Published: January 22nd 2007January 17th 2007
I wrote my last entry in a little 'net place on Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam. Kovalam's a very touristy town hugging the Keralan coastline, lined with shops selling souvenirs for the multitudinous hordes of western and richer north Indian tourists and restaurants which all boast to sell the finest fresh-caught seafood.
The three of us (Racheal (our housemate from last year), Jenny arrived in Kovalam after an 8 hour bus-ride down from the hills, tired, hot and sweaty. Finding cheap places to stay has proven a little more difficult in the last month since we joined Rachael - I'm not certain whether it's because we've visited more expensive tourist destinations or because Rachael has higher standards of accomodation that we have. Either way, we've had to settle for paying an average of £2.50 a night each for accomodation. We shared a room between the three of us in Kovalam for the average amount, with a nice view of the tiny bay beside the lighthouse, nicely framed with tall palms.
At night in Kovalam, beyond the deserted beach, scores of fishing boats crawl the coast, their lights shining out and creating the illusion of islands a mile or two out. The beachfront, mostly paved with polished flagstones and tiles, is lined with all the well-lit tourist shops offering fake designer handbags, traveller togs and western beachwear, Tibetan handicrafts and luminous Goa-trance style painted T-shirt shops. Jen was particularly fond of these and had an image of a mischeivous pixie/goblin thingy leapfrogging a toadstool painted to order. The restaurants bring out their market-bought fish and lay them at the front of the restaurant, showing off their 3-feet long kingfish, their lobsters, tiger prawns and calamari. The goan fish curries are excellent - mild and creamy, with plenty of cinnamon and coconut. One night, I treated myself to a whole tandoori tuna, with chips and salad for £3. Delish!
The beaches in Kovalam are pretty crowded with tourists by day. Hawkers ply their trade, selling "genuine Kashmiri silk" shawls and tacky trinkets for high prices. The fruit women, well-wrapped in long-saris (stark contrast to the travellers)ing now. Helps to have Rachael around, who's lived in Asia for a significant proportion of her life, and has a good idea of the worth of things. I reckon all this haggling over prices with merchants and tuk-tuk drivers in Asia has hugely improved my assertiveness.
Kollam served as a stopping point before the first leg of our journey along the Keralan backwaters. There wasn't much to see, but we visited the local shopping centre to kill some time. We also had a TV with English-language movie channels so watched a cheap grail-hunting-frenzy-spinoff movie, munching on our packets of dry cornflakes as we did (comfort food!).
Took a spill climbing onto the boat at Kollam. My parents, who've been on one of the more upmarket boats on the backwaters, probably saw a few of the double-decked tourist boats chugging along past. Anyway, I was walking up to the baot and suddenly the ground was no longer there, and the next thing I knew, I was feeling like a total eejit with my leg in icky water halfway up my shin. Got a couple of grazes on the shin, but I got wedged between the boat and the dock, so I didn't go in and was otherwise unharmed. Promptly disinfected and dressed the wound (that liquid skin stuff someone gave me before I left works a treat).
The backwaters are relaxed and pretty, a placid maze of waterways lined with palms and villages, with the occasional tourist hotel or restaurant thrown in. The morning was spent in a cooling breeze reading my book or looking out at the scenery as we glided slowly past.
We departed from the tourist boat in the early afternoon to stop at the Amritapuri Ashram. This place grew up around one woman, popularly known in the Ashram as Amma, with particularly powerful spiritual devotion and visions. I might add (rather untactfully) that India puts out a lot of these people, which it why there are quite a few Ashrams to be found here. Anyway, Amma's visions and ideas stand out a lot from so many of these other spiritual leaders. If I had to liken her to a historically recognised figure, I wouldn't be unjustified in likening her to Jesus, in terms of her message. She's obtained significant international recognition for her achievements in the field of world peace.
All this, I guess, is to justify my visit here. I guess I'm not a very spiritual person, so I need a reason other that spirituality to get excited about something here. Amma's a pretty amazing person. The big thing here, anyway, is that Amma makes a point of hugging everyone who turns up for a hug. I think she broke the record for the amount of people hugged in a lifetime a long time ago - she's way up in the millions now.
So, naturally, many people decided that it would be a great thing to follow her example of getting up, going out and actively spreading her message of universal love, inspiring millions more, by errrrmmm... sitting around in an ashram. There are about 3,000 peramanent residents there - they live in high-rise tower blocks (which you don't really expect in a lace like that). The atmosphere is great. Everyone's really peaceful and friendly. Everyone puts in their bit of work, too. You're encouraged to do seva ("selfless service") to help out and I decided it was worth a go. An honest day's work seemed quite appealing, actually, so I signed up at the office and got a job serving breakfast in the western-food canteen, dishing out milk and curd.
We spent a full day at the ashram, and in the evening, we lined up with a cople of hundred of other people for a hug. It was definitely a unique experience, though I felt a bit herded around when I was pulled down to my knees, thrust into her arms and pulled up when it was over. You can't really organise a mass-hugging any other way without coming into difficulties, I expect, and Jen certainly found it to be an amazing experience, but I found myself to be overanalysing things as usual, so I got too distracted, I guess.
My time at the Ashram was definitely an interesting one, but I don't think I'm likely to get too caught up in a place like that. Nice to visit, thogh, and I'd recommend it to anyone passing by.