My first night, I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake. This was not the place for me. It was too dark, too remote and far too basic. And, there were flying cockroaches and frogs wading in the toilet. As Veeran, the owner, took us on our tour, we followed in stunned silence, and just about the only words I was able to muster were ‘There are no doors?!’ as he showed us the bathing area, neatly enclosed by palm fronds.
The days and weeks prior to my departure had been unusually stressful. The universe, it appears, is not without a sense of irony. Through a series of unfortunate coincidences, it has a way of preparing you for holidays, for increasing anticipation and desperation, and for skewing your standard of comparison so drastically that no matter what holiday you take, it will be a welcome respite. Upon returning, fate invariably throws another curve ball, ensuring that stolen time will remain locked in the magical realms of memory, far away from the daily grind.
But could this really be the vacation I needed? Did I really have to travel all this way and spend this money to cohabit with bugs, which I can do on any given day in my office on Chundrigar Road? Surely no electricity and poor cell phone reception are also common fare, so was this trip necessary? Aisha had spoken of this place being magical and healing, but perhaps it was a matter of perspective? Perhaps, despite the apprehension of my family, I really wasn’t all that left of center?
After our first vegan, organic dinner, Maha and I climbed into our mud hut, giggling nervously and we drank the wine we’d smuggled in straight from the bottle, and surreptitiously smoked our last cigarettes. This could likely be a long week, I thought, as I feel asleep to the sounds of monsoon rain crashing down upon a living jungle.
Mornings in a jungle usually start shortly after sunrise. In any event, the buffalos in the rice paddy across from us thought it considerate to deliver our wakeup call with the gentle ringing of the bells around their necks. Breakfast of green tea and papaya and then off for two hours of yoga.
Therein was the difference. Geoff, our yoga instructor, seamlessly blended together philosophy and asana, and made his classes challenging and yet accessible for everyone, from seasoned yogis to first time practitioners. Perhaps the greatest challenge in his class, however, was remaining focused on one’s point of dhristi as floated through his practice. I could never imagined such a beautiful and effortless practice. Maybe one of these lifetimes J I pestered him endlessly with the million questions that I had been piling up over the year, which he, with his endless patience, addressed. And, he even taught me how to perform chakrasana!
After yoga, I bathed behind the palm fronds, under trees and beneath the peering eyes of curious monkeys. As it turns out, one does not really need doors if water pours from the branches of trees and if one can look up to see the blue sky or a full moon.
I scurried over for my first massage, completely unprepared for how I would feel walking out, two and a half hours later. PJ’s slowly worked his way through knots that appeared to have built up over lifetimes. His massage was deep, powerful, and often highly uncomfortable. An hour later, some of the knots were finally starting to soften. So he continued. And, at the end of two and a half hours, I slid out off the massage table, all the tension and some of the bones in my body had been dissolved in masses of sesame oil and then surrendered to the jungle.
But even that powerful, unanticipated massage could not have prepared me for Katrina’s ethereal touch. Maha had spoken of how intuitive Katrina had been, and how compassionate. So, I thought, perhaps it was worth a try. Initially, I was skeptical. And then I was overwhelmed. Somewhere between complacence and secretly craving a stronger hand, I found my throat tightening. Unable to breathe properly. And then suddenly, the tears started flowing. Three times, she stopped her massage to gently put her arm around me and stroke my hair while I composed myself. And after the massage was over, as I tried to sit up, I found myself weeping. Hysterical. I wasn’t sure why, or what she did, or how this was even possible. I keep asking her, and apologizing for the mess that I was, and she softly suggested that instead of letting my mind take over again, to allow body and spirit to integrate. There was no reason to apologize, she said. This is where healing begins.
My second day, I had an Ayurvedic consultation where I was informed that while I had earth, fire and air within my constitution current proportions were imbalanced (bad Libra!). Treatment, my doctor suggested, consisted of regular massages, herbal baths and sessions in the sauna. I was not going to get a second opinion! For my first treatment, body, face and hair were doused in scarlet oil and massaged vigorously. I was then wrapped in a sarong and led to the other end of the clinic where I climbed into a bathtub made of packed earth, filled with neem and various other herbs, leaves and branches. The final step in today’s treatment was a rise off – the first warm shower I’d had since arriving! Water was heated in a cauldron in the middle of the clinic and was then poured over my head with a ladle made of a coconut as I sat on a brick, feeling highly vulnerable and quite confused. My therapist brought some green bean paste which she then slathered all over my back and arms. ‘For my hair too?’ I asked. She gave me a look that translated in all languages to ‘village idiot’. ‘No,’ she said firmly. ‘You use shampoo for your hair!’ Oh well, ask a stupid question…
Perhaps it was the massages, or maybe the Ayurvedic treatments, the oils and ointments or the herbal baths. Perhaps it was the hiking expeditions, always being lead up the highest mountains by the crazy barefoot men. Or visiting Buddhist temples, watching as monks performed their daily incantations. Or perhaps there really is merit to moving away from civilization, to no electricity or cell phone reception. Perhaps it was the nights spent by the lake, where the darkness absorbed the horizon, and I could not tell the constellations from the myriad fireflies sparkling before my eyes. Perhaps we weren’t meant to live the way we do, with our artificially coloured foods and flashing screens and once we move towards a simpler life, we realise that this is exactly where we are meant to be. Perhaps it was the daily swims in the lake, where the fish gently nipped at my skin whenever I stood still. Perhaps it was just peaceful cohabitation with all of nature and wildlife. Even the bugs. Perhaps it was four hours of yoga day. What is more likely, I think, it that Ulpotha has a magical and highly charged healing energy. It blankets whoever will dare to enter, slowly working its way through all the detritus of a previous life, leaving one reenergized, renewed and completely healed.
My fifth night there corresponded with Pooya, the full moon celebration. From their stupa from across the lake, Buddhist monks chanted well into the night. Their incantations merged with the sounds of frogs croaking, of crickets chirruping to form the most magical cacophony I have ever heard, that filtered through my tightly tucked in mosquito net, and gently lulled me to sleep. Drifting off into darkness, I realised that this was just the place for me. And that I had to return, and often.