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Fort Cochin and the Backwaters

2 Feb

I can see that Ft. Cochin is a nice place. Relaxed, laid-back, easy-going…you know sleepy. The influences of the spice seekers is plain in the architecture, Chinese fishing nets, Jewish synagogues, Portuguese houses, the Dutch Palace all on a little island that faces out into the Arabian Sea. It really is quite beautiful and although we had a annoying experience at our guest house, there were some things that really stood out. Lunch and coffee at the Kashi-Art-Cafe, walking by the Chinese fishing nets at sunset, tea and dessert at the Teapot, and spice and antique shopping in Jewtown. I totally recommend going to Kochi, but it really is a two-day stop, any more and it gets REALLY boring.

While in Kochi, we took the opportunity to take a backwater tour that was a combination of a short tour in a “country boat,” read canoe that took on water, and a longer tour of the backwaters in a houseboat that is designed like a kettuvallam, or rice barge. These boats are made of wood and then a frame of bamboo and reed is attached on top. Throw on a few chairs, two boatmen, and 16 or 17 of your closest friends and you’ve got yourself a tour on the Keralan backwaters. It was long, but it was also beautiful. Small islands dotting the waters, pink and yellow lotus flowers growing out of the mud, villages in the middle of nowhere, and gorgeous kingfishers (the bird, not the beer) flying around you.

We took off early this morning heading to Coimbatore in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu on our way to Kodaikanal, a hill station nearby to do some trekking and get some fresh air.

Less than two weeks to go! 😦


Leaving Auroville

15 Jan

Well, it had to come eventually…we leave Auroville this evening after over a month here in Tamil Nadu and one month in Auroville to head off to Trivandrum in Kerala. It has been a good month though, some great bodywork including Thai Massage and Reflexology, great dining-aka salads and healthy food, great exercise- like an Olympic sized pool and many walks, good people- including some new friends, and lots of freedom.

What I think I’ll miss especially is our little cottage that we rented for the last three and a half weeks. It was so nice having our “own” space, free from the rules and regulations of the guest houses. We had a small kitchen where we cooked our own food (exciting when you haven’t done it in months!), a seating area, and an upstairs bedroom. Our bathroom facilities were in an outbuilding, but it was doable. The place was set deeply in the forest in the Revelation community of Auroville with the croaking of frogs, the mournful help, help, help of peacocks, the barking of geckos, and many more woodland friends like a family of mongeese, and a little calico cat that adopted us and brought us “surprises” in the mornings- like half a shrew and some other unidentifiable bloody thing. The cottage was built almost 40 years ago when the land that encompasses Auroville was just a dry, parched plain with very little vegetation. The man who built the house was one of the many that reforested the area and he told us that at one point he could see the Bay of Bengal from the second story of the cottage.

Now all you can see are trees- it is beautiful. Hard to believe that an entire forest can grow in 40 years, but it did. When people complain (as I have heard many do here) that nothing has been achieved here in the last four decades- that the city has not been built as promised-I tell people to look around them and see this lush jungle that just didn’t exist before. I call that an achievement.  The intention of Auroville may take a little more time to realize, but I think that they are heading in the right direction.  I would love to see the vision come to fruition.  If you want to learn more about Auroville check out their website, plan a visit, and come see for yourself.

There are also things that I won’t miss:

  1. People who are more spiritual than God and ask you to bask in their golden glow.
  2. The thin layer of red dust that accumulates on EVERYTHING and works its way deep into your toenails and molars.
  3. Forest friends (e.g frogs and bugs) that find their way into our bathroom.
  4. Cold showers.
  5. Dampness and mildew smell on all our clothes, backpacks, books, pencils, etc.

We had a great time while we were here and we may come back at some point, but for now, we have one month left to go on our adventure and many things to see and do, so onward and outward!

See you in Kerala!

Tiruvannamalai and Gingee

11 Jan

Yesterday Astrid and I took a taxi from Auroville to Tiruvannamalai to check out the Arunachaleswar Temple and see the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram. The trip was excellent, leaving in the early morning mists, driving through farm lands and seeing people getting their day started. We passed schoolchildren in their uniforms riding bikes and talking, farmers working in the rice paddies, herders moving goats and cows off the road, toward the cattle market, and vegetable sellers readying their stands for the day. We passed through frenetic bazaar towns where traffic came to a screeching halt while horns honked, people haggled and laughed, and dogs barked. The land changed from fertile, super neon green fields, to rough rocky terrain that looked like someone just picked up a pile of boulders and set them down on the landscape to form a mountain.

