The Science of Life

Day 480 – 23 June, 2016

After a very brief stop in Galle to see the old Dutch fort, I continued around the perimeter of the island in search of Sri Lankan tranquility.  It didn’t take me more than a couple of hours to realize that I was exactly where I needed to be at exactly the time I needed to be there. I had been hesitant about booking a stay at an Ayurvedic Retreat, in large part because of the cost. It seemed extravagant for a budget traveler like myself to book 6 nights and a 6 day Ayurvedic treatment package at a resort. Ultimately, I committed to the package because I do have an intense interest in alternative medicine and what better place to experience the real deal than Sri Lanka, right?

I chose Siddhalepa Ayurvedic Health Resort for its location, authenticity, and all the positive reviews I had read online. All told, I spent about $130/day to include my room, 3 gourmet buffet meals daily, and 2 1/2 hours (or more if the doctor recommended it) daily of Ayurvedic treatments at a resort that included twice daily yoga classes, a meager gym (but a gym! nevertheless), and a resort style pool on ocean-front property. Expensive by Sri Lankan standards, I was feeling a bit out of my element with the splurge. Knowing that, in reality, it was a steal any day of the week and I realized I could do nothing but get massages and workout and watch HBO in my own room for 6 days (watching American movies in English is a real luxury these days – don’t knock it!), the guilt melted away and I embraced it for the recharge that I truly desired.

Ayur means “life” and Veda means “science” in Sanskrit. It is a practice of balancing the 3 doshas – Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vata controls bodily functions associated with motion, like blood circulation, breathing, blinking, and the heartbeat. Pitta controls the metabolic systems, including digestion, absorption, nutrition, and temperature. Kapha controls growth and it is associated with supplying water to the organs, moisturizers the skin, and maintains the immune system. Each person has a little of each of these, but usually can be characterized by a combination of two and your doshas can change over time. For example, younger people typically have more Kapha, but over time and with age, they become more Vata.

I wasn’t at the resort to cure an illness, but more out of a sense of curiousity. To make it more interesting, though, I decided to tell the doctor during my initial consultation about two chronic conditions so we would have something specific to focus on. I met with a female doctor my very first afternoon. She was soft-spoken and demure. She asked me detailed questions about my skin, my hair, my energy level, my digestion, etc, etc. Each question was multiple choice with three choices so that at the end of the questionnaire, the value of my answers was calculated to determine that I was Pitta-Kappa. The chronic conditions I wished to address were migraines and the Achilles tendonitis I had exacerbated while walking the Camino de Santiago several months earlier. Both are either infrequent enough to be tolerable or not as bad as they used to be so seeking treatment was not so much a necessity as it was an experiment.

The doctor then prescribes a treatment plan based on your body type and custom engineered specifically for your needs. Over the course of 6 days, I received the following treatments:

6 head massages

3 face massages

2 foot massages

2 hand massages

2 back and shoulder massages

3 full body massages

1 full body scrub

1 kativasti treatment

1 shirodara treatment

1 pizichil treatment

6 fomentation treatments

1 menthol treatment

2 herbal baths

3 steam baths

1 facial steam

1 facial

3 foot wraps

1 foot scalding (this may or may not be the correct name, but this is what I call it)

1 herbal eye treatment

6 doses of 5 varieties of herbal medicine

Some of these proved to be exquisitely enjoyable and others were downright inconvenient, uncomfortable or in some cases, kind of miserable. My therapist was Srima, a tall elegant-looking woman who was a senior employee at the resort. She had been working with them for 12 years and I was told was the most advanced therapist they employed.

The Head Massage

Unfortunately, this falls into the miserable category and I would suggest it was more of an effort to rub oil into my hair with fingernails than an actual relaxation technique. On the 4th day, when I found myself explaining to Srima how to give a head massage, I knew that it was not an obstacle we could overcome. The head massage always ended with Srima rubbing my ears and sticking her oily fingers deep into my ear canal three times before she would clap her hands together and ask how I felt with a satisfied smile on her face.

The Body Massage

The first three days, I fully embraced the treatments for what they were. I tried to forget whatever I knew about massages and spa treatments in the past and accept the Ayurvedic style as its own. However, the hand, foot, back, and full body massages centered on rubbing oil all over my body rather than actually massaging anything. By the 4th day, I questioned the doctor about the Ayurvedic style, not wanting to offend Srima on her technique. The doctor said the amount of pressure was entirely up to me and I was kicking myself for not saying something earlier. I asked for more pressure, but to my dismay, the body massage on the 4th day was the most painful exhibition of bodily torture I knew could exist at a spa. When I asked for more, I seemingly forgot that it’s important for the masseuse using a deep tissue technique to actually know where to locate the deep tissues. She would dig her elbow directly into my spine and use her knuckles on my tailbone. Now, I’m in the camp that believes a massage needs to be at least a little bit painful for it to have a lasting effect, but this was awful. She used full pressure indiscriminately that day, including when she unnecessarily massaged my breasts and abdomen. It was as if she was punishing me, always with a smile on her face, but I stubbornly was going to grit my teeth and take it purely on principle. Plus, it’s a little dangerous to criticize someone who is standing over you with hot oil while you lay naked and vulnerable. What I would have liked is to have a different therapist, but instead we had a heart to heart on the 5th day that medium pressure would be best. I spent the day coaching her. More pressure, please. No, no, less pressure! Owwwwww!


