"Welcome to God's Own Country"
03.10.2010 - 14.10.2010 30 °C
==Kerala, Southern India==
"Welcome to God's Own Country"
No journey is 100% easy and fun… It always has ups and downs...
Hmm… My stay in Kerala was rather mixed. On the one hand, I got to spend some time in the two most relaxing places I'd seen yet in India, namely the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam and the Cochin/Cherai Beach area, which was great, but on the other hand, following my birthday which occurred while I was at the ashram, I managed to develop, over three days, three different health problems which made my stay less that ideal. Add to that that for some unknown reason, Kerala was the only indian state that hadn't understood yet that monsoon was supposed to be over and we pretty much had rain every day at the ashram… Pretty much? Well, every day, really for a full week! I only saw blue sky once for about 15 minutes the whole time I was there. Also, I spent the first 3-4 nights of my stay in a mouldy, "mildewy" room filled with mosquitoes (I averaged 18 kills per evening trying to clear the room out, as we are, after all, in dengue fever and japanese encephalitis zones) which was far from ideal… before changing rooms a few days later… Sigh!
On the plus side, when I left the ashram, the weather took a turn for the much better and in the process of producing my own vitamin D, I managed to get my first sunburn in India (Ooops!). My stay at Cherai Beach was extremely relaxing as the resort was 25km out of Cochin/Ernakulam which translates to about an hour away, in India… It was a great place to recover and to rest, rest, rest…
So… Neyyar Dam. The arrival into Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram, officially) was rather entertaining as they wouldn't let us exit the airplane for 30 minutes as the rain was too strong. They then managed to find umbrellas and would escort us from the plane to the buses waiting 20 minutes away, but somehow the sheet rain still managed to get everyone soaked. Followed by a taxi ride to the ashram, about 25km away (yet another hour) through flooded streets with the taxi driver alternating full air-conditioning to clear the windows to none to avoid getting cold. Why he didn't try to balance a constant lower flow, I have no clue. Also, most of the drivers I've found in Kerala (ok I only got to see 2) seem to think that 1000rpm is the place to be, all the time. Both on the trip over and the trip back from the ashram, the two different drivers pretty much never exceeded 1500rpm and spent most of their times with the engines at full load at about 1000rpm… Poor engines!
The ashram is located near a wildlife reserve (you get to hear lions roaring in the morning) in Neyyar Dam which is peaceful. Unlike the ashram in the Bahamas, there is no Starbucks, no Atlantis, and no sea (and no sun, while I was there). This makes the place very (in yogic speak) sattvic, but also a little tamasic (or perhaps that was the combination of the weather and my health colouring my perception?)… The buildings are fairly nice, and the staff function at the "Indian Rhythm" (makes you think a little of "Island Time" in the Bahamas). Met some wonderful people there as well, though I found that in contrast to the Bahamas, the proportion of returning yogis, vs, let's call them "hopefully new or future yogis" is not the same. At Neyyar Dam, you get quite a few people that have never stayed in an ashram or never really done yoga. Some are on Round-the-World trips taking a break or trying the "India Ashram" thing, (or should it be called the "Eat Pray Love" thing now?!?) which really doesn't give it the same vibe as in the Bahamas. Lots of strong egos… (of course I recognize this thanks to my own rather inflated ego… :-). In the Bahamas, there are a lot more returning yogis or people that have done the TTC which changes the vibe a lot.
So here are the main differences between, say, the Bahamas and Val Morin and the Neyyar Dam ashram (I admit to being prejudiced, so take it with a grain of salt):
Location: In the middle of nowhere, sort of like Val Morin. Very lush and green area, just to be avoided during monsoon… Frequent power failures, but lions roaring in the morning… You really get that middle of nowhere vibe.
Discipline: Unlike in the Bahamas, they insist that you participate in the morning and evening satsang sessions as well as the afternoon lectures. Somebody will come knocking on your door if you don't show up. The lectures are sort of mini ttc info as they don't get many guest speakers like they do in the Bahamas.
Eating: You eat on the floor in silence, being served by karma yogis. As for food selection, there are typically 4-5 things. If you can't eat or don't like cumin, stay away! :-D The food isn't really all that great compared to say, the Bahamas in particular where it is excellent (though you don't usually come to an ashram for the food). But I do admit to having missed Pranava and Shankar's cooking from the Bahamas!
People: As I said, more hopefully "new or future yogis and yoginis" and less people having done the TTC. Not the same vibe, yet as everywhere, I did meet some great people!
So as a whole, I wouldn't make a detour to return to the Neyyar Dam ashram, but if I were in southern India and it wasn't monsoon, I would return to the ashram for a stay.
Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam
Upon leaving the ashram, the weather greatly improved. I got to see that southern India, or Kerala in particular, is more relaxed and less hectic (though still rather chaotic) than the north. Lots or very tall palm trees with coconuts.
Took a train ride from Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram - I love this name!) up to Ernakulam (got on the wrong train, with the wrong ticket, in the wrong class but made it anyway…). From there, an hour long taxi ride to Cherai Beach for a few days of R&R and to get ride of a nasty cold/cough/sore throat that had been plaguing me for weeks.
Cherai Beach (Resort) is on one of the several islands composing Cochin or Kochi. It is towards the northern tip of Vyppen Island which is about 75m wide between the Arabian sea and Kerala backwaters. The villas, at about 2500 rupees were the most expensive I'd paid for in India, but the calibre was something quite different as well. The meals were buffet, but I never saw the same dish twice during my 4 days there and had the most wonderful fish curry - Kerala style - I'd ever had (coconut, ginger, pineapple, spices…). I spent the days either reading, swimming in the Arabian sea, or visiting the backwaters and Fort Cochin.
My villa... Note the private hammock to the left...
The backwaters are still fished by traditional fishers and you see them working throughout the day. I got to see my first bald eagle in flight as well as colourful birds. It wasn't a real backwater tour in the sense that most backwater tours take you up canals whereas I was on an open lake, but I didn't want the hassle of having to go into Ernakulam in the morning (hour over, hour back) to book a half day tour. It is on my list of things to do the next time I'm in Kerala, though… And probably from Alleyppey in a house boat.
Fort Cochin. Cochin is the name of one of my all time favourite fonts when writing a document, so it only made sense that I would visit the city that inspired the name of the font. Yes, crazy, I know… It didn't disappoint. It was peaceful and rather beautiful and also very relaxed with its old Portuguese and Dutch colonial houses. Another place I could have spent a week chilling (and debated doing) but decided that it would be a rest place for my next visit to India.
Chinese Fishing Nets:
Santa Cruz Basilica
St-Francis Church, the oldest Christian church in India
So this is it. I'm leaving India after about a 5 week stay. I loved it and hated it at the same time. Great food, great sites but lots and lots of hassle and chaos (hard to imagine this is where yoga comes from when you look at it today…).