Saturday, 30 January 2010

Time for a quick hug?

So who wants a hug? Personally I like a good hug. I’ve always been a hugger. On and off throughout the years I’ve come across lots of other people who like to give and receive hugs too but more often than not people actually feel pretty uncomfortable with that and as I get older, it seems to get less and less cool to hug. In polite company people shake hands. Or sometimes just a nod of the head will do. In India, the quirky head wobble is king. Along with a smile, a head wobble can work wonders to unlock a suspicious stare from the quiet local villagers in the sleepy backwaters of Kerala where we now find ourselves – but a hug – well for many the physical intimacy of a hug is just way too much to deal with. I wonder why – because let’s face it people: a hug can heal the world.
This morning I have woken up to my first real morning in India. At least, I should say, the India that I really came looking for. Today we find ourselves in one of the spiritual centers of India. And as I write this, in my mind’s eye I can actually see some of you shaking your heads and scoffing while you read on, at the fact we chose one of the most commercial and westernized versions of this part of India to visit – but to you I say – ‘So what? You should come and check it out too and maybe you wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what goes on here’.
Yesterday we arrived at the Ashram of Amma – the hugging Mother. And what can I say? Our spirits have lifted just being here. Mama is unfortunately ‘away on business’ – giving out free hugs out of town – but she will be back. We had originally planned just a quick overnight stay to see what all the fuss was about – but the instant we arrived we felt an overwhelming sense of calm and welcoming. And I actually felt sadly disappointed that we were going to miss Amma by only a day or 2 – so since we had the time – we decided almost instantly to stick around and wait for Amma to return. I mean – I came all this way – it would be silly not to stick around for a hug. And if the place feels this good in her absence – just imagine how good it’s going to feel when the mama is actually ‘in da house’! So far in her 50 something years, Amma has hugged over 28 million people – and in a few days I will be one more. And since I am a fan of the hug, neigh – one might say a bit of a connoisseur of hugs. A discerning hugger, who prides herself on her hugging skills and one who is quite fussy about the quality of hugs given in return I am definitely more than a bit excited to get a good cuddle from the ultimate hugger of all time.
If you’ve never heard of Amma, then do a little research and you’ll find she’s actually quite well known! Her humanitarian efforts are nothing less than astounding. She has donated millions of dollars to numerous disaster relief funds all around the world, from helping out on her own doorstop when she helped to rebuild after the tsunami (her own Ashram having been right in the midst of the danger zone), to sending assistance to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And her philosophy is simple: the world can be healed through love. And so – with her heart full of love and compassion she hugs the whole world, one person at a time.
Most days that Amma is in residence at the Ashram she holds ‘Darshan’ (hugging) sessions. We arrived on a Saturday with high hopes of a hugging opportunity within the next 24 hours, only to discover that she was on the road until Monday – so our first chance of a hug would probably not arise until Tuesday. Well – we liked it here. So we thought: ‘what the heck – let’s stay!’

And it’s not like getting here was a chore.

After a couple of lovely relaxing days in a gorgeous little home stay in Kumakoram (where we had an opportunity to explore the most quiet and remote of the backwaters, where only the smallest of boats and canoes can gain access),

we set off by chugging wooden ferry boat to Alleppey, often referred to as the Venice of the East. Now I have to say that I think this claim is pretty damned preposterous. If you’ve been to Venice I think you’ll agree it truly is one of the most magnificent and romantic cities on the planet and it’s pretty safe to say that nothing in India even gets close to it – I mean it’s not even in the ballpark of the comparison world. Sure there are a couple of canals around town, and the odd pigeon here and there, but that is where the similarity ends. Regardless though of this poorly suited comparison, it actually wasn’t a bad stop off point for a night.
Our hotel was brand new, reasonable priced and the bed had the first real mattress we’ve come across in India, which meant we both got a great night’s sleep for a change.

From Alleppey we took another fabulous, chugging ferryboat ride along the main canal of the backwaters heading to Kollam, and jumped off here at the ashram before reaching the ferry’s final destination. The ride was a beautiful and calming journey: It allowed us to glimpse through a window back in time leaving us with a sense of the joy to be found in the simple things in life.

