“He told me to open the door to the treatment room. And when I did, I was greeted by the flickering of candle light, fresh red Rose pedals sprinkled across the massage table. And a thermos of steamy chai with two clean cups was waiting for us.“~Andrea Klunder
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It came to my attention recently that I had not recorded my own travel story to share with you.
And while I have been recording these conversations for you with amazing guests about travel AND now self-care, Erica Courdae and India Jackson offered a theme for the month of November in their professional DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) network Pause On the Play.
The theme: wellness.
And then one day India posted the following prompt in the group:
What’s the most adventurous or uncomfortable thing you’ve tried in support of your wellbeing? What were your takeaways?
Now wellness, wellbeing, self-care… that was the industry that I was in, and ultimately feel like I failed in, for more than five years. Between yoga, meditation, therapeutic bodywork, Reiki, essential oils, tarot, acupuncture, sound healing, botanical skincare… I’ve tried a lot of things and they have often put me in uncomfortable positions, but the word ‘adventurous’ felt different.
It immediately brought to mind a risk, more accurately, a series of risks that I took for my 34th birthday in 2012.
I posted a response to that prompt in Pause On The Play and India asked me if I had yet recorded a podcast episode about that experience. I was surprised to look back over my catalog of The Creative Impostor to discover that I hadn’t… not really.
But now that I have crafted that story on virtual paper, I see why I hadn’t shared it. It feels vulnerable. I think it’s because I have some regrets from this time in my life and from this story in particular. So, here goes…
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“He told me to stay, that love was more important than visiting temples.“~Andrea Klunder
It started in Joshua Tree, CA – I was attending a yoga & music festival called Bhakti Fest in the desert. I was there — so many miles from my failing yoga studio business in Chicago — by grace and hard work. I volunteered backstage in exchange for my ticket and was camping in a tent borrowed from a friend.
At the end of one sweaty vinyasa flow class that featured live music and mantra chanting (yoga and singing at the same time — bliss! and consequently the style of yoga I teach now.) Anyway, the teacher of that class, someone I deeply respected and admired, announced that he had a few spots left in his upcoming 14-day retreat to India. It was merely 8 weeks away and when he said it, my stomach flip-flopped.
Then I heard a distinct voice in my head (didn’t sound like mine) that firmly said, “You’re going.”
I didn’t know how. Chicago to New Delhi is an expensive ticket. Not to mention the retreat itself. But from that moment, I couldn’t stop thinking about going to India.
Did I mention my business was failing? And I was nearly bankrupt?
At that very moment I was in the midst of a 3-year commercial lease on a yoga studio space that I was also living in due to not being able to afford rent of my own. I was not paying myself, I was barely covering bills. Or had I already started skipping utilities at that point? I was overextended on credit cards — paying $100s every month in interest.
I was exhausted from trying to hustle. I was trying to assuage my gnawing loneliness through a series of self-destructive online dating experiences. My self-esteem was in the gutter. Even my skin was revolting against me with a bout of cystic acne, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my teenage years.
And somehow, the thought of leaving it all behind for an adventure in a foreign land sounded like my only option for redemption.
Two months later, I miraculously stepped foot on the grounds of a gorgeous retreat house in the woods just a short motor scooter ride away from Lakshman Jula a famous suspension bridge across the river Ganges, located 5 kilometres (3 mi) north-east of the bustling spiritual tourism center of Rishikesh.
I say miraculously because up to that point I didn’t have a working cell phone, GPS, or any way of fully being prepared for how difficult navigating India, or communicating, or staying safe as a solo white, broke, female traveler would be.
There was one night back in New Dehli where, completely lost, I actually made a tearful selfie video from the back of a tuktuk in case I NEVER made it back to my Airbnb.
But clearly I overcame these challenges to be welcomed by a group of strangers to the start of our 14-day retreat. 6 days here in Rishikesh, land of the hindu deity Shiva who represents the energy of death, destruction, releasing attachments, and… ultimately transformation and rebirth — to be followed up with a loooong bus ride to Vrindavan, flanked by the Yamouna river, childhood home of the god Krishna who represents love, compassion, devotion and play. From there I would be continuing my solo travels to Kerala, Mumbai, and finally Goa on the Arabian Sea.
On our very first day, we were walking through the trees to hop on scooters that would take us across the monkey ridden Lakshnman Jhula bridge into town, when I caught sight of a large black buzzing flying creature. Too late!
