Let’s start with the disclaimers: I’ve spent ‘only’ 7 weeks in India divided over roughly 10 locations in the south (heavily influenced by the Portugese, French, Dutch and obviously the Brits).
I skipped the big cities and tourist traps like the Taj Mahal during my stopover in Delhi. My meaningful interactions with ‘locals’ have, unfortunately, mostly been with westernized Indians, as in the south it’s difficult to escape the tourist trail (or I looked in the wrong places).India: you love it or you hate it. And I do neither. I’ve met great people, seen fantastic things, spend an enlightening time in a monastery, ate some of the best fish ever, while spending approximately 30 euro/day including flights in and out. However, India’s culture of indifference isn’t for me. Outside touristic areas people hardly speak English, and the multitude of languages, dialects and heavy accents make it hardly worth the effort of mastering one. Like everywhere in Asia, travel is a pain, but except for one gruesome 20hr trip it has been relatively smooth. Haggling starts to get on my nerves, but I guess I’d better get used to it. Fortunately, I haven’t had a serious case of ‘Delhi Belly’, despite eating almost everything everywhere (except on trains and busses). This was only my first visit to India and I’ll definitely return to see the north. Tomorrow I’ll leave India for Cambodia, which will be a very different experience. Not only is this country still hounted by its gruesome past, but I’ll be finally reunited with Taina as well.
Pondicherry is a beautiful old French colonial coastal town, with cute bakeries serving croissants and baguettes. Right next to it sits ‘Auroville’, an utopian city build on the ideas of both Sri Aurobindo and ‘The Mother’. Before you think I’ve completely lost it and my next stop will be a scientology ‘church’: Pondicherry and Auroville are on my way towards Chennai from where I’ll fly to Cambodia on the 30th. So, I’ll definitely keep my both feet on the ground.Auroville (www.auroville.org) was founded in 1968 and its charter states the following:
1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular
2. Auroville will be the place of unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages
3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations.
4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity. Most if it sounds reasonable (and a bit vague) to me. The big question is of course: how far are they from realizing their objectives. Initial impression is: not so far. It’s easy to criticize Auroville and its inhabitants: Auroville was conceived for 50.000 inhabitants, but only 2.000 actually live there 40 years later. At the same time thousands of persons are on a waiting list and there’s sufficient space for construction. Most of the people who come to Auroville aren’t Aurovillians. They are tourists who come to see the Matrimander, the soul of Auroville, a stunning golden dome. However, day visitors are not allowed inside the dome. Despite that all visitors have to see a compulsory video, very few actually get Auroville’s message, a massive missed opportunity for spreading the word. Becoming an Aurovillian is a lengthy and costly process, which basically requires that you intend to spend the rest of your life there. Moreover, anything you buy or build in Auroville belongs to the community, so you can’t sell it. Several unanimous UN resolutions have been passed supporting Auroville, as well as the regular inflow of financial contributions from several countries and donors. It was therefore a big surprise to me that all Aurovillians seem to be complaining about money (cost of housing, not enough funds to do X, Y or Z). Moreover, the fact that Auroville needs external funds means their solution (if any) can’t be scaled to include a large number of people. Is it then all bad? No. I managed to get access to the inside of the dome and meditation rooms on my second visit, and it was an amazing experience. All Aurovillians I’ve spoke with are genuinely nice and willing to help out. For example: I didn’t want to have lunch with the tourists and both days somebody helped me through the maze of their cashless system. However, getting to know the right people and understanding them takes time, much more than the 2 day trips that I consecrated to the place. My fundamental problem with Auroville is of a different nature. Auroville was started as a way for achieving Unity without religion, but in practice it almost has become a religion by their devotion of Sri Aurobindo and ‘The Mother’. It seems that most people are relaxed about their new ‘religion’, but in my humble opinion, these religions/personality cults are likely to draw enemies and deviate the whole from its end goals. I had a long discussion about a previous incarnation of this post with several ‘long stayers’. I decided to talk with them as I want to do Auroville justice. They explained me that the barriers to entry (houses, finding your way etc.) are high on purpose, as one isn’t just visiting a city like London or Paris, but a community of people that are working hard toward a higher aim. Tourists coming to look at a pretty building are not considered worth the effort of spending time with, as the tourists are not willing to make the effort of truly getting to know Auroville. Moreover, running an utopian city is hard work; this is illustrated perfectly by the 2 million (!) trees that were planted on a previously completely eroded terrain. I guess the long stayers were trying to tell me that paradise doesn’t come easy. For the time being Auroville seems to do just fine. People from many nations peacefully coexist in an eco-friendly way, whilst creating interesting and beautiful art. Which is a result one can be proud of. Whether Auroville will fulfill its promise of creating Human Unity remains to be seen. I fear either commercialization or irrelevance for an idea that should have lead to paradise.
With two months allotted to India and the ambition to travel little in order to see places in depth, I thought it was logical to spend some time in a monastery. After almost a week of intense yoga training in a mini-resort (and 3 days recovery at the beach afterwards), I believed I was ready to enter. Even before I entered I lost my first karma points as my rickshaw brutally disrupted the evening prayers. The ‘Delhi Belly’ the following morning could have been interpreted as a bad omen, but wasn’t.
