India was challenging for me. Even if I arrived there thinking of being a well balanced, strong, and peaceful person, India really was able to touch few of my weak points, but it was a constructive experience because it tested me and gave me a wide perspective on myself.
Uncomfortable things about India
- The concept of personal space doesn't exist: Indians just get on top of you, and it's totally normal for them. They don't usually give you the way just for the sake of being kind, it's all about survival instinct there!
- They honk all the time and the streets are noisy, congested, and polluted. The only driving rule is: do whatever you want but make sure you honk so everybody else know.
- Communication with Indian is very difficult: few of them actually speak English. They can't say no, they bubble their head all the time and you don't understand a thing: it could mean yes, no, maybe, I don't care, or you are a nice person!
- Tourist prices are usually at least double Indian prices: you have to bargain for everything, and you loose the sense of what is a fair price, which actually varies a lot from town to town. Vendors call you all the time also from far away and hassle you.
- There are a lot of things that Indian women don't usually do. For instance, chai tea stalls on the streets are very popular among locals but I haven't seen any woman having tea there; there are very few women in the streets in the evening; you should cover your legs, shoulders, and wear loose clothes. As a woman I've been wearing long baggy or alibaba pants (btw very fresh!), tunics with long sleeves or t-shirts. It's very handy to have a scarf: every woman there is wearing a scarf over the chest or a sari. I've heard there are agencies that organize tours for Indian men to touristy beaches to watch western half naked girls...
- They croak and spit all the time, including women in this case!
- It's not cool to show any affection in public, the most you could do is holding your "husband" arm, and if he's not your husband maybe just say he is to not disappoint them!
- Indians stare at you with no shame, sometimes they also giggle at you and you have no idea why.
Funny things about India
- I think they are stock between the 70s and 80s: big mustaches, colorful overdecorated outfits, a ton of huge gold jewelry.
- They are crazy about weddings, saris, and jewelry. The streets are covered with ads of happy brides dressed like princesses with the the most luxurious silks and the heaviest earrings and necklaces.
- They eat with their right hands, and make a mess out of it: it's actually very entertaining looking at them eating.
Varkala is a nice town along the coast of South Kerala, it develops along a cliff, with the main road pierced with a lot of shops and restaurants. It is touristy, and you need to get used to be called out by the local vendors, but it's still not overwhelming: there's no loud music played, and the scenery is fantastic, overlooking the ocean, the fishermen at work, and daily passage of schools of dolphins.
We stayed in Odayam beach which is a little north of Varkala, about 10 min pleasant walk along the ocean. Here the beach is wide and not crowded. We found a nice hut with private bath, hammocks, and sea view at Ashtamay Beach Resort, $20 per night. They also have very good food here.
I discovered a mind blowing dessert here: it's called Hello To The Queen, and it features warm banana slices, chocolate chips cookies, nuts, and ice cream... absolutely delicious!
This was the perfect place to relax, and enjoy the last few days of the trip, while getting a little tan, eating good food, and buying gifts for my friends back home.
After a long day of travel by bus, rickshaw, and taxi we arrive at Sivananda Ashram at dusk.The setting is beautiful: on a leafy hill in front of a lake with manicured gardens and lawns. It's high season, there are a full Yoga Teacher Training and Yoga Vacation Programs going on, the regular dorms are full and we end up sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor of what used to be roofs and now are dorms, but we expected something like that. $10 per day all included.
At Sivananda there are a lot of rules, for instance:
- 2 mandatory Satsangs, one at 6am and one at 8pm
- 2 mandatory Yoga classes, one at 8am and one at 4pm
- You cannot leave the ashram
- Meals are silent, sitting on the floor of the dining room, you are supposed to eat with your hands
- Silence and lights off from 10:30pm to 7:30am
- Dress code: legs covered, no sleeveless shirts, no tight/transparent clothes, also during yoga
- Celibacy, no open signs of affection, separate dorms for men and women.
