Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kerala Kerala Kerala

I awoke the following morning to a city virtually devoid of motor vehicles, with women walking in large numbers and filling the streets. Other women lined the sides of the streets and were cooking, using a single pot held up between bricks set on either side of bamboo wood fires. I walked and the smoke became intense and at times slightly suffocating. Some streets were blocked off to most males, but I was permitted as a foreigner with a badge I'd obtained the previous day; as a non-active participant in the ceremony and the culture, I didn't count. I cannot describe the story or the purpose of the Attukal Pongala Festival better than this blog: Click here. In the evening, a children's parade involving elephants sets out, but I was eager to get to the yoga ashram. Traffic was nearly at a gridlock and buses were unable to make it to the bus stand, so I ended up getting a rickshaw. The driver spent most of his time on the right side of the road, which would have been cool in the U.S., but in India, it meant that we made good time, but I was white-knuckling.The Sivananda Ashram was a haven from the big city. Set in the hills above Neyyar Dam and preserve, this ashram is a place for serious yoga training. I arrived between yoga teacher training courses and toward the end of the "yoga vacation" two week course. I jumped right in, under know dillusion that this was going to be a walk in the park. A typical day's schedule involved Satsung (meditation, followed by chanting) from 6-7:30 PM; yoga from 8-10; Breakfast at 10AM (all you can eat vegan; silence requested; sitting crosslegged); Karma Yogo at 11 (I cleaned some bathrooms each day); Special Practice for working on assenas (I attended these to work on head stand, crow, and later scorpion); Lecture on eastern philosohy, meditation, etc. from 2-3PM; Yoga class 3:30-5:30; dinner at 6PM; Another round of satsung from 8-10; Then bedtime. The good news is that they added variety to this blank schedule. We were incredibly fortunate to have a concert by a Hungarian musician who specialized in Indian music. He played an instrument resembling a sitar, but without frets, called a Sarod (I tried, but failed to play this instrument later in the week because I didn't have long enough finger nails); a copper bowl filled with water whose wet handles he stroked to produce an etherial sound whose vibrations excited the surface water; and an instrument that he played with his mouth and fingers that made a twang-like sound. Furthermore, he was able to use Tibetan throat, mouth, and head techniques to produce multiple tones at once and some incredibly deep sounds. At times, I wondered whether the sounds were coming from him at all, but they were. The result was one of the most sublime concerts I've experienced. I have his CD. I was fortunate later in the week to have a vocal class with this artist. He taught us some of the Eastern scale and worked on our voice control. An amazing teacher!
Another highlight of the yoga was the evening walking meditation. We went down to the edge of Neyyar Dam on the full moon and meditated to the reflections of various gray shades of trees, the moon, and the mountains beyond over placid water.Meditation was a challenge for me, principally because I have limited flexibility in the hips and so it's hard to find tranquility inside when physically uncomfortable. We had a lecture one day which involved the things that we should and shouldn't do in life (according to eastern/Sivananda philosophy); at the end, I wasn't sure how this related to the original topic--meditation. The response was that the things that occur in our everyday life, really affect our meditation dramatically and meditation is a continuum with the outside world. I didn't entirely believe this until I experienced it for myself. Partner yoga, offered by a guest yoga instructor, lead to a flirtatious interaction between me and and an Indian girl named Sanditha (she was really doing most of the flirting, but I won't deny my subtle reciprocity). In any case, our interaction became slightly confusing and awkward after this and one phrase she'd said while enjoying the yoga session baffled me: "I'm nearly crying right now, we would make such a wonderful couple." Well, things never progressed to this point for reasons I won't explain here; however, I found that my meditation from here on out was a constant mental struggle. Questions and conflicting thoughts about Sanditha riddled my mind and attempts to use mantras or other techniques failed miserably to erase these thoughts as they kept returning. In the individual quest to understand oneself, meditation has a place, I am convinced. I am not ready to commit hours to it, however. Well, that's my "spice" delivery for you ...time for some more curd...the spice is more difficult to write.After the yoga session, I headed north to the Amma (meaning "mother" in Malayalam) Ashram. Amma has the reputation for being an enlighted individual who gives Darshan through her hugs. This is the reason most people visit and some report truly enlightening/lifechanging experiences. This Ashram is more like a city sandwiched between the canal and the ocean. My accomodation was 16 stories tall. Most people are slightly older and less happy than at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram. It was Amma's last night before she left her Ashram for a trip and I had an opportunity to attend Darshan, where I recieved a hug after waiting for about an hour. I actually received quite a long hug with forehead pressed to her shoulder while she whispered "moomoomoo" or something into my ear (the crowd control people had instructed her vociferously, "English" in advance). Well, I felt like I'd received a quality hug and the general vibe was one of adoration for this woman, so I felt a small surge of adrenaline. I let myself enjoy it and figured I might as well keep myself open to the possibility of a life-changing experience. A few people issued tears coming out of Darshan and one caucasian girl got significant attention as she gave some gifts to Amma, including what I was told was a pet squirrel. At the end, some ceremony occurred that I couldn't see and I was annoyed by the incessant photography, apparently from Amma's own crew.
I headed north to Alleppe, "the venice of India" and caught a ferry to a backwater village (Chemankary) where organized homestays can be arranged. Not wanting to pay as much as an organized home-stay, I just showed up and wandered around. Eventually, somebody took me to a family who offered me a home stay for a better price. The family had a beautiful home with Joseph, Sally, and their daughter Lijina (Liji) and son (Lijo). The house was in a backwater enclave, surrounded by surrounded by rice paddies (they farm rice and earn money through tourism). Interestingly, they told me that they use about 1/3 of the rice that they farm for themselves and during the harvest, about 300 people will come to their plot of land from surrounding villages to harvest the rice in April. I really enjoyed this family and the food they made for me (small fish fry for lunch, _various curries for dinner, and rice/coconut steamed served with steamed bannana--really good mashed together). I also enjoyed a canoe tour of the village. The calm water made for excellent photography in the evening light. Siblings in this town have interestingl similar names: (1) Lijo, Liji; (2) Stella, Stephi, Steha; (3) Tinu, Tiho, Tibin, Titi, Tindu, Tinsi. A pet mina bird in the hose repeated like a parrot the following words: "amma," meaning mother AND "Issuay sto dram," meaning Jusus Thanks You. A shrimp trap in the nearby backwater channel produced results that morning and Lijo played with the shrimp's latent triggering reflex which was abrupt and strong.

