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Travel
January 9, 2024

In Search of Sanctuary

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We’ve reached that time of year when the magic hour lingers after a balmy sunset. When crickets chirping sound like an orchestra outside our window. Walking long blocks for yummy ice cream is as much a treat as the sweetness melting down our arms. It’s a season in which to find ways to retreat, recharge, refresh and reset—whether that’s on a remote coast or in the heart of the city.
Writer and yogi Teresa Wiltz reminisces about her yearly trek to India’s sun, sand and sea:
After 20-plus hours of flying, a five-hour layover and a 90-minute drive in the wee hours through dark and winding streets, my husband and I are finally–finally!–here. Morjim, Goa, a lush beach town parked along the Arabian sea. It is our first time in India. We are jet-lagged. We are giddy. We are gleeful.
And at the first sight of Ashtanga Yoga Morjim—the reason for our protracted pil- grimage—we are gobsmacked. It sits, all cobblestoned roof and stately pillars, tucked amid coconut groves, surrounded by a riot of flora and fauna, shocking pink bougainvillea and palm trees, the works. Dozens of sandals, Birkenstocks and humble flip-flops line the steps, abandoned by their wearers. The message: This is a barefoot-only kind of place. We’re good with that.
Inside, the energy hums.
The shala—“house” in Sanskrit—is a dark and cavernous space, humid and hushed, crammed with silent, sweating, moving bodies. In the front of the room, a statue of the Hindu
elephant god, Ganesha, looks on, big-bellied and beatific.
We are so many thousands of miles from home. And yet, we are instantly, inexplicably, at home. We quickly decide this will be our yearly tradition. When we’re in desperate need of a reset, it’s time for another expedition to Morjim.
Finding an oasis
We go because we love yoga, specifically Ashtanga yoga, a vigorous practice that challenges the body and stills the mind, leaving the practitioner spent, sweaty and surfing a sea of bliss. We go because we love our teacher, Sharmila Desai, an Indian American woman who, looking at the political landscape of the U.S., decided she liked it not one bit—and grabbed her family and decamped from New York, building an oasis here.
We go because of the ritual: Sharmila teaches “Mysore-style” Ashtanga, as it’s taught in Mysore, India: You memorize a set series of poses and practice at your own pace while the anonymous body on the mat next to you does their thing, too. Sharmila, a tiny, powerful woman with a long, black braid, walks the room, tiptoeing around 60 or so students, ever watchful. Don’t try to skate by, skip a pose or do anything out of sequence. Sharmila sees all.
THOUSANDS OF MILES FROM HOME… WE ARE INSTANTLY, INEXPLICABLY, AT HOME.
Every day, I set out for class, fortified by strong green tea and a mango or two. Along the way, every morning, without fail, I meet up with a sweet local, a pooch who waits for me, wiggling and wagging, to escort me to class. I pop my AirPods in my ears—Brittany Howard’s “History Repeats” is a vibe—and we’re off.
As I walk, I pass cows sauntering through traffic, dodge Russian tourists speeding by on scooters, smile at the uniformed school girls at recess, wave back at the barber beginning the day in his little open-air shop. After class, there’s the obligatory stop at the produce stand where the proprietor grabs a machete, slicing open a fresh coconut. She hands it to me with a straw and a smile. It is ambrosial.
Finding our people
The afternoons are for leisurely lunches on the beach. Or a quick jaunt on the scooter to check out a neighboring town. Or perhaps it’s a massage at the local ayurveda clinic… or hanging with fellow Ashtangis from Mexico, England, Italy, Mauritius, India, Guatemala.
We always rent an apartment when we’re here. But we always begin our trip at Sur La Mer—the better to recover from jetlag—at a swanky hotel/guest house where we dine alfresco and are extravagantly, often embarrassingly, spoiled by the staff. At night, we hang out by the pool, where the owner, Aneel, an aging, one-time Bollywood actor, serves up drink after drink, telling tall tales. “You look more Indian than I do,” he tells me, frequently.