After the ferry dropped us at the main pier we simply crossed the canal by rowboat to reach the ashram side of the river, where we entered the alley leading to the main temple. Finally we had arrived!
We were checked in by one of the many ‘western’ residents of the Ashram, a friendly American chap dressed all in white (as most of the inhabitants are) who took our passports and told us that for the tiny sum of 150rps each a night we would be given a room and 3 meals a day. We were off to a great start. After picking up our sheets for a small deposit we followed the little hand drawn map our new friend had made for us to find the Ayurveda building, where most of the short term guests are housed – which happens to be some of the most prime real-estate on the compound: a beach front location with rooms overlooking the ocean. It turned out that we had somehow managed to score the penthouse – a room on the top floor of the building with a small balcony and a million dollar outlook. The room itself was simple – with a minimum of furniture and only a thin mattress for sleeping – but it was clean and sufficient for our needs.
At 5pm we attended a tour of the ashram where we had the chance to view a short DVD about Amma and some of her achievements, which was actually quite moving. To see all the good that she has done in the world and understand her unfailing spirit of goodwill was truly humbling and definitely inspired a greater desire in me to meet her. Then we were given a guided tour around the facilities and shown the main temple areas, the home where her parents live (which Amma built for them on the edge of the compound as a gift to her father who had always dreamt of living in a big house), and the simple room where she stays when she is ‘home’.
We didn’t have long to wait until it was time for dinner and as we stood in line for our serving of rice and curry I was intrigued to see what they would produce. I was pleasantly surprised to find that dinner was indeed quite tasty and felt certain that I could indeed get used to this. After a quick slice of yummy chocolate and raspberry cheesecake (for an extra fee of 25rp) from the ‘western café’ it was time to stop by the Ashram store to pick up some basic supplies and head back to our room for an early night – just incase we wanted to be up for the 5am devotional singing or the 6am fire pujas. It didn’t seem likely today – but we thought; ‘you never know!’ Even though we did know: not bloomin likely!
Finally we have found a place where Darko feels at home – which is nothing less than amazing really when you consider how much he dislikes most of India not to mention his distinct aversion to anything faith based or religious in tone. I have a sneaking suspicion that his sense of belonging here might have more than a touch to do with the fact that it feels a little bit like being on a cruise ship: Check-in, orientation tour, set dinner time served in a mess like environment. Heck – they even keep our passports for safe keeping until we sign off – I mean – check out. And when Amma returns it’s going to feel like the cruise director finally showed up! But hey – I’m not complaining. He’s smiling and looks a lot like a happy man today – so I’ll go with it.
The daily life and routine of an ashram is simple really. People living and co-operating together to provide a safe and calm environment in which they can pursue whatever personal mission they chose. Mostly there is a spiritual element to the journey of the inhabitants here and in the case of Amma’s ashram there is a distinctly Hindu theme, since this is the religion into which she was born and raised. But Amma herself makes no distinctions or discrimination based on religious affiliation. People of all races, nationalities and religions are welcome at the ashram and there are some amazing projects underway here.
Most of the long term residents take part in the daily cycle of devotional singing and prayer, twice daily meditation and offer at least a couple of hours of their time to perform seva or ‘selfless service’, which ensures the smooth running of the ashram. I myself was a grade A baker’s assistant for 2 hours this morning, happily chopping Almonds for biscotti, icing chocolate cake and fetching baked loaves from the main bakery to be stored for tomorrow’s breakfast. Some of the ‘inmates’ as we are officially titled have taken vows of silence, many for undetermined periods, so although there is most definitely a gentle hubbub of chitchat at meal times in general the surrounding atmosphere is one of peace and quiet. Now I’m not saying I’m ready to move in permanently or anything, but I will admit – I could easily get used to this!
It never ceases to amaze me though, that even in such pious surroundings as these; there are still the daily dramas and politics of life unfolding. In my brief stint in the kitchen I witnessed not one but two or three little outbursts of distress and strife, caught the edge of tense moments of conflict between co-workers and overheard snippets of ‘gossip’ being shared amongst fellow kitchen hands over the policies and procedures in place at the ashram. My chief baker herself has been living at the ashram for 6 years, originally from Canada and apparently has no wish to be anywhere other than here. It’s fairly accurate to say that ‘quirky’ would be a good word to describe her and I certainly found it mildly amusing that when I said something in passing about TV, for a moment I thought I was actually going to have to explain what a television set was to her, as she looked quite befuddled by this odd combination of the letters T and V being used in conjunction as a label for some object unknown to her.
Later today, Darko is meeting with the project manager for one of the ongoing efforts of the ashram, which is attempting to build multi-media presentations for schools and farmers in the community. They hope to provide better education and training about ecologically sound agricultural methods – to help protect the environment and so Darko is hoping to offer some technical assistance in the IT and digital areas. So I chop almonds for biscotti and Darko helps to save the planet……. And whose idea was it to come here? Well anyway, I’m just happy we have both found a way to get involved without cleaning toilets and I’m looking forward to my hug……… And he says my stories never have a punch line!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