We arrived in Tiruvannamalai at 9:3o am and went straight to the Arunachaleswar Temple that covers 10 hectares and is one of the largest temple complexes in India. It dates from the 11th century, though much of the structure was built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It boasts the second tallest gopuram in India (pictured at the right) at 13 stories. From the minute we entered the temple you could feel the peacefulness of the place, there were few beggars, few people trying to tout their guide services, and no priests trying to lure you into a puja that you didn’t want. It was wonderful, we were able to walk around totally unmolested and just drink in the beauty of the Technicolor shrines (below), the chanting of the Vedas over the loudspeaker, and the overall serenity of the spot. We sat on the steps of the main temple and watched as the Indian elephant that blesses devotees was led out for the temple closing at 11 am and then watched as the two sacred relics were carried out on a temple chariot by fifteen men (moving to a raucous tune of a horn and drum) to be ceremoniously locked away until the temple reopened later that afternoon.

After the temple we took a short drive to the Sri Ramana Maharshi Ashram set at the base of the beautiful Mount Arunachala. As we arrived, the ashram was in the process of feeding about 100 sadhus and other poor people in its parking lot- something they do everyday at 11 a.m. and walked around the site and visited the shrine where Sri Ramana achieved samadhi or conscious exit from the body. The feeling there was incredibly serene and very relaxing.

On the way back to Auroville, we stopped in Gingee (pronounced ‘shin-gee’) to visit the ruins of the Krishnagiri Fort that dates from the 13th century and has been held by many armies including the Vijayanagars, the Marathas, the Mughals, the French, and the British. The only armies that were here yesterday however were an army of goats that were climbing the 500 misshapen granite steps to the top and eating leaves from the bushes in the process. From the top of Krishnagiri, you can look out over the surrounding countryside for miles and miles away from (most) of the traffic noise and people. We could have also visited the Rajagiri Fort across the valley, neither of us felt like walking the 1560 steps to the top of that one!

After a month here in beautiful Tamil Nadu and Auroville, we leave on Tuesday to take the overnight train to Trivandrum in Kerala and begin to work our way north to Mumbai to leave on 14 Feb.


Auroville…The Grand Experiment

23 Dec

What do you get when you cross an arid plateau-which is now a lush forest, 25,000 Tamil villagers, 2,000 international residents from 71 countries, really bad potholes- which masquerade as roads, an alternative lifestyle, and a 70 meter golden golf ball?

You get Auroville International Township, a place where ecology and spirituality combine to make an alternative community open to people throughout the world. Auroville was founded in 1968 and the vision for it is that there will be 50,000 people living there in a sort of futuristic utopia where clean water, renewable energy, education and no money reign supreme. The charter of the city sums up these intentions nicely:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

The center of Auroville is the Matrimandir or Temple of the Mother that does not belong to any religion or sect. It is known as the soul of the city. When the township is completed, the Matrimandir will be the absolute center of the city and all buildings will emanate from it in a spiral, galaxy-like fashion. The Matrimandir itself is really a sight to see. The entire surface of the ball is covered in large and smaller concave discs that are embedded with golden pieces of glass. It is an engineering marvel and totally beautiful from a distance- especially at dusk when it is lit from below.

There are many issues holding back progress in Auroville though- a lack of housing is causing newcomers to have a difficult time of integrating into the township. Newcomers must go through an entire year to become an Aurovillian and they must also be able to pay for their own land and house to be built- which becomes the property of Auroville. The money exchange system is difficult too- Aurovillians get a small stipend (called maintenance) on which they are supposed to live each month. The maximum amount an Aurovillian can receive is 5000 Rs per month, or around 112.00 USD. Now, it can be done but it is difficult to be sustained on this amount and newcomers are not even eligible for this maintenance.

So while there are problems, there are many great things about the community as well. Education plays a huge role in the township and local Tamil villagers are being educated both as children in integrated schools and adults in handicrafts and vocational work. Ecologically, the 20 sq. km have been transformed in the 40 years of Auroville’s existence from an arid plateau with very few trees to an amazing jungle teeming with flora and fauna. While Auroville has a way to go to realize their goal it is amazing to see what they have accomplished in such a short time.

