How to make people think you’re Russian in Varkala

Shops on the north cliffs, Varkala

Shops on the north cliffs, Varkala

Arrive in the afternoon at your hotel, only to find that you and your (female) roomie have been put in a room with a couple-y sort of bed, when the two of you aren’t actually couple-y at all.

Explain to the somewhat embarrassed hotel staff that you and your roomie are NOT in fact, a “couple”.

Discover that in order to change to a room with two single beds, you’ll experience a little unpleasantness with the people who previously occupied that room, who were not very gallant or generous when asked to move so you and your roomie didn’t have to worry about accidental spooning.

Insist to roomie that in order to clear our otherwise delightful hotel room of any bad energy from the ungracious previous occupants, we very much need some incense.

Consequently take a late night jaunt to the clifftops in the near pitch-blackness.

Take the long-way ’round coz you haven’t yet learned the back alley shortcut.

Find yourself draped in this tout or that tout attempting to draw you into their please-come-buy-from-my-shop-we-give-you-best-price game.

Somehow agree to give the postcards you’ve painfully hand written to family and friends – on the Varanasi to Calcutta train – to a young Kashmiri man who promised, hand on heart and with his beautiful eyes, to post them the next day (he apparently did BUT they took almost a month to get to their destinations).

Wander from one brightly lit shop to the next, looking for someone to sell you some incense.

Eventually find incense, incense holder (which is really an ornate salt/pepper shaker) and matches.

My incense holder/pepper shaker

My incense holder/pepper shaker

Wander round some more with your roomie (who is Swedish and prone to flirting quite a lot more than you are).

Turn left at what you later discover is known as the Tibetan market.

Chat to a young boy sitting on a musical instrument store stoop (EVERY SECOND PERSON in Varkala will try to sell you a drum!).

Discover young boy knows how to play some pretty awesome rhythms.

Standing there in the dusty alleyway with minimal low lighting from various shops, find one’s previous incarnation as a belly-dancer rising up, and unwittingly respond to the drumming. Slave-to-the-rhythm-like.

Find yourself dancing more and more and more, as the young drummer realises you can in fact, dance.

He plays more intricate beats now; stopping isn’t an option.

You suddenly feel ten years younger. Maybe fifteen.

Roomie is encouraging you and even though the alley previously seemed very quiet, a small crowd gathers from all corners of the night.

Another man behind you says to your roomie: She is making me crazy.

Asks if you are Russian*. Roomie says you aren’t but offers him your phone number anyway!

You can’t stop dancing yet. Even though it’s still steamy at 10pm or thereabouts.

More admiring noises, and not just from men. But mostly men.

Roomie is NOT helping matters with her flirting on your behalf.

Eventually the heat, the jet lag and the fact that you haven’t quite danced like this for many years… catches up with you.

You take a bow and are overwhelmed by a small yet devoted audience heaping all kinds of praise on you.

Roomie fortunately does not give your number to anyone (make a note not to give her your mobile number, just in case). You both attempt an escape but get horrendously lost in the oh-so-dark-there’s-no-street-lights-here world.

Finally, you make it back to your room and burn a heck-load of incense. Kingfisher beers on the balcony, ensue.

Mission accomplished! Albeit with a somewhat side alley twist. Okay, several sideways twists and shimmies, and plenty of intricate drumming.

Incredibly, you spend the rest of the week being recognized.

Aren’t you the dancer?

I saw you dancing the other night…

Even though your one-night only performance was done in almost total darkness. In a tiny, dusty alleyway in a southern Indian beach-side town.

Despite all of your assumed anonymity, you find you’ve become a tiny piece of Varkala north cliffs folklore. The woman who dances so freely (where “free” is a synonym for whore).

Errrm, yeah.

You are Cliff-Top Famous, and perceived by most of the locals to be Russian.

Damn those beats.

~ Amanda

* If you’re a female and someone asks if you’re Russian while in India, take the time to be rather insulted. You’re essentially being asked if you are a sex worker, coz many Russian prostitutes come to India. Such Russian women are considered “very free and open”. You can translate that about a hundred different ways. Even though Indians admire this kind of “freedom” they generally suspect you of being a woman with loose morals if you are. Natch.

Categories: India, Varkala | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Reconstituting my Self

A roadside Kali altar in Kolkata

A roadside Kali altar in Kolkata

There’s many a thing that can – and has – been said about India. I’ve written a few of those things myself.

India’s a large, vibrant and confronting country to spend time in, but lately I’ve begun thinking of Her as a seamstress who ripped out my existing seams and has been cutting, re-shaping and sewing me into something else. I’m still made of the same fabric of course, just differently shaped and styled and put back together.

Okay… I kinda still feel like I’m in the process of being put back together.

