Tuesday, 26 February 2008

**India** Part Five (Remembering to breathe)


Arriving in Mysore after yet another overnight train journey left me drained and unexcited due to a posse of Indian business men who entered the sleeping carriage at midnight and then proceeded to play the latest Bollywood hits on their mobile phone MP3 players. This level of disturbance and rudeness is quite rare in India but the politeness extended to a live and let live mentality in the rest of the carriage and nobody spoke up and being alone I didn't want to draw attention to myself. But I fumed as I struggled to sleep on the rocking rolling riding.

Mysore was a city alive with possibilities. I checked into a cheap but clean hotel and hailed yet another killer rickshaw to take me to Gokulam where I knew the yoga shalas (schools) were. Suddenly I felt very alone, adventurous and out of my safe zone as the natives in this area weren't so used to English speakers and I had to survive on my wits. Also bear in mind that illiteracy is high and so writing a name of a place down won't get you there any quicker. I didn't realise that Gokulam could be pronounced in so many ways. The emphasis is on the 'go' or the 'ku' or the 'lam' depending on the driver you ask. It's a funny situation saying the name twenty times until realisation dawns on their faces and they repeat the name the same as you've been saying for five minutes. And they are so happy with themselves grinning as they put your fragile life state in the balance whilst negotiating a roundabout whist continuing to turn around to beam at you and repeat the name of your destination. Gokulam, Gokulam.

I arrived at the yoga shala of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. The famous founding father of contemporary Ashtanga yoga made popular by Madonna and co. I felt like the new girl at school. After enrolling and committing myself for a month to a tough physical regime, I set about looking for somewhere to live for a month close to the shala. I quickly came unstuck...the busiest time of year for yoga students and the only option was expensive hotels or shop doorways. I stood in the street after a long fruitless walk to find something/anything/no room at the inn and I noticed a statue/shrine to Ganesha the elephant God. Ganesha, I have been told is the God of beginnings and remover of obstacles. So, not being one to pass up the opportunity of a good prayer I asked Ganesha to please help me out of this lime pickle and send me a nice place to live. 

Dear reader, would you believe it? Within 45 seconds a friendly face popped out from under the shop counter and asked if he could help me? I explained my predicament and within five minutes I was standing in the kitchen of Pushpa's house being fed delicious Indian breakfast and handing over a months rent for food and lodging all within walking distance of the yoga shala. Bingo wings and elephant wishes. Ganesha is now my secret favourite deity...he wasn't always an elephant but it's a long Hindu story. I still say thanks to him when I see him and that's a lot. There are so many Ganesha shrines and temples.

Pushpa, my landlady, had only decided that morning to see if she could squeeze a couple of yoga students in to supplement her meagre earnings as a language tutor. All my luck but she says it was hers as we became firm friends despite having completely different ways of living. She is a devotee of the local Ashram and spends most evenings there in meditation and is a devout Hindu. Never married she is leading a pure life to get closer to God on her death. Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Pushpa, bless her heart, has had enough of being reborn. I, meanwhile, probably have a long way to go to attain the purity and full set of halos that she has.

She was the greatest cook, the best coffee maker and to wake every morning to her performing her puja (Hindu cleansing prayers) was a delight. She washed the front step down every day and drew a new Rangoli design on the path to keep out evil spirits. Bells were rung and bananas and grapes and incense were offered to the Gods. I learned so much being with her, she was a gem cut from the finest diamond. She was as interested in our 'culture' as I was in hers and she insisted in oiling my hair like an Indian lady and squishing a Hindi prayer of sandlewood paste on my forehead, whilst I traded her fast acting Nurofen for her slipped disc back pain. She was surprised we don't have fresh coconuts in 'our place' and to be honest if she left 'her place' for 'our place' she would probably expire on the spot. I tried to explain about life in the West but she doesn't even have a t.v so her life and her world is Gokulam. And very refreshing it was too. She became a second mama to me (of course noone could replace my Jeannie) plaiting my hair before yoga and telling me to wash my hands and nagging me into eating more than is good for me. 

