Tuesday, January 17, 2012

So long, farewell, Auf Weidersehen, goodbye...

Well, this is it folks... The final post. 

The time has come for me to move back into my flat, fully unpack the pack and go back to work. As much as I've loved the adventures of the past year, I'm actually quite looking forward to life back in the slow lane here in Sydney.

I meant to finish this blog in 2011, right after I returned to Australia from India, but life got in the way. Since then I've enjoyed a great Christmas in Brisbane (hello Unsworths!) and spent two weeks around New Years in the South Island of New Zealand.

Time spent in Christchurch for my cousin's wedding was filled with lovely family catch ups, plenty of laughter and an excellent night of dancing! Despite the occasional "shake" in Christchurch, not to mention the attack of a nesting falcon in Hanmer Springs (how's the head Marlene?), my time in New Zealand was the perfect end to what has been a year of incredible learning experiences for me.

"We can travel wide, but that of itself will not fundamentally change us. 
For our lives to change we must travel deep." 
Marianne Williamson 'The Gift of Change'

To those many, many wonderful individuals I spent time with in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, USA , India or New Zealand during the last year -  I will never forget you. Thank you for helping me to 'travel deep'.

To those of you who joined me in spirit via your computer screens - I hope you enjoyed the journey. Traveling alone, though incredibly self indulgent, can be a little lonely from time to time. Knowing I had a few loyal readers waiting for the next post really inspired me to put down my kindle and write. Thank you for your readership and virtual company, I really did appreciate it.

To the Ronkson clan - thanks for all the love, support and accommodation you have provided me with during the last year. It has been an honor and a privilege to observe the secret, laughter-filled workings of your gorgeous family from up close.

To Mum and Dad - thanks for trusting my judgement and supporting my wanderings even when I visited (or remained in) places you would have rather I'd avoided. Thanks for stopping after the third email asking me to leave Syria. Thanks for not having a stroke when the Department of Foreign Affairs called you in the middle of the night. Thanks for everything.

To the Department of Foreign Affairs - thanks for nothing.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

This post is a first for me. A post totally dedicated to the review of a single novel.

It may seem strange for an obsessive book lover like myself not to have written more about books on this blog, but I have firm beliefs in this area. In many ways I see my devotion to certain books as analogous to others' devotion to religion and when it comes to discussing religion, I have certain rules:

1. It is not OK for you to try to convert me.

You are of course free to express your love for a particular deity, or explain the myriad of ways in which a particular belief system has exponentially improved your life, in my presence - just as I am free to walk away, or change the topic, after 5 minutes.

2. I have to be tolerant of your beliefs, provided they are not translated into actions that harm anyone, just as you have to be tolerant of my beliefs (or lack there of).

3. Any detailed outline (ie: lasting more than 5 min), of your particular belief system should only ever be provided upon request.

I genuinely believe that the world would be a significantly better place if we all followed these three rules. I try very hard to follow these rules myself in relation to my own religion (great books) and that is why I have not previously written at length about any novels on this blog.

So why break the precedent now?

Well, just as I would expect to hear about the second coming of Christ despite not being a practising Catholic, I feel the need to share the arrival of John Green's latest novel, 'The Fault in Our Stars' (TFiOS) with everyone, whether they be devoted followers of the religion of great books, or not.

Full disclosure (in keeping with rule number three), I am now going to write in detail about what has recently become my new favourite book in the world. I will not, of course, be spoiling any major plot points in this post but, as you have not requested this information, I must allow any readers who are not interested to walk away now with no hard feelings.

So, now that that's done, on with the show.

Though he is instantly recognisable to all inhabitants of Nerdfighteria, it occurs to me that many of you may have no earthly idea of who John Green is. To rectify that here is a brief biography courtesy of the book jacket for TFiOS :

John Green is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author whose many accolades include the Printz Medal, a Printz Honor and the Edgar Award. He has twice been a finalist for the La Times Book Prize and previous novels include 'Looking for Alaska', 'An Abundance of Katherines', 'Paper Towns' as well as 'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' with David Levithan.

With his brother, Hank, John is one half of the Vlogbrothers (youtube.com/vlogbrothers), one of the most popular online video projects in the world. You can join John's 1.1 million followers on Twitter (@realjohngreen) or visit him online at johngreenbooks.com

John lives with his wife and son in Indianapolis, Indiana.

I can highly recommend all of John Greens novels, my favourite up until a few days ago was 'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' which he wrote with David Levithan.

