My experiences over the last couple of weeks have been extremely varied.
After finishing with the final AVI project in Kerala I headed up to an ashram in the hills of Neyyar Dam (also in Kerala) to do some yoga and meditation. For a week my life followed the strict ashram routine:
5.30am - wake up bell
5.50am - I realise I've fallen back to sleep and get dressed at record speed.
6am - Satsang; meditation chanting and a daily reading. Meditation for me usually consisted of fidgeting a lot and then analyzing why I find it impossible to switch my brain off. Oh and half opening my eyes to see if anyone else was fidgeting, they usually were!
7.30am - Tea time. Basically hot milk with an essence of tea but a desperate caffeine addict will drink anything when woken up before 6am!
8am - Asana class. Basically a sivananda yoga class based on 12 basic positions or asanas. I just need to boast at this point that I can now stand on my head!!!
10am - Breakfast/lunch. Noone could really confirm exactly which meal this was but it was the main meal of the day and usually consisted of the Indian staples, rice and several vegetable dishes.
11am - karma yoga. Everyone at the ashram was allocated a chore as their karma yoga, this 'selfless service' was seen as an integral part of ashram life and apparently helped to overcome selfish tendencies. My karma yoga was actually really nice, I helped to serve breakfast each day which I really enjoyed. I could have got bin cleaning! Phew!
11-1.30pm - Free time to do what ever you liked but the done thing to do was to hang out in the 'health hut' and drink fruit juices.
1.30pm Tea time again!
2pm - Lecture. Discussion on some yogic principles usually incorporating the teachings of Guru Swami Sivananda (it was a Sivananda ashram). Sometimes these made a lot of sense and sometimes less so. I found it hard to accept that illness is a result of bad karma in a previous life!Mmmmm.
3.30pm - Asana class
6pm - Dinner. A smaller meal usually a tiffin dish like dosa or chapatti.
6.30-8pm - Free time again meant a stint in the health hut.
8pm - Evening satsang. Meditation, chanting and reading.
It all sounds quite extreme and hippy dippy I know but I actually had a great time and met some lovely people from all different walks of life. I also had my birthday in the ashram which I certainly won't forget in a hurry! I was sung a special birthday chant in Satsang and had to go up on stage to get a pressie from the current Swami. The swami leads satsang and sits at the front on a stage adorned regally in his orange robes emanating a kind of calm wholesomeness. When you go up on stage you are meant to kneel and bow your head to the floor as a mark of respect but in an embarassed fluster I kind of just bowed my head a little and was tormented afterwards that I didn't bow low enough….my friends calmed me down and said I looked very grateful for the present at least. So the Swami probably thinks I am totally rude but I am now the proud owner of Swami Devanandas book on meditation….I think he must have seen me fidgeting during meditation!
After the peace of the Keralan hills I felt relaxed, rejuvenated and ready to hit the bright lights of Mumbai!
Mumbai is supposedly India's most cosmopolitan city and from the designer boutiques to the 5* luxury palaces it is certainly playground of some very wealthy Indians. However the other side of the city that you can't fail to see are the slums and poverty that exist alongside the glitz and glamour. More than any other city I've visited in India the extremes in Mumbai were cruder, crueler and at times quite suffocating.
Cities can be the loneliest places when you're travelling alone but I was lucky to have a journo contact in Mumbai who moved out to the city last year to work on one of the Indian nationals The Hindustan Times. On my first day in the city said contact, Naomi, invited me out in her local area (Bandra, otherwise known as Bollywood central) to have dinner and drinks with her and some of her friends.
My experiences of Mumbai so far had been of the backpacker variety; scummy room in a guest house, arguments with taxi drivers, street vendors and overpriced themed restaurants that serve burgers and birianis. As soon as I stepped into Olive (our meeting place) I was transported into a cool interior designed hub of whiteness and shiny lip gloss, chilled Ibiza style vibes lulling in the background as the beautiful masses chatted away. This was the world of the Mumbai elite.
I met with Naomi and then within five minutes had been also met a director, a couple of producers and an actress. I could barely keep up with the long trail of film industry bods! The bar cum restaurant (apparently THE place to be on a Thursday night in Mumbai) could have been anywhere and for the first time in 6 months I actually felt like I could be back in London, the only difference was the hoards of Bollywood big wigs. The jump into the land of swanky Mumbai was quite surreal for me and funnily enough I don't think the people I met could quite comprehend why I had been travelling around India and (heaven forbid) states such as Jharkhand for 6 months rather than just chilling out in Mumbai. I didn't try to explain.
The next day I decided to do a morning of sightseeing before heading to a Bollywood film set that I'd been invited to visit the night before. One of Naomi's friends was the director of photography on the new Bollywood blockbuster version of Aladdin and he said I could pop along to watch them film a song scene (ie the most OTT and extravagant scenes in any bollywood movie).
The set was absolutely incredible a kind of massive domed hall that conjured up illusions of the Arabian nights and eastern mysticism. The scene was the showstopper moment, a big fancy dress ball with extras dressed as everything from Superman to Einstein and all dancing and singing away together. It was really cool to watch...dancing, dry ice, balloons.... but it is true what they say that filming is a very slow process, after three hours and god knows how many takes it did get a little boring.
The highlight of my afternoon was brushing shoulders with one of the most famous actors in Bollywood Amitabh Bachchan. He was playing the genie in the film and I would say is kind of equivalent to someone like jack Nicholson in Bollywood. Its quite a claim to fame out here, shame there's no Heat magazine!
My other big experience in Mumbai was that I was lucky enough to witness Holi festival. This is a festival similar to easter in that it signifies regeneration, new life and renewal but most people know it as the festival where everyone throws paint at each other.
Celebrations started on Friday evening. A group of us went clubbing in Sahara Star one of the many anonymously flashy hotel night clubs in the north of the city that has a late license. Once again the club could have been anywhere from Milton Keynes to Mumbai but what really made the evening was the live bangla band they brought on in the early hours. It was so much fun dancing the night away Bollwood style!
Saturday was when the official Holi celebrations started. I had had a few warnings about the festival:
1)That most people don't use washable paints.
2)That most young Indian males will be high on Bhang for about 3 days. (Bhang is a local and supposedly natural hallucinagenic drug)
3)That as a lone white female with clean clothes I will be a target!
A few nights before a girl had told me how last year the blue dye from Holi had stayed in her hair for 5 months. I didn't really fancy that, blues not my best colour, so I decided to skip the paint throwing and hop in a taxi to meet Naomi and a friend for lunch. The journey was an experience in itself, all over the city young and old were covered head to toe in paint….and loving it! It was hilarious!
Celebrations stopped after about 5pm and I finished my last day by visiting the Hare Krishna temple and then going to see the latest Bollywood release RACE. A final contrast which pretty much sums up my experiences of Mumbai as a whole.
I am writing this blog from Kolkata after the longest train journey I have ever experienced. 36 hours. I don't recommend it! Tomorrow I'm off to Bangkok…there's nothing like keeping life varied!