I finally found the true heart of India, by living in an Indian home. I absorbed so much colourful detail about the Indian way of life. Walking to yoga every day was an orchestral arrangement in rural village life. Always passing 5 or 6 wandering holy cows munching on people's gardens and seeing the same children who shouted 'hello, what's your name?' every day for a month. And if you pause to engage in this you get asked your mother's name, your father's name, your sister's name, your brother's name and then all the way back to what's your name. All this from a grubby bare footed three year old. Every morning I saw the lady whose sole task in life was picking up the cow pats and make a big cow pat pudding with her bare hands then these were hand formed into little cow poo pattercakes which were put all along the ditch to dry and would be later used as fuel for cooking the evening meal. The 'ironing man' had a hole in the wall ironing parlour and I couldn't even lift the heavy brass iron. He slammed it around ineffectually ironing all day. Muscles galore though. The local shop was a hatch into a living room piled high with groceries. I couldn't recognise much except coffee and washing powder. Milk comes in a plastic bag and packaging was refreshingly minimal on everything. 

Yoga was a dream. All that collated energy, all those young warriors bending and twisting like flamingos, the sound of breathing amplified by the room's acoustics. No whispering or talking, just absolute focus on the practise. The only sound was the clicking and unclicking and cracking of my knees and toes. Hmmm. I was a mere beginner by the standards around me but I was full of determination and tried to undo 43 and a half years of no yoga. I worked very hard at my practise. Often wet through by the end of it. I was bendier and calmer and  kept trying to emulate a state of grace which was usually ruined by the next rickshaw driver. I saw some incredible yoga postures and some world class posers. In the afternoons at the local hotel pool I saw too many skinny malinky girls eating lunch (three almonds)with a foot around their necks or young stud warriors diving into the pool whilst maintaining a yoga posture. I soon found the rebellion group (the oldies) and we had a good social life, eating cake and sunbathing and talking. I made some good friends.

I have made a great new friend, Anette, around the same age as me, 6'2" and utterly gorgeous supermodel material. She was a German living and working in Switzerland and we became firm friends. Until I met her I was pretty much a Loulounomates and then a whole world opened up for me in the local community. I think she just helped boost my confidence and told everybody about my creative work. I did some bookbinding classes & I became involved in a couple of art projects (one nearly got me arrested, long long story, invite me round for dinner) and helped raise money for a local charity that feeds the homeless every day. Three pounds sterling feeds 45 people breakfast and 10p gets them registered at the local clinic where they can get medical help which many are in need of. I saw so many physically disabled people on the streets. A man with no legs and a tray with castors as his transport. A dwarf man with no legs who used two blocks of wood to shuffle around on. People really in need of help. Operation Shanti is run to help these people and they do a really good job. What I did was a mere pinprick on a bunch of bananas.

And the stories could continue into the night but I have to end it here. Maybe I'll write that book everyone keeps telling me to write. Maybe I wont. But thanks for reading. I'm flying home on Friday. I miss everyone so much. It's going to be a shock after all this diversity and twanging of my imagination. In India I have had the luxury of time to dream and observe. It's a beautiful life for all of us despite the troubles we have to bear. And I think we should all be grateful that we've simply got legs (apologies to Ronnie here) and that we don't make cow pat puddings as a career option. You are all special and much loved by me and thanks too to Ganesha. 

And the biggest thanks go to my dad. If it wasn't for John I wouldn't have got round to doing this trip, he told me to go and do yoga and I miss him every day. Thanks dad.