Before I continue, I’d better explain the reason I wanted to go. After visiting Birma two years ago and spending a magical night in a monastery (think: get woken up by the singing young monks next door at 05.00 in the morning) I decided back in Amsterdam to follow a weekend introduction course into Buddhism and meditation. I liked it a lot, and like most people I never gave it any attention afterwards.
But after about a month in India I heard myself saying to people that I’d ‘like to go to an Ashram’. The ashram I went to has the following schedule:
05:20 wake-up bell
06.00 group meditation and chanting 07:30 tea time
08:00 yoga class
10:00 vegetarian meal
11:00-11:30 cleaning the monastery
15:30 yoga class
18:00 vegetarian meal
20:00-21:30 group meditation and chanting
22:30 lights out
All items are compulsory!
As I, unsurprisingly, overslept on the first day, I sat down a bit uneasy in a massive temple as the morning ceremony began. The temple was pitch dark and filled with about 100 persons. Most of the persons I had seen when i arrived late at night the day before had looked relatively sane. However, after the first verse a familiar tune hit my horrified ears:
Hare Rama, Rama Rama hare hare
Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna hare hare
‘Oh my god, I signed up to stay with some Hare Krishna sect’ was my first thought as my eyes scanned the room for the nearest exit. As I did this I saw (again) normal looking people who were quietly meditating or singing along. I decided in that split second that I would give it a shot, as these vegetarians very probably wouldn’t hurt me. I ended up staying 4 days in the monastery and liking it a lot.
The schedule was gruesomely tiring, my body is not intended for yoga, requesting an ‘exit pass’ if you want to leave the monastery grounds for 5 minutes scares the hell out of me, even an loosely and friendly organized religion like Hinduism has no appeal to me whatsoever.
So why did I like it so much? The other guests were absolutely great, parts of my body that have been stiff like rock suddenly became flexible, it’s probably the best organized place in India, they organized an excursion where we drove in a big tour bus with loads of people and I loved it (!?!), the location is amazing, their approach to religion is devoid of any extremism and passion. To my own massive surprise I actually *liked* the singing and found myself humming the songs outside the class.
Will I ever dance barefoot in the Kalverstraat (Amsterdam’s main shopping street) with my friends, in an orange dress happily drumming and chanting like there is no tomorrow? Unlikely. But I have learned a lot about religion.
My body ached and my mind was tired, so I left, but certain to return to this monastery or another one for another long visit.
I guess the width of the beach is about 25 meters and it’s only three meters from the shoreline to the palm trees behind me. But I enjoy having this beach to myself and quietly read a light book about India (Holy cow).Surprisingly, the locals sail a boat that consists of three loosely attached wooden poles that seemed terribly inefficient as it didn’t have a sharp, pointed hull. I supposed that the possibility of detaching them and be able to easily carry them up the beach outweighed the benefits of actually getting somewhere quickly with the boat.
I was proven wrong once again. When I was about to leave a local fisherman walked up and we started chatting about the type of fish he catches (small ones), the size of his net (1 km), and what they do with the fish (eat them with tea). Quickly afterwards his friend joined him and they pulled the boat into the water. The small size of the boat proved to be a big asset for navigating the big waves close to the shore, the fishing nets fitted like a glove between the two outer wooden poles. Combined with the skill of the two men it made being a fisherman in South India seem easy.
This morning I joined a yoga class. The ticket seller ensured me it was for beginners and the two Russian ladies who were present confirmed it was only their second lesson. After a couple of minutes, the teacher asked us to sit cross-legged, a position I’m unable to maintain for more than a minute. He ensured we sat up straight (otherwise the position wouldn’t ‘work’). He then spoke and demonstrated the position at the same time. Move your hands uuuup and then slooowly move your body forward and touch the floor with your head. I must have looked stunned as he smilingly returned to the sitting position and nodded for me to start repeating his example. I sighed and stretched my arms upward and barely maintained balance in my cross legged position then. I managed to move my head forward at least 10 centimeters in a forward head wobble when I felt that I was about to loose my equilibrium and got a cramp in both my left foot and my side as I quickly returned to the dreaded cross-legged position. It was the beginning of a long 1,5 hour class.
