grandfather in his business, but hadn’t been allowed to- because I was a woman and had married out of the family. I felt happy for her, that she’d been able to. She was, like me, also the only granddaughter of the bunch. And short, again, like me. Actually, shorter. I felt a kindred spirit in our sisterhood of shorties. Counter to my lightness and my strobe-like laugh, she’s quiet. And commands presence in her groundedness. Our doshas- temperament and constitution- very different.  She sways as she moves- maybe it’s her long skirts. She moves gracefully. A slow, swaying walk, very grounded. Like a small, majestic elephant.

Her welcome in the dark night reminded me of arriving at my own grandparents’ home, no full body hugs à l’américaine , but armlocks, like in wrestling, or an arm cradle for trust falls. These armlocks are just as warm as hugs, if you know how to receive them. I know this, because they make weary waits vanish on both sides- the weariness of waiting to arrive, and the weariness of waiting for arrival. Her embrace, even in an armlock, had an Ammachi quality about it and made the three hour drive and delirious fatigue dreams I had on the road fade. Her photo on her website shows an unsmiling Chitra, the opposite of the hyperbole I see on most sites- dating, travel, or other.

Being invited into her kitchen to see porridge the color of matcha being made. Being taught to nibble palm sugar between sips of the bright green broth- to restore hydration, nutrients, and minerals after treatment. Being invited to try the bath- to learn that it was in fact stewed herbs- the ones she had piled into her straw basket from her home in the morning- to be poured over me outside in the walled-in outdoor space. There was a cooking stove, a clothes line, a plastic stool and a shower all under the open sky. " Sit ", my therapist motioned to me, and I saw the bath would be a dousing. She poured the slippery green leaf concoction over my head and gently rubbed my forehead, and ran the fat pad of her thumb where my eyelids meet to wipe water out of my eyes. I knew from her hands and her touch that she had raised children. Her hands knew babies. I was suddenly transported to days I was a new mother to a newborn, bathing my baby in the small tub, tenderly. Only- here, I was the baby. In the care of Chitra and her therapist ladies, I was seeded again with the sensation of being on the receiving end of this love and care.

I was ready for my ten days in silence.