In the heat of Kerala

We are currently in the South of India, Varkala (Kerala) to be precise.

So it’s HOT. And sunny and very chilled out.

Kerala is supposed to be the most progressive state in India. So progressive in fact that men wear white miniskirts…

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Men in skirts

It’s actually called a Lungi and is a sarong worn by men and women in hot climates… climates which are not suited for trousers and jeans!

As mentioned in my previous post, during my time in Delhi I worked on a photo essay on street children of the metropolis. To my delight, it was published in the online magazine “Our World”. You can find it by clicking here. 

Although very rewarding, working with street children and in the slums of Delhi was an emotionally and physically testing experience. So our next stop in more quiet and serene Darjeeling was very much appreciated.

Perched high up in the mountains, at the Eastern edge of the Himalayas and near Sikkim and Nepal, Darjeeling is a stunning city. Not as quiet and quaint as in the past, but definitely worth a detour.

Darjeeling is perched up high in the mountains with a lovely view of the Himalayas on a clear day
Darjeeling is perched up high in the mountains with a lovely view of the Himalayas on a clear day

Whilst there, we hopped on the “Toy Train” which was quite hilarious. A slow and gentle 3 hour ride that took us exploring some of the surroundings. A bit of a prep for a rail mission which lay ahead (more on that later…).

Toy train in Darjeeling
Toy train in Darjeeling

What has been quite shocking in India so far is the garbage situation. It seems that the basic facilities which we take for granted, such as organised refuse collection, are limited here. So a lot of household rubbish gets thrown away either on the street or in a designated space within the city. The train ride was quite majestic, but everywhere you turned, the hills were covered in bottles, papers, tires and whatever else one could think of.

But of course, there was much more to see than just garbage…

On the "Toy Train"
On the “Toy Train”
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With the city in the background.
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A speciality of the North, the delicious “momo”
Darjeeling felt a bit mysterious and full of history.
Darjeeling felt a bit mysterious and full of history.

Not far from Darjeeling, but still a very long and bumpy car ride away, we found the blissful Karmi Farm – a lovely blend of home-stay and B&B run by an Indian/British family. We couldn’t have found better hosts and a lovelier setting. A true rest was in order and that is exactly what we got.

The farm is ideally located, overlooking Sikkim to the right and Nepal to the left.
The farm is ideally located, overlooking Sikkim to the right and Nepal to the left.
A warm home with warm hosts.
A warm home with warm hosts.
Incredible views of Sikkim, Nepal  and Darjeeling
Incredible views of Sikkim, Nepal and Darjeeling

And of course, there were the Darjeeling tea plantations!

Check your tea bag - it might be from here!
Check your tea bag – it might be from here!

A hop, skip and a jump later and we were admiring the majestic Taj Mahal.

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Incredible structure which reminded me of Rome in its majesty.

This impressive structure is set in Agra, a small and chaotic city which seems in almost complete ruins.

Within the confines of the gated Taj, expensive ticket holders (read- tourists) were given priority in the queues and walked in the clean and airy left-side of the grounds. And therefore privilege was given to the already privileged, while hordes of other people were crammed on the right side.

Priority to the privileged...
Priority to the privileged…

Each day, thousands of people visit the Taj Mahal. A lot of them are “expensive” ticket holders who pay about 700 INR (about 7 pounds) for access. This amounts to some serious income for Agra. Yet, the streets were just in absolute disastrous state and the city as a whole did not appear to bear the financial fruits of her massive cash-cow.

After our whirlwind detour to Agra, we flew (perilously – imagine a small Soviet plane from the fifties although not Soviet but Indian), to Dharamsala in the North, to attend a Tibetan Buddhism and meditation course at the “Tushita” centre.

The view from McLoud Ganj, close to where the Tushita centre is located.
The view from McLoud Ganj, close to where the Tushita centre is located.

