Lose yourself to find yourself. A travelogue of our 6 month journey through India.
I've been re-reading the blog these last couple of days and thought it might be a good idea to give a rough route map of where we went in India, so here it is (minus a few twists and turns since Google only allows for 10 destinations):
After our brief stint in Bali, we’re back in the welcome familiarity of India. Whilst it was great to connect with the crew, Bali is a bit too money grabbing for our tastes. We were charged $50 to arrive, charged for nearly anything and everything during our stay (a cup of hot water for example!) then charged another $40 to leave. Think we’d rather do Cambodia next time ;) Or just stick to India!
We were given seats over the wing on the plane at Denpasar. Before we took off I noticed a long bit of metal sticking out from one of the flaps. I pointed it out to Nix who agreed that it didn’t look right, so we took a photo which was relayed to the Captain. The result was a delayed flight while ground crew got ladders out to examine the offending poky thing. We looked on as a “technician” shoved the metal rod back in by hand then give the thumbs up. As I saw this I noticed the Malaysian Airlines motto on the inflight entertainment screen proudly proclaiming “Safety is our first priority”. Hmmm. Maybe not.
The plane managed to take off, so the bush mechanics must have worked. We flew through loads of turbulence (the fasten seat belt sign was on and hot drinks were a no no for the duration of the flight) and lightning storms, all the while keeping our eye on the dodgy rod. I’m not sure why we did so. What would we be able to do if it fell out? Nada other than Ram Nam ;) Storms over the Pacific are an impressive sight to behold. We arrived at Chhatrapati airport in one piece shortly after midnight, had the usual arguments with Mumbai rickshaw drivers, and eventually made it to Laiq’s in the wee small hours of the morning. He is now the proud owner of two rescued kittens, which jumped on us continually as we tried to sleep on the lounge floor. No sleep till Cape Town ;)
Mumbai is so much more dirty and hectic than Bali, and yet I feel so much more at home. If you take India at face value I would appear to be mental to prefer it over a Pacific island. Mental and/or a masochist.... I got the shits at 2am last night. Velcome in India! It’s good to be back ;) Speaking of backs – whilst in Bali mine was annihilated (again) by bites of unknown origin. My legs were nailed too. Wikkid. Time to dose up on the antihistamine. There are some things I won’t miss about travelling – being a pincushion for biting insects is one of those!
All aboard the change train once more when we return to Cape Town. In fact, we never really get off the change train do we? It simply keeps on rolling.... We have had an incredible 6 months in India. Before we left Nix had a moment of worry that we should perhaps invest the money we’d saved in land rather than a trip to India. I suggested that India would provide us with experiences that money cannot buy, and it seems to have done just that. We have loved being here – through the good, bad and downright wrong (India has more than it’s share of wrong). Now the trick is to take what we have learnt and apply it consistently at home. I’m glad I’ve finally let go of the idea of chasing "success" in music. At the risk of sounding like a walking cliche, it feels like a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Nix feels the same about her photography. Time for both of us to branch out and enjoy a change of scene ;) Who knows where the next leg of our journey will take us.... We need to approach the challenges with the same openness, positivity and fearlessness as we have done with each difficulty faced in India. Ram willing, we’re resolved to return to India once a year to recharge our spiritual batteries. We no longer consider this a nice thing to do, it’s a necessary thing to do..... I’m looking forward to continuing my adventures in harmonium in the meantime..... A big thank you to India and its people – you all rock. See you again soon....
It’s great to see Lisa, Ron and the crew again. We’ve had a very easy and inexpensive couple of days dossing at their hotel ;) Having a pool and AC room definitely has its advantages. Thank you geezers! Some things never change eh – Nix and I are still bunking with our mates shoestring style in our forties.... Ah well, I guess it keeps us young at heart....
Legian/Kuta is the equivalent of the Costa Del Sol for Australians. Jason and Sophie tell us that the area used to be a relatively unspoilt and reasonably priced traveller/surf spot. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Perth is only a 3 hour flight away, and flights can cost as little as $30, so it’s open season. The roads are lined with shops, pubs, clubs, tattoo studios and massage parlours. Each and every one of these has a tout positioned outside, so walking anywhere can get a little tedious:
“G’day mate, come in my shop! I give you good price!”
“Dahling, you wan massage?”
“Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”
And so on until you reach the relative safety of your hotel/guest lodge. It’s quite funny to hear Indonesians talk in Australianisms - their accents are heavily at odds with what they are saying. At night the same touts carry tazers which they set off sporadically for show. I’m not sure what they are trying to prove, but it creates a weird vibe....
Everything here is geared up for the club 18 to 30 Australian massive – from Aussie breakfasts at the cafes to the ubiquitous stickers for sale proclaiming such pearls as:
“Mick is Gay”
“Rhonda is my Bitch”
There is a restaurant down the road from us called “Bloody Sweet” – you get the picture....
Fortunately we’re only here for one more night. Tomorrow we head to Uluwatu and hopefully a more shanti riddim.... We’re looking forward to some more moped manoeuvres in the Bukit Peninsula....
Well, today was a very different experience from our first moped adventure. We hired another Honda (mercifully this one was black and red, as opposed to pink) and decided to head to Lovina Beach on the North coast of Bali. We figured we could do it easily now that we were such "seasoned" moped riders. The hire shop guy asked us where we were going. His reply should have given us a clue to what lay ahead:
“Oh, that is very far. Even me it will take two and a half hours”
Two and a half hours? Pffff. We’re used to two and a half day journeys in India mate. The journey wound up taking us 5 hours one way.... That’s what we get for being cocky. Now let that be a lesson to us.
The ride started out well enough. We got totally lost within 10 minutes of leaving Ubud, but managed to find an amazing back road via Sangeh that took us 2/3 of the way to Ulun Danu Temple situated on a large lake, known to its friends as “Danau Beratan”. We saw jungle and paddy fields a plenty – really stunning vistas which brought smiles to our faces.... I almost ran over a big snake that was making its way across a hairpin bend. By the time I stopped to turn around and say hello, its tail was disappearing into the undergrowth. Probably just as well. I don’t think there were many anti-venom kits in the vicinty ;)
We decided to go off-road at one point in search of a cafe called “Pod”. The signpost lied about the distance to the cafe, and the road was really bad. The upshot is that we gave up the search after riding for 20 minutes or so. On our way back to the main road we had to go down a really steep track - the sort that have 2 thin strips of concrete for tyres with vegetation covering the rest of the road. As I turned a bend I saw a bloke walking in our tyre strip directly ahead. I moved out to avoid him, hit a large patch of moss/slime between the tyre strips, and stacked the moped big-time. Nix and I took a little tumble innit. Once we’d dusted ourselves off, and could straighten out our battered knees again, we laughed at how dof I was. I’m glad we weren’t going fast or that would have spelt an early end to moped adventure numero 2. Fortunately the bike wasn’t badly damaged either – just a dodgy wing mirror. Well, I say just a dodgy wing mirror – that mirror came back to bite me in the arse later on. We reached Ulun Danu after a couple of hours, said no thanks to yet another entry fee (you’ve seen one 500 year old Shivaite water Temple, you’ve seen ‘em all ;)), and carried on to Lovina Beach. I figured Lovina wasn’t much more than 15 kms away. We’d be having lunch on the beach in no time. I got that one wrong....
I hadn’t bargained on having to ride over a mountain. I blame it on bloody Google maps which didn’t show the road going over a large f**k off volcano. The ascent was fine. We reached the top and were met by many monkeys with beards. Planet of the Apes gone wrong.... The way down was a different story. It started to rain, heavy fog came down and it got really cold. We had no clothes to deal with that sort of weather – it never occurred to me to check a weather report in Bali. We assumed the journey would be hot from start to end. Throw in hairpin bends, badly damaged/mega slippery roads, and mental truck/bus drivers and you’ve got a recipe for what could be called “tension”. I drove past road sign after road sign exclaiming “Hati Hati!” which I soon discovered means something along the lines of “Watch out for massive potholes and missing sections of road mostly situated on blind bends – especially if you are on a moped”. The descent felt like it took *forever*. As it was extremely foggy we couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead making it impossible to gauge how much further we had to go to reach the coast. It took us another couple of hours to reach Singaraja. The next trick was to find petrol. The attendants at the first 3 petrol stations we went to happily informed us:
“Premium habis! Habis!”
Their petrol supply was dry.... Ooops. Fourth time lucky, we (and the rest of the scooter population of Singaraja) found a station that had some premium available. Nicely. We filled up the tank and continued on our merry way. One thing that isn’t expensive in Bali is petrol. Thankfully.
