Beez In India - Chapter Six – “A Vacation from our Vacation”

 

The last time we checked in with Beez in India he had just left the utopian society of Auroville and swore he was feeling some real “spiritual changes” overcoming him. An inner peace and harmony. An acceptance of the way the world works. Low stress, love and relaxation. Let’s see how he’s doing will all that…

 

Now that we have established our home base in Pondicherry, we decided to take a “vacation from our vacation”. We planned to take a ten day tourist style trip around Kerala, considered to be “God’s own country” because it is so beautiful. Our intent was to visit a few cities on the southwestern coast of India; Kochi, Allepey, Varkala. In between, we’ll also visit the Periyar Wildlife reserve that is in the interior mountainous area known as the “Western Ghats”.

 En route to Kochi, we had a 90-minute layover between trains in Trichy. For my comfort level, that was just enough time to ensure that we make the connection. I’m always harassing the other Smugglers to get to the airport at least two hours before the flight leaves. I’m really paranoid. Just before we left Pondicherry, our New Zealand friends, Steve and Julie, informed us that we must see Trichy’s “amazing” Rock Fort Temple. We arrived, on time, into Trichy station, so we decided that it can’t be that hard to go to the temple and get back in 90 minutes….right?

 We decided to wear our backpacks, instead of putting them in a locker, to save a precious few minutes. Apparently it was a 20-minute auto-rickshaw ride there. I figured we should have at least 25 minutes “buffer time” between when the train leaves and when we get back to the station, in case of errors, miscalculations, bad traffic, etc. That left us with 25 minutes to see the temple. Oh yeah… it’s 484 steps directly up a mountain to get to the top, in our bare feet. That gives us ten minutes up, five minutes looking around and ten minutes back down. I guess it also means that we will have to climb 48 steps PER MINUTE. Hello Spiritual stair master. (It’s truly heart-warming to see that India really has “changed” you into a much more mellow person – ed)

 When we got to the Rock Fort Temple, we had to line up to drop off our shoes (I re-calculated and figured it was okay to have a 20 minute buffer at the station, no problems). They asked us if we had a camera, which I did in my front pocket, but we didn’t plan on using it so… I froze. I had a horrible suspicion that the camera might take up even more bureaucratic time (forms, payment, storage, tickets??!! FUCK! FUCK!) so I told the nosey bastards we didn’t have a camera. Given that we didn’t intend to use this camera, it seemed morally correct to say we didn’t have a camera. As we approached yet another checkpoint, they decided that they want to check our backpacks to see if we have a camera!! I told them there isn’t a camera in our backpacks, but… uh… I do have one right here in my front pocket. I got some really dirty looks for that move. They sent us BACK to the ticket booth to get a camera pass that cost 30 cents. We re-approached the entrance and then they told us we can’t go in because of our shoes. The sweat beginning to flow freely down my face, we frustratingly look at them and point at our bare feet, but they point at our actual shoes that are hanging on the outside of our backpacks. I guess the absence of actual footwear is holy, not just the presence of bare feet.

 By this time, Corrina and I felt like we were on our own version of the Amazing Race.  The steps are quite chunky, at least a foot each.  We sprinted up the 484 steps, pushing over slow-poke Indians, smacking women with babies in their arms with our backpacks and just generally being an embarrassment to all future western tourists.

 Then it started to rain and the steps became very slippery. The Indians and other tourists flocked to the sheltered areas as the rain storms here generally only last 10-15 minutes. I mean who can’t spend an extra 10 minutes contemplating the beauty of this fabulous ancient holy site? Beez n CC, that’s who okay??

