TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Twenty One

The next morning, things go from bad to worse. We’re corralled into the little garden at the side of the ashram and are assigned our ‘karma yoga’. Which is basically code for ‘free labour’. A whole hour of it, which is meant to help you work off your karmic footprint, and which might have been ok if I hadn’t been assigned toilet cleaning. Not working in the ashram boutique, not serving the food at meal times, not cleaning the yoga mats after class, but toilet cleaning. For free. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise given all the bad shit I’ve been doing over the past few weeks, but it still totally blows.

Especially since the loos are completely revolting. Clearly whoever was doing it before me had no idea what they were doing. Which means they were probably someone just like me, since I’ve actually never actually cleaned a toilet before in my life. Ryan and I decided when we moved in together that having a cleaner, no matter how poor we were, would always be a priority so we could minimize fights and keep the peace. As I snap on my yellow gloves and get scrubbing, I properly realise what a brilliant idea that was.

Never mind the stench of the bleach, the clumps of other women’s hair (from all parts of the body, let’s be clear) that are stuck in the drains, and the fact that with all the scrubbing I’m doing I’m sweating like a pig. All that I can handle. It’s the pitying looks the other ashramites are giving me on their way in and out of the bathrooms that are killing me. Like I’m some sort of lower being because I have to clean the loos. As if it were my choice!

I keep telling myself that the whole ordeal is helping me rid myself of my ego, and helping me work off some of the ol’ karma. But when I lift up a toilet seat to find a big, glossy black cockroach scurry around on the toilet rim, things really start to go sideways.

I go to squish the revolting critter with my Havaiana thong, you see, but then I remember the Buddhism non-violence rule I’m meant to be adhering to and decide instead to rescue it by ferrying it outside. Only my bucket’s filled with water, of course, and the bins are full to the brim. My only hope, then, is the sanitary bin.

I take a deep breath, pick up the entire bin, scoop the cockroach up in its lid, then carry the whole unit outside to try to shake the cockroach out. About 15 dirty tampons tumble out instead, and I have to get down on my hands and knees and pick them all up. This is precisely the moment when everyone leaves the dorm to head to afternoon yoga, and they all give me that infuriating sympathetic look again, without actually offering to help. At that point, it all becomes a bit too much and I leave the bin right where it is, with my gloves chucked on top of it. I’ve had just about all I can take.

***

Fifteen minutes later I’m standing at the reception desk, about to pay my bill for my one night’s stay and get the hell out of here, when the most minute woman I’ve ever clapped eyes on bursts through the door. She’s short and thin, with the most perfectly defined yoga arms. Like, better than Madonna’s.

“Cherie! I’m back!”, she trills, throwing her leather bags down on the floor, rushing over to the little Indian receptionist and throwing her arms around his neck, planting a kiss on each of his cheeks. A deep pink hue creeps up his neck.

“Ooh la la Vivek, what a journey. I tell you, the US experience is over for me. I was expecting to feel… something, when I returned there, but I now know that my source is here in India.” She runs a hand through her short, wavy dark brown hair then smooths them over her impossibly crisp, white sleeveless shirtdress. “Really darling, this is a unique hub for me that I will always cherish in my heart.”

Suddenly, this utterly fabulous woman realizes there’s someone else in the room and spins around to face me.

“Mon dieu! Sorry my darling I did not see you there!” She rushes over and grabs me in a huge cuddle, then holds me at arm’s length and studies me for a moment. “But you are gorgeous! I’m so happy to have arrived back just as you are checking in.” She loops her bony arm through mine. “My name is Babette. You know you look just like my sister? Oui, exactament like her. But she lives in France, so you’re going to be my new little sister!” She giggles and starts leading me to the entrance, yelling over her shoulder at Vivek, “Darling, put her bags in my room, we’ll share!”

“Oh that’s a lovely offer, really, but I was actually just about to…” Before I can finish my sentence, Babette has grabbed my hand and is pulling me out of the reception area and through the halls of the ashram, nattering away in her irresistible accent and completely ignoring my pitiful bleats of protest.

“I’ve lived here for six months darling, on and off, and what you really must know about the ashram is that you need to ignore most of the people in it if you’re going to survive,” she says as we enter “our” room. She throws her leather suitcase on the bed and starts pulling some impossibly chic-looking garments out of it as she talks. “I know that sounds harsh, darling, but most of them are just here so they can brag about their pseudo spiritual conquests! It gets very frustrating.”

She sits down on the bed and clasps my hands in hers.

“Do you think I’m awful, cherie?”

She stares into my face and I notice her impossibly high cheekbones.

“No, not at all.” I start to laugh. “In fact, I totally agree with you.”

“Ooh la la!” She claps her hands like a little girl. “I’m so happy to have met you cherie.”

The bell starts tinkling for breakfast. Oh god, I’m not sure I can handle another round just yet.

“Ugh, I tell you I just cannot face all those people today,” says Babette, as if reading my mind. “What do you say, shall we head out somewhere delicious for petit dejeuner?”

Hallelujah.

Ten minutes later Babette’s leading me down a muddy path littered with wandering cows and mangy dogs. The surrounding Himalayan mountains are still heavily shrouded in mist and the vendors hawking coconuts, chai tea and prayer beads are only just setting up. We pass a few ashrams and temples, then pop out into what looks like the entrance of a jungle.

“There’s really a café all the way out here?” I ask.