We were both glad to get off the moped when we finally arrived at Lovina beach. As it was already nearly 3pm we walked down to the beach, said “that’s lovely”, turned around and scoffed some food at a restaurant before attempting to head back to Ubud. Just as we were about to leave, the heavens opened and monsoon started early. We took shelter in the restaurant for another hour whilst the worst of the downpour passed over, and laughed at the prospect of making the return journey.... Kya kara sakate haim as they would say in India....
The trip back up the mountain was worse than coming down. The rain started up again. We were soaking wet and cold. I could have easily won a wet T shirt competition at that point. I sang Ram Nams to myself through chattering teeth. The right side wing mirror that we’d bashed earlier in the day kept bouncing out of position so all I could see was my chin instead of the stream of fast moving traffic that was flying up to my bumper before overtaking me on the numerous hairpin bends. I put us at the mercy of Providence once more.
A couple of torturous hours later and I pulled in to a restaurant near the Ulun Danu Temple so we could have a cuppa, mobilize our joints and get some circulation back in our frozen bodies. Nix took over from here and did a sterling job of getting us back to Ubud alive. We had a couple of near misses at junctions, where I shouted encouragingly in her ear “Go Nix go!” and she slammed the brakes on instead, which added to the spice of our trip ;)
What we both appreciated about today’s expedition was that it presented another wonderful challenge for us. We both knew it was all Ram’s will and that it was for up to us to surrender to it. And surrender we did, with good humour and positivity. We Ram Nam’d it the entire time we were on the scooter. I felt a bit like the Indian bus drivers who stash statues of various Gods and Goddesses on their dashboards to protect them on the road. I tell you what though, the Ram Nams worked. So big up Ram. And I’ll tell you something else - I prefer a day like this hands down over a day wandering aimlessly around expensive shops in Ubud just killing time. I feel much more alive and enthusiastic than I did a couple of days back, when we were doing exactly that. As I said in a previous post, this is one of the reasons why I love India – it’s Challenge Central ;) Nonetheless, I’m very happy we both made it home alive and well. The Balinese have the same driving schools that Indians do I think....
We leave for Legian tomorrow to meet our friends Lisa and Ron. Selamat Tinggal Ubud....
What today's route should have been:
Today we hit the road on a moped. It was painted bright pink. Another great opportunity for me to dissolve ego. I had Little Miss India Fashion bike in India. I have The Pink Crusader in Bali. Nix took the controls for the first leg of the journey.
A few near misses later and we arrived in Goa Gajah. I think the name lends itself to a specific mispronunciation quite easily. From a bit of research online this is what we thought we were coming to – a World Heritage Site and 9th century cave with demons carved into the facade. Sounds rad doesn’t it? What we actually came to were loads of touts and an entry fee of Rs 30,000. We turned around and left within a couple of minutes of arrival, deciding to give it a miss and carry on in our quest for less touristy spots. Along the way we came across loads of gigantic mannequins, mostly of topless demons wearing high heels. I could see they were mechanized. God knows what they did when the power was switched on.
Next up was Tirta Empul Temple, built in 962 AD by the Warmadewa Dynasty. This was much better. The main reason for going was to cool off in the spring water pools we had read about, which we promptly did. We had to wear sarongs before entering. Now I know what it feels like for women in India having to wear extra clothing to swim.... The water in the pools is meant to have magic properties, endowing those who enter the pools with long life and prosperity. Bring it. I thought the water might be hot since there were hot springs in the courtyard opposite. I was wrong. The freshness of the water was actually a blessing since it gave us much relief from the heat and humidity. There were large coy carp swimming about in the water with us. It felt like we were on set of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The Temple itself was small but beautiful. Bali seems to do small and beautiful quite well.
I took the wheel (handlebars?) from here as we headed for Danau Bartur – Bali’s largest lake which happens to be formed from a crater. When we drew near we were faced with a toll booth on the main road and another entry fee. We decided Rs 50,000 was too much to drive around a lake (we are on a mega budget after 6 months of travelling) and would be better served in our petrol tank. We turned around to let providence be our guide instead. We aimed for where we thought the ocean was and began riding through stunning forests....
After stopping at a temple in the middle of nowhere for Nix to take a photo the moped starter switch died. Fortunately, Ram provided us with a friendly Balinese scooter rider who stopped, laughed at us and showed us how to use the kick start instead ;) Lucky us. It would have been a very long walk to anywhere otherwise....
A couple of hours and a few stops to ask for directions later (asking “Beach?” with a grin and pointing in the general direction seemed to do the trick) we actually made it to the water’s edge. We pulled in to a place called Lebih. We were asked to pay Rs 1000 to enter - it seems you have to pay to go almost anywhere in Bali. As that was much better than Rs 50,000 we pushed the boat out and paid it this time. The large and heavily tattooed member of the Lebih Hell’s Angels chapter who was doing the asking, had absolutely nothing to do with us reaching this decision ;) The beach sand is volcanic which gives it a black/grey hue. We could see Gunung Agung volcano in the distance which reminded me that we were slap bang in the middle of the Ring of Fire.... I wondered if Johnny Cash and his missus had ever visited. We lingered for a short while to have some food before continuing - there were only 2 hours remaining to get the moped back to Ubud and we had absolutely no idea how to get there.... At this point I noticed the backs of my hands were sunburnt. I’ve never burnt the backs of my hands before ;)
Fortunately we weren’t stopped by any traffic cops despite passing many of them on the return journey. I didn’t have my license with me and was warned by the hire shop that we face a heavy fine if pulled over. All the Ram Nams we were doing and my clearly superb moped handling abilities must have done the job. If there was a wrong turn to take, we took it, and almost ended up back at Tirta Empul Temple! Somehow or another we made it back to the hire shop just after dark, only 20 minutes late, and in one piece.... What a brilliant day. Much better than hanging around art galleries in Ubud. Mopeds are the way forward in Bali....
I didn’t sleep much last night – my Balinese memory foam bed felt like sleeping in a clay hammock. Nix also suffered a bout of insomnia. Balinese insects also like to bite me just as much as the Indian ones do. So many friends, lucky me. On the plus side, a wicked thunder storm passed over us at around 2am, a phenomenon we wouldn’t have experienced without the sleeplessness....
Ubud seems to have a penchant for penis shaped bottle openers. I’m not sure how that came into being, and I’m not sure I want to know, but if phallic bottle openers are your thing, then Ubud is the place for you.
Nix and I walked down to Monkey Forest today. The Forest was a small u bend in an otherwise endless stream of shops. We walked up to Ubud Palace and found that to be similarly underwhelming. The palace looked much the same as many of the houses in the area. We’re going to hire a moped tomorrow to go in search of rural areas which may provide more photo opportunities for Nix and give us some respite from the shopping frenzy.
Today I had a chat with Nix over some peanut tofu satays (which were delicious) about my lack of feeling the vibe here. She reminded me that I should stay open and surrender just as I did in India, and suggested we be grateful for and make best use of our quiet space at the home stay to meditate, sing Ram Nam and so on. Very true Nix. How easy it is to forget.... Thank you for reminding me. This is the start of the challenge of integration – incorporating joyfully what we have experienced and learned in India with daily life at home or wherever else daily life may take us. It’s all Ram’s Will – surrender, surrender, surrender....
Last night I was woken up by a rooster crowing from 3am onwards. His crow sounds exactly like the alarm I have on my phone, so each time he crowed I sat up in bed. I came close to wringing its neck.
You can get “Sun Burn” in a local health spa for only Rs 150000. Sounds great, what are we waiting for? We booked in for a back massage this arvo at a place that didn’t sell Sun Burn. Balinese massage is good. It’s quite hard – a few times I screwed my face up as she hit sore spots on my back - but it seems to have helped considerably as my back is way less stiff and painful than it was before. No pain no gain then.... As we left the owner looked at me and said:
“I hope you lucky bring me”
I have no idea if that is a euphemism for a tip or not, but I didn’t take it that way. Instead I laughed and said I bring lucky everyone – I’m a regular walking talisman me. She seemed to like that, so I guess she wan’t asking for a tip or she’d have replied with a “woteva” look on her face.
As we walked around the side streets of Ubud an old man sat outside a moped hire shop shouted “Broom, broom?” across the road to us. I replied “No thank you, no vroom vroom today”. A guest lodge further down the road had a signage advertising “Calling Pan” in all rooms. It took me a few moments to work out that they meant “Cooling Fan”. Ah, the quirks of language that bring a smile to my face every time.... Where would I be without them?
Bali seems to be a well-off nation by and large. We have not seen any slums, only 1 beggar and the animals are all fat and healthy. This morning we moved to a nice little and slightly less expensive bungalow down a quiet alley. The lady who runs the show is very nice. Her English is not good, but her way is extremely gentle, which sealed the deal for me. There is a small and beautifully ornate building on their property made from marble and exquisite carvings, which I thought was a temple. I was wrong - turns out to be the lady’s main house. Unbelievable. I could dig a house like that. Again, Balinese seem to be doing alright where standard of living is concerned.