 We spent a whopping two minutes a the top of this temple, then raced back down the now treacherously slippery steps, quickly snatched our shoes, smacked and kicked the hands of a few beggars who got in our way, got back into the auto rickshaw, and amazingly, get back to the train station, soaking wet, but with, hey, twenty minutes to spare! Whoa, we were embarrassed. (you should be deported – ed)

 In Kochi, we decided to go out for breakfast at the “Malabar House Residency”. The Lonely Planet says “it is probably the best boutique hotel in the country. Designed to the last detail by a German art dealer, it has beautifully furnished double rooms from $120 US.”  The restaurant is a genteel, outdoor patio overlooking the lush courtyard and serene pond. The tables all have pristine white table cloths and large, “sink in and relax”, wicker chairs. During breakfast, I noticed a wealthy American couple, she in her late forties, he in his late 50’s. He was taking pictures of her in this gold cowboy/Mexican hat. They seemed to be having a lot of fun together! They sat down and had their breakfast at the next table to us.

 After we both finished eating, Corrina went to the washroom and the woman says to me “has anyone told you that you look like a young Tony Curtis?” No, but I sure won’t miss out telling everyone at the Smugglers website that someone thinks so. They invited us over to their table to join them. They are from Miami. Names: Howard and Lynnia. Howard is a cosmetic surgeon and Lynnia works in real estate. They are on a highly organized 3-week trip around southern India. In each town they are greeted by their guide, the hotels have all been pre-arranged and booked. Very relaxing.

 I mentioned that I am between lives; I used to be in marketing, currently a bass player for a rock band. Lynnia says that she has “just thought of something crazy”. I say “well, this is India, nothing is too shocking”. (I smell hustle –ed) She asked me “when you die, where do you want your remains to be?” I think about it a few seconds, and said “I guess most people would like their bodies or ashes to rest in the place where they grew up, so I would like my ashes to be scattered in Kleinburg Ontario.” They laughed uproariously. They said no one has ever mentioned to them before that they want their remains to go to Kleinburg.

 She continued: “Most people, when I ask them this question, want their ashes to be scattered in the ocean. The only problem is that the water is so dirty or there is nowhere that their family can visit. Now, what would you say if there WAS a special place in the ocean for your remains? My vision is to create a majestic, man-made reef, off the coast of Florida. I will call it… Atlantis! Today they make reefs by sinking old ships, which is quite an environmental problem. I have architects! Builders! They’ve donated their time and money to come up with an environmentally friendly concrete reef. Just imagine it! When people want to be buried at sea, we will put the ashes in a small tube and insert their remains into this living, beautiful underwater sea world! Imagine if their relatives want to visit them, they can go SNORKELING amongst the reef/underwater tomb!! I have already raised $1,000,000 for the project and I need to raise $3,000,000 to complete it”.

 I am listening, enchanted by this wild story. Howard suddenly adds “this is where you come in!” This shocks me right back into reality. I’m a little flabbergasted. I’m thinking, here we go, she wants ME to give her $3,000,000. Quickly realizing that can’t be what she means, I start stuttering, “um…uh… you want me to buy a burial plot off of Miami Beach? Uh..um…whew…I don’t think I’m ready to plan that far in advance”.

 They laugh uproariously. Lynnia continued: “No honey, I was thinking that since you call yourself a marketer, perhaps you would be interested in working on this idea?” I confessed to them that I’m confused by the project; It would appear to me that those who want to have their ashes scattered in the ocean do not like the idea of permanence and that their “Atlantis” concept was counter to their “consumers” desires (or is that the desires of those who have been consumed!)  But they assured me that they have many people very interested in this type of burial. I told them I would keep the concept in my mind, and if any ideas popped up I would e-mail them. Now that I think about it, it might not be such a crazy idea. I mean she may be right, many people still like the idea of a permanent burial spot, many people would like to be buried in the ocean and it would be an amazing place to visit (better than a creepy graveyard!) The added bonus is that it would be difficult to visit the site, so you wouldn’t have to feel guilty about not going very often! (if anyone is interested in a tube, I can give you Lynnia’s e-mail address). (and think of the snorkeling rental profits! This idea isn’t outrageously tacky in the least! –ed)

 We enjoyed Howard and Lynnia’s company so much, that after breakfast, we decided to go for a walk around Fort Kochi together. The night before, a local doctor had invited them out to a dinner. As they approached his house, they saw a massive 40,000 square foot home on a hill. They told their driver that this was the house they were visiting. He replied that he already knew.