Which is why my India stories have been coming out so slowly: I feel very much that I’m still getting used to my new post-India condition.

Sometimes my stitches have felt too tight and sometimes I’ve wondered why on earth I went to the Seamstress in the first place if I wasn’t intending on coming out with a brand new garment…

The first month of my return was about recovering from being nightmarishly sick as I left India. I also found myself commencing kinesiology studies (yay! and more on that another time), but mostly I was just getting used to looking at this new version of myself in the mirror.

The second month has been…complicated.

I’m still looking for a day job (hello employers of digital media types!) and I’ve yet to establish any new yoga classes despite several inquiries from would-be students.

While shock from the changes Seamstress India has wrought on my soul is wearing off, I’ve been taking a bit of a closer look and actually feel as though She hasn’t finished her work yet.

So I’m putting myself back together, on a very intangible and metaphysical level.

See, there’s a few story lines from my time in India that are still playing out. None of it as I expected of course. And I find it tricky to write about such personal things when they’re not fully cooked yet.

But before I sound too airy-fairy and off with the cosmic pixies, let me tell you how very surprised I am to be writing this post at all. So many people returning from India have similar-ish sounding tales with suspiciously “woo woo” descriptions… kind of like what I’ve just been writing. But I didn’t think I’d be one of them.

At first I simply thought I’d had an interesting time in India with a bunch of exceptional and memorable moments. I got back home and was all hey… let’s get on with life!

I sure didn’t think I’d be expressing such in-expressible concepts as I’m attempting in this post…

Today especially – almost two months after getting home – everything has kind of fallen apart rather spectacularly.

But how, exactly? Well, that’s TBD.

Physically I’m in excellent health. I’ve no lingering parasites, weakness or infections. I’m doing plenty of interesting things – yoga, kinesiology studies, writing projects, seeing friends and family, learning how to play my harmonium (so much fun!) and so on.

My new harmonium! I think I will call her Kashi.

My new harmonium! I think I will call her Kashi.

And yet… I still feel somewhat undone. As though part of my soul never really left India.

Then there’s this: things I’ve seen, done, experienced, breathed in and felt in a third world country with a considerably different culture and psychology… this can’t be undone/seen/felt/experienced.

Yeah I’ve been to other third world countries (Egypt, Bali, very poor areas of Chile) but none of them got to me quite like this.

Every waking moment is now imbued with the distinct otherness of India. The extreme poverty; brash colours; overwhelming misogyny; tout-a-palooza; gorgeous landscapes; shouty-grabby madness; wildness; awesome architecture; impatience and pot holes; endless numbers of roaming cows and monkeys; juicy spiritual experiences and everything else that makes India wonderful and shocking and confronting and appalling… all of that is now with me All The Time.

I guess Ma India got under my skin and I’m not quite sure what that means.

So forgive my India story tardiness… they’re coming, really. I just need a little more time to let the merry-go-round slow down a little more, so I can jump off without falling flat on my face.

Once everything starts looking a little clearer, I’ll be on the job. Promise.

~ Amanda

Categories: India | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

Review: Linda’s Metta Yoga Study Retreat

So this is the overall review certain people have been eagerly awaiting (*cough*) of the yoga studies trip that kicked off my India plans!

The fuller picture of course, includes all the posts written about my time in Chennai and Varkala. The general gist is that we had a good time. A great time, in fact!

Visiting India was a long time coming for me. As such, I owe Linda my gratitude for organising this trip, because her plans acted as a catalyst (my own plans had been sitting on the shelf for far too many years).

Before I even jumped on the plane, Linda was an amazing resource for all things India (I keep telling her she should write a travel book for newbies).

When I decided to expand my travels either side of her study group, Linda provided many helpful thoughts on my itinerary and answered my endless stream of questions. Some of which were probably quite inane.

The basics of Linda’s plans were: a week in Chennai studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM), where Linda has herself been studying for many years PLUS a week in Varkala, Kerala. Linda would teach for the second week but mostly that part of the trip was all about relaxation.

Well… as relaxed as one can be in the wild cacophony that is India!

Week 1: Chennai

Linda’s main role for the week in Chennai was as tour guide.

With years of experience hanging out in Chennai, Linda took us to her favourite temples, restaurants and places to shop – when we weren’t studying at KYM (which was six lessons a day for five days).

That sort of guidance is priceless in India, where it’s all too easy to feel discombobulated and overwhelmed.

There’s many layers of frustration travelers to India can experience; usually at least half a dozen at the same time (minimum!). Which can cause a creeping sensation of anxiety and anger, coupled with the need for doing whatever you can to shield yourself from prying eyes and touts attempting to take as many of your rupees as possible.