I felt a sharp stab through my pant leg. I cried out. Then fire started to spread throughout my thigh.
One the strangers I had just met told me to drop my pants so we could look at it. I did. A tiny pinprick with a faint red tinge to the skin around it. I decided to suck it up and go into town anyway. Maybe there would be a pharmacy with some antihistamine or at least a clue as to what had just stung me.
There was a pharmacy.
They sold me ointment.
It did nothing.
The poison spread and by the end of the day, my thigh had swelled so much it was stretching the seams of my khaki capris.
Another woman on retreat from LA offered to give me an energy healing session, which I accepted. She told me I had asked for this to happen, and suggested I analyze my choices and behaviors to identify how I had brought this on myself so I could expunge the poison from my life. You can’t see me rolling my eyes right now.
I then consulted the retreat center concierge. He handed me a business card for an Ayurvedic massage spa in town and said to go see his friend, S, who ran it. He also said it was just a minor sting and not to worry, I would be fine in no time.
The next day, back into town, only this time, I could barely bend my knee to get onto a scooter — it had swollen to the size of a large grapefruit.
Hobbling into the small dingy storefront that matched the address on the business card, a brusque woman whisked me into the sole, chilly treatment room and gave me a forceful, oily massage including pounding my leg with hot compresses. I felt pretty beaten up by the end and when I emerged from the massage, ahe pointed to a bench in the tiny reception area and said, “Wait.”
So I sat. Moments later, a stocky man, 30sih strode in, wearing mirrored sunglasses, his motorbike parked out front.
He gave me one look, and started giving orders to his staff in Hindi. Before I knew it, my foot was soaking in a bucket filled with some kind of herbal remedy and salts while he kneeled on the floor with a soaked towel, repeatedly compressing my leg from the mid-thigh down toward my ankle.
A cup of steaming chai arrived from somewhere… a nearby cafe or chai stall perhaps.
S spoke to me in hesitant English. His voice was smooth and calming. He asked me casual questions. I answered. At a certain point as the water in the bucket was starting to cool, he said “A-cha…” The standard Hindi for “okay.”
He lifted my foot out of the bucket, told me to stand, examined his handiwork and in a somewhat satisfied voice said “Better…”
Honestly it didn’t feel any better. But at least I felt taken care of. “You come back again tomorrow.” S said. “No charge.”
And so I did. This time, my CALF was so enlarged I felt like it would explode. Another soak and compress from S. This time, I noticed how attractive his smile was. I also noticed how younger teenage boys in the community hung around and seemed to be at his beck and call for things like fetching us chai, preparing the foot soak, or cleaning the massage room.
True to his word, there was no charge for this soak. Only this time, he asked me if I wanted to have dinner at his friend’s cafe. I wanted to say yes but…It was already getting late — in fact it was dark. My retreat friends had gone back to the guest house hours ago and I thought they’d be worried if I didn’t show for dinner.
Plus I wasn’t sure what the norms were for a single woman to be hanging out in a cafe with an Indian man she just met. I declined.
So he offered to give me a ride back to the guest house on his motorbike – which I gratefully accepted (saving me a $5 taxi fare and along walk TO the cab stand). So we rode with my arms wrapped around this stranger’s waist, frigid wind in my hair, the smell of soap and Ayurvedic herbs on his skin.
S told me to come back the next day — I wasn’t sure. We had group plans and honestly I wasn’t convinced this Ayurvedic foot soak was really doing anything. He made me promise I at least wouldn’t leave Rishikesh without seeing him again.
When I relayed the story to the retreat group at dinner, they all said I SHOULD have gone out with him…. and teased me about the potential for having a foreign affair — Americans!
Rishikesh day 4 – November 21, my birthday. I couldn’t go on the group waterfall tour because the massive swelling had settled into my ankle and foot. I could barely strap a sandal on.
Against my better judgment, I went to the spa late morning. S gave me yet another salt soak. I told him it was my birthday.
He stopped massaging my leg and told one of the teens who hung around the shop to go do something in Hindi. I thought maybe he’d be coming back with chai. Instead, the kid came back after a while and S told me to come with him — he had a surprise.
We left the spa and walked down the street and up a narrow flight of stairs to this dimly lit restaurant with floor cushions and low tables, East West Cafe – we were warmly greeted — they obviously were friends with S — and we were shown to a private table near the back. Suddenly all this food started to arrive — dal makhani, channa masala…. all delicious.