One of the reasons you may not have heard of this exceptional author is that he writes Young Adult Fiction. That is to say that the central characters of his novels are young adults. This does not, of course, mean that you have to currently be a young adult to enjoy his novels.

I have always found the writing of John Green to be a beautiful tapestry of elegant phrases, sophisticated themes and gut busting humour. His characters are so flawed and intelligent that their verbal exchanges remind you of the best conversations you yourself have had with great friends over the years. He writes banter better than any other writer I have ever come across.

And, in case you don't want to rely on my judgement alone, here is a quote from E. Lockhart, National Book Award Finalist and Printz Honor-winning author, whom I couldn't agree with more:

"John Green writes incredible, honest truths about the secret, weird hearts of human beings. He makes me laugh and gasp at the beauty of a sentence or the twist of a tale. He is one of the best writers alive and I am seething with envy of his talent."

Yet for all the love I have for John Green's previous novels, comparing them to 'The Fault in Our Stars' is unfair. It is like comparing a three dollar bottle of Passion Pop to a three hundred dollar magnum of french champagne.

So what is TFiOS about? The story is told from the point of view of sixteen year old Hazel. Here is the blurb from the book jacket:

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.    

It takes a particular kind of genius, in my opinion, to write a novel where the central character has a terminal illness and yet the story is not depressing. Quite simply, I ADORE this book.

I read this novel, within a few hours of purchasing it, at a food hall, on a train before finally finishing it on the couch at my sister's home. John Green made me laugh out loud and cry several times in public during that afternoon.

The writing in TFiOs is like exceptionally high quality chocolate. It is so delicious and addictive that you want to savour it and inhale it at the same time. To paraphrase from the novel, "I want this story to become a person so I can take it to Las Vagas and marry it".

In keeping with rule number one, I am not going to try to convert you to reading 'The Fault in Our Stars'.  I'll just say that I have read more than 70 books in the last 12 months (thank you year off work!) and none has come close to moving me as much as this glorious novel.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Captain Cautious Strikes Again

In my thirty two years on this earth I have never missed a flight. Some of my stellar record in this area is undoubtedly due to luck, but I'm also certain that my ultra conservative travel time estimation tendencies have played a large role in my success.

How conservative am I in my estimations of travel time? Well if an airline says that they open check in three hours prior to departure, I'm aiming to be at the airport 3 and a half hours prior to departure. If the staff at my hotel estimate the taxi ride to the airport will take 30 minutes, I'm booking the taxi for an hour before I want to arrive at the airport.

It actually takes a very pessimistic outlook to maintain this conservative attitude to travel. While other travellers happily book airport taxis based on reassuring local advice, I am constantly imagining unreliable drivers who fail to show up, random break downs and inexplicable episodes of pre-dawn gridlock. As a general rule, I usually allow an additional 30 minutes for each imagined obstacle to travel.

Sure, this usually means I end up with several hours to kill at the airport. But with a kindle in my carry on bag and a steaming cup of chai always readily available, extra time at the airport is no great hardship.

Some travelers book early morning taxi rides to allow for maximum sleep in time - but not Captain Cautious here. This was how I found myself standing in the pre-dawn stillness out the front of my hotel in Varkala at 5 am one morning.

My flight, from the nearby Trivandrum airport to Mumbai, was scheduled for 8 am which meant that Air India Express would close the check in at 7 am. I was aiming to be at the airport no later than 6:30 am. In peak hour it took an hour and a half to get from Varkala to Trivandrum. The hotel staff assured me that in the early hours of the morning nothing short of the return of Krishna himself would cause the trip to take more than an hour. But I would not be swayed and insisted on booking the taxi for 5.

When my alarm went off at 4:15 that morning, I did start to reconsider my ultra conservative tendencies. But when my driver still hadn't arrived by 5:15 I was very glad I had allowed the extra time. We ended up heading off from Varkala at 5:30 and I was still very confident about making the flight.

"You see," I thought smugly to myself, "Everyone pays you out for being so cautious, but if their airport taxi had been 30 minutes late, they would be right up a certain creek without a paddle. You, however, will probably still have 30 minutes leeway at the check in".

We made good time to Trivandrum and pulled up at the domestic terminal at 6:30 am. I took my time zipping up the straps on my pack and hauling it onto a trolley before I strolled up to the Air India Express counter and handed over my printed ticket.

