The advantage was that the tickets were very cheap. The disadvantage was that the India love/hate switch I spoke about earlier was very firmly switched to hate in me for the duration of the journey. We shared our carriage with several very large, very noisy Indian families. Indian families take forever to settle down. Everything is cause for a massive discussion which can last for hours. Nix decided to engage the enemy. It was a very brief chat. None spoke English and all had names that were completely unpronounceable to us, for example one lady introduced herself as “Manamengalaya”. Oh dear. There was no chance we were going to be able to remember or repeat their names (not that I really wanted to at this point). I realized then that it’s not only Keralan and Tamil place names I am dyslexic with. I was growing progressively more irritated and found myself wishing that I had a magic mute button. The loud jabbering continued from 7pm (when our train left) until about 2am when they finally decided they had done enough talking (shouting) and went to sleep. I lay looking at the berth above me which was close to my face. A couple of cockroaches ran past me. I felt like I was staying in a skanky version of a Tokyo capsule hotel.
At about 3am a bloke walked into the berth, turned all the lights on and stared at me and Nix (who was lying in the berth below me). I turned over and asked him why he had turned the lights on and what he was doing. “9.30” was his reply. Oh right, carry on then. He climbed up above my berth, fell asleep within 5 minutes and started to snore like a bastard. I had to fight back the overwhelming urge to kick his berth really hard and knock him out of it (from which I would have got a certain satisfaction). Whilst Indians can be amazing in some areas, they can be downright disgusting in others (as the farting, burping, hawking, retching and snotting in the carriage throughout the night confirmed) and mostly make for highly unsuitable travel companions (as demonstrated by their total absence of consideration for others where personal space and noise are concerned).
When we pulled in to Villupuram train station I noticed a sign on the wall that said “learn one day one Hindi word” (I would have added to that “and learn some little English grammars”). In Tamil Nadu the majority refuse to speak anything but Tamil. From what I gather they are quite militant about it. This must have been an attempt by the Indian government to change that. I think they have a long way to go.... I remember our trip to Villupuram last year. It’s a place I vowed never to return to. And here we were again. Thankfully the visit only lasted for a short time as the train waited for people to disembark. Our train was evidently not an express - it stopped everywhere, sometimes in the middle of large dark fields for no apparent reason at all. I was looking forward to arriving in Tiruvannamalai so we could put this journey behind us.
Finally the signs for Tiruvannamalai station flashed past our window. We stepped onto the platform (I almost felt like kneeling down and kissing it), walked quickly past the persistent auto rickshaw drivers and headed on foot towards the Ramana ashram where I had read there are many home stay options available. It looked like the walk was only a couple of kilometres on Google maps, and as it was early morning and the sun had not yet risen we felt we could do it without any major difficulties. We set off bravely, stopping for a cup of chai when we reached the Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple (about half way according to my map). The second leg of the journey didn’t correlate with the map at all. It took an age, and with backpacks and no sleep, we were flagging. We eventually made it to the Ramana Ashram and began our search for accommodation. We had no luck at all. The ashrams were full, and everywhere else was booked out or was far too expensive. It seems that most Westerners come here and rent out flats and houses. We were offered a flat directly opposite a swamp – mosquito hell. Tiruvannamalai is suffused with mosquitoes – I must have been bitten 50 times or more on this accommodation trek already. There was no way were we going to pay to live by a swamp. We felt sure we would find a basic, cheaper room that would suit our needs (we always do in the end) so persevered until two hours later we came across a room on a shop building rooftop in a quiet road. After sorting out a broken fan and lack of a bed with the owner, we set off to find breakfast. We had been told in Gokarna by an American traveller (who was dressed only in blankets) that Tiruvannamalai is a very auspicious place (there we go with the auspicious thing again – Nix and I feel like we are the most auspicious people on the planet) and that you are fortunate to even hear its name (not if you’re dyslexic I thought). Big talk, and we were interested to see if it lived up to this lofty reputation.
Our first stop at the Tasty Cafe didn’t inspire us. It had an expensive full-on Western menu. We were so tired though that we stayed and ate a quick breakfast before leaving to get our bearings in the town. Every other restaurant in the area had carbon copies of the Tasty Cafe menu. It didn’t look good for us staying on in Tiruvannamalai if the costs were going to be this high. As the morning wore on, more Westerners woke up and took to the streets. There were a lot of them. We smiled and greeted those we walked past and were blanked by most of them. Here we go again. This was also not boding well for us staying on.... I find it curious that so many Western spiritual seekers in India cannot smile. Who gives a shit how long you can sit in meditation for, how many chants you’ve done, how many ascetic practices you’ve completed, or how many gurus you’ve visited if you are incapable of a smile? I think you’ve missed the point. But that’s just my opinion ;) For me, smiling is good seva and we are going to look on it as a practice whilst we are here.
As we walked around the town we saw many open sewers and large water tanks (ghats were locals bathe I think) which would explain why the town has such a mosquito problem. The town itself was not all that interesting. The Arunachala mountain (apparently an extinct volcano) dominated the landscape, and looked worth a hike but earlier in the day when it was cooler. The Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple in the middle of the town is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the Sri Meenakshi Temple we had just visited in Madurai. It seemed like a Mini Meenakshi to us ;) We walked to the foot of the mountain and chanced upon a funeral in progress. The dead man covered in marigolds was on display in a glass coffin. Out of respect for the grief of the family we left quietly down a side street. We walked for hours before stopping at a coffee shop near the temple for a break. There we met Piers from Bristol. He was the perfect person to speak to. He gave us an overview of the place from his perspective. He had a profound experience on the Arunachala mountain some years back and had come back every year since. He clearly loved the place and could overlook the shortcomings. It made us feel more enthusiastic to stay and reminded me of the same situation that arose at Amma’s Ashram where we felt like leaving but instead decided to stay and participate to the fullest in order to get the best benefit from our visit. Piers suggested we stay at least till full moon on January 16th when the town does a parikramar (holy walk) around the mountain. He also gave us a couple of great suggestions for local cheap restaurants :) On the walk home as I stopped at the ruins of an old temple to take a photograph we were approached by an elderly Australian guy decked out in Saddhu garb. I thought he was slightly odd but felt I should stay open and not reject him outright. He seemed pleasant enough but the conversation mostly revolved around all the things he felt he was good at – everything from reading Sanskrit texts to acting.... I asked him what his name was. “Kali Baba” he replied. Righto. Why people can’t just keep their given names here I don’t know.... Mind you if he had a name like “Reginald Dwight” or “Dwayne Dibbly” I might understand why. Places that have a reputation of being powerful attract all sorts – light and dark.... The interaction reminded me that being open to people didn’t preclude me from discerning what is bullshit and what isn’t. I wondered if the town turned into zombies on full moon. Holy walk with the Evil Dead....
We went to bed early and chatted about the day as we lay listening to the welcome whirring of our now working fan. We both decided we shouldn’t judge the place or people too quickly since we were both really tired (which can colour everything we experience), that we’d sleep on it and take it day by day. I fell asleep dreaming of zombies reaching through our room window to get to us – I broke off their arms by forcing them against the burglar bars and passed the arms to Nix who promptly threw them off the roof. How’s that for teamwork....