I still haven’t got my head around spending tens of thousands of Rupees for anything and everything here. There is something hardwired in my brain that tells me spending tens of thousands in any currency is wrong. If you have big bucks in your bank account then Ubud is a good place to lose them. The craftwork is incredible. We saw a cow skull that was next level. It had been carved into a lightshade. If we had a spare 1.5 million Rupees we would have bought it ;) Instead we settled for spending Rs 70,000 on a couple of cups of coffee....
Bali is nice and all, but it doesn’t have the sense of adventure that India does. In a bizarrely masochistic way I actually enjoy the challenges of India. I suppose it’s a bit like an extreme sport enthusiast loving the challenge of what they do, and getting a life affirming rush through doing it. The difficulties India provides present unique opportunities to build character and go beyond. The spiritual component that is so integral to life in India is phenomenal. Bali is a Hindu island, but they don’t take it to the level that Indians do. I haven’t seen a single temple in Ubud. I think India is so radically different and generally unWesternized that it kick starts my imagination and opens up my heart. The streets in central Ubud remind me of so many places – Santa Fe, Kalk Bay, Farnham even! The streets in Indian towns remind me of nowhere else. They are truly unique. India I love you. Dear Sirs in the Indian immigration department, please can you give me a lifetime visa? Many thanks. Best to the Wife.
Yes indeed. Intriguing name for a restaurant don’t you think? And one that can be found on Ubud’s High Street.
We’re in Indonesia. Nicely. The flight was a lot longer than either of us thought it would be. Malay is a strange language – the Malaysian Airlines onboard security blurb before takeoff sounded like a conversation between Jabba the Hut and his cronies on Tattooine.
“Deh wanna wanga emergency lifebelts zeekata omoti no chah brace position eezaioto dukduk pudanah have a pleasant flight”
I could see atols floating in the Pacific ocean as we flew over – a fairly stupendous sight. The Pacific also has some immense, crazy cloud formations which helped me while away the time....
Initial findings – Indonesia is quite a bit more expensive than India (with the exception of Mumbai!). The local currency is also Rupees and comes in ridiculous denominations. For instance a cup of coffee can cost you Rs 50,000! God knows what a weekly shop must cost them:
“That will be 250 million Rupees please Sir. Cheque or Savings?”
Our taxi from the airport to Ubud was originally going to cost us Rs 300,000, but we managed to get it down to Rs 200,000. I met Tom, an American playwright from LA at the desk, and we decided to share the taxi, so the cost came down further still. Thank you Ram. Comparing prices with India is depressing, so we have to stop now and rather enjoy being in a new place.....
We stopped off for a coffee enroute, which turned into a guided tour of local coffee beans and spices. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience but we were feeling pretty vacant from the long journey so didn’t hang around - I learnt there is a special blend of local coffee that is made from the shite of the Luwak. No, nothing to do with Dr Seuss. The Luwak is a cute furry creature that looks a like a cross between a ferret and a racoon – his trick is to eat coffee beans whole (no chewing), and for his stomach to release a unique enzyme that reduces the acidity of the bean. The end product is harvested from his rear end and washed meticulously (thankfully) to create Luwak coffee. His poo is rather expensive as a result. Come to think of it, he’s custom made for a Dr Seuss story. I’m thinking there might be a business opportunity there. I’d love to sell coffee made from poo to the Constantia massive....
When we arrived in Ubud it felt like being in a gigantic health spa, or an advert for a gigantic health spa. It’s a pretty place, and the buildings and sculptures are fantastic, but there really only seem to be shops, galleries and spas in the town, so unless you like shopping or spending all day in spas, I don’t think there is much longevity here. That could be tiredness talking, so we’ll see.... We’ve parked off tonight in a home stay spot which is on the pricey end of our budget – tomorrow we will be moving down the road to a cheaper room . But still not as cheap as India.... Don’t compare Michael – that road leads to the Dark Side! But I can’t help it.... Do or do not, my young Padouin, there is no try.... OK, I promise, I won’t compare anymore.... If all else fails we’re heading to an island called Lombongong....
Time to pass out I think. Night John Boy.
24 hours and a sweaty train trip later, we’ve arrived in Mumbai. It actually felt cool here last night which illustrates how hot it was in Kerala. One day and night on the Netravathi Express sans AC was a challenge, but provided ample opportunity for Ram Nam ;) Swami Muktananda kindly gave us a shopping bag full of Prasad before we left so our food situation was taken care of....
Both Nix and I put our backs out during the journey by pulling luggage from under the seat which added another dimension of challenge, particularly since we were carrying more luggage than ever before with the addition of my Ramonium. Fortunately I met Fazal during one of several lengthy and apparently pointless stops during the night. We got chatting and when our journey came to an end he kindly helped us carry the Ramonium to the prepaid taxi booth at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus.
The booth is somewhat inconveniently located under a motorway bridge about 5 minutes walk from the station, which necessitates running the gauntlet of taxi touts who will rob you blind if you agree to go with them. The prepaid fare was Rs 390, which was a substantial improvement on the Rs 1500 the thieving taxi crew attempted to charge us last time we did the trip from LTT to Andheri. Fazal joined us as he needed to go to the airport which thereby reduced the fare further. As we sat in the chaotic Mumbai traffic I noticed Hindi script on the driver’s dashboard. I looked more closely and realized it said “Ram” – when I pointed this out to Nix we both laughed. Everything has been arranged.
We had momos at Mahindra’s stall last night. It was good to see him, and Laiq and Caroline again. We leave for Indonesia tonight.... On Malaysian Airlines....
And for anyone interested in finding out more about Anandashram here is a video that Swami Jyotirmayananda has put together:
Swami Jyotirmayananda had a chat with Nix and I about bhajans yesterday afternoon over a cuppa. I mentioned my harmonium practice to him and he said that when doing anything we should “hasten slowly”. We should have boundless enthusiasm coupled with a relaxed focus, whilst taking our time to complete the task in hand. When we reach this perfect state of equilibrium everything we do will be of the highest quality. I’m not quite there yet. I have a lot of enthusiasm, but my focus cannot really be called “relaxed” ;) Intense might be a better description. And I’m not big on taking my time – everything should be done yesterday as far as I’m concerned. So there’s room for improvement, but 1.5 out of 3 ain’t too bad I guess ;)
This morning at breakfast I observed one of the servers who is always friendly to me, and one who never is, and it struck me that both are in fact necessary. Just like a battery needs both positive and negative in order to create energy. As such, I should treat both with the same respect, and understand that the cosmic order unquestionably transcends my extremely limited view of what is “good” and what is “bad”. OK, so I’ve had the inner prompting, now it’s crunch time – practice what thou preachest bru....
Walking back from our local chai shop Nix and I questioned what we are going to do in Mumbai for the last few days of April. We want to leave India on a positive note. Our question was answered all of 15 minutes later – nice work Ram! Swami Muktananda told us he will be in Mumbai during that time, so we can connect with him. And Swami Chandrananda told us about Sri Ramesh Balsekar – a householder (household?) Saint who lives in Mumbai and is open to being visited. Bonus. Suddenly the final days we were worried might drag on and leave us with a bad taste seem like they will be awesome and need to be longer....
We leave for Mumbai this Sunday. Our stay at Anandashram was originally going to be 1 week. It turned into 5 weeks. We have had remarkable experiences here and are very grateful for all of them. We will miss the Ashram, but look forward to returning.... Between now and then we’ll make best use of the time to do Ram Nams at home ;) The Ashram would be nothing without the people – big thanks to all who have been part of the journey. And big thanks to Rajan and his family who we will also miss a great deal – in the meantime I’ve got a year to get my chops up on the Ramonium ;)
Yesterday it was mostly Ram’s will for Nix to (mistakenly) lock me in our room. He has a somewhat painful sense of humour. There are bars covering all the windows so I wasn’t going anywhere. Fortunately I had my Ramonium, so I spent the time blasting Ram Nams to subside the irritation I was feeling. Needless to say Nix thought it was all very funny. As she walked back from the dining hall she couldn’t understand how I was playing Ram Nams from our locked room whilst simultaneously eating lunch. She thought I’d achieved supernatural powers and could manifest in two places at once. Sadly, this was not the case. Anyway, I got some good practice in before Nix eventually freed me, which is fortunate since Sunder’s Mum told Nix she wanted me to lead the evening’s main Ram Nam session in the Bhajan hall. When I heard this news I pooped myself a bit. I would be playing Ram Nam to a hall full of people who had been doing Ram Nam for many years, in several cases for longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve been playing Ramonium and singing for the grand total of 3 weeks. Furthermore, 45 minutes playing time is a long time for something to go Pete Tong. I was hoping to get about another 5 years practice in before leading a Ram Nam.... Evidently Ram thought otherwise. Time to be fearless and get on with it.
