Canoe rides and hugs

February 1, 2010

Greetings from Kerala! This is the only state in Kerala dominated by the Communist party, but more in the socio-economic sense rather than imposing in a religious/oppressive political party sense (if that makes sense)!

I managed to take multiple forms of public transportation these past few days. To get tp and from the airport, I took the train and bus rather than cabs—and probably saved about 500 rupees. The public ferry system is lovely (yes, I will start using adjectives such as this now having hung out with Brits for a couple days). Best part of public trans are the random positive interactions with people. Today Deepali and I were on a local bus with our packs on, each shamefully taking up 2 seats. Then an older woman came on, and although there were still open seats in the back, she plopped down right next to me and nudged her way in. It was so great! We looked at each other and laughed, then proceeded to ride comfortably squished for the next 15 minutes. She didn’t even move when the seats right next to us cleared out.

First stop from Trivandrum, after Deepali arrived from her 40 hour (!!) train ride at 3am, was Kollam. Here we lucked out with a superb little guesthouse in the sand, maybe 20 meters from the ocean. A wonderfully quiet and beautiful respite from the non-existent sidewalks on the incredibly crowded and polluted roads of the Indian cities I’d be staying in.

We had booked a canoe tour of Ashtamudi Lake and around Monroe island, which lasted about 3 hours and was made even better with the good company of 3 Brits and an Aussie. The ride was so beautiful and relaxing, slowly weaving down just one part of what I think is part of Kerala’s backwaters.

Our very nice canoe driver always warned us when we needed to dug under multiple concrete obstacles; showed us nutmeg, black pepper and cashew trees; took us to see how they made wooden boats (from the jackfruit tree family) and the string that primarily held them together (made from coconut fibers); pointed out a gorgeous Kingfisher bird after which the most popular Indian beer is named.

One of the Brits tried the local beatlenut, which you chew in a paan leaf, and apparently has the effect of coca—I have a wicked (there’s those crazy adjectives again!!) photo of him with a bright orange mouth and teeth full of what looks like tobacco chew. Best of all, another guy shimmied up a tree and picked everyone fresh green coconuts full of delicious juice. Yum. Oh, another funny thing was that they somehow had a loudspeaker system set up in various trees, so we beautiful tropical sounds were frequently, shall we say, “supplemented” by pretty Hindi music and the occasional mantra song.

The next day we took a 3 hour ferry north to Amritapuri, the home of Amma and the Mata Amritanandamayi Devi ashram. This is actually an amazing place. Amma is famous throughout India and all over the world for being the “hugging mother”: her mission is to provide unconditional love and compassion to every human being on this earth, reagrdless of ethnicity, class, religion, whatever, and she does this by giving hugs. Amma has hugged over 2 million people, and we are told that her longest hug session was a whopping 27 hours (no pee breaks or anything!!).

Amma also does continual humanitarian work as well. She rebuilt some 500,000 homes after the Tsunami. These past few years she has started to address the problem of farmer suicides in India that happened by the thousands (big props to Monsanto and ConAgra). Her philosophy here is that purely economic focused solutions won’t work—you need social and psychological interventions to really show them that there are other ways out. As part of her plan, she gave many scholarships to the children of affected farmers and continues to press for ways that humans can be more compassionate towards each other. From what I know, I have much respect for this woman.

Deepali and I were quite lucky to catch her on a day that she was giving Darshan, and before her 2 month national and international tour that starts next week. This was a “light” day for hugging; only tokens 1-1800 were given. And as international visitors, Amma likes to hug us last–so we waited until 10:30pm to received our hug.

When my turn to get a hug came, I wasn’t sure how it’d go, or smell given the ~1500 people that laid their sweaty heads on her cheast prior to myself. But she actually smelled of cloves and burgamot oil, and I received a very warm and strong hug that left me with a racing heart and a whispered blessing (plus a banana!). I guess all that waiting and watching her giving hugs on a big movie screen for some hours led to quite the adrenaline rush…or maybe it was the shared energy…

I then sat in the group of people around her, actually one row away from her seat, next to other people obviously in awe, some crying. Really interesting people to observe there, for lack of better words.

I must add that the ashram itself is an incredible system—it has grown into something like a large village/small town (e.g. they have a general store, a bank, 16 story accommodation buildings…). They feed 250,000 people per month, it’s administration and other labor duties are performed completely by volunteers from all over the world (some have been there for over 20 years!). And they never, ever turn anyone away if they are in need of a place to stay. It’s also unique in that they are very flexible—although the Ashram has a set daily schedule, residents and visitors are never required to participate. I decided to skip the 5am Archaya, but did opt into the 6:30am beachfront meditation session.

Well, that’s more than enough for now. I’ll try to upload more pictures and break up all this text in the future, but have yet to find another computer since Chennai that will let me transfer many pics at a time and internet is kinda slow.

‘Til soon!

2 Responses to “Canoe rides and hugs”

  1. Margaret Woodside Says:

    Hilary, this is so interesting. My friend, Ken Page, is a supporter in a financial way of Anna’s work. I am going to forward this to him. I have heard so much about her. I’m thrilled to read about her, especially from you.

  2. Kate R Says:

    Hil- I so love reading your blog. I came back to this one as there was a news piece on Amma over the weekend talking about her tour…I am so glad you and Deepali connected for part of the journey. I’m a jealous lady sitting back in 2+ feet of snow here in DC!

    hugs and kisses ~k

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