And that’s part of the appeal, being in a country of highly melanated people, surrounded by locals who embrace us and our melanin. It feels at once familiar and exotic. Here, we fit. And here we are welcome. This is the place where it feels like everybody knows our names.
FOLLOWING THE ROADS LESS TRAVELED
There is peace to be found in unlikely places, near and far. Let these two writers’ journeys inspire you to take a retreat from your usual surroundings, on a road trip that lets you see natural beauty close to home, or by stimulating your intellectual growth.
HOME: David Thigpen on discovering a hidden gem
Northern California’s Sonoma County is indelibly known as a place of sophisticated wines and multimillion-dollar vineyards. And that is what makes the west Sonoma town of Sea Ranch quite an outlier. Its appeal is unrelated to wine, or even tourism.
A visitor to Sea Ranch once described it as “paradise at the end of the earth.” It’s not uncommon for first-time visitors to get all hyperbolic about the physical beauty of the place. The cliffside Pacific coast town occupies a wild stretch of land a two-and-a half-hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge.
When you enter Sea Ranch, population 1,350, be alert: The community could easily slip past and into your rearview mirror without you realizing you’ve already arrived. First-time visitors have been known to look around and ask: “Where is it?” It turns out that blending in with the abundant cypress trees and thickets of vegetation are actually a part of the calculated and distinctive appeal of the place.
On my family’s first trip to Sea Ranch, my wife and daughter and I embarked on the recommendation of neighbors, who told us one thing: take our time. We made the long drive up and the return trip to the San Francisco Bay Area at a leisurely pace. We pulled over many times to take snapshots of the irresistible Pacific vistas, which grew more stunning by the mile. We stopped for lunch at an outdoor café in Bodega Bay, the old fishing town where Alfred Hitchcock shot his 1963 thriller The Birds.
As we came to discover about all of Sea Ranch, it is a place more suited for calm and rejuvenation rather than fussiness, consumption and luxury.
AWAY: Dr. Lena Hill on finding inspiration and hidden treasures
In April 1956, author Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man) wrote to his friend and fellow writer, Albert Murray, from Rome where he was a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ellison recounted his visit to St. Peter’s where he listened to the Pope. Rather than reflect on the Pope’s blessings, Ellison transformed the Pope into a backdrop for exalting the African American worship experience. He exhorted Italian worshippers to “elevate them a Mose, preferably one converted from one of the storefront cults” so he could “get in there and bring back some of the old vitality to the Church.”
The “vitality” Ellison associated with Black religious tradition and recommended to European Catholics captured his response to Rome in a nutshell. In fact, his sojourns across Europe repeatedly led him back to a deeper appreciation of Black culture, and he hoped to use his knowledge of African American experience to educate others.
Intriguingly, Ellison highlighted different aspects of his Roman experience to different friends and associates. When writing to white acquaintances, he often emphasized the charming countryside, artistic treasures and beauty of the people. He recorded a great deal of Rome with his camera. Writing to Ida Guggenheimer, Ellison exclaimed, “Ruins, architecture, art, palaces, churches, and graveyards, my head is whirling with it all. I was somewhat reluctant to come here, but had I failed to do so I would have missed one of the major human experiences. Perhaps it is impossible to have a real idea of what human culture can be unless one visits Italy.”
Ellison was most fascinated by the treasures not found in museums or galleries. One of his favorite Roman haunts was the flea market. His thralldom led to long hours of searching for treasures such as gold gilded picture frames, a copper water bottle and a crystal inkwell. Ellison wanted to discover his own Roman valuables.
Although Ellison described his time in Rome as “exile” and admitted, “there is hardly a week that passes that I don’t dream of home,” his experiences in Rome energized his literary depictions of African American culture.
Dr. Lena Hill serves as provost at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Her scholarship on Ralph Ellison is internationally recognized.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.