TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Twenty Two

Finally, a good looking spiro place. We’re at Ravin’s healing joint, which is up five flights of stairs, on the cabana-style rooftop of a pretty ramshackle building, across the Ganga River from the ashram. It’s a gorgeous space, all colourful rugs and throw cushions on the floor, with Tibetan prayer flags and sweet little plants hanging from the rafters. We’re running a little late and Ravin’s already working on an old Indian woman when we arrive, so we sit down next to an anemic-looking Japanese man and try to figure out what’s going on.

“I have so much pain in the bones,” says the woman in a wavering voice. “Some nights, I cannot sleep the pain is so severe.”

Ravin, a non-descript Indian man, nods his head and asks her to lie down on the ground on her stomach, which she does without question. He pushes his hands into the lower section of her back.

“Do you have pain here where I’m touching?” he asks.

“Yes, in the bones.”

“And here. And here? What about here?”

“Yes, yes, yes. All those places in the bones.”

“Ok,” says Ravin, before walking over to the side of the room and gathering together a collection of little glass jars that look like tiny fish bowls, each about the size of a fist.

“They’re ancient cups, he uses them to extract the toxins,” Babette whispers in my ear. Ravin lights a match, sets a small piece of newspaper alight and fills the cup with hot air, before lifting up the old lady’s shirt and pressing it into the bare skin of her back. She sucks in a short string of air through her dry, puckered lips as the healer takes his hand away. He leaves the cup bobbling off the old lady’s back like an oversized boil, then suckers another couple of cups on to her back before telling her to sit down and wait for 45 minutes until they’re ready to come off. She hobbles to the edge of the room, somehow wincing and smiling at the same time.

Next up is a young girl with a long, shiny brown ponytail and cheeks so pink they look as though they’ve just been slapped. She’s definitely not bad looking, but the poor thing’s forehead is covered in pimples. It looks like the surface of the moon.

“My skin is terrible, ever since I arrived in India five months ago,” she says as she sits cross-legged in front of him. Her thin voice wobbles a little and she stares down at her hands.

“Yeees,” says Ravin, staring at her forehead intently. “It look like that part got very old, like you’ve turned into old age too early.” A few giggles bubble up from the group and the girl’s hand flutters up to cover her forehead, her mouth forming an alarmed ‘o’. Wow, this guy’s harsh. “The best cure for this,” he continues, “is your own urine.”

Now the ‘o’ comes out as a sound, sharp and high and matching the look on her face as more laughter fills the room.

“Early morning, first urine of the day,” continues Ravin, flicking up his right hand to stop the laughter, “the middle part of that urine is actually an antiseptic that’s produced from your body. So you take that and apply it on the area before you go to bed. That will automatically dissolve these pimples of yours.”

“Right,” answers the girl, her eyes very wide.

“Urine therapy is actually excellent for when you have dark circles underneath your eyes, too, and for any kind of infection in the body, including herpes.” This is definitely getting into TMI territory. “But especially with wrinkles and pimples, dryness of the skin, it’s really useful. In Sri Lanka, gypsies drink every morning their own urine, and their health is amazing.”

“Well I don’t know about drinking it,” says the girl, finally allowing herself a little giggle, “but at this point I’m willing to try just about anything.” And with that she’s on her feet, bag in hand, heading straight out the door, her cheeks now fuchsia. Poor thing.

“Ok, so who would like to go next?” asks Ravin, rubbing his bent knees with rough, calloused hands. Jesus, after that little episode I’m not sure my ego can withstand a session with this guy. Of course, just as I think that one of those calloused hands raises itself from his lap and points directly at me. “How about you?”

“Me?” I ask, pointing at myself in the chest and looking over my shoulders as though I don’t really know who he’s referring to.

“Yes, you.”

“Go on,” whispers Babette as she pokes me in the ribs with one of her chicken bone fingers. I guess I don’t have much of a choice now do I, so I make my way up the front of the room. It’s not until I’m sitting cross-legged in front of Ravin that I realize I haven’t the faintest clue what I’m going to say to him.

“So, what is your problem?” he asks.

“Oh well, I don’t know really. I mean, I don’t actually have one. Not a physical one, anyway.” I shrug my shoulders.