Astrid and I were only staying for a week originally, but we decided to find a longer term place and spend a few weeks exploring the township, doing some yoga, and looking into life here. It’s not a place where I think we would ever live permanently, but it is an interesting experiment. We’ll post more later.



11 Dec

Only because I like the name better. They officially changed their name last October (2006) to Puducherry, but hey Pondicherry sounds so much better.

We’re staying in one of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s Guest Houses called Park Guest House. It is fantastic! Totally quiet, spotlessly clean, and RIGHT on the beach. The waves of the Bay of Bengal are breaking literally 500 meters from our balcony. There is a beautiful garden area with flowers and grass and it is very calm. There are a couple of rules, like you need to be in by 10:30 or the gate is locked, you can’t drink alcohol or do drugs, but those are easy. And if you abide by these rules, you can stay in probably the calmest place in Pondicherry and all for 600 Rs- about $15 USD.  Where are you going to get a beach front hotel for $15 anywhere?
We have been walking around for over a week now on wide, paved, clean streets, taking in the French influenced architecture and enjoying the Promenade that runs along the Sea. There are real bakeries here too, with croissants, brioche, real French bread, yummy! It’s amazing the food you miss when you’re on the road, but this has been nice.

The other day as we passed the courthouse, directly on the Promenade, a police officer came out and stopped us. He looked incredibly gruff and for a moment, I thought we had done something wrong. He reached out to shake my hand and asked where we were from. “The US.” we told him waiting for the ticket book to come out or something. He smiled from beneath his huge bushy mustache (huge mustaches are the norm inTamil Nadu) and asked if we had a camera. I didn’t bring it on that trip so he asked us to come by the next day and take a picture with him. We said we would. The next day we arrived and he told all of his friends that we came back to take a picture, so with rifles in hand, we all took a picture with him. He asked me to email him the pictures when we could. Now every time we pass the courthouse he waves to us!

We head off to Auroville, about 10km away in the next couple of days. I don’t know how much Internet access we will have but I’ll try to post as much as possible.


Goa, it isn’t just beaches anymore.

11 Nov

Panaji is one of those places that people tend to overlook when they travel in Goa. It is far from the airport, crowded, semi-expensive, and hey, let’s face it, people just want to get to the beach. However, it is a mistake to miss Panaji- it isn’t much, but seeing the Portuguese influences on architecture- not your typical Indian concrete bomb shelters, and city layout- beautiful squares, parks, and fountains that actually work, and restaurants that serve something besides the expected masalas that you find everywhere else, you begin to realize you have stepped into a place that is totally different from other places in India.

As you walk through the narrow city streets you see buildings that look like they are straight out of Portugal. Brightly painted in beautiful turquoises, tranquil greens, canary yellows, fiery oranges, pastel pinks, and electric blues, the houses and buildings lend a character to the city that is unmatched elsewhere. Buildings here are very well taken care of and as Astrid and I strolled through the city, we noticed many structures were undergoing renovation. There are churches on every other block including the impressive Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception (below) which overlooks the Municipal Gardens near the Fontinhas area of Panaji. This church was originally consecrated in 1541 and was the first stop for sailors from Lisbon to give thanks for a safe ocean crossing before heading to Old Goa about 17 km away.

One thing you shouldn’t miss if you come to Panaji is the food. It is an excellent mix of traditional and Portuguese and the flavors are amazing. We went to a restaurant called Viva Panjim right around the corner from our guest house and was introduced to Goan/Portuguese cuisine from a fantastic woman that has been running this restaurant for the last four years. Although she is a baby in the industry, she has already received awards and accolades from her fellow chefs all over the world. Try the chicken xacutí which is a brown curry made with coconut milk and aromatic spices. It was divine!

We also had a meal at A Ferradura (Horseshoe) near the Old Pato Bridge and managed to offend two religions in one meal. We had the chouriços (a spicy pork sausage) with Goan bread for an appetizer and breaded steak served with salad and chips for our main meal. Our Hindu waiters cringed a little when we ordered it, but it was fantastic. For dessert I had the caramel custard and Astrid had the Bolo San Rival, a cashew cake that was absolutely incredible! Definitely our most expensive meal of the trip, but all told it came to $12 USD!

From here we head 15 km north to the beaches of Baga, Calangute, Candolim, and Anjuna for about a week. We’ll post more later.