Lose yourself to find yourself. A travelogue of our 6 month journey through India.
The first day of 2014 and what better way to spend it than walking about the Sri Meenakshi temple in the small hours of the morning. There was a queue for Darshan that stretched from the centre of the temple and spiralled right around the complex (which made for thousands of people in the line). Indians really are quite amazing. They must have been queuing from the 4am opening time. Talk about devotion.... Despite hours of queuing the mood amongst everyone was light, friendly and happy. They were totally stoked to be there. Most Westerners would be lying in bed with a hangover from the night before, and thinking about the January sales. I think it is impossible to break India’s culture, no matter how much influence or pressure there is from the West. That makes me feel happy. As Aruna mentioned to us, India is the spiritual heart of the world. If India falls, so will the world. I reckon she’s right. Big blessings to all Indian massive and crew ;)
I felt sad to leave the ashram yesterday. We are both keen to maintain a connection with Amma and the ashram, but for now it was time to move one and apply what we had learned during our stay in the world at large. After an early morning train journey from Kayamkullam to Kanyakumari (see why I get confused with Keralan and Tamil town names?) we arrived only to discover that the Vivekananda ashram we had hoped to stay at was fully booked. The other guest houses in the area were very expensive (we were quoted Rs 1500 for a room). I’m sure we could have found something cheaper if we had persevered, but the town did not look all that interesting (we were there primarily to stay at the ashram) so we jumped on the next available bus to Madurai.
It seems we must secretly love gargantuan journeys. The Madurai bus proceeded to drive us a third of the way back to Amma’s ashram. I have no idea why they went that route as, according to Google maps on my phone, it was in completely the wrong direction. Perhaps we were being drawn back by divine forces ;) At any rate, they eventually turned to join the main highway to Madurai. We had a couple of close calls with mechanical failure and the driver and conductor stopped to open the engine and do some rough and ready fixes. Whatever they did worked as we were able to continue, albeit at a top speed of about 60 kilometres an hour. We arrived in Madurai close to 9.30 that evening.
Looking back on the day Nix and I took the change of plans at Kanyakumari and hecticness of the resultant journey in our stride – we felt peaceful throughout and are both sure that our stay at the ashram had a lot to do with this. We even handled the Madurai rickshaw drivers and touts with friendliness and gentleness (and appropriate amounts of firmness where required ;)). We found that most of the accommodation in Town Hall Road was booked out or very expensive (costing Rs 1000 rupees upwards - not surprising I suppose given that it is New Year). All the while we were being stalked and hassled by touts. Our backpacks were growing heavy, our energy levels were falling having not eaten a meal that day, and our patience was growing thin. It was brilliant practice for us. After some time we came across a small guest lodge tucked away down a side alley. I decided to walk in as I liked the look of the owner sitting at the desk. I smiled at him and asked if he had a room for me and my wife. He smiled and said yes. I took a calming breath and asked him how much it would cost. “Rs 350” came the reply. I thought that the constant please horning on our bus journey had damaged my hearing.... Did he just say Rs 350? That was about one third less than quoted by everyone else we had spoken to (was there some cosmic rule of thirds at work today? We had driven a third of the way back towards Amma’s ashram after all....). He confirmed that was indeed the price and I felt relief flood through me. The room was small but perfect for our needs and budget. We dropped our rucksacks in the room and went out for a bite to eat before the restaurants closed as it was nearly 11pm at this point.
We found a buzzing restaurant that served masala dosas so we went in and ate some much needed food. As I stood at the counter to pay, a young boy ran by and vomited at precisely the moment that he reached me, some of which went down the back of my legs. It looked like he’d had aloo gobi for dinner. Lovely! Just what I needed after the journey we’d had that day. We both laughed. India really can push every button there is to push. Or it can teach such amazing lessons in patience and acceptance if we’re open to them. We wondered why India has brought so many realized beings into the world (the ratio is massive here compared to most other countries). After all, India is such a hectic, filthy place – why here? We came to the conclusion that it is perhaps for the very reason that life can be so tough and challenging here that India is a suitable Guru testing ground. It provides multiple opportunities to go beyond body and mind. As Buddha said in one of his discourses – mud provides the perfect conditions for a lotus to grow and flower. We went back to our room and slept like the dead.
This morning we meditated (feels good to be inspired to do so) then got up to explore Madurai. It is a very busy place. We were told this is not yet high season. Phew.... As we walked the streets we met Ganesha, who introduced himself to us as a tailor. During our conversation we mentioned that we were looking for a place to eat breakfast. He said he’d take us to the “best cheap quality place”. With that intriguing description we thought we should trust and go with it. After eating masala dosas (again) he said he wanted to take us to his tailor shop to meet his family which he said was near the Sri Meenakshi temple. We did not want to be rude so went with him. It took a very long time to get there, and I started to question what we were actually doing. As we arrived at the shop it became clear. He was a tout who got a commission for getting foreigners in. He wasn’t a tailor, it wasn’t his shop, nor was it his family from what I could tell (although he did tell the truth about it being right next to the Sri Meenakshi temple). No problem, we could deal with this situation in a beneficial way. I smiled and told them both that we had come to meet Ganesha’s family but not to buy anything. We thanked him for showing us the local restaurant and the temple, got up and left. It felt good not to be angry. Normally those sorts of situations wind me up quite quickly. I didn’t take it personally this time, and we didn’t lose anything. In fact we gained – we found a cheap restaurant and the Sri Meenakshi temple....
The Sri Meenakshi temple is an impressive sight. It is wonderfully ornate and makes a breathtaking visual impact on the city as the towers at the North, South, East and West sides of the complex are the tallest buildings in the area. No wonder it is a world heritage site. I’m told that Madurai was originally designed in a lotus pattern, which I thought was particularly cool, and the Sri Meenakshi temple was built in honour of Meenakshi, AKA Parvati – Shiva’s wife. She must have been well pleased with the result is all I can say. We will go back later today as it might be nice to spend New Years Eve inside....
During our walkabout to the Vaigal River we saw a boy with 6 toes (his father also had inexplicably huge feet for his size) and someone tried to sell me a plump sacrificial goat. As I couldn’t fit the goat in my backpack (he was quite a fatty), I declined. The Vaigail River was an anti-climax. It looked massive on the map, but in reality it was a trickle. Perhaps in monsoon it reaches the epic proportions shown on Google. Nix had asked a local prior to our walk if the Vaigal was a holy river. He said it wasn’t. That would make it the first unholy river we have come across in India. When we arrived and beheld its total absence of majesty for ourselves, we realized why....
We’ve just arrived back from the Sri Meenakshi temple – lots of people were there for New Years Eve Darshan. It is incredible to think it was built over 1000 years ago. It is very large inside and has a strong energy. The carvings are unbelievable – everything is ornate and everything (including the floor) is made of stone. It reminded me of the Mahabodhi Temple, only bigger, and I felt a deep sense of reverence as we walked around. The chants that floated through the courtyards and chambers amplified the mood. I thought about what it might have been like for a traveller from medieval Europe or some such to walk the temple grounds. It would have felt like landing on an alien planet I’m sure. That’s definitely one of my bucket list items ticked off. We’re going back first thing tomorrow morning to take some photos - it’s possible to pay Rs 50 to bring a cellphone in for the purpose. No decent cameras are allowed though. Same goes for shorts or torches. I’m not sure why, but kya kar sakteh he?!
Happy New Year! Peace and prosperity to all for 2014....
Our second hug was a different experience from the last. As we sat in the queue Nix and I kept getting separated by line monitors – they would let Nix and a few folk in front of her through but I would be stopped and allowed to join later. This happened several times. It occurred to me that Nix and I will inevitably be separated in this life, ultimately by death, so I should not try to change this current situation, rather I should allow it to be and feel the sinking feeling that was arising in me without judgement. I thought back to how the drowned boy’s mother must feel while the Bhajan music that was being played by the musicians on stage washed over me. I also wondered what I’m doing with my life, and felt I should have a question in my mind for Amma this time (we spoke to a friendly Indian guy earlier in the day who had made this suggestion to us). So I asked “How can I best benefit myself and others?” over and over whilst I slowly made my way up the line. Eventually the time came to receive my hug. I felt slightly nervous, but watched my breath, continued to repeat my question in my mind and knelt in front of Amma. She pulled me in close and whispered the same mantra as before in my ear. It was another short hug, but this time I decided to look at her directly as I got up. She made eye contact and looked at me quite strangely. I had not seen her do that to anyone else. It made me feel unsettled. I wasn’t sure what it was all about. Perhaps she didn’t like me? Or I’d broken some protocol that I was unaware of? It didn’t make me feel good at all. As I walked off the stage lots of thoughts and feelings were churning around inside me. Nix was also quite subdued. When we got back to our room she said to me that she was considering staying on at the ashram and that I should perhaps go on travelling by myself. Pictures of Nix walking about in white robes flashed through my mind.... I began to curse myself for being so insistent on us coming to Kerala. It was me that convinced her that the ashram would be a good place to visit rather than travelling immediately from Gokarna to the North East of India. I’m the one who said we should stay open and that it would all be alright. What was I thinking? And now she wants to be a Nun! That sinking feeling I had in the Darshan queue returned. I listened to her talk, and replied when she asked me to do so. I told her that I wouldn’t feel brilliant if she wanted us to go our separate ways, but that she should do what she needs to do.
We went quietly to bed, and I lay there for hours observing the sensations that were moving in waves through me. At the same time I was attempting to make sense of what I’d experienced that evening. I wasn’t sure what was real any more. I couldn’t be sure what I was imagining and what I wasn’t. Was I getting an answer to my question or not? I got the strong feeling that I should let things be, let go of analysis and trust. In the past I would have felt like running away from the situation, but that evening I felt unusually calm despite the anxiety that was pulsing through me. How can both states exist at the same time? I have no idea, but in me they were. My thoughts turned again to Nix’s proposal to her possibly staying at the ashram. Perhaps it was not a bad idea after all. Perhaps it would bring her great benefit and it would selfish of me to try to stop that. Then I thought that perhaps I also needed to stay. Perhaps it would be the most beneficial thing for me to do too. My perceptions of Amma and the ashram were radically changing from those I had on our arrival. I feel like she was in my mind helping me to navigate my fears. I have no reason to say so other than a very strong feeling that this was what was happening. I can’t actually believe I’m saying what I’m saying, as I feel I am a logical (and usually very critical/sceptical) sort of person. Clearly logic cannot explain everything. If I heard someone else talk like this I would think they are away with the faeries. This sense stuck with me all night, whilst my feelings of love for Nix grew stronger and stronger as if a veil had been lifted and I could see things much more clearly. The areas of my life that needed attention were highlighted in glorious technicolour. Being kinder, more patient, more grateful, letting go of unhelpful judgements and letting go of working for ego reward were the big ones. Since starting seva (service) in the composting area I have observed a transformation in my thought process – working voluntarily simply for it’s own sake is a great tonic. It feels like my mental/emotional/spiritual continuum has opened and widened by doing so, whereas working to write a hit tune so I can get fame and fortune (for instance) closes and narrows it. The money I need in life will come, I just need to trust and continue to strengthen those positive qualities in myself. My question had been answered (even though I was afraid of the answer). How can I best help myself and others? Do service, and let go of the ego pursuits I am involved in (which would mean letting go of my incessant chasing for a hit, world tours, radio play blah blah blah and writing less hard, more beautiful music. Bring on the bhajans!).
