Sunday, December 25, 2011

HUGE Christmas Blog Post

Happy Holidays from India!

We know it's been a great deal of time since our last posting, so here is a gift of information and insight, from us to you!

CAUTION: We wrote this over two days. Many blogs left unblogged. Please read at a comfortable pace, take breaks for chai, and feel free to come back often :)

First we would like to re-cap our adventures through Northern Kerala, and our journey to Auroville.

Whitney: We quickly left the ashram, exhausted from the day of cleaning and seva work before. We had originally intended to leave on November 4th, but decided to stay on until the morning of the 8th. There is a cleanup program called ABC at the ashram, and their help was requested by the Indian government in order to help clean up a very sacred and ancient, secluded, temple called Sabarimala. It's a famous pilgrimage site for men and women before or after menstruation (kind of funny to me), and it was said to be a great honor to go,to be invited, and to be fed on site, especially for us women in the "in-between." It was a beautiful area, though it was disgusting how there was a blanket of trash in most of the natural areas. It might be more accurate to say layers of blankets, since if you dug down,you would certainly find trash layers as though a new type of earthen crust had formed. Jonah spent 2 1/2 hours in a ditch digging out trash next to globs of human excrement. Oh yeah, fun times with karma yoga. It definitely felt like an accomplishment to stick it through, and to see the massive amounts of bagged trash at the end of the day. For me, the thousand names first thing chanted in the morning at 4AM, and again on the night bus back, was a bit hard for me to handle. Jonah was in Amma bliss most of the time :)

After the ashram, we headed North to Ernakulam/Cochi where we spent three days, two nights at a wonderful keralan couples house through couchsurfer. Things to note about Cochi: We had a nice tour of a spice market and saw ginger drying in the sun. Many modern shops and cafe restaurants. We had banana cream pie in one of them, which was a reverse culture shock for us, since we hadn't seen western women in spaghetti straps and shorts, and hadn't expected of all things a pretty American desert like banana cream pie to be present in South India. Other than a nice metropolitan park on the water, and a cheap ferry ride across the bay, there wasn't as much of interest for me as I thought there would be. The best part was getting to stay with the family, although they were very unconventional and modern for Indians in general we've found. We stayed with another family later, which we will tell about later in the blog.

Jonah: Next we continued north on a 5 hour train ride to Kozhikode where we hopped on a bus to take us into the high mountains of Kerala. However, we did not exactly hop on that bus, we instead took several others in the complete opposite direction, getting angry at each other and India bus's in general, which didn't really help us get in the direction we wanted to. Nevertheless with some grace we got on the bus and enjoyed the ride. The further north we went the more breathtaking it got. We really felt the vastness of the area, and were reminded of home, the nature of Alaska, and great national parks of California and Oregon. We saw our first monkeys hanging on the trees and road signs, vast banana and tea plantations, and a forest that seemed to get denser and denser the further we went. The air was fresh up there and we were truly traveling again, going further and further away from the ashram. We arrived in Karunagapally a city on the boarder of Wayanad National Park. We stayed in Karunagapally for 4 nights at the Kannur Ayurvedic Hospital, a clean and simple place offering many treatments and yoga classes. However when the doctor asked if we would have any treatments we kindly replied "No thank you," as we had experienced the full enchilada of 2 weeks of Pancha Karma at the ashram, we came to Karunagapally to see the nature of the mountains.

On 11.11.11 we hiked the highest peak of North Kerela, Chembra Peak. A kind and enthusiastic young rickshaw driver took us the bumpiest and windiest drive we have had to date. When we got of the main road we were met by the serene beauty of the mountain tea plantations. We followed the road to the rangers station, got our day pass, met our ranger and began our climb. We started through the tea plantations and snaked our way to the trail head. It was a small vertical trail lined with billowing lemon grass, herbs, wild orchids, and incredible views of below. (we have many nice photos to post from this hike because our ranger seemed to love photography and insisted on stopping every few min to take Whitney's camera and photograph us.) Following a stream we continued to climb higher and higher as the path got steeper and steeper. Until we reached the literal heart of this stream lined path, it was a heart shaped lake. Both Whitney and I  sat for a while enjoying the energy, the beauty and magnificence of mother earth. It was certainly a sacred moment for the two of us, together on this mountain peak in India.

Whitney: After hiking Chembra, we went to lunch with the young rickshaw driver, and he lead us to the bus stop after. While there he introduced us to a teacher he knew who was taking the same bus back to karunagapally. On the bus we spoke with her (Dr. Athira) and her sister (Pritha), and that lead to Jonah asking if she knew a beautiful place to see the sunset from. She said she did, and her husband was going to pick her up, and offered us a ride. This lead to a wonderful experience that evening of climbing a large lookout rock, and from there the couple invited us to have dinner another night. We ended up being great friends with them and their family, playing games, and feeling their hospitality. We sang songs for them that night, and the grandmother was so sweet. We stayed too late for the bus, and they invited us to spend the night. Their hospitality was so warm, they are definitely some of the nicest people we have ever met. Dr. Athira and her Husband Sudeep transported us to Wayanad National park, and helped us talk with the wardens to figure out our guided walking tour.