I guess we are too free spirited people to deal with all this for too long, and we ended up staying just the min 3 nights. Even if I love practicing yoga, and the yoga here is excellent - still very different from Vinyasa - I don't like the idea to be forced to do it. The Satsangs - big communal meetings for meditation, chanting of mantras, and lectures from the swami - were way too loud: they started with what sounded to me like a Kapalabhati boot camp - "one! two! one! two!" - and then after 30min meditation there was a mantra aggression, the speakers were so loud that we had to close our ears and few times we had to walk out of it, no matter the rules! One morning we went for meditation by the lake - we are such rebels! - which was so peaceful despite the loudness still in the background.
The food was very tasty, I brought my own spoon because I just don't like to eat rice and soups (?) with my hands. We met nice people, but with all these silence restrictions I didn't have the chance to know them better.
It feels good to be in the real world again after the clinic, now I even enjoy the noise, the hassle, and all the surprises that come with it. 6.5 hrs of buses to get to Kochi. Fort Kochi is an artsy town on the ocean, touristy but still pleasant with cute cafes- go to Kashi cafe-, colonial architecture, and a lot of irresistible shops: alibaba' pants, shirts, antiques, spices, jewelry, paintings! We rent bicycles for $1.5 a day to explore the town better and discovered beautiful graffiti, art installations, parks, and Jew Town with even more exciting shops! There's also a Palace, a synagogue, and old Chinese fishing nets particularly nice at sunset. One day we took a ferry to a near town with a big celebration in honor of Siva: imagine a "normal" street fair around the main temple, with the exception of occasional decorated elephants passing by the crowd, dangerous fireworks in the streets, funny theatrical performances and musicians here and there. Did I tell you that Indians are totally crazy about weddings? Most of the ads in the streets show happy brides over ornate with heavy gold, precious stones, and the most beautiful silk saris. We passed by a three story department store completely dedicated to saris, fascinating. Another day we went for a half day tour of the backwaters, a series of canals within scenic natural setting where people live, cultivate spices and make ropes the old way out of coconuts shels.
Aditya Ayurveda Hospital in Kerala is a small clinic, set within a lush garden of medicinal plants, with half dozen rooms, and lovely staff. Dr Satya comes from a family of several generations of Ayurvedic doctors and he offers among other treatments Pancha Karma, which a deep cleanse of three weeks min that rejuvenates the body balancing the tridoshas - Vata, Pita, and Kapha-, eliminates illness and toxins from the body, and really tests your mind! It's not easy at all; you may have to handle drinking cups of ghee -liquid butter- which captures the toxins in your body, and you then have to eliminate it from your body in various ways. The good news is that this process really works: for instance it got rid of psoriasis, lowered chronic high blood pressure and rheumatism, and it put back to full action a paralyzed arm.
I just had few days available for a light cleanse, which consisted of drinking disgusting herbal infusions, pleasant massages with medicated sesame oil, delicious warm medicated water poured all over me, very light tasteless monotonous food, which after four days I couldn't bear anymore, imagine 3 weeks...There were 4 other lovely European ladies being cured there and we helped and support each other during our weak moments. We had very gentle yoga classes every day at 6:30am, which was taught by a good local teacher who gave us the best shavasanas. Btw, you are not supposed to do any challenging asana during treatment: you need to keep all your energy for the detoxification process!
Anyway after 4 days of cleanse and several emails from Robbert telling me about his delicious meals in Kochin, I decided it was time to join him!! : D
From Mysore we took a minivan $3 at 7am all in a rush, and then after an hour of picking people up we were back in front of our hotel! You shouldn't try to understand India...
We are going to Mudamalai National Park, where tigers, elephants, monkeys, and leopards happily spend their time all together, sometimes eating each other. The main road actually goes through the park, and you may even have the chance to see a tiger or an elephant crossing the street! Imagine?
