Christine and I are currently barreling down a “highway” in the south Indian state of Kerala, on our way to the city of Kochi. After I met up with her three days ago at the airport just outside of Trivandrum, we spent a day there, and then two days at the Hindu saint/goddess incarnate’s compound/convent/ashram, Amritapuri, about a three hour drive (on Indian “highways” that is) up the coast.

My last morning in Mumbai started with a visit to the afforemtnioned Mahakali caves just a few kilometers north of the Anjali Inn. They weren’t much, as the guidebooks all warned (if they even took the time to mention them at all; most printed books don’t seem to) – but the little suburb it was attached to, which seemed to house mainly bus storage and cows and dogs eating peacefully out of the same massive piles of garbage, was peaceful and quiet. Also it hadn’t rained that morning, so it didn’t even smell so bad!

I wasn’t sure if there was an admission fee, or a guard I’d need to bribe, but it turned out the answer was neither. A man in the light brown uniforms I’ve come to associate with police (or army?) wandered towards me as I neared what I thought was the gate the caves (utterly unmarked, of course) and I hesitated, but he strolled right past me and started peeing on the wall next to the gate. Thus unmolested, I pushed awkwardly through the creaking rotary gate – I had all my luggage, two bags, with me as I planned on going straight to the airport after this – and entered a pretty green space.

There were about 10-15 single story small caves built into a low, worn cliffside to my left, and a bed of fine soft green grass in clearing in front of them which led to a low wall and a vista which overlooked a sea of palm trees and a fairly large road. A couple dogs wandered about – a very common sight in India, unlike in Jordan – and an old man was peeing on a the vista wall. I’m noticing a pattern here. There wasn’t anything in the caves, and in a rainy country like India the ancient glyphs carved into the stone above caves were worn down almost to nothing, but it was peaceful and quiet so I sat on the wall and listened to the wind in the palms until the mosquitoes found me and started eating me.

On the way south, back toward the airport, I made the mistake of thinking I knew Mumbai better than my rickshaw driver. I told him I needed the airport, and he immediately asked me where I was headed, to which I replied “Trivandrum” – ah, you want small airport then, local flight, he said. Well, I said, my email says BOM airport, which means the international one though. So I guess we should go there. He gazed at me with a confused expression – but all local flights go from small airport. I showed him the paper again. He shrugged and we started off toward the terminal where Patel had picked me up on Thursday night.

Of course I was completely wrong. The military guard at the airport squinted at the paper and said “terminal 1B; you want the other terminal. local flight.” I checked my guidebook (which I should have done first) and discovered that the two airports were technically in the same area, and had the same BOM code, but all local flights indeed went through the smaller airport on the west side. We had doubled our trip, but I tipped the guy well so I’m sure he didn’t mind. As we had driven 13 kilometers or so, I got a chance to see how the rickshaws fill up – using compressed natural gas through a porthole right under my foot in the backseat, for which he was charged 36 rupee a liter for.

After arriving from my two hour flight, which was mostly empty, Christine met me on the airport, looking positively lovely in a pink and gold sari, forehead bindi, and henna patterns on her hands and feet that she had made herself. A sight for sore eyes after two months! Using her expert knowledge of the local Keralan state language, Malayalam, she directed our rickshaw driver to take us back into town for lunch, at the illustriously named “Keralan Restaurant” – I swear, this is a big city we were in! She treated me to traditional Keralan food, finger food all served on a huge fresh banana leaf, where the waiter bid me to hold out my hand so that he could pour yogurt sauce into it. “Keralans have a saying that eating food with tools is like showering with your clothes on – you could, but why separate yourself from the experience?” Christine told me. The food was tasty, although extremely spicy as I had been warned that south Indians preferred it. Afterward, our waiter got pictures with each of us – the first of many to ask this. I got the feeling that this was a very frequent occurence for Christine, especially when wearing a beautiful sari.