 During their dinner, the Indian doctor claimed to have created an Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) cure for AIDS, though Howard was extremely skeptical. The Indian doctor claimed to have successfully eliminated 20,000 cases of AIDS, but the pharmaceutical industry is keeping his discovery suppressed. Howard found this hard to believe. He believes that all medical cures find there way into public knowledge.

 At the end of our morning together, Corrina commented to Lynnia that she really liked her hat. Lynnia has a gold Mexican/cowboy hats specially made for her for each trip. She said that she always gives her hat away to someone who likes it at the end of her trip, and gives CC the hat. CC was ecstatic. She has been wearing the hat everyday since.

 Before we left Pondicherry, we decided we wanted our trip to consist of extremes: the best hotels and the cheapest hotels, the best transportation and the cheapest transportation. Next stop: the Periyar Tiger Wildlife Reserve in the Western Ghats.

 Our cheap choice of transportation? The local “bus” for seven hours of switch-backs all the way up the mountain. The seats on the bus were about four feet wide and were supposed to fit three people. As the bus filled up, eventually a middle aged Indian man, with compulsory mustache, sat down beside me (CC and I were the only non-Indians on the bus the entire time). The Indian men have quite a talent for being able to take a nap under any conditions, and the one who sat beside me was no different. At one point his head was on my shoulders. This didn’t not disturb me at all, though I wondered if I was going to end up with nap drool on my shoulder. (finally Beez knows what it’s like to tour with Beez! -ed)

 During the seven hour trip, there was a brief stop in a random “off the map” city.

CC decided that she needed to go to the bathroom. She quickly ran over to the pay toilet stand. I  stood beside the bus. Not one minute after she entered the washroom, I saw our bus driver getting back on the bus followed by a dozen Indians. This was an obvious sign that the bus was about to leave. I dashed over to the washroom screaming “CC!!! CC!! The bus is leaving RIGHT NOW!” CC came running out of the bathroom, followed closely by the attendant chasing after her. By this time I was already back seated on the bus, watching from the window, panicking. The bus driver put it into gear. Meanwhile, CC turned and threw some coins at the guy, which landed in the dirt in front of him. Apparently, she had only given him ½ a rupee, instead of the full rupee cost and the attendant was furious. CC wasn’t too happy herself given that she didn’t get to use the services she had paid for!

 The next day, we switched gears from Indian peasant to Maharajah. We booked a hotel that is in the middle of the Wildlife Park. Eighty years earlier, it was the hunting lodge for the Maharajah. Today, it has six exclusive rooms, includes all meals and services and provides the only real chance to see any wildlife in the park. Oh yeah, it can only be reached by private boat!

 When the launch dropped us off at the hotel, we quickly discovered that we were the ONLY guests in the entire hotel. We basically had a staff of eight to serve us on our own private island. Our room had beautiful antique furniture, including an oval mirror framed by two elephant tusks (an endangered species, but whatever –ed). We set up our chairs, got our binoculars ready and sat patiently for the wildlife to appear. We were almost immediately treated to the sights of packs of wild boars and deer, but no elephants or tigers.

The price of the hotel included a “boat tour” of the area, so we went down to our private dock for the 4pm tour. A HUGE ferry, with 150 tourists, appears out of nowhere. Everyone is staring at us, leaving us feeling very awkward. As we went to to find a seat, the captain indicated that we have two reserved seats at the very front, which are roped off from the general public. We overheard people talking about us, saying things like “why do they get to sit there?” ‘Wonder how much those seats at the front cost?” Boy, are we embarrassed. As we got off the boat, I wanted to take a picture of everyone staring at us, but in my finest faux noble pose, I do not turn back to look.

