Today was a day pretty much spent entirely in transit. In India, that always involves more adventure than you’d expect.
Got up early(ish) to collect my laundry from the hotel and catch the 8am bus from Munnar to Kottayam. Unfortunately, the hotel had initially managed to lose all of my underwear and socks, and by the time I’d hassled the staff until they found them again and got to the bus station, it was 8:02am and the bus had already left. Must have been the first bus in India to ever leave on time. The next direct bus wasn’t until 10:30, but the guy at the bus stand just said to take the next bus sitting there and change at some town I didn’t quite catch the name of. So I did. I manage to doze a bit on the bus, and at some point the helpful ticket inspector told me to get off the bus and change for Kottayam.
Getting off the bus, I noticed the only other white guy on the bus was changing here too. He turned out to be a French chap named Damian, and he was also trying to get to Alleppey (via Kottayam). So we asked some of the people at the next bus stand how to get to Kottayam, and ended up catching two more buses together before arriving at Kottayam around 1pm. We had lunch, and several cups of chai, and then caught the ferry to Alleppey. Neither of us had accommodation arranged, so we ended up sharing a room at a guest house recommended by the ferry conductor. After getting that sorted out, we went for dinner at (according to the Lonely Planet) the only restaurant in town that served beer. Hoorah for cold beer!
Damian didn’t want to hang around Alleppey – he was going to catch a boat cruise to another town a little way south. I, on the other hand, was interested in doing a tour of the Kerala backwaters. While I was wandering around trying to find a tour (or rather, deciding which of the pushy touts I trusted), I bumped into an Irish guy doing the same thing. So we split the cost of a six-hour paddle boat tour of the backwaters.
The tour was good in some ways – relaxing and scenic and we got to see some of the local villages and a Hindu temple. But the guide wasn’t particularly good – he barely spoke to us at all – suspecting his English wasn’t great. This was a bit of a shame because it would have been nice to know more about the places we were going through. Fortunately, I was in a quiet, contemplative mood so I didn’t really mind.
The rest of the day was occupied by mundane things like finding an internet connection, putting enough credit on my phone so I could activate a 3G data plan, and drinking beer.
Today I caught the 10:30 ferry to Kollam, but got off earlier at the stop for Amritapuri, a.k.a. Amma’s Ashram. The ferry was mostly a fairly dull ride with not much to see, although in the hour before arriving at the ashram we passed by several villages with big cheena vala (fishing nets) hanging down into the water. The ashram is run by a guru named Amma, famous because she gives a hug to everyone who visits. Supposedly this is supposed to provide some kind of spiritual experience or awakening, but honestly, it felt just like a hug to me. The ashram doesn’t follow any formal religion, but encourages a message of universal love. It feels a little bit like Hinduism and Buddhism thrown into a blender with an added dash of new-age hippy stuff.
Shortly after I arrived there, Amma gave a presentation at the beach – which is apparently an unusual event. It began with a short period of meditation, which I found irritating because the MC was telling us over the loudspeaker how to meditate, and leading a chant of Ma … Om … Ma … Om. The meditation which I’ve tried before – and which I think I prefer – was Vipassana style, which is done in silence and alone. After that, Amma spoke for a while in Malayalam (the local language) and then a translator repeated the message in English.
In general, my first impression of the ashram has been that it’s not really my kind of thing. I guess I tend to consider spirituality to be a bit more of an individual and personal thing rather than an excuse for joining in a big group all looking for the same kinds of thing from a guru. I just can’t see myself ever achieving enlightenment by following someone in this way. Moreover, for someone who teaches a message of non-egoism, the ashram has a ridiculous number of pictures of Amma plastered around it, along with followers who appear to treat her as some kind of minor deity.
Feeling a little bit better about the ashram after getting up early for what the ashram schedule said was time for “meditation/ayurveda at the beach”. I was worried that this would be another big group chanting exercise, but it turned out to be very quiet, with no formal direction at all, just people sitting by the beach doing meditation or yoga or just watching the sunrise. This is a bit more like what I was hoping for. From 5-6am a large proportion of the ashram is engaged in Vedic chanting, and from 6:30-8pm they’ll be singing bhajan (Hindu prayers) again, but I guess I can live with that.
One of the positive aspects of my experience here so far is that it’s pulled me back from my largely hedonistic travel experiences and encouraged me once again to consider what it is I want from life, what I value, and how well my actions reflect that. Thinking about such things in the middle of last year – and starting to read up on Buddhism – was what convinced me that I’d been on the wrong path for too long: both working as a computer programmer and working in the oil industry were not things that I’d ever particularly wanted to do, they were things that I’d drifted into, and moreover they were making me particularly unhappy. It was perhaps a continuation of the gradual realisation I’d had over 2011 that as I’d started working full-time, I’d been increasingly chasing material comforts (shiny car, nice flat, new iPhone, etc) and that, along with a moderately busy social life and associated boozing, had meant that I’d completely lost the satisfaction that came from spending time pursuing my own interests. I was no longer doing anything creative, and not feeling particularly engaged with the world, either intellectually or physically.
Obviously I’m not feeling like that so much at the moment, but it has encouraged me to slow down a bit and not rush my time in India – even if that means abandoning plans to see as many other countries afterwards. I’m seriously considering doing a two-week course in yoga, which would mean I’d be staying in India for a couple of weeks longer than originally intended. Why? I’d earlier been considering doing a meditation course, but my experience last night has made me think that I’d rather just find my own path when it comes to meditation. Yoga, on the other hand, is a lot harder to teach oneself.
The ashram experience hasn’t really grabbed me either. I finished the day feeling like it was about time for me to leave this place and rejoin the rest of the world.
Got up this morning, had breakfast, and decided that I could do with another day here after all. I’ve spent the day reading books (on my Kindle) about Hinduism, Buddhism and yoga; and further contemplating myself and my life. It seems like an appropriate way to spend time here. I’ve also booked myself in for a two-week ashtanga yoga course in Goa in early March. That gives me a fairly leisurely pace for the rest of my time in Kerala. Tomorrow I’ll check out, spend another quiet day around the ashram and catch the late afternoon ferry to Kollam.