Kativasti

A treatment for muscle aches or stiffness, but also to strengthen bones, kativasti is a process in which hot oil is poured into a clay receptacle over the specific body area (in my case, my upper back), left to sit several minutes, and then finally gently massaged into the trouble spot. It was incredibly relaxing and this was finally something I enjoyed.

Shirodara
One word – heavenly. Used to treat stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, it revitalizes the central nervous system and in my case, was prescribed to treat chronic headaches. While lying face up, your eyes and ears covered, hot oil is poured over your head. The accompanying head massage was gentle and relaxing and at one point, I even fell asleep and woke up with the “where am I?” kind of disorientation. Afterward, my head was wrapped with my hair still caked in oil and left to sit for 24 hours before I could wash it out. All worth it, this treatment was amazing.

Pizhichil 

Hot oil is generously poured over the entire body and gently massaged into each limb. I received this treatment on my last day and I was happy to go back to the gentle massage technique. Meant to rejuvenate the skin, enhance muscle tone, improve blood circulation, and promote inner balance, it was blissful.

Fomentation

A pouch of cooked rice and herbs is dipped into hot milk and pressed all over the body following a massage. It’s a highly effective rejuvenation technique, which is prescribed to strengthen tissues, relieve pain, treat arthritis, and reduce cholesterol.

Herbal baths

The Ayurvedic herbal bath is a mixture of roots, bark, and leaves suited to your specific body constitution. It opens pores, cleanses the skin, eliminates toxins, and reduces stiffness. I climbed into the large stone tub and Srima dumped the concoction on top of me. This too, was a very nice finale to a full day of body manipulations.

Steam baths

A coffin-type contraption held a repository for boiling water underneath so that I could lie on top of the wooden slats in a bed of fresh herbal leaves for 10 minutes and bake. Steam baths are prescribed for mental and physical relaxation; it opens the pores, boosts energy, and removes toxins. While I would hit my maximum threshold for heat after about 15 minutes, I found this treatment lovely and cleansing.

Facial steam 

For the sinuses, you can indulge in a facial steam. Sitting in a chair in front of a pot of boiling herbs, smelling not unlike menthol, a curtain is draped around your shoulders so only your head is exposed to the steam. This definitely helped clear out the sinuses and I would be happy to do this a couple of times a week.

Foot wraps

Because of my complaint of tendonitis, an herbal concoction was mixed up that was the color of iron-rich blood. It smelled a little sweet, almost sugary. I later found out the main ingredient was a specific type of flower. Cotton wraps were dipped in the potion and wrapped around my Achilles’ tendon on each foot for 6-12 hours each time. A painless treatment, but the mixture was oily so I would leave oily footprints if I walked around too much so I usually took this in a reclining posture which was mildly annoying. One time, before the wrap, Srima brought a baking pan with a brick on it into the room. She warned me it was hot, but I didn’t need the warning. It smelled of fire and I knew it had come straight off the coals. Dipping leaves in water, one at a time, she placed them on the brick where they immediately began to sizzle and wanted me to place my foot on top of each leaf. This is when I questioned if the treatment was going to be more painful than the injury itself, what is the point exactly?

Herbal eye treatment

Prescribed for dry eyes, a small cup of a milky white fluid was held up to my eye and I had to blink several times as it dribbled down my face and neck. It didn’t smell like anything and wasn’t painful and I’m not sure I noticed any positive or negative results so I’m kind of indifferent on this treatment.