The next day Nix and I spoke again. We were both on the same page that it would be a good idea to come back to the ashram and do more service. Before we left South Africa, we had both mentioned wanting to do service whilst we were in India, so here was the perfect opportunity. We had to let the dust settle first though and work out what when it would be best to do so. We would still like to see the North East of India together, but it may be better to do that later in the year when it is cooler and stay South around these months when the weather is more moderate.
We had a great chat later in the day with Aruna – an Indian Nun who has been living in the ashram for the past 18 years. She had been a software developer in San Francisco before leaving that life behind to focus on her spiritual life. She had a beautiful way about her, and I could have listened to her talk all night. One of the things that will stick with me is how friendly and open all the devotees that we have spoken to are. It has encouraged me to be more that way myself and in fact in only one week I have seen a large improvement in that area. I am not generally friendly and open to all at home, so it felt great to truly be experiencing it now. Friendliness and openness are undoubtedly vastly beneficial states to foster in myself. I mentioned my enjoyment of the interactions I have had with the other devotees to Aruna. She told me that the reason I am having these good experiences is because those positive qualities I see in them are already in me. It felt good to hear that sort of feedback. I had not mentioned my second hug experience and listened with interest as she told me that Amma had once given her a strange look at Darshan when her ego was getting the better of her, and that it had really shaken things up for her and helped her move through the difficulties she was experiencing. So that’s what was happening.... It certainly felt like it.
Nix and I decided that we would head to Kanyakumari (at the tip of India) the next day to stay at the Vivekananda ashram there for New Year. We felt we could process our time at Amritapuri quietly there. As we went back to our room it felt like we were on E. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a sustained high energy experience without drugs before in my life. In conclusion I can say this about our time at the ashram – I don’t know if Amma is a deity or not, but I have no doubt that she is a realized being who has gone beyond body and mind (how else can I explain her ability to hug millions of people with sameness of being to all?) and she has created an unbelievable space to help people. When we first arrived we thought the ashram was far too noisy, and that the schedule was far too lax for spiritual practice to occur. We based those judgements on our past experiences with Vipassana and Buddhist meditation retreats where silence and strict adherence to daily schedules are the norm. We missed the point. The practice at the ashram is the seva – working selflessly to help others. Basically meditation in action.... There are also sadhanas that can be practiced but nobody forces you to do so. Rob, an American working our composting seva shift with lots of Vipassana experience, put it perfectly when he told Nikki that the practice at the Amma ashram is like the kinder, softer mother whereas the practice at monasteries and Vipassana centres is like the more serious, disciplinarian father. Both are necessary to develop well-rounded children. I can say that I have definitely benefitted from my time at the ashram. I did not expect I would be saying that. I thought it would be an interesting experience for us, but nothing more. There are lots of other things I could write about, but in closing there’s only one thing left to say.... “Om Namo Shivaya!!!” :)
I skipped archana (the 1000 chants in honour of Lalita) this morning as I’ve picked up a cold and didn’t relish the 4.45am start - I wanted to have some energy to do my seva practice later that morning. At 7.30 Marcus, a high energy friendly German, zipped up behind us in the breakfast queue and said an enthusiastic hello. He is an assistant to one of the meditation instructors, and we first met him during a day long meditation course we did a couple of days back. He also walks incredibly fast. I tailed him through the crowded main hall yesterday to see if I could keep up. I could not. I would have had to break into a run. During our conversation this morning he told us that he is a Krishna who works at festivals in Europe during the summer months, where he runs an Indian food stall with his friend. When his breakfast order came I realized the secret to his speed. He had two cups of strong black filter coffee with his plate of food ;) We’ve met some great people here, many of whom do not lead a “traditional” life. Another example being John from our composting shift – he hails from Columbia and is an actor who lives and works in China. Wicked.... I find these interactions very refreshing and encouraging, as I sometimes feel that Nix and I might not be doing the right thing in not conforming to the norm of a steady job, house, 2.5 kids etc. Societal pressures are massive. Everything around us at home is geared up for the norm, not the unusual. Whereas in India, it’s the opposite. I think that’s one of the reasons we love it here. Meeting the people we have met at the ashram and elsewhere in India confirms to us that it is indeed possible to lead full and beneficial lives without having to renounce our outlook on life or our dreams.
During our break from composting this morning we heard shouting on the beach directly in front of us. We ran over and saw people pointing out to sea, so I asked one of the men standing on the beach what had happened. He said a teenage boy had just been pulled out by the rip tide. There were already a group of fishermen in the water looking for him, so some of the guys from our composting shift went in the water to join in the search. I went further down the beach with Nix where it felt like the tide was heading to see if he might perhaps drift in there. When I swam out to extend the search line I felt the strength of the tide, it reminded me of Dangers Beach in Cape Town where many people have got into trouble (and in some cases drowned). A few minutes later a shoal of dolphins surfaced just a short distance away from where I was. They didn’t move on, staying in the one area, surfacing, diving and pushing their noses in the air. It was incredible, as if they sensed something was wrong and had come to help. I thought perhaps they knew where the boy was. Sadly none of us could find him. We helped the fishermen run a large net around the area and pulled it in to see if that might work, but it didn’t. He must have been dragged out far, and quickly. We were on the beach within a few seconds of hearing the shouting, but the boy had already disappeared. Hopefully it was a quick and painless death. His mother was absolutely besides herself. She let out heart wrenching wails, as the local village women chanted mantras around her. Nix and I noted that only the men were at the water’s edge. The women were far up the beach, none ventured down. It highlighted to us that Indian culture has a long way to go in terms of equality between men and women. We noticed on previous walks through the villages on either side of the ashram that Keralan culture is highly male dominant (like much of India). Women are not visible at all. We only saw men who were engaged in drinking, playing cards and staring at us, which gave an edgy energy to the place. It didn’t feel either welcoming or safe. It reminded me very much of our night encounter in Villapuram last year.... I think Amma’s ashram could not be in a more suitable place.
At lunch there were thousands more devotees in the ashram than when we left for composting seva at the beach this morning. The chanting from the main hall had an increasing pitch to it which made my head feel like a pressure cooker. The energy for Nix and I was also depressed from the drowning. It all felt a bit much. The intensity of India in full effect. We have signed up for darshan this evening, so will be getting another hug from Amma. This time we will not go to the ladies’ and international visitors side of the building – we’re going to give the orange robed witch a wide berth. No tension....
We have been at the Amma Ashram since the morning of Christmas Eve, but I have not had access to a power point to write so am playing catch up now that I have found a one in the corner of the student canteen on the ground floor of our building. I’ll do my best to condense the past 5 days into a comprehensive post. If it meanders I apologize. I have had a lot of thoughts and experiences since our arrival ;)
Rewind to 23rd December.... We finally made it out of Gokarna ;) We tried again and failed again to get tatkal tickets for the train on the 22nd December, so we opted for plan B – a bus to Mangalore on the 23rd, and a train from there to Karunagappally in Kerala. Consequently another mammoth journey lay ahead. Roughly 25 hours on the move (with no sleep the night before leaving) and we finally landed at the international visitors centre at 6.30am. We were wrecked, but no rest for the wicked. We sorted out our accommodation and got stuck in with orienting ourselves to the ashram and its schedule.
On a side note - I am totally dyslexic where Keralan town names are concerned. They seem to mostly all start with “K”, are about 30 syllables in length and, to my ears, sound very similar to each other ;) They also speak another language here – Malayam or some such. India has a lot of languages. I reckon English is the way to go for everyone, everywhere ;) Let’s keep it simple....
Right, back to this ashram bizniz. Fortunately Nix and I have our own room, which is a big bonus. It is one of the things that concerned me before arrival - the thought of sharing a dorm didn’t appeal to me at all (I feel like I have had my fair share of that experience from living at boarding school when I was younger). So that boxed was ticked ;) The ashram is massive. It has a couple of tower blocks and various other smaller buildings to house the devotees and visitors – there are several thousand in all from various parts of the globe. Many walk around dressed in white, and say “Om Namo Shivaya” a lot. We had “Hari Om” in Omkareshwar, and “Namaste” in Gokarna. Now we need to switch our heads into Shiva mode ;) We found a cafe that served cappuccinos, and as we were in dire need of a caffeine hit we quickly put our priorities in order, bought two of those bad boys and sat down at a table with an Indian guy. We introduced ourselves and struck up a conversation with him. He is an IT lecturer at a nearby university and lives at the ashram, so we interrogated him about what lay in wait for us. He told us that Amma would be in residence at the ashram during Christmas and New Year. That was a surprise for us as we had read online that she would most likely be travelling abroad. He told us we had arrived at an auspicious time. We seem to do that everywhere we go to in India (sadly we don’t repeat this trend in Cape Town). It’s great. You can throw a stone here and hit an auspicious place or event.... It makes you feel very special ;) We were of course keen to hear more about this hugging business we had heard so much about, and for which Amma is famous worldwide. He explained the basics of what is involved as there is necessarily a protocol to follow where thousands of hopeful huggees are concerned. I asked him if we could ask Amma questions. He shook his head (which can mean anything here) and said “No, they must be spiritual questions”. I wondered what made him so certain I wouldn’t ask a pertinent, earth shattering spiritual question, and replied jokingly “I gathered that. I wouldn’t ask Amma about bus timetables.” Fortunately he understood the joke and laughed.