An Indian Birthday

It’s not writer’s block exactly. I just feel like I’m sort of running out of steam. One of the things I wanted to focus on during our time here was writing. And I put a lot of energy into that in the beginning. But as our time here progresses, I realize that there were many other things I wanted to ‘find’ in India. And I must acknowledge that when I’m exploring an idea or a goal intensely then there isn’t much room for anything else. I think I’m realizing that my documentation of this journey may need to dwindle a little for the time being. You see, we arrived here in Mysore almost a week ago and I’ve kind of dived in to the world of yoga (one of the other things I really wanted to learn more about while I was here). And yoga here in India is not just a way of keeping physically healthy (as it is to many in the West). It’s a philosophy, it’s a way of life – and I have a lot to explore here if I want to understand it properly so that I can apply it to myself, to my life and my world and to see if it fits. I think it just might – but while I continue to divide my attention into so many different places, at least to begin with I feel unable to do this exploration justice. I think as it starts to ‘fit in’ with day-to-day life, it will become more of a habit – part of a routine and then it will become easier to do it all, and more of ‘all of it’. But for now, I find my thoughts consumed by what I must learn, and experiment with. I think I might be on to something! But on top of it all – we are still here in this fascinating environment that is constantly turning my head and making me smile and wince in equal proportions. So, I’m just not sure how much energy I have right now to put towards recording my experiences - but since I started this one, I suppose I’ll finish it.

Like I said – we arrived here in Mysore about a week ago – thanks to a chance meeting in Hampi: As we took a dip in the refreshing pools of a reservoir just a few minutes drive by rusty moped from our guesthouse, we came across Ali and Rob, a lovely South African couple also taking a dip. Well it turned out that Ali was a bit of a yogi herself and so over dinner that evening she helped me understand the distinction between the many kinds of ‘yoga’ out there and explained what yoga in Mysore is all about. I had already heard from several friends and acquaintances that Mysore is a centre for yogic goings on – but I still didn’t really know much about the particular style of yoga associated with the place. Well – from what Ali told me, it seemed that it would be a type of yoga that would be right up my alley. So – we decided to put our return to the beach on hold a few more days and check it out.

On our first full day in the city we hunted out a couple of the main studios, approached strangers in cafes for the latest local scoop (other gringo’s that looked like they might be here for a bit of yoga) and eventually found ourselves taking part in our first Ashtanga yoga class in Mysore. I found to my delight that this kind of yoga is perfect for me. It is quite a mobile class and in the style in which they teach in Mysore each student follows their own pace, so there is no need to wait for the teacher’s instruction or the rest of the class to move on to the next posture – or in my case there was no need for the rest of the class to wait for me.

Just like Bikram’s yoga there is an element of heat involved in the practice, but unlike Bikram where heat is provided artificially, in Ashtanga the heat is generated from within through vigorous motion and breath. In this way, the heat generated from within assists in detoxifying and cleansing the body and allows greater flexibility and strength to be built within the muscles, without straining each individual body beyond its tolerance for heat. Again, there is a parallel with Bikram in that there is a set series of postures always performed in the same sequence (although many of the postures are quite different from those found in Bikram), but there is a much greater emphasis on synchronizing the breath with the movement and there is a much deeper sense of flow to the sequence. By my third class I had completed the entire primary sequence and was starting to become more familiar with each posture so at least I now have the basic elements of the practice down. Although I didn’t have nearly enough time to get it perfected at least I could leave Mysore with the basic idea of what it’s all about and I understand the flow of the sequence enough, so that I can work on it alone. The most incredible part of the class, for me, and the part I’ll miss the most though, was the level of involvement the instructors had in physically assisting the student. As the class progressed the teachers were constantly on the move, going from person to person adjusting the postures and pushing limbs in to position to reach a deeper level of stretch. Although it has to be said that there may not always be an understanding of the science behind the physical aspects of the practice and the level of safety and awareness of proper alignment may not always prevail (since the teaching is given more on instinct than based on a sound knowledge of physiology) – in most cases it seems the level of instruction is actually pretty good.

