I sat on the back of Laxmi – a two and a half ton Asiatic elephant – and expected the worst. She placed the tip of her trunk into an icy pool and slowly drew several gallons of water through her nostrils. Waiting for the inevitable drenching, I wondered how cold the water would be. I also feared that I’d get a giant elephant booger stuck to my face.
During these tense moments, I questioned why I had agreed to any of this. Elephant showers were something tourists did. Only people who wore goofy t-shirts and said “Namastay” in thick British/German/Australian/American accents could truly enjoy freezing water spraying at them from the orifice of a giant animal.
I’ve never wanted to be another clueless tourist in India. Having spent almost three non-consecutive years in Madurai, I’ve been pretty good at avoiding the label. I can speak Tamil, easily navigate local public transportation, and am fairly well versed in local politics and current events. (I also do not eat with my left hand – a skill that many tourists have yet to develop.) This fellowship, if anything, has only increased my ability to claim “localness.” I’m now a professional, building a repertoire of knowledge and skills to effectively operate in both development and human rights arenas in South India. But despite all of this progress, I feared that this elephant shower (in addition to being uncomfortable and potentially gross) could seriously hurt my Madurai street credentials.
Before I had the chance to protest or jump off her back, Laxmi flung her trunk back and released a torrent of chilly water. My muscles tightened as the water slapped against my arms and face. But, to my relief, there was no noticeable trace of elephant mucus in the shower. I regained my senses just in time for another splash of water to drench me. And then there was a third. And a fourth.
I jumped off Laxmi’s back with dripping clothes and an unexpected smile on my face. This was not something I had ever imagined doing. But, despite my skepticism, I did not regret it. I could see exactly why tourists enjoyed doing this. And, more importantly, my Madurai street credentials remained in tact.
Let me be clear, getting showered by Laxmi did not change the course of my fellowship. It did not provide me with any new skills. It’s not something I’d put in a resume or mention in a job interview. It certainly did not increase my productivity at my job, or help me make a greater difference for the people that my host organization serves. But, in the long run, I can safely say that moments like my elephant shower have enriched my experience in India.
In my AIF blogs, I’ve tended to write about professional experiences and the personal impact they’ve had on me. When working in Human Rights, it’s easy to recount shocking events and heartbreaking stories with the intention of sensitizing others to very real systems of oppression that persist in this part of the globe. But while this work has, in every sense of the word, challenged me and contributed to my world perspective, it is does not encompass my entire fellowship experience.
Since I’ve been in India, I’ve developed a social life. I’ve reconnected with family members. I’ve had my share of fun. However, I rarely reflect on these lighter, but equally enriching experiences. Until now. It’s high time I share a few non-life changing moments to remind myself and others that my fellowship accommodates more than just the work I do. The moments and experiences described below will likely have little to no impact on my professional career. But they are equally important to a well-rounded life.
I chatted with a living saint. Amma Amritanandamayi – known as the hugging saint – came to Madurai for two days. My co-fellow, Brian, was set on seeing her. I consider myself an expert hugger, so I decided to tag along to what the big deal was about. We waited from 9am until nearly 6pm in 100+ degree weather to get our hug. I may not have been the most righteous of believers, but I handed it to Amma for drawing in a crowd in the thousands. Every person averaged a good 3 seconds with her, which included a hug and a short blessing. However, after giving me a hug, Amma broke with her original rhythm and started talking to me. We chatted in Tamil for a good forty seconds. I told her that I am working in Madurai for the year but will go back to Washington DC in the summer. Guess who got an invitation to Amma’s DC ashram?
I am rediscovering my inner Karagattakaran. Since 2003, I’ve called myself a performer of Karagattam – a Tamil Folk dance that requires me to balance a brass pot on my head. However, in the decade since I began studying and performing this art form, I’ve gone through phases of boredom. My routines felt static. I was not learning anything new while living in the United States. Retirement seemed imminent. But since I’ve been back in Madurai, I’ve rekindled love for Karagattam. I’m currently studying under Sulochana, one of the most famed contemporary Karagattam artists. It is far from easy. She expects a high level from her students. It doesn’t matter if I am completely messing up a step or just improvising the wrong facial expressions. She will make me correct my form. Sulochana is ensuring that I improve every aspect of my craft. I would not have it any other way.
I met a former US President. It was a memorable five minutes with Bill Clinton. You can read all about it on the AIF website!
I joined a tennis club. Let me be the first to admit that I am not a jock. I’m the kid that struck out in t-ball. (True story.) I’ve never really taken to any sport except tennis. Nothing feels better than cracking a backhand crosscourt or hitting a serve as hard as I can – and watching it actually land precisely on the outside line of the opposite service box. In Madurai, I play on sand courts where the ball bounce is exceedingly low and otherwise unpredictable. But, despite the fact that I have to make adjustments to my swing and footwork, I am enjoying my time on the court. I’ve even played a few doubles matches, partnering with a twelve-year-old phenom whose competitive attitude is only outdone by his sharp forehand. We’ve taken on teams that consist of law students, middle-aged men in lungis, and older teenagers. We’re unstoppable. Forget losing sets. We have yet to lose a game.
I ate, drank, and danced with my grandmother’s siblings. My two younger cousins got married during my time in India. Attending these weddings has given me the rare opportunity to see how my family celebrates. (I was not disappointed.) It also gave me the chance to spend time with my grandmother’s younger sisters and older brother. When I first saw my grandmother’s youngest sister, I froze. A large lump formed in my throat and I had to fight back a stream of tears. I had forgotten exactly how much she looked like my grandmother. It had been two years since my grandmother passed away. She lived with my family in the US since I was a preteen and played a hand in raising me. When seeing her “baby” sister, a flood of memories threatened to overwhelm me. However, over the course of both weddings, I got to know my great aunts and great uncle in a new way. They told funny stories about my grandmother’s childhood while taking swigs of whiskey and munching on kabobs. And, when the time was appropriate, they were never shy to get up and dance. If I’m half as rambunctious in my 80s, I’ll consider myself one lucky guy.
I did not come to India to meet living saints. I did not come to play tennis, study dance, hang out with former presidents, or reconnect with family. Admittedly, my life has, in many ways, been consumed with the human rights work I do. But it’s good to know that I have a chance to explore and learn outside of a professional setting. It’s good that my experience here has been conducive to a well-rounded life. It’s good to know that I’ve had the opportunity to overcome my fear of cold water and elephant snot.