Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Varkala gets an A+!

I'm going to say it: I didn't like Kovalam. From the sketchy dudes lining the walkways to the garbage filled lots separating hotels, the place just rubbed me the wrong way. I had some amusing experiences (my landlady asking to borrow my shampoo, for instance, and then asking to "borrow" 5000 rupees (about $100) to fix the faulty shower in my room), and some lovely moments (with my new yoga friends!), and some memorable moments (the three hour rickshaw ride, for instance), but mostly I just felt like the place was off. It's a manufactured seaside town and there's little goodwill for or from the tourists. I don't blame the merchants - they're just trying to make a buck, and they don't have much time to do it in. But walking around I felt anxious and unsafe.

Varkala, on the other hand, is super! I came here on the bus with three yoga friends. This was my first "backpacking" experience so far - as in, I left one place for another with my backpack as my main piece of luggage. I sent home a suitcase full of clothes, yoga gear, and souvenirs last week, but, apparently, I did not send enough:
Said  suitcase. 
My first India Post experience, in Trivandrum, was probably quite typical: two hours in a room with meaningless signs, multiple clerks, and no clear information. If the Russian girls and their Indian friend hadn't been there to help me, I probably would have just given everything away. Okay, no, I would have just been more frustrated.
The empty luggage, about to go to a new home. 

All my stuff is in that box.  The lady taping it is the new owner of the  empty suitcase!
I can already hear the head shaking and tsk tsking of all you efficient packers who don't bring along three months worth of tampons or five different pairs of yoga tights just in case. But you know what? I've made peace with my shitty packing strategies. I'm not a practical person - I have a hard time navigating this world - and I mean this literally. You might think, what is she talking about? She seems fine. Yes? (Or maybe, no. Then you've been paying attention!). If you're in the first camp, I have this to tell you: I've been copying you. That's why I cross the street at appropriate times, push doors open instead of pulling them with all my might, and refrain from petting the kittens with all the fleas. But now that I'm on my own, I can't fake it any more. This morning, for instance (on my way to the post office for the second time to send more stuff home), the rickshaw driver had to help me open the door to the ATM, the tailor who packed up my belongings rubbed my forehead for me (with not super clean hands) when I thwacked my head on the fan (his gesture was kind but really unnecessary), and the post office clerk had to point multiple times for me to understand where the stamp glue was actually located. I'm not saying I'm stupid. It's just that if I were to design this world, it would look a lot different. There would be more stained glass, for instance, and probably a dearth of doors. And lots and lots of typewriters. And art. But whatever. There are good reasons I'm not an engineer (for the record, I was pretty good in math at school.)

Also, my packing strategy is ruled by a "what if" philosophy. For instance, what if I am driving from Mysore to a temple three hours away and my contacts start to bother me? Easy, bring along a pair of glasses just in case! And what if on said temple trip I get into an accident and my glasses are brutally crushed? Ha! No problem, I have an extra pair in my apartment back in Mysore. See? Disaster thwarted. That's why I have two pairs of prescription glasses, one pair of prescription sunglasses, one pair of cool non prescription sunglasses, and one pair of backup functional but not cool non-prescription sunglasses with me. And 90 pairs of disposable single use contact lenses. I take my eyesight very seriously. And I sent none of these home. Safety first!

My second package home consisted of some spices, clothes I really didn't need (hello bucket washing!), and a book. Nothing that crazy, but enough that I can now carry my backpack. My yoga friends really helped me out on that first leg from Kovalam to Varkala - I pretty much would have been stranded without them! Or paying through the teeth for a taxi. 

But back to charming Varkala. First, I can't say enough about their post office - fast, efficient, friendly. I'm not kidding. Thank you India Post Varkala!

Photographer writing details on the back of his photographs for me. Super cool.

Beach nearing sunset.

Varkala at night.

