Saturday, 25 January 2014

Final Day (18) - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

“A traveller doesn’t know where he's going, and a tourist doesn’t know where he's been.”

After 18 days of being a traveller, I’m back home and it’s time to be a tourist, to think about where I’ve been.



Maybe the first way to look at this is to consider the number of miles I have travelled in the last 18 days - nearly 17,500 by my reckoning (analysis available on request).

That’s 4 planes from 3 airports, 3 trains from 5 railway stations, 18 minibus journeys, 6 pseudo-suicidal tuk tuk rides, 4 car journeys, and 2 boat trips - not counting the elephant ride and the many miles I must have walked.


Another view would be to look at the trip from the yoga viewpoint - after all, it was a Yoga Studies Tour . . . . . and I had nearly 40 hours of yoga learning experiences:
  • 13 hours in pranayama/asana classes - 3 at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, 5 in the Conference Room at the Ideal River Resort Thanjavur, and 5 hours in ‘public’ yoga classes in Cochin and Kovalam Beach
  • 9 hours in philosophy classes or discussion groups - 3 at Chennai, 6 at Thanjavur
  • 7 hours in meditation classes - 3 at Chennai, 4 at Thanjavur
  • 4.5hours in Vedic chanting classes - 3 at Chennai, 1.5 at Thanjavur
  • 5 personal pranayama/asana sessions in my hotel room or around the pool
I couldn’t have done this without 8 great teachers:
  • Chennai: Sri Sridharan, Sunita Nair, Shobana, and Padmini
  • Thanjavur: Wendy
  • Cochin: Manoj
  • Kovalam: Raju and Venu Gopa
I am truly honoured to get the chance to benefit from their extensive knowledge and experience and only hope I can do them justice - thank you everyone!

Yet another view would be the accommodation on the trip - always having a comfortable base to return to made a huge difference so here’s a thank you to the 5 rooms in 4 hotels, the 4 swimming pools, 3 wet rooms, and the hundreds of staff that made them run so smoothly.
You may have noticed that food was an important part of the trip - according to my notes I either ate or sampled:
  • 40 curry dishes
  • 20 starters
  • 12 mocktails
  • 10 aloo masalas
  • 7 dosas
  • 6 naan breads
  • 5 vadas
  • 5 poori
  • 3 chapati
  • 3 samosas
  • 3 omelettes
  • 2 paratha
  • 2 peanut masalas
  • 2 gulab jamon
  • 1 vegetable biriani
  • 1 mullet
  • 1 red snapper
  • 1 bhatura
  • 1 roti
  • 1 picnic on a train
I couldn’t actually count the chillis in all these meals and it might be best if I don’t . . . . .
And in case you were wondering, I weighed myself when I got home - I lost 4 lbs whilst away!

I think the diet suits me (plus the sunshine, and the yoga, and the walking, and the 2 Ayurvedic body massages).

A cultural view of the holiday might be expressed by the visits to 3 temples, a museum, and a royal library and archive, and possibly the purchase of 7 chanting CDs and 14 books (and the 5 books I read), plus 5 blessings received from priests.
It would also be wrong to ignore the following experiences which all made a huge contribution:
  • Friendships made with 17 people - getting to know my 16 fellow travellers plus myself via the avatar that was the Keith that appeared for this trip, who may be unrecognisable to people used to the ’normal’ me. I hope he stays in there with me in the months to come.
  • Conversations littered with laughter and positivity
  • Interaction with too many local people to mention, with special recognition for the South Indian entrepreneurs of the retail persuasion - if I didn’t always get best price I reckon I always received good value!
  • Brief encounters with too many insects and mosquitos to count but thanks guys, every single one of you left your mark . . . . . .
  • Memories of maybe 40 elephants - festival elephants, rescue elephants, plus Gobalan, the she-elephant I will recall whenever I do a walking meditation
  • Skype conversations with the UK and Australia, many of which were of the Type/Skype variety
  • A stunning performance of Kathakali dancing
Not forgetting . . . . .
  • 1 blister
  • 1 pair of flip flops purchased
  • 1 cut toe after tripping over said flip flops
  • 1 bad case of flip flop toe
  • 4 plasters
  • 1 pair of bloodstained flip flops discarded
  • Several rants about aforementioned item of footwear
Or . . . . .
  • 1 haircut
  • 1 cut throat shave
  • 1 face massage
Not to mention . . . . .
  • One encounter with an uncooperative hammock.
I must say a big thank you to my Panasonic Lumix compact digital camera (or to be strictly accurate, Angela’s Panasonic Lumix compact digital camera) which enabled me to take approx.1,600 photos without fault or falter.
I should also remember some of the phrases that cropped up time and time again. They made sense at the time even if they won’t in a few week’s time:
  • Check the Chill (Lynne & Linda)
  • Show Me The Label (Keith, with acknowledgement to Paul)
  • PanTan, short for Panic Tanning (Gail, with acknowledgement to her Dad)
  • MICE - Meetings, Incentives, Conventions & Exhibitions (Gail & Helen with acknowledgement to the Chief Steward on our first Sri Lankan Airways flight)
  • All’s Fair in Love & Tuk Tuks (Anonymous, for obvious reasons)