Cor, that was like my very own acceptance speech...
much throwing of roses, 

Love and lotus flowers, lentils, garlands and Gods

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

**India** Part Four (you can't always get what you want)

This might be the penultimate episode of my travel journal. I'm going to keep it brief as it's the part of my trip where not a lot happened and it was almost a resting stage for what came next.
I flew to Goa to meet Colin who had rented an apartment there for three months. It meant I could rest a while in a home, not a hotel or guest house and explore Goa from there. 
It's so great to see an old friend when you are so far from home, especially when it is the culmination of months of planning and talking and 'see you in Goa'conversations. It was so nice to see his little sunburned smiley face at the airport! His apartment was great and spacious and I had a room with a bed and mosquito net and there was a huge balcony from which I could watch the world go by.
Every morning without fail the bread man (man on bike selling bread door to door) would parp his horn relentlessly outside our door. This was about 6am. It became annoying and then in the end just a joke, if I hadn't have laughed I may have stamped on his horn. The wheeziest loudest horn, like a clown would have in a circus. One morning I ran out furious about being woken up again and I asked him in sign language to shush. He just smiled at me and bibbed his stupid horat me in reply. 

Selling door to door in India is commonplace, vegetables, bread, milk, curd, buckets, you name it, they'll bring it. They all have their monotonous cry to herald their arrival and it becomes part of the huge tapestry of noise that begins at first light with howling dogs and ends around 2am with howling dogs. Colin spent a long time hatching a plan to wake every sleeping dog in the afternoons as revenge. Never come to India for peace and quiet. It's a continual barrage to your ears that I'll probably miss when I get home. Like the first time Meghan came home from university she couldn't sleep because it was too quiet.

Goa disappointed me because I realised I was about twenty years too late. It's now a massive tourist industry. It used to be a hippy paradise but is now a massive package holiday wheel of fortune and it's hard to find Goa's soul. I saw some hippies though! I called them the 'toolongs'. Looking vague and wrinkled (note to self..don't sunbathe, it's scary) and I saw some clear cases of mental derangement from too much sun, drugs or India or probably all three. I wanted to help one guy because I kept seeing him everywhere, sometimes miles from anywhere, with his rucksack and faraway eyes. He looked like driftwood and so far away, he must be missed or loved by somebody. Colin dissuaded me from being the world's social worker but I still think about that guy now. He looked too young and too alone. I hope he found his way home.
Beach life spirited me away again. We visited every beach in the North of Goa. Some were exquisite, one morning we spent watching whales and dolphins churning up the water. I started spending more and more time in the shade under a parasol drinking water. I was doing yoga every night on the balcony in preparation for my final Indian adventure. I knew I had to get serious as
I was on my way to Mysore. The centre of the world for Ashtanga yoga. It was not going to be a walk in the park and I didn't want to show myself up as an amateur. 5pm every night was Louise's yogurt time(as Colin named it). It became sacred and I became more serious about my reasons for wanting to study it further. I took up yoga more seriously after dabbling in it briefly and after my dad died it really helped me get my energy and strength back. I wanted to make yoga the final focus of my trip to acknowledge it's power and ability to change lives. Especially mine.
After 10 days in Goa I was ready to finally be properly really truly alone on my adventure in India.
I booked an overnight train to Bangalore. To continue onto Mysore somehow. No friends to meet me, no idea of what would await me when I got there. I was excited and scared and hopeful that my Indian knowledge would sustain me. I was about to enter my fourth state of India having already visited Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Goa. And the state of alone was calling me.
Karnataka and myself here I come.

More soon from the land of a thousand stories.
Love from she who is probably not leaving you on the edge of your seats

Friday, 8 February 2008

**India** Part Three /...Kaleidoscope rivers \

Namaste (traditional Indian greeting translates to 'the divinity in me recognises the divinity in you')

It's me again. Catching up with the news of my travels...I'm really far behind now with the story having left Lynn and I on a train on New Year's Eve. So much has happened but rest assured I am well and loving every moment. So here's some more words that might or might not make sense.

The train ride to the beach was uneventful apart from being woken by the ticket inspector to let someone else into our carriage which displeased us ladies as we thought we had booked it for sole use. It's impossible to rely too much on any information here as I keep finding out and I should have learned by now but it's always coming back to bite me as I look into apparently earnest honest faces telling me blatant untruths. I fall for it every time.