We were joined at the table by Edith, an elderly French lady who had first visited Amma’s ashram 21 years ago. She was very excited to hear that this was our first time visiting the ashram and was even more excited to hear we had not yet received an Amma hug. She was much more animated about the whole thing than I was to be honest which made me feel somewhat guilty. To me a hug is a hug, and an ashram is an ashram. Perhaps I was missing something. But I tried my best to play along so as not to offend her or rain on her parade. Edith very kindly offered to show us around the ashram. We gladly accepted - it made us feel less like rabbits in headlights. We were surprised to find that the main Kali Temple also housed an internet cafe, a couple of shops, a tourist information centre, a travel centre, an astrologer, a library, and multiple alternative therapy rooms. It felt a bit like a shopping mall, which felt at odds with what we imagined ashram life should be like.
As the day unfolded it became evident that most of the people at the ashram see her as a living deity. Fair play. I don’t know if she is or isn’t, but I’m willing to stay open to all possibilities during my time here to get the fullest benefit from the experience. It also became evident that there were people at the ashram who were experiencing some sort of trauma in their lives – physical and/or emotional. It felt like the ashram was a place that some people come to in the hope of experiencing miracles – sort of like Our Lady of Lourdes. My analytical/critical mind kicked in to overdrive. Fragile groups of people seeking answers from a spiritual leader revered as a deity. Hmmm. I repeated my mantra “Stop judging, stop judging, stop judging”.... After all, am I not also looking for answers.... I’m sure many people living at the time of Jesus also thought he was nobody special at the time. So let’s see....
A couple of hours later we were sat in the main hall waiting for Amma to arrive. They were chanting in the build up to this event. Each chant had an accompanying text which flashed up on the large LED screens above the stage so everyone (well, everyone who can speak Sanskrit that is) could join in – spiritual karaoke of a fashion. I read the flashing text with interest. There were 1000 chants in total (it took a long time to complete) and all were lauding a deity known as Lalita. I wondered if Amma is seen as her incarnation.... A few of the chants made my cynical, sarcastic mind perk its cheeky little head up again. For instance, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Om, we bow before her who has big eyes”, “Om, blessings to she who has beautiful limbs” and “Om to the one who wears large gold earrings”.... I’m not sure what that lot has to do with anything. Perhaps I am not spiritually evolved enough to understand. Or perhaps they simply ran out of suitable profundities – there were 1000 chants after all....
As the chants finished Amma arrived and everyone stood up. Nix and I were sat right next to the central aisle that she was walking up so we looked over curiously. I saw policemen and an entourage of people, but the little Indian lady dressed in white walking in the centre of them initially slipped my attention. Oh, that must be Amma.... It’s amazing how often spiritual leaders are small in stature. The Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa spring to mind.... She seemed to have a gentle energy and smiled a lot. After sitting down at front centre, she led the hall in a guided meditation and then answered a question posed by a member of the audience. As I am writing this some time down the line I have forgotten the exact question. It had something to do with grace – a theme that has recurred often during the last few days. She uses a translator to relay her replies. I felt sorry for him – her reply must have lasted at least 30 minutes before he was given the nod to translate. All I can say is the guy must have a photographic (audiographic?) memory (or he’s amazingly talented at shorthand). He did a superb job. He also skilfully navigated Amma intermittently interrupting his translation to add new information. I remember my attention wavered a lot as I was slipping in and out of consciousness – we were dog tired and the hall was hot....
I signed up for a harmonium lesson in the afternoon. Despite being knackered I absolutely loved it. The lesson flew by. When we finished the teacher wobbled his head encouragingly at me and said that I had picked it up quickly. I think I will have to look into getting more lessons in Cape Town....
In the evening Amma led the hall in bhajans. She belted out the lead vocals from the centre of the stage accompanied by many other singers, several tabla players, a harmonium player, a keyboard player, and a tampura player. It was ammazing ;) At the end of the session we were told there was to be a Christmas Eve celebration later on. Nix and I bailed in favour of crashing out so we could wake up early the next day and go to the morning chanting and meditation (or archana as it’s called here). I fell asleep within 5 minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
The next day we signed up for our Darshan (hug from Amma). We were in the queue nice and early to avoid disappointment, and were duly given our tickets which stated that we were in the 600 to 700 group. The friendly American gent who gave us the ticket told us we should return to the hall around 4pm to get in line. We decided to go to the hall for the start of the event to see what went on. There were a lot of people there.... The stage had a live video feed that was played on the LED video screens for all to see. Visions of Glastonbury sprang to mind. Amma was mobbed on stage by a large crowd of people – attendants, huggees, security and God knows who else. She sat calmly in the midst of it all and began to dispense hugs. This continued for hours – she must have hugged continuously for 16 hours straight that day. It was unbelievable that she could maintain, but maintain she did. She didn’t eat at all (and we have since been told she is diabetic) and sustained her sameness of being with each and every person who stood in front of her to receive their hug. I noticed that she simultaneously fielded questions from people all around her. I couldn’t hear what they were asking, but was impressed by her ability to multitask under those circumstances. Clearly Amma is an extraordinary person. Eventually we grew tired of watching (which made us feel doubly astounded by Amma’s ability to keep on keeping on) and went to get something to eat.
We stopped at the foreigner Darshan table to ask how the schedule was looking. The girl we spoke to said it would be a good idea to be back in the hall by 2.30pm. So we had lunch, jumped in the Arabian Sea (located a convenient 5 minutes walk from the Ashram) to lively up ourselves then headed back into the hall. The board displaying the group currently receiving Darshan was still showing as 1 to 100. We went to ask at the table again to check what was happening and make sure we wouldn’t miss our slot. This time we were told to come back at 7pm as things were running late. We headed back to our room and hung about till 5pm, at which point we thought it would be prudent to return to the hall to check on things again. This time the board showed 601 to 700. We were up! We walked towards the end of the queue but were obstructed by a very unhelpful and unfriendly Indian woman dressed in orange. We were later told that she is a high ranking attendant to Amma. She refused to let us join the queue, despite us showing her our tickets which matched the group number on the board. We decided to argue our point – she refused to see reason, waved her hand at us (I don’t think she ever made eye contact) and told us to return at 8pm. Nikki asked her to promise that we would get in if we did so. She said she was in charge so would make sure we get in. As we walked away we met a very friendly and kind Indian lady (good cop, bad cop?) who was acting as a line monitor. We told her what was going on and she listened attentively, smiled at us, told us not to worry, and reassured us that it will be OK for us to come back at 8. So we went away again, returning at 7.30 to make sure we were in good time. We went straight up to the orange robed unfriendly woman, smiled at her and announced ourselves. Once more she refused to let us in. This time she told us that “it is Amma’s will”. We couldn’t understand what was going on. She had broken her promise to Nix, and now claimed to be Amma’s spokesperson. How could she possibly know what Amma’s will was? She had not spoken to Amma about us and we had serious doubts that Amma had given her special instructions that forbade us from receiving Darshan. A French lady walked up to tell us that Amma was only seeing Indians now. Our hugs were slipping from sight.... I glimpsed the kind lady further down the line and went to speak to her about this new development in our hugging saga. She smiled, said it was nonsense and that we should join the men’s line on the other side of the building. She added that “with Amma’s grace you will receive darshan”. I thanked the lady and told her that regardless of whether we got to see Amma or not that I really appreciated and respected her friendly and helpful manner and was grateful to have met her that evening. We walked across the hall to the line, straight past the attendants and security. Nobody questioned us at all. It was really odd and in stark contrast to our experience on the other side of the building. It couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I felt like we had just won Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, and within 20 minutes we were on stage with Amma. She hugged Nix first then me, and whispered a mantra into my ear. I have since been told by one of the Swamis that this mantra is intended to instigate spiritual change – adding culture to milk to make yoghurt was the example given. We did not find the hug to be the powerful experience that others did (some left the stage in floods of tears), and both agreed that the experiences leading up to the hug were more powerful for us. It felt like something profound had happened – illustrating very clearly that surrendering and going with the flow are the states of mind that will least obstruct progress. It also showed us that taking a left instead of a right can yield radically different results. So, instead of repeating the same ineffective patterns over and over again when faced with difficulties, we should try different paths, trust in life and see what happens.... The hug demonstrated that it’s best not to have expectations!
The next day we signed up for our seva (selfless service to counteract selfishness)– composting duty. Nobody wants to do it, so they offer it to all who apply as the first option. We figured it would be good training to help us let go of aversion, and it is. We have to mix cow shit with food waste from the kitchens and eating areas by hand on a large sorting table. Fortunately we are given gloves (although the gloves often have shit inside from the previous shift and make your hands sweat like a bastard) and fortunately it is not human shit. It’s messy, smelly and stomach churning but brilliant practice in overcoming our dualistic mind sets. Or it could just be that we’re idiots for accepting the job that nobody else wants ;) Either way Nix and I both want to participate as fully as we can during our stay here. That way we can give the ashram, its practices and devotees a fair go, whilst learning to let go of our judgements and fostering a strong positivity in ourselves so when the time comes to leave we can do so on a good note. Amma is a strong advocate of eco-consciousness, something that is much needed in India. The compositing operation they have running here is highly efficient and is a great step in the right direction to changing the Indian culture of polluting.
Two more failed attempts today and yesterday to secure our train bookings via the tatkal system. We were there first thing this morning and watched helplessly as 250 tickets for our train disappeared from the screen in under 1 minute. Appu barely had time to press any buttons on his keyboard. That’s the problem with a country of 2 billion people, 1 railway line to where you’re going, and a shit slow online ticketing system. Every morning that we go in it to his shop it feels like we’re entering the USA green card lottery - we seem to have about as much chance of success. Today is the first time I have heard an Indian say “fuck, fuck, fuck!” as Appu desperately tried to complete our booking. I had to laugh. Computers and the internet will do that to you.... I feel his pain. I’m beginning to wonder though if this is all an elaborate ploy to keep paying tourists from leaving Gokarna ;) Feels like we are trapped in Groundhog Day.... Presently we are considering riding a water buffalo out of here – The Good, The Bad and the Balti. We’re going to need more than one hug from Amma if we ever make it to Kerala....
