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Exploring Kochi, India

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Photo: Anders Overgaard

The next morning, we drove an hour south to Alappuzha and boarded a kettu vallom—one of the Keralan boats built entirely of bamboo thatch, teakwood, and coir, without a single nail—for a tour of the region's famed backwaters. We were soon utterly lost in the 50-mile-long labyrinth of canals and lakes and rivers. Everywhere there were snakebirds wheeling above and drongos crying "pinka pinka pinka" among the coconut palms and fishermen paddling along the banks and hooting "Ooo, ooo" to announce their wares and naked children splashing and farmers sowing rice in the paddies, chest-deep in the monsoon tides.

The grizzled cook asked if I wanted to steer. When I took the helm, Amanda, who had been calmly sipping juice out of a fresh king coconut, put on her sunglasses and assumed something of a crash position. But though our boat, the Great India II, was about as nimble as a giant bamboo clog, I kept us safely in midstream, and even had time to wave to the passing ferries.

After disembarking, we drove back to Kochi along the coast. Near Bannambeli, we stopped to talk with four men who were husking coconuts at jackhammer speed, driving them with both hands onto sharpened metal stakes. The eldest man, skinny and toothless and black from the sun, said he thought he'd been doing the work for 15 years. When we asked how old he was, and when he'd started, it became clear he'd been husking coconuts for 45 years.

We drove past a small bay with dozens of huge Chinese fishing nets, cantilevered teak contraptions that reminded me of praying mantises. A troop of brown ducklings waddled across the road, and as we made way for them, a group of 15-year-olds from the local girls' school surrounded the car. They all wore braids, and their braids were all tied with bright pink ribbons, and they all smiled and waved and shouted "Hello" as if their hearts were overflowing. It was when they pressed their palms to our window that my last grudge against India began to dissolve.

On our last day, I finally found someone who would administer sirodhara. Dr. Krishnakumar at the Brunton Boatyard spa, a gentle man who seemed amused by my determination, gave me a cursory exam—pulse, blood pressure, a quick pass with a stethoscope—then wrapped a linen cloth around my head and arranged me on the table beneath an oversized clay pot. He filled it with warm milk and the powerful herb Sida cordifolia. The mixture began to drip through a hole in the pot, down a cotton rope, and onto my forehead. Dr. Krishnakumar moved the apparatus from side to side, and then in what felt like Möbius loops, he murmured, "This carries off the toxins of your life."

Within a few minutes it felt as if my forehead had opened up and the oil were soaking my brain. Visions of Buddha statues and old temples flickered on my closed eyelids, followed by Beatles lyrics ("When I'm 64") and strange, druggy ideas ("What if I'm the toxin?"). These were followed by anxious thoughts that flew around my skull like caged falcons, crashing into its bone walls.

I suddenly felt utterly calm. And then very anxious again. The 45 minutes seemed to last for hours, and afterward Joyce and Amanda agreed that I looked years younger. But the treatment was unsettling; during it, I kept flexing my toes and mentally working multiplication tables to make sure I hadn't lost all brain function. Toward the end, I began to feel on the verge of an epiphany, of a new alignment with the world—and then the last gluey drops began to spatter, irregularly, against my temples. The doctor unwound the linen band, and I could once again hear the crows in the rain trees outside, the squawk of the auto rickshaws, and the rising tide of noises from the town.

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