The centre is actually located near McLeod Ganj, home to the exiled Tibetan government and HH the Dalai Lama. It’s a lovely town with the Himalayas to the North and green valleys all around. It was great to breathe in fresh air again!

The course itself was so enriching that it deserves its own post. Suffice to say that I came out of it feeling internally refreshed. I am not new to meditation, however the Buddhist teachings were a discovery to me.

The grounds where Tushita is located could not have been chosen better. We were just spoiled with incredible freshness of the air, superb views, intense sunsets and monkey games! It seems that Tushita’s pacifist approach to all sentient beings is appreciated by the local monkey families, who live in harmony with the residents (except during meal times, where a second of absent-mindedness will cost you your chapati!).

(Mostly) Inoffensive monkeys at Tushita
(Mostly) Inoffensive monkeys at Tushita
Majestic sunsets and clean crisp air...
Majestic sunsets and clean crisp air…
Everyone usually behaves...
Everyone usually behaves…
There is a very strong Tibetan presence in these hills. Monks and nuns can be seen everywhere as well.
There is a very strong Tibetan presence in these hills. Monks and nuns can be seen everywhere as well.
Incredible views from McLeod Ganj.
Incredible views from McLeod Ganj.
Very cozy couple at Tushita.
Very cozy couple at Tushita

With the retreat finished, we gleefully hopped on a train to Kerala riding for 3 days and nights on Indian rails in our own little private cabin.

Back in 2008, I rode the Trans-Siberian railway from Beijing to Moscow and have since then always wanted to reproduce the experience. So this seemed like a fantastic idea (and a relatively cheap way to cover over 3000 km!).

Fantastic it was not… Our little cabin was quite filthy, the food difficult to stomach and the constant swaying in a small air-conditioned box nausea-inducing. Alas my dream of watching the Indian countryside flow gently by as I sipped a chai quickly vanished and was replaced by 3 ultimately very uncomfortable and long days.

Our little torture chamber for many long hours...
Our little torture chamber for many long hours…

There were of course a few nice moments too. The times when I didn’t feel motion sickness, I could admire the flow of local life in the fields or villages we were passing. The constant hum was also a soothing way to go to sleep or to read to. Maybe next time, we’ll choose a shorter ride on India’s rails!

The country rolling by ...
The country rolling by …

And so here we are, in the heat of Kerala’s sun, enjoying the calm pace of life. We are located near a Hindu temple which graces us each morning and evening with devotional melodies of strong out of tune trumpet and a “horse on cobblestone” drum.

The beach, where locals bathe fully-clothed while tourists bake in their bikinis and speedos.
The beach, where locals bathe fully-clothed while tourists bake in their bikinis and speedos.

We are working on various projects in the context of “Work Away“, which is a program I participated in when I was in Germany recently. In essence, you do a bit of work in exchange for food and room. The house is located in a quiet area of Varkala and the work is fascinating. We are learning so much, but equally have time to just relax, read, do yoga and take long strolls on the beach.

A place of vibrant colours and lusciousness.
A place of vibrant colours and lusciousness.
Oh hello you!
Oh hello you!
He looks like a nice chap... oh, wait a second... !
He looks like a nice chap… oh, wait a second… !

We will be here until the end of our stay which is beginning of April and intend on soaking up all the health and sun we can get, while enjoying all of India – the good, the bad and the out of tune.

A recent personal event shook me to the core and reminded me of the preciousness and unpredictability of life and how every day should be seized with gusto in one hand and appreciation in the other.

Here is a quote by William Blake that resonates this thought quite aptly – 

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses life as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise

Thank you for reading!

For more pictures, please have look at my National Geographic page.

Also, here are 2 promotional videos I made for organisations which work with New Delhi communities: The Dil Se Campaign and Asha.

Until next time – Namaste!

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Madnessasmantra

Hi! Thanks for visiting! Hope that you enjoy the blog! For more photos and art, or to purchase prints, please visit me on www.iamni.com

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