We walked back to her hotel home where she’d been staying for the past couple months, and she introduced me to people along the way – her favorite street food vendors, the fish seller Mimi (who immediately wanted to know how soon we would be married, and why weren’t we yet anyway?), and a little street puppy who immediately ran over to Christine when she saw her and started licking her hands. This one Christine had nicknamed Curly, but just a few weeks ago Christine and her sister were featured in a local Keralan newspaper for raising street-animal rescue awareness (the title is “Sundari wants a home”)

Once inside Christine’s hotel, she showed me a beautiful dhoti that she had purchased for me, cream colored with gold and green trim. With a big smile she announced that we were gong to get some fancy pictures taken at a photo studio and buy some saris – Trivandrum isn’t exactly a sightseeing tourist hot spot. We left the hotel just as two of the desk clerk girls that she was friends with were getting off shift, and they giggled as I fumbled with my crudely wrapped dhoti. Between the three women, they coaxed a hardbitten-looking old street vendor with a stubbly grey beard and about 5 teeth to help me retie it. He guffawed at my attempt, then showed me that I needed to fold it in half before even starting to wrap it, to put it up higher then my hips, and then to make it so tight that I couldn’t breathe. Success! I was in my dhoti hip-corset, and I limped after the girls into town.

Christine bought some saris at a huge department store called Pothy’s, I bought some replacement sandals to replace the poor beat up slum-walkers that had put deep cuts onto my toe knuckles, and we got our photos taken and printed in only a couple hours. Everywhere Christine and I got either smiles, incredulous glances, or laughter (probably at me, let’s be honest). It was like being at that little Jordanian village for that wedding all over again, except this was a large city which mean that entire busloads of people at once were able to get up and actively peer down at me and point. Christine had been right – I hadn’t seen a single other white person besides us for six hours now.

I was starting to feel quite sleepy (again, darn it all!) and unfortunately, with a bit of an upset stomach, which had actually been not feeling too good ever since I went to that restaurant with Scott the night before but now coming into full inglorious effect. So our last stop of the night at Christine’s favorite restaurant, which was (of course) an all-organic all-natural cafe, a “hole in the wall” 20 meters square named Patyam where Christine had dinner for 20 rupee, about 33 cents, and I had a couple cups of a spicy hot tea called Joppy which was supposed to help the digestive track. It was pretty good, so I bought a little bag of the powder to take back to the states with me.

It rained all night and next morning, so that put a damper on our tentative plans to wander the city and see the sights, or maybe Kovalam beach. Christine and her classmates had met a few friendly Indians at a pub in the past month, and so she gave one of them, a young engineer named Subtesh, to come and hang out with us and see Observatory Hill, which supposedly had a good view of the city. It was fun hanging out with Subtesh; he wasn’t originally from Trivandrum so he couldn’t tell us too much about the city (that 2-month long resident Christine didn’t already know) but he was a Brahmin caste guy, although he said he couldn’t care less about it, and we chatted about movies, books, and politics.

He saw us to our car to the ashram back at the hotel after getting pizza for lunch, and one of the nice women at the hotel gave Christine and I sack lunches for the 3 hour trip – bread, jam, watermelon slices, and a piece of cake! (only Christine’s bag had cake… 🙁 ).

There’s a strict no-photo policy at the ashram, Christine warned me ahead of time, so I’d already made my peace with the fact that it’s meant to be a place of introspection, worship, and meditation, and obviously if tourists came with no other reason than to experience what it was like while snapping pictures in all direction, that might obviously disturb the reverie. It was dark and raining when we arrived, and we were bundled first into a temporary room on the 4th floor of the main international dorm/barracks, and then after a little bit more waiting, a two-person cell on the 12th floor of the massive 15 story building. I hadn’t know what to expect before we arrived, and I was pleased to see that we had our own bathroom, a little ‘kitchen’ (just a counter and a sink that produced rust-reddish water, but still nice to have) and a commanding view of the Indian Ocean, with monstrous waves noisely crashing on a rocky beach far below us – that alone would make this place cost a fortune if it was a hotel, but here, we were each only paying $4 a night.

