I don't believe we only have one more week (of six) left in India. Doesn't time fly? We've done a lot since my last blog so this is a long one. I'd skim read if I was you...
My last blog mentioned that we were off to the Ashram so that seems like a good place to start. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin...
Sivananda Ashram, Neyyar Dam. Kerala.
This is where we were hoping to become bendy and achieve calm inner peace. The schedule and rules here were quite structured...
5.30am - wake up bell is sounded. Although the people around me in the dorm were up and about at 5am. Lights on too. Meanies.
6.00am - Satsang: A bit like a school assembly. Including sitting cross legged and getting pins and needles. Starting off with meditation. Ommmmmmm. Half an hour of trying to think about nothing - forgetting about the past and the future and thinking about now. Unsurprisingly, my jumbly mind wasn't very good at this. One day I tried picturing the word "now" and then noticed that it was in Times New Roman font and wanted to change it to Arial. Am i ever going to stop thinking in windows applications? After the meditation we sang the daily chant -Sree Ganesha. Lots of clapping and unpronounceable words i think they stole from the Late 90s pop-rockers Kula Shaker (remember them?!). This song lasts forever (well, about 15 minutes). Maybe a couple of other songs and a reading from the Ashram's (dead) Guru Swami Sivinanda's book.
7.30am - Tea time: Hot Sweet Milky Indian Chai (of which we have become big fans) served under a tree.
8.00am - Yoga Asanas: Yoga as we know it. Starting off with eye and neck exercises, sun salutations and moving on to shoulder stands. We didn't quite make it to the head stand or lotus level...? But all in all very enjoyable. Especially as we had to lay on our backs and relax after every session and we were still sleepy and hungry at this stage of the day!
10.00am - Brunch: Food was served in a big long hall. We sat on the floor (more pins and needles) in long rows. Food was served on stainless steel plates on the floor in front of us. We weren't allowed to talk. with no cutlery. Next time you have a curry, imagine trying to eat with your hands. Off the floor. It's not easy. Also, the food was non-satvic (I think) which means onions, chilli, garlic and lots of other stuff isn't allowed because it excites the mind too much. And Veggy. So it all pretty much tastes the same. Every day. And sometimes it is a bit sloppy and you really can't face it. But that's all there is. Needless to say, sex, drugs, rock n roll and cigarettes and alcohol were also forbidden. Some of this more of an issue than others (shhh! Mum still doesn't know about my 20 a day habit.) We weren't even supposed tyo read non satvic books! The best bit about the meals is that we got to sing and clap to Hare Krishna at the beginning. Fun!
10:45-1:00 Free time: There is a health hut on site where you can by yummy juices and yummy ginger Lemon Honey Sodas. We like. Good drivers' drink for the summer me thinks.
1-2.00pm -Karma Yoga - basically doing some task on the Ashram for no personal benefit. Celia worked in the Health Hut making juices. Others got the unenviable task of cleaning the dorms / toilets. I worked in the 'Sivananda Boutique' - the on site shop which sells yoga mats and CDs of chanting and books etc. Wasn't allowed to deal with the money as a karma yogi, so spent time trying to look busy cleaning the shop and sticking prices to CDs. They didn't seem interested in a range review or promotional analysis. Phew.
2-3:00 - Lecture: on the basics of the yogic philosophy and bases of hindu religion. I think most of the ideas came from The Matrix .
3:30-4:00 - Another yoga session. Fun. Normally down at a covered platform down near the lake. Very peaceful. Except there was a lion safari park across the lake and sometimes we could hear the big cats roaring.
4:30-6:00 - Free Time
6:00 -?Dinner: More veg, starch and Hare Hare
8:00 ?Another satsang. Normally followed same structure as before, but sometimes they 'shook things up' a bit: one evening they showed us a mid 80s documentary on the dangers of eating meat for people and the environment. Another evening we went out on a silent walk, sat on the wall and sang and clapped.
10:30 - Lights out
Luckily we found a few like-minded people there: Helli and Alex - a couple of Euro boys (Austria & Sweden) with whom we generally spent time torturing ourselves imagining steak and red wine. And Meena - an indian lady with grown up children who asked everyone why we weren't married (apparantly it doesn't matter who to - what a revelation!) and loved shopping in London (her son lives in Kensington...) Hello Helli Alex and Meena if you are reading this!
Living in an Ashram was a good experience. I think we did get bendier. Not sure i'm cut out for this meditation malarkey but it was worth a try!
We left the ashram and headed to...
Allepey (probably spelt that wrong)
We only spent one night there but it was memorable because we experienced our first Indian storm. Really heavy rain - during which we had to go and find somewhere to eat. Without umbrellas. we got a few strange looks. Blimey charlie! (as an old man in Bracknell might say) - the thunder was amazing. you could feel it as well as hear it. I wasn't scared.