During our time in Mysore we did also manage to squeeze in some sightseeing and finally visited our first Indian palace.

While I’m sure that the gems in store for us in Rajastan will be far more breathtaking I have to say that Mysore Palace is quite something to see. For a few moments the filth and fumes seemed a million miles away and the majesty of India became apparent.

Although we were disappointed to find (as always) that as foreigners we were required to pay 10 times the entry fee of an Indian (Don’t get Darko started on that one!), we were delighted to discover upon entry that our admission fee also included a complimentary audio guide. Now I’ve never really been a particular fan of this kind of ‘museum experience’ but since it was apparently included in our entry ticket and in this country there is virtually NEVER something for nothing (sure – lots for cheap – but not for nothing) – we thought ‘why not?’ And boy were we glad we did – the tour was informative and interesting without going into too much depth or factual waffle and the soundtrack provided an extra level of ‘appropriate’ entertainment, not to mention the animated speech of our narrator. It was definitely a thumbs-up for the Palace.

Besides the palace though there isn’t much to keep a ‘tourist’ occupied here, besides a few minor ‘side show attractions’ and so we quite simply became inhabitants of this quaint Indian city for a few day, which wasn’t actually a bad thing! Mysore is much cleaner than most Indian cities and since it is not a huge ‘hit’ on the tourist circuit the prices are still remarkably reasonable. I managed to find us a room that actually sits quite close to #1 spot in our preferences for the last few months, if you disregard the minor infestation of cockroaches living in a hole in the corner of the door frame to the bathroom, and the noisy honking rickshaws that passed by on the busy road beneath from 6am until midnight. I mean, so far it is the cheapest we’ve found at 250rps and for that we had a proper toilet, a shower (in our own private bathroom), a mattress that actually had a tiny bit of bounce left in it, clean sheets and chairs with cushions. And to add some personality, we actually had a fabulous selection of incredibly chintzy and bizarre art on our walls ranging from a scene of lounging lions painted on velvet, a fluorescent scene of a house in a forest surrounded by tulips fields and for the ‘piece de resistance’ a couple of framed posters depicting various Shiva incarnations – my favorite being the one over the bed of a baby Shiva with a miniature Nandi bull tucked away in the corner……..hilarious! The absolute highlight of the room though was the glow in the dark stickers of stars, planets and spaceships on the ceiling that lit up when the lights went out at bed time! I mean what more could one hope for from a cheap hotel room in India?

In addition to our fabulous cheapie hotel room we were also delighted to notice that although the Indians here still love to honk, the regularity with which they do it is not quite so rapid and on most of the roads in Mysore there is almost an air of patience and dare I say it …… safety!

On a couple of the major roundabouts there are actually traffic police in attendance to ensure that the traffic lights are being obeyed and assisting the flow. There was one exception to this new level of road safety though: On our final day in Mysore when we decided to take a ride on the bus up to Chamundi Hill, known as a great lookout spot to view Mysore from an aerial perspective and visit the Temple.

As out driver left the city centre behind and hit full speed on the winding road that would lead us to the summit we began to wish that body armor and crash helmets had been provided for the ride. This particular bus ride would easily compete with the finest white-knuckle rides this side of Texas. Apparently our driver fancied himself as a bit of a Michael Schumaker, and as we took the final bends to the top and saw the end in sight I breathed a sigh of relief that the hairpin bends with alternate camber were coming to a close. The feeling of a speeding bus, dangling precariously over a deathly drop, leaning dangerously ‘outward’ is not one I care to repeat anytime soon. The moral of the story: if you ever find yourself in Mysore, planning the trip to Chamundi Hill, you may want to do as the pilgrims do – and walk!