Arriving like blinking newborns into the early morning sun (healthy and energetic and full of positive thoughts remember?) onto the railway platform we were faced with the bizarre sight of hundreds of people dressed all in the same colour. Yellow! Everywhere we looked, saris and suits and dresses and children too. Lemon yellow, egg yoke yellow, custard yellow, newborn chick yellow... There were hordes of arrivals for an ashram ceremony (ashram-a place of spiritual retreat) and I think the devotees wore yellow as part of a ceremony there.

Lynn and I had been drooling and dreaming about breakfast for half the night as we had come from the ration retreat and we were just so excited about poached eggs for breakfast. We dumped our luggage and sped to the beach cafes to fulfill our fantasies and all was well again. Toast, poached eggs and coffee. Simple fare made all the more divine by the previous two weeks abstinence. 

It was New Years Eve and we were looking forward to maybe a beach party or a gathering of some kind but it turned out to be neither. We walked along the cliff top after a fish supper and ran into a huge crowd gathered around a group of powerful drummers. We found ourselves in the middle of a pressing crowd of stomping, chanting, clapping men. Realising we seemed to be the only two girls in this scrum we decided to retreat which was really hard work. In typically English fashion I didn't want to appear rude by not joining in the 'fun' but at the same time I was feeling unnerved. We were surrounded, the smell of beer and bodies was overpowering and the men were closing in. Imagine a whirling dream/nightmare sequence in a film...faces looming out of the crush of dance crazed bodies. Lynn and I made a run for it into a restaurant and managed to hide away in a seated area. Everyone was just so over excited and the normal placid well behaved Indian men seemed to have thrown caution to the wind for one night only. We continued to be feted by young bucks who were all supposedly Bollywood producers, actors or cameramen. It might impress the young Indian girls but two old timers like Lynn and myself were not impressed. We made our excuses (yes, we'll be back later, we have to meet some friends blah blah etc etc) and we left. 10.30 pm on New Years Eve and we locked ourselves into our beach hut and decided to bed down for the night. At midnight the noise and shouting and drumming seemed to reach a crescendo. Lynn and I both woke up and wished each other a happy new year. I remarked that it sounded as though they were preparing to eat somebody out there. The noise, fire crackers and tribal chanting sounded ominous, not jolly at all. 

The next day, 1st January 2008 saw Lynn and I doing an 8am yoga practise and we felt like we were the only people left in the world. India had become serene with the first morning of a new year. We later read newspaper reports of assaults and harassment and that New Years Eve in India dictates no police leave and extra reinforcements bussed in.(extra reinforcements also means that the batons the police use to whack people with just get bigger) Indian men see New Years Eve as their one night to party like it's 1999 and all hell lets loose. The women and families stay home and all the single men gather at beach resorts in droves. If only we had known...I'm glad we went to bed and it felt instinctively right to put ourselves in a safe place. The rum remained untouched for another occasion, we were just so yogic and you all thought we would succumb...

Following one's instinct is a good thing to do in India. You certainly need your wits about you at all times. I feel exhausted after visits to towns where the only rules of traffic are that there are no rules and crossing a road or hiring a rickshaw are risky ventures. You have to look and listen and continually be aware  of everything. Reversing buses do not sound horns, no vehicles ever seem to indicate, the holy cows sleep in the middle of lanes of traffic on roundabouts. A cross section of traffic might consist of several heavily laden buses pouring black exhaust and numerous helpful back seat drivers hanging from doors and windows, thirty auto-rickshaws, sixty motorbikes carrying more people and children than they are designed for, cows, dogs, beggars, children, oxen pulling carts vegetable and fruit handcarts and the odd car. And in and out of all this chaos pedestrians wander. It makes the M25 look like a futuristic slice of slick action. The newspapers here report traffic accidents as 'mishaps'. A 'mishap' here is a bus with it's front stoved in and 16 people killed in a fireball. And if any driver is involved in an accident, a crowd will gather to act as vigilantes. The accused (and who decides is anybody's guess) is beaten and then dragged to a police station. I don't think there is too much of a compensation culture here.

And a word about falling coconuts. They can kill you. And they fall all the time. With a dull bone cracking  thud. In front of me on a footpath, by the pool, whilst eating dinner. I've seen it too many times now and I make sure I never linger under a coconut tree. If I voice my concern at heavily laden trees I'm met with a shrug. My one man crusade for health and safety has got a long way to go.

