Eleven years ago I tasted jackfruit for the first time.
I am reminded of it now because I’m reading a novel set in India and its description send me halfway around the world and eleven years back in time to the few months I spent studying yoga in Bangalore. Like much of my solo travels, this section in my life is completely compartmentalized. I’m not in contact with the people I knew while living there, so I have no shared memories. These travels took place before social networks, back when life was lived unconnected. Yet even then, Internet cafes were popular abroad and many foreigners spent the better part of their afternoons typing about experiences they weren’t actually having. I deliberately chose to not call or email home while in India because I wanted to gain emotional independence and open myself fully to engaging in my experiences.
The unintended consequence is that this time in my life remains mine and mine alone. Very rarely are my memories from this time prompted without concious effort. But reading the word, jackfruit, triggered a memory of flip flops, red dirt and a snack with Muslim men to rise to surface clear as day.
This took place in June of 2011.
The world events that happened three months later would have prevented this from ever taking place again. Maybe that can be said about all moments; they could only ever exist in one time and space.
It was a Sunday. I know this because I was walking and Sundays were my only days free from yoga teacher training. I was in search of a park with a banyan tree. I had never heard of that kind of tree until I went to India. My teacher swore up and down that this tree grew upside down, with its branches on the ground and roots reaching for the sky. I decided to walk, rather than ride in a rickshaw. India was always more about the journey than destination for me.
My flip flop broke.
I was a few miles from where I began and still miles from my destination. I tried to make due, but a few steps proved I was completely hobbled. This midpoint in my journey happened to be the most desolate spot. I looked up and down the red dirt street hoping to hail a rickshaw. There were none. There were hardly any people either. I limply proceeded ahead; there was no other choice. It’s amazing what we think of as brave. Usually it means just moving forward, and frequently that is the only option.
A block later I was rewarded with the sight of a shoe store. I found black platform flip flops. I remember them well. When I walked down the street the snapped sharply back to my heels, kicking up splatters of red mud. I spent a half an hour everyday cleaning my laundry by hand after asana practice and breakfast. I had to pump water to the roof for 20 minutes, then wait another ten for the water-heater in the bathroom to warm it. I took a bar of bright blue laundry soap and scrubbed out the stains in a bucket. The thin skin on my knuckles would break a few times a week from this and tiny fizzures of blood would fill the small lines of my hands that look like river tributaries after all.
I wrang my clothes out as best as I could and took them to the roof to dry. The stains from my flip flops never completely came out, but when I took my clothes to the roof I saw a vista that seemed both endless and contained. Sometimes I felt like I was living in a snow globe and could see a clear end of where the world dropped off, like I could see the edge of the world and it was forever, but it was there nonetheless.
When I bought the flip flops I was grateful. I needed them and they were cheap. I tried not to walk around with too much cash. When I exchanged $200 at the airport, I ended up with a backpack full of rupees and my first lesson about dollars in India. My blond hair attracted light and attention to my open American face.
The shopkeeper who sold me the shoes was a Muslim. I knew this because he wore a special hat like all the Muslims there. Although I was in South India where Hindis dominate, there were still a fair number of Muslims. It was the first time I lived in a community where Islam was widely practiced. I lived two blocks from a mosque and was woken daily by a horrible singer screeching first prayers over a loudspeaker.
The shopkeeper invited me to sit with his friends and enjoy some jackfruit. I had never heard of such a thing. A group of five men were sitting around a card table with a bag full of the strange tropical fruit with the funny English name. I was hesitant. My teacher’s wife, Lakshmi, warned me about the dangers of unsafe food in India on a daily basis. Plus, it seemed strange to be the only woman sitting with a group of men. But the front of the shop was completely open to the street and what is traveling if not the invitation to open yourself up to the unexpected?
I sat down and they cut me a piece of fruit. It was sweet and juicy and bizarre. The hidden seeds caught me by surprise to the laughter of all. They enjoyed watching me figure it out the same way my teacher’s family enjoyed watching me eat my first mango and suddenly discovering the odd pit in the center. In India I was always given fruit with a knife. You cut off a piece for yourself and passed it along. It was a communal experience and the sweetest, most delicious fruit I have ever eaten.
I don’t remember much of our conversation. I remember there was a lot of laughter and we mostly spoke about the oddities of jackfruit. I am sure I told them I was in India to study yoga. Fifiteen minutes passed. There were two jackfruits left in the bag when I decided to be on my way. My hands were sticky from the juices for the remaining three miles until I reached the park where I did see the upside-down tree. The banyan tree was near a pond, so its reflection was rooted in the sky as Krishna describes in the Bhagavad Gita, making the story true, but different than I had imagined.
I didn’t take my camera with me that day.
This is one of the memories imprinted on my heart but rarely brought to mind. Sometimes I marvel at the life I lead. So much of it these days seems predicatble on paper: a typical stay-at-home-mom-of-two. My past sounds so much more exotic and unique with world travels and singular adventures. But to me, as I live my life, my present is just as interesting as my past. The act of discovery is a daily experience. Last month I bought and ate a cactus pear simply because it looked odd so I knew I must taste it. Maybe that comes from my jackfruit experience or maybe it is just my same old self, always opening up to the wonders of living in this world.
Each new experience creates a new definition of normal. As we expand the scope of our own world, earth seems smaller, but that is only because of our own growth. I now live in the subtropics and drive down streets lined with banyan trees. I have my very own mango tree in my backyard and a little boy named Jack whose world has always contained palm trees, banyans, iguanas and tropical fruit.
The memories that are so far apart from the scope of my current life are still mine, and made all the more precious because of the scarcity at which they are brought to light. Upon their recollection, they can turn into stories for strangers to ponder and my boys to wonder: Who was their mother before she became their mother? Does she still exist?
For me, when these memories return, and I can see that road, taste that fruit and hear that prayer. I am transported to a time and place that now only exists inside of me. I reminded of the extraordinary possibilities contained in every single day. In every single life.
I am grateful that I have lived each one of my days.