"Your flight doesn't leave from this airport" the nice lady said. To which I intelligently replied, "I'm sorry...What?!" The rising panic engulfing my body was amplifying my heartbeat and she had to repeat herself three times before the news sunk in. My flight was leaving from the international airport not the domestic airport.

I rechecked the paper in my hand and there was no mention of international airport on the ticket. The ticket simply stated that my flight was leaving from Trivandrum and as Trivandrum and Mumbai are cities in the same country I had stupidly assumed the flight would leave from the domestic airport. I would have loved to discuss the accuracy of the Air India Express ticketing system with their staff, but as the check in for my flight was closing in 25 minutes, and I was still at the wrong airport, I elected to save my suggestions for a later day.

My driver had left as soon as I had got out of the car and a quick glance confirmed that there were no taxis to be seen in the vicinity of the domestic terminal. The only vehicle in view was an auto rickshaw, so I ran over and asked how long it would take to get to the international airport. The driver said "maximum 30 minutes" but when I told him that my flight was closing in 25 minutes he shouted "150 rupees - GET IN!". I got the sense he hadn't been lying about how close I was to missing my flight when he motored off when I was still only half in the rickshaw.

Thirty seconds into our journey we hit a queue at the exit gate of the domestic terminal car park. My driver shouted something at the official in charge and we were soon waved through and shooting off towards the international terminal.

For those of you unfamiliar with auto rickshaws, the motor has a similar power to weight ratio to that of a ride on lawn mower. This means that at their maximum speed, of about 50 km/h, the auto rickshaw offers its passengers a bone jarring ride. Knowing my situation the driver had really put the pedal to the metal and I suspected our 65km/h speed might actually get me to my flight, even if I was missing a few fillings when I arrived.

I was philosophical as we rocketed past early morning walkers and local traders setting up their stalls. One of the advantages of my Captain Cautious attitude to travel is that I always know I have done everything in my power to ensure a smooth journey. If I missed my flight this time, at least it was through no fault of my own. Fifteen minutes before the check in on my flight closed, I was resigned to the fact that the situation was completely in the hands of the gods. I said a quick prayer to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, and settled back to see what happened.

It seemed as though Ganesha wasn't as open to the last minute pleas of foreign travelers as I'd hoped he would be. Just after I finished my prayer to the elephant headed deity, our motor coughed... spluttered... and died. Well, I thought, the gods have spoken. I'm just not supposed to get on this plane.

My driver, whose body language suggested he viewed the failure of his vehicle in this harried mission as a bitter judgement from above on his very soul, was not ready to give up. Fortunately for me, he channelled his bitter disappointment into a manic determination to get me another ride. This was how I found myself, less than two minutes after my rickshaw ground to a halt, throwing my pack into the boot of a car whilst simultaneously thrusting 50 rupees into the hand of my original driver as he shouted "GO! GO!".

Ten minutes before my flight was due to close, the complete absurdity of the situation began to set in. I was in the back seat of a modern white sedan whose occupants, I assumed, had been heading off to work for the day when a crazed rickshaw driver had jumped in front of their car forcing them to stop. Just when I was sure that Ganesha had completely deserted me, he had instead given me the best gift that any traveller can ever hope to receive... The kindness of strangers. I spent the entire 5 minutes of our breakneck journey thanking the driver and his friend and apologising for taking them out of their way - but they would have none of it. "You are a guest in our country" was their only response to my ramblings.

We had barely come to a stop at the international terminal, when the friend jumped out of the passenger seat and ran off to get a trolley for my pack. The driver insisted on lifting my pack onto the trolley for me and tried to give back the couple of hundred rupee notes I had thrust into his hand, but I took off towards the check in counter before he could succeed.

Catching my breath as I watched my pack disappear down the luggage conveyor belt, I had time to glance at the clock above the check in desk. Even with the late taxi driver, the airport mix-up and the break down of an auto rickshaw I had made it with 3 minutes to spare.

Captain Cautious strikes again!

Friday, December 9, 2011

This is not India

I always knew that I wanted to spend the last few weeks of my travels for this year relaxing by a beach. And I have to say that I have found the perfect location for that relaxation in the clifftop traveler's enclave of Varkala in Kerala, South India.

Varkala consists of a lovely crescent shaped beach at the foot of towering red cliffs. The clifftop space is one long line of cheap restaurants, hotels and shops. It really does have everything the budget traveler could need, with the notable exception of a disco to dance in. I was pointing out to one of the hotel staff that all Varkala needs is a good disco when I was informed that public dancing is actually illegal in Kerala.