During our second night, new guests finally arrived: three Indian-Australian sisters in their late 20’s. After visiting with each other for a while, we sat down to watch the sunset and look for signs of wildlife. Apparently, it is highly unlikely for us to see any tigers, as there are only forty tigers left and they live within a 25 sq. km zone.

 The next morning, we went on a hike to see some wildlife. When we found our guide, he told us to put huge canvas stockings over our feet (basically they were large tan-coloured Christmas stockings that came up to our knees). The stockings were to protect us from blood-sucking leeches. Unfortunately, CC was wearing sandals that can’t be worn with these massive stockings. She couldn’t go back to the hotel to get different shoes because it is a 60-minute round trip boat ride. So, in her best MacGyver impression, she grabbed her Swiss army knife and cut a hole in the front of her stockings. Problem solved?  CC can now walk for 3 hours in the jungle, right?

 We didn’t see any wildlife during the entire three hour hike (though we did hear a wild boar run within ten feet of us, but we couldn’t see it. Discussing this event, the Sisters had the same thought as me when this occurred; maybe they fake a close sighting just to keep the tourists happy!)

 CC was the only one to come into contact with any wildlife. As we got to the top of a mountain, Corrina looks down at her foot. It is bleeding all over. One of the blood-sucking leeches had snuck in between her exposed toes. She indicated that it didn’t actually hurt and wiped off the blood. My response to all of the blood was “that looks pretty nasty, can you hand me the camera, I’ve got to take a photo of this”. The sisters laughed at me and said, “you’re helpful!”

 For two days, we had been sitting, boating or hiking, hoping to see some elephants or tigers in the wild without any luck. Then, finally, as everyone was reading back at the lodge, I looked up and saw three elephants, mama, papa and baby, stroll out of the forest. I started stammering, in a very high-pitched squeal: “L-l-l-l-l-look! E- e-e-e-eleph-ph-phants!!. We grabbed the binoculars and watched the elephants for an hour as they strolled by.  It is so much more enjoyable seeing elephants in the wild, partly because of the surprise factor, but mostly because when we see elephants here in India they are tied up to a temple, and we always feel sorry for the elephant. If you participate in animal slavery, you are part of the problem.

 We then left this magnificent hotel and started to work our way down the western coast of India, from Allepey to Kollam on a backwater cruise, which featured Chinese fishing nets, tropical villages, temples blasting music, and children running beside the boat yelling “pens?” over and over again. Someone told us that the children collect pens so they can use the ink to tattoo themselves. Who knows?

 Our destination is the second most popular beach resort town in Kerala; Varkala. The most popular resort, Kovalam, has been over run with multi-million dollar hotels for “all inclusive” European partyers (now that I write it up it doesn’t sound so bad!).

 Varkala turned out to be an enjoyable place to stay featuring a mile wide, CLEAN beach; a place where western women can wear bathing suits without being harassed by the Indian men. The ocean is warm, clean and exciting. There are a dozen restaurants sitting on top of a cliff overlooking the beach which serve reasonable food and beer in teapots (beer is illegal because a tourist fell off the cliffs a few years ago!) But this isn’t a travel brochure, so I won’t go on.

 We finished our ‘vacation from our vacation” by going to the most southern tip of India, only thirty miles off the shore of Sri Lanka, a place called Ramaswaram, the Varanasi of the South; The second most holy place in all of India. When we arrived, the Ramanathaswamy Temple, built in the 12th century, blew us away. It spans 1.2 Km. There are 22 water tanks within the temple. Each tank has special holy waters, which are only available to Hindus….and apparently us.

 We walked around the temple and an Indian fellow told us to join him… there is a ceremony going on in five minutes that we “must see”. I immediately asked him, “is this for money or for sharing?” (trying my best to simplify my English to communicate properly. I could try “NO TESTICLES”, but I don’t think that would be appropriate at this time). He says “no money, no money!!” He informed us he is a Brahmin, which I guess is supposed to impress us. In his case, it means that he is a clerk at a small snack booth.

