Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hugging Mother

Once we re-oriented ourselves and had our feet on solid ground again after our epic train ride, we simultaneously decided that in spite of all the difficulties, we were really starting to like India; we will definitely miss it when we're gone. During our first month here, we have spent a lot of energy adjusting and reacting to the ridiculousness, discomfort, intensity, vibrancy, beauty, inspiration, and at times repulsiveness of India. It's only now that we're in the relatively more mellow south that we are beginning to appreciate the strange logic of this funny country. And while we are grateful for the less crowded streets, general forthrightness of vendors and rickshaw drivers, and slower pace of life, we already miss the places we visited in northern India, where all the varieties and extremes of the human experience were on full display.


Buoyed by this spirit we boarded the tourist cruise from Kollam, a small port town where we had taken a lovely canoe ride through rural villages on Venice-like backwaters lined with coconut groves, and got off halfway at the Hugging Mother/Saint (aka Mata Amritanandamayi Math) Ashram. Amma, the ashram's female guru and founder, has done extensive and impressive humanitarian aid in the area and gets her name (Hugging Mother) because her primary method of transmitting spiritual teaching is by hugging people. She will hug lines of thousands of people for sometimes 20 hours straight and is reported to have given over 26 million hugs.

The ashram itself is on a 1-km wide stretch of land right in between the Kerala backwaters and the Arabian sea. There are about 2,000 permanent and visiting residents including Indian families and international visitors housed in five pink high-rise buildings. This is especially incongruous given that the ashram is located in Amma's birthplace, a small conservative village.


Despite the surge in Amma's popularity she has made a real effort to make the ashram a resource rather than a force of Westernization for the village residents. Visitors are expected to dress very modestly and are discouraged from leaving the ashram grounds. Men from the village arrive three times a day to eat free meals, older teenagers hang out and flirt at the juice bar in the evening, and many schoolchildren come to meditate and take daily classes at the temple. However, resources and activities for international visitors are organized primarily by Westerners and so the ashram is accessible and hassle-free. In a lot of ways it's the best of both worlds, a needed break where life is comfortable, safe, and easy but we still feel like we are in India.


People really love Amma here. It's surprising how many Westerners live full-time on the ashram; it's not uncommon for people to live here for 10-15 years. The first question anyone asks you is “Have you met Amma?” and people are generally displeased when we suggest we might leave before she returns. She is currently touring in the US and won't return till December 3rd by which point we will have moved on, but in some ways we are relieved, as everything is less Amma-centric and more easy going without the thousands lining up for hugs (and food).


Our daily schedule is as follows:

4:50-6:30AM- Chant the 1,000 names of Amma, the “Divine Mother” (women in the main temple, men in a large, dullish room on top of the printing press).

6:30AM-Chai

6:45AM-7:30AM Meditate while sitting on stone benches by the beach (there is construction going on right now—Indian men moving large rocks with sticks—so it's not as peaceful as it sounds).

7:30AM- 9 AM-Ali peels garlic and/or chops vegetables in the Western cafe with all the elderly people who can't do any hard labor. Jeremy rests or engages in conversation with the many people here from Boston who assume that his interest in religion centers on Hinduism.

9 AM-Breakfast (Rice, beans, potato curry).

10:15 AM-Ali swims during “girl hours” at the pool.

11:30 AM-Jeremy swims during “boy hours” at the pool.

1 PM-Lunch (Rice, beans, potato curry).

2-4 PM-Jeremy scrubs 25 lb pots, Ali rests.

4 PM-Chai,M Fresh Papaya juice from the juice bar, or coconut water from the man with the coconuts by the beach, or vegan(!) wheat free(!) naturally sweetened(!) oatmeal cookies.

5-6 PM-Ali meditates with the women in the temple, Jeremy reads in his room since there is no organized meditation session for men, and because he doesn't want to meditate right now.

6:30-8:00 PM-Devotional singing (women in the temple, men above the printing press)

8 PM-Dinner (Rice, beans, potato curry).


All this hoodad + a clean private room on the 9th floor of building E with a view of the ocean + steamed vegetables, home-made curd (yogurt) and other vegan delicacies for less than $10 a day.


We are staying for a week, then heading to Fort Cochin for a couple of weeks where Jeremy plans to write an article about the Jewish community living there.


Here is a picture of Gitsy and Jeremy in Delhi which we didn't add last time:


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kerala Express

The temperature had dropped into the 40s when we rolled into Delhi early Friday morning. Locals wrapped in blankets and wearing wool hats with ear hats huddled together beside the tracks, shivering and sipping sweet chai from tiny plastic cups. Nizamuddin station-named after a Sufi mystic-seemed quiet for a city of 15 million, and rumor had it that many people were staying home because of the cold. But to us the sudden arrival of the Indian winter came as a great relief. We wouldn't be missing out on fall in America after all.