We stayed in a guesthouse managed by the park: very basic, $16. Nice river view with locals doing laundry where occasionally crocodiles show up. Forget about good food here, also there's no phone service or wifi in the area. We took a pm safari on a bus, $3: it's a matter of luck seeing wildlife and we didn't have much: few deers, boars and an elephant. The day after at 6am we took a walking tour with Vishnu, a local who also manages a guesthouse in Masinagudi the nearby village, and I would stay there next time instead. We went through the forest for 2hrs -$13. This was really beautiful: just 4 of us, and quiet, animals were waking up, birds, monkeys and deers were giving alarm calls when they felt the nearness of a tiger or predator, there were footprints, bison skulls, elephant shit... all beautiful! : D
Next destination: Ayurveda Clinic! Local Bus to Perdamana $3, and then to Chetallouri 20c. 4hrs
Mysore is a busy city, with a lot of traffic and pollution, and after just 3 days my lungs hurt, even after wearing a scarf on my nose and mouth often. There are: the beautiful Maraja's Palace, a silk factory where you can walk around freely among the workers, sandal wood and essential oils, amazingly skilled carvers, nice markets selling garlands of flowers...and of course there's Ashtanga. Thank you!
You don't find it in the center, there are areas in the near suburbs where the yoga schools are located. I went to Mysore Mandala, one of the few that offers drop in classes, and it was amazing, for more details see The Yoga Trail, but I just want to share that the energy there and the teacher was able to gently slide me into poses that I thought to be two years behind... like full lotus! I couldn't stop looking at my feet in pure awe!! Ahah!
We wanted to rent bicycles and it was very challenging finding some because apparently they don't rent to tourists here: we had to go through the owner of the shop where I bought all my essential oils, btw the oils at the market are watered down with alcohol so it's better to buy them in a recommended shop.
We stayed at the Hotel RRR close to the Palace, $15, decent quality.They also have a very good local restaurant downstairs where they serve delicious veg talis on banana leaves, and where you can observe the technique used by the locals to eat with their hands, apparently it's standard in India... and definitely funny.
Beautiful scenery: big red roundish rocks, the blue river, green rice fields, ancient temples.
We arrive early am and the light is gorgeously orange, the people are washing themselves in the river along with Lakshmi, the temple elephant that every morning receives a bath and a big scrub! I feel India! Ladies are making fresh flower ornaments and I have some arranged on my hair. The bazaar that overtook all the ancient buildings along the entry road has been removed to allow the full renovation of this world heritage site. The temple look nicer without the noisy crowd but I think it's missing that Indian flavor.
We cross the river to reach Mowgli Guesthouse, with huts peacefully sitting in front of the lovely rice fields. The vibe on this side is really cool: musician singing and playing, and friendly travelers with nice stories. Pm walking thru temples, and side bazaar: juices, coconuts, and colorful fabrics. At Gali, local musician shop, I finally find an egg shaker, which I have been looking for for years, and he invites us to a sunset jam session on top of a big rock: there are really good musicians here, and I can shake my egg along too! The next day we rent two scooters and explore the green and rocky countryside, stopping by a nearby lake for a swim, listening to rice farmers singing in their colorful clothes, getting harassed by locals wanting to take pictures of us! One car passed me and stopped me to ask to take a picture of me!! Ah!ah! Maybe they also wonder why I take pictures of them in their beautiful traditional clothes.
Today I took a full body 1.5 hr Ayurvedic massage: amazing n $16! Then I went shopping a little and the young shop owner - who practice Ayurveda and kundalini n knew i'm a yoga teacher before i told him- tells me that I need to eat only fruit n veggies to be healthy n loose weight. I say "yes I'd need to loose maybe 4-5 kilos", and he says " mmh, maybe more!!" Talking about honesty! Well, and meditating on that statement, we went for a great dinner at the Mango Tree Restaurant with river views and crickets soundtrack. Night bus to Bangalore, then bus to Tiruvannamalai, where the sacred Sri Ramana Mahasri Ashram is. : )
Skipping all the north of Goa, which is supposed to be very busy and noisy, we shoot for Agonda Beach in the south, and arrive early am with welcoming dolphins jumping in the ocean in front of us. It's a wide sandy beach, the ocean is not Caribbean blue but pretty. There are very few locals here but a lot of dedicated visitors who run along the shore and show some random yoga move here and there, it almost seems that there's some sort of common disease that gives yoga attacks to people! Funny : )
Unfortunately the first meal in Goa kills my stomach and I don't have the chance to enjoy and explore much. We stay at the Rama Resort, $20 for a hut w/ bath and garden view.