I used my Ramonium so it could soak up the positive vibrations from the Bhajan hall. Word was out that I would be leading so Swami Chandrananda came to support, as did Ishvar and a few others who don’t normally attend the evening Ram Nam. As I sat waiting for Swami Jyotirmayananda to finish playing his Bhajan session, I started to sweat buckets. No tension here. Move along, move along.... Remembering Swami Muktananda’s advice I took Ram to task:
“Come on Ram, why are you making me feel nervous when I am here to play your tunes?”
I kept reminding myself to let go of my ego and sing Ram Nam as an offering to all. I’m in this for the good vibes, not to boost my ego....
As I was given the nod to start my fingers were actually shaking. I had to laugh at myself. Let go, let go, let go.... It’s all Ram mate, not you.... Slowly my nervousness faded and was replaced by enjoyment, which was in turn replaced by the thought “Oh, I’m actually doing pretty well”, which was promptly followed by epic fails on a few of the phrases. It’s amazing – whenever thought comes in to the equation, mistakes creep in too. Ram made quite a lot of mistakes that evening as it happens. It occurred to me that He was doing so to allow me to move beyond my ego. All I could do was smile and carry on ;)
Playing the harmonium is a brilliant method for going beyond. This was the first time that I’ve played music for others where I’ve felt fully supported by every single person in the room. I got a very strong sense they were all completely present with me. There were no judgements from any of them, only happiness that I was stepping up. All of which was diametrically opposed to my usual experience at electronic music gigs of the past.... It felt incredible, and that same sense of gratitude arose which has graced me in India on so many previous occasions.
After the session many of those attending came up to me to say well done. One of the guys said he was very grateful that I was taking such an interest in the ashram and in Indian traditions. The people of India invariably have a buoyant way of looking at life – they so often find the positive in a situation. I definitely feel like part of a family here. People are still congratulating me today, and many of the ladies have been telling Nikki how brilliant they thought the session was. I think they gauged it on Bhakti Bhava as opposed to technical ability. In other words, they went on feeling, and I was giving it some. Apparently my voice carried well, which must have helped on that front. It may also have masked the bum notes I played ;) It’s intriguing that I am always the harshest judge of myself – I thought I played and sang badly, but nobody else in the hall agreed. We’re way too critical in the West – too much head (don’t take that the wrong way), and not enough heart....
Swami Muktananda gave me another mala yesterday afternoon. I was given one by John at Amritapuri and I bought myself another in Srirangam, so that makes 3 I’ve got hanging around my neck. I am beginning to feel like a hippy version of Mr T....
Nix and I were in Kanhangad today and saw an advert for a shop called “Hitler Gents and Kids Clothing”. I was curious to know what sort of clothing they sold - SS uniforms perhaps. I’m not sure that particular brand would take off in the West....
The Blackpool-type organ instrumental Ram Nam that was playing on repeat in the dining hall last night was quite surreal. I felt like I was trapped in a never-ending elevator. The thought crossed my mind to fetch the Ramonium and do battle with the CD player.... Fortunately for everyone else having dinner that particular thought crossed my mind and kept on going.... As I sat there thinking I saw a picture of Sri Meher Baba on the wall opposite me. He looks like the Indian version of Peter Sellers, and above his image was the text “Love God, Love Me”. I find that both hilarious and profound at the same time ;)
I’ve noticed Indian plumbing parts have great brand names like” Astral Flowguard” and “Fancy Connector”.... I’m always intrigued by what Indians find “fancy”. There are “Fancy” stores all over the place, which are home to nothing but cheap Chinese junk and miscellaneous brik-a-brak. My guess is that “Fancy” actually means “Crap” in India.
Nix heard from a reliable source that Swami Muktananda is 70 years old. You could have knocked me over with a feather when she told me. I would have said he is mid 50s tops. Clearly this Ram Nam business has beneficial effects on multiple levels. If everyone took to chanting Ram Nam, the plastic surgery, cosmetic and fad health food various industries might collapse. He looks great for his age, has bundles of energy and is incredibly sharp – something other 70 year olds are not generally known for.
I thought I’d give Dabur’s “Red” herbal toothpaste a go, since we’ve run out of our favourite, Vicco Vajradanti. It’s akin to brushing your teeth with tiger balm. Zesty fresh. I think the tube should carry a warning. An hour has passed and I still can’t taste anything....
Apparently it’s Ram’s will that birds should shite all over my lovingly hand washed clothes that were drying on the line outside. At 6am I failed to see the funny side of that particular Lila of His.... Another laborious morning of bucket washing lies ahead of me then.... Rinse and repeat, as Vidal Sassoon might say. As I cycled to harmonium class this morning, a fly flew in my eye. I reckon Ram must be having a laugh. Note to self – always wear sunglasses on bicycle, even if it’s dark....
As I practiced yesterday, I accidentally hit some notes on the Ramonium that made my playing sound like a Johnny Clegg song.... I would say it was a happy mistake, but I wasn’t really going for the Zaiko Langu Langu sound ;)
Whilst playing my harmonium the idea of being an instrument of Ram came to mind again. It occurred to me that this is not some abstract concept, but a logical conclusion. In relative terms I put effort and repetition in to my harmonium practice. But, in absolute terms, I have no control whatsoever over the learning and playback process – the synapses firing in my brain are not under my control, the memory centres of my brain are not under my control, the reflexes in my fingers are not under my control. So under whose control are they? Well, that’s easy – Ram of course. I’m going to call my harmonium the Ramonium from now on to help me remember.
As I sat in the dining hall this morning eating a breakfast of pongal and coffee, that familiar feeling of separation arose. A Dutch guy sat opposite me, who I don’t find very friendly, triggered this. I know I need to see Ram in him, but the fact is I don’t. I widened my field of vision to incorporate everybody in the dining hall, and realized that I don’t see Ram in many of those people either. Do I genuinely see Ram in anybody? I don’t think I even see Ram in myself if I’m honest. At best I see glimmers of Ram in some people some of the time. So, as Swami Muktananda suggested, I took Ram to task ;) I asked why I feel this feeling of separation with many people, and why I do not feel unity with and God in all. It will be interesting to see what comes back. My thoughts then moved on to the important business of naming chickens. It’s never a dull day in my mind. We need to get some more when we get home, preferably 4 of them, so that we can bestow upon them the following genius names - Pongal, Idly, Dosa and.... Ram.
Today is Ram Nam day, like every day, but more.... Swami Muktananda attends all the sessions. I love it because the energy is much higher when he is there. Everyone else attends too – I think they are scared of being found out by him if they don’t. I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Swami Muktananda either ;) We went to see him yesterday so I could ask a question and Nix could get a mala. I have been reading another of Swami Ramdas’ books in which he describes “Om Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram” like this:
“Om is impersonal Truth. Sri is Divine Power. Ram is God who is both Truth and Divine Power, personal and impersonal. Jai Ram is Victory to God. When God is victorious in your heart, all darkness born of the ego-sense disappears. There is then nothing but a feast of immortal joy and peace for you.”
I wanted clarification on what personal and impersonal means. He told me that it simply means form and formless, in other words space and objects in space. For me it is helpful to know what the words mean so that I don’t fall into chanting them mechanically. If I meditate on Ram whilst chanting His name then that is God consciousness I guess. I’m not sure why God is commonly referred to as a He. As I spoke to Swami Jyotirmayananda the other day I mentioned to him that I didn’t feel God was a He or She. He agreed and replied:
“God is not a Mr or Mrs. God is a Mystery!”
Succinctly put ;)
We were given a ridiculously sweet desert at lunch today. I think it’s called “jalabi” and to all intents and purposes it’s a hardened version of a koeksister. As I bit into it, I thought to myself that jalablis were an acquired taste. After 3 bites I had acquired the taste. I finished two of them off without any difficulty.
Swami Muktananda is MIA today, so I’ve slacked off on the Mandir Ram Nams in favour of singing my own in our room accompanied by the Ramonium and Nix on Ting Tings.
Around 1am last night I asked Nix for a torch then walked to the front door before realizing I had no idea what I was doing. Escaping from Anandashram perhaps.... It’s quite unsettling when the sleep/wake state blurs. I get a strange feeling of emptiness and disorientation afterwards. I used to frequently experience this at boarding school – waking up in the middle of the night, not knowing where I am or who I am.