Who would have thought that in the south of India I would stumble into the plot of the movie "Footloose"! I immediately had excited notions of leading an uprising against the shackles of dance repression, Kevin Bacon style. But further investigations revealed that the locals weren't really that bothered by the restrictions and I ended up deciding to go and have a mocha shake instead :-)

Varkala beach is one of those hippy traveler towns full of shops selling a mixture of "free Tibet" and Beatles merchandise as well as restaurants showing pirated movies each evening. You can go a few days here without meeting a single local Keralan as most of the people working in the shops, restaurants and hotels are from Tibet, Nepal or north India. The names of the restaurants, such as the Funky Buddha, Cafe Del Mar and the Chill Out Lounge, are consistent with the zone out mentality of many of the tourists here.

I used to really look down my nose at places like these and, by association, travelers who chose to spend time at places like these. I mean, this really is not India. The idea that someone could travel from the U.K all the way to India and only spend time drinking and eating by the beach in places like Varkala used to be a bit depressing to me.

The reality is that though Varkala is not India, it is a lot of fun. And sometimes you don't want challenging backpacking adventures, you just want to enjoy the sunset with friends and cheap delicious food. Most people I've met here have also not been visiting only Varkala, but rather using it (as I am) as a bit of rest and relaxation before they head home or off to their next backpacking adventure.

I had expected to spend a lot of time swimming, eating and reading in this lovely corner of Kerlala. What I did not expect was that Varkala would offer a veritable smorgasbord of social options. It was less than three hours after I arrived in Varkala that I bumped into the Belgian component of what would become our united nations of a social group. I had spoken briefly to Linda, Annie and Chris in the Ashram and was very pleased to see them again (and not just because they gave me an excellent tip about a cheap hotel room!).

My second day in Varkala saw me bumping into more lovely ashram veterans at the Juice Shack. It soon got to the stage where I was lucky if I managed to walk past two restaurants in a row without being called over to the table of someone I knew. It was like living in a small town with all of your friends. Though most of our group were aquainted from the ashram, we also had people who were "friends of friends" or "hotel neighbours" with someone we knew.

After a few days we fell into a kind of routine where we all did our own thing during the day, which often involved joining someone you randomly bumped into for a yoga lesson, a swim or a drink, before meeting up for dinner and maybe a movie in the evening.

One of the slogans at the Sivananda Ashram was "Unity through Diversity" and our little Varkala gang was certainly a testament to that. We had people from Australia, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Belgium, Germany and Italy in our group and the ages ranged from 20 to 55. The occupations of those in the group was just as diverse as our countries of origin, as we had a photography student, a tour bus driver, a dentist, a TV producer, a yoga teacher, a business manager, a real estate agent and, of course, a teacher in our midst.

I don't know if it was our diversity, our shared passion for storytelling, our eagerness to laugh or some combination of these factors that caused us to gel so well...But whatever it was, it was magic. Indeed that magical lure of Varkala was such that people found it very difficult to leave. I had always planned to stay in Varkala for nearly three weeks but everyone else had initially planned to move on after a few days. This lead to the situation where we were frequently having "farewell nights" for members of our group only to bump into them the next morning and hear that they had decided to stay for a few more days. Some in our group (you know who you are) had no fewer than three farewell dinners in their honour before they finally managed to make a clean break of it!

After the last of my new friends left on Monday, I was thinking that I would now have a week to catch up on my reading. I ended up having a day to myself before I started chatting to a lovely Swiss lady as we watched the movie "Slumdog Millionare". Rahel and I ended up catching up for breakfast and dinner 4 days in a row before she too headed off to Gokana.

So, after expecting to enjoy three weeks of solitude in Varkala, I will end up managing to get three days completely to myself. I had thought I needed to spend the last few weeks of my big trip reading and reflecting by myself. Instead I learnt from, and laughed with, some wonderful new friends.

Just goes to show you that the universe always delivers what you actually need, rather than what you think you need :-)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Goddess or greased pig?

One of my goals for this year was to be open to new experiences. I can now happily report that I have succeeded in achieving this goal in each of the seven countries I've visited during 2011. It was this goal, that lead me to the ashram and it was also this goal that saw me signing up for an oil massage.