In trying to create a smooth experience for the group, Linda took a lot of the sting out the Standard India Overwhelm.

Not once in Chennai did we have to bargain with auto drivers. I never spent a moment looking at maps to attempt to futilely figure out where I wanted to go (this can be extremely exhausting).

And finally, just being part of a group offers a level of protection that’s painfully missing as a solo traveler.

As much as I love traveling solo, doing so in India is a full-contact sport and you’ve gotta bring your full play book to get by. No, I’m not kidding.

Read all of my Chennai-related posts >

Week 2: Varkala

Here we all got to experience Linda-style yoga (note: for numerous reasons some of us yoga teachers dislike being asked what style of yoga we teach!) for five mornings – a two hour session that combined her knowledge in teaching yin and Krishnamacarya-style viniyoga. Linda’s teachings were also flavored with Erich Shiffman’s Freedom Style, too.

Something I always enjoy about new teachings and new teachers is taking in what’s offered with a beginner’s mind. So even if I feel like I know what the teacher is talking about already, I try to strip those preconceptions away and listen from a different place. I want to learn what is being offered, because otherwise you’ve gotta ask yourself what the point is, right?

While I enjoyed all aspects of Linda’s classes, I very much enjoyed the little taste of Freedom Style yoga, since my own practice tends to be quite freestyle, too. This way of yoga-ing feels more like dancing than yoga, and all of the teachers I love and respect the most also teach this way.

Sure, I don’t often blast Alicia Keyes while practicing but it worked for the setting – an open-walled yoga shala on the roof of the Ayurvedic clinic in the hotel.

Linda’s style of teaching works equally well for beginners as for more experienced yogis, and in fact our group was very mixed in experience and skill.

When not yoga-ing, the rest of our time in Kerala was a patchwork of luxuriously doing nothing, swimming, cliff top wanderings, massages, taking naps, and haggling with shopkeepers (not my favourite activity!).

As well as the aforementioned elephant adventure, Linda also organised a Keralan cooking class for those who were interested as well as a reiki healing session with an expat friend of hers (which is almost impossible to write about).

Cooking with Khan

Our cooking class was very enjoyable both for the taste buds and socially.

Khan is a very knowledgeable and talented chef, and loves having a good chat while he works. Admittedly most of the cooking class was us observing him at work, and occasionally playing sous chef.

However, I learned an excellent tip from Khan on how to avoid crying while chopping onions, which alone was worth the cost of the class.

The tip is: hold a sip of water in your mouth. (I’ve tried it several times since then and it works every time.)

Unfortunately my camera battery died at the start of our cooking sessions, so I only got a couple of photos. But this was yet another excellent way to spend an afternoon in paradise!

The lesson ended with a feast (as all lessons should!) – eating everything we cooked in the semi-darkness and humidity on an outside table with candle light and beer.

Read all of my Varkala-related posts >

Thanks Linda!

I know that running an overseas yoga study group and trying to cater to the needs of a diverse bunch of people isn’t easy. I also know you put a lot of effort into trying to showcase your very own “best of India”.

Without a doubt, there were challenges and unexpected issues (like Sandra’s eye) but I know you absolutely did your best and I really enjoyed the “group part” of my time in India.

Sound good? Wanna go to India in 2014?

Linda is doing a two week Varkala retreat in 2014 from March 2-14, co-teaching the group with a friend of hers.

Read all about it here: The Flavors of Yoga: An India Study Retreat with Linda Karl and Oreste Prada.

I understand that Oreste is also a seasoned traveler of India, so you get two fonts of India knowledge into the bargain.

Basically, if you’re wanting to go to India but would rather not go solo, this trip would be a great starting point. You’ll get yoga classes, dharma talks, a beautiful tropical paradise and endless ocean views.

And if you’re lucky, maybe even elephants! :)

~Amanda

Categories: Chennai, India, Varkala, Yoga | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Group alchemy

The gang! I love these people!

The gang! I love these people!

I’ll admit it: when it comes to travel, I much prefer solo adventures.

Travelling with others and especially with people you’ve never met before is… well you never know how it’s gonna go, right?

There’s no real clue about who’ll get offended by someone else, how easy it’ll be making decisions about where to eat dinner or what to do with the day. Completely unintentionally, such things can become tension-filled.

So it was with a little trepidation that I flew south to Chennai from Calcutta, joining what I’d been calling the “group part” of my trip. Linda’s yoga retreat group: bought and paid for months before I’d left home.

Our group slowly assembled over the course of two days, just before our KYM studies began.

I came from Australia via Calcutta, Linda from the US via Varkala; others flew in direct from the US and one of our number even came from Sweden (via Bahrain!).