Lynn and I had a few days beach respite. We lounged and swam, read some beautiful Indian literature and chatted, made some new beach friends, did useful good international relationship building work by teaching French boys how to swear, listened to the bitter war between the rival coconut and pineapple ladies, we set our watches by the chai lady who came every afternoon to sell us good hot sweet chai. (We managed to persuade her that half of a desert spoon of sugar was ample instead of her recommended three). We did yoga classes on the beach as the sun was setting and the dolphins were leaping. Standing in a tree posture (balancing one leg, hands held in prayer high above head) turning towards the setting sun, doing a shoulder stand on the sand so all the sand from my toes fell in my mouth, were some moments from my diary.

Lynn and I decided to take a houseboat trip through the backwater canals of Allepey in Kerala. We reluctantly left the beach (sigh, how easy to be a beach bum) and travelled by early morning train to Allepey where we stayed in a guest house and got taken to a 'secret beach'. An endless expanse of sand with no tourists and just a small fishing community. The sort of beach you would see in 'paradise' travel brochures. A few artfully placed coconut palms and a traditional hand painted viking style fishing boat silhouetted in the setting sun as it sailed to evening fish complete with singing fishermen and creatively arranged clouds. Sometimes perfection is handed on a platter and after so many beautiful sights and amazing vistas it can be easy to say...hmm yes it's just another beautiful beach. I was ready for something new. How awful that I was getting a bit bored with paradise? Sometimes the heat gets to me, that's my excuse.

Our houseboat can only be described as an intricate floating wicker basket, shaped like a shell. It was luxurious. Two bedrooms with windows opening onto the silky cool river, en-suite bathrooms, a huge dining area and a large expanse of deck to lounge on cushions and be transported down river. A kitchen and a chef, a captain and a competent steerer. The three staff were discreet as anything, we didn't feel that they were overly present but if we needed anything they were instantly there (must have trained at the Ritz). We had hired the boat and crew for 24 hours to show us the other side of life in Kerala. The river life unfolded before us like a sleepy watery dream sequence. Scene after scene of family life on the edge of water. Nut brown shiny babies being dunked and washed, pools of colour that flowered slowly into women in full sari dress rising from the dark water where they bathed fully clothed, their long dark hair as slick as wet pelts. Groups of women washing and sifting through baskets of shellfish as our boat continued to break through the bright green lakes of water hyacinth that covered the black deep. I was mesmerised by the washing slapped onto rocks to make it clean, the cooking, the eating, the lines of children walking to school or being bused in by rowing boats, the glide past rice fields with rows of coolie hats and umbrellas over bent double bodies. A slow moving shiny jewel of a kaleidoscope river. The day turned into evening and we moored at the river bank in our prehistoric beast of a basket boat. Dinner was served and we watched firefly's bright lights burn and dissolve against the silhouettes of palm trees. It was the Wind in the Willows and Swallows and Amazons rolled into one. Morning bought us cockerels and morning haze and the rising sun and village children demanding school pens. We walked around the fields whilst our breakfast was prepared and set sail again for the home run. The photography opportunities were endless and in the end I just wanted to be hypnotised by river life and lay back and enjoyed every last moment. 

Then it was Lynn's turn to return to the UK and I was alone in India. More exciting adventures were planned as I was about to fly to Goa to meet my friend who had rented an apartment for three months. More beaches, more gorgeous food, more mad dirty mesmerising haunting India.

But despite the diversity and the dirt and the pollution and the power cuts and the poverty and the dust and the craziness, I am just so in love with this country. The colours are incredible and the light is unique and completely arresting. There is a time of the day, approx 5pm, just as the sun starts to drop, that the light becomes electric and colours are heightened and seem to sing. A tiny purple flower dropped on the dust becomes saturated with colour and seems to leap out of the landscape with it's richness. Maybe it's the artist in me but other people notice it too. It's become my favourite time of day. 

Love and light from Loulou