Wayanad was one of the best areas we've been too. The walking tour had only been offered for a few months, and we were the sixth group to walk through Wayanad. We found out near the end of the walking tour that a forest ranger had died by way of Elephant stampede the month before, but he had been on his own. It was exhilerating to walk through the jungle with a guide and a scout with a rifle. We started our journey on foot, walking to a watering whole in a tribal village. There was a man washing a baby elephant whose Mother had died. The villagers had adopted the baby elephant and were acting as surrogates. Jonah petted the baby elephant and I felt it's soft baby hairs. Soooo cute!
The trail took us 5 1/2 hours to walk. We saw large groups of elephants eating in the distance, a wild peacock, and tiger tracks. At one point we went to another watering hole, and when we re-traced our path, porcupine quills, and tiger prints were visible where there had been none before. Pretty exciting.

Jonah: One of the other places we went was to the Eddakal Caves. A beautiful tourist destination about a1 hour bus ride from our hotel. We made several bus transfers, asked a few more locals for advice and I ended up walking into what I thought was a reception house for the caves, only to find out it was a family's house. Never the less each person kindly pointed us in a direction and we were greeted by three young boys. They were quick to reel us in and take us on their guided tour. I spoke with the most outspoken of the three. He had been doing these tours in order to raise money for his school books and practice English as well. As he had been doing this for sometime a few of his friends and classmates decided to join in. The sweet boy soon began to inquire about Whitney and I  asking us where we had been ect. And he soon found that we had been to Sabari Mala and thought that he recognized me from a newspaper article the week before, (interesting, not sure if my picture ended up in the paper or not, however another man and his daughter later that day came up and said that they were going soon to Sabari Mala and if they could have my blessings. They mistakenly thought I was a swami "amma surly was playing tricks with me and the ego" ). Later the boy explained how he had seen Amma when she came on a tour, and how much the experience meant to him. How he thought it was strange that all the people were crying in her presence when all he felt was great happiness. I shared with him some of my experiences around Amma to try to best help him with his question and we continued on to the two caves. The first cave was very large, with steep jagged rock cut stairs ascending further up to the second cave. Whitney and I helped each other up as she spoke and watched in concern a cheerful elderly Indian woman climb up the steps as well. The final cave held on its carved walls many ancient tribal inscriptions, codes and figures. Goddesses with interesting shapes and wheels (which to us resembled chakras or energy centers of the body) were seen, as well as animals, and other figures we could not make out,  as well as a kind man giving a tour in the last cave. Our minds were quick to fantasize that we were looking at codes similar to those of the "davinci code" and that the simple carvings were actually keys to the greater inner dimensions of the spirit. Who knows maybe they were..:) To sum up the caves, they were interesting and intriguing, however I much more enjoyed the time spent with the three young boys. And lastly I was surprised to see one of Amma's Bramacharinis accompanied by over 40 other young students from one of Amma's schools as we were walking up into the caves.

Whitney: After our three days in Wayanad and its surrounding mountains we continued on traveling east to into Tamil Nadu. We took the most beautifully scenic and exhilaratingly frightening bus rides to date. Flying around cliffs and blind turns, we almost hit another bus. It was strangely dreamlike because Jonah and I were both listening to the same calm music through a splitter cable and our headphones, riding through a forest of clean Eucalyptus.

We arrived safely in Ooty, a wonderful hill station in Northern Tamil Nadu. I had read about it in our lonely planet book, which referred to it as "Snooty Ooty'" because of the British who took up shop I guess. There wasn't much that seamed snooty to me though, because I happen to like botanical gardens, cleaner streets, and the general happy and friendly atmosphere. It's genuinely nice in Ooty, which was a change from much of India outside the ashram. We also found our first Indian Avocados, which was absolutely amazing to eat with India Dosai (like crepes with curry.) We stayed at a really nice, clean, and pretty hostel opperated by the YWCA. They had gardens with roses, and a swinging chair. really nice spacious rooms, and best of all they were inexpensive! Ooty is shaped like an egg because of a central horse racing track, so we would walk each day around to the right or left to get to the different shops, cafe's, and restaurants. I liked Ooty, and it's hard to explain exactly why. The terrain and the people were both mountainous, they reminded us more of Nepalese, than of South India. Warm sweaters, and heavy wool shawls, men in winter hats, and plenty of smiles.