Yesterday we connected with Malay again. His cough is much better (although I saw him smoking a beedi this morning for which I chastised him ;) Naughty Saddhu). He told us about the Ganga Sagar festival on 14th January. It sounds ridiculously hectic (as all Indian festivals do), but would provide us with a once in a lifetime experience if we’re willing to push through the pain barrier (which we are ;)). Over 1 million people will attend, and all of them will cram on to the small island of Sagar south of Calcutta – where the Ganges river runs into the Bay of Bengal. Nix trekked to the source of the Ganges in Gaumukh last year whilst I was in Mumbai playing a gig, so it will be good to see the delta as a completion of sorts. It is said that a dip in the Ganga at this time and place will wash away all past sins. I’m up for that. I’d best do some serious sinning between now and then.... We’re going to have to psych ourselves up big time for a crowd of that magnitude. Malay said he’s keen to meet us there, which would be great. It’s very helpful to journey with a Saddhu where melas are concerned - sort of like getting a VIP pass to festies elsewhere in the world ;) We had a good chat with him again about “life tips” ;) Here are the crib notes.... Think of them as a sort of “Spirituality for Dummies”. So, without further ado, here are the 3 obstacles to peace:
1) Thoughts about the past.
2) Attachment to the present.
3) Worry about the future.
Fair enough, I concur with these based on my experiences to date. Although, in my opinion (for what opinions are worth), I would add that they are interchangeable. You can think about, be attached to and worry about the past, present and future.... They are not mutually exclusive.
There are 7 friends along the path (or as Malay calls them “The Magnificent 7” – our buffalo ride out of town really does need to be done. Preferably at sunset, wearing a poncho and a stetson) and these are:
3) Discernment (in other words judgement calls about what is helpful/unhelpful etc).
4) Good company (people or situations).
And to round off today’s class, here are a couple of Hindi thoughts for the day:
“Atithi Devu Bhobo” (Treat your Guests like Gods) – which explains the friendliness and helpfulness we have experienced from so many Indians during our travels. Malay suggested however that he feels this has as much to do with us putting out the good vibe and receiving it back, which felt good to hear. We must be doing something right.
“Santosham Panam Sulcham” (Satisfaction is a great happiness).
Class dismissed. Homework to be on my desk by 9am sharp tomorrow. Anyone failing to comply will be given 1 millennium of meditation and 500,000 pujas to complete by the end of the week.
At lunch today I noticed toilet rolls for sale under the counter which were branded “Eezy Vype”. I found the phonetics very amusing. Little things please little minds as they say - that’s me all over. I suppose they sell toilet rolls at the restaurant in case things go South with what you’ve ordered. I have developed a taste for onion pakoras. They are the Indian vegetarian version of KFC, and they taste fantastic (although my arteries may not agree).
On a side note, I wonder if explorers of old were hippies.... It seems that many of the present day adventurous travelling sorts are. Picture this - Christopher Columbus dressed in Saddhu garb, chuffing a chillum whilst having deep and meaningfuls with his crew.... “Hey guys, I’ve had an idea. How about we sail across this ocean on a voyage of self-discovery? I don’t think we are alone in the universe man.... And I’m not so sure the earth is flat after all.... Pass the smoke Pedro, and what are you doing about the music situation Fernando? We need tunes bro....”
Place your bets now – will Nikki and Michael make it out of Gokarna before Christmas? We almost forgot it’s Christmas since there is a distinct absence of advertising here ;) Happy Christmas :)
I heard the Gayatri Mantra playing from a shop near Prema’s restaurant as we sauntered past. Nix mentioned she wanted to get hold of the music, so we went in to see if we could do so. The young guy running the shop obliged us and put the mantra and a few other songs from his laptop on our flash drive. I asked him about the music he had on his computer and he said “it is all God music” (in other words Bhajans, Chants and the like). I told him I like his style ;) Mangla also had “all God music” on her laptop in Omkareshwar. I have often wondered if traditions will die away as the yoot of India become increasingly Westernized. Seeing God music on their computers gives me hope that this won’t happen. Indians have a strong national identity (whereas all we have are corporate identities) and are strongly in touch with their roots (we are more in touch with root canals than our extinct heritage).
Still no luck on the train booking front, but there is always tomorrow ;) And Nix’s phone card that we bought a couple of days back is still not working. We had the same issue in Mumbai. Another trip into town is in order I think.... We are walking our arses off here - feels good. The only walking we tend to do regularly at home is from our house to the car (and back again if we’re feeling particularly energetic).
Nix has been getting annoyed by folk telling us that South Africa must be a scary place to live (“Oh, you live in South Africa? How do you do it? It’s so hardcore there! There’s so much crime, I’d be afraid to go. What’s going to happen now Nelson Mandela is dead?” blah blah blah) so I thought I’d write a little sumting about that. Whilst it is true that crime and the associated security counter measures in South Africa are unlike those in any other place I have been, it is also true that we don’t let it stop us living our lives. If you live in fear, you’re living on your knees (as an old No Fear t-shirt of mine once said). In a way it is life affirming to live in a place that has a rougher edge to it. I suppose it’s a bit like enjoying extreme sports ;) With a measure of acceptance, you can enjoy the uncertainty. I would argue that acceptance is a very strong and helpful attribute that we should all foster in ourselves. So everyone should come to South Africa for the experience ;) Further, if daily life is predictable it is inevitably monotonous, sterile and f’ing boring....The fact is that there are pros and cons to every country on the planet. There is no utopia.... Cape Town is perhaps the most beautiful city I have ever lived in – we have sun, blue skies, mountains, forest and beaches. We also have the privilege of space so that we don’t all have to live on top of each other. Eat that London, Berlin and Moscow. I’d also like to add that a life lived without risk is a life half-lived (I came up with that one myself – maybe I should sell it to No Fear). An additional plus point from high crime is that South Africans are a lot more streetwise than most (except when it comes to leaving front doors open in Gokarna – cough cough). Don’t sneak up on them or try to rip them off - they might unload an AK47 in your face. Joking.... It would most likely only be a pistol shot, or at most a machete chop. We are always tooled up don’t you know. Never leave home without ‘em.
Nix has decreed that henceforth it shall be her photos that are posted on the blog. Mine have been relegated to the 2nd division of Facebook and Twitter ;) So prepare yourselves for two thumbs fresh images! (Queue Bollywood dancing).
We went to the Full Moon Kali Festival in town last night. We had romantic visions in our head of how it might be. They didn’t tally with reality, which turned out to be a bunch of guys throwing large lit bangers at each other. It may be that this was meant to wake Kali up. If so, she clearly has a hearing problem. If she doesn’t, she would have by the end of the festival. It was very loud (and dangerous – lucky I’m not a veteran suffering from PTSD). It didn’t take long for us to reach our tolerance threshold and head home to bed. We were knackered from our salt farm walk anyway.
Whilst getting money out of my travel wallet this morning I noticed that it hadn’t been closed up in my usual OCD way (I twist it shut and twirl the cord round in a very specific way ;)). I thought that was odd, so we checked the money inside and found it to be a few thousand rupees short. As we only drew the money out 2 days ago, we couldn’t reconcile this with any spending we’d done during that time frame. It’s possible someone crept in our front door whilst I was in the shower. I’ve grown so relaxed here I leave it open to let air circulate in the room since it is very hot. We’re going to have to revert to South African mode and be more security conscious with our stuff so as not to tempt fate again. It’s amazing how losing money can effect your day ;) Time for me to put non-attachment into practice and let go, let go, let go.... It’s only money after all. In any event it could have been much worse (my thoughts went back to the recent drunk Russian scenario).
Looks like we’ll be heading down to Kerala in the next couple of days (train bookings dependant) and doing a stint at the Amma Ashram – headquarters of the Hugging Mother. That should be interesting. I’m British and as a race Brits are not best known for hugging. Stiff upper lips and football hooliganism, yes. Hugs, no. But I’m going to remain open to the experience ;) The Indian railway has a special emergency ticketing system whereby they hold back some seats on each train for latecomers to book. These are made available 2 days before the departure date, but you have to be online or at the travel office first thing in the morning otherwise they get sold quickly. We didn’t have any luck today, so will try again tomorrow. It’s been great being on the beach for a few weeks, but it’s time for fresh experiences and to immerse ourselves more fully in Indian culture again. We went to buy ice cream at a beach restaurant today that had been recommended to us, and as we sat down an older woman with dreadlocks at a table opposite began to blatantly stare at us. My response was to raise my hand in a wave, smile and say hello to increase da peace. She shot me a scathing look and said “Do I know you?” Oh dear, not quite the result I was hoping for. I replied that despite knowing it is highly unorthodox for Westerners to greet each other I felt I should give it a shot (as I have been inspired by my interactions with the easy going local population to break out of that aloof and unhelpful conditioning). She huffed, shook her head and rolled her eyes before studiously looking down at the table. I believe my heroic effort to shatter norms resulted in what is commonly referred to as an epic fail ;) Time to move on to pastures new - we’re ready to leave the tourist resorts and head back into the chaos of India.... Boom boom.
I dreamt I was drinking shots of a high percentage booze called “Noxious” with Freq Nasty in an aisle of a Wal-Mart somewhere. Odd. I don’t drink, I have never met Freq Nasty, and I haven’t set foot in a Wal-Mart since I lived in New Mexico some twenty years ago.
We made an early morning mission to a salt farm on the road out of Gokarna. We thought it would be a new experience and potentially provide photo opportunities. I was sure that I had seen a signpost on our way in on the bus that said Gokarna was 1 kilometre from the farm. It was nearer 10. Perhaps the 0 had been wiped off the signpost by a local prankster. Perhaps Indians have no idea about distance (unlikely given that they invented 1 and 0). Or maybe, just maybe, I imagined the sign ;) When we arrived they had already harvested the salt on a previous day. Ah well, it was a good walk regardless. We put it out there that we would hitch a lift home to save our legs. The lift didn’t come to pass, but a local bus did conveniently (and helpfully) stop for us when we flagged it down (try doing that in the UK and see how far you get. We tried it in Cornwall last year on a country road during a rain shower and the twat of a bus driver drove straight past us). It only cost us Rs 10 for the ride back in to town, and saved us doing a 20 kilometre walk.
After another kick-ass muesli breakfast at Prema’s restaurant we strolled back home, stopping along the way at Martin’s cafe, where we were engaged in conversation by mad Antonio – an Italian traveller. When he sat down at our table, I immediately lapsed into British mode, picked up the newspaper in front of me and completely blanked him. Nikki began to make polite conversation with him. On a preceding day I had heard him talking and thought he was very loud, obnoxious (perhaps that’s how my dream’s beverage branding originated) and not to my liking. I was wrong. He was much quieter this time and far more interesting in what he was talking about so I eventually lowered the paper, and my defences, to participate in the discussion. He is another nomadic soul, having wandered the world since the 70s. I felt like I should apologize to him, and told him that I was being extremely British in ignoring him when he sat down. I added that I was glad he sat down at our table so I could challenge and break out of my old conditionings and judgements. He seemed to appreciate my frankness, and before leaving the cafe came over to thank me for it. I later thought that it’s amazing how rarely we are honest with ourselves and each other.