After a relaxing morning of reading (largely an excuse to stay there to eat lunch), I headed back to Alleppe, from which station I intended to catch a bus to Munnar. I happened upon somebody (Manoj) who was excited to practice English with me. He invited me to see his village to meet his friends and family and offered to let me stay overnight. The fact that I missed my bus made the decision easy, so Manoj took me to his small village nestled amid a maze of small streets outside of Harripad. Manoj's residence was two bedrooms. One for the pareents -- Pushpa, Manoj's mother, and Ma Tra Van, his father, with a small kitchen area, I presume; the other for Manoj and his older brother (and me). The room was about the size of my smallest college dorm room. 4 cows, including two calfs lounged outside and were brought into a shed out back for the night. Manoj took me toward the rice paddies and on the way we met most of his family and many of his friends and English students. He would often make comments to me about the quality of these students, saying something like "Her English is quite good, but she's too shy!" I was incredibly warmly welcomed and felt like everyone in town was amazed that I was there. I think Manoj was even surprised that I was willing to accept such marginally adequate accomodations (i.e. sharing a bed). I did have to establish earlier in the day that I was not interested in the favors he implied by his unusual offer of a massage, but he later earned enough trust that I was willing to work with the situation. Before bed, we took a hair-raising motorbike ride to a local Toddy bar. This time, I tried it without alcohol and still didn't enjoy it, but the spiced beef made the trip worthwhile.