Herbal medicine

You may have noticed that I’ve been vague as to what kind of herbs or treatments were used. That’s because I don’t know. I went to this resort because I’m interested in the how and the why. I wanted to learn. I repeatedly asked the doctor and Srima, “what is this?” or “what’s in this?” Each time the answer was the same, “many herbals” or “herbal medicine” or “very long list of many herbals.” I was finding this evasiveness a bit annoying. I was only curious. I was given three medications to take twice a day and I took all of them, but I still have no idea what they were. One was a liquid – it was brownish red in color and tasted kind of sweet and vinegary. I’m guessing apple cider vinegar was the base. One was a powder that I mixed with warm water – definitely consisted of nutmeg and ginger, but beyond that, I was lost. The third was a little blackish green tablet – not exactly a tablet, but a ball that left an oily residue on the packaging. It had the aftertaste of herbs, but I couldn’t pinpoint which ones. In addition to these, there were two doctor-administered medicines. One was a rather tasteless herbal brew – dark green in color, it didn’t have any dominant flavor at all except for the one day where Srima brewed it too long and it tasted a little bitter. And the other was an opaque brown liquid that I didn’t drink, but only gargled with it. Again, this one had the undertones of vinegar.

Yoga

Every morning I started my day with Rashmika, a balding loveable yogi, who crooned in his thick Sri Lankan accent “Good breath. Nice body. I love my body. Breeeethe…” It was a gentle flow of hatha yoga, easy stretching, and a rejuvenating mantra. On one morning, I was the only student so the entire session was a step more intense with assisted stretches. With every passing day, I felt my energy improving and I knew I was ready to begin traveling again on a different continent. “I wish good health to you. And to your family too. I wish good health to yooooou.” Thank you, Rashmika. Likewise.

Overall, I had a great week at Siddhalepa. While some of the treatments were not fabulous, others were absolutely wonderful. The staff worked hard to ensure I enjoyed my visit and that I was always completely relaxed. I needed this downtime more than I knew and I left the resort feeling like a million bucks.

In Search of Elephants

Day 477 – 20 June, 2016

A few years ago, on a vacation in Nepal, I rode an elephant.  It seemed like an exotic fun thing to do.  We were assured that the elephants were treated well, that our insignificant weight was no big deal for the elephant to carry, yada, yada.  It wasn’t until after I perched on the top of this magnificent creature crammed together with five of my closest friends (strangers) in a little wooden box where we couldn’t move and I witnessed the elephants’ agitation and depression that I was convinced this was a terrible thing.  I felt sleazy watching our mahout repeatedly kick our elephant with sharp spurs behind its ears.  The guilt weighed on me afterward and I vowed never to do anything like this again.  

Riding an elephant in Nepal

After six months in Southeast Asia, I had been avoiding the elephant riding attractions like the plague that they are, but I really wanted to see healthy happy elephants in a good environment. Some orphanages or sanctuaries exist and some of these are good, but sadly, the good ones are far and few between. I had missed these ethical places for whatever reason and Sri Lanka was my last chance to be among the giants.

Yala National Park is a reserve set aside in southeastern Sri Lanka that stretches for 375 sq miles. While I had read that this was the best time of year to visit, the park was void of any visitors. An extremely high concentration of leopards reside here, among elephants, crocodiles, wild boar, and peacocks, to name a few. Even though I have a somewhat geekish interest in large felines, I didn’t want to set my expectations too high as leopards are extremely difficult to spot. Their camouflage is perfectly suited to the forest. Instead, I set my sights on elephants. I had been told there are loads of these gentle goliaths in Yala so it seemed meeting my expectations would be easy.

Assigned to my own jeep for lack of other travelers to share the cost or the space, we set off before dawn into the depths of the park. Before we had even driven through the park gate, I saw several peacocks strutting in the middle of the dusty road, two wild boars that approached the side of our jeep with tails wagging as if they knew the jeep might be a food source, and a small brown weasel boldly watching the vehicle pass by. I felt confident that I would soon be able to add elephants to my wildlife-spotted catalog.

For better or worse, when someone has traveled as much as I have, they start to compare experiences that may have some similarities, but in reality, are not similar situations at all. I traveled to Tanzania in 2012 and did the mother of all safaris through Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, among other lesser known game parks. I saw elephants in plentitude everywhere I looked, so many that after a week we didn’t even ask our driver to stop anymore. This was not that. The terrain was completely different, whereas the Serengeti is characterized by open plains, Yala is composed of scrub brush and forest. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but compare in my head.

Contrary to my hope that we were driving through an elephant-infested forest, we really had to search for them. Checking every watering hole, there were countless buffalo and deer. We did see a few elephants, but apart from a few lucky glimpses, most of them were high tailing it back into the forest and away from us. In some ways, I found it more exciting to spot one when they were seemingly so scarce.

Asian elephants are listed as endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Primarily threatened by deforestation and loss of habitat, they are increasingly poached for their ivory tusks due to high demand, especially in China, for ivory trinkets and status symbols. Some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, they are known to have a highly complex social network within their families, displaying characteristics of grief when a family member dies and exhibiting high-level behaviors like tool-making, altruism, self-awareness, and advanced memory. Even though Yala did not fulfill my expectations, I was lucky and satisfied that I finally saw happy healthy Asian elephants in the wild.