We just hitched a lift with a guy into town. Turns out his car is a taxi, but he still gives us a free lift anyway! Big ups Sanjay – you the man :)
We were invited to dinner at our Australian friends Michael and Wendy’s house last night. The power cut out just as we walked through their front door and stayed off for the next eight hours. So we had dinner by candlelight. They are a couple who have been coming to India since the 60s, and Michael helped to establish the Auroville community in Pondicherry at that time. They have travelling in their blood and have been all over the show, with their base now being in Turkey after moving away from Australia. We enjoyed their company, free-spirited nature, food and stories immensely. I have yet to meet an Australian that I haven’t liked. The same cannot sadly be said of all nationalities ;) Back to that land of generalizations again, but man, some of them really seem to hold true.... For instance, Russians really need to work on the friendly factor (as a matter of national urgency). I’m convinced the weather has something to do with whether people are miserable or not. Southern Hemisphere nationalities tend to be friendly, happy-go-lucky and have a can-do approach. Many Northern Hemisphere nationalities can barely manage a “hello” or even a smile when you greet them. This absolutely holds true where we are staying. Nix and I have been experimenting by greeting everyone and gauging responses. The Siberian Tundra must account for the frostiness in Russian personalities. Not even the sun of Gokarna is able to melt it. Must be permafrost then.... There may even be a few wooly mammoths frozen in there somewhere.
Anyway, we made our way home around 11pm. The town was silent and the road was dimly lit by the moon. We were enjoying the walk until we came across several packs of stray dogs that roam the streets around these parts. They were aggressive towards us so I pulled a large piece of bamboo out of a farmer’s fence (sorry farmer, but needs must!) and waved it around my head a lot which seemed to keep them at bay (or at least confuse them ;)). While I was doing that Nix picked up stones from the road and used the mutts for target practice. She needs to practice a lot more - I don’t think she hit any ;) It was dark though, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.... We picked up the pace and made it home by about midnight - we were glad to get in, even thought the power was still off. I attempted to have a shower in the dark, realized too late that without power there was no water and ended up breaking off the plastic tap which was perished at the joint connecting it to the plastic piping. Shit. But as they say here “what can do”.... At 1am in the morning, very little. So we went to bed. An hour or so later the power came back on and the broken pipe started to gush water all over the floor. Nix resolved to wake up Maneshwar, who came in, examined the scene and was also of the “what can do” mindset. We got him to turn off the stopcock for the night and agreed to get it fixed the next morning. It’s now thankfully working better than ever ;)
On the beach this afternoon some Indians managed to get their car stuck in the sand. I’m not sure what they were doing driving onto the beach in the first instance, but their front wheels became buried as they attempted to drive out again. We watched the scene unfold from the water’s edge where we were sitting after a swim. There were Westerners nearby and none offered to help (some walked right past the stranded vehicle without so much as a word). A little time passed and a couple of Indians with a small truck came to their aid. They attempted to tow the car out but to no avail – their truck wheels couldn’t gain any traction. I got to thinking as I looked on (uh oh). One of the things I detest about the West (that rhymes, there’s got to be a song title in there somewhere) is that people rarely offer to help anybody when it’s clearly needed – I think they feel it’s not their responsibility, that it’s going to put them out in some way, cost them time, money and so on.... If a Westerner had driven onto the sand and got stuck whilst Indians were sitting on the beach, most (if not all) of them would have offered to help. This thought spurred me into action and I made my way over to proffer my services. The wheels were deep in the sand and they had no tools to speak of, so I made my way to a construction site on a neighbouring plot and borrowed a couple of wooden planks and a spade (well, the Indian equivalent of a spade which looks more like a hoe but does the trick). By the time I made it back with the makeshift vehicle recovery kit in hand they had at last managed to pull the car free with the truck. Even so, they were grateful that I’d made the effort to help and kept thanking me for doing so. All’s well that ends well. If I can help more and smile more in my life then that to me is a good measure of success, never mind how much money I earn or what assets I own (neither of which will amount to a hill of beans if you’re a miserable bastard). Lucky I subscribe to that viewpoint really since I earn bugger all and have no assets to speak of ;)
Walking around town first thing this morning (as now seems to be our habit), it came to our minds that it would be great to do this for a living - getting up at the crack of dawn to photograph exotic and surreal moments in far flung places, writing about them and getting paid to do it. How’s this for exotic and surreal - a man and a couple of women were sat on the balcony of a house opposite the thousand year old Shiva temple; the man had his arse hanging over the ledge into the street, and as we walked past he let rip one almighty fart. It was so hectic and in your face (literally) we couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The man and women looked at us nonchalantly as if to say “nothing to see here, move along, move along”.... Nothing to see - maybe, nothing to smell - not so sure.... Maybe he was trying to impress the womenfolk with his gaseous prowess.
We walked out of Gokarna and came across several families of blacksmiths plying their trade at the side of the road. They pass down the trade through the generations, as is customary with trades in India. Watching their technique was fascinating. There was a very definite order to who did what in each family. Mum sat feeding the flames of a charcoal fire piled on the ground with a small hand pump, Dad squatted on the ground (hopefully not farting as he was positioned dangerously close to the flames) controlling the anvil side of things, and the kids stood beating the hot metal on the anvil with sledgehammers. The staccato rhythm they generated was spellbinding. When I say kids I mean kids – the ages ranged from about 8 years old upwards. There was no sexual discrimination here - both boys and girls had to do the back breaking work, equality in the workplace in full effect. There were rivers of sweat running down them. I think it could take off as a new health craze. Forget Pilates, Boxercise, or Spinning, have you heard of the new Karnataka Blacksmith Workout System ™? It’s awesome – works all the major muscle groups whilst pushing cardio to the max, you really feel the burn (in more ways than one).... Each blacksmith put his own markings on the farming implements created – a brand of sorts I suppose. With the amount of effort put into fashioning an axe head, I would expect them to go for a small fortune. I’m sure in reality they are sold for a pittance.
On our way home we stopped at our Canadian friend’s cafe for a coffee and a chat during which we were told that the best weed in India is grown at a hill station in Karnataka and the best mushrooms at a hill station in Tamil Nadu. There you go, you learn something new every day. We met Maneshwar further up the road who warned us that the police are about to start raids in the area for alcohol and drugs. Our German friend tells us that a couple of nights back a Russian rocked up to our local beach restaurant off his face accompanied by a dodgy looking Israeli “friend”. After creating a ruckus for a while, they booked a beach hut beside the restaurant for the night and passed out. Russian matey woke up the next day to find his “friend” had stolen all his belongings (money etc ). Being left in India with no passport, money or possessions would be harsh to say the least. He has since been politely asked to leave by the guys who run the restaurant/beach huts. As the incident was reported to the police, we think this may have prompted the checks. Anyway, we’re both currently teetotal so it shouldn’t effect us, but there are a few (read “most”) Western people we’ve met round these parts who it may effect heavily. The bush telegraph seems pretty good here though, and I’m sure all will be warned well in advance. I hope so for their sakes!
Wicked day today. Started with a dream I had about terrorism (the SIM card story must have really affected me). Nix and I had just arrived back in Cape Town and were sitting somewhere watching Table Mountain at night when we saw a missile launch from the darkness and explode in the sky. Nix predicted terrorism would soon arrive in South Africa. On our way home our car was hijacked by terrorists. I made a comment along the lines of “that was quick” and we got taken to the Golden Acre shopping mall where the terrorists had set up their HQ. The leader was a British actor whose name I forget. He mostly plays dodgy cops or bad guys. In this scenario he had dropped his London accent and replaced it with a Middle Eastern guttural number. He got offended when I started to make a cup of tea, so I made him a special cuppa with egg in it to calm him down (I love the randomness of dreams). We stayed there for what felt like weeks. Nix decided to give them an ear bashing, but it didn’t help. I told her we need to play dumb and bide our time before making our move. I eventually befriended some of our guards and they agreed to let me and Nix visit Nix’s Mum for a cappuccino. They said they commended our staying connected with family - bonus. So we met Marian for a coffee and told her the layout of the Golden Acre, how many hostages there were, and how many terrorists there were and where. She took the news in an unusually calm manner and headed off to inform the authorities (at least I think that’s where she was headed. She may have been heading off to share the goss with friends). We headed back to terrorist HQ (I felt it would be the right thing to do since they had trusted us to leave and return). I woke up before the action had a chance to really kick off.
Shortly after that at 6.30am we got up to wander in to town for another photo/video session. We had no luck really – everyone we approached seemed to be offish and were not keen for us to photograph or video. One woman in particular kept hounding Nikki and telling her not to take photos (of other people! Bloody cheek). We wondered if perhaps they had hammered it last night (being Friday night) and were paying for it this morning. So we let that be and carried on walking around the back streets. As I stood waiting for Nix to shoot video of a Banyan tree, a bird in the same tree shat on my foot. Nix said this was a very lucky omen and that I should make a wish. So I wished “for health, happiness and success for both of us, that we inspire countless beings, and for a tap to wash my foot”. I figured that should cover all bases. The tap didn’t materialize so I made my merry way back to the ghat to wash my foot off. As I was doing so the same woman who had badgered Nix walked over to do the same to me. Apparently she had taken offence to my toes and top of my chappal dipping in the (minging) water. I decided to attempt a logical discussion with her, pointing out that the water was already filthy (coated with a layer of scum) and there were piles of rubbish floating within a couple of feet of my foot. She didn’t have the flash of satori I had hoped for and continued to adopt an aggro stance, so I called her “pagul” (which she understood! Nicely J It means “mad” in Hindi. Funny they can suddenly speak Hindi when you insult them) and walked back down the road where I had left Nix with Pagul’s shouts ringing in my ears.
There we met a Canadian teacher who had been living in India (Bangalore to be precise) for seven years. He had a calm way about him and was a very informative guy to speak to. I’m sure he must be a good teacher. We spoke about how India (and the world in general) is changing and laughed about it a lot. He told us that the Indian education system is a throwback to earlier British rule, and as such is fairly antiquated and not all that relevant to today. Instead it was “good at churning out desk clerks” as he put it – the system does not encourage free thought, but rather advocates learning by rote. Nevertheless we argued this is still better than the poor excuse for an education system on offer to the general public in South Africa which doesn’t encourage either free thought or learning by rote, in fact it doesn’t really encourage anything except dropouts!
