A lot has happened since the last blog post. For one thing, we left Hampi and traveled to Kerala, which is a state in the South of India. Oh, and we went to Bangalore en route to Kerala.
Bangalore, because to get to Kerala, we had to take two separate trains from Hampi. Both of the trains were ~9ish hours, and both were at night. It was a somewhat long few days and we felt very dirty. That said, if I were to be honest, I’d have to say that the trip wasn’t bad, and although I’m happy we don’t have any super grueling travel (well, an 18 hour layover is coming up!) anytime in the near future, I think I’ll look back one day fondly on the trip.
The first leg brought us from Hampi -> Bangalore. We took a “sleeper class” (SL) train, which is a second class train. What that means, basically, is that we share a train car with a bunch of other people, there is no air conditioning, and there are quite a few beds crammed in a relatively small space. Well, 8ish. Which doesn’t mean much I guess, without a picture (which I can’t post, as I’m currently using a VERY slow GSM cell modem to use the internet). Anyway, the train seats are not super comfortable, and it’s hot, and there are lots of people around, and kids crying and people talking and plenty of men snoring on top/below.
The worst part, at least for me, about this train travel is that it’s hard to get a good night sleep because it’s not easy to know when you are supposed to get off the train. For example, the last two trains we were on were scheduled to arrive at 6:10am and 4:30am. And on one hand, it’s super clear when you are stopping because you can hear the trains brakes come on, and the train slows down, BUT the trains make a ton of stops through the entire night, so unless you want to be up every 30-60 minutes, you need a better way of figuring out when the train will be at your stop. Now, after the past several weeks and a relatively large number of train trips, I can say that so far I’ve been very impressed to find that the trains are generally quite timely. So, our train that was supposed to arrive at our stop at 4:30am, did in fact arrive at +/- 5 minutes of that time. Though, we ended up realizing that we booked to the wrong train station, around 4:35am, and had to scramble to find somebody to talk with and find out if we could stay on and what would happen if we stayed on, etc. It ended up actually working out pretty well, and we stayed on until 5:20am or so and got off at the proper stop.
Anyway, whatever. The point here is that the train rides were long and we didn’t sleep super well, and we certainly didn’t shower or change our clothes, etc, in 2+ FULL days, and we did certainly sweat plenty. But, again, in reality the train trip(s) were pretty uneventful and successful, and I actually slept (when I slept) better on the train then (than?) I had the previous several weeks as I’m finally getting over my stomach thing and my cold/congestion.
Bangalore, where we had a 10 or so hour layover was quite nice. We heard from some people that it was pretty crazy/hectic, and I’m sure in places it was, but we realized we would be tired when we arrived so we ended up (and I realize this sounds weak!) looking on the internet for a mall with a food court (which we didn’t end up finding exactly) and we took a taxi directly from the train station to this generally more Western area of Bangalore. And there we hung out for a number of hours, reading, drinking a coffee, we even ate a pizza at Pizza Hut (though it was not EXACTLY a Western style Pizza Hut, the pizza we had was pretty good). Basically we just relaxed and didn’t do much, but we did get to do some people watching which was nice. There were a number of colleges and high schools near where we parked ourselves for the day, so watching kids come and go was pretty fun. Or interesting, etc.
Then we took our second train and arrived in Allepey, Kerala. Allepey was/is/seemed great when we first arrived. It is (I think?) called the Venice of India, which is a bit misleading (and possibly not even true, I might be making that up, or maybe I just saw a hotel that was called the Venice and made the fact up myself, not sure) because it doesn’t really look like Venice, but there are waterways running all over the place.
One of our big India Bucket List items was to rent a houseboat in Kerala, and that’s one of the big things to do in Allepey, and that’s what we did! We didn’t feel super into bargaining, and our guesthouse that we stayed at rented houseboats and we liked the people there, so we just rented through them. FYI, we paid ~6000 rs for the houseboat for one night, which is, roughly, $100. Which is the most we paid for anything since being in India, but we believe worth it. We could have probably paid less if we walked around and bartered a bit, but as I mentioned we didn’t feel much up to it.
So, we rented this houseboat. Which was pretty crazy really. I’ll post photos soon, but basically it’s a thatched roof houseboat, with a staff of THREE people on it. THREE people to cook, drive the boat, control the motor speed (which the person driving doesn’t control on this boat… There is a buzzer the dude driving rings to notify the person controlling the motor to speed up/slow down. One buzz == slow down or stop, three+ buzzes means speed up. I don’t know what two buzzes means, maybe the dude never buzzes three times.) We had a “welcome drink”, fresh hand squeezed lemon/lime juice with ginger. And we had no less than three spectacular meals, each consisting of three different curries, plus rice and chappati (which is like a thick flour/wheat tortilla sort of).