First thing after settling into our centrally located but rather unpleasant hostel where, despite the weather, we were forced to pay extra for air conditioned rooms, we arranged to meet up with Gitsy, our friend from Wesleyan. It is a tremendous luxury to have a friend in an unwalkable, booming metropolis like Delhi, especially one who decides to dedicate three days to playing with you. For the first time in nearly two months, we did not have to plan all our activities for ourselves, we did homely things such as hang out with a group of (Gitsy's) friends at a grungy bar and spend time at a real house. We were surprised how grounding it was to see a familiar face, to sit in a garden talking with friends, or hang out in the living room while Gitsy chatted with her aunties and her mother offered us chocolates and apple slices.

We started by visiting several of Delhi's important sights, which were made all the more enjoyable because we had been learning about them in William Dalrymple's "City of Djinns"- the Jama Masjid mosque and Chandri Chowk in the old city, as well as Lodhi Gardens and Humayun's tomb, and, of course Parliament row. Especially visiting the last sight we were reminded strongly of D.C. On Saturday, we ventured over to the club where Gitsy's parents, who serve in the foreign and civil service, are members (yes, the British legacy still remains). Despite being ejected from the club's restaurant as a result of our sneakers and general dirtiness, we ate with her mother and sister at a tasty, meat-heavy Chinese buffet across the way. The next night, after drinking Tiger beer at a 1 + 1 happy hour in Khan Market, a run-down looking place in the city's diplomatic enclave that is actually quite lively and full of fancy shops and restaurants, we purchased, at the recommendation of Gitsy's friends, a special treat: mutton (lamb or goat) wrapped in sweet parathas (flaky buttery tortilla-like breads). And, to Ali's great pleasure, we attended Bollywood movies in a huge modern cinema on two consecutive nights.

On Monday, we boarded a train heading south to Kerala. It was quite shocking to wake up to palm trees, 100 degree weather, and men wearing sarongs (Indian-style skirts) instead of pants. After 50 plus hours on the train, we were excited to stretch our legs, stop eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and engage in some activities other than reading competitions and rummy 500 marathons.

We are staying in Trivandrum, the transit hub of the South, for a couple of nights, then heading to Kollam, a sleepy, old port town, and from there taking a ferry to the "Hugging Mother" ashram where we are not sure what will happen...

Love you all!

Jeremy and Ali

P.s. For those interested poll voters, three of you are lucky winners. The following items were confiscated from us (but later returned) upon entering the Taj Mahal: A) Ali's scarf, playing cards, Ali's journal, Jeremy's loaf of bread, two novels, hand sanitizer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pictures!


At long last we have found wi-fi! Here are our latest photo albums:

Click here to see pictures from Varanasi

Click here to see pictures from Agra
- beware we got a little carried away with pictures of the Taj Mahal

Click here to see pictures from Udaipur- cooking class, horse ride, temples, forts, and more monkeys

We are really enjoying being in Delhi, its a beautiful, big, and exciting city that has some of everything and we are being taken care of by our friend from Wesleyan, Gitsy, who lives here. We have eaten some excellent kebabs and seen Bollywood movies two nights in a row...

More later.

Love,
Ali and Jeremy

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Octopussy

One of the reasons we decided to stay at Hotel Udai Niwas in Udaipur was that it promised to show "English movies every night on our rooftop terrace." Sounded pretty great. However, when we asked what movies were showing we were slightly dispirited to hear that same movie was screened every single night: "Octopussy," a James Bond thriller featuring the Lake Palace (one of Udaipur's main attractions). As it turned out, nightly Octopussy screenings took place at many of the city's tourist hotels and rooftop restaurants.

This oddity aside, Udaipur-located in the desert state of Rajasthan-has been a wonderful stop on our India tour. The streets are wider, the people are more friendly, easy-going, and relaxed, and there are lots of palaces and forts. Street vendors also hassled us a lot less here, with the sole exception of a dedicated cadre of rickshaw drivers who vigorously peddle marijuana. "Rickshaw?" No, thanks. "some joint? A mariijjjuuaana?" No, thanks. Five minutes later "some joint? A mariijjjuuaana?" No! "Maybe rickshaw?"

In honor of my birthday week we stayed at a nicer and more comfortable hotel than usual (17 dollars a night) and participated in some fun organized activities. First, we took a 5 1/2 hour cooking class with Shashi; you should all look forward to reaping the benefits when we are back home. Then, we got some relaxing but rather strange massages, including a 15 minute head rub for Jeremy. We also spent a half-day riding "Royal Marwari Horses," which have different ears than English ones and very curved backs. The experience was very different from our Nepalese pony trek. The horses were beautiful, healthy, and spirited, and while the five-hour ride was scenic, the environment was unlike any we had seen so far-arid, dusty, hot, and with little vegetation. We were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty by the end of the ride and dissapointed that our driver had not yet arrived to take us back to our hotel. He showed up after forty minutes apologizing profusely for being late. "I would have been here earlier," he explained, "but I was drinking beer at my friend's house."