And finally, the phrase of the trip has to be ‘Same Same But Different’ which seems to explain the paradox and contradictions in the tiny slice of India we experienced, or so it seems to me as a naive and idealistic first-time visitor.

The phrase sums up how India seems to be comfortable with ambiguity, never providing one answer (or God) when several will do. Whatever happens next is generally the right answer, so let go of your expectations and go with the flow.

The poor living cheek by jowl with the rich?
Same Same But Different.

A dedication to the commercial act of selling anything and everything to make a rupee or two, alongside a spiritual approach to life?
Same Same But Different.

Trying to explain to a customer, who does not share his language, that two types of nut bar on his shelf are very similar (both are nuts, but one has a spicier coating) the shopkeeper says ‘Same Same But Different’.

Beggars allegedly deliberately mutilated so they can get more money, juxtaposed with the joy and exuberance of people in the street (and countryside) who just want to practice their English, or take your photo for you?
Same Same But Different

The ugliness of a rubbish dump in a Chennai street, with several species trying to scratch a living from the same source - people, cats, cows, crows, dogs - and the beauty in that scene, each prakriti-ridden soul doing what it must to survive, giving to another what it cannot use, taking re-cycling to it’s radical limit?
Same Same But Different

So that’s it from me . . .the blog will revert to its previous purpose now, as a repository for my flash fiction and it would be great to hear from you about any of my previous or future posts any time you feel like it.

I’ll leave you with a picture of some of my postcards, tastefully displayed in my home office:


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Day 17 - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

Today can be summarised in a few words: my 1st yoga class, then bhuta yagna, a full body Ayurvedic massage, my 2nd yoga class and dinner - plus modelling my new look . . . . .

Yoga on the roof at 7.30, led by the hotel’s Ayurvedic doctor, would have been better without the air conditioning unit screeching away in the background but it didn’t matter much because it more like a demonstration that we followed than a lesson.

At breakfast on the balcony at the German Bakery (dosa, sambar and coconut chutney) a crow perched on a lamp post a few inches away. Photos were taken and we broke up a biscuit and left it on the concrete shelf about three inches away and he (?) seemed very grateful - bhuta yagna in action!

At 1.00 p.m. I was in the hands of Raju the Ayurvedic doctor again, this time for an hour-long full body massage which left me feeling relaxed and looking like a slippery Greek wrestler. The resulting selfie is not for publication at any price . . . . .

After a quick repair of the new sore on my foot which I call FFT (Flip Flop Toe) it was off to a 4.30 yoga class taking place on the roof of a shop. I was the only participant so I paid the extra £ (taking the fee to a fiver) for a 2-hour personal lesson including talk, pranayama and asanas.

It was great - I achieved my best dhanurasana yet, and the teacher claims that with work and some regular practice I could start binding when in ardha marichyasana. Impressive or wot?

The last dinner in India was a group session at Fusion where thank yous and presentations were made to our Group Leader, Wendy, who has provided us all with some fantastic memories.

Wendy - Nandri! (Tamil) and Nani! (Mayalayam).