“That’s ok, not all the problems I work with here are physical. Tell me, what is happening with you emotionally?”

Good question. Great question. What on earth is going on with me emotionally?

“I… I don’t really know,” is all I manage. A very long, very awkward, silence follows. Some people cough behind me, a wind chime sings a mournful tune somewhere in the distance and the healer just stares at me, right between the eyeballs.

“I guess I’ve been having issues sorting through my emotions,” I say, just to break the silence. But the sentence is like a cork being pulled from a wine bottle, and all at once more sentences glug right out.

“It’s like I’ve been doing all these things – really drastic things like running away from my job and my husband and coming to India – that I never would have considered doing a year or even a month ago. But I’m not really thinking anything through properly so nothing seems to be working out how I would have imagined it might. It’s like there’s a fog around my brain that’s stopping me from… figuring things out.”

And there it is: the truth I didn’t even know existed.

The healer looks at me for a while, his index finger on his chin, pensive. “Your heart chakra is closed, almost completely,” he says suddenly. I don’t know what that means, but there are some oohs and aahs behind me so I know it can’t be good.

“It’s a blockage that I think has been there for a long time. Maybe since your childhood. The problems you are experiencing now are emotional, but if this heart chakra is not unblocked, the problems will most definitely become physical in the future,” he says gravely. “Due to this, I feel there is difficulty coming in married life, in work, and in spiritual development.”

Jesus. This guy’s actually pretty spot on.

“Now,” he says, without waiting for a response from me, “unblocking is required in order to move past it, then success in all these areas will be there, as well as important energy which you are lacking.” He pauses, and I gaze slightly beyond his right shoulder. A black crow suddenly appears and settles clumsily on the bare plank of the verandah’s railing. For a moment I think it’s going to topple over. Like a mass of charred newspaper it wavers there for an instant, then steadies itself, folds its wings and lets its glossy black head fall to one side on its breast. It feels like some sort of omen and I shudder.

“So there are a few things we can do to unblock it,” says Ravin, breaking my daze. “We can start with some cupping, to see exactly what we’re dealing with. Lie down please.” I do as I’m told, rolling over on to my stomach like an obedient puppy. I guess it’s worth a shot. I stare at the carpet, watching a line of ants march crumbs three times their size to their nest somewhere off in the distance. I hear the clink clank of the cups, the ripping of newspaper, the striking of the match, then a couple of seconds later I feel a sharp blast of heat and a pulling of the flesh on my back right behind where I suppose my heart must be.

“Ooph.” The sound comes out of my mouth automatically.

“Ok,” says Ravin, patting me gently on my lower back, “you can go back to your seat now. We’ll have another look in 45 minutes.”

Precisely 48 minutes later (I’ve been counting every excruciating minute), after I’ve watched another old lady have her back cracked, a man with cancer be told he needs to create a salt floatation tank in his backyard and eat turmeric every morning, and the first old lady have her cup pulled off with absolutely zero change to the skin beneath, I hobble my way back to the front of the room. When I’m a few feet away from Ravin my eyes start to get blurry and I stumble, almost blacking out from the pain. I hear a couple of gasps behind me and the shuffling of bodies raising themselves up to help me.

“No no, sit down please, don’t help her,” I hear him say. “She needs to be strong and to work through this pain on her own. She will make it, just give her time.” Usually I’d think this guy was a complete bastard for saying something so heartless, but his words somehow manage to give me strength. I right myself, my vision clears, and I make it to my cross-legged position in front of him.

“Good, veeery good,” says Ravin, standing up and coming to sit right behind me. He lifts my t-shirt a little and I feel his warms hands inch their way up my back to the cup.

Pwaaah.

He pulls it off and the pain is overcome by an intense feeling of relief surging through my body. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long.

“My God!” cries Ravin. “Everyone gather around, you must come see this.”

“Umm, see what exactly?” I ask, my voice a little shaky from a mixture of pain and rising concern. I don’t get a response and my heart starts pounding a little harder with each wow! and what is that?! I hear emanating from the small crowd gathered behind me.