Yesterday, we woke up early for a trip out to the massive Ranakpur fort and an impressive Jain temple. Jeremy and our Australian friend especially enjoyed locating places on the upper parts of the castle where scalding oil could have been dumped on intruders. Ali's favorite part of the day was sitting next to several Jain women in the temple and listening to them play drums and sing devotional songs. The day was pleasant and, other than having our taxi charged by a bull, peaceful and relaxing.

We leave to Delhi tonight and have decided to take a 50-hour train ride all the way south to Kerala next week, where we hope to settle in for a while. No wi-fi in Udaipur, but we'll upload photos soon enough.

Love,

Jeremy and Ali

Friday, November 6, 2009

Crowds, Forts, and More Monkeys

The streets of Varanasi are unrelentingly colorful, curvy and crowded. Vendors sell everything from 2 ounce cups of chai ladled out of big bubbling vats, to deep fried mashed potato patties and samosas drenched in corn sauce, to medicines, spices, underpants, gold jewelry, pots, pans, office furniture, and silk sarees and scarves (Varanasi's speciality). As much as we've been enjoying the hustle and bustle and getting lost-even Lonely Planet's maps didn't help us here-on our last day we decided to venture over to a different and more peaceful part of town.

After strolling through the quiet and peaceful tree-lined streets of Banares Hindu University, supposedly one of India's finer institutions of higher learning (it was a holiday and very few students were on campus), we attempted, for the first time all week, to cross the Ganges river. With the help of some students we took a bicycle rickshaw to a large and slightly rickety bridge at the end of a shanty town, navigating loose boards for 15 minutes until the bridge came to an abrupt end--50 meters from shore. Sadly, we retraced our steps and managed to board a tiny row boat with one oarsmen and at least 35 passengers. We made it across in time to see the sun go down from the ruins of a majestic colonial fort.

The boatride home served as a perfect viewing point for Dev Deepawali (not to be confused with Deepawali, which we celebrated recently in Pokhara), a huge Hindi holiday marking the crescendo of a festive week called Ganga Mahostav. Celebrations were scheduled to take place all up and down the river, aiming to make people feel like they are "in heaven, witnessing a celestial happening." Accustomed to peaceful Nepalese holidays, we were surprised as we floated back into the old city to be greeted by Vegas-style flashing lights, techno music, and periodic bursts of ear-splitting fireworks. Less rattling were the burning candles set in small clay saucers decorating all of the stairs leading up from the river and into the various temples and shrines.

We disembarked in the middle of the madness at the main Ghat, where the celebrations and crowds were at their most intense. As we attempted to make our way to a calmer place from which to view the festivities, we were swept up in a stream of people, struggling to keep our feet on the ground. Suddenly, we found ourselves herded into a particularly narrow and jammed passageway and quickly realized that women and families seemed to have vanished; mainly young men remained. A few groping hands and a minor altercation later, the sea split and we escaped to the relative safety of our hotel terrace. Relating the incident to our friendly hotel receptionist, who, judging by prior conversations, was a bit paranoid about the safety of western women, he told us: "nice people don't go to the river on holiday." We weren't quite sure what to make of that, given the impressive number of foreign-and Indian-tourists who had descended on the city to take part in the festivities. But as the old adage goes: India is a funny country. We are learning more and more about it.

After a 12-hour train ride during which we sat across from a sweet, recently-married Indian couple who were dropped off and picked up by a horde of male family members, we arrived in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. In Agra, the lemon tea is terrible, the vegetable curries are extremely spicy, postcard peddlers are amazingly persistent, and Jeremy had a bag of bananas ripped from his hands by monkeys on two separate occasions, to the absolute delight of passerby.

There is an unbelievable concentration of majestic forts, mausoleums and mosques in a 5 km radius, which we toured with a warm and yoga-obsessed rickshaw driver on day 1. Visiting the Taj Mahal and seeing it from various riverbanks and rooftop restaurants has been a surprisingly powerful experience. The structure itself is incredibly mesmerizing, seductive and, yes, romantic.

Anyway, our health has improved and the series of unfortunate events seems to have at least temporarily ceased. We arrived this morning in Udaipur, a smallish city, by Indian standards, in Rajasthan, where we will spend the next week enjoying hot water (first warm showers in over 2 weeks!) and celebrating Ali's birthday by taking cooking lessons and horse-rides and treating her to a long massage.

No wi-fi here so it might be a while till pictures are loaded.

Love,

A and J