Varkala is much more chilled out (I'm watching a couple hippies as I write this!). People practice yoga on the beach in the morning (I practiced yoga on the beach this morning! And won't do it again - sand gets all over. I'm fully exfoliated now), the merchants yell at you way less, and everyone looks happy to just hang out. Except for me. I've been finishing edits on the book (yes, finishing them. They are finished), desperately searching for internet connections. I have an internet USB key, bought with the help of my Kovalam landlord's son, but it has mysteriously run out of money - I had enough to last me another two weeks of regular internet usage. Oh well, it's India.

But now, for the next 5 hours before I need to pack and get ready to head to Kollum in the morning, I am going to be super relaxed. Starting...now.

Here, more pictures:

Beach by day. Varkala is perched on cliffs. You have to walk down stairs to reach the beach. 

That's my towel., blocking the sign. You can see the ocean from my room. And that's my laundry.

More beach. 

This place has good chai and internet. 

My second storey hammock, the most dangerous hammock in the world. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

In search of Coconut Bay...

My Slovenian friends M and R suggested last week that we make a day of Coconut Bay - a glorious beach just a hop and a skip over the Muslim town and fishing village. The weather thwarted us three times - heavy rain brought mud, and then, twice, we were too late getting started and stayed home to avoid the heat. A couple days ago we made the trek, even though we started after a leisurely breakfast of puttu at Hotel California and left around noon.
Entering the Muslim Village. Observe the goats on the roof.
We walked out of familiar Kovalam to the cliffs of the Muslim village.
We covered up and started sweating.
The village is a world away from the developed tourist trap that Kovalam, dear Kovalam, has become. In fact, the village is rather stark:

We came upon three mosques:

A couple houses in the village.

Okay, not a mosque, but it captures the feel of the place.

I have to say, not the cheeriest of places. 
This man was frying dough in oil  - he sells the salty snacks in bags.

Besides several vendors and a few children peeping out of doorways, the village seemed deserted. Even though they were setting up for what would be a four day festival (which we heard loud and clear back in Kovalam) the place didn't seem very, well, festive.

Electrical set up for the coming festival. It was very loud. 
Next was a more nautical part of town.
These men were playing a card game. Silly hats were involved. My kind of game. 

Boats. They are waiting for fresh coats of paint.

Some boys were playing with a toy they'd made out of a milk carton and cans.

After the Muslim village we came to a Christian village and fish market. 

A cemetery in front of the church.
I would not advise you purchase these fish.

"Gangnam Style" was blasting from this shop. 
I've been to fish and meat markets before - in India and in Greece (in Thessaloniki in July, in the middle of a 40 degree afternoon) - and I have never smelled anything like what this market had to offer: millennia of flesh rotting in the searing heat. The fishmongers, immune to the smell I imagine, did not try to sell us any of their clouded eyed stock. We rushed through quickly, holding our breath.

We walked to the main church in town, planning to grab a rickshaw from the top and head to the beach. 

My photos don't capture it well, but this village was much livelier than the Muslim village. A group of youths followed us through the winding street children ran after us. Women sat in the open, talking with each other, drying their children's laundry on the ground. 

At the church, a rickshaw driver said it wasn't possible to drive to Coconut Bay because of a nationwide strike protesting fuel prices - rocks were being thrown and a man from the village had died in Trivandrum the previous day and his body would be arriving at the church shortly. We walked back to the base of the village but none of us wanted to go through the fish market again. It was safe enough to drive to Kovalam so we caught two rickshaws and drove back. 

I haven't seen as much poverty on this trip as I did three years ago - fewer beggars, no obvious slums. But these villages, I think, are places where dreams do not come true. Perhaps some of the villagers escape to jobs in tourism - they become mango sellers on the beach, or they hawk shawls, or they clean rooms. Or perhaps not. The caste system here is intricate and, to me, unknowable. These people's poverty seemed raw. It's something that I, in all my privilege, only brush up against, only walk through, glance at, photograph, and leave behind. Later I feel rattled and guilty, but mostly I feel relieved, and then I feel terrible. 

We never made it to elusive Coconut Bay. Maybe next time. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On going solo.

No one I meet here thinks I'm married. Whenever I mention C, which is often, the other party always stops and says, "Oh, you're married?" and then surveys me, searching for signs, I guess, that I'm not single. I left my engagement ring at home (that diamond hails from Delhi and already went on a 5 week tour of India stuffed in C's luggage) but I wear my wedding band on my left hand. Either people don't notice it or they think it's fake?
See? Married. 