Initially, it was all polite hellos but probably our first Kingfisher session started to break down the unfamiliarity: holed up in that hotel room at the Raj, with our varying levels of India experience to date. It was a unifying moment.

That I had a delightful roomie (just as messy, late and noisy as me) was also a boon. Probably not for the rest of the group, though…

It wasn’t til the second week, I think, when we all began notice something special was going on.

Perhaps it’d been there from the start, but a delightful synergy was emerging… further cemented by additional Kingfisher sessions overlooking our lush swimming pool or up high on the second level of one of the cliff-side restaurants we favoured, such as Little Tibet.

Then, there was also the shared yoga challenges and joys; learning to keep each other’s secrets (Bhagavad Gita, John?! Heehee!); discovering the little things that pleased us all; and, where our interests varied and crossed-over.

Maybe it was also down to all that shared sweating in the humid, humid Indian heat? Those who sweat together, stay together…? Nah. Couldn’t be that simple, right?

Chemistry: usually something discussed as A Thing between lovers.

But it happens within groups, too (the chemistry bit) and it’s A Thing you just can’t plan for. It either exists or doesn’t.

This…energy of connection. It can be a bit like making a truly delicious meal. Add just enough ingredients. The right ingredients. Allow the mixture to marinate, sit, bake… whatever is required.

Then savour the interplay of subtle flavours, interacting like perfectly timed dance partners.

This was our group. Providing different support and companionship to each other as we awoke and faced the onslaught of sensory experiences that is India. Encouraging each other, and sharing our perceptions and observations… as much about what was going on within as anything we could see around us.

So it was through this lens of shared travels and new experiences, we slowly began to realise the dearness of our new friends.

Sometimes at the end of a group adventure, you say a fond farewell but inwardly sigh with relief to be alone again. For me it’s like that more often than not.

But these farewells weren’t like that at all.

I’m speaking perhaps on behalf of my fellow travelers but I feel very strongly that whether or not we meet again, each of us is better off for knowing the others.

Thank you, all. For being a part of my first trip to Ma India.

With love,

Amanda

Categories: Chennai, India, Varkala | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Just call me a Dodo (I’m home!)

**TRIGGER WARNING** Really, really do NOT read this post if you’re emetophobic!

I’m pausing mid-way through the telling of my remaining tales of India to let you know (in case you didn’t already) that I’ve arrived back in Melbourne.

Just over two weeks ago, in fact.

Now tell me… is it the Dodo bird I’m thinking of? That species of bird where, despite its aerodynamic credentials is incapable of taking off or landing with the grace of other birds?

Wait… perhaps I’m thinking of the Albatross? Yeah, I’m pretty sure Dodos are extinct. Whatever, it’ll do. Just call me a Dodo bird.

Far from arriving back in my hometown with a graceful knee bend and a curtsy, as per my arrival in India (not!) this Dodo hit the Melbourne tarmac in a delirious mess of food poisoning and gastric issues, and a massive case of homesickness for Ma India.

I’m not sure whether India was kicking me out or punishing me for leaving. Or both.

VERY unpleasant things

But from the moment I joined the seemingly endless immigration line in Chennai airport, reality started to get VERY ugly.

I sure didn’t enjoy the rather urgent and painful sensations evolving in my belly while I waited patiently and hopefully for my turn to be rubber stamped and waived on through. Luckily, I ended up standing next to the only other Australian girl in the line and our conversation was a welcome distraction from the mutiny gathering power south of my naval.

Once sufficiently vetted by immigration, I also didn’t appreciate my frequent need to haunt the ONE ladies bathroom facility in the building. It should be noted that the bathroom was wayyyyy down the other end (at least a five minute speed walk) from my departure gate…

So I tried hedging my bets by sitting in the only restaurant on the secure side of departures, and attempted to sip some lemonade to calm my angry belly.

But the most spectacularly unforgettable moments of my departure… were those inglorious ten minutes where I stopped drinking my lemonade, very quickly stood up and said to a restaurant attendant:

I’m sorry but I’m about to throw up.

The Big Chennai Puke

A split second later I’d doubled myself over the marble floor – with excellent uttanasa form btw - and proceeded to lose every morsel of food and liquid my stomach contained in front of a smattering of restaurant guests, waiters and cleaners.

Least the floor was marble, I guess…

Unlike being publicly ill in Australia, no one approached me to see if I was okay.

Instead, restaurant guests stole sideways glances in my direction, alternately looking at my face and the messy pool on the floor… while I stood quivering and holding onto the table, too embarrassed and weak to move.

Attempting to gather my dignity, I apologised to the unlucky guy carrying a squeegee broom and watched helplessly as he attempted to mop the contents of my stomach. Which wasn’t helping my situation.