My first oil massage (yes there have now been more than one) was at the ayurvedic clinic at the Ashram in Neyyar Dam. It took the immense pain that resulted from 5 hours of cross legged sitting and 2 yoga lessons each day to overcome my natural reluctance to try this ayurvedic treatment. Why was I reluctant? Well, during an oil massage the only thing dangling between you and complete nudity is a rather small calico loin cloth.

I was prepared for the loin cloth, having discussed the massage procedure with other women at the ashram, so I was not surprised when my lovely masseuse smiled, handed me the small scrap of calico and gestured that I should remove all my clothes. There were, however, a few rather awkward moments after that while I waited for her to leave the room and she grew more and more insistent about me removing my clothes.

It turns out that even the modicum of modesty that the loin cloth affords you is an illusion as the masseuse gets to see everything anyway as you struggle into the loin cloth. As if the entire situation was not embarrassing enough, I then managed to tie the loin cloth on back to front and my masseuse had to rip it off me and retie it herself.

After this less than stellar beginning, the rest of the oil massage was as smooth as...well...an oil massage. My aching ashram abused muscles truly loved the oily attentions of my masseuse. After an hour of treatment I was so relaxed I didn't even pop open an eyelid when she massaged my boobs for longer than I thought was strictly necessary (there are, after all, very few yoga postures requiring strenuous use of your breasts).

By far the best thing about that first massage was the hot water bathing afterwards. There was a cold shower in the small bathroom adjoining the treatment room and I was also provided with a large plastic tub of lovely hot water to aid the oil removal process. I also managed to craftily discover the hot water tap in the bathroom and was thus able to refill the tub several times during a luxurious 20 minutes of bathing.

After that initial experience, I started encouraging others in the Ashram to try the massage with the passionate fervor of a new religious convert. Some of the women that I spoke to said that they didn't enjoy the oil massages that they had previously tried as they were "a bit rough". I thought they were completely mad until a week later when I had my second experience with oil massage.

As a reward for surviving two weeks of yoga vacation in the Ashram, I decided to treat myself to a deluxe oily experience in the beach resort town of Kovalam. This time I opted for the full body massage as well as the sirodara (which is a treatment involving the steady stream of oil poured onto your forehead for half an hour). Other travelers I've met had credited the sirodara treatment with everything from deep relaxation to opening their "third eye" so, needless to say, I had high expectations.

In addition to the sirodara, I had also forked over a large sum of rupees to have not the regular, but the four handed massage. It seemed I had learnt nothing about the dangers of excess in the Ashram, as I reasoned that if I had thoroughly enjoyed the attentions of one masseuse in my first massage surely I was going to have a transcendental experience with two masseuses.

It all started well.

Now that I was familiar with the practice, I did not hesitate in stripping off in front of the two women and, after I donned the loin cloth, I sat on a stool to enjoy a vigorous head massage.

The first clue that this treatment was not going to feel exactly like my first oil massage came in the form the table I was asked to climb onto. This was not the standard padded massage table I had lay on in the Ashram but rather a heavy, wooden structure about 1.5m x 2.5m with a small groove carved around the sides to allow the oil to drain into a pot. As I gingerly reclined on the hard surface I was reminded of my friend Lana's comparison of a similar table she had her massage on to a butcher's block. I now had first hand knowledge of how accurate her description had been.

Determined to relax, I shut my eyes and tried to enjoy the oily attention. I have to say though, that I did not love the four handed nature of the experience. When there is only one masseuse there is some certainty in where the next hand will be placed on your body. For example, if one hand is massaging your left shoulder you know you will not suddenly feel someone tugging on your toes. The same cannot be said for the four handed massage.

As the massage progressed I also began to get the unnerving sense that the women were egging each other on as each stroke felt firmer and faster than the last. Forty minutes in, the strokes got so vigorous that it felt like they were trying to physically redistribute my fat to other parts of my body. The sensation was sadly more bruising than relaxing.

When I had to be assisted to turn over, slipping and sliding near naked in the pooled oil on the table, the sheer absurdity of the situation hit me and I got the giggles. I had thought that having four hands lavishing attention on my body would make me feel like a worshipped goddess. However, the reality of the experience was closer to that of a greased pig!

Oh well, I thought, even if the full body massage was not as lovely as I had hoped at least I still had the steam bath and sirodara to look forward to. However, as I was asked to climb down from the slab, it soon became apparent that the steam bath was not going to involve the masseuse running a hand held steam producing device over my reclining body as it had in the Ashram.

