Birch is taller than I am! Here he is at the top of a small mountain with Pushkar, Rajastan, far below.   Today I am grateful for $2 all-he-can-eat buffets...
 
_     A good friend has asked whether I love India  - I have great memories of when I first came here (1984) - at that time, I vowed to come back for 6 months to see all the places I never got to.  Our guide had organized everything through his company Canadian Himalayan Adventures - we stayed . . .
 
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_Today we went to Amber Fort which is 12km north of Jaipur.  The weather in Jaipur is brisk -- dry and chilly when you are in the shade and very warm when you are in the sun.  This brisk morning we were on a bus heading to Amber Fort.  When we got there the first thing that caught my attention were around twenty monkeys grabbing food from each other, chasing each other around and jumping through crowds of pigeons causing them to scatter in a cloud.  When we got inside the gates to the Fort there was a long walkway over a moat that led to a huge stronghold overlooking the valley.  Following us were a whole bunch of vendors and hawkers who were yelling prices at us and telling us to buy their stuff.  Being seasoned travellers of India by now we knew to . . .

Seva

1/6/2012

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_ All guests and devotees of the ashram are expected to do a minimum of 2 hours of seva or volunteer work while visiting or staying for extended periods.  Seva in Amma's words is "selfless service".  During our week long stay at the ashram, I did quite a variety of 2 hour services for the community.  It is very organized which is necessary because we are told there are about 5,000 permanent residents or renounciates as they are called.  This number can almost double with visitors during busy times of the year.  Providing and running such a large community requires a very efficient system of organizing and scheduling. 
     The next morning after arriving we all go to the "Seva" desk.  Here a person gives you a list of various jobs that are needed to be filled for the days ahead which are accessed through the ashrams computer network.   As guests we can then choose which jobs we arinterested in and are capable of doing.  Most jobs are menial, grunt jobs that are necessary to keep the ashram functioning.  For example . . .


 
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_We have spent an enjoyable three days at Green Palm Homes and now we are travelling south again to a tiny fishing village along the coast of the Backwaters where a modern day guru has estabilshed an ashram with a huge following.  A few weeks earlier, while we were in Auroville, Carolyn met a woman who asked if we knew "Amma" the hugging Guru.  We had never heard about her and the woman said Amma had changed her life and if we had the opportunity we should go and visit her ashram in Kerala.  We discovered that we were not far from the ashram and a daily boat plys the waters of the region which stops at the Ashram, so we . . .

 
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This is a view of the rice fields from our cottage during our stay at Green Palm Homes
    We arrived at Green Palms Homestay on New Year's Eve.  It had been quite a journey to get here which seems to be the case when travelling by bus in India.  We arrived in Allepey which is the gateway town to the backwaters of Kerala.  Upon arriving we walked from the bus station about a kilometer to a boat ferry stop that would take us to the homestay.  This was very exciting!  We hopped on the ferry and rode for about one hour along the waterways.    Riding along in the ferry was a real treat even after being on a bus for four hours, as the air is clean and the waters were tranquil. When we were dropped off, we walked along . . .

 
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_2012! We hung out at Green Palms, for most of the day, then in the afternoon we took a walk along the rice fields, with Thomas, our guide telling us all about them. One rice crop takes about four months to grow, so they usually have two crops, and during monsoon season the farmers let their fields lie fallow. Our guide also told us how essential the coconut palm is to the community. The roots keep the dikes from sinking into the sea, and the leaves are used to thatch the roofs. The hair on the outside of the coconut has many uses as well, from being woven into mats to being used as primitive toothbrushes! The shells are used to burn, because they burn slowly and hot, and catch fire very easily. They sell the meat or use it in their dishes. Thomas says that the farmers could not farm if not for the coconut!
Birch


 
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_    Today we got up early because it was a travel day.  During travel days we also have a fast day because the public toilets are either non-existent or disgusting dirty holes in the ground that might have feces in unwanted places (use your imaginations!!!).  Off we go on empty stomachs.  We leave our guest house by 8:00am and take the public transit bus to the city bus station.  We get on the bus with our huge packs and stand in the back.  We bump along for about an hour heading towards the Trivandrum city bus station and everything seems quite normal, the usual cars honking and the bus weaving through erratic traffic.  At one point a small section of the road is flooded, nothing major just ankle deep for a small stretch of road.  The bus keeps on going and as we enter the city of Trivandrum we hit some major traffic and come to a standstill.  The bus slowly crawls along and then . . .

 
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Dad and I taking a closer look at the Gandhi Statue
__     We finally made the difficult decision to leave Auroville and travel to a city further south called Madurai.  Auroville served a valuable purpose in that it allowed us to recharge from our experience with "Teacher Ali" in Mamallapuram (see previous blog entry) and enjoy Christmas while away from home.  We hopped on a state bus and arrived in Madurai eight bumpy hours later.    
     The first thing we did was head to the massive Sri Meenakshi Temple in the centre of city.  The Temple has four huge towers at four main entrances.  We entered through the east entrance.  We had to take off our shoes and go through a security check.  It was a strange protocol.  It was cool knowing that we were walking in one of the biggest temples in India.  I liked the painted murals of lotus flowers on the ceiling.  Each lotus painting was completely different and there were at least a hundred painted along the ceilings of the corridors.  A bunch of young guys kept saying "Hi!" to me and wanted to shake my hand (just because I am white, I think).  After that we . . .


 
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  We had a very special Christmas in Auroville.  Birch and Allegra decided to decorate our room to give it a Christmas feel.  They found a large palm leaf that fanned out in all directions and Birch made a base by duct-taping three pieces of bamboo together to form a tripod, then inserted the palm leaf in the centre, Ta Da, we had a Christmas Tree! Then they decorated it by making snowflakes out of paper, stringing a banana leaf chain around the tree and hanging our headlamps (four in all) covered in multi-coloured plastic bags.  When the headlamps were turned on, our tree was lit up in shades of pink, blue and green.  We wrapped our presents in banana leaves and placed them under the tree.  It was wonderful! Birch and Allegra were very proud of their Indian Christmas tree and we all excitedly went to bed.
     Early the next morning . . .

More pictures to come -- we presently have a slow connection