Margaret, a kind German lady who has been visiting Anandashram for some 20 years, told me that she’s never met anybody who has as much enthusiasm to learn harmonium as I do. I love it, although I felt disheartened yesterday after hearing Sunder play a bhajan session and feeling I have a long way to go. I realized that this repeatedly happens to me – I work really hard at something, then get disillusioned when I compare myself to others who I think are better than me. It is all ego, and I am missing the point of playing the harmonium for the sake of playing the harmonium. It’s not about achieving anything. We are so geared up to believe that the point of doing anything is to “succeed”. Ultimately I’m an instrument (probably a harmonium) of Ram and can do nothing by myself. I need to remember this. When I haven’t done so in the past dejection has set in, and I’ve been submerged in a feeling of pointlessness which seriously impedes spiritual growth. It seriously impedes everything as a matter of fact....
Nix came with me to Rajan’s yesterday morning to hand over some photos she had taken at the NSS Auditorium show last month. Vanaja had given her material to make a dress before we left for Amritapuri, so Nix also took the opportunity to show off the finished article. She’s looking pucka Indian now ;) When we get to Mumbai I’m going to send her off for a Bollywood audition. Rowdy Rathore “Don’t Angry Me” feat. Nicola Jane Rixon in the Mixon.... As we had breakfast together after the harmonium class Rajan said my long fingers mean I have a good heart and a natural ability for playing harmonium. He said thieves often have short, fat fingers. I love the Indian way of looking at things. He went on to discuss Women’s Lib in India with Nix and learnt quickly that it’s safest to listen and not answer back ;) Just smile and wave Rajan.... Smile and wave....
There is a large strip light right outside our window that has been left on all night for the past 3 nights, so our room is blasted by fluorescent light until daybreak which lends a certain prison cell quality to the experience. There is no switch to turn it off and it’s positioned too high to reach up and remove the bulb. My mind has been vacillating between surrendering to what is and throwing a stone to break the bulb ;) Fortunately surrender is winning the battle.
My foot had a couple of chunks of skin taken out of it during Bhajan Hall cleaning at Amma’s Ashram when a large stack of chairs I was moving fell on me. The heat and humidity have turned the chunks into sores that aren’t healing. I have since learnt that flies love to land on sores. This was happening a lot during meditation yesterday which meant that my meditation went right out the window. I spent the entire time swatting flies away. I find it strange that surrender is generally viewed as a weakness in society – it is intensely hard to achieve this state. The flies on my open sores pulled me right back into ego. I had visions of them laying larvae in the sores and a subsequent maggot explosion a la Aliens. “Start again, start again” as Goenka would say.
I enjoyed the harmonium class today. Rajan complimented me on playing the harmonium smoothly and quickly. Feels better to hear that than “Ah, you haven’t been practicing enough”, but that’s all ego again innit. It shouldn’t make any difference – praise or blame should be accepted equally. However, I ain’t there yet. In my current state of spiritual evolution, praise is still preferable to blame ;) I’m quite surprised that I hadn’t forgotten what he taught me after the harmonium abstinence period at Amritapuri. My harmonium was returned from the repair shop yesterday. Wicked to have it back with me. The pitch buttons are still knackered, but the double reeds sound rich and wide. I’m looking forward to taking it for a spin later today....
Nix and I went to speak to the female Guru last night. I forget her name, but when in doubt “Mataji” usually does the job, so that’s what I’ll call her here. Mataji was very gentle and unassuming, unlike the Swami we met in Kharshali last year who flew in with his retinue via helicopter. He completely took over the guest house we were staying and made everyone run around after him or sit at his feet when they weren’t doing that. Anyway, I am happy to report this was not the case in this instance. Mataji’s English was faltering, so I threw in a few words of Hindi to make an effort. She took that to mean that I speak fluently. I don’t (not even close), so our head wobbling and smiling at appropriate junctures in the conversation were put to the test. She was very happy to find out that we were “Pure Veg”. At least we’ve got that box ticked ;) We enjoyed spending some time with her – the good vibrations worked more effectively than the Hinglish did, and we once again felt grateful to be in India.
Matjaji spent the night on the balcony, sleeping on a small wooden slat with a portable shrine by her side, before starting off on her walk again at 5am this morning. Big respect for walking all the way from Rajasthan. Indians take Sadhana to a new level – we are incredibly lazy in the West when it comes to things like that. If we have to live a day without Facebook we think we are undergoing strenuous hardship.
For reasons unknown there were lots of explosions throughout the night. It was quite bizarre and didn’t really help with the sleeping situation. I managed about 3 hours, and visited the homeopathic doctors this morning to see if they could help. The pills they gave me last time worked well, so fingers crossed. Even if the pills don’t work, they taste great, so it’s a win win ;) Homeopathic medicine is the only medicine in the world that is pleasant to the palate. It’s like eating sweets and there’s no danger of OD’ing. Large.
I was greeted by several of Vanaja’s dance students after harmonium practice this morning. They have met me only once or twice but all remembered my name. I wish I could say the same in reverse, but I am totally dyslexic where Malayalam is concerned. The locals have taken to calling me “bicycle man”, which makes me sound like some sort of nerdy superhero distinctly lacking in special powers. I suppose a white guy cycling around daily on a Little Miss India Fashion bike tends to stand out. It’s a good a name as any.... Better than “twat” at any rate.
Yesterday evening a mobile blessing unit pulled in to the Ashram. Basically this consisted of a truck decked out as a mini temple that had several Saddhus on hand to dispense the necessary blessings. And there was of course the obligatory OK Loud Please sound system. I have no idea what they were doing it for, other than to spread good vibes. There were 2 way blessings happening as Swami Muktananda got into the swing of things and went onboard to bless the truck. A veritable superhighway of blessings. You have to love India.
I am back in insomniac mode. I’d forgotten what that’s like since I’ve had nearly 2 months of decent sleep. Last night was incredibly hot – our room is like a sauna, oven and hairdryer all rolled into one. The power went down shortly after we turned the lights out to go to sleep. Incredibly hot quickly turned into ridiculously hot. At Amma’s Ashram there was often a sea breeze to take the edge off, but here there is no wind to speak of (other than from people’s rear ends) since we are several miles inland. Surrender time. It reminded me of our stay in Tamil Nadu during their summer last year. One word springs to mind - “merciless”. Today I feel like a zombie. I made it to Rajan’s at 7am and put a couple of hours harmonium practice in, came back to the Ashram and almost fell asleep during Ram Nam. In my vacant state I walked out of our room enroute to the Bhajan Hall leaving the door wide open. Unbelievably everything was still present and correct when Nix returned. A mistake like that in South Africa would have yielded very different results. Again, it’s hard not to love India....
Our new neighbour is a female Guru who arrived this morning. Her entourage tell us that she is walking from Rajasthan to Kanyakumari. That’s a very long way. I would find that taxing enough on a train. She has quite a few people on her “team”, and they are all hanging around on the balcony area next to our room so this could be interesting. It could also be amazing – let’s see. It’s all Ram’s Will innit. Stay open and surrender Michael....
The prodigal children have returned to Anandashram. It’s good to be back although I felt as flat as a pancake yesterday, which may have had something to do with the overnight train journey. I find that travelling in India really takes it out of me. When we arrived at Kanhangad station we booked our tickets to Mumbai for the 30th March. Unfortunately there are only non AC general sleeper seats available, so the journey will undoubtedly be a challenge. Ah well, we started out our trip with a hectic train journey from Mumbai to Omkareshwar during Diwali, so why not end with another one? It might show us how far we have progressed on the spiritual path, or it might highlight how far we’ve gone backwards ;) Summer has kicked in here and the temperature is growing steadily more deadly which creates another challenge. Bring it on. Surrender, surrender, surrender....
Nix and I were greeted by the other Ashramites when we arrived. They were happy to see us - apparently we look “radiant” ;) It feels like we’ve come home and are part of a large extended Indian family. Visiting Amritapuri was beneficial on many levels, but we still don’t gel with the volume of Westerners, separation between Indians and the rest, and apparent lack of structure, schedule or discipline. It was all going Pete Tong in the Ammasphere on the day we left - I think Amma might have been having a moment or taking a break from holding the space at the Ashram, because we saw and experienced an inordinate amount of confrontations throughout the day. Tensions were running high because of publicity around a book slating her which may have contributed to this. Alternatively, perhaps everyone was so sad to see us go they couldn’t bear the thought and threw their toys out the cot as a result, or maybe the planets were out of alignment, who knows.... What I do know is that lack of self-discipline and adherence to practice really shows up in a space like that. I see that reliance on a Guru can help, but I think it can also hinder. Total dependence surely leads to attachment and disempowerment? Amma is commonly referred to as “Mother”, and it’s just like that - if a child is attached to it’s mother, it undergoes hectic separation anxiety and a whole host of other issues throughout its life. I think reliance on a Guru needs to be balanced with self-reliance. But then again, I know the square root of F.A. If everything is indeed God’s Will then it matters not what anyone thinks as all will unfold exactly as it is meant to. It doesn’t do to think too much about this stuff – it makes your head hurt sometimes. Back to surrendering then ;)
I’m not sure where that came from - having a moment myself I think ;) My harmonium is still not back from the repair shop in Mangalore and I’m feeling a bit irritated ;) I’ve been looking forward to playing it big time but no dice.... What would Swami Ramdas do? He’d tell the shop they can keep the harmonium or he’d offer it to a wandering Saddhu and say it’s all Ram’s Will. Hmmm, I’m not really feeling those solutions.... The return date has been shifted three times, so hopefully Tuesday will be a case of third time lucky.... Rajan will be proper annoyed at me if my practice slips. In fact, I’ll be proper annoyed, and my practice has already slipped at Amritapuri. But then it all comes back to God’s Will and surrender to that doesn’t it? Which reminds me of the Ramana Maharishi quote I saw on the Anandashram office wall when we first arrived:
“The ordainer controls the fate of souls in accordance with their prarabdhakarma. Whatever is destined not to happen will not happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to remain silent.”
