Let’s take a respite from this dreary train ride full of tremendous heat, beautiful scenery, hard padded sleeping shelves, loud chai vendors, frequent chai breaks, foul washrooms, local stares, interruptions of curious greetings and small talk (usually entailing unsolicited advice – an Indian specialty) and an overall cranky Sam. We’ll take this time to recall a funny memory of easier times in Arambol..
After a yoga class one particularly hot morning, Fedor, Sam and I loaded ourselves on Fedor’s scooter and headed into town for some fresh juice. As we sat sipping our mango juice, freshly blended by a sweet little old lady, we received some completely unexpected company. A homely looking woman dressed in a traditional Indian sari approached the counter and began to speak to the juice lady in somewhat forceful tones. “Wow! That’s one manly looking woman.” I thought to myself. The juice lady responded to the visitor with equally harsh speech and soon an argument broke out. As this was happening, four or five equally homely and beautifully dressed women (“Wow! How can so many manly looking women be in one group??? Wait a minute…”) showed up to back up their friend. All began yelling and extended their open palms as if to demand some handout or payment. The old lady responded with shooing hand gestures but, bless her heart, eventually succumbed to the bullying and gave a small pittance. The chief thug looked at the loose change, loudly pronounced “There is no god here!!”, and stormed off. She was followed by all her cohorts, except one who stood staring at us westerners with her palm extended.. We stared back, shrugged our shoulders and let the awkwardness reign for quite a few minutes before the beautifully garbed man gave up his gaze and plodded off. We were all speechless for a moment at what had just occurred. Laughter broke the silence after I typed “Gang of Transvestite Thugs” into Google translate and handed it to Fedor. Back at Wonderland Hostel, our host Sandeep explained to us with sadness that “Eunics” (castrated males) in Indian culture traditionally gave blessings on special occasions in exchange for donations but nowadays, it was more of an extortion racket and many of the perpetrators were not even “real” Eunics just cross dressers. Hmmmph.. well there ya go, I guess.
We decided to visit Pondicherry, after getting a tip on cheap accommodations and food at the local ashram from our friends Clarke and Madeleine. The town was also near our next work-away and supposedly full of nice cafe’s (Sold!) Pondicherry is a French colonial town centred around an Ashram that was founded by an Indian guru named Sri Auribindo and his partner “The Mother”. There was portraits of these two in nearly every shop and restaurant – a bit of a detail about Indian culture that may be a little strange to us foreigners. We stayed in an Ashram Guest House for 200rp($4) a night and ate (every other day) at the Ashram cafeteria for $1 for lunch AND dinner!
The only issue at the guesthouse was the 9pm curfew which, when broken, would wake the elderly night watchman from his nap in indignant mood. “Tomorrow, bring biscuits!” I was ordered after arriving home at 9:15. Attempting to mend fences, I did just that, but my peace offering was met with a keen inspection and subsequent disapproval of the 5 Rupee price point. Any and all further biscuit offerings were refused. We rented bicycles from our hosts and explored the town, mainly looking for good cafes and juice bars. Sam displayed unparalleled bicycling skills, only once unprovokedly crashing into a parked car and only once knocking over a parked motorcycle. The damage was negligible both times, according to Sam..
A short, yet confusing rickshaw ride took us to our next Workaway, a small, experimental, permaculture farmlet on the outskirts of Auroville. Our host was Joël, a lively and fun immigrant from Belgium. Housemates included Leela (older dog), August (young pup), Parker (assassin cat) and her three kittens: Rose, Chief, and Kitty Whiskerson.
The kittens were constant victims of puppy terrorist activity, while August could never quite figure out why the kittens wouldn’t play with him.. Our work was from 7am-9am and then the rest of the day wast spent doing yoga, zooming around on our moped (50rp/$1 a day to rent!) to the many restaurants, cafes and bakeries in Auroville. Daily supply of mangoes from Joël’s tree. What a wonderful life. The only complaint, +40C heat was common and riding the moped was like being inside a hair dryer.
Auroville is a town that was founded in the sixties by Sri Aurobindo (a famous Indian guru) and The Mother (his partner). It was founded to start a peaceful and spirituality enlightening society and as such they try to operate with no government or money (Without much success – residents seem to use a debit system by loading money onto a card and using that – What’s the diff?!?!? Tourist money is gladly accepted most everywhere). Though it is not the new age, socialist utopia as advertised, it is a very nice place with lots of opportunities to learn about reforrestation, agriculture and/or permaculture.