Eventually, I’d enough strength to once again hobble over to the bathroom. Only this time I figured that claiming the disabled toilet was probably acceptable: I needed a little space and privacy and I also needed to hose my shoes free of vomit.

Yeah, I know.

Luckily I was wearing my all-weather trekking sandals so other than having chilly feet, it wasn’t too bad.

I inspected my clothes and thanked my good fortune for wearing cropped pants… there were only a few vomit flecks to clean up.

By the time I’d cleaned up, I felt remarkably better

Before the Big Chennai Puke, I’d been seriously wondering if I should get on the plane at all, but post-purge all seemed well enough with my stomach demons.

Perhaps all I needed was to evict whatever bad thing I ate…

So I told myself anyway, and the new can of lemonade I was sipping didn’t appear to be in danger of a return trip.

I can get on this flight. I’ll be okay…

Sometimes these blog posts just write themselves, don’t they? I mean, y’all KNOW I was not gonna be fine. Right?

There seems to be this silent communication between the body and the brain, telegraphing advance warning of the puke reflex. That very reflex commanded my actions as soon as the plane began taxi-ing towards take off. On auto-pilot, my fingers curled themselves around the very sturdy air sickness bag they stash in the seat pocket in front of your knees.

Without panicking too much – and just in case, so I told myself – I gently tore the perforated top of the bag off and kind of just… positioned it under my face.

With seconds to spare, as it turned out.

My Tiny Toilet Kingdom

Most of the next four hours (Chennai – Singapore flight) were spent inside one of those claustrophobic aeroplane loos. I was pretty much glued to the toilet seat with a sick bag hovering underneath my mouth, until it was time for a fresh one.

I used a few.

Occasionally I managed to go back to my seat, seeking a respite from the joys of a hard cold toilet seat.

And to get some socks. And a blanket. And my book.

I can’t say I’d recommend spending most of your time inside such a draughty little room. Who knew being squished in tight with the other cattle class passengers could be considered comfortable, relatively speaking?

The only good thing about my mid-air encampment were the stash of extra sick bags, toothbrush kits and proximity to soap and water.

But I learned some things on that flight:

  • It is possible to catch moments of sleep whilst sitting upright on a toilet, head in hands.
  • The body’s desire to puke WILL rouse you out of you zombie-like sleep when required.
  • No sane airline attendant will kick a puking person out of an airplane toilet.
  • There are many, many ways the body will expel toxins.
  • A blanket around your lower back will keep you warm while your pants are ’round your ankles for four hours.
  • When necessary, never be too proud to ask a 5’0″ Singaporean lady for help carrying your bags off the plane.

My happiest moment was the pilot’s announcement we’d be landing soon.

Changi Airport, Singapore

Life got infinitely better when I was able to lie horizontally on a bed in a darkened room of the airport medical centre. I started crying, out of relief to be off that nightmarish flight.

It was a heavenly reprieve.

A stop over at Changi is worthwhile just to check out the airport. It’s kind of like the airport version of Disneyland, and it sure was the happiest place on earth for me at the time!

They’ve got everything, including massage chairs, a butterfly garden and EVEN a medical centre that’s open at 6:30am. Sure, you’ll pay through the nose for your doctor’s appointment, and they’ll prescribe you with as many kinds of medicine as they can (thank you travel insurance!). BUT they do have those magic anti-vomiting and anti-diarrhoea injections, which were a godsend.

As I lay there waiting for the meds to kick in, I used the airport’s free wifi to email family and friends about my miserable predicament. Coz at that stage, I wasn’t clear whether or not I’d be making the second leg of my flight.

Apparently I needed a “Fit to Fly” certificate from the doctor, which was dependent on me not puking or getting the runs while under observation.

Eventually I got the all clear from the Doc and was offered the use of the airline’s private lounge, which turns out to be where they park all the less than able-bodied passengers.

To get there I was offered a wheelchair… and much to my chagrin I gratefully accepted. Then promptly fell asleep as soon as I’d been deposited in the lounge, feet up on a second chair.

Props to Singapore Airlines coz they took excellent care of me and never once berated me for being so grossly unwell on their flight.

I’d even been assigned my own personal wheelchair pusher, who helped me with my carry on luggage and ensured I got through security for my connecting flight. You’re all class, Singapore Airlines!

And, being wheeled through the airport made me feel like a very sick and decrepit rock star.

For the Singapore-Melbourne flight leg, everything was cool til food service began. The aroma of reheated airline food – never the best smell – was enough to bring back the puking.

I don’t remember much of that eight hour flight. Eventually the purging came to a halt but I didn’t eat anything, and barely kept down the lemonade and green tea I was timidly sipping.