We said our goodbyes and went to Prema’s restaurant to have breakfast. I had a killer bowl of muesli with milk. It was so good. I couldn’t stop talking about it. It is possibly the best bowl of muesli I have ever tasted. Nix wasn’t as enthusiastic about her muesli with curd. The milk must have made the difference ;) Next stop Holy Spring.... We walked along the beach to a Temple on the hill that has a freshwater spring alongside it where locals and Westerners alike congregate to harvest fresh water in plastic containers. I was curious to see this in action, although I was not as curious to actually drink any. I have been fortunate in not falling severely ill during any of my previous India visits, and I’d like to keep my track record! At the top of the stairs to the Temple we met a Baba by the name of “Malay” (pronounced “Maleye”). He was amazing to talk to. Normally I don’t bother to talk to Saddhus (other than simply to smile and say hello), but on the odd occasion I feel drawn to one and roll with it. Today was one of those days. So Nix and I sat down with him and spoke for a good hour or so about life, the universe and everything (not bad for an hour eh – we must have it waxed to condense it all into that time frame). He has been a Baba for seven years (the number seven cropping up again – spooky ;)) and in his former life was the operations manager of a large logistics company in Calcutta before retiring and taking up the wandering ways of a Saddhu. He had arrived in Gokarna from Varanasi the day before yesterday. His English was immaculate which helped the conversation flow easily. He told us a number of things – for instance, the Beatles got it wrong when they sang “All You Need Is Love”. What they should have sung is “All You Need Is Truth, Love and Compassion” (in that order). One out of three isn’t too bad though Macca. According to Malay, seeking (and with a bit of luck, finding) truth is the foundation for love. Without truth there can be no love. And without love there can be no compassion. The logical progression made sense to me. Certainly more so than the blatant lack of logic displayed in the uptight woman’s ridiculous objection to my putting a chappal in the biohazard of a ghat (don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s an incredible place, but it is undeniably ranking). I don’t think she’d thought it through very well.... We also learnt that Gokarna means “Cow Ear”, what the colours in the flag of India stand for (orange is for devotion, white is for peace and green is for prosperity) and that there is a 1000 year old Shiva temple in the town centre. We have walked past it every day without realizing.... India has such a rich history that talking in thousands of years is commonplace. Cape Town’s oldest buildings date back about a hundred years I think! Malay told us he is in the third phase of life (as Hindus see it) – the truth seeking phase. First comes childhood, then comes involvement in the material world, then truth seeking, then enlightenment. How long each phase takes is anybody’s guess and depends on a multiplicity of factors. He said he thinks my third phase is just round the corner – maybe at age 50 ;) So 10 more years of the material world for me.... I’m not sure I can manage one more year of it to be honest, never mind 10! We also learnt something about the sacred sites for Kumbh Mela, the rivers of India and the mythology of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Apparently Brahma and Vishnu had a bit of a disagreement about who was the boss. Brahma reckoned that, as the creator of the universe, he was rightfully the King of it. Vishnu argued that as the organizer of the universe he was best suited for the title. They took their squabble to Shiva – the Destroyer, and as such, the last word on all matters. Shiva cosmically created a lingam for them to race to the top of. He decreed that whoever made it to the top would unequivocably be the boss man. Vishnu realized soon into the race that the lingam had no end and was merely a sly trick of Shiva’s to bring them to their senses, so he went back down, apologized and told Shiva that he could not make it to the top. Brahma thought he would pull a fast one (I think he might have been Nigerian in a past incarnation). He came back down and told Shiva that he had made it to the top in two days. Shiva called bullshit, and cursed Brahma. Brahma cacked himself and meditated (for several millennia I think) to atone for the error of his ways and get in Shiva’s good books. This worked, but only to a point. Shiva rescinded the curse and told Brahma that there would only ever be one place on earth where people would worship him, and this would be.... Pushkar in Rajasthan. Bummer for Brahma. I’m sure he’d have preferred Mumbai - more devotees.... Still, better than being cursed I guess. And that explains why to this day there is only one temple in India that worships Brahma, and why it is in Pushkar. I’m sure there must have been some dancing involved somewhere in the mix too.
Malay told us about Calcutta too - a place we are keen to visit en-route to the North East. It sounds like a place we could enjoy staying at and exploring for a while. Apparently three Nobel peace prize winners have come from Calcutta. The only one whose name I can pronounce is Mother Theresa ;) He said he will be in the city at roughly the same time we will be and suggested we should get in touch so he can give us a guided tour. That idea resonated with us. It’s always great to know someone in a place you visit so that you can get off the beaten track more easily and immerse yourself more fully in the experience. Nix decided to take some video footage of him for posterity and gave him some rupees in exchange. Saddhus are reliant on donations from Indians and Westerners alike. There are those who become Saddhus to escape society (I know the feeling), and there are those who genuinely walk the spiritual path in a dedicated and disciplined manner. We felt that Malay was (is) one of the devout, and as he didn’t actually ask us for anything we were glad to give him a few bucks to help him along his way. As we walked back down the hill together I also offered to buy him some medicine. Malay had been coughing from the start of our discussion. It sounded quite bad, like bronchitis or similar. So we headed to the pharmacy and renewed his prescription for an ongoing chest complaint he had suffered from since Varanasi (chillum induced by the sounds of it). He was grateful for the help. As I said before, being ill in India is shit, so we were happy we could help on that front too. We suggested he lay off the chillums. He agreed ;) He gave us his email address, said goodbye and we went our separate ways. We carried on up the road to take Nix back to the doctor to sort out her ongoing ear issue. He cleaned out her ear again and she can hear once more. Hopefully now permanently.
On the long walk home via the road we stopped off for a coffee at a little shop that looked appealing. There was a young Canadian guy sitting with his guitar who greeted us and made the coffee. He was running the shop with a local guy. We got chatting and he told us that as he has an American mother, he was given a ten year tourist visa! The Indians clearly love Americans. And that is a hell of a long time to be a tourist ;) He was down-to-earth and made great coffee/conversation, so we’ll be going back. Maybe tonight in fact when his business partner is having a mela of his own at his house as BusinessPartnerJi excitedly told us. He began to play Bhajans full-blast from his extremely loud sound system next door whilst we were all talking to demonstrate what would be on offer later. He also punctuated the music by throwing handfuls of lit fire crackers into the air. And so ended our conversation – it was impossible to talk over the decibels.... ;) God Bless India.
After a chilled lunch on the beach we hit the sea to go bodysurfing. It’s been an absolute scorcher today, so the water made for a welcome reprieve. The waves were rocking – which is most unusual. The sea is usually flat as a pancake. We loved it. And it cleared out my sinuses when I got dumped a couple of times. To top off our exceptional day Nix and I are going for a romantic dinner at a restaurant further down the beach we’ve had our eye on before we brave matey’s DIY mela ;)
Yesterday night we discovered that Maneshwar (in whose house we are renting our room) is a policeman for Om Beach and Kudli Beach. We also discovered that he doesn’t like Russians and Israelis very much. From what he tells us they tend to be the groups who get munted and cause issues for the locals. Apparently South Africans and Brits are shanti ;) He clearly hasn’t met the Costa Del Sol/Ibiza/Aya Napa crew.... He asked us what we had been up to that day and I mimed that we’d been to “crocodile” ghat as I replied. He looked at me knowingly and said “Ah, elephant!” Not quite. I tried my mime of snapping jaws once more. “Oh, camel?” No, try again. His son chimed in with “Snake?” Nix eventually got the point across with a quick sketch of a croc with no legs. Charades is clearly not my game. Nix may have a future with Pictionary.
Today we have done the square root of F.A. other than sit at our local beach cafe, compare travel tales with a German and Russian couple, sip chai (and in their case puff on chillums – we’re still going strong on the abstinence front) and hand wash our clothes in a bucket. Wicked. So here’s some photos you can look at instead....
Another early morning photo mission – Nix got some good images at Crocodile Ghat and the Ganesha Temple. India is an amazing country for photographic opportunities. There’s always something interesting going on somewhere if you look for it (and are willing to get up early enough to capture it).
While wandering through town we came upon a crowd of school kids (at 7am – there’s that Indian work ethic again) who were laughing at us. It occurred to me as we said hello and walked past that we interpret everything through the filter of our culture and upbringing. Indian kids don’t seem to have a bad bone in their bodies, so the laughing was almost certainly innocent. If I walked past a bunch of school kids in London and they started looking at us and laughing, the chances are they would mean offense or harm in some way. Another anthropological wonder of the world. There do seem to be lots of them.
Later when we sat down to have chai the notice board (good that I noticed it) next to our heads was filled with flyers for yoga and meditation courses. All of them were run by Westerners. It seems to me that Westerners are searching a lot more than Indians are. Indians found their groove a few thousand years back and have stuck with it. We’ve long since lost ours and are trying to find it again. I am sure there are a myriad of reasons for this. Focus on our old friend God Money is a big one I think. It could be that as India grows economically it will change for them too, and they’ll be coming to us in the West for yoga lessons and meditation retreats ;)
I’ve noticed that Gokarna has a lot of one eyed guys. It looks (no pun intended) that they’ve been blinded – the eye has gone completely white. It’s strange that the blindness is in one eye only in the cases I have seen.... Maybe there’s some obscure local illness that causes one eyed blindness in males. More likely they’ve been drinking too much of their local moonshine (which Nix tells me can lead to blindness. I’m also told a few other things lead to blindness but I’m not sure they apply here). Or perhaps they have taken playing pirates to another level of realism.
We made it up bright and early this morning and headed into town to take some photos at crocodile ghat before the sun came up. It’s beautiful walking at that time of day – so peaceful (and cool) compared to later in the day. After a quick chai we carried on with our Om Beach trek. On the way up the first hill we came across a dead rat. Just its body alone was the same size as my size 11 foot, so it was a very big dead rat. Presumably a fast food diet of toxic sludge, crap and plastic bags spawned ratzilla.... It made the rats we have at home look like cute little field mice. Nix said she saw one run through our roof this morning before we left on our walk. I hope it stays in the roof and doesn’t get more adventurous, or I will have to get medieval on its ass.
