Friday, January 23, 2009

Relaxing with Keralan Comrades

I'm sitting outside of a train station in Kerala preparing to leave the peace and serenity of tropical life for the excitement and hassles of India's most modern city - Mumbai. While I'm excited to experience the chaos that I am sure to find in one of Asia's fastest growing cities, I will truly miss the calm and natural beauty of Kerala.
The state of Kerala is remarkable in a number of ways. First, it is unique in that a large area is linked by the "backwaters", which are essentially a system of natural and man-made canals. This may not sound exciting, but India minus buses, cars, pavement, and the ubiquitous honking horns is truly a sight to savor. Instead of dirty, rutted roads, people travel to work and school in canoes over calm waters that are amazingly clean and brimming with fish and waterfowl. Another very notable feature of Kerala is its people; in a country full of friendly, outgoing people, Keralans still managed to surprise me with their kindness. This may be due to the fact that they are generally healthier than their counterparts in other states. Health care is widely available and affordable. (Unfortunately Jess and I found this out first hand when we visited a hospital for a cough that Jess has had for too long. The doctor was efficient and friendly, the visit was free, and the medication cost a whopping $1.50.) Education is also taken very seriously in the state; literacy rates are above 90 percent!
So, you may be wondering why is Kerala so different from the rest of India. The excellent health care, educated population, and lack of .pollution can all be linked to one cause - COMMUNISM!!! Kerala is home to the only democratically elected communist government in the history of the world! Other communist governments have come into power through popular revolution or military take-over, but Keralans elected communist leaders fair and square, and they have no reason to be disappointed. In reality the Keralan government is more socialist than communist since there is a great deal of private property and privately owned businesses, but there is a major emphasis on funding social services and economic justice for the poor. I am not a communist (communism has largely been discredited as a viable economic system since it ignores an important facet of human nature -- self-interest) but it is impossible to deny the benefits that the communists have brought to this beautiful state.
Most of my time here in Kerala has been spent either eating delicious tropical food and/or staring out at breath-taking sunsets, but Jess and I did manage to get out of our comfort zone for and stay at an interesting ashram. An ashram is like a church, but it is more than just a place to go and worship, it is a place where people go to live a more spiritual life. It is also a center for education and humanitarian work, depending on the philosophical beliefs of the particular sect. The ashram that we visited is led by "Amma", a guru who is affectionately known worldwide as the "hugging mother". India is full of ashrams of every kind and variety, so an ashram located on the beach led by a woman who is renown for her hugging sounded like an easy introduction to ashram life. As it turns out, I was very right. The ashram was incredibly welcoming and full of Westerners who were very friendly. We learned a lot about Amma's humanitarian work. Her ashram has given financial assistance to the victims of nearly every natural disaster in the past decade, including a million dollars to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. She also has directed the building of hospitals, schools, orphanages, universities, and homes for impoverished Indians. All that was nice, but the best part was our accommodation; a spotless room overlooking the beach and Arabian Sea! Not only that, but they had a cafe which served expresso and delicious foods such as pesto and gouda cheese pizza! And I though ashram life was about sacrifice and self-denial . . .

Here are my Kerala Pictures - some aren't half bad!

More to come soon from Mumbai

Monday, January 12, 2009

Trying to Stick My Head in the Sand

For the first time in my life I know what it is like to be utterly and totally - comprehensively and blissfully - completely and holistically, relaxed from head to toe. Spending a week in Mamallapuram was the perfect antidote against a common but preventable malady: traveler burn-out. Waking up to the sunrise on a quiet, beautiful beach with absolutely no trains to be caught, no tasks to be completed, and no appointments to be made was exactly what I needed. I'm re-invigorated and ready to hit the road again, not that I'm looking forward to the prospect of city traffic and omnipresent pollution, but (unfortunately) the world isn't all fresh seafood and sunbathing.

One of the attractions of a beach holiday is that it temporarily disconnects you from troubling and seemingly unsolvable global woes. I didn't even see a newspaper for the first five days in Mamallapuram, much less worry about global events over which I have little control. I semi-consciously pushed aside any thoughts about the outside world, which did help to stay relaxed, but my disconnect was only superficial. Our time in Mamallapuram was directly affected by the very global events that I was trying to avoid. Jess and I were able to find a room within 15 minutes of arrival because the fear of terrorism and tension with Pakistan created by the Mumbai attacks of November 26th have reduced the number of tourists by 60 percent this season. Food and accommodation were affordable partly because of the global economic meltdown which has reduced travelers' spending. I have received dozens of hugs, handshakes, and smiles following my (previously cautioned) admission that I am an American for one simple reason: Obama. I share their hopes that this new chapter in contemporary American History will be the beginning of unprecedented global communication and cooperation, but I harbour doubts about any one person's ability to fundamentally change a global system that has entrenched itself with money and power. All of these global issues are being played out right here in a little beach town in the south of India. Any perceived detachment from world events is an illusion; the world really is a small place.