From Allepey we caught the ferry to...
The backwaters are amazing - waterways and palm trees with people living on them. If anyone has red the book God of Small Things this is where it was set (if you haven't read it, I would recommend it and Arundhati Roy does a better job of describing it than me!).
We stayed at a home stay run by George Kouty (http://www.kottayam.com/homestay/gk/) It was a fab place. We were the only people staying there and George really looked after us. His wife, Di, cooked really delicious Keralan food: Chicken Curries, Tuna Curry with coconut milk, Puttu for breakfast (rice, coconut steamed cake) and lots of other things whose names I forget / can't spell. We had a hammock each and spent alot of time chillling.
One evening we went out for a canoe trip - the canoe was punted along by a gentleman named chacko. We went to see long boats which take part in a huge race in allepey in August during the monsoon (Nehru Cup). On the way back it started to rain so we watched a storm brew from under a bridge. We waited a while and then set off into the dark while the tunder rumbled away and lightning occassionally showed us where we were going (thankfully, I think Chacko ate his carrots...).
We also paid a visit to a town which had a coir making factory where we saw the process of doormats being made. More interesting than you might think!!
It was a real pleasure staying at George's. It was nice to experience a litlle bit of family life.
From Kottayam, Geroge put us on a bus to ....
This is the nearest town to Periyar National Park: a tiger reserve and wildlife sanctuary. We went out on a guided trek which was really interesting. We saw loads of birds (see Celia's web site if you want to know which ones!). After lots of creeping along we caught a glimpse of the back end of an elephant up the hill in the trees. There was a few there. We didn't have time to get our cameras out because the guide announced that they were dasngerous. It's a bit of a worry when your guide is scared!! We got past them without getting trampled and then left the forest and found ourselves next to a lake. The water was low which exposed grassy banks. It is a man made lake and there were some tree trunks still in the water (hard wood so they hadn't rotted). It all looked a bit like Jurassic park. We were shown tiger claw marks on a tree (though the sceptical part of me thinks they may have been scratched on using a stanley knife...) and tiger paw prints in mud (I'm sure you can make stamps for these things).
We also took a boat trip on the lake - hoping to see some elephants drinking from the lake. It soon became apparant that the chances of this were slim: 5 diesel chugging boats full of tourists following eachother probably doesn't encourage curiousity in elephants. sometimes the boats over took eachother so all we could see were people sat on boats like ours!
A town surrounded by tea plantations in the east of Kerala - near the border with Tamil Nadu. The closer (and therefore higher) we got to Munnar, the cooler the air became. I stuck my head out of the bus like a golden retriever on the way to the beach. It was lovely!
As well as the cool air, the landscape was pretty good too: rolling hills covered in neat rows of tea bushes. The occassional tree and bungalow. Nice. The tea plantations were intoduced by the British (scottish and English) and we visited a local tea museum. It had lots of photos of the 'Planters vs XI Regiment Rugger Teams'. I took photos which I hope to add to a planned 'Hunk-orama' photo album on this very site! Bet you can't wait (if anyone is actually reading this far?!)
Although the Tea Museum? was interesting, they could have made more of it. This is something that Celia and I have said quite frequently - India tries hard as a tourist destination but sometimes doesn't quite get there. I plan to take over the Tea Museum and turn it into a world class socially, agriculturally and?drinkilly educational fun attraction. blah blah blah.
The ROugh Guide told us to go and see a guy called Joseph Iype in Munnar: he provides a free Tourist Information Service. They said he was the source of all kinds of information, so we went along with a list of questions. It soon became clear that these weren't going to get answered: he?just wanted us to move out of our accommodation intothe room he lets in his bungalow and sell us excursions. We ended up paying for a cab back to his bungalow in the hills, just to see him draw a couple of rubbish maps of interesting places which he then gave to the driver. I'm doing this episode no justice at all - we were in pieces. It was a case of laugh or get angry with him. We chose the former. Shaking shoulders and tears streaming while we tried to maintain a polite facade of interest. Maybe you had to be there...
We took a trip in a rickshaw up into the hills to see some other sites in the area (for about a quarter of the price Mr Iype wanted to charge us!). It was a pleasant day out seeing lakes and a wild elephant (in the distance, no danger of trampling this time) and was also notable because it was so chilly I got goosebumps which hasn't happened since.... well, for a while. We even had to get our sleeping bags out in munnar. wow!
From Munnar we headed north east to
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary
We had found out that you can stay in a tree house here, though couldn't get a lot of information about it. The bus dropped us off at a wildlife service check point (we had been expecting a town) and told the officers there that we had booked the previous day in Munnar. They didn't know anything about it but an hour later said that everything was in order. They suggested that we leave most of our stuff in their office (locked) and only take what we needed because it was a 3km trek to the tree house. So we had about 5 minutes to rummage through our big rucksacks and get what we guessed we might need (not goood for me and my lack of decision making ability!).