The following morning, I headed to the Portuguese/Dutch old port city of Kocin. I will let the words of Arundhati Roy describe my Kathakali experience that evening. "In the evenings (for that Regional Flavour) the tourists were treated to truncated kathakali performances ('Small attention spans,' the Hotel People explained to the dancers), So ancient stories were collapsed and amputated. Six-hour classics were dashed to twenty-minute cameos." We were given an introduction to the make-up, the important role of the eyes, the mudras (which are really the language), and the emotions expressed in embellished facial expressions and hand gestures. The show we saw involved an infatuated female who was ultimately "slashed up" by the sword of the man she fawned upon. I would hope that if this were a 6-hour classic, there would be more to be witnessed...but perhaps I was missing a lot by not understanding the mudras.

That same evening, I experienced the wonder of green mango fish curry and my hotel owner agreed to teach me how to make it, so after a quick tour of Kocin's sites the following day, I learned to make the dish. Here are my notes:

Keralan Fish Curry (Green Mango or Tamarind)
150-200g shaved coconut (preferable) or 1 bottle coconut milk
1 small green mango sliced in thin-ish strips (for green mango curry)
2-3 Tamarind pods or 2 Tbs. Tamarind juice (for Tamarind curry)
2 Tbs. red pepper
1/2 Tbs. tumeric
~1 Tbs. salt
  1. Combine dry ingrededients and blend with one cup water
  2. Add to frying pan along with another cup or so of water (or coconut milk if subsituting).
  3. Add deeply scored 3/4" fillets of white fish (snapper was used here).
  4. Heat until boiling, then reduce heat somewhat and simmer 10 mins per side.
  5. Serve with steamed white rice.

After a five hour bus ride into the hill station of Munnar, a vestige of England's colonial influence punctuated by it's thirst for tea, I found myself shivering for the first time in months. The next day, I set out with an open agenda, but hoping to be able to climb the tallest peak in the Indian Subcontinent, south of the Himalaya. I was repeatedly told, I was not allowed (yes, NOT ALLOWED) in Ervakalum national park (in which Anemudi "Elephant peak" was located) because the rare species of goat was breeding. I avoided one security guard by going through thewell-manicured tea terraces and spotted a Great Lemir and a flying squirrel in the trees between plots of tea. The people working on the tea plantation were adding some sort of chemical to eliminate some sort of pest. The one I spoke with kept talking about "Elephant--very dangerous." Apparently, there was a herd of elephants in these parts, but lone elephants can be quite dangerous. I finally saw my route into the tempting high country. After a short stop at a waterfall, I turned my red raincoat inside out so it looked black, to better camouflage, and I started upward. Within a few minutes, I found myself amidst a swarm of 1,000-10,000 bees which were traveling rapidly. I was able to restrain myself from the urge to swat at the first few (very fortunate I didn't swat!) and I dropped down and cowered, motionless, probably not even breathing. The swarm passed nearly as rapidly as it arrived. I had some second thoughts about continuing at this point as I viewed this to have been a potential "near death" experience. After some discussion with Karen, my top source for all things entomological, we suspect that a swarm of female bees were following their queen and I probably hadn't disturbe a nest since the bees were not interested in me. I just happened to be in the wrong place along the subtle ridge they were crossing. At this point on the hike, I decided that the event must have been a freak occurrence and continued onwards. The greatest challenge was the high grasses, which I feared harbored snakes. Navigation became tricky as there were rock bands to negotiate with steep hill slopes between the precipices. I found a suitable route and found myself in terrain resembling the rolling gold hills of California (above 6,500 ft here). I spotted several packs of the rare Nalgiri Mountain Goat and realized that although far away, I was disturbing them as they ran off away from me. I was trying hard not to impact them and feel badly if I affected the breeding in any way. A few small cumulus clouds were developping, so I rushed to the summit. There was a small trail coming up from the other side, which is odd because the mountain is supposedly within the "core zone" of the park, which is never open. At this point, I should mention that I completed this 5 hour hike with only one of the 10 essentials (a rain coat, doubling as insulatin), which meant that I had neither food nor water. Thus, by the time I made it back to the road, I was severely dehydrated and even after 1.5 liters of water downed, my legs started cramping as I approached the entrance to the TATA tea museum (this must have looked ridiculous as I was having difficulty hauling myself out of the parking lot).

