Thursday, April 24, 2008

India, India, India

I'm back from India. Have been for a few days, but upon arrival in Colombo I was informed that a concept paper I wrote was short listed and now I'm frantically working on setting up the necessary meetings and trying to figure out how to write this up into a full proposal. It is a concept I never expected to be funded, so I'm quite shocked. I have to say, getting money here is a lot easier than getting money in the States. One of my reasons for coming to Sri Lanka was to experience life in Asia and since Sri Lanka is so expensive, the best way to enjoy and experience life in Asia is to travel to another country. So over the Sinhala and Tamil New Year I skipped town and headed for Kerala, India.

Barbara, my traveling buddy and co-disgruntled-worker, headed to Trivandrum, capital city of Kerala on April 10th. You will just have to bear with me on this entry because we packed quite a bit into our ten days in "God's own country." I'll split it up over a few posts.Trivandrum is like most medium sized cities in India. Crowded, a lot of traffic, noisy. There is, however, a fairly good coffee shop on the north side of town and quite a few salwar kumeez shops that will actually sew one to your specifications.

Still, hotels were expensive so we hit the road the next day for Varkala. The last two times I was in India I remember arguing with train ticket salesmen to try to get lower class tickets then they were comfortable selling me. I didn't want the regular 2nd class, but sleeper was fine. Of course, this trip I couldn't remember what each class meant, and when the ticket salesman asked if I wanted 2nd class or sleeper, since the trip was only an hour I said 2nd class. I was thinking the lowest class was 3rd. I was wrong and when the trail pulled up 2nd class became a clown car where way too many people tried to sardine themselves into the poor little train cabin. We just couldn't imagine participating in that with our packs, so we got in the next car. The next car was two-tier AC. When the train guy came up and asked for out tickets he began to write out a receipt for the extra cost. He wanted more than 500 rupees! That would be more than $10 for a one-hour trip. We asked if there was a cheaper car we could get to and he said we could go to 3-tier AC. That cost was 380, which was still awful, but better and we sucked it up and paid. He then decided to be nice and since no one was in the car and we were only traveling to Varkala, he let us stay in 2-tier AC. Very quick train class lesson for us. We took buses the rest of the way until our last trip from Kochi to Trivandrum.Varkala is a little tourist beach town that I'm happy I saw for myself, but to which I feel no need to ever return. It sits on a cliff overlooking the ocean and is basically a strip of shops and restaurants. The restaurants all serve more Western food than India, which for us was a disappointment (we wanted Indian food and specifically dosas). The shops were expensive (later to find they were actually cheap and I am just ten years behind on the Indian economy). The beach was nice, but crowded. Clearly I'm spoiled because I always get the beaches in Sri Lanka to myself -- what with very few tourists coming here due to the war.

Still, the thought of moving every day was just a bit much, so we stayed in Varkala for two days and marveled at how some Western women can feel comfortable showing their shoulders in India and how many restaurateurs thought we were hilarious in our search for a dosa.Next stop -- Amma's Ashram. We wanted to stay at an ashram to do some yoga and basically see for ourselves what these things are about. Amma's Ashram was probably not the best choice. First problem, no yoga. Second problem, Amma's Ashram is really a cult of personality centered around this woman they all call Amma. She hugs people. Literally, she just hugs you, and that is supposed to heal you and make you feel better. I didn't meet the woman, so I can't say if this is true, but 4-10,000 people stay at the ashram at any one time and they all believe it.

At the ashram you are expected to do some sort of Seva, even if you are a paying, visiting guest. So Barbara and I straightened the tulsi. Tulsi is holy basil from which they make tea. They also make prayer beads from the wood of the dead plants. It smells nice so that was pleasant, but this is the hottest part of the year here and well, standing in the hot sun putting rocks around the base of hundreds of plants was tiring.If you are wondering why there are all sorts of random river shots for this rather than photos from the ashram it is because they don't let you take photos. So these shots are from the bridge to the Ashram.

We spent two days at the ashram and it was rather relaxing sitting in our unbelievably cool and mosquito-free, 11th floor room in the Soviet-style concrete apartment building that is the architectural style of this ashram. And we didn't even get stung by any of the thousands of bees busy building a hive on the balcony near the elevator.

The weirdest part of the ashram for me was the segregation. There are about 400 foreigners staying full-time at the ashram. There is a free Indian meal and a Western style canteen where you pay for food. Even the foreigners who eat the Indian food, walk over to the canteen to eat. The Indians eat in the larger open area near the men's temple. You also see the foreigners more -- they are out buying juice, or cleaning the steps to the women's temple, or asking you if you know where you are going or need any help. They are very nice, but it is odd to me that all these people believe the same thing and have dedicated their lives to it, yet they don't really work and eat together.

O.k. there was another weird thing at the Ashram: Amma's warnings posted everywhere about not going into the surrounding village. Amma is from this village and clearly placing an extra few thousand people there is disruptive, but these warnings were all in English and seemed specifically meant for the foreigners. Particularly the ones warning you not to eat the food or drink the tea outside the ashram.

Being that it is New Year in Sri Lanka, we figured it must be something in Kerala too and we were right. We celebrated Kerala's New Year at the Ashram with some chanting.

Then we headed to Kollom for the festival of elephants. But I'll update you on that tomorrow.

1 comment:

t said...

You came to India!! I'm sorry I missed you... I hope you enjoyed your time there. I've still not been to Kerala myself.