I've been missing C since I arrived. It hit me three days after arriving in Mysore. My jet lag had faded and I was settling in: I'd found the shala, gone on an adventure to the market, bought a sketchy power surge bar and then replaced it with a better model. I had moved the kitchen table into my bedroom and set up my writing den (with permission from my housemates, I should add). It happened when I was walking home from the coconut stand; I started to cry: I was alone in a foreign country and I would continue to be alone for three more months. Of course, I wasn't alone - I was living with my teachers, I made friends. But half my heart was/is on the other side of the world.

This hollow feeling persists, but I've managed to distract myself. First, practicing in Mysore really shook me up - I've written in prior posts about the physical pain and the emotional exhaustion that I experienced (and it was pretty cool, too!). And, oh, I was working on a manuscript. Revising/rewriting stories with a serious deadline approaching forced me to focus. Feeling lonely? Write! Feeling bored? WRITE! Wanting to hop on a plane and leave? WRITE goddamnit!
Self portrait in locking cabinet mirror illustrating how alone I am.

And now? I sent my revisions off five days ago and, while I have some more work to do, none of it will be the wrenching ohmygodthisstoryisnotworkingandthereforeIwilldie kind. After 6 weeks away from my love, I want to hop on a plane and go home.

Missing someone like this is really weird for me for a number of reasons: I'm an only child and have, therefore, spent a lot of time by myself. Also, I'm a bit of a loner. I like people, but the introvert in me needs lots of quiet me time. Shhhhh. See? And, I've lived alone and traveled alone, for extended periods of time, before. What the hell? I guess all this changes when you fall in love. Also, the last time I spent this much time alone, I was a single 26 year old finishing an MA and living in Montreal. Now I'm getting to know myself, alone, again, one of the points of going on this trip.

I'm not a complete mess, though. I've been going to the beach, hanging out with new yoga friends, practicing of course, and planning the next leg of my journey. I have also been taking some pictures of Kovalam. For instance:

I'm no electrician, but this set up doesn't inspire confidence.

Yogis don't eat eggs (okay, I do sometimes back home, but they're from my parents' chickens, who have a nicer life than me). It's about 35 in the shade in this picture. Yum.

I think the arrow is pointing the wrong way.

A hotel theme!


This is the sidewalk.
So the adventure continues. Soon I will move on to the travel portion of my trip and Thailand. The real journey, though, is the internal one, how I react to being alone in this crazy place. I'm not going home yet!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Kovalam so far...

Last year, when I spent a week at the Banff Centre, I had a mini breakdown the one time I went into town. Just a short walk through some pines, I was on main street with the civilians: tourists, there to shop, eat, drink, look at mountains, perhaps hike up one or two. I quickly bought some fruit and ran back up to the centre, the artistic oasis where I could talk to other writers about writing and be as sensitive as I damn well pleased (I am pretty sensitive, FYI).

Kovalam is a beach town, and it's touristy. People come here to eat, drink, tan, etc. None of these activities is strange or scandalous, but after a month in Mysore, surrounded by yogis, I initially found the stimulation kind of jarring.

Lighthouse beach, from the lighthouse.
Also, have I mentioned I don't transition well? I've always thought I was an intrepid traveler but then, on our first trip to India, I noticed C. scheduling downtown every time we moved somewhere knew. Invariably, I would complain about feeling unwell - I wasn't sick, really, I just felt bleh. An Ayurvedic doctor in Mysore confirmed that my dosha is Vata dominant (then Pita). I love to move and travel (like the wind!), but then I am thrown off balance. Dr. Kumar said I need to avoid all stress (!), get lots of sleep, and stay in one place. Right!

Near the Sivananda Ashram. This lake has crocodiles in it. How's that for no stress!
So Kovalam has been an adjustment, but I feel much more settled now. 
I've been practicing with David Garrigues every morning - the practice is good, and the other students are super. I have pretty much finished work on the book, and I just entered the second half of my trip. 