I think I really need to post pictures to do this experience justice, but we basically sat on chairs on the deck of this houseboat for 24 hours and read and talked and played a game of cribbage and just looked out at the people who live along this river fishing, taking baths, washing clothing, moving building supplies around in loads insanely large for the little canoes they had, etc.
After getting off the boat, we tipped the crew (200 rs each, which was a good tip considering we didn’t barter… Around 3 bucks each), and took a tuktuk to the bus station. There, we met a very nice lady who helped us get on a bus that went from Allepey towards the direction of the Ashram we were headed to.
Something got lost in translation, but luckily we met (as always!) more nice people on the bus who had us get off on a stop different from the one recommended to us, but it ended up being perfect. From there, wherever that was, because I don’t know, we got another tuktuk and took it to the Ashram!
First thing to say about the Ashram is that sadly, no photos were allowed anywhere within the Ashram. That even included our rooms, technically. I actually really really appreciated this to be honest as you had a lot fewer people standing around taking photos of people and a lot more people just experiencing things first hand. Basically though, no photos, other then those that I find on the internet, and considering the internet is really terrible and viewing images is near impossible, I wouldn’t get too excited.
But, the Ashram. First, an Ashram, as I understand it, is basically a community of people trying to lead a spiritual life. Anyway, the Ashram we went to was the home of a Guru (yes, a guru) named Amma. I guess Amma is a diety, technically, or a saint, or something similar. Basically she is a person that is quite spiritual and important, etc. It’s a bit difficult to describe just how big of a deal she is, but at this particular Ashram there are 3000 people living, and the Ashram, and Amma, have outreach programs all over the world. We watched an orientation video and she is pictured with with former president Clinton, various TV news personalities, various UN people, etc. So she is a somewhat important person in the global sense, but much more so to the people who stay at these Ashrams or otherwise follow her teachings in the capacity of students/followers/worshipers/whatevererererers.
One of the things that Amma is particularly known for is her darshan, a word that means (according to google’s dictionary it sources), “an opportunity or occasion of seeing a holy person or the image of a deity.” Anyway, basically, Amma hosts these things called “darshan days”, in which she basically sits on a somewhat uncomfortable looking mat (sp?) and hugs people, all day long. Now look, this shit is crazy. I say that because, as a non-spiritual person, I’d have to see this to have believed it, but one day, Saturday, Lindsay and I woke up and go downstairs out of our room around 10am. Amma was on stage, hugging people. She sat there, in that same place, all day long, until after we went to bed (around 11:30pm), hugging people. I didn’t see her move once. I saw her drink some water once, and maybe eat something, WHILE STILL HUGGING PEOPLE, LITERALLY WHILE HUGGING PEOPLE.
And guess what everybody. Guess what. GUESS. NOW. GUESS NOW! Give up? OK, here it is: Lindsay and I both received Amma’s embrace. That’s right, me, a skinny white man from Michigan, received the embrace of Amma, my new guru. I say “my new guru” although what I really mean is “I’m not really in the market for a spiritual guru, but I may never have the opportunity to say that I have a guru again in my life, so I might as well capitalize on it because it sounds quite strange to me and I find it entertaining.” But although I’m somewhat flippant about the whole guru/spiritual/etc thing, I really must say that this Amma character at least was quite impressive to see and I must give her some genuine respect for sitting in one spot all day and hugging sweaty, often times crying people.
My own (and Lindsay’s, to a large extent, at least as far as practical matters go) experience went something like this: First, Saturday morning around 11am Lindsay and I got “tokens” (which is the way Indians, and maybe folks in the UK in general (?) say “number for your place in line) that we could use at an allotted time later in the night. We were told around 8 or 9pm. Then, we went about our day (more on that later). Then, around 9:30pm, a notice board (basically a spiral bound poster board that was flipped over to show which numbers were up) told us it was our time. So, Lindsay went to one side of this giant auditorium (the womans side), and I went to the other (mens side!). Then we sat in chairs, and waited for another hour or so, moving one chair at a time. We made our way along the side of this auditorium, then we finally were allowed to an area that was on the actual stage where Amma sits where there was another line. There were probably 30 chairs in my area, and we moved one at a time. Lindsay was on a similar line, on the other side of the stage.
