Since my last post, I decided to check out of society for a while and spend some time in an ashram, perched on the banks of a beautiful lake in the hills of Kerala, surrounded by nothing but lush forest and a small local village. The bell woke us every morning at 5:30am, when it was still dark, for an hour of meditation and Satsang, chanting. This was followed by 2 hours of yoga and then a very basic vegetarian meal. Throughout the day, I was to take part in Karmic Yoga (otherwise known as chores) and attend lectures about how to live a proper yogic lifestyle (ie: no meat, alcohol, spicy food, or any other form of excitement or stimulation of any kind). Next we had another 2 hours of yoga and then our second and final meal of the day, which also consisted of simple vegetarian food (boiled rice, lentils, vegetable curry). Before bed, we would come together again in the dark temple hall and in front of candles and large black statues of the gurus dressed in garlands of flowers we sat cross-legged on the floor for another hour of meditation and chanting.
The ashram was incredibly relaxing and I am grateful for the yoga instruction and happy about my newfound ability to hold my breath for an entire minute and sit on the floor and meditate for long periods of time (although my legs still fall asleep). And I began to even enjoy my karmic yoga chores, which involved serving dinner and hungrily watching everyone else eat, and mopping the floor. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being slightly brainwashed. For almost a week after leaving the ashram I would wake up in the middle of the night with the chants running through my head, unable to make them stop. But the most difficult part about being at the ashram turned out to be abstaining from drinking coffee. I found myself sneaking out in the day to make the short walk to a small, dingy-looking tea stall that also served bad coffee, but coffee nonetheless, and telling everyone I was going for a walk around the lake. I realized then the full strength of my addiction.
On one of my daily dashes for a caffeine fix, I came across a crowd of men at the side of the road, watching another man dig a large hole in the dirt with a shovel. As I got closer, I saw a mound of dogs, piled upon one another. At first I thought they were sleeping but quickly saw that they were dead. My next thought was that these men must have collected all the dead dogs, hit by cars or whatever, from the surrounding area, and were cleaning up the side streets by burying the dogs in the hole that the man was digging. But then I watched as a man dragged a growling stray dog on a leash toward the group of men where the dog would then be strangled to death and join the others. From a distance I watched as the men lifted the dead dogs one by one by their stiff dead legs and tossed them into the deep hole. Strangled dogs of different sizes and colorus flew threw the air, upside-down, their wide eyes frozen open. After 3 months in India, I almost didn’t feel anything from this horrific scene. Almost.
On a lighter note, the Kerala backwaters are amazingly beautiful. After leaving the ashram I not only got to eat whatever and whenever I wanted, but I got to see my boyfriend! He arrived in a downpour of rain early in the morning, in the middle of bomb threats and, to put it mildly, he was feeling a little suspect of India. But the sky cleared quickly and after going to a crazy birthday party (Indian-style, with fireworks and whisky and men dancing with other men) and hanging out on a gorgeous beach for 5 days, we rented a houseboat and cruised along the many rivers and narrow, palm-fringed canals for an entire day and night, melting away any fears of being blown up by the SIMI (Student’s Islamic Movement of India). The houseboat is made from an old rice barge transformed into a bamboo thatched floating hut with 2 large bedrooms and bathrooms, a kitchen and a dining and lounging area. We had the whole boat, with a crew of 3 men, including a very good chef. We stopped in the late afternoon at a small house on the riverbank to purchase our dinner – the biggest fresh water prawns I have ever seen in my life. There is something very satisfying about handing cash over to the man who caught the fish as his wife and small children watch from the window of their modest home. The sunset was spectacular that evening, turning the sky an unbelievable florescent pink and emphasizing the bright sliver of a crescent moon. We ate a traditional Keralan fish and coconut curry and the prawns were done tandoori-style, flavoured with the perfect amount of spice. We mopped up every last bit of the curry with warm, freshly baked chapattis and washed it all down with cold beer, under a starry night sky as massive fruit bats flew overhead. The palm trees made dark silhouettes, reflected in the rippling canals.