There's a lot of yoga and ayurveda offered everywhere, the prices are higher, $7-8 per class, everything is more westernized and I'm not really inspired by this. We move to Palolem, the next beach, which is even more touristy but we stay at Bakti Kutir Resort, a nice quiet place full of plants on top of the hill next to the beach. $40 for a hut w bath. There's an ayurveda clinic and a swami teaching yoga 3 times a day, he's good n funny with his Indian accent. $4/ class. Once back in the hut and ready to go to bed we realize that the kerosene smell that was there before is not temporary or coming from outside but it's from the interior paint of the hut... It's so bad we have to move to another hut in the middle of the night, but the day after they give us the night for free and offer breakfast, after which we move again to the next beach, Patmen.This one is the best so far: wide but still cozy, less suitcases and less crowded. R find the perfect spot at the end of the beach, it's called Bridge n Tunnel, hut w bath n unobstructed sea view, no sun beds in the front or tourists grilling their skin. $20. In the pm we go for a walk to the next beach and crash into an Indian wedding on the beach next door, which was really cool: colors and beautiful fabrics, live traditional Indian music, tiny helicopters filming and throwing confetti on the crowd, funny moves and faces...and fireworks!
There's another swami teaching good yoga in Padmen, $7/class, very good, and there's also an ashtanga vinyasa shala with a YTT, $6/class. But it's time to move on: night sleeper bus to Hampi, $24.
After a fantastic lucky flight in business with our standby ticket - thanks to Eva- we land in Mumbai at 11:30pm.
I'm expecting an assaulting crowd of sellers and drivers outside the airport but it wasn't bad at all. At that time there are no women at all in the streets. We stay at Hotel New Bengal near the Fort area in the center, it's recommended in the Lonely Planet but it ends up being creepy and overpriced, $56, bad wifi, and horror movie music to remind you to close the elevator!
During the day there are definitely more women in the busy streets of Mumbai, almost all them wearing beautiful traditional dresses, either saris or panjabi suits, the typical long camisoles with matching pants... I want to wear that too! The best ones are tailored: the fabric could be about $40 and only $6 for the work. I'll work on it.
I'm having some resistance to adjust to Mumbai: everybody horns all the time in the streets, it's crazy! Even bikes on the walkways horns at you to pass you! Also everybody, I mean men n women, croak n spit all the time. There's a lot of people begging and sleeping in the streets as well, and everybody wants to sell you stuff, but I expected that.
New Years Eve is a flop, we go for dinner at Koyla, nice rooftop restaurant in Colada but there's nothing special for the evening apart from a nosy crowd of people wandering around the place, so we leave and go to Marine Dr thinking there will be parties and bars there to have a drink n celebrate but instead there's just another huge crowd of people and honking cars, no bars at all apart from one Hotel asking $80 entrance... I mean not one bar, can you believe?!?
Now I'm on a 12 hr $10 night train to go to Goa, I was expecting the usual crowd but instead it's basically empty, lucky us. India so far is unpredictable!
PS Crazy coincidence: a guy at the hotel is wearing the same t-shirt of the Notte Rosa 2010 I brought from Italy to give away... A sign??
Restaurants. We have few excellent meals: - in Colada, close to the famous Taj Hotel and the gateway of India at the restaurant of Hotel Apollo and at Basilico. - in Fort at Yoko Sizzles.
PS. I went back to Mumbai before leaving India and stayed in Fort at Hotel Benazeer
2200 rps, good quality- price ratio, but Mumbai is expensive in general.