The tea museum has a functioning tea processing facility demonstration. It also has media which touts how the tea plantions (growing from 3,500-7,000 ft.) are one with nature. Although the plantations are genuinely beautiful, the monoculture introduced here must have been ecologically devastating. One pieve of evidence for this devistation is that 20 years ago Elephants roamed the streets of Munnar and people were afraid to walk outside at night as a result.

My final morning in Munnar, I visited a spice garden where I witnessed the very origin of the spice trade (40 species of plants with wonderous aromas). Then, I commenced a 24-hour journey to Goa. In an attempt to save travel time (and not backtrack), I decided to catch the train one station beyond it's origin (from which my sleeper ticket was issued). Well, my train didn't actually stop at this station (express train, yeah I'm an idiot!). So, they sent me to Thrissur to try to catch my train there...well, the train didn't stop there either, so the station master said they'd have the train stop "just for me." Well, I watched "my train" slowly pull in, roll by, and exit the station while I waved furiously and ultimately hopelessly for them to stop. It was going just a bit too fast for me to jump aboard. Thus, I had to purchase a general compartment seat for another train (the sleeper class being booked full on this one). I boarded the sleeper compartment and they refused to cut me a bone (threatening a 400 Rs penalty if I elected to stay in the compartment). Well, I followed a Goan lady in the same predicamment and we went to the jam-packed General Compartment. After some visions of hours standing, Ijoined some boys who were sitting in the baggage racks near the roof of the train. The position was uncomfortable because we couldn't sit up straight, but I enjoyed their company. Meanwhile,the lady I'd followed kept giving me food which she bought me from the train vendors. When I offered to pay, she told me that "Jesus gives it to you, not me." This lady had just come from a 7-week bible camp in Trissur. That night, numbers in the train thinned and I ended up with a baggage rack all to myself. I was able to sleep on my bag and hold my valuables to avoid any theft. Now, I'm in Goa!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Tamil Nadu & Southern Kerala

With the 24-hour bug in check, I headed to Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal coast, south of Chennai. This spot is renowned for its ancient rock carvings, which were entertaining for about half the day and then the ocean provided a nice relief from the heat. I had a late lunch of shark's fin, although I probably should have known that I was contributing to further decline of an already imperiled population. I had to try shark once and it just tasted like fish, really.

The next morning, I headed to Pondicherry, a former French Colony. At the bus stand, however, there is absolutely no evidence of this region's past. The Indian population here has exploded! I walked a good kilometer to the Ashram, where I hoped to find lodging. I found it at the Ashram's international guest house. The room looked quite clean, but ended up getting me with bed bugs. Sri Aurobindo, a political activist during the period of social upheaval against the British rule, turned into a spiritual guru and profound writer on the subject. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram complex was a disappointment to me. I went in hoping to find activities, but found only meditation in a courtyard centered around a flower-hewn tub of water. When I asked about activities, I was told somewhat snobbishly "read the literature," at which point I made for the exhibition (which provided a more summary-style version of the litterature). Here, I learned about the tremendous following that Sri Aurobindo inspired. People would come from all around to see him and he was highly venerated. Ultimately, he decided that spirituality and politics should not mix and he devoted his life to spirituality and the unity of mankind; and that unity represented itself for him as faith in a higher being.

Sri Aurobindo's primary student was a French lady who came to be known as "The Mother." She was also quite clever and claimed when Sri Aurobindo died that his spirit and strength now resided in her. She too inspired large crowds and admiration. I find it amazing that in a society that still poses the question on a billboard in Bangalore--should girls and boys be treated as equals? SMS one or two--that a foreign woman could be such a powerful religious figure. It was "The Mother" who founded Auroville, a town 10 km north of Pondicherry, which was set aside to grow into an international community intended to strive toward the unity of mankind. Her rationale is that man is imperfect and will thus be replaced by a more perfect being, so we must strive toward that perfection. Work was a very important element in her discourse on this subject.