We got a little lost after Kudli Beach (apparently it’s spelt with a “d” or a “t” – go figure) and came across a lone hilltop temple which was rather groovy in its seclusion. Sometimes taking a wrong turn can bring unexpected benefits (isn’t that a lesson in living life?), although Ray Mears would be shaking his head at us. When we came down from said wrong hilltop and realized we’d gone in a big circle back to Kudli Beach, we asked a rickshaw driver to point us in the right direction finally arriving at Om Beach just before midday. Om Beach is effectively Little Jerusalem. Middle Beach is Russian. Om Beach is Israeli. God help us if the two meet. The Hebrew signage and Stars of David began to give it away as we walked down the hill. It’s a very small beach, even smaller than Kudli Beach, and I have to say quite an anti-climax after all the hype I’ve been hearing about it. It was vaguely om-shaped I suppose (in as much as two small adjoining bays can be), so in that way lived up to its name of a fashion. The young, stoned, unfriendly Israelis who had taken over all the cafes didn’t make for a very warm welcome. I smiled and waved at one who was glaring at us as we walked up the beach. His glare remained impassive. I think they must practice it in a mirror. It felt like we’d walked into a cowboy movie – you know, the scene when the outsider walks into town with tumbleweeds blowing past him, then makes his way through the saloon doors and everyone stops talking and looks at him. Then a fight usually ensues. Fortunately for us, that part didn’t happen (although I had the trusty monopod at the ready just in case a quick draw was required). Our plans to spend all day at the beach rapidly changed, and after a quick breakfast at Ganesha Cafe (all beach restaurants here are called Shiva, Om, Ganesha, Nirvana, Moksha or derivative thereof. I did also notice the compulsory “German Bakery” – no tourist town in India would be complete without at least one of these) we challo’d back up the hill. On the road up we noticed a massive gate (it must have been about 15 feet) with accompanying high walls on either side covered with barbed wire – we wondered if we’d walked into Jurassic Park, or if these were perhaps security measures to keep the young, stoned, unfriendly Israelis in ;)
There are some very photogenic backstreets in Gokarna which we have yet to fully explore, so more photo missions are definitely on the cards.... Treks to other beaches are no longer on the cards - seen one, seen ‘em all ;) And ours is still the best! Take that Om Beach massive....
I dreamt that Chinese gangsters were racketeering the local internet shop. Everyone in the town was scared of them as they had a reputation of being chi masters. I decided to speak to them about what they were doing. They weren’t keen to chat to me about it. One of the thugs started going through the motions of a five finger palm manoeuvre and I suddenly found myself lying on the floor, not being able to move because I thought his chi was holding me there. He stood gloating over me and said “Your lack of skill is your weakness”. As I lay there I realized his chi was not actually as strong as everyone made out, and that I could easily stand up if I wanted to. So I did, reaching for a glass vial that was next to me (which conveniently contained chloroform – dreams can kick ass sometimes) and smashed it into his face. It was his turn to be on the floor, and I said (in a badly dubbed Hollywood accent) “Your arrogance is yours”. Then everyone in the town started dancing. Nix reckons it’s a profound dream, I reckon it’s a Bollywood film script in the making....
A hot wind was blowing last night and today is an absolute cooker as a result. We’ve shelved the Om Beach trek for another day ;) A day of being not doing lies ahead.... I quite fancy being in a hammock this arvo as it happens.
We’re fallen back into our insomniac ways.... The best rest we’ve had in India has been at Laiq and Caroline’s place in Mumbai – we both managed to sleep a solid 7/8 hours every night we were there and it felt amazing. That seems like a distant memory now ;) We got up early this morning to take Nix to see yet another doctor. We visited one in town last night but he was a quack. I think it’s as easy to set yourself up as a doctor in India as it is to set yourself up as a Saddhu or Swami. Just call yourself “Doctor”, have a sign with a plus on it made up, then hey presto, no need for 7 years of medical school - you’re in business. He refused to look in her ear and said he would “prescribe cotton buds” as treatment. Nix quite rightly pointed out that this was a rubbish idea, at which point we got up and left. Let that be a lesson to him. The doctor we went to this morning seemed more legit and helped to unblock the ear so Nix can finally hear out of it again. The downside is that the bedlam of India is no longer muted ;)
Yesterday I decided to come out my comfort zone and challenge my judgements. I struck up a conversation with an elderly Russian lady sitting at a table opposite us in our local beach cafe. She was very easy to talk to, and visits Gokarna for six months every year to escape the harsh Moscow winter. Can’t say I blame her. I think everyone on the planet would like to live Summer all year round. We also found out from her that there is some holy spring or other at a temple on the hill near the town which sounds worth a visit. Curiously, throughout the day and evening following that interaction we had several other foreigners smile at us, say hello, strike up conversations, offer us food at a restaurant and invite us to dinner at their house - in stark contrast to previous days. It’s amazing how rapidly things seem to come back to you here. The minute you think about things in a certain way, India throws more of that at you. It serves as a good reminder that if I stay open the likelihood of rewarding interactions dramatically increases. Simple I guess, but so easily forgotten in the land of generalizations and fixed viewpoints (where I spent far too much of my time living).
After chatting to a heavily tattooed Brit at a chai shop (he asked me where I got my sleeve done – turns out we both know Alex Binnie and Curly, the tattoo artists who did the work for me), we discovered that Kutli Beach is a short 20 minute walk over the hill (which is not what local rickshaw drivers would have you believe – if you listen to them it’s 10kms and worth a Rs 300 ride). Kutli Beach is much smaller and busier than Middle Beach, but seemed nice enough. Lots of foreigners however have attracted lots of touts who were prowling the beach with their wares – I spotted one making a beeline for me so ran away before he could hit me with his sales pitch. That didn’t stop him trying and he shouted after me “I have good necklaces! Maybe another time?” Maybe another life mate. Nix and I are both very happy to be where we are at Middle Beach. Tomorrow we’re going to trek to all the main beaches in the area if we can – Kutli Beach to Om Beach to Paradise Beach to Half Moon Beach. It should be a good hike, although we’ll have to set off early to avoid walking in the searing midday heat. And we’ll have to quaff a few coconuts along the way ;) Drinking coconut water is brilliant – tastes great and is meant to be excellent for health too. You can’t say fairer than that.
We wandered around the quiet backstreets of Gokarna at sunset and came across an amazing walled ghat area, filled with lotus flowers, jacaranda pads, omnipresent rubbish and.... a resident crocodile. We were fortunate enough to see the croc having a rest on the shrine area in the middle of the water. It was as if we’d been transported back through time. Just a few hundred metres away was the busy main road filled with foreigners, shops and restaurants, which felt like another world. The buildings in the walled ghat area looked older/less gaudy and the residents of several were singing prayers which added to the ambience. The croc was the cherry on top. We were travelling again.
There are a lot of Russians in this area (I’m starting to sound properly racist ;)) – we even noticed restaurants in town with Russian signage.... I’m always curious as to why certain areas attract certain people. Why Russians in Gokarna? Why not Canadians for instance? I’m sure there are some, but there are more Russians. What an anthropological wonder of a world we live in. Keeps things interesting though I guess. I met a fellow Brit the other day and we had a chat about the bicycle he had just bought. Sounded to me like he was from the South West. He thought our bikes were better than his. I told him to never judge a bike by its cover, since the chain on my bike had fallen off once already that day, the gears kept switching by themselves (usually to a higher gear when I was going uphill – my quads need improving so that was helpful) and the pedal crank was bent which made for a very spastic pedal motion. Number one best India quality – you can’t beat it. When they become the next super power we can all benefit from spastic pedal motion technology.
I killed a humongous cockroach in our bathroom. I’d been tracking it (him? her?) for two days, having first come across it during a 2am trip to the toilet when I attempted to bucket flush it down the bowl (if you can call it that – the bit underneath squatting Indian toilets). This execution method failed miserably - the f**ker kept swimming out and running around all over the floor (covered in piss now). A couple of days later I saw it sitting on the ledge in the toilet again, eyeballing me, as if to say “Come on then! Let’s ‘av ya!”, so I blatted the cocky roach with a bucket. This still didn’t work - I only concussed it. Three more swift, hard bucket hits finally did the trick. I can’t believe how sturdy cockroaches are. I’ve heard it said that they can survive a nuclear blast. I was doubtful of this, but am now a believer.
Nix and I have discovered a shortcut to town by walking along the beach – it’s now half an hour instead of nearly an hour via road. We moseyed in last night to find an internet cafe and a doctor (Nix’s ear is still not right) – what a great walk, the stars were out in full effect (an absence of lights on the beach and a crescent moon made them very easy to see). We found both an internet cafe and clinic, but the queue to see the doctor was massive (at 9pm!) so we passed on that and will try to find another doctor tonight. We have yet to find a good chai stall though. They don’t seem to have the knack for making chai down South. We had a couple recently that were loaded with black pepper rendering them undrinkable (I think he’d dropped the pepper grinder in the pot). I feel a stern letter of outrage coming on.
The vibe in Gokarna is very different from Omkareshwar. I felt more energized in Omkareshwar. Here I feel quite lazy. I blame it on the Westerners ;) I am convinced that places where constant spiritual practice takes place have a raised vibration. Nix and I hardly slept for 3 weeks in Omkareshwar (where puja, prasad and darshan were happening almost 24/7), but didn’t feel any ill effects. I had a night of little sleep the night before last and I could barely speak when I got up. All I could think about was getting a strong chai or coffee ;) So from what I can tell beach resorts don’t qualify ;) That said, swimming and walking along the beach are fairly awesome and enjoyable in a different way. Just enjoy, just enjoy, just enjoy.... ;)
Maneshwar’s kids have just arrived back from school. It’s 1pm on Saturday. Indians place strong emphasis on education (they need to make use of the pens they keep asking for after all). They only get a half day off a week we’re told, that being today. Western kids of the same generation are going to seem retarded in comparison. Please spell “work ethic”....
We got up at 6am to wander around the nearby fishing village and paddy fields searching for photo opportunities. We didn’t find any, but it was nice to be up at that time of day as the sun was just coming up and the temperature was perfect. The local villagers are farmers of note – all have large fields full of various vegetables. We need to get some tips from them. Madhya Pradesh was extremely dry and dusty in comparison. We only saw chillies being grown there. Some of the farmers were hand watering their fields with jugs which they had filled up from a water hole. Now that is dedication. It served as another reminder of how easy we have it in the West with all our modern conveniences - automated sprinkler systems springing to mind....
Somewhat annoyingly the locals don’t really speak Hindi – they have their own language. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it sounds completely different to Hindi. Even their script is different. It looks more like Thai! They speak better English than they do Hindi, but I’m determined not to let my Hindi efforts go to waste and will continue to speak to the locals with stunted Hindi phrases dammit (even if I do receive blank looks when I do). We plan to go to the North East next year (Sikkim, Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh....) where Hindi (stunted or otherwise) should be useful, so it will be good to keep my hand in....