Fortunately Jess and I were able to put these issues to the back of our mind yesterday. We celebrated Jessica's 30th Birthday with a sunrise to moonrise Mamallapuram seafood, yoga, birthday cake, ayurvedic massage filled extravaganza. It was the perfect finale to our eight days in the idyllic village.
In a way it is nice to be getting back on the road, there is still so much of India left to see and we are already forced to reduce our number of destinations. We are traveling south to Tiruchirappalli to spend one full day checking out some old Hindu temples, then west to Kerala to spend three nights of the "backwaters". We will spend Jess' last week in India in the bustling city of Mumbai (Bombay) to get our Chinese travel visas. Then it is back to work for both of us, Jess back to "Where There Be Dragons" (coolest name for an employer EVER!) and I will be joining Sadhana Village as a six-week volunteer.

I finally have some pictures! Get envious of my summer-like (in January) beach holiday by looking at these.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

On a Lighter Note . . .

Since I run the risk of alienating my small group of blog readers with two picture-less posts in a row, I have added some images from Google to spice up this post. My past week has not involved much "sightseeing" so my camera stayed in the bottom of my backpack. Rather than sightseeing I have spent the past week mulching trees, spreading compost, and sleeping in a thatched hut. Jess and I spent five days at Sadhana Forest in Auroville volunteering, although we felt more like guests in a low-rent guest house than full-fledged volunteers.

Before I give my impressions of Sadhana Forest, I should step back and try to describe the "universal community" of Auroville. Founded in 1969 and based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, a British educated Hindu guru, Auroville is an attempt to build a spiritual and universal community from the ground up - a very admirable goal born out of the 1960's counterculture movement. The community's mission is:

"To be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."

This is a lofty mission and, with the risk of being called cynical, I have to label as a naive. There is also a new age-y feeling to which I have a difficult time relating. A prime example is the shown in the adjacent photo. This is the "Matrimandir" - a space age structure that is the "soul of Auroville". This over sized golden golfball holds the world's largest crystal which is used to facilitate meditation. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. Despite my pessimism, I respect the work that is taking place in Auroville. The community is full of alternative schools, artists’ enclaves, environmental programs and alternative energy projects. My only reservations are based on my limited observations of the "Aurovillians" and their relationship to the local people who inhabit the villages surrounding Auroville. True to its mission, Auroville is home to people from over thirty nations. This makes for an interesting intercultural mix, but it is not as diverse as one might assume. Due to its spiritual roots, the community's inhabitants are all very like-minded. There is no problem with that, but the structure of Auroville also results in a community that is socio-economically homogeneous; becoming an Aurovillian requires money, more money than I or many Indians are able to obtain. I am not aware of the financial details involved in becoming an Aurovillian, so I don't want to defame it with a label of "classist" or "economic discrimination", but not just anyone can show up at the town hall and become a member for a variety of reasons. Over half of the community is of European descent, giving it a flavor that is different than anywhere else in India. Not that you don't see many Indians in Auroville, the town hires over 5,000 villagers a year as staff and contract labor. It just doesn't sit well with me, call it white guilt or the residue of colonialism, but after a week it still looked like economic exploitation. I hope I'm wrong, but no one convinced me otherwise.

Sadhana Forest is one of Auroville's newer environmental projects which aims to reforest a badly degraded tract of land. The project began in 2003 and has already made a huge impact on the landscape; once desolate land is now green with foliage and the water table has risen an astounding 6 meters. The knowledge of this success gave Jess and I high expectations for our proposed 2 week stay, but unfortunately the reality wasn't as grand as we had hoped. Unlike most WWOOFing farms, Sadhana Forest charges guests 150 Rupees ($3) a day to cover food. Fair enough, no one wants to be a financial drain on a philanthropic organization. The facilities, which utilize alternative energy sources and environmentally sustainable features, are very interesting. All the electricity is generated through photovoltaic panels, no waste water is wasted, food waste is used as compost, and human excrement is used as fertilizer. Yes, human poo on the garden, which means no toilet. Honestly I didn't mind the composting system, when used properly (keeping urine and feces separate and using sawdust to absorb any excess moisture and odor) it is not as unpleasant as it may seem. The best part of the entire experience was the work. We spent the early morning, before the southern sun heats things up, mulching trees and planting vegetables in the garden. The work was not too strenuous and it was very rewarding.

Unfortunately, the rest of our experience was not so positive. The project is quite large by most standards with over 50 volunteers currently living, working, and eating at the site. I found this troubling for two reasons. First, it makes the entire experience rather impersonal. We never got a chance to meet many people and many interactions were anonymous and detached. This is not what I expected at an organic farm/reforestation project. Second, I am not convinced that the facilities are ready to handle so many people. Illness seemed to be quite common (although we were reassured that this issue was being dealt with) and space was a little tight. All in all, Jess and I didn't feel comfortable and decided to leave early.

Our disappointment was very short lived as we hopped on a bus and arrived in one of India's most beautiful beach side communities - Mamalapurim. The beach is long and clean and there are more cheap seafood restaurants than you can shake a prawn at - but the best part is our room overlooking the beach with a constant sea breeze and veranda. How much will this gluttonous luxury set us back? Less than $10 a day (meals and all) for the both of us. God bless India.

Happy New Year and I promise to have pictures next time!