It soon became apparant that we weren't going to gain alot of information from the guide as his english was limited and when he did speak it was in mumbles: both amusing and infuriating. Celia is very good at responding enthusiastically when she doesn't have a clue what is being said. On the way we saw a herd of wild bison bathing in the river and monkeys and elephant prints and lots of birds (and lots of big ants Mel!)
When we made it to the treehouse, the guide seemed fairly insistent that we had a wash in the river. He made himself scarce (I hope) while Celia and I got back to nature and waded in the river wearing only our choicest M&S underwear. Was quite liberating until I thought about leeches, worms, water snakes, ear infections, elephant wee, decomposing humic matter, water lice, bison poo etc etc.
The surroudings were gorgeous - a river, rocks and forests. Very peaceful. Just the occassional noise from the bison down the river. and birds in the trees.
The rope ladder was ropey. Until you got to a branch which was in the way. then there was a tricky transitional part where you didn;'t really know where you should hold onto and then it was a wooden ladder, but the rungs had a bit too much flex in them for my liking. It was at the bottom of this ladder that Celia remembered she doesn't like heights. But she managed it. Accommodation consisted of a room with two thin foam 'matresses' on the floor. Though covered in clean sheets! the floorboards had gaps between them which meant you could look down but they provided ventilation too.
The guide took us out on a trek to see some wildlife. It was about 4 o clock and we hadn't eaten since the previous evening so we were really quite hungry and the trek was hard (not really because I have lost any fitness I may once have had and now get puffed very easily honest). we stopped at various look out points where the view was fantastic. It's a forest alot drier than anywhere else we've been because it is in the rain shadow of the western ghats. It is surrounded by hills and mountains and was really peaceful. The guide told us lots of interesting stuff. I'm guessing. But we couldn't really catch everything (most) of what he was saying, "wow, really?!" said Celia.
We trekked back tyhe next morning. The guide tried to point out some bison on an opposite hill side but we couldn't see them. "Oh yes" said Celia with her shoulders shaking from laughter, "i can see them, wow!"
We got back to the wildlife office the next morning just in time to chuck stuff abck into ruck sacks and flag down the bus back to Munnar. The doors of the crowded bus opened, music blared out, helpful hands took our bags, men gave up their seats. In the space of half an hour, we had gone from incoherent jungle man guide to a bus full of smiley helpful people and loud music. Much hysterical laughter from Miss Bowles and Miss Bennett.
There followed2 more buses (one broke down so we had to fit 2 bus loads of people onto the one bus. s t i c k y. and a boat trip. And 6 ish hours after leaving the treehouse we arrived in
And this is where we are now. It feels like we are in a different country because there has been a strong european influence (Dutch, Portugese, British) on the architecture. We hired a couple of bikes and got up and out fairly early yesterday to have a bit of a cycle 'round. The town has a jewish quarter where lots of trading in spices used to (and some still does) take place. We cycled up one road and got a nose full of ginger. yum.
We're hoping to make another trip to the cinema while we're here and may go to the beach or see some more of the backwaters. This is our last town in Kerala. Then we're heading up for a few days in Delhi. A prospect which scares us. Not least because it means I have to travel by propellor plane. Waaaaagh!
It has also dawned on us that we start our CELTA (english teaching) course soon (Thailand. 30th April) and that means the first 'holiday' section of the trip is over and we have to think about serious things for a bit: and trying not to make fools of ourselves while standing up in front of a room full of people ... just as well I have just had 5 years of practise at that!
I am missing...
Food - salads and olives and Avocados and wine and chicken a la Karen. Cooking in general.
Music - an iPod disaster the day before I left means that I don't have many of my favourites (though thanks to Dad and Lis I have some basics ). I used to wake up to radio, listen to radio in car, have music in my head at work and listen to it at home. Not listening to it so much now, and we seem to have turned into human jukeboxes with words triggering songs of varying quality / genres. My favourite so far (all of the guys ride Honda Hero Motorbikes) has been "I need a Hero" Does anyone remember how it starts though?!
Climate - as much as we moan about the british weather, It would be nice to walk up the road without feeling a trickle of sweat run down my back. Too much information? Oh well.
People. Obviously. If you're reading this (I reckon only my sister has got this far and that's with the help of 2 large glasses of red wine and at least 3 cigarettes) then I have probably thought of you at least once. Maybe twice during the trip. Maybe "they would love to see this" or "what an eejit" or if you're er special, both.
We were saying it would be nice to go home, tell everyone all about India. catch up with friends and family and then continue on our way. But that would be too pricey. So this Blog has told you all about it and in a few days we're heading off to the next country - number two in a list of who knows how many...
Well done for making it to the end. If you skimmed down to this bit, smart move!