We instead decided to walk down, calling in on the 15ft Nandi bull statue along the way, taking our time in the heat to tackle the 1000 or so steps back to base!

Incidentally, Mysore was also the town where I got to see in my 34th year on the planet. I decided to break my new year’s resolution ban on alcohol for the day and enjoy a bevy or 2, and fortunately, since we had got into the yoga scene and my birthday fell on a ‘moon day’ (a new moon/full moon – this one was a new moon) there was no yoga class (it’s an Ashtanga thing I think!) – so someone had organized a party and we were invited. Imagine – my very own birthday party in India – well – it was someone else’s party and no one knew it was my birthday – but still – it was a party – so that’s all that really mattered.

And I managed to make things even more festive and bizarre by getting all dressed up for the occasion in my very own sari (even though all the other party goers, Darko included were pretty much casual). Let me explain how this all came about: Darko was all in a panic about what to get me for my birthday a couple of days earlier so as we sat in a rooftop restaurant on Gandhi Square that looked out over one of the many sari stores in town we had decided it might be fun to get me one. The whole experience was actually quite entertaining, because as we entered the sari store we were accosted by a flock of young Indian ladies ready to assist and show us around. Now you may think that since one size fits all, the process of sari shopping would be easy. But let me tell you – it is no mean feat. I mean – there are lots and lots of pretty saris out there – but I’m picky and finding one that I really loved was tough – especially with 7 Indian girls breathing down my neck! Of course they thought it was all very funny, especially since Darko had accompanied me for the outing and they constantly giggled and tittered away to each other in Hindi as they showed their wares. Eventually, after sifting through all kinds of fabrics and patterns, I settled on ‘the one’ and after a brief lesson in sari wearing we were off to find a tailor, who for the price of about $4 would stitch me a shirt to go under my sari that would hopefully be a perfect fit – ready for pick up in 24 hours.

My sari wearing debut came just a couple of days later on my birthday and I have to confess that although I’d always thought white girls in saris look stupid and I’d vowed never to wear one, as I put the finishing touches of bangles and dangling hair jewelry in place I felt just like a little princess and was proud to be heading out on the town looking like a date fit for a maharaja. Our evening began with drinks at an old style heritage hotel in the garden café as the daylight faded. Then we progressed to the yogi/hippy party in a lovely house rented by so the resident western yogis of Mysore and finally after several stiff drinks had been consumed we jumped in a rickshaw to head to one of the five star hotels in town with a phenomenal tandoori restaurant for incredible chicken and prawns. Of course, while attending the party, my sari wearing antics did draw a little attention and so to those who asked I was happy to spill the beans that I did have a decent excuse: it was a special occasion –my birthday – which meant I even got a totally awesome hippy guitar strumming version of ‘happy birthday to you’ sung to me before we headed out for dinner.

I mean really – what more could a girl ask for on her 34th birthday in India? – but a bright colored sari, a party that wasn’t hers and tandoori chicken to die for. It’s one I won’t forget in a hurry!

I actually became quite fond of Mysore in the few short days we spent there and I certainly would have loved to spend more time, getting a deeper level of knowledge and proficiency in the practice of Ashtanga yoga, but unfortunately my 3 classes will have to do. The clock is ticking for us now. Our visa expires in just 2 weeks, so we will be flying to Sri Lanka, hopefully to obtain a new visa for India (we’ve been hearing reports of applications being denied left right and centre as the Indian govt. just decided to change the regulations – so we are hoping we don’t get stranded in Sri Lanka) and before that we still have a fair bit of ground to cover. So next we head to Kerala, where we intend to immerse ourselves in a little peaceful tranquility exploring the famous backwaters of Southern Indian. And hopefully along the way I’ll manage to discipline myself enough to continue with the odd bit of yoga here and there.

So, to conclude, my dearly beloved readers I will say this: While I’m sure I’ll still be drawn back to the keyboard from time to time, to help keep my thoughts coherent and to let you know at the least that we are still alive, I do feel that the time has come for my endeavors in India to become a tad more transcendental, and so – in keeping with this theme, my online presence may be diminishing in inverse proportion to the level of enlightenment I achieve……which probably means you’ll actually be hearing from me on a daily basis from now on…! But what the heck – I have to give it a try…….like they say…..’when in Rome!!’ Or should I say ‘when in India!’?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Back in the Saddle - and a happy new year!