After witnessing the impressive ceremony featuring 120 women in two lines, each with candles and a gold offering plate, we started to leave. CC didn’t like our self appointed guide right from the start, so I am left talking with him. As we were leaving the building, he introduced us to a shirtless man, with a dirty white cloth wrapped around his waist. He told us that he is a priest and that tomorrow morning he will do a ceremony for us, but neither of these two gentlemen can actually communicate what this ceremony is going to be, but we do know that it costs something.

“Oh I see, ‘no money, no money”’. We left the Brahmin and the priest confused. Another person approached us: a much cleaner Indian priest with a distinguished English accent says to us “do not be mislead by people who say they are priests and will do a ceremony for you, you won’t understand it”. We liked this fellow instantly. He explains that there are twenty two water tanks, each which have special powers, and, although he is doing a repeat performance for an Australian lady at 6am, he would be willing to do it for us 8:00am. The cost I ask? He replies with many words, none of which resemble a number. In the conversation, we indicated that we are from Canada and staying at the Hotel Maharaja and that we would think about it.

During the night, after much contemplation, I realized that I do not want to participate in a ceremony that I do not believe in. It seems disrespectful to the Hindu religion and myself. And I don’t like the “hustle” of priests offering tourists spiritual services for money. A spiritual quest must always begin with the seeker.

 Corrina and I decide not to go. The next morning at 8:20 our phone rings. I don’t answer it; we don’t know anyone and who cares what the front desk wants to tell us. They probably want us to get breakfast. We go back to sleep, only to hear a knock at the door. Man, they must really want to give us some breakfast! I opened the door and… our priest has come to collect us for the service! This is a serious breach of privacy, but whatever, this is India. I guess the idea of privacy in a country of one billion people is ludicrous. He asked if we are going and I told him straight up “I can’t go because I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe that this water holds any greater presence of God than any other water”. He was rather shocked. (and not just because Beez was naked –ed). He says “But kind sire, how can this be? Millions and millions of people think very differently and so it must be so”. I replied that I do not have any problem with others believing in his practices, and with that he abruptly left. It was at this point that I stopped considering Hinduism such a great religion. I originally had appreciated its openness to other demi-gods such as Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed. (I say demi-gods because they are all partially human, god incarnate) But this seemingly, temple-approved, money-making operation really turned me off. Imagine if I was in Vancouver, went to a hotel, knocked on the door of a Japanese tourist and told them, “come on, I’ll let you sip some wine at the Roman Catholic Church around the corner for $20”.

 We decided to leave Ramaswaram so we went looking for the train station to buy a ticket. As we were walking along the dirt road, I stopped to ask a fellow if we are going in the right direction for the train (“train, here?”) He looks a little annoyed by my question and quickly wobbles his head to indicate ‘yes, yes’. As soon as he walks by, I realized the problem. Right behind him, coming around the corner, were thirty people carrying a dead body. He was the front person for their funeral procession and I just stopped the flow! (ooops!)

So I was totally turned off all of Hinduism because of our huckster priest, when India reminds me, yet again, that all is not as it appears. We took a train ride to finally get back to Pondicherry. In our train cabin, we were seated with an elderly Indian couple (in their 70’s). The man, whose name was unknown to us for the entire eight hour conversation, was a veterinarian in the Indian Army from 1962 until the mid 90’s. His father was a professor of English. He informed us, in his perfect English, that he belonged to a sect of Hinduism that did not believe in any idols. He described his version of Hinduism; finding a personal guru and being guided by ones conscience. It became clear that I really am too ignorant to judge the complexity of Hinduism.

 We arrived back at our Pondicherry apartment after our ten day cum 14 day “vacation from our vacation”. Strange, the little house on the beach in Pondicherry actually feels like our home.

 In chapter 7, we will talk about sleeping in huts for Christmas, Corrina’s ability to channel the energy of  Bollywood stars at New Years, lessons about measuring TIME and Corrina’s discovery of a mysterious guru in the hillsides of Hampi. Stay tuned!