This was followed by grilled king fish plus an Indian version of crème brulee made with coconut vanilla custard, which tasted a bit like bread and butter pudding.

Right now I’m trying to close the suitcases because I have a 5 a.m. start tomorrow for the 24-hour trip home.

Look out for the next, and last, instalment, by which time I will be clutching a hot water bottle J

Oh yes, here's the new look . . .


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Day 16 - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

A wonderful day which started with a brilliant breakfast, continued with a boat trip and a happy elephant, and finished with a red snapper . . . . .

At 8 a.m. I watched the fishermen hauling their boats out to sea whilst eating puri masala - a hearty breakfast!
At 8.30 we took a minibus away from the busy resort to the calm and tranquil backwaters of Kerala and its bird wildlife (although there was little of that to be seen today).

An extra surprise took us to an area where three elephants worked. Two of them were out on hire to a local temple for a festival so the remaining she-elephant, called Gobalan took us for rides, three at a time and posed for photos before we rewarded her with an enormous supply of mini-bananas. We placed two inside her nostrils which she inhaled then waited for another two before transferring them to her mouth.

After the sanctuary it was great to see a happy elephant, She was very placid and her relationship with her mahout (keeper) was obviously very close. He just had to say 'back' 'forward' 'left' right' 'stop' 'bend your trunk for the photos' and she did exactly that.

She seemed to take each step as a walking meditation, being especially careful when the path dipped into a hollow, which was gratifying if you were at the front, as I was.

After an afternoon of snoozing and catching up with sleep I had an amazing meal of grilled red snapper with lemon, garlic, butter and spices, accompanied by a vegetable curry, coconut rice and a naan. I should of course have said 'we' because I did not manage all this on my own!

Namaste !

Monday, 20 January 2014

Day 15 - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

If it is the responsibility of a blogger to report what’s on his mind then today’s post will have to focus on blisters, insect bites, flip flops and cut throat razors . . . . .

Kovalam is a beautiful spot on the Kerala coast having three bays, a lighthouse and lots of shops selling clothes, jewellery, Ayurvedic remedies, food, fruit, CDs, trinkets, yoga mats, Ayurvedic massages, posters, currency exchange, tourist maps, shoes, and lots more besides.

The day started by Sofia the pharmacist (every travel group should have one) saying that antihistamine tablets would help get my insect bites down so I tagged along with her, and Helen and Tracey, in search of the pharmacy. We found several pharmacies but only Ayurvedic ones which do not use the traditional prescription drugs. I was advised that I could use an Ayurvedic powder if I mixed it with either buttermilk or curd until it was a paste. I politely explained I was on holiday and would not be spending time doing this, and the bites were only an inconvenience, so we moved on.

Before this, at the start of the day the blister on my left heel was the size of a small coconut and preventing me from wearing my normal sandals. I was limping along in bare feet, which is fine on the cool floor of the hotel where there’s a ceiling fan, shade, and an air conditioning unit keeping the temperature cold enough to store ice cream in your wardrobe, but as soon as you step onto the sun baked pavements the soles of your feet begin to burn.

The obvious answer was flip-flops . . . . .

As we set off from the hotel I purchased a top-of-the-range pair of Nike flip flops. Although I tried to negotiate down from £6, the seller obviously saw I was not in a strong bargaining position so we settled on a fiver.

Why do people wear flip flops? Or more to the point, how do people wear flip flops? People who can wear them effortlessly are obviously from another planet to mine, the one where people drink hot milk and don’t eat curry.

The piece of plastic that separates the big toe from the next toe might seem round and comfortable when you try them on but after 50 yards it resembles a piece of cheese wire. It's like flossing your feet and it's not a good sensation.

After twenty minutes I am faced with the choice of sliding my feet back towards the heel of the 'shoe' to avoid the new pain in between the toes, and risk falling flat on my face whilst the heel flops about like a flag in a Force 9 gale, or pushing my feet forwards, intensifying the pain  but feeling more stable.

Eventually I stumbled on a loose paving stone and stubbed my toe. I carried on walking then saw the blood flowing onto the flip flop - a long (but not deep) cut was a bit painful so I hobbled to the hotel where I met the guy who sold me the flip flops.