And so we are on the move again – so I have finally decided that it’s time to get off my lazy fat ass (all those layers burned off at 5000M have definitely been replaced and then some) and get back with the program! For a while I gave myself permission to slack off as there wasn’t much of anything new to report, but I no longer have that excuse. I’m afraid to say: It’s true, I have been exceedingly lazy for a few weeks now – and I will also confess – there is no completed novel ready for submission to publishers – there isn’t even a new installment of wit and charm – there’s just the next episode in our travels and a bit of an explanation to justify my lazy ways – but I’m afraid it’s all I’ve got so it will have to do.

During the first couple of weeks in Goa – as promised (to myself) I managed to take some much needed R&R time. You see, since the day that we ‘quit’ our jobs back at the end of May I don’t really feel like I’ve stopped. First there was the manic month of preparations for our wedding. And for those of you who have planned a wedding on your own, you will know – that although there really doesn’t’ seem to be that much to take care of on the surface of it – a few major ingredients and some minor details – once you get started it just seems that the list of minor details leads to another list of minor details, and another and another and on it goes, until you are still making final adjustments and arrangements only a day or 2 before the nuptial proceedings begin. It was worth all the hard work of course and the whole of our wedding week was truly spectacular – including the weather – but after finally saying goodbye to friends and family we barely had a moment to catch our breath before we were off to the Greek Isles to celebrate our newfound wedded status with a honeymoon.

Now, since Darko and I had purposefully picked a location that was unfamiliar to both of us it was virtually impossible for these two wandering souls to resist the temptation to explore, instead of just sitting back on a sun lounger to eat, drink and get a tan. We managed to cover 4 islands and Athens in 2 weeks – so surprise surprise – didn’t really get that much rest – I know I know – I can hear you all saying ‘poor Carrie and Darko’ with perhaps more than a hint of sarcasm in your tone. But really – being an intrepid tourist can be exhausting.

No sooner had we arrived back in Ambleside to enjoy the rest of the summer; relaxing with family and hiking the hills, than I decided it might be ‘fun’ to find some gainful employment on a part-time basis to ‘keep me occupied’. Within 2 days I was donning my smart black pants to serve the hungry holidaying vegetarians (and a few locals) with hearty meals at Fellinis, the sister restaurant to Zeffirellis, (where I actually held down my first weekend stint as a café server at the age of 13). It kept some pocket money rolling in and gave me a chance to sample the delicious menu for free, as well as escaping my husband a few nights a week – we were after all newly-weds – of course I was already sick of him……lol! Our idea of spending blissful summer days strolling the fells never quite came to fruition thanks to the combination of my work schedule and the hideous weather conditions in Ambleside throughout the month of August, so when I wasn’t working we busied ourselves indoors with various research projects and planning endeavors, again somehow avoiding the opportunity to relax and unwind.

And as we screeched into September faster than June, July and August had flown by there were only a few days remaining in the UK. We did our final pack for the big adventure, set off for London to visit with friends and catch our flight and we were on our way.

Before we knew it we were on the road – this much you have heard about in great detail already – and so you know – we have been quite busy – in 4 months we have covered a great deal of ground. India is a pretty big place and getting from A-B is no mean feat. We’ve been to the mountains and trekked 6000M peaks, we’ve explored the jungle and climbed trees to escape from rampant rhinos. We’ve swum with elephants and searched for tigers. We’ve heard the cries of Imams through Ramadan in Kashmir and watched the Buddhist monks silently creating mandalas in the Khumbu region. We’ve hustled and bustled with millions of maniacal commuters in Mumbai and munched on morsels of mouthwatering masala from East to West.

And so, by the time we reached Goa we were, not surprisingly, ready to relax. But besides the R&R I had so many great plans for December. A daily regimen of yoga and meditation. An opportunity to get inspired by the ocean and write all day long. A daily dip in the gentle waves of the Arabian Sea. But when it came to the crunch it was often all I could do to drag myself from the bed to the hammock, then to the beach and then back to the hammock before collapsing on the bed by 8:30pm and sleeping until the sun came up. Lets just say I think I had some catching up on sleep to do.

