Saturday, June 20, 2009

Namaste

2 February 2009 - 16 February 2009
We made the journey from Hampi to Yoga Vidya Dham Ashram in Nashik and by the time the 36 hour journey was over, we needed the entire 10 days of yoga and relaxation just to recover! We took a boat, bus, rickshaw, train, rickshaw, train, rickshaw and taxi to get there. Between the two train rides, we had eight hours at a train station in Mumbai, from 5:00am until 1:00pm. Killing eight hours after having spent the previous night sleeping on a train is never what I can a good time and doing this at a Mumbai train station is my new definition of hell on Earth. First off, it's dark and there are rats. Then you notice all the people and the dogs sleeping at and around the station. You take a closer look at the tracks and notice that people have chosen to ignore the sign in the train toilet that says 'Please do not use toilet whilst the train is stopped at stations' (the toilet is a mere hole in the bottom of the train, though at least it comes with a door and a hand sink. . .). Then you're sitting at the station and someone starts screaming 'Police, police, police'. The police come along with their bamboo sticks, give some guy a good whack and then drag him off. And as if all this wasn't enough, you walk outside, past a man just standing there amongst the hustle and bustle. There's something not quite right about this man. Is his hand down his pants?! Why yes, yes it is. Is he. . .?! In the train station, with all these people around, is he really. . .?! Yes, yes he is. Hmm, okay, keep walking.

We found our way to an internet cafe to kill time and escape the train station. It wasn't open when we arrived so we loitered out the front. While we were waiting, this old woman approached us: 'What are you doing?' she demanded. 'We're waiting for the internet cafe to open' was our answer. 'Come to my house, take tea' she says and quickly scurries away. We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and hurriedly grabbed our rucksacks and followed this little old Indian woman. She arrived at her apartment building, ushered us in and sat us down. Her grandsom sat and chatted with us while Grandma made us tea. Mom got out of the shower and got the surprise of two filthy foreigners (we were covered in dust and India from the overnight train) sitting in her living room, drinking her tea. She took it very well and insisted that we eat breakfast. She made us dosas (a food similiar to crepes). They then took our photo, we took theirs and we all carried on with our respective days.

Finally we made it to Nashik, to the main office of the yoga ashram. From there we piled into a taxi with five women from the ashram who'd just finished their 30 day yoga teacher training course. They were hyped up on their first cups of tea in a month and overly excited about a Bollywood film they'd just seen. They put on some Bollywood music, cranked it up full blast and proceeded to talk and laugh over the music for the entire 40 minute taxi ride to ashram. Luckily once we arrived at the ashram, both peace and dinner were waiting for us. So, life in the ashram. The rules include getting up at 6:00am, doing yoga for an hour and a half twice a day, meditating, chanting and eating healthy food. No drinking, smoking, drugs, meat, sex, talking during meals, caffeine, chocolate, chilli, television or internet and only about an hour or two a day to yourself. The food is all very fresh and quite tasty once we adjusted to the lack of chilli, pepper, cheese and spice (and for me who puts Tabasco or chilli sauce on everything that holds still long enough, this took some getting used to). The yoga, chanting and meditation has left me feeling quite strong and refreshed. The chanting was great, but I have to admit, on the first Saturday night we were there when we chanted a particular mantra 108 times and then danced around the hall chanting, I did think to myself, 'Wow, if the people back home could see, they would be a bit worried about me. . .'. Overall, after 10 days of eating clean, healthy food, doing yoga, spending my spare time sleeping, reading, writing or walking around enjoying the scenery, I feel really good. The peace and quiet and settling down was wonderful!


Life in ashram was pretty close to ideal, after the initial settling in and detoxing from caffeine, sugar, etc. When we first arrived there was a group of people who had just finished 30 days and were in really high spirits. They didn't fit the 'yoga wanker' stereotype - you the know the ones who carry on about chakras and the healing power of purple in an attempt to loard it over you how very enlightened they are. The people who were there when we arrived were all really down to Earth and friendly. We spent a few days with them and then the next batch of people showed up. A fair few of them were yoga princesses, wearing carefully selected 'yoga outfits' complete with flowing scarves and perfectly matched jewelled bindis (the thing Indians place on their foreheads). These princesses pray before they eat with their hands hovering over their food, thanking the plants for sharing their energy. This practice is to help them develop their compassion. Meanwhile, they ignore the crying stray kitten that has chosen the ashram as home who just wants a bit of food. Don't get me wrong, the idea of giving thanks is great and so is the idea of developing compassion, but on kitten ignoring princesses the whole thing comes across as an act to show everyone at the ashram how 'enlightened' they are.

So, we finished 10 days at the ashram and we're both feeling all the better for it. Has it changed our lives in some miraculous way? I don't think so, but it has helped strengthen my resolve to take better care of myself. Did I achieve inner peace? No, but perhaps I got a glimpse of it and some hints on how to reduce stress and remain calm; skills I know will come in handy, particularly over the next few months of traveling!

As a matter of fact, those skills have already come in handy since leaving the ashram. We left and headed to Mumbai where we have a train north to Rajasthan. To get from Nashik to Mumbai we took a passenger train. It wasn't as mad as we'd expected, but what should have been a three hours journey took five and a half hours because the train stopped at every station along the way and in some places that weren't even stations. It was alright though, we met a very nice guy who chatted with us a good portion of the way. When the train pulled into our station he got off with us and ensured we were safely settled into our hotel room before he headed off to start work (he works for an American call centre collecting debt - some of you back home have maybe spoken to him:)

The next day we headed to Borivali, an area closer to the train station that will take us to Rajasthan. After going from hotel to hotel, each one assuring us they were full even though the wall behind them had numerous room keys on it (I suspect that since the Mumbai attacks they don't want foreigners staying there. The hotel the night before had to ring the owner to obtain permission for foreigners to stay), we found an over-priced but nice, clean place to spend the night.

We thought something nice to do in Mumbai would be to go to Sanjay National Park to have a look around some caves we'd read about located within. We got to the admission gate and inquired about a bus to take us the seven kilometres to the caves. The government employee behind the counter informed us that there is no bus and rickshaws aren't allowed in the park. We shrugged and walked off to stroll around the park. We got about two metres from the front gate and a man walked up to us offering us a tourist taxi to the caves for 850 rupees (the bus costs 20 rupees). We laughed at him and said 'no way' and kept walking. Another Indian man approached us and told us he'd lead us to the bus. What?! But we were just told by the government employee at the admission desk that there is no bus??? Ahh, the government employee and the tourist taxi driver are in cahoots. Of course.


We got the bus to the caves, with only about twenty or thirty minutes until the caves closed. The price to get in was 20 times more expensive for foreigners than Indians. We asked if we could have reduced rate since there was only 20 minutes until the caves closed. The government employee behind this particular admission desk assured us that there was no way they could bend the rules. Rohan and I were quite annoyed at this point about how we were being treated as tourists, so we had a good whinge to the bus driver. He walked up the gate, negotiated with the man behind the counter and got us in for 100 rupees for both of us (half the price). What they did was issue us two Indian tickets and split the difference between themselves. So much for not being about to break the rules. . . We spent 20 minutes viewing the caves, which were pretty amazing. It would have been nice to have more time, but oh well.

After the caves we had some dinner and wandered around the night markets of Mumbai. The sheer number of people in the Mumbai area just baffles the mind.

Next stop, Rajasthan!

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