The next morning we joined a Sanskrit language devotional singing class, led by an older Indian man named Danatri with a beautiful richly descriptive voice. He led us through some tonal practice before each song (I’m not sure what that was for; warm up perhaps?) and we did three songs in a call and response form, line by line with a chorus between each verse. The most upbeat one (and easiest to remember now in retrospect) was Jai Jai Ma.

Food was abundant, cheap, and delicious on the ashram, something I’d heard from Christine and her friends who had been there. The entire place is run by volunteers, the food is all vegetarian and is either grown on their own farms, donated, or bought locally, which means that a hefty filling breakfast and drink runs around $2 or so – each entry is about 25-60 cents or so, USD. The place is quite large, and about 2,500 permanent devotees, nuns, and residents live onsite – but the place can hold 3-4 times more for temporary devotees and the occasional tourist. Amma, the saint who founded and runs the place, is in the USA or Europe during the hot monsoon summers, and had returned here to her first and largest ashram only recently. One of Christine’s childhood friends is a devotee and was married to her husband in the USA by Amma this past summer, and her older sister is a nun who has lived on the ashram for 12 years – we ran into her a couple times and chatted about Amma, the Ashram, the constant world travel, and of course, good old Wisconsin.

I hadn’t had a chance to do laundry since arriving in the country, so Christine showed me how it was done on the ashram – in the all-natural way. I had wondered what the column of concrete in our bathroom was for, and she showed me that I was to fill a bucket with cold water, dump a bit on top of the gritty concrete, then rub a block of soap on the stone…then wet the clothes and rub vigorously on the rock. I believe I rubbed a button right off one of my shirts! I’m kind of new at this. Then, going all the way up to the roof level, there are clotheslines that are always flapping in the coastal breeze – thankfully, a covered area since it was almost always raining during our trip. I made the mistake the first afternoon of putting a couple pairs of boxers out on the outdoor line in a 2-3 hour period of shining sun, only to come back later during the inevitable rain to find them ripped from their clothesline and stuck wetly to the concrete railing. If they had flown few feet up, some cow in Tamil Nadu would be wearing a pair on her head.

The place runs on volunteers, and part of the reason everything is so inexpensive is because they expect people staying at the ashram to put in an hour or two a day of “seva” or selfless service, to help the ashram tick. Christine reassured me that this was expected but not mandatory, and most people stay for a week or two at a minimum, not a mere couple of days, and they wouldn’t ask us since we were just passing through. However, right before we left for Cochin, we had a couple of extra hours so we went up to the Seva Office above the Kali Temple to ask what we could do to help – Christine ended up painting the word “cafe” onto a new shipment of shining silver mugs for the restaurant to use, and I helped unstack the chairs for one of the ceremonies in the main hall and also carry sacks of grain into the kitchen – manly stuff. The Seva office told me that I should also help with sweeping/mopping the walkway that Amma and her entourage would walk that evening for the bhajans (singing devotions) in the main hall, but I couldn’t find anyone who knew were the mops were – I asked an older American gentleman who was mopping the dining area and he chuckled and said “well we’re all volunteers here unfortunately, which means chaos and disorder sometimes run hand in hand” – so I didn’t worry about that one, as I’m sure someone else picked it up; there’s always a large line leading to the Seva office; everyone wants to perform service here, and Christine says that ‘bad karma’ is burned off twice as fast here.