“You see all of this – all this pus and these purplish bubbles,” – oh my fucking God – “all of this is the pain coming out of her heart.” I wish he’d just bloody explain what’s happening to me and stop talking about me as though I’m some sort of specimen.

“It doesn’t look pretty,” he continues, “but it’s actually a good thing, believe it or not. It’s the first step towards the unblocking of her heart.”

“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?!” I cry, my voice wavering with emotion.

“Sorry, sorry. Yes of course. Have a look over your right shoulder.” I turn my head to look in the mirror that Ravin’s raised behind my back. “Oh my…” I trail off, as my hand finds its way to my mouth.

It’s absolutely hideous.

A bubble of dark pink flesh about eight centimetres wide sits perched on my back like an oversized, alien ladybug – ladybug because it’s covered with these smaller boil-type things that are filled with yellow liquid, pus maybe, some of them oozing.

“How long is it going to stay like that?” I ask in a whisper, my head suddenly filling with visions of the bubble getting bigger and bigger and me becoming the female hunchback of Rishikesh, hobbling around with my cane, begging tourists for rupees.

“The swelling is usually gone within a few days, the excretion spots may take a little longer to heal.” Oh my God. How on earth did Babette neglect to mention I was going to be disfigured by this little experiment?

“There’s no way of knowing how the cups will work on each individual,” says Ravin, like he’s just read my mind again. “You saw the other lady’s back before, nothing happened there because there was nothing that needed to be released. But you? Your case is actually much worse than I first imagined. You have so much… rubbish inside you that needs to be released.”

I wince at the words, and again as I feel him place a tissue over the top of the bubble, and one last time as he drops my t-shirt back down over my back.

“In fact, I think we should begin the heart chakra healing sessions right now, so we can avoid an emergency situation.” Ravin stands and rubs his hands together as if ridding himself of my inner filth and, with gruesome visions of the oozing, throbbing bubble floating around in my head, I find myself agreeing.

***

I’m not sure what exactly is meant to be happening right now.

I’m sitting in a chair with my eyes squeezed shut, Ravin has one palm pushed up against my chest over my heart and the other palm in the same position but on my back. It’s like I’m in a frigging human Breville press. It’s totally awkward.

He’s telling me I should “just take in the energies,” but apart from the slight warmth from his hands I can’t feel anything at all. No surges of energy or light, no cosmic vibrations, nada.

I keep telling myself that maybe the warmth from his hands is the energy I’m meant to be absorbing, but then I remind myself that it’s 36 degrees today and it’s totally natural to have hot hands so that can’t be it.

“Relaaax,” he instructs in a voice that’s probably meant to be soothing. But it’s bloody hard to relaaax when a strange Indian man has a clammy hand right next to your boobs and you’ve got nothing to focus on except the fact that you’re paying $50 for essentially just a bit of body heat and an audience of 15 nosy Indians.

I try once again to clear my mind and focus on his instructions, but open your heart is a pretty general directive and I just don’t really know what he means by it.

“So like, I should be sort of spreading vibes or something out of where my heart is, right?” I ask, opening my left eye a crack.

“Close your eyeeees. Focus on my healing vibrations. Open your heeeeart.”

Right.

I try again, breathing deeply and focusing on the heat from his hands. As the minutes tick by it does seem a little less awkward and his warm hand does feel almost comforting. But as for my heart feeling more “open”, I still have no idea what that actually means.

“Open your eyeees,” he instructs after the final excruciating stretch of minutes (or maybe it’s only been seconds, it’s hard to tell).

I snap my eyes open with relief.

“How do you feel?” He smiles at me expectantly, and I suppose he thinks he might have just changed my life. I consider how I feel for a moment and decide that unfortunately, he hasn’t even come close.

“I feel ok!” I say brightly. I don’t want to upset the poor guy, since I genuinely believe that he genuinely believes he has special superpowers. He continues staring at me; evidently he’s expecting a little more.

“My energy is… good! My heart is… good!”

“Yeees, I can see now that your chakra energies are a little more in balance. Your aura is a little more light. Before, it was black. Now, it is… maybe grey.” He appraises me with a sideways tile of the head. “But there is still much work to be done. Maybe ten more sessions. At least.”