Our next stop was Himachal Pradesh in Northern India. Having decided to book the train ourselves we ended up going on a five day train journey through Mumbai unnecessarily and purchasing a ticket to the wrong town altogether. Lesson: when traveling by rail in India, skip the horror of being a tourist in a train station trying to get somewhere and use a travel agent. They are everywhere and will most likely not charge much over what you pay at the station. Train rides in India are kinda like being in a really boring and strange TV show. One friendly family asked Sam what her caste was, to which she replied “I don’t have one, but my Dad is in prison, so I don’t know if that means anything..” Crickets.
Looking out a train window as we traveled through Mumbai we (briefly, thankfully) witnessed the horrible poverty of the slums. People living in “shacks” consisting of a few bamboo poles and some tarp. Some lucky ones had one or two walls of plywood or sheet metal. Children rummaging in tremendous piles of garbage. People just defecating outside in the open. It was really something to see. So I guess the lesson is, no matter how bad it gets over in Canada, or how much there is to complain about, we are still extremely lucky.
First stop on our way to Himachal Pradesh was our last stop on the train, Chandigarh. The first thing you notice about this town is that there is marijuana plants growing everywhere! In parks and random fields, on the roadsides and meridians! The second thing we noticed was that the roads were nicely paved and well thought out, and there are strip malls all over. Strange based on our prior experiences. We bargained for a cheap rate on a rickshaw from the train station to the bus station, barraged our way through the local hustlers and cab drivers, crashed in a nearby hotel and boarded a bus for Kasol the next morning. as we travelled (on a one lane road, over a shear cliff, in a packed bus) further North through the foothills and valleys of the Himalayan mountains we noticed more and more pot plants throughout the scenery. It just grows wild and free out here, as it should!
Kasol is a quaint little tourist town in Parvati Valley in the Himalayas. We found a nice hotel for cheap and spent our days practicing yoga, having coffee and croissants in our neighbourhood cafe and hiking around the gorgeous valley (mountain river dips included), life is good!
The only other note of interest from Kasol was our friend “Baba” – an old, orange-robed, dreadlocked Sadu. He hung out in the cafe with us smoking hash, being treated to bananas and hot chocolates, talking only a little as “people who talk too much have nothing in their head”. Sadu’s are devout Hindus who have renunciated all possessions and wealth, devoting their lives to worship. Definitely a valuable experience becoming friends with a person of such different perspective. On one of our hikes through the valley, we happened upon Baba, sitting cross legged on the ground, burning incense, seemingly marvelling at all creation. What a life.
Our next stop was Dharamshala (Dharamkot to be specific) to meet up with friends and take a 10-day “Introduction to Buddhism” course that they had recommended to us. Dharamkot is less of a town and more of a collection of guest houses, yoga schools and restaurants in a picturesque valley. It is peaceful, quiet and stunning, when not draped in clouds. Seeing Clarke and Madeleine again was wonderful, we caught up on our experiences and cemented a life-long friendship.
The Introduction to Buddhism course was at a monastery called Tushita, at the top of our beautiful valley. It consisted of 10 days living in the monastery under a vow of silence with three hours of meditation and four hours of instruction a day (amazing food included – home made peanut butter and fresh honey every day!).A torrential downpour made our hike (wade) up the mountain a suitable pilgrimage for our arrival. Ten days of silence and meditation is such a positive and incredible experience, I left with personal growth and change that will last. While I don’t quite agree with everything that goes along with Buddhism, I do believe that their basic philosophy is a path to the higher knowledge of life. As a side note: Many mischievous monkeys lived at Tushita and I found out from Sam after the course that a gang of them surrounded her on the rooftop, stole her yoga mat, and tried to “pants” her as she was escaping!!
Returning back to our guesthouse, we spent as much time as possible with our friends, who would leave India in less than a week. We were also bound inside as the near constant downpour turned mountain paths into waterfalls. August is rainy season, and at our elevation in the Himalayas, the clouds rolled in at ground level. We literally lived in a cloud.
We are sitting on the rooftop of our guesthouse, smoking our hash, Clarke has his guitar out, and as a thick cloud rolls in, blanketing around us, he begins a Bob Marley tune. “There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air..” is soon joined in by all us friends. If you listen carefully you will hear.
After Clarke and Madeleine left, we spent the rest of our time in Dharamkot with the mystic air, quiet days interrupted only by the constant sounding of the first trumpet.
Then, A reality-check trip to Mumbai and we are on our way to Mama Africa – Uganda!