Mostly I spent my time in a haze of medication-induced sleep and groggy refusals of food, whilst holding my breath til the food carts moved on. And I kept a stash of air sickness bags handy…

The upside? My illness staved off an array of confusing emotions I had about leaving India, arriving home, and the impossibility of going from one country to another so easily… but that’s another blog post or three.

Touch down in Melbs

It should be noted that Monday night customs clearance is a breeze.

I cried as I walked through that maze of doors towards the hovering arrangement of people waiting for people…

Fortunately I had my own people waiting for me. I was met by not one but two good friends (I’d used Whatsapp to give them the 411 from Changi).

They gave me roses and hugs and took charge of my luggage, then cheerily drove me home and issued me with supplies of rice crackers and chamomile tea.

Thanks Mims and Kat. I seriously LOVE you gals!

Since then…

I was sick for the entire first week back home and barely left the couch. The second week I was still extremely jet lagged and not really strong enough to do much in the way of normal interacting with my Melbourne life.

Sure, I’ve met up with a few friends but on top of the un-wellness, I wasn’t really coping with being back in a fast-paced and concrete-y world such as Melbourne. Plus tthe culture shock and the ever-present sensation of being in two places simultaneously.

Hence the delay in broadcasts here on the blog. I’ve just not been up to anything much, including job hunting!

This week however, I’m finally pulling myself out of that fuzzy in-between world of the returned traveler, and attempting reintegration.

Exciting things have started happening already. I’ll let you know real soon!

But henceforth you can expect my remaining India stories to appear here in the next couple of weeks. As many as I can put into words, anyway.

I can promise the following: High adventure! Festivals! Monks! Mountains! Thievery! Romance! And Delhi (gah!)!

So hello again, world.

It’s good to have finally landed.

~ Amanda

Categories: Crash landings, India | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Elephants and the horny goat!

Shiva the "baby" elephant and his curly trunk

Shiva the “baby” elephant and his curly trunk

So here’s a thing you might not know about me: I’m crazy about ELEPHANTS!!

Just thinking about being in the same space as Real Live Elephants causes a minor brain meltdown inside my cranium on account of all the happiness.

This obsession was only encouraged by reading Modoc while flying from Melbourne to India, natch.

The tip off for the rest of the yoga group about my ele-crush might’ve been my reaction (sure, I was perhaps somewhat concussed, but that’s another story) as we travelled from Trivandrum airport to our hotel in Varkala and there they were – the odd elephant or two. SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

As part of being an excellent hostess for our yoga retreat, Linda reached out to her network of contacts and arranged for all interested parties in Varkala to meet some ELEPHANTS!!!!

I was excited for two whole days beforehand. Just ask anyone in my group.

Actually the entire Meet-The-Elephants Day was an adventure in itself, with six of us squeezed into two auto rickshaws, speeding away from beach-side Varkala into more residential and then rural areas.

Narrow and winding dusty roads lined with high brick fences in the middle of nowhere eventually opened out into larger tracts of farmland, and even before we got to our destination there were random roadside elephants to be seen.

We were on our way to ELEPHANTS, people!

Our first stop yielded only one pachyderm – a six year old “baby” called Shiva! The rest were off doing their duty as temple elephants.

Shiva the elephant

Shiva the elephant

I was only slightly disappointed that I wasn’t surrounded by an army of eles, but before we could get close enough to say hello, we were accosted by a feisty gang of goats.

Some of them were VERY happy to see us (no, it wasn’t a gun in their pockets).

And then this guy… see how sharp his tiny little horns are?

My own personal horny goat...

My own personal horny goat…

Well, he decided a game of Head Butt The Visitors was in order, and with the speed of a whirling dervish came ’round from behind to puncture the back of my right leg!

A little hand sanitiser and saliva cleaned that up (though the wound took weeks to heal), and it was time to meet Shiva’s elephantine incarnation (after all, Shiva’s son IS Ganehsa).

Even as a smaller elephant, Elephant Shiva’s power was palpable. It was sad for us to see him almost hobbled with chains around both front and back legs, however.

But it was lovely to see the relationship between mahout and elephant. There’s clearly a lot of love and affection there.

Shiva and his mahout

Shiva and his mahout

We all took turns getting close enough to pat this beautiful beast. I’d no idea that elephant skin was so soft and warm! It looks very rough but felt like thick textured velvet under my fingers.

His mahout put him through his paces – lying down, getting his skin brushed (vigorously?!) with a straw whisk, kneeling, standing back up.

Even though I learned later that it’s part of their training, I was overwhelmed when Elephant Shiva playfully took my hand into his warm gummy mouth, and then let his dexterous trunk “finger” wander closer and closer to my face… to touch me in the middle of my forehead.