In the morning, we saw the most of the local village life: people brushing their teeth on the side of the river, women in long, wet saris beating laundry against the rocks, and young children dressed for school waiting patiently on the docks for the boats to take them to their classes. Fishermen in longboats drifted past the green rice paddy fields and bright blue kingfishers dove down like bullets from the sky to snatch fish from the water. Enormous bees and butterflies would land periodically upon the shiny lily pads between lavender coloured flowers scattered throughout the backwaters.
We went to a quaint colonial town that was surprisingly calm and clean, lacking the jarring sound of traffic horns. There were buildings over 500 years old and our hotel was a 300-year-old convent with yellow and green stained glass windows. Outside our window was a lovely courtyard and the call to prayer could be heard throughout the day (and in the middle of the night) from a mosque close by.
We strolled through the winding streets, admiring the old British architecture and the large Chinese fishing net structures at sea. The boardwalk is littered with fresh fish stalls and children play cricket at almost every corner you turn. In the evening we went to a Kathakali theatre where a love story about a demon tricking a warrior into falling in love with her was elaborately told through big, eccentric costumes and intricate face masks painted on with coloured stones and coconut oil. We walked back to the hotel in the dark, past a large park where soccer and cricket matches were still being played despite the lack of street lamps, and past stalls cooking cheap, fried Indian dishes surrounded by people eating and drinking tea.
The next day, we rented bicycles and rode through the dirt and cobblestone streets, past goats eating garbage and through the spice market. Every now and then we’d get a whiff of shit or something dead, and then cinnamon, pepper or ginger flower. Amid the dilapidated homes and random farm animals there are trendy cafes in old Portuguese buildings housing modern art and serving espresso and mango lassis. Further down the road, “Jew Town” is filled with jewelry and craft shops and an old 16th century synagogue. I felt happy to be a tourist again.
But then I felt my mood sink into irreversible pessimism when we arrived in Mangalore: an ugly, dirty, grey and mangled city cursed with rain. We checked into our dive of a hotel room, which made the bunk on the overnight train feel luxurious. The only redeeming feature was the temple. We watched a fire blessing and prayer where coconuts and flowers were donated to the gods and the temple holds one of South India’s most important bronzes from the 10th Other than that, Mangalore is best avoided.
We left the next morning for what is supposed to be a beautiful Hindu pilgrimage site strung out along 4 spectacular beaches. And it would be if we could just see it a little more clearly through the heavy sheets of rain coming down for 3 days straight! I now know the meaning of Monsoon. Never in my life have I seen so much rain. And it doesn’t stop. The streets are beginning to flood and in some parts of the country people are drowning. We chose a somewhat decent hotel with a good restaurant attached where we can spend our days watching the weather channel that is the sidewalk out front, eating dosas and drinking coffee. We have met a few travellers here, all of us trapped inside, and despite the rain, I am enjoying the conversations and long card games of 500 rummy fuelled by not-at-all cold beer (because the power keeps going out every 5 minutes).
On our second day of being confined to the hotel and the restaurant, we decided to venture out into the village as the rain had stopped momentarily. We walked to the main beach where busloads of Indians were making the trip to the sea for a holy dip. The sky began to lighten and the sun almost shone through, but not quite. We walked to a temple and kept going along a field of green grass and grazing cows. It looked like a tropical Scottish highlands. We reached a beach with garbage and black sticks washed up on the shore. At the far end, women were carrying loads of rocks in bowls on their heads to a nearby construction site. A stray dog carrying a washed up coconut husk in its mouth accompanied us to the next beach, which from the highland, looked gorgeous.
We were maybe 5 minutes away when a dark and ominous black cloud began to swell over the ocean. We could see the rain over the water and feel the cold breeze, signalling powerful winds and the fast approaching downpour. We didn’t make it to the small hut café on the beach without first getting beaten down with buckets of rain. The sky became a waterfall, a constant pouring of water, like a dam had burst from the heavens.
We sat, soaking wet, at one of the plastic tables sheltered by the bamboo hut and ate a hot meal of curry and chapatti and sipped sweet tea while watching the monsoon rain hammer down violently on the beach. And at that moment I liked the rain. I felt a new love for India that encompassed the Monsoon – the culprit of our ruined beach day. I can’t stay mad at this country.