The next day, I had went to Auroville to see for myself. It turns out that the first person I ran into in Auroville is an Australian who works in guest relations and is responsible for the University of Washington undergrad group that comes to visit Auroville once each year. He directed me to the visitor center and the Birla Mandir, which is a globe-shaped bronze-colored ball at the center of Auroville, designed to represent the unity of mankind. If one were to go inside (requires advanced reservation), intense concentration would be expected as a single shaft of focused light is directed to a small area within this globe. I only saw the Birla Mandir from the outside and it was impressive. It is the only aspect of the town that is complete. Everything else is a work in progress and large amounts of creative research are underway in a variety of different areas. The whole thing was very neat and subtle. You couldn't tell where the town edge is, but it is circular and there is a town architectural masterplan. Architects get excited by the freedom of expression possible here. I think what helped Auroville to succeed is the fact that people come here with ideas and a desire to work, rather than to escape reality, a feature in most aspiring Utopian societies, which I believe contributes to their downfall. Life is hard here for people because decisions are made on a consensus basis (they are experimenting with new systems of governance) and thus it is difficult to get things done. There's also no cash flow as everything is put on "the account," which is some amount of money you are given as a "starter." People here also have to interact with the realities of the outside world and as such it is not an escape.

Well, I think thatAuroville is a very cool place, so last night I asked myself what I would do if I went there. I think that one of the greatest problems in India (and southern Asia in general) is the accumlation of rubbish (mainly plastic bottles and wrappers, but all kinds of junk) as people just throw items on the ground, without thinking. After these items pile up, people burn them, creating noxious fumes in the air (making my eyes tear on the buses). My idea is to innovate a high-temperature incinerator that burns this rubbish more cleanly (I've been told that higher temperature incinerators are cleaner and although not ideal, are better than the lower-temperature burning alternative). My thought would be to build upon the idea of the solar kitchen that exists (and feeds 1000 people for lunch) in Auroville. Since I'm not good with electronics (and photovoltaics), my thought would be to use mirrors and powerful magnifying glasses to focus the solar energy on small regions...and try to generate enough heat to melt the plastics. I have some research to do in order to determine whether this actually reduces the relative to low temperature flames. Thus, this is a fledgling idea, concocted last night as I was trying to think what ideas I could explore if I were to spend more time in Auroville. It's kind of a fun question to ask yourself: What idea, experiment, or societal development project would you explore if you had the time, appropriate environment, and access to some resources?

My next stop was Tiruvanamalai. I came here to see the inspiring temple complex and Ashram. Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi inspired many by his presence. He would meditate for long periods of time and spent 7 years in a cave temple on the local mountain. I went to this temple and truly meditated for the very first time in my life. Part of the spirituality of this site is because of the mountain, which is geologically quite old and associated with Sheva. The mountain aspect to this helped me feel a small degree of spirituality. I descended to the main Ashram, where there are opportunities for both seated and walking meditation. Lunch and dinner at the Ashram were really terrific. You sat cross-legged in lines organized by rows of bananna leaves (i.e. plates) in a big open room and servers would come around and dole out rice, sambour, pickle, chutneys, etc.

Note: The story you are about to hear is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

That same evening, I took the bus to Salem in order to meet a friend that I'd made on the bus, who was an off-duty conductor. I had some reservation about truly trusting his friendship, but I decided to give it a shot. We met late at night in the Salem bus station and he and I searched for a hotel with limited success. We decided that I would stay with his family about 20 minutes outside of town. His family warmly welcomed me at 2AM and I had a wonderful time with them after I got some sleep. Keel's wife and two daughters were really sweet and everyone seemed a little amused at my inability to utilize my hands efficiently for eating (somehow food always seems to slip through my fingers). Keel took me up to a place that was near and dear to his heart, a nearby mountain village called Yercaud. We took a bus with 20 hairpin turns probably 3,000 ft. up where the air was cooler and coffee plantation (originally developped by the English) replaced the savanna scrub. I was a bit bored in Yercaud and getting sick of Keel's company. After returning to Salem, Keel and I met up up with his friend, the bus driver who is the union leader and also a politician...go figure. Did anybody ever warn you never to trust a politician? Well, this guy also poses as a granite/marble slab broker and after a quick trip to the local watering hole (featuring alcohol that grows on palm trees! that tasted disgusting, unfortunately), we met with a client of this polititians. It turns out that Keel was along with him because Keel is a certified broker. Keel told me that the politician was a good man and wouldn't ever cause me or him any problems, but sometimes he bends his morals and it quickly became clear to me that Keel was willing to bend his morals as well (as an accomplice). The client was unsure whether to go through with the deal. Keel asked me (in the client's presence) how the floors of his (Keel's) house looked. The house had beautiful granite floors, so I responded to that effect, inwardly furious that I was being forced into being an accomplice to this shady interaction and already upset that I was there in the first place with a "friend" who would do such a thing.