And then… a giant piece of chocolate cake with a fat non-birthday candle, someone with an acoustic guitar, and a small group of strangers singing happy birthday to me. I couldn’t stop laughing — I was so happy.
S would tell me later what a pain in the ass it had been to find chocolate cake on short notice. But they had done it.
At that birthday lunch, all the walls started to come down. He told me his backstory — growing up in a poor family, struggling against the Indian caste system, sleeping on the streets, not having 2 rupees (4 cents)that he needed for school… Yet somehow he made it through school, college, massage training, and now is a successful small business owner. I told him of my failing yoga studio in Chicago, how I didn’t know what I’d do when I got home — I felt I was holding on for dear life. And he told me not to worry. Actually he said. “No problem — everything is possible!” — At first I found that phrase infuriating. But it would become his mantra over the coming days and it grew on me. Then we brainstormed business ideas together over that piece of chocolate cake.
Too soon, I had to go. Group dinner back at the retreat center. He asked me to come back tomorrow but we had temple tours scheduled all day. And I felt guilty — like I was missing the entire retreat I had signed up for. Dinner, then? I said I’d think about it. It would be late. He said he’d wait for me at the spa.
The next day, on the temple tour — I was distracted. I was elated. And nervous. I liked S, was attracted to him. Actually I couldn’t stop thinking about him. But what was the point of a date with someone who you’d be leaving in just 2 days time who lived halfway around the world? I mean, I didn’t come here looking for a hookup, and certainly not for an Indian boyfriend.
I told one of my new retreat friends about my dilemma. “Do you trust him?” he asked me. Yeah, for some reason I did. “Then fuck yeah you should go have dinner with him.”
So I did. We returned to the East West Cafe, at our same private table in the back. Another delicious feast. This time we sat next to each other, instead of across the table. We kissed. It was awkward. Not something you should do in public.
So we went back to the spa. It was late – no one was around. I wasn’t really sure what would happen next — or what I wanted to happen next. He told me to open the door to the treatment room and when I did, I was greeted by the flickering of candlelight, fresh red rose petals sprinkled across the massage table, and a thermos of steamy chai two clean cups was waiting for us.
Rose petals? One of his neighborhood teens must have set this up while we were at the restaurant. How embarrassing! And yet — This was the most romantic gesture anyone had ever made for me.
I immediately wanted to know what his expectations were. He said, “nothing.” Everything was up to me — whatever I wanted. So, I did what I wanted. I stayed the night — in the spa. I know. Weird. But he said he was currently living with his parents while he was building his own house so our options were limited.
That night was awkward, and intimate, and sweet — I felt like I was either living a perfect rom com movie, or the worst decision making night of my life. I cried silently that night while S slept beside me on a thin cushion on the cold tile floor. I was happy. But I was in over my head.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said at 5am the next morning as the sun was rising, my breath visible in the chill of the pre-dawn air. Other shop keepers on the narrow street were just arriving to work.
“Don’t continue on,” he said. He told me to stay, that love was more important than visiting temples.
Love? really? Was that what this was? I told him I couldn’t do that — I would be going to Vrindavan with the group as planned. I casually said, “You could meet me in Goa in a couple weeks at the end of my trip!” It was a throw away — an impossible suggestion.
“Everything is possible.” he said.
His assistant arrived and he had him drive me back to the guest house so he could get the shop ready to open. “Do you like him?” the assistant asked as we were slowly winding through town on the motorbike. My heart was in my throat.
Before I had left the shop that morning, day 6, S had asked me to have dinner with him again on that one last night. I agreed but made it clear that I couldn’t stay late and had to return to the guest house after. Our bus to Vrindavan would leave at 6am the next morning.
When I walked into the open air dining area at the guest house, everyone was waking up to chai. They were relieved to see me (they had known I was on a date but hadn’t expected me to not come home) — they teased me, asked questions. I was in a daze. I hadn’t slept.
I hadn’t been pursued— courted — wooed?! so intently and creatively and kindly by a man in — maybe ever. I hadn’t in my wildest imagination dreamed up a scenario like this when I was planning my escape from Chicago. I just wanted to do some yoga, chant some mantras, visit some sacred sites, learn about the culture from which the practices that had become so central to my life had come, and eat delicious food.
The swelling in my leg was finally gone. And we were getting ready to leave.