I quickly tally it up in my head. $500 minimum, and me feeling exactly the same as I did an hour ago. Clearly, this heart chakra opening business is something I’ll have to do all by myself.

“Ahh, maybe I’ll call you for another session… later?”

“Just book something now, madam. Then, if you have to change, you call me and change.”

It doesn’t look like he’s going to take no for an answer. I book the appointment for the next day, while knowing very well that I’ll never set eyes on Ravin again. My heart chakra may very well be closed, but this guy’s certainly not going to be the one to open it.

***

Half an hour later I’m weaving my way through the alleyways behind the Ganges, shopping up a storm, with Babette trailing behind me. With each purchase my heart rate drops a little lower, the bubble throbs less intensely, and the visions of me as the Hunchback of Rishikesh start to fade.

“How much this one?” I ask the stout, mustachioed shopkeeper as I try not to gaze at his hairy pot belly poking out the bottom of his too-small brown and white checked shirt.

“Hmm,” he considers the delicate silver and coral pinkie finger ring in my hand, then stares at me. Clearly he’s trying to decide just how much he can overcharge me, the bastard. I pull my cream cashmere pashmina tight around me, trying to cover up what I can of all the jewels I have strung around my neck and wrists, doing my best to look the down-and-out traveller.

“Three thousand rupees,” he declares finally, thrusting his chin forward and hitching up his pants in an attempt to assert his authority. Clearly my disguise hasn’t worked, that’s about $50 and way too much, but today I don’t really care. I just need things, any things really, to make me feel better. I pull the cash from my wallet, slide the ring on to my finger, and set off on my increasingly merry way, leaving the shopkeeper grinning and rubbing his belly with delight.

“Cherie,” says Babette with a note of concern in her voice as we walk out of the store, “you know you just paid about three times too much for that ring. You should have bargained, at least a little.”

“I know I know, but I just wanted the ring and I couldn’t really be bothered spending any more time thinking about it. After what happened this morning, I just need retail therapy and I need it now!” I raise the three plastic bags I’ve managed to fill in the last half hour up to my shoulders and laugh. Babette, however, doesn’t seem to find it very amusing.

“You know cherie, there are other ways to deal with your pain.” We turn into a ramshackle teahouse and take a seat by the windows that look out onto the Ganga.

“It’s just a bit of shopping, Babette, nothing to be too concerned about,” I say before ordering two masala chai’s from a wizened waiter. “And actually, I like to think that my shopping here in India is, well, a bit of an act of charity. I never really because I have so much and these people have so little, so I’m contributing to them bettering their lifestyles.” It’s not really true, but damn it sounds good.

“But darling, it’s not just shopping when you’re using it to mask uncomfortable feelings. Your heart is now a little more open, feelings are starting to emerge, and you really have to face them head on if you’re ever going to truly come to terms with them.”

All at once, Babette springs up from her seat, grabs my hand and has me halfway out the café before she says, “Come with me darling, I know exactly what we need to do right now!” I hurry behind her down a few dusty alleyways and wind up at Ram Jhula bridge, which crosses the Ganga River from one side of Rishikesh to another. It’s completely packed with people, with colourful Indian families on vacation, with young boys on old motorbikes dressed in too-tight jeans and western t-shirts with slogans like Being Human and Too Hot To Handle scrawled across their scrawny chests, with withered holy men swathed in faded fabric and with a sole overwhelmed, red-faced western tourist in cheap harem pants clutching a two-litre water bottle.

“Now, wait here just a moment,” says Babette excitedly before darting off back towards where we came from, leaving me there in the middle of the heaving throng.

“Wait! Where are you…” I trail off, knowing there’s no point. I squeeze myself up as close to the railing as I can get and stare out over the Ganga, which from this angle looks more like chocolate milk than water. At least there are no dead dogs floating in it here.

A few minutes later I feel a tap on my back. I turn around to find Babette beaming at me and pushing her rather fabulous tasseled, embroidered bag in my face.

“Look inside!” she cries with delight. I peer into the bag and see that it’s filled with fresh flowers – yellow daisies, tiny white roses and some other wilty pink flower that I don’t know the name of. “We’re going to offer them to Mother Ganga!”