In Kovalam the steam bath involved me climbing into a large wooden cupboard, with a stool inside, that looked remarkably like an iron lung. Once the door was shut, my entire body from the neck down was encased in the steamy enclosure. The steam did feel lovely on my oily skin, but it wasn't long before my giggles returned. I tried to explain to my puzzled masseuses (apparently laughter is not a normal reaction to the treatment) that I felt like a magician's assistant waiting for someone to slide a sword into me - but they didn't seem to understand.

Finally I was released from my wooden enclosure and lead to another wooden table, with a large brass pot suspended over one end, for my sirodara treatment. The steady stream of warm oil on my forehead initially felt quite bizarre. After I while I found it difficult to focus on any sensation apart from the oil being squeezed through my hair before being returned to the dangling pot above my forehead.

I certainly didn't feel anything close to my "third eye" opening but there was a nurturing aspect to the experience...A bit like having your hair washed by your mum when you are a child. This comparison turned out to be uncomfortably accurate. For just as my mum rarely managed to keep the shampoo out of my eyes as a child, it wasn't long before my eyes were stinging with therapeutic oil in Kovalam.

All in all, my deluxe oil massage and sirodara treatment in Kovalam turned out to be not so much transcendental...as excruciating :-)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chants & Chairs

A word of warning: this is a pretty long post (I know, aren't they all?) so best settle in with a cup of tea :-)

As you could probably tell from my previous post, the unrelenting schedule of ashram life tends to result in one day being quite indistinguishable from the next. Fridays are different because they are "free days", but really the only other excitement for the week (apart from when the boutique restocks its supply of coconut balls) is the Saturday night talent show.

Those who know me well are fully aware of how much I love the sound of my own voice, so it should come as little surprise that I was unable to resist the lure of the microphone on talent show night.

To set the scene, by Saturday morning the number of people who had signed up to perform at the show was zero. This lead the Ashram director to declare that if there was no talent show he would be forced to give us a long boring lecture instead. This was how I decided that maybe I should spend my precious few hours of free time knocking up a chant about how I was coping with ashram life.

I performed the chant below on my first Saturday night and it detailed how I felt on my second day at the ashram. It was performed in a call and response style so everyone had to join in.

Ashram Life
By Bernadette Wilson

A chant to the tune of the daily chant at the Sivananda Vedanta Ashram at Neyyar Dam Kerala.

1. Bell rings, wake
Enjoy satsang in the dark.
Bell rings, wake
Enjoy satsang in the dark.

2.Sit & meditate, chant & pray
My legs have gone numb.
Sit & meditate, chant & pray
My legs have gone numb.

3.Oh when is tea time?
When is tea time?!
Why didn’t I eat more
At dinner last night?

4. Prayana, asana,
Get your body to move.
Prayana, asana,
Get your body to move.

5. The only pose I’m good at
Is savanasa.
The only pose I’m good at
Is savanasa.

(NB* Savanasa is the "corpse pose". You just lie on your mat like you are dead :-)

6. Who knew it was possible
To sweat this much?!
Who knew it was possible
To sweat this much?!

7. Cross-legged eating
Use your right hand.
Cross-legged eating
Use your right hand.

8. Oh no! They’ve run out
Of sweet delicious rice.
There’s never enough
Of that sweet delicious rice.

9. Oh joy! Joy! Joy!
Now we have free time.
Oh joy! Joy! Joy!
Now we have free time.

10. Library, internet, boutique,
Or health hut?
Library, internet, boutique,
Or health hut?

11.Tea time by the tree,
The best part of the day!
Tea time by the tree,
The best part of the day!

12. The lecture would be better
If my legs weren’t so numb.
The lecture would be better
If my legs weren’t so numb.

13. Afternoon yoga,
Practice, practice!
Afternoon yoga,
Practice, practice!

14. Why can’t mosquitoes
Be vegetarian?!
Why can’t mosquitoes
Be vegetarian?!

15. It’s hard to “just relax”
Getting eaten alive.
It’s hard to “just relax”
Getting eaten alive.

16. Cold shower, feel clean
For about an hour.
Cold shower, feel clean
For about an hour.

17. Dinner, remember 16
Hours til the next meal.
Dinner, remember 16
Hours til the next meal.

18. Oh joy! Joy! Joy!
Evening free time.
 Joy! Joy! Joy!
Evening free time.

19. Library, internet, boutique,
Or health hut?
Library, internet, boutique,
Or health hut?

20. (Slow)  Evening satsang,
Time to contemplate.
Evening satsang,
Time to contemplate.