On my way to breakfast this morning, Swami Jyotirmayananda engaged me in a long conversation about the nameless and formless nature of God. I have no idea where that came from either. He never said a word to me during our previous stay at the Ashram, but he was mega keen to speak to me today. Perhaps I’ve picked up some good juju at Amma’s. I enjoyed the conversation and he said we will talk more later. He’s also a very good singer and harmonium player, so I’m gonna pick his brain for top tips ;)
We had our last Darshan yesterday afternoon. Both Nix and I used our freshly blessed malas to recite Ram Nam whilst we queued, and said thank you to Amma when our turn came to be hugged. No questions, no prayers, no expectations, just grattitude for the Ammazing journey we’ve been on these last few months ;) As has happened at each previous Darshan, Nix and I both mentally said the same thing to Amma without discussing it beforehand. We seem to be on the same page a lot in India. We ask the same questions and experience the same feelings at the same time. I remember this also happened during our first mind-blowing Ayahuasca experience some years back....
Phil and I got to talking (a lot) last night about life, the universe and everything and it occurred to me that he might enjoy/benefit from reading our copy of Swami Ramdas’ Vision of God book, so we went up to the room to fetch it. I noticed there was shit all over our bed – I had no idea how it got there and assumed that Nix or I must have somehow carried it in on the bottom of a bag. I checked the bags, but there was nothing on any of them. Then I heard a “No way! Check this out!” from Phil. There were 2 pristine white doves sitting on a shelf about our bed – one male, one female. What are the chances? It’s incredible that they got in to our room – our window was slightly open, but there are burglar bars and a kokoi in front of it which would have made it challenging for them. Also, I have not seen any white doves in the area at all, only crows, eagles, herons and parrots. The doves were both extremely calm and approachable and watched us intently. I have to admit it felt pretty special – it was as if they were there to see us off. All we needed now was a rainbow or a parting ocean and the miracle would be complete ;) Nix and I tried to shepherd them out through a door/window before we went to sleep, but they were not having any of it. Every time we touched them they would fly in a circle and land back on the shelf. They obviously wanted to be there, and we thought perhaps they were meant to be there, so there was nothing for it but to submit to Ram’s Will and let them be. We were awoken at 5.30am by their coos as they sat at the edge of the shelf looking directly down at us. The doves (or Ram 1 and Ram 2 as we are now calling them) are still here as I’m typing this. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I love India. There is magik here and no mistake. What better way to end our visit to Amritapuri....
We’ve signed up for another Darshan today. Got to get ‘em in while we can ;) Nix introduced me to Phil – another South African and a writer. We did more talky, talky over breakfast, but at least it was spiritual talky, talky ;) We three signed up to hand Prasad packets to Amma this morning, which we duly did after passing our theory class. Everyone was very worried that we might break protocol so we had to run through 2 sets of classes in the queue explaining how and when to hand Amma the Prasad packet. We were also shown diagrams that looked like a war strategy showing where we were supposed to sit, in what order we were supposed to rotate and for how long we were meant to occupy each position. It all seemed incredibly over-complicated to me. I nodded to everything I was told, but inside I had already submitted to God’s Will, mistakes and all, and any tension that had started to arise in me from the panicky assistants disappeared very quickly. For me, taking a job too seriously doesn’t feel like a good thing to do. It causes worry and anxiety very quickly – neither of which are useful, and can filter through to other people, which is even more unhelpful.
After passing out of the Prasad Academy I lined up and was fed into the Amma Prasad mechanism. It all went very smoothly, and was a lot easier than had been made out to be by the assistants. I ignored what I had been told about fixing my attention on Amma’s hand instead looking closely at her eyes as she gave Darshan. They say the eyes are the window of the soul, so I wanted to see what a Saint’s eyes showed me. They looked like black pools and I was fascinated by them. As I watched, a Western girl was brought up to see her. Amma talked to her in Malayalam whilst gazing at her extremely lovingly and sincerely. I have no idea what the girl’s story was, or if she could understand Malayalam (her facial expressions indicated she couldn’t), but she evidently needed that loving contact. Before I had time to think about it anymore, the timing assistant next to me looked at her stopwatch and told me that my time was up. Exit stage left for Michael....
We’ve noticed from our 11th floor vantage point that a lot of birds congregate at Amma’s Ashram in the evening. There are coconut trees for as far as the eye can see, but the birds only come home to roost on the ones in the Ashram grounds. Animals apparently have an affinity for Amma, which doesn’t surprise me. I’ve heard it said of many great yogis that animals of all sorts flock to them. I’m sure the animals can pick up on good vibes, and intrinsically know no harm will come to them when drawing near. A Finnish guy we were speaking to yesterday described the Ashram as “The Ammasphere” which I thought was quite apt ;)
Last night after Darshan we met Gail, another South African bringing the grand total to 3, in the lift and chatted to her till after midnight. It was good to talk, but the result today is that I am knackered and somewhat lacking in patience ;) On my way to Seva this morning I had a Marilyn Monroe moment with my lungi and a gust of wind. I’m not sure how the locals combat this phenomenon. Perhaps they attach tablecloth weights to the edges of the material ;) Anyway, as I got on with cleaning tables in the Bhajan Hall dining area, I suffered a lapse of Ram forgetfulness. There are around a dozen large tables to clean and a woman had taken up a position with her laptop at the furthest one of these. I cleaned tables down the opposite side of the hall to see if she might move in the meantime. She didn’t. As I drew closer to her position I politely asked her if she would mind moving to the other side of the dining area for a moment so I could finish cleaning the tables. She wasn’t having a bar of it. She was a verbose American and told me that she needs to stay exactly where she was to get Amma’s Grace to help her pass a test that she was studying for. I listened, curtly replied “Right” when she finished and turned around to carry on with the other tables. Her way had irritated me and I decided to continue chanting Ram Nam and wiping tables to bring myself out of it. However, she got up and followed me to explain herself further. I stopped her midflow to tell her there was no need to explain herself, but this had the opposite effect of making her want to explain herself even more. She went on to tell me that she lives at the Ashram, that nobody has ever asked her to move her seat whilst cleaning tables and how hard she is trying to be a good person. I didn’t say anything, although I was thinking a great deal. My sarcastic mind was kicking in big time providing me with a host of possible cutting replies to choose from, but thankfully I didn’t give voice to them. She returned to her laptop, eventually moved tables and shortly after left the Bhajan Hall.
Unremitting Ram Nam and table wiping helped me realize that I had judged her on multiple levels, and even though I had not actually said anything to her, she had undoubtedly felt my irritation towards her. I resolved to do things differently should a similar situation arise again. In a matter of 15 minutes one did. A new woman walked down to the end of the Hall to sit at the same table as the American woman had done – the table that I was in the process of cleaning. I told her in as amiable a way as I could that I was in the middle of wiping down the table and asked her if she could please sit at the neighbouring table temporarily. She happily obliged. As I finished the table I remembered the American woman’s explanation for positioning herself there. I thought that perhaps this woman had a similar reason for doing so, and went over to tell her that she was welcome to move back to the freshly cleaned table. She did so and told me that she liked to sit there every morning to be near Amma who lives in the building opposite. Live and learn innit.
After Seva I ordered a coffee with my ragi pancake breakfast to combat the tiredness I was feeling. I noticed the girl serving was wearing an “In Silence” badge. Her publicly expressed desire to be silent was at odds with her actions. She was busy asking the girl next to her if she’d received the text messages she had sent this morning and carried on chatting with her for the duration. Her silent day was evidently a non-starter - it was only 8am. Perhaps someone else had put the badge on her without her realizing – a bit like a “Please kick me” postit note on the back....