I look at her blankly.

“We’re going to do it one by one, and with each flower we offer we’re going to chant hare om, in our heads of course.”

My blank look must have turned into a confused look, because suddenly Babette starts making sense.

“Basically, with each hare om we’re going to release something we’ve been holding on to that we want to let go of. Oui?” She gazes intently at me.

“Oui!” I respond enthusiastically. What other choice do I have? “But, err, what does hare om mean, exactly?”

“Oh darling I don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s very powerful and that all the babas say it so I think it will work for us. Now, enough chit chat, let’s get started.” She thrusts her tiny bird hand into the bag and triumphantly pulls out one of the white roses.

“Now your turn,” she says, offering the bag to me. I pull out a plain old yellow daisy. Just my luck. Together we turn to the river and stick our hands through the railings. “One, two, three!” shouts Babette. I throw my daisy out into the ether and watch it spin like a tiny yellow propeller until it hits the surface of the water and instantly rushes off into the distance, right next to Babette’s white rose. She claps her hands with delight.

“Magic! Now,” she says, placing her index finger on her mouth, “don’t tell me what you released because if you do, you won’t have properly released it, ok?”

“Oh no I wouldn’t,” I say with all the sincerity I can muster. Shit. I’d completely forgotten I was meant to do that.

“Here, take another.” This time, I score one of the pink flowers. And as I throw it off the bridge, I say to myself, hare om, I release feeling inferior about my work. It’s completely ridiculous, but I actually feel ever so slightly lighter.

I take another flower and hurl it into space. Hare om, I release all feelings of frustration I have towards Ryan. Lighter, definitely lighter. I know there’s so much more where that came from though, so for the next two rounds I repeat the same phrase in my head. As I do, I watch the flowers twirl and dance towards the water and feel my heart start to mimic them.

Hare om, I release all feelings of disappointment I have about my dad.

All those icky feelings, which until now have been clinging mollusk-like to the underside of my consciousness, being released, ever so gradually into the water.

***

Later at dinner, the flowers are still having their effect.

“I guess I’ve just been feeling… trapped. And scared. Ryan’s always putting this pressure on me to get myself together so that we can buy a house and have a baby and do all that terribly grown up stuff that I just haven’t felt at all ready for.” I’m pouring my heart out to Babette, cross-legged on the dining room floor, and it feels fantastic. “It’s easy enough for him, he comes from an amazing family, they’re all so close and supportive of each other and his parents are still together, but for me… I guess I’m scared of doing what my dad did to us to my own family. Which is ironic, I know, considering where I am right now. But I really did need this space to figure it all out.”

“Let me ask you a question,” says Babette, finally breaking the silence she’s been keeping for the past fifteen minutes as I’ve verbally vomited all over her. “Do you love your husband?”

“Yes.” It comes out automatically, right from my guts and I know it’s the truth. “I really love him. It’s just that sometimes, I find it hard to properly show him. Sometimes I treat him really badly, to be honest. I lie to him. All the time. I lie to everyone, actually, mainly because the lies are just so much, I don’t know, easier than the truth. And with a bit of distance I’ve been able to see that when things get hard with Ryan, I just kind of escape. I physically escaped this time, but usually I escape with alcohol, or with buying things, or with flirting with another guy. Which is crazy, because I really do love him. Sometimes I feel like… like there really is a blockage in my heart.” The wind blows through the open double doors that open on to the balcony, and the curtains ripple fitfully into the room.

“Let me ask you another question then,” says Babette, rubbing her palms together thoughtfully and looking me straight in the eye. “Do you love yourself?”

“Well I don’t have tickets on myself or anything like that…”

“That’s not what I mean cherie. I mean do you truly love yourself. Do you value yourself. Do you respect yourself.”

I get up and walk over to the windows. The night sky is blue, stars are popping out one by one, the mountains are black and the long strands of street lamps are draped like cobwebs of light across the valley below.

“I… I’m not sure,” I finally manage.

“Well darling,” says Babette as she draws up alongside me, “if you truly want to open your heart and give and receive love freely, then you really do have to become a source of love for yourself first.”

She walks away, and I’m left staring into the dark abyss.