It had been heroic work: the touts at the busstation said it didn’t exist, according to the tourist office it was forbidden, but finally I was rowing on-my-own in a massive wooden canoe in the famous Kerala backwaters. The alternative had been joining a luxurious houseboat cruise or an organized tour, both are probably a lot of fun, just not for me. My persuasion tactics at the tourist office had been all over the place: my swimming skills, canoe experience on the ocean, (co) owner of two boats in canal capital Amsterdam, having lived on a houseboat for a year, even the fact that The Netherlands lies for 40% below sea level had been thrown into the pit. In the end, “ok, I’ll pay extra in order not to have somebody row me” proved to be the winning argument. Not very surprisingly, actually.The silence on the jungle river water was a pleasure to listen to. Only intermittently it was interrupted by the questions of the villagers. Invariably the first question was: “one ?” as they look amused at this stranger on his own. Despite or because of my bragging about my rowing skills, it proved to be difficult to get the boat in the right direction. I was puzzled: if the boat turns to much towards the right, you paddle a bit extra on the right and you go straight again, right? If that doesn’t work: row a bit extra. However, i seemed to be rowing against my own tide as the boat slalomed from left to right through the jungle. Suddenly, I remembered the advice a wise friend once gave me: look at a fixed point on the horizon and watch the direction and acceleration of the front of the boat compared with that point. No longer was I trying to get more power into my rowing by looking at my paddle, but i suddenly managed to prevent a lot of issues. However, I still ran to frequently into the shore for my sailor’s pride. Finally, an old lady, shouted a tip from the shore: break left! This was the exact opposite of what I was doing before (accelerate right) and it had the effect I was looking for. Only then it dawned on me that the difference between the two was that by going slower I could maneuver the boat more easily, whereas by accelerating the boat I achieved the opposite. Probably I should include these learnings into my management style. Look at the horizon and compare it constantly to the point that is moving first is a great metaphor for making sure you’re not changing to fast. Paddle less is an obvious one. And I especially like: if your organization needs to stop turning right, break left, instead of putting more effort on the right.
Interesting video on what has happened to the world health and income during the last two centuries. Wll worth 4 minutes of your time (I think)
To state that I was tired when I arrived in Kochin was an understatement. The day had started 16 hours before as I hadn’t noticed that a mosque stood next to my hotel. It seemed almost especially for my birthday that I had arranged this bizarre assortment of transport:
2 car rickshaws 1 ferry
and I get my own office!
Sometimes during a long trip on your own you feel sorry for yourself. This was one of those days. Yesterday was actually a good day with a manic hike up a beautiful mountain followed by a long scenic bus trip. At the end I arrived on another planet, a planet that wasn’t described in the Lonely Planet. This village meant a lot of stares, but most of all: honest smiles of people that hadn’t seen a tourist for a long time. The day ended quietly with a long conversation with a local shop owner, his staff and friends.Today was very different. Early rise, some dry crackers for breakfast and the rest of the day in the bus in order to get to a wildlife park that I had planned to see for days. Once I finally arrived, disappointment set in quickly: no walks in the park (literally), maximum 1 hour tour per jeep, and backtracking to place I just came from where the cheapest option would be the most expensive hotel of the entire trip. With an important day coming up and nobody I knew for longer than 5 minutes near me, I had failed miserably in scoring the -much desired- inspiration. As I sat down, contemplated and sadly watched massive trucks pass through the wild life ‘sanctuary’, a forest ranger started pushing the hotel of a ‘friend’ that had a ‘really good price’… With no options left, I decided to check it out, the pictures from the brochure showed an uninspiring modern building with probably ditto staff, ready to cater to package tours. My arrival in a village, halfway between the park and my last stop, marked the change in the day. The schools of the village had just closed when I got off the bus and within seconds I was surrounded by wildly enthusiastic kids who fired non-stop questions at me. My dark mood disappeared like monsoon in summer.
The staff in the hotel was the friendliest I’ve seen and the room (at a great price) was spacious and spotless. Strengthened by this turn of events, I went for a short walk. I was soon joined by two business students who explained that the hotel was located right next to the wildlife sanctuary. We passed through some rice fields and then saw a large ditch which – they explained – was created to protect the village from dangerous wild elephants. I don’t quite recall how it happened, but my plan to return back to the hotel gave way to a let’s-look-for-wild-elephants plan together with a new local guy who didn’t speak English. Fortunately I was armed with an inch wide wooden stick, so nothing bad could have happened to us anyway. To cut a long story short(er): Yes, we found a wild elephant walking at 20 meters from us.Yes, the students, who I later understood were send by the hotel to make my trip more pleasant, had never seen an elephant this close despite being born and raised here. Yes, we were invited by the local guy to have a cup of tea in his house where he showed us his in-house temple, a holy tree that is worshipped by his ancient tribe, and the marks of a wild elephant that tried to cross the ditch at literally 3 meters from his house. Hurried by a small rain shower we quickly returned to the hotel. All the way back, I smiled from ear to ear. This experience showed me that I’m not yet at peace and that some meditation would probably serve me well. Sorry India. p.s. Went on the jungle tour this morning and had great fun
On my last day in beautiful Hampi I ran into this bridge / aqueduct:
My first thought was: ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’. The scary thing is: it’s true! Not a single ‘modern’ building Many more complicated innovations abound: motorbikes, TV’s, mobile phones, but all of them aren’t produced and let alone designed here. It especially astounding that something as basic as a bridge connecting two sides of a town isn’t present anymore. The fact that the latter is a common good and the former are private objects probably explains a lot, but still…I wonder what this means for the west. My initial reaction is that losing the skills / capability / money / interest for something this essential isn’t possible. We probably forgot how to make some old tools, but only because more efficient ones have emerged. However, I’ve also read about shopping malls, foreclosed homes and unused office space being transformed for new functions. But we still know how to make them. Maybe once a society enters the information age it can’t forget anymore? Or it understands the basic needs of it’s citizens better? Or my assumption that the bridge is essential is wrong? Who can help here?