“Oh darling I forgot to say! I have a special surprise for you before breakfast. You don’t mind, do you?” She puts her hand to her chest, a look of dramatized concern passing over her face.

“No, of course not. So what is this place?”

She threads her arm through mine again and leads me up a rocky path towards the jungle.

“Just up ahead,” she whispers in a conspiratorial tone, “is the ashram where the Beatles learnt meditation in the ‘60s. It’s a wonderful place to meditate. Stick with me darling, I’ll show you all the secrets.” She puts her finger to her lips and leads me through the jungle for a few minutes. We reach a crumbling brick wall and scramble over it. On the other side, a bewitching cluster of domed, pebble-encrusted caves greets us.

“These are where the Beatles practiced meditation,” whispers Babette. “They’re where I come when I really need to reconnect. Come on, I pick one and you pick one and we will meditate in them for a while.” She walks over to one of them, crouches down and shuffles inside.

I look at the one right next to hers. It appears to be filled with cobwebs and is probably perfect snake-breeding territory. But come on, as if I’m ever going to get to meditate where the Beatles – the BEATLES, for Christ’s sake! – did ever again. I suck it up and crawl inside, realising immediately that it’s exactly how it looked like it would be: dark, damp, smelly, and kind of scary.

The Beatles, just think of the Beatles,
I remind myself once again as I close my eyes and start to concentrate on my breathing. In, out, in, out. There’s something crawling on my arm but I’m determined to ignore it. Unfortunately, it’s not my breathing that manages to distract me, but thoughts of Ryan and David.

What have I done?

In, out, in, out.

Was what David said about me being just like him true?

In, out, in, out.

Have I just run away from all my problems, instead of facing up to them?

In, out, in, out – a little faster now.

I think maybe I have.

In, out, in, out – so rapidly I’m starting to feel a little dizzy

Oh God, I have to get out of here.

I push myself out of the little cave, shaking the bugs off my body and scuttling out into the daylight and back down the vine-choked path. “I have to go!” is all I manage to yell out behind me as I go, not even sure if Babette heard me in her little cocoon.

When Babette knocks on my door fifteen minutes later I’m curled up in a ball beneath the sheets, fighting back tears and memories.

“Not right now!” I yell out, trying my best to keep my voice steady.

Only a few seconds pass before I hear the door handle squeak.

“Darling it’s just me.” Feet padding across the floor, then a light weight landing on the foot of my bed. “I just want to know that you’re ok. What happened back there?”

“It was nothing, please Babette, I don’t feel like talking right now.”

Another few seconds before the sheet’s yanked right off me.

“Cherie, I’m afraid the times you don’t feel like talking are always the times you need to talk the most.” She looks at me with her huge deer eyes and I know she’s right.

“Ok. So this is all gonna sound completely crazy… But here goes.” I take a deep breath and pull my head back under the sheet. It’ll be easier this way. “I came to India to find my dad. Well, to have some time out from my life, and also to find my dad. Who I hadn’t seen since I was four years old, and who never wanted me in his life. I guess I thought that finally meeting him might help me sort the rest of my life out. Only when I did find him, I thought it would be better to lie to him about who I was until he, I don’t know, decided I was the kind of person he could… Love, I guess. But I fucked up. Nothing went to plan, and now we hate each other and I’ll never know what it’s like to have my dad in my life. If it would… Fix me. Oh, and I lied to my husband as well, so now he hates me too.” I drag the sheet off my face and peek over the top of it at Babette. “I’m a total mess, see? And now you probably want nothing to do with me either.” A fresh batch of tears splash on to my cheeks.

“Darling,” says Babette, smoothing down the blanket. “The first thing you must know about me is that I never judge. Ever. My life is crazy too, so I know how important it is to have girlfriends around when le shit hits le fan.” She sweeps one of her sparrow hands through her hair.

I let out a long, deep groan of despair. “Yeah well that’s officially happened. In fact le shit just keeps on hitting le fan and it’s just constantly raining down on me, even though all I’m really trying to do is just be a better person. What the hell’s wrong with me?” I fall back on to the pillows and push my fists into my now puffy eye sockets.

“Cherie,” says Babette firmly, patting my legs. “The most important thing right now is to stop asking why, because this is not going to help you. What you must come to terms with is that things have changed. You’ve taken some actions that have changed your path, but they’re in the past now so you just have to come to terms with that and take action on moving forward. Oui?”

“Yeah right, easier said than done.” I turn over on to my side and stare blankly at the floor. Babette grabs my right shoulder and roughly pulls me on to my back.

“This is how it is!” she yells, her eyes widening even further. “Sorry for shouting cherie, but it’s true. This is how things are now, you cannot ask why me, you cannot wallow in the pain of things you have done because they’re done already, this is simply how it is now, and what really matters is right now anyway. Not the past, not the future, but right now.” She stands up and starts pacing the length of the room.

“This is what we’re going to do. This afternoon we will go to yoga and stretch out all this frustration that you have inside you. And then tomorrow morning, I will take you first thing to my dear friend Ravin. He is a shamanic healer who has worked with indigenous tribes around the world since he was seven years old – the gypsies in Sri Lanka, the ancient Indian seers, healers in the Amazon jungle, even your Australian aboriginal tribes. He can cure you of this pain you’re feeling.” She stops pacing and turns to face me, hands on her hips. “I’m not going to say any more because I want you to experience it for yourself. But I’m telling you, you won’t regret it.”