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!

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