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September 01, 2005

Goa and Kerala

IMG_6091 I Havent Been Everywhere.jpg

Amma, Save Us From Your Followers…

Well, a lot has happened since our last post and we have been too busy to add another update until now. Kevin left the last one off with our train ride from Hampi back to the coast of Goa. There we made our way by local bus (a very African-esque experience) to Palolem Beach. Palolem is popular with backpackers and is well known for its coconut palm huts, but these huts have not been patched up since this season’s monsoons, so we opted for a more permanent structure and got a nice little bungalow on the beach. We hadn’t been there long before we ran into Jake, Jason and John, the two Aussies and the Brit we met on the train down from Bombay. It was a reunion that was celebrated the best way Canadians, Aussies and Brits know how: with beer.

We were at Palolem for two more days. One day we rented a scooter and traveled along a road that followed a large river to the sea. We passed miles of rice paddies, small friendly villages and beautiful deserted beaches. While in Palolem we spent quite a bit of time with the three J’s pretty well doing not much at all. They were great fun and we enjoyed their laid back attitude (Jason’s watch, which he wears every day, stopped in February – he just hasn’t had an opportunity to replace the battery yet). It was a relaxing break that came to an end with a tuk tuk ride to the train station at midnight to catch a train further south to the city of Cochin (also known as Kochi if you’re following along in your atlas). This train ride was our longest to date: 19 hours. We did not arrive in Cochin until around 6:30 the next evening. Maggie and David, whom we met Benaulim Beach had recommended a hotel to us and so we made our way to the lovely Vintage Inn (thanks for the great tip M&D!).

While in Cochin, we ran into Clare and Darryl, who were staying nearby. We established a favourite breakfast spot that served real pressed coffee and lattes and met there each morning. Over the next few days Kevin and I wandered around the small area of Fort Cochin which has a rich history including colonization by the Portuguese, Dutch and a small Jewish community dating back almost 2000 years. We went to a Portuguese museum, which consisted mostly of artifacts taken from local churches; we visited Dutch and Jewish cemeteries, saw cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, mosques, a synagogue, spice markets, a candle factory, and many antique stores in old Jewtown which was like stepping back in time.

One night we went with Clare and Darryl down to the fishing nets where we bought dozens of fresh giant tiger prawns which we then had grilled at an open air restaurant. The next night we attended a celebration for Krishna’s birthday which included a large parade that walked from one temple to another. The parade consisted mainly of musicians and children in fancy clothes with painted faces. Every so often along the way, strings of fruit were tied high above the road. The ropes also included a clay pot which appeared to hold coconut milk. When the front of the parade reached the fruit, someone would bash at the pot until it burst and then continue to beat all the fruit off the rope as the children gathered it below. An unusual and mysterious ritual, but very entertaining.

After the festival we attended a performance called Kathakali, which is specific to Kerala state. It is a combination of a dance and a play but is done in elaborate make-up and costumes and uses facial expressions and body language to tell the story. The two characters applied their make-up on stage then there was an explanation of the history of Kathakali and a demonstration of the facial expressions before the performance began. Usually Kathakali performances are six or more hours long, but this one was shortened up for the tourists and was only about one hour. Along with the two actors, there was a drummer and a singer who also played some small cymbals and a weird accordion-type box. I thought Kevin didn’t like it because he looked at his watch about a dozen times during the performance, but he told me afterwards that he had really enjoyed it.

The next day, after saying good-bye to Clare and Darryl, we boarded another train to head further south to the town of Allepey (also known as Allapuzha). Allepey is the gateway to the Kerala backwaters which is a vast network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and canals running along the coast of the state of Kerala. It is well-known for its boat trips using boats styled after the traditional rice barges. We looked at a lot of boats before selecting one. It was beautiful: about 25 metres long with a small helm at the very front, followed by a cushioned lounging area then a covered sitting room with coffee table and then a dining room table. A hallway ran the length of one side, off of which were two bedrooms and in the back the staff area and kitchen. Our bedroom was luxurious with a large queen sized bed with mosquito net and fan and a spotless en suite. Two arched windows looked out over the water.

Rice boats are rented on a 22 hour basis and our “check-in” time was at noon. The backwaters were formed by a huge flood in the 1300’s and dykes were established to create the canals. Small houses sit on the shores and behind them are rice paddies. We had three staff on our boat, including the chef. We were served fresh fruit and mineral water when we boarded and a couple of hours later a huge lunch with fresh fish and a variety of Indian-style vegetable dishes. The rest of the afternoon we cruised the lakes and palm-lined canals. It was completely peaceful and relaxing. In the evening we stopped beneath some coconut trees. As we watched the sun go down a lightning storm could be seen in the distance. There were no stars but the palm branches were full of fire flies.