We had another Darshan last night. At the last minute I felt inspired to have Amma bless my mala that I’d bought in Srirangam at the suggestion of Dinadayal. Yes, I now have prayer beads – my hippy uniform is almost complete. Nix was sat next to me in the Darshan queue, saw me do this and thought it was such a great idea she did the same ;) So we are now the proud owners of Amma Endorsed Malas ™ ;) I have no idea why I did it, because I’m not superstitious about “magical” items and I certainly have no desire to be as I see that road can lead to the Dark Side of attachment and wrong understanding Luke, but it felt like the right thing to do at the time so I went with it. Let’s see, maybe I’ll develop super powers – Amma Vision or something along those lines.... We’ve signed up for our last Darshan this evening before we leave tomorrow evening for Kanhangad and Anandashram. I’m looking forward to playing my harmonium again....
I had a group harmonium lesson yesterday afternoon. I now realize that group harmonium lessons are not too clever as a concept. The teacher is cool, but it’s impossible to hear what you are doing when everyone is playing something different at varying levels of ability. I have one more group lesson this afternoon so I’m going to ask the teacher if he could annotate a bhajan or two for me to learn when I have some peace and quiet to do so at Anandashram.
Amma led a group meditation on the beach last night and then gave a talk afterwards. Nix fired off a sly shot of Amma during the talk before one of the attendees told her off - behold the mighty square image to the left. The gist of the Satsang was the importance of gratitude. She said that to have gratitude towards all things at all times is a very high state to be in, but as most of us are not in that state permanently we need to practice regular Sadhana to help us get there. I have felt the most gratitude I have felt in my life whilst in India. If I could reach that state permanently that would be rather groovy. At the moment though, I am happy (and grateful ;)) to have experienced these temporary waves of gratitude during our journey. Temporary gratitude is better than none at all ;)
Today Amma led another meditation in the Bhajan Hall, gave a further talk and then offered Prasad to all present. Today’s talk was on the importance of dress code. Somebody had given Amma a letter expressing concern about Westerners’ dressing inappropriately in the Ashram. I told Nix she shouldn’t have worn the g-string to Bhajans yesterday night, but she just wouldn’t listen.... Personally I think dress code is a minor and arbitrary topic to broach with Amma, but obviously the asker was worried about it. I used the time to get up and do my table cleaning Seva whilst listening to the answer given. In a nutshell, Amma said that whilst a dress code is helpful in an ashram, nobody should be made to feel bad for wearing what is deemed inappropriate and that tact and kindness should be used if it is necessary to speak to people about the subject. She also inferred that if it was all too much for the person viewing the transgression, they should simply close their eyes.
As Amma sat in the Bhajan Hall eating her lunch after she had given out plates of food to everyone else first, I fought the urge to walk up to where she was sitting and give her a big hug. I would have probably been taken down by a neurotic attendant before I had the chance to complete the hug anyway. I have to say I think Amma is a very special human being. Nix and I are both grateful to have the opportunity to be in her presence. We like her way – she is always the same, smiling and present. That constant sameness of being is a pretty good indicator of having moved beyond body and mind. Big up all Amma massive and crew, even the OCD ones. There are some unusual Ashramites at Amritapuri, and I’m reminded of a conversation with Stephan in Tiruvannamalai - some people who are seen as mentally unbalanced in their home countries are often seen as touched by God in India ;) But then again, what is “balanced”? And as Krishnamurti rightly said, there is nothing good about being well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. India is an ideal place for challenging fixed views – so much goes on here that is way beyond the scope of our Western constructs.... So maybe the unusual Ashramites are mentally unstable, maybe they are touched by the Divine, maybe both, maybe neither.... Either way it’s just another challenge to my judgemental mind, which ultimately is all for my benefit.
I was woken up last night just after midnight by the bloke across from us turning on his lights. There are large open air vent blocks in the walls so it was as if he had turned the lights on in our room too. I didn’t get back to sleep thereafter and lots more thoughts arose in my mind till we got up at dawn. I feel I am lacking focus here and need to go inward more. I’ve done far too much chatting and not enough discipline. It feels a bit like I am living in a shopping mall coffee shop. Today I am concentrating on chanting Ram Nam and not putting my attention outward. It felt useful to do this during my first Seva shift this morning. Fortunately I was on duty by myself for much of it, which made it easier to withdraw and go within. I still have not learnt where the line is between being friendly and being pointless. Most of the conversations I engaged in yesterday where all just opinions being bandied back and forth to no end whatsoever. I think most of us talk ourselves in circles. So, today – more focus, more discipline, less talky talky.
My ear has been blocked for the last few days after I jumped into the swimming pool. When I hit the water my eardrum felt like it had burst. The pain lasted for several hours afterwards, but thankfully subsided. Since then, my hearing sounds like it is passing through a ringmodulator – a psychedelic experience to say the least. Conversations with people often yield random responses from me when I have not heard what has been said. I went to the doctor and he said my ears are blocked with compacted wax so I’ve been given ear drops to sort the issue out. Let’s see. Nix had the same issue when we arrived in Omkareshwar and it took over a month to resolve. Until then I have to adjust to Bhajans sounding like Darth Vader is singing them.
I’ve noticed that tensions appear to exist between Indians and Westerners in the Ashram. For instance, my experience of the Indian food servers is that they are generally short tempered and unfriendly when dealing with Westerners. As I spoke to the music shop assistant the other day whilst booking a harmonium class he painted a picture of problematic Westerners that he has to regularly deal with. The locals in the surrounding areas also tend to have a standoffish, unhelpful approach that is markedly different to my experiences in Kanhangad. I suppose that tensions are not unexpected given the huge amount of people who visit and/or stay at the Ashram. Where there are people there are dynamics. Where there are people from different cultures, there are even more dynamics. I did however think that there might be more of a cross over as per Anandashram, but there isn’t. Indians don’t mix with the Westerners, and vice versa. I think that is a shame, but as always, it is what it is. I believe the mistrust/dislike mostly develops from misunderstandings – I witnessed an altercation this morning between a Russian and one of the Indian serving ladies over a Rs 2 error in the bill. I’m sure a lot of situations like this take place. It’s very easy to tar and feather an entire culture based on a few bad (and often trivial) experiences. It’s interesting for me to observe and recognize the times that I have done this myself. I need to let go of judgements, and in that regard Amma’s Ashram is an excellent place for me to be. Nix and I made an agreement to avoid saying anything judgemental about anybody at the Ashram today. I’ve been presented with several opportunities to put this into practice already ;) It’s a good practice and one I need to imbibe more thoroughly and continuously.
After my mid-morning Seva Nix introduced me to Chett, a South African she met who has written a book about his experiences at Amma’s Ashram. He is the first South African I’ve met in India. He told me that several South African women arrived at Amritapuri couple of days back but left the very next day as they didn’t gel with the way things were. That would be why I haven’t met any yet then.... I think that to give a new place a fair trial, it’s necessary to stay more than a few hours. South Africa needs more good vibrations so it’s a shame they left without generating or receiving any themselves. Chett asked for my help in setting up a blog to complement his book, so we did that in the Bhajan Hall over lunch. It’s amazing what you can do with a mobile phone wifi hotspot ;)
We’ve been using the 22 flights of stairs walk in our tower block as Ram Nam time. We quite enjoy singing as we go up and down the steps, even if we do get some odd looks from other residents in the building. I’m missing my harmonium practice. Sitting on the floor holding down a chord and singing “Om” for 5 minutes is good for the soul. It’s a simple, enjoyable exercise which puts me in a good headspace. I’m also missing the practices at Anandashram. Whilst it’s good to experience the flexibility at Amma’s Ashram, I find it beneficial to follow a more structured schedule to deepen and strengthen my practice.
We’ve booked our tickets to Indonesia and will be heading there on 2nd April for a couple of weeks to connect with our Tasmanian friends Lisa and Ron. I’m looking forward to experiencing a new country....
I am enjoying my table washing and floor mopping Seva duty. My Seva colleagues are Lucy from the UK and Stefan the jolly German opera singer, both of whom are a pleasure to work with and talk to (I do more talking than working I think). The work itself is a lot less taxing than composting was, so double bonus there. Big ups to God’s Will on that one.
We snuck in for another hug the day before yesterday. The bloke giving out Darshan tokens didn’t look too impressed as we turned up again, but he said he’d make “a big exception” for us this time and let us in. God’s Will in the mix again. This time I approached the Darshan queue differently. I didn’t have the energy or desire to muster the sort of concentration required to resolutely fix spiritual questions in my mind and repeat them continuously to Amma, so I people watched through the entire process instead. It was a good experience.
When it came to my turn to be hugged, I was surrounded by Indian men babbling loudly at Amma before having my head shoved into Amma’s chest by one of the multitudinous assistants hovering about. I started to laugh out loud. Saint or no Saint this was hilarious and reminded me of being on an Indian bus. Bizarrely, Amma hugged me for ages. I found that ironic. All my previous attempts at sincere and concentrated spiritual aspiration had resulted in a 30 second hug before being quickly whisked away by assistants. Now I wasn’t thinking about anything lofty and I got 5 minutes worth of hug. Perhaps there is something in that. Perhaps not.