The bus trip was both engaging and annoying in a way that can only happen in India. We left Andheri East at 5pm and it took us over 3 hours just to get out of Mumbai. Without a car or bike in Mumbai you are stuffed as the areas to traverse are huge and the public transport system is rubbish and expensive. Delhi is far more jacked in that regard with a metro system that is cheap and easy to find your way around.... The AC semi-sleeper almost lived up to its promise. Nix’s seat was broken which meant that the foot rest was permanently stuck in the upright position (so getting in and out of the adjoining seat with our bags was a gymnastic feat on my part) and the AC vent behind us was broken which meant we had cold air down our necks all night (nothing that the blankets we had swiped from South African Airways couldn’t deal with though ;)). Despite this it was still the nicest bus we’ve been on in India to date.
Then the Bollywood movies began – the DVDs were played on a TV at the front of the coach, with no individual control over volume (which was, as always in India, cranked to the max and then cranked some more just to be sure). It was initially quite amusing to watch, but the novelty wore off for me after about an hour when I just wanted to go to sleep without the unwelcome addition of Hindi dialogue and Bhangra music being blasted through the bus. It seems that Bollywood films all have plots which essentially go like this – there’s a good looking bloke and a good looking woman, they fall in love, and everyone sings and dances about it a lot. What occurs around that fundamental is neither here nor there really. Bollywood movies are a priceless fusion of Action/Adventure and Musical/RomCom. I reckon I could knock out a Bollywood script easily (having said that I bet anyone could). There was one component in the first movie we saw that I did appreciate however – the delivery of slow motion Bombay Bitch Slaps ™ to the bad guys. I enjoyed those segments, especially when the naughty fellows flew 50 metres across the road and through car doors and plate glass windows after the delivery of said slaps. Pure genius.
At about 4 am the driving got really hectic – I have no idea what happened to the road, but the driver was weaving like a mentalist and slamming the brakes on way too much for my liking. This went on for a good couple of hours and resulted in my wanting to heave badly (despite having taken travel sickness pills – they clearly haven’t tested Stugeron on Indian bus routes).
We missed our stop at Mapusa which turned out to be a blessing since all the jack the lads who had boarded in Mumbai disembarked there. We reached the last stop of Margao around 9am in the morning, and didn’t have to pay for the additional distance we had driven. Bonus. The town is slap bang in the middle of Goa. After walking around for a while and realizing that it was chock full of the club 18 to 30 psytrance hippy/raver crew and the over 60s package tour crew, we decided to bail on Goa and swiftly boarded another bus to Gokarna, Karnataka. Nix told me beforehand that Goa would not be for me, and she was absolutely right. She knows me too well ;) We are in the 40 something crew floating somewhere in the nowhere land between the 18 to 30s and over 60s ;) It seems there are only a few folk in the 40 something crew on a travelling tip – most have settled down with families, mortgages and serious jobs I think. The 18 to 30 crew have not yet fallen into that, and the over 60s have been there and done that. As we sat at the bus stop waiting to board our escape vehicle I noticed that the usual supplications to Hindu Gods adorning buses elsewhere in India had been abandoned on the local buses. In Goa they prefer to appeal to the Holy Trinity via such crafty slogans as “Jesus SFX!” (my guess is that is meant to convey that Jesus rocks, or that he is particularly good at special effects, which he must indeed be as he created the world in a mere seven days) and “Holy Mary light our way” emblazoned above the windscreens. Their Christian slant is a throwback to the Portuguese colonization of the region I believe. Anyhoo, we were glad to leave on all fronts. Five hours later (and twenty four hours after leaving Mumbai) we arrived in Gokarna.
Most of the other Westerners who had been on the bus boarded rickshaws bound for Om Beach a couple of kilometres away, so we decided to stay to in Gokarna. There are still a lot of Westerners here, but not nearly as many as we think there will be in Om Beach. Nix and I have been very fortunate in our India travels – we have found places to visit and stay that basically have no or very few Westerners. We seem to be allergic to them. Gokarna is the most Westerner populated place in India I have been to, which makes me really glad we didn’t stay in Goa.... I’m not sure why I am so over Westerners. Maybe because there are so many at home ;) It definitely brings a different vibe being in a place that caters so heavily for the Western massive. It doesn’t feel as authentic as venturing to far flung and remote regions of India where you get a real taste of how things roll (there are for instance barely any Indian food items on any of the restaurant menus here – it’s all burgers, lasagnes and falafels. If I wanted that I would have gone travelling to Pick And Pay).
We eventually found a great place to stay in a family home five minutes away from the imaginatively named Middle Beach and about half an hour away from the town – we’ve got a kitchen (minus any cooking equipment but a kitchen nonetheless!) and big room with en-suite shower/toilet, all for Rs 200 a night. After the expense of Mumbai (where 2 coffees cost over Rs 300), we were chuffed to say the least. It should help to bring the expenditure situation back on track ;) We cruised around town on bicycles today and found a very quaint post office where we posted off the plans for a DIY plastic bottle water heater system I had printed out in Mumbai for Raju. He doesn’t have access to internet, so mail is the only way he could receive the info. With a bit of luck he’ll be able to decipher the plans (the inventor of the system is Portuguese speaking and the translated plans are not in bestest English, mind you Raju is Hindi speaking so it probably doesn’t matter!) and have hot water running for his family in Sangam which will cost him nothing in the long-term ;) We also ventured into the Arabian Sea – it was as warm as bath water. I could have stayed in for hours.... No floating poos or raw sewage outlets in sight either - two thumbs fresh. Gokarna is India’s version of Thailand. It is lush with coconut palms lining the roads and beaches, the temperature is very hot during the day, and pleasant at night, there are flat seas and lots of beach shacks/cafes/restaurants and tourist shops in the town. Fortunately it is very quiet where we are – we walked along the beach without being hassled by anybody. I wasn’t expecting that, and am very pleasantly surprised by it. It makes for a breath of fresh air from the mania found elsewhere in India.
We slept like the dead last night. I had a strange dream where Bobby Friction nicked my cellphone and put an app on it which turned reality into an endless rerun show about death. Nix and I were both stuck in this rerun. The only way to get out of it was to accept what is. You would then be taken to a lift, dissolved into blue light and never have to return. Nix sussed this out early on. I didn’t. It was a dream that didn’t make me feel too good, and it was peculiarly realistic.
Canon Crisis Averted - 3rd December 2013
Leaving Mumbai today... Miraculously Nix managed to get the last Canon Mark II battery charger in Mumbai delivered this morning, with the help of Laiq sweet talking the Canon Mumbai distribution manager at 10pm last night. That conversation would have gone down very differently if we had called the Canon distribution manager at that time in London or Cape Town and asked for a delivery to be done first thing next morning.... ;) Big ups India!
We met Mahindra the momo master from Darjeeling last night. He has a shop right opposite Laiq’s tower block (cunningly disguised as a mobile phone shop), and his food rocks. He’s also a total geezer – he wanted to give us our meals for free because he was so happy we had stopped by. Mumbai is a seriously expensive city, so there was no way we were going to take him up on his offer, but we were touched by the gesture. We had lunch there again today – killer.... Makes a nice change from curry. I could eat momos all day.
Today was again mostly spent in traffic (a favourite Mumbai pastime) as I went over to Worli with Laiq to help him collect a washing machine for his flat. Worli basically consists of skyscrapers, and feels a bit like Mumbai’s answer to Seapoint or Brighton. Mumbai is massive, Cape Town is miniscule in comparison. Before we made the trip I suggested to Laiq that he should clear out the old parts (such beauties as used air filters and broken bumpers kept from a previous service) he had sitting in his boot so we could make room for the washing machine. He responded by taking them round the corner to flog them at a chai stall! He managed to make Rs 150 out of them – only in India....
We’re off to Goa tomorrow pon the bus. Every journey we have ever made in India seems to be mammoth. A short trip is 10 hours ;) Ahead of us we have 13 hours on a bus to Mapusa, then 1 hour on a bus to Magoa, then another 4 to 5 hours on a bus to Gokarna. Jah be praised for headphones (and travel sickness pills)....
We attempted to take the train to Colaba today to do some sightseeing. No chance! We bought tickets and headed hopefully for the platform. I had flashbacks to our arrival in Mumbai and taking the train to Khandwar when I saw what lay in wait - the platform was rammed. We found a spot and stood for almost an hour with no train in sight and no displays, clocks or schedules that we could see. We asked fellow passengers standing nearby if they knew when the next train was due in. “No idea” was the response we got - Indian patience in full effect.
Finally a train rolled in and it was overflowing – even good old British force wouldn’t get us in the doors. After seeing that the trains arriving on the other platforms were also all overflowing (so much for quieter Sunday services – God knows what the services must be like during the week), we gave up on our Colaba dream and opted for a rickshaw ride back to Andheri instead. After 5 minutes I realized the meter was showing Rs 50, which was way too much for the distance travelled. So we got him to pull over, gave him an ear bashing and Rs 20. Some people on the street heard the ear bashing, came over to see what was going on and agreed with us that we were being ripped off.
Feeling righteously justified, we walked back to Andheri and stopped at a coffee shop for a breather (and some AC). Cue Babaji, who waltzed in with his man servants. Nix mentioned his arrival to me so I turned around to have a look. He had 2 Sikh servants with ceremonial knives acting as bodyguards, and another Sikh servant to order the coffee for him. Once his coffee arrived he drank it whilst spinning continuously at the counter (knocking in to everyone else stood in the queue) and twitching his left hand. I used to work in psychiatric wards in the UK, and if I had seen Babaji there I would definitely have classified him as “care in the community”. Here he is revered for some reason. Anyway, he took to glaring at us and asking us the same question in Hindi over and over again in a very aggro manner. We asked one of the other customers what he meant and they said he was asking if we were English. His Sikh servant came over and gently explained that Babaji likes blue eyes. Right. I personally wanted to give Babaji a Bombay Bitch Slap ™, but refrained and chose to smile at him instead to see if I could dissolve the aggro vibes. No such luck. The customers we spoke to said that Babaji is believed to have transcended desire. My response to that was “Then why is he swanning about with servants and getting coffee in upmarket Andheri?” They laughed and shook their heads. I told them that I felt the softly spoken Sikh servant was more worthy of respect than Babaji, and that I believe people’s actions and behaviour count for more than titles bestowed on them. They seemed to agree, and laughed some more. Babaji continued to glare at us, sip his coffee, twirl and twitch his hand. Time for his meds I think.