In the morning we watched the sun rise through our bedroom window, had breakfast and were on the move again. By 10 am our trip was over and we wished we had more time (and money) to go on a longer trip but we already had an onward ferry booked for 10:30. Who was on our ferry but Darryl and Clare. Also on board was Rory, a young guy also from the UK. We were all planning a stop at the ashram of Matha Amrithanandamayi, also known as Amma or the “Hugging Mother”. We stopped for a quick lunch where we had typical South Indian food served on a banana leaf and eaten only with our right hand. If you don't know why we used only our right hand, ask the person beside you or do a Google search. Back on the ferry, off in the distance we saw two huge pink high rises. At first we thought they were tacky, dated resorts but we soon learned that they belong to the ashram that we were going to visit. When we arrived we found the international visitors office and were assigned rooms and provided with bedding. We were all on the top floor, the 16th floor, of the tallest building. Rooms either looked over the ocean or over the backwaters and palm forest. They were basic with little or no furniture. Although Darryl and Clare had actual beds, ours had only mattresses on the floor.

At 5pm we went for an ashram orientation. A devotee showed us a short film about Amma’s life. She was born and raised on the very spot where the ashram stands today. People have always been drawn to her and she comforts people with hugs. She started off in her parents’ cow shed and then when that grew too small another building was erected and then a larger, more ornate temple. Amma soon outgrew this temple as well and a huge temple was built with a large stage at the front. To accommodate the followers, there are several residences including the one we were in, a 12-storey, and several shorter buildings. In addition to the temples and residences there is a gift shop, a juice bar, a Western food canteen, an internet café, a book shop, a flea market, phone facilities, a hospital, laundry service, and a travel desk. Many of the devotees are Indians but there are also a lot of Westerners as well. The women wear saris and the men wear Indian dodhis or baggy cotton clothing. The code of conduct is strict and apart from a very conservative dress code, guests are asked to keep speech to a minimum, engage in no public displays of affection, practice celibacy, refrain from smoking and drinking, and to be within the compound by 6pm. There is a daily routine that all residents must follow. Meals are served at specific times and during prayer sessions, meditation, and the evening sing-a-long, it is impossible to even get a cup of tea.

After our orientation, we attending the evening singing, called Bhajans. Amma usually attends and this night was no exception. The Bhajans are held in the large temple. Musicians and singers assemble on the stage and the followers arrive with their mats and sit cross-legged on the floor: men on one side, women on the other. The songs are traditional devotional songs and some people sing along while others wave their arms like lunatics. Devotees touch their foreheads to the floor before they sit. We sat in the temple for a while and then moved off to the sidelines where we could all sit together and watch the action. The music was actually quite nice and Amma occasionally whipped the crowd into a bit of a frenzy with the clapping getting gradually faster and faster. Things got really weird when the performance was over and Amma left the stage. People lined the railings like fans at the Academy Awards red carpet, reaching out just to touch Amma’s hand. Many burst into tears once they had made contact. Others collapsed in tears behind Amma, dropping to the floor and kissing the ground where she had walked.

Despite all this weirdness, Amma has done many good things in the world. She has been recognized by many important world bodies including the UN. In India she has built hospitals, schools and clinics. The area around the ashram was the hardest hit by the tsunami of any place on India’s west coast. Over 150 people died in the local villages and many homes were destroyed. Amma donated $23 million USD for tsunami relief. This will give you some idea of the magnitude of Amma’s following. And this does not include all the free labour provided by her devotees. Part of Amma’s belief is the idea of SEVA, selfless service. Everyone at the ashram is encouraged to do several hours of SEVA a day. It is part of the daily schedule. Kevin and I volunteered to help construct a house for a family who lost theirs in the tsunami. At 7:30 am, along with about 40 other volunteers – only 3 of which were female, we were bussed to the construction location which was basically numerous large piles of bricks on the side of the road. What we had to do was move all the bricks approximately 200 m to where the house was to be built. Some people used burlap sacks, there were a couple of two wheeled wheel barrows, some men carried bricks on boards on top of their heads, and there were also two-handled baskets made out of old tires. Kevin and I got one of these baskets and one right-hand glove between us and started hauling.