Every Darshan attendee is asked what language they speak before receiving a hug. This information is relayed to Amma by the attendants. I’m not sure what the purpose is for so doing. Every time Amma has given me a hug she has whispered something in my ear that sounds like gibberish. It is the same every time, and sounds like “moodooli, moodooli, moodooli”. It certainly means nothing in English that I am aware of. Perhaps she misheard what the line attendant said and heard “He speaks Malayalam” ;) Maybe it is not meant to mean anything and works instead on a vibrational level. But if that’s the case it would negate the need for her to be told that I speak English. Possibly we create the meaning ourselves. Then again, I don’t suppose it matters a great deal one way or the other.
A the hug finished Nix and I were asked to sit behind Amma. We remained there for a couple of hours. Nix sat with her eyes closed meditating as I had done before. This time I watched the play unfold before me with great interest. I noticed that Indians get to talk to Amma as much as they like and are not forcibly dragged away. This is not the case for Westerners. I have no idea why that is, and it doesn’t really matter. I simply found it interesting to note the difference. I also observed that all eyes were firmly fixed on Amma. I could look at everybody without being noticed at all. Some people waiting in the queue looked extremely tense, some looked expectant, and others looked ecstatic. One woman was breathing really fast whilst rolling her eyes and head. I think she was having a panic attack. Or perhaps she was being overcome by Bhakti. Who knows.... It didn’t look pleasant though, so I sent good vibes in her direction. I am not sure they helped much as her demeanour didn’t change, but it’s the thought that counts eh?
It struck me that everyone on the stage wanted something from Amma, including me. I had basically been praying to her before and during the previous Darshan to help me move forward. Today that felt wrong. The thought came to my mind that she cannot do the work for me, no matter how hard I pray. I have to do it. I know what I need to do, it is just a question of applying myself and doing it. Another thought arose that all Amma can do is point me in the right direction, inspire me and perhaps seed a train of thought and support me along the way. The rest is up to me. It also occurred to me that Amma is not God any more or less than the rest of us, so praying to her seemed like the wrong direction to go. Perhaps I am completely mistaken and she can in fact act as a wish fulfiller, but my feelings and experiences (limited though they be) tell me otherwise. If she could fulfil everyone’s wishes and take them all to the next spiritual level there would be no need for them to keep coming back for more Darshan. She has hugged a lot of people all around the world over the past 30 years or so. I have not heard of any getting enlightened through the process. All the Saints and Sages who have gone before could show us the way, but none could make us walk the path or generate a mass enlightenment. This clearly indicates that we all have to go through our own process, a process which might take many lifetimes - there is no fast track and there are no magic tricks that can be performed to change this. The idea that we are all one with God strongly resonates with me, and I spent much of my time on the stage looking at the faces there reminding myself that each and every one of them is Ram and that I should show them as much respect as I do Amma. There is no point in my having respect and devotion for a Saint if I treat other people as substandard or unworthy. Sameness of being with all is monumentally challenging for me but where I feel essential work needs to be done. All are Ram.... Even if they are sometimes a pain in the arse. It’s all for my benefit to encourage me to grow and move beyond myself....
2 months after our initial experience at Amritapuri, we are back. The overnight journey from Kanhangad passed without event, except for my being annihilated by mosquitoes. I have over 50 bites on my head, fingers, back, arms and legs and they are itching like crazy. Lots to observe and let go of there. I keep telling myself I am not the body, but it ain’t helping ;) Nix is fortunate enough never to get bitten. I nearly forgot Bishop Eli.... Nix (mistakenly) got into a conversation with an Orthodox Christian Bishop from Mangalore sitting across from us who looked uncannily like Samuel L Jackson. I pretended to be asleep as I heard him preach to her. A couple of times Nix tried to drag me into the conversation, but I wasn’t having any of it. She thoughtfully gave him my email address. Nice work Nix. The next morning as we were getting ready to leave the train Bishop Eli came straight back into the mix. He sat down next to us again, told me that he sees grace in me and that Nix and I are exactly are the sort of people he is looking for in his “quest for souls”. I willed us to arrive at Karunagappally station quickly. Fortunately it did, and our souls remained intact and in our possession.
We’ve been put on the 11th floor of one of the large tower blocks at the Ashram, which makes for a great view but a hell of a lot of stairs to climb since there is only 1 lift operational that takes a maximum of 5 passengers at a time. The silver lining there is that Nix and I have lots of time to chant Ram Nam on the way up ;) And there is an occasional breeze on the stairs which is non-existent in the lift.... And it improves our health. So there are actually 3 silver linings. Bonus.
It’s quite odd being back as we have to readjust to the Amirtapuri way of doing things and being around a lot of Westerners, but we know from our past experience that once we surrender and participate we will get on just fine. There are less people than there were at Xmas/New Year, although that still makes about 3000 more than there are at Anandashram ;) We arrived yesterday morning and signed up for Darshan with Amma a few hours later. It was quite a challenge to stay awake in the bhajan hall since the temperature is very hot at this time of year, and we had no sleep on the train at all the night before, but we managed it. As we waited a group of Japanese Buddhist monks on stage played chants from the Prajnaparamita. The only instruments used were a bamboo flute and their voices. It sounded otherworldly and was highly conducive to going inward. I quietened down whilst we slowly snaked our way along the queue and asked Amma for assistance in the way I thought best:
“Please help me surrender to God’s will, please help me to see all beings and all things as one with God at all times, and please help me to overcome my weaknesses.”
I repeated this continuously with as much sincerity and concentration as I could muster. The last time I asked Amma for help it came in quite unexpected and challenging ways, so asking her to help me surrender to God’s will made me feel somewhat nervous, but as Swami Ramdas says fearlessness is essential to walk the path, so here goes....
After receiving Darshan one of the line assistants told me to go and sit directly behind Amma on the stage, so I walked behind her, sat on the floor, crossed my legs, closed my eyes and continued to repeat my call for assistance continuously for the next 3 hours. I had pain in my back and legs, and my mosquito bites were screaming for attention as well, but after some time both subsided whilst I repeated my request to Amma. It was a similar experience to chanting Ram Nam and helped me concentrate myself and go inside. If it hadn’t I would never have been able to sit cross legged on a marble floor without any sort of cushioning and without moving for several hours. I think Amma’s presence had a lot to do with that too. I kept thinking of the many trials and hardships Ramdas and all other Saints had gone through to move forward on the spiritual path and how insignificant my pain, discomfort and efforts were in comparison. I also reminded myself how fortunate I was to be sitting behind a realized being and how I should make best use of this time to go beyond the pain and discomfort and continue to ask for help with all sincerity. I need to move beyond myself and do so without delay.... Time to become zero. Nix tells me that she went through a very similar process in asking Amma for assistance. It’s great that we seem to both be thinking and experiencing in similar ways during this journey.
I didn’t sleep much last night. My bites flared up after midnight and kept me awake until morning. This provided me with another opportunity for Ram Nam (and calamine lotion). This morning we signed up for Seva – Nix will be chopping vegetables and I will be sweeping the Bhajan Hall and dining areas. As we walked back from signing up, we were called by a Nun to help her clean several thousand book covers from the Ashram printing press. Seva was evidently destined to begin earlier than we had planned ;) She told us it would take half an hour. It took 2 and a half. But then again, the Nun was Indian, and I should know better – along with queuing, time and distance estimates are not strong suits for Indians. However, the additional time allowed for more Ram Nam ;) As I sat singing to myself and cleaning covers, it occurred to me that Amma was already helping me surrender to God’s will by putting me on this detail. I also remembered exploits from Swami Ramdas’ autobiography that illustrated his total and cheerful surrender to Ram’s will. Time for me to do the same in this small way. Earlier, as we had been waiting for the Seva office to open, we watched Ashramites sitting across from us folding leaflets and I commented to Nix how I would like to be put on that duty this time instead of composting. I thought it would be a suitably repetitive and non-conversational job which would allow for chanting Ram Nam easily. There was also the added incentive of being indoors and not having to deal with cow shit in the heat and humidity ;) I got my wish sooner than expected in the form of the book covers ;)
The Ashram has fixed up the pool at the bottom of our block. I think that the drowning incident in December was a motivational factor in this. There are now signs up all over the beach warning people against swimming due to the strong rip tides. I’m off to jump in the water now and seek some relief from the heat and this perpetual itching. Unfortunately for Nix the Ashram rules dictate that she has to wear a smock type dress whilst swimming, so she’s going to stick to showers. In many ways guys have it easier in India....