Here is a picture of the flip flops which will never see England.

By the way, these entrepreneurs are very observant and they never forget a paying customer. As we shook hands he glanced down to admire his products and immediately saw my predicament:

"Oh dear, what has happened? Can I wash it for you?

Do you want to buy some smaller ones as well?"

These people are to be admired.

Most conversations with them end with "Maybe tomorrow" and the more insistent get "I have no room in my suitcase" or "I am on the way to get some money" but sometimes their invitation is accepted and we stroke, feel, measure, cogitate, prevaricate, procrastinate then negotiate.

All interactions, whether they involve the transfer of funds or not, end in "Nani" (thank you) and/or "Namaskar".

Sometimes they don't even try to sell you anything but just tell you their life history in one of the 4 languages most of them speak - they constantly impress and amaze me. Here are somke who sold me some products which must remain a secret until my return:

After a lunch of aloo bondha (deep fried spicy mashed potato) and a Beach Mix for lunch I returned to the hotel to finish my book and rest the foot.

(You can make a Beach Mix at home really easily - take one tall glass, fill one third with orange juice, another third with  pineapple juice (ratio and flavour could be varied to your own taste) then fill the final third with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Eat with a straw and a spoon - delicious!)

At 5 o'clock I did my pranayama and asana practice then decided to get my hair cut as it's grown very quickly in India and I was starting to look like an umpa lumpa man.

I had a vague idea where the barber's shop was but it was in the back alleys so I had to ask for directions a couple of times before I found the empty shop. A man in the restaurant next door phoned him and he turned up 10 minutes later. We agreed a price for the haircut, which I didn't question as there were lots of cut throat razors lying around the place, and he cut my hair.

At some point Saffi (we were the best of friends by now)  remarked that I needed a shave and I agreed, thinking I would be shaving before going out to eat later, then suddenly the seat was tipped back and the razors made an appearance. So I had a proper shave as well - smooth as the proverbial baby's backside.

"Sir, if you have ten or fifteen minutes I can give you very nice head massage, and face massage, with face pack."

We were now in the territory of pennies and pounds so I agreed and he massaged and pummelled and applied a face pack which he left on me for about five minutes. It felt like someone has smeared hot chilli sauce over my cheeks but in a pleasant way.  All over, job done, new price agreed - £8 the lot.

I will post a picture of me when I get one but here's one of Saffi.

That's your lot tonight although I had a very nice vegetable biryani for dinner and I was showing Saffi's picture on my camera and the waiter laughed and said he was his friend!


Sunday, 19 January 2014

Day 14 - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

Unexpectedly I have managed to get today's blog post out - the WiFi connection here at the Jeevons Hotel in Kovulum, near Trivanthaporum, is poor at best. The day was dominated by the train journey from Cochin.

After a yoga class at the hotel at 6.30 a.m. and a quick breakfast I walked around Cochin on my own for nearly 90 minutes, which provided lots of interesting pictures, plus my first injury - a huge blister on my heel.

We left Cochin from their 'Town' station which is reached via a narrow alley found by those initiated in such secrets behind the back of a petrol station. I had a quick lunch purchased from a stall at the station - vegetable samosa, some sort of potato fritter, a nut bar, water, and a small ball made of gingilly seeds - delicious - and the total cost was 45 pence.

Near the food stall was a team of 3 nurses (honest, there were three) waiting to give free polio vaccinations to children.

The train journey itself was 5 hours long, late, and largely uneventful except for the constant stream of food available to buy from young men plying their wares along the corridor. There wasn't much to be seen through the windows, which were very dirty, but we could see a bit by standing at the end of the carriage where both doors were left open to feel the breeze. No health and safety police in sight!

The hotel can only be reached by walking the last half mile down a lane which leads to a promenade filled with shops of all kind just 50 yards from the beach so we listened to the waves break as we ate our meal. Mine was nataranjah korma, vegetable rice and kulcha naan,

I'll get this posted now as the WiFi is erratic!


Saturday, 18 January 2014

Day 13 - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

Early morning yoga followed by a trip to an elephant sanctuary, a long drive back to the hotel then a fantastic meal in Cochin Fort.