Was I out of my mind?
That evening, S and I returned to East West Cafe one final time. We were somber. He asked me again to stay. I said no. He said, “Then it’s decided. I will meet you in Goa.”
I laughed — it felt like a joke. Why would he travel 2 days by bus or train across the country to spend 4 days with some girl he had just met, who had just told him what a disaster her life was, who was just going to leave the country at the end anyway?
He was serious. “How will we even find each other so far away?” I challenged him.
“No problem.,” he said. “Everything is possible.”
He made a call. And moments later, a kid arrived at the cafe with a paper bag. “That’s for you,” S said. I opened it. A cell phone. Now cell phones were difficult to acquire in India at that time — you had to give them your passport and there was a waiting period, your SIM card had to be registered.
“How will this work without a SIM card?” I asked. He just smiled. And shortly, another kid arrived and handed him something — a SIM card loaded with pre-paid minutes.
“So we can find each other,” he said.
I asked him why it was everyone seems to be at his beck and call to do things for him, like he was a mafia boss or something — he said it’s because he’s like a king in the neighborhood — he listens to people, he helps, he makes opportunities and everyone knows they can rely on him. So whenever he needs something, it’s done. And right now, this was what he needed.
I did go to Vrindavan the next morning — on an interminably long and treacherous bus ride — and it was like a whole new world. I missed S.
We texted, talked on the phone a few times — but not long. Those prepaid minutes would disappear fast.
The retreat ended and I went on to a guest house in Kerala, where I was the ONLY GUEST. I had daily abhyanga massage on the rooftop, homemade dosas and idli with fresh coconut chutney and the most devious chai — to date my FAVORITE breakfast of all time! I took Carnatic singing lessons. I visited the beach, more temples, shops. I met with an Ayurvedic doctor who gave me herbs and powders and potions as well as dietary and yoga recommendations for my acne. “Too much unexpressed fire,” he said.
From there, Mumbai, where I had the quirkiest of Airbnb stays, I met up with a musician friend of an acquaintance, wandered around the opulent modern architecture right next to the sprawling slums, fought with tuktuk drivers over my cab rare, and tried no to think about how little time I had left in India. I was finally starting to feel at home — better than at home.
And then Goa. I flew from Mumbai to Goa, my final destination. S said he would meet my flight. I think I was only 30% confident of that — or less. I had been disappointed. Stood up. Ghosted many times before. And that was just for coffee or drinks down the street, not for 4 days in a beach hut that took 2 days to get to. I hadn’t heard from S for over 24 hours.
And when I got off the plane, I scanned the crowd.
There he was, wearing those same mirrored sunglasses, a dozen roses in his hand. My heart skipped a beat and I jumped into a giant hug. We had 4 beautiful days on the Arabian sea ahead of us.
It wasn’t perfect.
Goa it turned out was kinda trashy — riddled with drugs and alcohol, techno music and scantily clad Russian tourists.
But we made the best of it.
And it was a relief to have S there with me.
When we got to our hotel and they said there were no beach bungalows available, he chatted up the service staff and got them to clean one for us anyway.
When we wanted to go to his friend’s restaurant on another beach pretty far away, he found someone to rent us his scooter.
When I had a migraine one night, he gently massaged my scalp and my face, and held my hair while I threw up in the bathroom.
We made friends with a shop owner on the beach. She painted henna on my hands and he painted on my shoulder blade. She told me that he was a good and honest man — not to let him go. That I was lucky.
We were vulnerable with each other.
We learned where we didn’t see eye to eye.
We discovered we had more in common than may have seemed possible.
We talked about business.
We goofed around.
He taught me how to say “I love you” in Hindi.
Especially the last day. He wanted me to extend my trip and come back to Rishikesh with him. I couldn’t. I was out of money. And I had to face my reality back at home.
We promised to call each other.
I promised I’d come back. He promised to come to Chicago.
At the time, we meant it.
On the international flight — Royal Jordanian — from Mumbai to Chicago, sitting across the aisle from the lavatory — I cried for 5 hours straight in front of a revolving door of passengers relieving themselves. The flight attendant directly asked me at one point if I was okay and brought me tissues.
I felt I was leaving a piece of my heart in India. At the same time, I knew I was bringing back something even more valuable in exchange.
Mentioned in this episode
My interview with Pat Wetzel on Bump in the Road
Pause On The Play community with Erica Courdae and India Jackson
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