And Goa was HOT. The reason that most tourists head south during the winter months is that for the rest of the year it gets hotter than hell – but right now the temperatures are supposed to be a gentle warm. Well – let me tell you – there was nothing gentle about the heat that greeted us on many of our days at the beach. Just staying hydrated was usually the challenge for the day – so tackling my first great literary achievement was simply out of the question. I did manage to write a bit of a rant about my lack of direction (not surprising really – based on my complete lack of ability to do anything ‘constructive’ while I rocked in the hammock) which was posted on the blog, an interesting and mildly amusing piece of prose that may one day form the basis of an introduction to my memoirs (there’s been a thing or 2 in my life that would make an interesting read) and I did actually manage to complete the Everest Chronicles.

So – you may be wondering – where are these fabulous tales of trekking and tramping? Well – I’ll be frank – it took several days of slogging at it and although I felt a certain sense of accomplishment on it’s completion of all 16000 or so words, I was a little less than pleased with the result. Since we embarked on this journey it’s been great fun and I’ve usually felt most inspired during these hours at my keyboard, tapping away and putting in to words my thoughts and ideas about what it is we are seeing and experiencing – and it seems, based on the comments and quips that some of you have made in response that there has been at least some entertainment value to be found in the reading of them – and so I’ve kind of come to think of myself as a bit of a writer – and in turn I’ve begun to set a standard, an expectation of myself and my abilities. And the bottom line is – the result of my ‘journal’ write-up was basically just that: a journal about a hike. And let’s face it – while a hike may be an amazing experience. And a journal can be a fascinating read – when you put the 2 together – it just aint all that fun. I have thought about just posting it anyway and letting you decide – but I’m afraid most of you wouldn’t get past day 3. I’ve thought about going through it and finding the ‘highlights’ of the trek to put into one great story – but so far I just haven’t found the inspiration for the task. I guess – I’ve built a bit of a ‘writer’s ego’ over the last few months – and I just don’t think it’s my best work darlings – and so – it will probably remain in the archives, perhaps to be revisited at a much later date. But that doesn’t stop me getting back on the horse and riding on…….right?!? Or rather, writing on. I mean – I don’t have a writer’s block or anything – I think I’ve just realized that it’s much easier to write something compelling when you have something compelling to say – and the ‘bad stuff’ is easier and funnier to write about in an entertaining way. I realize now just how hard it is to write something interesting about interesting things!
But now we are back on the road and so it seems only fair that I fill you in our latest movements. We left Goa with fond memories of our little hut by the ocean but feeling very ready for a change. A month in one place was certainly a novelty for us after spending the last 5 years moving around constantly but the rest of India was calling.

On Jan 2nd we packed our bags and headed inland to the town of Panjim, the heart of northern Goa and a relatively pretty town with a strongly Portugese influence that gave you more than a hint of a sense that you had left India behind.

We sampled several fabulous seafood curries in one dish (known as Fish Thali), thanks to the local knowledge of our friend, Felix (from Goa) who directed us to one of those ‘local’ spots (Ritz Classic) that had a line-up of natives out the door waiting for a table, we soon realized with good reason. It was most certainly one of the best meals yet in India as well as the other 2 meals we enjoyed courtesy of Felix: Twice we visited him at home and enjoyed magnificent meals prepared by his mother who was nothing less than a wiz in the kitchen (the second meal being enjoyed on Christmas day – which just shows you the generosity of the Goans, who are happy to invite perfect strangers to join in on an intimate family day).

We also spent a full day just outside of Panjim in ‘Old Goa’ exploring the many magnificent catholic churches and cathedrals

that were built centuries ago and viewing the coffin of St Francis Xavier, who despite expiring several hundred years ago is apparently still perfectly preserved without any form of chemicals or embalming fluids – creepy!!! And that’s why they made him a saint – go figure! It was like finding a little piece of Rome in India – weird! And did I mention that 2 of Felix’s aunties are nuns and one of them actually resides in the Vatican, so while we were looking at the family albums we were quite amused to come across a snap-shop of pope JP himself just tucked in amongst all the other family pics – hilarious!