I just managed to get to the yoga class provided by the hotel at 6.30 a.m., with two others. The teacher, Manoj, is a really lean and fit 30-somethiing who is extraordinarily flexible. After some seemingly gentle asanas he announced we would try something more advanced - a crow and a headstand.

Sofia achieved a personal best with her crow - and mine was improved too. My headstand was my best yet - straighter and I stayed up longer. I think it must have been the preparation asanas he did but it seemed like yoga magic at the time. Let's hope I can keep this up when I get back home!

Today's tour was a 90-minte drive into the countryside to visit a rescue sanctuary for elephants who are ill, have been hit by a train, or injured fighting, called Guruvayor Devaswama Punnathur Kotta.

They have approx.65 elephants at the moment - all ages - and they all have sad eyes as they chew on their diet of banyan leaves and branches with their leg chained up. Everyone left feeling a bit embarrassed at having to witness it but aware that the tiny entrance fee - about 5 pence plus another 25 p for the privilege of using  a camera - was helping in a small way.

The journey was very interesting, driving through busy towns and villages, especially Cherai where we were faced with the backsides of 17 huge elephants all stood in a row. We took this to be an auspicious number as this represented one elephant for each person in our group!

There were people on their back in costume banging drums and the occasional firecracker exploded in the background. This was in celebration of the festival of Pooram, which is Kerala's version of Pongal, with a twist, and it all started in 1798 when the local raja was refused entry into the local temple because he was late.

The journey back was like any road trip into a big city on a Saturday evening - long and tedious.

On our free evening we all went our separate ways and I went with Lynne, Linda & Sofia in a tuk tuk driven by Aslan, a Muslim, who let me steer for a few seconds. I can report that autorickshaws do not have power steering!

We were heading for Jew Town where we had picked a restaurant from our previous day's tour, but they were closed for the Sabbath (doh!) so Aslan recommended the Hotel Seagull where we feasted on a whole grilled mullet cooked in coconut milk and various spices, or Molly as we called her, plus a paneer makhani, nataranjan kurma (veg kurma with fruit and coconut), rice, aloo naan and poppadums, which are called the same in the local language (Malayalum) as home. (In Hindi they are called paddads.)

Washed down with three quadruple gins, a pineapple juice, and a bottle of water, this cost us about £7.50 each, including service charge.

Time for bed Zebedee!


Friday, 17 January 2014

Days 11-12 - Yoga Studies Tour 2014

A packed 48 hours involving Wendy's last yoga classes on the trip, a full body Ayurvedic massage, a 12-hour overnight train journey from Thanjevur to Cochin which included a picnic, a walking tour of the resort, a boat trip around the harbour, a performance of Kathakali dancing and a meal in the hotel.

I won't attempt to cover it all but here are some highlights . . . . .

I'll start with a reflection that at the start of the tour we had so much time in front of us that I didn't think about future days at all, I just focussed on this day and the experiences it would bring. As I appreciated and valued more moments in the actual moment, time seemed to expand so I felt I was getting more and more out of each day. I am attempting to keep that feeling despite being well into the second half of the tour.

Wendy's last classes focused on Kriya Yoga and it's three parts - tapas, svadhya and isvarapranidana, and it was a fitting end to a brilliant week - thanks Wendy!

I have some great photos of passengers, dogs and goats standing on the railway line, and some great railway signs. Here is my favourite:
After a fitful sleep on the long train ride to Cochin (many thanks to the Ideal River Resort in Thanjavur for providing us with our meal on the train - they didn't have to do that and it was great) we are now in the Killians Hotel situated two minutes walk from the famous Chinese fishing nets.

On the walking tour I was offered the chance to pull the nets up - the fisherman get more money from tourists these days than they do from the fishing - so here is a photo of me 'on the pull', taken by one of the fishermen.

And here's the net I pulled, which contained a lot of rubbish and one fish!

Here is the sun setting over the nets, from the boat trip:
Now we have moved from Tamil Nadu into Kerala we are no longer being treated like celebrities because there are a lot of European tourists here and the street sellers are more insistent although there are bargains to be had if you have the motivation and persistence!
I have an early start tomorrow for another full day so I'm off to bed!