21. I am devoted,
Devoted to chairs.
I am devoted,
Devoted to chairs.

22. Chair! Chair! Chair!
My kingdom for a chair!
Chair! Chair! Chair!
My kingdom for a chair!

23. Sivananda, Sivananda, Sivananda!
Sivananda, Sivananda, Sivananda!

24. Ashram life is good,
Once you get used to it.
Ashram life is good,
Once you get used to it.

25. But I’m in pain!
I’m in pain!
Pain absolute,
Pain I am.

26. (slow) When the pain is gone
I’ll feel bliss absolute.
Bliss, bliss, bliss,
Bliss absolute.

The chant went over very well with the audience. So well in fact that for days afterwards people were approaching me to tell me how much they liked the chant and to ask for a copy of the words. 

I think there were three reasons why the chant was so well received. Firstly, the audience was relieved someone did something for the talent show so that they were off the hook. Secondly, they identified all too well with the themes of the chant. And, finally, people at an ashram are so full of love that you will never find a more supportive audience!

I performed the chant again on my second Saturday night at the ashram and added the verses below:

27. Week 2 at the ashram
and things are looking up.
Week 2 at the ashram
and things are looking up.

28. Serving brunch has improved
my forward bend.
Serving brunch has improved 

my forward bend.

29. My abs are stronger
I can even do a shoulder stand.
My abs are stronger
I can even do a shoulder stand.

30. I am devoted
Devoted to oil massage!
I am devoted
Devoted to oil massage!

31. The only thing better,
Is the hot shower afterwards.
The only thing better,
Is the hot shower afterwards.

32. Krishna got married
and we had a big feast.
Krishna got married
and we had a big feast.

33. When you want help with romance
you don't think of an ashram.
When you want help with romance
you don't think of an ashram.

34. But my cloth got blessed,
Now Krishna's finding me a husband!
But my cloth got blessed,
Now Krishna's finding me a husband!

35. We saw films about
Vishu - Devananda.
We saw films about
Vishu - Devananda.

(NB* Swami Vishnu - Devananda brought Swami Sivananda's teachings to the west and established many ashrams around the world)

36. I loved seeing his peace plane
and him in a hammock.
I loved seeing his peace plane
and him in a hammock.

37. Ashram life is good
When you actively participate.
Ashram life is good
When you actively participate.

38. Surrender to the schedule
and pick up a tambourine!
Surrender to the schedule
and pick up a tambourine!

39. (Slow) Sivananda ashram
Thanks for all you've given me.
Sivananda ashram
Thanks for all you've given me.

40. (Slow) Mindfulness, community
and an addiction to coconut balls.
Mindfulness, community
and an addiction to coconut balls.

The new verses to the chant were well received, though the audience vibe was very different to the first week. Two hundred people had arrived at the ashram on that day, for the month long teacher training course, and they were definitely more subdued than the yoga vacation crowd. 

Writing and performing the chant was a hugely positive experience for me. Not only did it allow me an outlet for my emotions, but it really helped to connect me to the ashram community.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ashram Agony

I never considered myself to be the type of person who would stay in an ashram. 

The very word "ashram"conjured up a group of associations in my mind that I had zero desire to align myself with. I imagined an isolated location, lots of prayers, and people handing over their sanity - along with their bank balances - to gurus of questionable authority. I imagined people hallucinating on LSD and declaring that they had "found themselves". People who went to ashrams, I unfairly imagined, were blind followers. And though my eyesight may be poor, I have never considered myself to be a blind follower.

So how on earth did I just end up spending two weeks at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram at Neyyar Dam in Kerala?

Well, the seed was planted by a lovely English traveler called Rosie who I met in Beirut, Lebanon in April. When she heard I was planning to visit Kerala later in the year, she insisted that I visit the ashram at Neyyar Dam. I was so resistant to the notion, that I didn't even fully listen to her as she raved about delicious vegetarian food, cheap accommodation and great yoga lessons. I even recall trying to politely rebuff her good intentions by saying, "it sounds great, but an ashram's not really my style".

Rosie could tell I was not buying and the conversation moved on. When she left the dorm a few days later however, she left a note with the details of the ashram under my pillow. The note said something to the effect of, "just look it up on the internet before you dismiss it". A big thank you to Rosie, because without her persistence I certainly wouldn't have just spent two weeks improving my health and quietening my mind.