And, inevitably, at week 6, India has started to irk me. For instance, at the supermarket, where three people are required at the checkout (person #1 tallies my total, person #2 hands me my bag, and person #3 takes my money. Why? WHY?!!?). And the nightly power outage. And the bloody insects (5 cockroach sightings in the kitchen (and this place is quite clean, really). Eventually, you stop caring). And the drum sellers on the beach (FYI - demonstrating the product, over and over again, and again, does not make me want to buy it!). And the autorickshaw drivers who say yes, definitely, I know where you want to go, and then take you on a 3 hour wild ride because they have no clue but, oh, can you pay more money because it's taking more time? The only thing to do is breathe, remain calm, realize it's not going to make sense, and go with it. That's not easy for me - I want to be in control. And I might have had some words with that rickshaw driver, especially after he said, "Quiet, woman," several times. What's that now?  

So, onward, I go, trying to be flexible. I struggle with flexibility in my practice, too. Hmmm. Coincidence? 
Anyway, here's a photo of me and a wonderful meal at the Sivananda Ashram - a few of us visited there today. We walked around the peaceful grounds, peaked into the temple, listened to some chanting, and were fed a gorgeous lunch. I felt very grateful, and still do:
Oh, India, crazy, beautiful India. 
Two more weeks...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Hello Kerala

I arrived in Kovalam Wednesday. I booked a homestay place for two nights with the intention of looking around for another place. The homestay was okay - it seemed clean, I had reliable internet, and there was a lock on the gate. But it came with a "host" - J, a needy man with a speech impediment (hey, I've got one too, it's okay) who would bark "OK OK OK OK" every time I asked a question, or even spoke (this was not the speech impediment at work; J might have some communication issues). He had planned my entire three weeks in Kerala for me (remember, I had booked only two nights) - elephant rides, shopping in Trivandrum, tours to other towns. I said, I'm here to focus on yoga and writing and he barked, "OK OK OK OK OK." It turned out I could only stay two nights at his place (named Gokulam House, oddly enough), anyway. I moved to another guest house just across the lane. It was nice, and it came with a little white pomeranian (!) but I had already looked into other accommodation. Walking around I had found an okay priced apartment overlooking the ocean. Amazing!

View from apartment. Not bad, huh?
Oh, except this isn't quite the view from the apartment. This is the view from the roof on which the apartment sits.
That is the box in which I would live.
But for a self-contained apartment with kitchen, the price was right. And it was private enough.
It's kind of nice, right?

Then, last night, sitting out on house #2's porch, I heard a thumping bass coming from the beach. Fearing the worst, I went to investigate and found that, indeed, the noise was coming from the restaurant 4 stories below my soon to be apartment. I climbed up and found that the ocean actually droned out other sounds, so I felt better and decided to move as planned (I had already given a 20$, or 1000 rupee, deposit).

So this morning I leave house #2 and arrive at the apartment on the roof. I leave my bags and head for breakfast. Halfway through my dosa, I almost choke: it dawns on me that the roof and the balcony are so close together any idiot could easily step onto my balcony. And, the door separating my balcony from my apartment is held closed by a couple latches. I pay and run back. 

See? I can climb this. Even GIGI CAN CLIMB THIS.
And then I really look at the apartment: there are no bars on the windows, the lights are weak, the water pressure is almost non-existent. Safety concerns aside, this isn't a place I can stay in for more than, say, a night. Forget three weeks. And, are the guys downstairs, the ones who work at the place, kind of creepy? Maybe a little creepy? Maybe.

So, back to house #2 for me. It might not have a view of the Arabian sea, but it does have this little guy:
Meet Ruby, the white pom. 
And it has a kitchen...
Not bad!

and a lovely table where I can write...
and a desk in my room (no pictures of my room, my stuff is everywhere!). 

The owner's son, a young man studying commerce at university, took me for groceries, an internet USB, and fruit on his motorcycle. And, the owner lowered the rent. 

So, it looks like I'm all settled in Kovalam. Hopefully. Fingers crossed. Knock forcefully on wood.