The stage itself is full of people sitting on the ground around Amma, meditating or praying or reading or otherwise doing spiritual things. There are spices and things being burned around, and perhaps most importantly nearby there is a group of musicians playing very religious hindu music, chanting, etc. Picture something from a movie or something where something spiritual is happening in a hindu temple, it was like that, quite loud and generally pleasing and very much inline with the general mood.
So finally, it was my turn to go next. I got down on my knee, where various handlers (there are like 10 people crowded around Amma just making sure things go smoothly. People bring gifts and Amma doesn’t have time for gifts, so people are there to take gifts, people are there to literally take your head and put it on Amma’s shoulder, people are there to talk with Amma about varoius things while she is hugging, etc) physically pushed me forward when Amma was ready to give me the ol’ embrace. Then, she did it. She embraced me. And while embracing me, she chanted in my ear something like “muduri muduri muduri” which I think means “peace peace peace” or something. Oh, also everybody get’s a piece of Amma candy! Lots of people bring things up for Amma to bless (another big thing is to buy a necklace and have Amma put it on your), but I didn’t do that. Amma smelled nice too, because she had one assistant whose job seemed to be to spread essential oils on Amma. Anyway, it was a pretty cool experience, and again while I’m not super into the spiritual part of it, it was none the less a somewhat spiritual-ish experience and something I’m very happy to have done.
But! I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. The ashram itself was probably my favorite part, for the following reasons:
- The food was amazing and clean and great and awesome and cheap
- The room, despite being cheap, and without AC, was really nice because it was up high and had a great breeze
- The place had a community/compound type vibe with lots of westerners, which was sort of a nice change of pace. Felt sort of like being back home at a hippy festival of some sort
When you walk into the Ashram, it feels like (and is) a small walled town. There are ~3000 people that stay at the Ashram, including around 1k students, 1k families, and 1k others that stay for various lengths of time (anywhere from a day to a year+). A lot of the visitors are foreign, and there are a lot of domestic Indian visitors as well staying at the ashram.
The thing is incredibly well run and that was one of the themes throughout. When you first walk in you see “International Accommodation Check In”, “Linen Rental”, “Tea, Chai, Milk, Ice Cream”, “Western Canteen”, “Indian Canteen”, etc. Basically everything you could want. Oh, and free (though not particularly exciting) Indian food if you wanted! You didn’t have to buy food, if you didn’t want. There were also various stores to buy things like essential oils and organic foods (no joke), there was an ecology center where you could rent books and watch free movies (Lindsay and I went and watched a movie on the Saint Francis of Assisi, and while watching this terrible movie I read a book about the healing power of water, orbs, and how angels can heal our shakras and bring us to the 5th dimension), etc.
Although I’m sure there is paid staff, most everything I saw was run by volunteers. There is this concept of “seva”, which is basically as far as I can tell volunteering. So if you stay at the Ashram for more then a day, you are supposed to register at the “Seva Office” (again, another well organized office run by volunteers, all western/english speaking) where you can sign up for various jobs that generally require 1-2 hours of work per day. Not bad. A way to meet people and fill your day with something slightly productive. Sadly, we only stayed for 3 days and didn’t end up doing any seva. Maybe next time.
The food as I mentioned was great. The free Indian food we ate on the first day, but the second day we went to the “Western Canteen” and paid a bit of money for amazing western-ish food. Stuff like sesame and carob (sp?) raw bars, and a beet salad. It wasn’t CRAZY fancy or anything, it’s all very much down to earth food, but great tasting.
As in many places in India, the cups/silverware are all stainless steel (or something similar), and you washed your own dishes as well as dried them. For the Indian food (which you ate with your hands, unless you bought a spoon, which Lindsay and I did) you got a plate/bowl thing, washed it, got your food from a line, ate your food with your hand, then wash the plate and put it back in this giant container. A super well run, sort of cool system.
So, the food was great. During the first day, we walked down to the beach with a bunch of people, where we meditated with a bunch of people (I mainly just tried to hold my breath as long as I could, which was hard because I kept coughing), which was pretty cool, Amma was there also to answer questions in a Q&A session. Then we went back to this giant building where everybody sat and listened to music that people sand about hindu related stuff for 2 hours, then we went to bed.
For anybody who has had the chance to go to Harvest Festival in Michigan (and I’m guessing at least a few people reading this have), the vibe at the Ashram was very similar – volunteer work, lots of friendly people, etc. Except no drinking as it’s banned in the entire state.
Here are a few videos of Amma and all of the Amma related stuff.