Well, from that point onward, my relationship with Keel went downhill. He kept telling me I should come back and visit for a longer time and kept repeating himself and apologizing for things. After we parted ways, I received stalker-like numbers of phone calls from him and just decided to start ignoring them and it seems that we've cut off contact. It is unfortunate that our relationship ended this way, but it is a reality in India that many of the most outgoing people are not trustworthy, so if I continued playing his game, at some point I'm guessing he'd try to extract money, in spite of having professed no interest in that motive.

After a long overnight bus, I arrived in Kanyakumare, the southern tip of India, the confluence of the Arabian Sea (West) and Bay of Bengal (East). It's sunrises and sunsets are famous and the sunset didn't disappoint. Children were bathing in the waters here and at the temple, men (including me) are required to remove their shirts. Two small rocky islands are just off the coast. One features a very impressive statue. A white, Christian Church is also notable in town. The next day, I headed to Panaburnam Palace, mainly carved out of teak wood in the traditional Keralan style of architecture. From here, I hired a rickshaw to go to a large bridge which transported water in an aqueduct high above a stream valley, below. Very impressive in a setting of lush coconut trees and people bathing in the streams. I had a chance to talk to some young girls who were bathing in a stream near their mother who was washing clothes on the opposite bank. They asked me to take their picture. In no relation to this incident, about 15 minutes later, I was alerted that in Tamil Nadu, I should never take pictures of girls around my age. The men might throw me in jail, they said. Apparently, I could probably pull a foreigner ignorance card, but I decided not to take further risks. The cab driver took me back to town. We'd agreed on a rate of 6 Rs/km at the outset and I told him I'd pay 50 Rs for his waiting, but when we arrived, he demanded 120 Rs more than the math called for. I argued with him for 5 minutes and then another rickshaw driver came over to "arbitrate" the situation. He heard both our cases and of course sided with my rickshaw driver. I demanded an explanation, but all I got was something about "up and back" which sounded to me as though they were just doubling the odometer distance, arbitrarily. I knew they were trying to scam me, so I paid what I thought I owed and stormed off. Fortunately, nothing further ensued.

Yesterday was the 9th day of a women's festival in Tivandrum, the capital of Kerala. The festival will be discussed in the next post, but it is called 'Attukal Devi Prasadam.' Although there were enough people there yesterday to create crowd control issues, today, authorities estimate 2.5 million people will attend the final, 10th day of the festival.

I made a trip to the beach resort of Kovalam. The waves were big enough to body surf, the beaches were nice, and the palm trees were gently swaying, but a parade of vendors detracted slightly from the experience. I had an Ayurvedic Massage by a licenced doctor, complete with hot oil, followed by an herbal steam treatment. I was put in a wooden cask, seated, while a pressure cooker with hose attached pumped herb-infused steam into my chamber.

Back in town, I ate a sinfully delightful fish masala. Later in the evening, I told a German girl she could crash on the floor of my room, knowing full well that it was going to be very challenging for her to find a room in town at 10PM the night before the final day of the festival. Well, after the concierge of my hotel had told herc that no rooms were available, he demanded she leave the premises while she waited for me to run a quick errand. When I came back, the concierge was irate that I was trying to house another person in my single room. I tried to reason with him that we'd pay extra, but he presented a single, illogical argument about the price of the room meaning that only one person can sleep there. Well, I guess the name of guest house, 'Kukie's Holiday Inn' describes the owner pretty well. I was not pleased, to say the least, with this inflexibility. We searched the town for 2 hours, with no success finding a budget room and received very terse and unfriendly responses from hotel owners. By phone, we did manage to find my friend a room for the night.

Today, after attending the festival, I head to an Ashram for 3 days of Hatha Yoga boot camp...5 hours of yoga per day...