There are no photos of this moment since it happened so fast!

(Note: on my list of 100 things to do/try for this year, I wrote “Receive an elephant blessing”. So even if he was trained to do it, I’m still stoked!)

Shiva the elephant was wonderful, but our group then wanted to go to the temple for a little more ele-action!

Which is when we met this guy and his five legs.

The really, really HUGE ele!

The really, really HUGE ele! And no, that pink thing isn’t a tree branch.

I think we were all so awe-inspired we plain forgot to ask his name, although we did find out that he’s 40 years old.

And I bet alllll the mama elephants take one look and say wowwwwwweeeee.

Again, we all took turns approaching to pat him and take photos. This was an elephant in his full power – massive, ancient looking, with tusks as big/bigger than our arms.

Me and Ele!

Me and Ele (and a mysterious arm bruise)!

I think we were more amusing to the mahouts and other locals nearby than anything – who are these white people turning up in auto rickshaws just to make googly eyes at our elephants?

But finally…seeing both of these eles sated our fascination for the day.

We got our photos and we have our memories and now I know that my love of these great beasts is worthwhile. They did not disappoint.

Eles of the world, I LOVE YOU.

But all you horny goats out there? Keep your distance, dudes!

~ Amanda

P.S. Below are a few more photos from the day, including an on-the-way-home side adventure or two…

Categories: India, Varkala | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The slow life

Perhaps its just traveler’s bias, but none of my experiences of India to-date have been anything like each other.

Unlike visiting Melbourne or Sydney (YES I know they are different, okay? But culturally, not so much!), going from Calcutta to Varanasi to Chennai to Kerala is as different as possible. Sure they too, have common elements, but still…

While two months in India might sound like a lot for some… really, all I’ve experienced to date are snapshots of a fraction of what Ma India has to offer. A week each in Calcutta, Varanasi, Chennai and Varkala shows me nothing of what’s really possible in these magical places.

(My next visit without a doubt, will be for longer and much more about staying in one or two places only, and with less luggage!)

Varkala, Kerala is an exercise in everything I appreciate about the world-wide Slow Movement: slow food (always!), slow yoga, slow walking, not doing too much or too fast…

This time of year, everything is governed by the weather. You’ve a few hours in the morning (starting early) to move about before the heat and humidity claim your energy and even walking short distances becomes challenging.

Unless of course, you don’t mind you and your clothes being drenched in a thick sheet of your own sweat.

And sure, you can keep on walking and doing things, but beware of the sneakiness of heat stroke and exhaustion!

The smartest way to pass the hours between 10am-3pm in March in Varkala is like this:

Chillin' by the pool!

Generally speaking, I don’t drink beer these days on account of the whole gluten-free lifestyle (to optimise my health).

But as the sun reached its most intense moments, nothing was as soothing as a Kingfisher!

Of course, Kingfishers also worked well when our group would gather for a nightly nightcap our balcony.

Our hotel balcony - for Kingfisher nightcaps

Our hotel balcony – for Kingfisher nightcaps

Or hanging in one’s room for a siesta in the blessed A/C, drinking litres of water while preparing for afternoon cliff top adventures.

I never did get a really good photo of them, but more often than not the skies above our hotel pool were the playground for every sea eagle in Varkala. Those beautiful birds are rulers of their domain – master of the winds and clouds, as well as the land and sea below them.

They’d majestically zoom closer and closer: so close that you could marvel at their gorgeous markings before shooting off to the ceiling of the world, appearing as if a competition for bird-shaped kites was being conducted.

Slow, graceful, and taking angular arcs of the sky to show off every angle of their streamlined feathery elegance. My breath would align with their lazy swooping and as they went high, so I’d find myself releasing into a state of surrender.

What could I offer in the face of such magnificence? Nothing but admiration and love.

This too, I could meditate on for hours.

~ Amanda

Categories: India, Varkala | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Oceanic meditations

The below is dedicated to Linda, Sandra and all fellow ocean lovers, with love :)

Varkala beach

There’s something about the ocean I gazed at every day in Varkala (The Arabian Sea) that invoked a deep sense of peace and wholeness. Not just for me, but many in our little yoga retreat group.

I’ve lived by many bodies of water in my life, but my affinity is for two things: the ocean and the mountains. I especially love oceans where you can also find sandstone cliffs, such as the northern beaches of Sydney.

When I lived up that way (first Manly, then Harbord and finally North Narrabeen) I’d use all my spare time stalking the beaches south to north and whenever possible scrambling ’round the cliffs, stepping in salty puddles and revelling in the colour, smell and touch of the tough but crumbly sandstone.

Every day, those gruff old cliffs would face the ocean in a conversation that required a little give and take.