For those of you who are interested here is the link to the ashram:

I decided that, as I wanted to get healthier, the yoga vacation program would be a good place to start. The ashram had a minimum stay requirement of three days and I kept repeating that as my mantra in the weeks leading up to my arrival. My thinking was, even if it is horrible I only have to stay three days - so how bad could it be?

I knew that my body was not ready for twice daily yoga classes, so while in Sydney I started attending yoga classes a few times a weeks to prepare. I started telling family and friends about this yoga retreat so that they would hold me accountable if I backed out at the last moment. I needed that push because everything about staying at the ashram terrified me.

Ashram life was not just "out of my comfort zone". Ashram life was at least a twenty hour flight away from comfort zone! I was definitely most afraid of the physical pain that would result from 4 hours of yoga a day, but really everything from the twice daily meditation sessions to the fact that they only served two meals a day freaked me out.

Anyway, on the 31st of October I finally sucked up my courage and took a taxi from Trivandrum to the ashram. The superb setting of the ashram, amid 12 acres of tropical forest with cool green coconut tree groves, a nearby lake and colourful flower-filled views, did much to alleviate my anxiety. Within a few hours I was swept up in the daily schedule of ashram life which I have detailed below:

5:20am - Wake up bell

6:00am - Morning Satsang (30 min silent meditation, 40 min chanting, 10min talk on a spiritual theme and 10 minutes of prayers).

7:30am - Tea 

8:00am - Asana (yoga) class for 2 hours

10:00am - Brunch (this was also my karma yoga duty  - like a daily chore - while at the ashram. So I left yoga at 9:50 to set up mats/trays/ cups in the dining hall. I then went around serving food. Following that, I ate for 10 min and then I had to clean up, sweep the hall, mop the hall, empty bins etc. The whole process went until 11:15)

11:15am - Free time

1:30pm - Tea & snack

2:00pm - Lecture on one of the five points of yoga for 1 and a half hours (Proper exercise, proper breathing, proper diet, proper relaxation & positive thinking/meditation)

3:30pm - Asana (yoga) class for 2 hours

6:00pm - Dinner

6:30pm - Free time

8:00pm - Evening Satsang (30 min silent meditation, 40 min chanting, 10min talk on a spiritual theme and 10 minutes of prayers).

9:30pm - Free time

10:30pm - Lights out

Predictably, by day two I was in sheer agony. 

Every muscle, tendon, atom of my body hurt. Though the yoga classes were the main culprit, it was actually all the sitting cross legged that I found the most unbearable. By the time you add satsangs, lectures, meals to the portions of the yoga lessons that we spent cross legged -  I was averaging about 5 and a half hours of cross legged action each day.  

My course started on a Tuesday and I was just willing myself to get to Friday, because Fridays at the ashram are "free days". This means on Fridays you only have to attend morning and evening satsangs. Most people use this opportunity to leave the ashram on lovely day trips to the nearby beaches of Kovalam or Varkala. I was planning on using my "free day" to lie flat on my back sleeping or sitting on a chair reading. But, the universe had other plans and I spent most of my "free day" in the bathroom with a lovely case of traveler's diarrhea.

Still, I soldiered on and when I awoke on day five to only moderate pain - I knew things were on the up. By day 6, I was almost pain free and able to start appreciating the benefits that ashram life was delivering to me. 

There was noticeable improvement in my strength and flexibility during yoga practice, my mind was calmer and I was actually looking forward to meditation sessions. The biggest change, however, was that I had got to know a number of my fellow yoga vacationers and I began to feel a real sense of community. Just like soldiers  who are forever bonded by their experiences on the battlefield, I think that the yoga vacationers who stayed beyond the pain of the first week also forged life-long bonds. No one else will ever fully understand the joy of finally mastering the plough posture nor our new found appreciation for chairs, hot water or coconut balls. 

Another part of ashram life I found surprisingly enjoyable was the chanting. Though I often didn't understand what we were chanting about, I definitely appreciated the positive vibrations of the Sanskrit words as well as the amazing sense of community you feel when a hundred people are chanting together in unison. I enjoyed the chanting so much that by the second week I was frequently picking up a tambourine. I even wrote a humorous chant about ashram life for the Saturday night talent show. The words to that chant will form the next post.

That's it for now. 

Om tat sat. Om, shanti, shanti, shanti....