Jonah: From Ooty we decided to take the heritage train three days later. The train ran on steam, one of the last in the World, and one of three in India. In our small, simple and clean cabin were squished 4 other french travelers our age, one Indian man and all of our large backpacks. We were all quick to share stories and each find our own comfort as we chugged along in our old steam machine. Whitney spoke of Portland to one of the travelers who as well was interested in the National Parks of California. (A big black cow just passed our window.) It was nice for us both to reminisce on Portland and our fond memories of traveling through the Red Wood forests together throughout the many car trips from SF to Portland and back. Whitney: The inside of the train was the cleanest so far that we've seen, and it was such a romantic old world experience. We had two stops along the route, one of which was especially exciting for all the monkeys which greeted us. One of the French guys captured a monkey drinking chai from a tiny paper cup... Priceless! We continued on past waterfalls, and looked out onto high mountainous hills covered in jungle. Very pleasant and neat journey to make. Mettupalayam was the trains destination, though we had purchased tickets on to Chennai... The thing is though, when we arrived in Mettupalayam, they told us our tickets for 2 tier, air conditioned, nice beds, had not been confirmed. In fact, there were none left to purchase, and our only option was to fight our way through hoards of grumpy Indian families in standard, free for all, open seating, general class. Now I don't mean to sound like a snob, I've thought about taking general before, and I knew we would take it at one point or another. But, considering this was our longest train travel to date (9 hours), and it was overnight, I was none too happy about what our reality was.
There was a bit of grace involved at the beginning of the journey however. Jonah and I asked about for the end of the waiting line for general seating, and a wonderfully kind woman told us it was far around the corner. She then came to tell us that she would send her husband to fetch us when the train came, and would reserve two seats for us. We thought this was kind, but we soon found out that it was really a godsend! What happened when the train came was complete havoc. One or two people in line in front of us, turned into 50 or more, as each bag that had been laying on the sidewalk found an owner who had been sitting prettily drinking chai somewhere for over two hours. This is India, where the bag equals one or six people in line in front of you, and the language barrier prevents you from telling them off for it. We finally made it up to the train, and to our relief the woman held true to her word and motioned frantically for us to get on board. We had two seats facing each other next to a window, and apart from the bench seats. What happened after is still unbelievable to me. Women came in, big women, and pushed their way into the middle of our new friends family. She sat practically on top of them while her sister (I assume) hoisted their kids up on the luggage racks, feat dangling over. Men came soon after and sat at our feet, later laying down under them, or climbed above me to occupy the racks above. There was a western traveler on a luggage rack down the way, and a nice older gentleman sat on his briefcase and made small talk with Jonah throughout the night, mostly about the youth of today and his feeling on the decline of traditional cultural values. I tried to sleep, though noticed men staring at me, so I covered my head with my shawl, and dozed fitfully. The larger lady had also brought a large feast for her family, complete with banana leaf plates, and a 2 litre of sprite, and orange soda. Once they were finished they proceeded to throw everything out the window, at which point I realized where all the litter comes from! They did it so easily too, as if it's the most normal thing in the world to throw your garbage out on someone elses town. I stopped one of the women later from throwing a plastic bottle out, and told her if she had more trash to give it to me. I'm not sure if she understood, or if I frightened her with my sleepy and furious stare, but she didn't throw anything out of my window again.

Chennai, we saw it in the dark, and from what we saw, I'm not that interested in going back so soon. Maybe the light of day would make it more inviting, but at 3AM it was plain frightening to be around the smells, cars, and people of the night. We found a bus to another train station, and from there a train to Pondicherry. We were able to lay down and sleep a little until the commuters came. The rest of the ride was uneventful, though it was beautiful seeing the wider and more open farmland of Tamil Nadu. Jonah saw many many cranes in the marshes and was reminded of Gandhi the crane and Jan.

When we arrived in Pondicherry we went to the Park Guesthouse run by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 400RS a night, an ocean and garden view, attached hot shower, and a clean place to sleep. You really can't ask for more than that. Pondicherry was unbelievable for us, in a very good and strange way. The streets here are clean. Like clean clean, as in they have signs posted about not littering, and cleanup crews who work for the city, and trash bins everywhere, and more signs! The french quarter is on the ocean front where there is a beautiful and long boulevard with a large sidewalk and nice road which is closed off to vehicles after dark. The street becomes a lovely promenade where people come to walk up and down, small bamboo shelters along the beach offer cute places to sit, and a 24 hour cafe offers ice cream and espresso sundays. We found ourselves in a strange worldly  paradise after the struggles of the rest of our journey. However we were eager to wake up in the morning and be on our way to Auroville.

So now you are caught up on our journey until Auroville! We hope to post more pictures and another blog to give updates on our current situation soon. It will be nice to share more current accounts of our day to day since we aspire to reel you guys in, back to our once sleepy blog. Maybe a new years resolution for the two of us to make?

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas or as they say in India "HAPPY CHRISTMAS"!
May the light of love surround us all around the world.


Whitney and Jonah