Here, take a few grams of stone in exchange for some salty goodness, to flavour and preserve us in the style we’re accustomed to.

It’s a good match. The majestic oceans are appeased, sharing their power and greatness and there is joy in this interplay of nature. (If you haven’t noticed this for yourself, spend a little more time with the ocean and sit quietly so you can see for yourself).

Varkala beach

My connection to the ocean and the mountains are part of the pulse of my life, and after a week spent in Chennai we arrived in steamy Trivandrum before a ninety minute bus ride north to Varkala.

The first encounter I had with Varkala’s great oceanic expanse was by night as I wandered with my roomie towards the cliff top, in search of incense.

Though we couldn’t see too much, the ocean reached for us anyway with Her air kisses, curling tendrils of invitation around our hair, lips and eyes.

We were back the next morning, and every day thereafter. Post-yoga for eating, walking or shopping.

Varkala beach

The breeze was always best on the second floor of any restaurant so that was mostly where you’d find me, writing, laughing with friends and eating my fill of momos.

From that vantage point, the ocean’s horizon always looked soft: as if painted in pastels and hand-smudged to enhance the softness further.

The horizon became one of my daily meditations…

How far could I travel into that seamless seam?

What would I find if I ever went all the way?

Could I evaporate myself entirely, and become part of the unseen world?

Could I be the one sending you air kisses and caressing your face with unseen hands?

~ Amanda

Varkala beach

Categories: India, Varkala | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The perils of lobster

Mid-week during our time in Chennai, Linda suggested we all head out to the beach.

Just because all we’d been doing til that point was KYM/lunch/dinner in roughly the same geography. That, and some of the group weren’t at all convinced that Chennai even had beaches.

So with something of an agenda in mind, off we went!

Our first stop was the Murugan Temple in Besant Nagar, right on the ocean.

Murugan is one of Lord Ganesha’s brothers (all sons of Shiva). He is not as well known as his elephant-headed brother, and is worshiped in South India more than in the north.

Murugan_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

He’s all about war and victory and yet somehow the way I encountered his energy at the temple left me feeling… cleansed. Freed. As though I’d just taken the best bath of my life.

Unfortunately it was dark by the time we arrived and my camera only does so-so night shots when there’s little to no light. So unfortunately, all I’ve got to offer are these…

Wandering the grounds of the Murugan temple

Wandering the grounds of the Murugan temple

A young bhakta singing his heart out - it was beautiful

A young bhakta singing his heart out – it was ethereal and beautiful

Local beliefs say that if you come to the temple and build a structure, you will soon build your own home

Local beliefs say that if you come to the temple and build a structure, you will soon build your own home

Not sure who these deities are, but I loved this wall carving

Not sure who these deities are, but I loved this wall carving

But it was gorgeous and warming and welcoming.

Oh Murugan! A new favourite for me. :)

Red or white lobster?

Then it was onwards to eat at a somewhat fancy Italian place called Bella Ciao, recommended by one of Linda’s friends.

Fancy it was, almost like a resort in layout. After a few days of intensive studies, everyone seemed to be ready to cut loose a little!

So we ordered some wine. I was surprised to see a South Australian red landing on the table but it was so good we ordered some more, and I enjoyed boasting to my companions about the quality of Aussie vino.

The gang at dinner, with our "lobster"

The gang at dinner, with our “lobster”

The evening was hilarious and the food excellent. But things got even more amusing when we called for the bill.

Ummm, this isn’t our bill, insisted one of our group. We didn’t have any lobster.

With a few quick words from the waiter and a decent enough understanding of the local alcohol laws… it was clear: we’d consumed two red and one white lobster.

Liquid lobster!

Technically, the restaurant couldn’t bill us for our wine. So through the alchemical magic of beachside Chennai, our wine turned into lobster.

Then we noticed the *cough cough* cost of said lobsters!

I hate to admit it, but we’d all grown so blase about the cost of food in India, we didn’t give a second thought to ordering three lobsters! I probably should’ve twigged when I saw and tasted the very nice Australian red…

The upshot is that between us, we didn’t have enough rupees on us to cover the bill.

One of our number – John – came up with a solution: he’d put the whole dinner on his card and we could all donate our rupees to him. Which is why this photo exists… :)

John and all the rupees!

Others in our group then started using this tactic whenever they were short on rupees themselves. We began to call this “winning at Monopoly”.

So just beware y’all… lobster doesn’t always come in crustacean form in India!

~ Amanda

Categories: Chennai, India | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All that there is…

Varkala Beach

There is nothing to do

Or to be done

Everything is always here

Always available

Whenever we let the veils fall

To find the Universe

And indeed, our Selves

Revealed in glory

~ Amanda

Categories: Poetry | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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