From Goa it was just a seven-hour train ride to the fascinating region of Hampi where hundreds of travelers flock to delight in the splendid blend of ancient ruins and mystical scenery. For those of you who have never heard of Hampi (and I hadn’t until I got here) I urge you to google it and take a look at some pictures. It truly is magical – and you’ll all be pleased to hear – one place that my husband has finally found some joy in. Within an area of a few square kilometers there are several hundred ancient ruins that are listed as world heritage sites and they are all nestled between boulder strewn hillsides that seem to have been created by giants playing in a ball pit of rocks.

And in the valleys created between the hillsides strips of fertile land filled with rice paddies and banana plantations scatter across the countryside.

We’ve spent several days here exploring and could easily spend several more, but with only 3 weeks left before we depart for Sri Lanka and the rest of South India to explore we decided we should cut ourselves off at 5. We almost didn’t bother coming to Hampi but after making the trip I can definitely say with confidence that no one would be disappointed with what they find here. Coming to India without visiting Hampi would be like going to Cairo and not visiting the Pyramids – almost criminal!

The main tourist centre, where most of the accommodation and services are to be found is Hampi Bazaar, but we decided to spend the majority of our stay on the quieter far side of the river beside the town (reached by boat), where we found a cheap room with a lovely restaurant attached that overlooks paddy fields tumbling down over the occasional boulder to the easy flowing river beneath. It truly didn’t seem real. It was like sitting in a dream sequence as we waited for our breakfast to arrive on our first morning. The blend of green paddies and rusted golden rocks was mesmerizing and we probably could have spent all day just gazing at that view – but instead we rented some hideous rusted pedal bikes and departed our perch to explore the ruins on our side of the river.

The most impressive and dominating of the temples and ruins are on the south side of the river, within and just outside the boundaries of Hampi Bazaar, but the more rural and rustic scenery to the north was equally as intriguing. On our bike ride we came across a huge ceremony in one of the village temples, where a group of pilgrims were preparing for the long journey to Kerala on foot. We were openly invited in, cameras and all and spent quite some time snapping away as the children happily posed and giggled with glee at the results.

After dragging ourselves away from the ceremony we stumbled upon a deserted temple complex by the river where the villagers were washing and drying their laundry and once again, an impromptu photo-shoot was obligingly provided by the many local children.

It is often said that south India is more easy-going and relaxed than the north and I have to say, I agree. The people here seem much more open and friendly and the demands for rupees in exchange for a photo or two were few and far between. Simply spinning the camera around and showing them the result of the ‘click’ seemed to be payment enough to put a generous and heart-felt smile on the faces of the subjects.

While our day in the ‘countryside’ was lovely I think I have to confess that the day of ‘true’ sightseeing won out. It was a long hot day to cover it all, as the 2 main areas to explore are a few km’s apart so donning the running shoes is smart if you plan to do it all without the aid of at least one rickshaw ride – but boy – what a day! This is the true history and majesty of India.

In seeing Hampi the ‘magic’ of India finally begins to become apparent. I mean – some of the colonial architecture of Calcutta and Mumbai is impressive and interesting – but let’s face it – it’s not real India – it’s a bit of England that the Brits imported and left behind. The history in Hampi is what the Indians created, long before the British Empire even knew that India existed and it’s well worth a look.

Today is our final day in Hampi and although I feel a slight reluctance to leave I can’t help but feel inspired by what might be up ahead.

Originally we had planned to return to the coast after our stay in Hampi but after escaping from the beach we have realized that perhaps lazing on a beach is not the best use of our time from here on in (especially since we’ll be on much nicer beaches in Sri Lanka a few weeks from now), so we are off to Mysore tomorrow and I might finally get around to a bit of yoga.

Oh – and one last thing I should mention – if you aren’t a fan of Goa Trance – don’t plan for a fun night out on the town in Goa for New Year’s Eve. The fireworks on the beach at midnight were lovely, but the pumping pulse of techno trance that provided the soundtrack to it all left me cold. Regardless of that – we still managed to pop a bottle of cheap Indian bubbly and wash down the new year with a smile and a snog and so I would like to take this belated opportunity to wish you all a healthy and happy 2010 and remind you all that if you still have some resolutions to make we’re only 10 days in – it’s not too late! It’s never too late! Every day is a happy new day!