This went on for about two hours after which we were served some breakfast – rice and curries. After we ate, Kevin and I walked back over to the brick pile at the side of the road… then we just kept walking. We hadn’t really planned on leaving (we only had another hour and a half of labour left), but it was hot and we were tired, so we just kept going until we got back to the ashram. Once there, we had cold showers and then sat in the courtyard where we could hear Amma singing in the small temple. After lunch was Amma’s Darshan (guru for “hugs”) which is what we came here in the first place so we lined up on the temple steps in the scrum of devotees to try to get inside. Amma had a close call about a week ago when someone with a knife tried to get in to stab her (this was reported in the international news), so now there is a metal detector installed at the front door of the temple. Everyone must pass through the detector, but it did not seem to matter if it beeped or not. So finally after a lot of pushing and shoving and butting in line Clare, Kevin and I managed to get into the temple where Rory and Darryl were already in queue. Inexplicably, the lines were separated by gender but they merged just before getting to where Amma was sitting. As we approached Amma, her handlers told us to kneel and when it was our turn for a hug another handler pushed us forward and shoved our head into Amma’s large bosom. At this point, Amma gives a big long hug before whispering something like “ma, ma, ma, MAH” into your ear and planting a large kiss on your cheek. She then hands you a candy and a small bag of fragrant white powder and her handlers pick you up and push you off to pick your way back through all the doe-eyed devotees sitting on the floor staring in awe at Amma.

Kevin and I were both glad that we got to stay at the ashram and to meet Amma and experience Darshan, but we were equally as happy to get on the boat out of there. The ashram does not have the friendly atmosphere that we have experienced in the rest of India. Many of the devotees, particularly the Westerners, come across as aloof and arrogant and many are downright crazy. While in the elevator, we saw one guy with his face tattooed and another with a large, bright green clothes pin on his shirt with a sign that said “Silent”. It was all Kevin could do to keep from laughing out loud. We were frequently asked “Have you ever met Amma before?” and were told that after our first Darshan we would want to stay longer. But the segregation of men and women appears pointless and the strict dress code is frustrating – moving bricks in 40 degrees Celsius while wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt just seems ridiculous. But it was a good experience and next time someone asks us if we have met Amma, we can say “Yes!”

After we were all hugged Darryl, Clare, Kevin and I caught a southbound ferry towards the town of Kollum, leaving Rory behind at the ashram. We hope he makes it out alive and sane.

Kevin Fishing with the Locals
Us and Our Scooter
Jason, Jake, John, Brandy, Kevin
Legume Vendor
Swastik Spices, Jewtown
Dutch Colonists Cemetary
Krishna's Birthday Party Parade
Breaking the Clay Pot and Bashing the Fruit
Kathakali Performance
Kevin, Brandy, Darryl, Clare
Kerala Backwaters
Our Riceboat
Sunrise From Our Bed on the Boat
On the Backwaters Ferry
Chinese Fishing Nets
Ashram Highrises

Our FFP this post is a two-parter as we thought both photos were necessary for true appreciation of these fine specimens:
FFP 10a - Euro Beach Buddies Coming...
FFP 10b - Euro Beach Buddies Going

As you know, most of our FFP photos are taken on the sly. This post we have our first “voluntary” FFP. This is John of Cardiff taken at a burger joint one night at Palolem Beach:
FFP 11 - John, Voluntary FFP

Posted by Brandy & Kevin on September 1, 2005 05:41 AM
Category: 10 India

With a bit of luck Amma's hug will rid Kevin of his aforediagnosed gas problem.

Posted by: Rick on September 1, 2005 12:11 PM

The rice boat looks beautiful and deluxe! When you mentioned it on the phone I was picturing the two of you crammed in some dank cabin with bags of rice... Brandy, Im glad you dont have to suffer Kevin's frugal accomadation finds every night!

Posted by: mica on September 1, 2005 06:39 PM

Well - don't you go blighting our fellow Europeans ... mullets and mustard Speedos are damn sexy!

Kevin and Brandy just remember should you ever be cast out then you can strike up "special relations" with cows, be protected by dogs and watched over by eagles!

Enjoy the rest of it guys and when you close your eyes at night just think dodi dodi dodi dodi dodi!!!

Posted by: Darryl & Clare on September 2, 2005 06:02 AM

Hi guys,
The "Amma" experience sounds a lot more exciting than our Dali Lama one in Toronto. Thinking of you both !!

Posted by: Trixie Bon Bon on September 14, 2005 01:54 PM
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