|Heading back north slideshow|
Amma departed for her South India tour on January 12th and Amritapuri was very busy as three hundred western devotees made last minute arrangements to tour with her. We saw trucks being loaded with huge kitchen pots and luggage. People were running around to get sleeping bags made of sheets as they're not always sure what sleeping conditions they'll find during the tour.
But some of the characters at the ashram paid no notice to the “tour buzz”. Rama, the resident elephant, calmly strolled around Amritapuri doing odd jobs, like caring his own food – long branches of palm leaves. The cows mooed frantically as usual from their new place on the other side of the backwaters. The temple resident Eagle and crows were as alert as ever on the lookout for unguarded omelets, toasts and pancakes – which make easy pickings from breakfast plates.
Peter and I left Amritapuri on January 15th in the morning, from the same side we arrived at – Parayakadavu beach. We headed north towards Goa, but we traveled slowly, checking out Ayurvedic hospitals in Kottayam, beaches in Guruvayor and Gokarna. We also saw a bird and an elephant sanctuary along the way. After being around foreigners for two months, we found ourselves to be the only western travelers in some places, which is always refreshing. The local people off the tourist track are usually pretty friendly, devoid of any tendency to sell us things or services. Local Indians in real Indian towns love to strike up a conversation just for the sake and pleasure of it.
We traveled a lot by bus, sometimes for four hours at a time, and my memory of dusty, noisy, fume ladened towns in India was replaced by asphalted, relatively dust free roads. Back in those days, you'd have to wash the soot off your face after a day of travels.
We loved being in Kottayam, where we found a quiet hotel in a courtyard off the main road. It is a bookish town where the first Malayalam-language printing press was established and it is the first district in India to attain 100% literacy. The town is surrounded by the bucolic Western Ghats (local mountain range) and the backwaters. We visited a couple of Ayurvedic places and went to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, 12 miles from town by Vembanad Lake. To actually see birds, you have to be there in the early morning, or during mating season, but we had a lovely walk in the park with beautiful views of the lake. There was also a Horticulture and Floriculture Exhibition in town where we got to mingle with the local crowds.
Guruvayur is a temple town with a famous Krishna temple but western tourists are not allowed in. There are many hotels there, all full of Indian tourists and pilgrims visiting the temple. Walking around 64 elephants while they ate, drank, bathed and got groomed at the elephant sanctuary was also a highlight while we were in Guruvayur. Sometimes these elephants are loaned to Indian temples for special ceremonies and occasions.
We also checked out Chavakkad beach, four miles west of the Krishna temple. It is a vast sandy beautiful beach, filled with fishing boats and backed by a dense forest of coconut trees. The place is not developed and we could not see any guest house around. Maybe this is the way Varkala and Kovalam, close to Trivandrum, were 20 or 30 years ago. I was in Kovalam 18 years ago and it already had just a few guests houses. Now it is a very busy resort with direct flights from Europe.
We saw only Indians at Chavakkad beach. They don't dress special for the beach, and some women go into the water fully clothed with their saris, but men can dress down to their underwear to go in. Mostly, Indians take their whole families to the beach on the weekends to just watch the sea and get their feet wet.
Calicut was the next stop on our route. We stopped there just to get on a train heading north. We didn't want to wait half a day for a comfortable “sleeper” train, so ended up on an local train. When I saw the hordes of people waiting for the same train, I panicked because the train was already full when it arrived. I was envisioning spending the rest of the day in Calicut, if not the night, because in my mind there was no way we could fit in that train with our luggage. But we did. It was a grueling seven hours journey as we traveled packed like sardines.
The interesting thing about India is that no matter how stressful (at least for me) the situation, Indians always seem relaxed. Even though everyone was squeezed together, some found ways to read, help us find a way to accommodate our luggage, and chat lightly, asking us where we were from and how we liked India. One man even kicked out a younger one out of his seat for me.
We arrived in Mangalore very exhausted, and missed our connection to Goa, so we decided to rest for a couple of days. By chance, our hotel had cable television, and the next day happened to be inauguration day - Barack Obama, the 44th president of the USA. We were glued to the TV for five hours switching the channels between CNN and BCC. Then we went to bed and when we woke up the inaugural balls were still going on. It was great to get the news from Washington and watch some films on HBO. Nothing better than a Hollywood film when we are away from home for so long. The next day we had lunch and got on the train again. Our next stop was Gokarna, another temple town on the beach.