It’s an extremely international community. Most of the people are Indian of course – you never forget which country you’re in. But then there is a huge amount of Europeans it seems – everywhere I looked or listened I could hear growly German or French, or flutey Swedish or Dutch or trilling Italian or Spanish. Very few Americans though, that I ran into at least – besides Christine’s friend, there were probably only 5-8 that I heard, out of a thousand foreigners. During my first breakfast, I went to take my plate to the washing station (of course all tables are bussed yourself, and you wash and dry your own dishes too and then put them in a stack for a volunteer to put back in the kitchen), which I thought was the first sink I saw. I was picking at a bit of omelette with my fingers, thinking idly how right Christine was about the “all natural” way they were going here – no soap to be found! – when a supremely bearded young French guy gently tapped me on the shoulder and said “I behliechve you ahhre washing your dish in ze drinking wahter sink” while pointing to a second set of sinks about 15 feet away behind me – whoops. Yeah, there were the brillo pads and natural soap bars, my mistake.

There’s a lot of rituals and ceremonies – this morning Christine and I got up at 4:45 to attend the archana for the sahrasrama, or the reading of the Thousand Names of shakti, the female goddess energy. The men and women are segregated by gender for that – they got the smaller but much prettier Kali temple, and we got the huge meeting hall, despite there being easily a third more women then men on the campus. Just like Christianity or any other religion though, we’re all human – most people don’t get out of bed for a 5AM religious reading, although of course everyone is encouraged to if they can. I was impressed by our swami reader, a tall young man with a huge beard and slicked back hair who held up a red bound book and intoned, without stopping for water or to pause more than 2-3 seconds every hundred names or so, the thousand names. It took about an hour – “Om (name, which could be one word and 2 seconds or practically a sentence) aaayn-ah-mun”….over and over again. At the end, the devotees sang a song celebrating Kali’s victory over demons while a monk lit a scented oil lamp in front of picture of Amma and waved the torch through the air in front of her.

Amma herself appears publicly once a day, I’m told, although she might appear at the university or vocational training school her charities provide funding for, or indeed anywhere on the compound – a small woman who turns 60 this year, she has a crackly voice from 50 years of talking, singing, and chanting. As far as I can tell, she speaks Malayalam as her mother tongue – Christine says that she can catch an entire sentence from her here or there now – but at the two sermons we went to, her swami translates everything into English for the international crowd. Yesterday it was a question and answer – well, one question, from a British man who asked about why healers can’t cure everyone and why a patient’s karma and dharma matter, the swami translates for Amma, and then Amma replies, and the swami translates again (the whole Q&A for one question took an entire hour). Tuesday is a special day on the compound, as Amma feeds the entire campus (called the Prasad ceremony) and well, anyone who happens to walk in! She lectured as to why it is important to give respect to our deceased ancestors to honor them and God and thank them for making us who we are (although this was stretched into a two hour long lecture) and then her devotees formed up all of us, some three thousand in number I was told, into two lines, the devotees rapidly fill up metal plates with rice, spicy curry, and a hot dessert porridge, and then pass them inwards towards Amma, who stands at the head of it all and gives every person in the room a plate of food while blessing it personally. Her devotees are pretty strict about keeping things moving (good grief you have to be if you’re feeding 3,000 people by hand) but before I was shoved on my way I had time to say “Nan-Ni” to her, which is “thank you” in Malayalam and she smiled at me and bobbled her head.

Before we left, Amma held a short darshan, which is the hugging ceremony that she is internationally known for – last year when I visited Christine in Pennsylvania, she took me to Amma’s darshan ceremony in Washington D.C. which is a full 24-26 hour darshan in which Amma hugs tens of thousands of people, blesses them, and gives them a bit of blessed candy, fruit, or flowers. Today’s darshan wasn’t meant to be anything of that scale, but instead for new arrivals, and for people who were leaving that day, which we qualified for. In D.C. we had to wait 5-6 hours for our Darshan number to be called; today we didn’t have numbers, we just told the nun at the end of the line that we were leaving, and we were ushered in for our group hug and out within 20 minutes. Amma drew us in close, quietly whispering in Malayalam into our ears, and gave us a tight squeeze that lasted about 10-15 seconds, and then her aids drew us off her, she pressed pieces of candy into our hands, and then we were tugged away and out. It’s kind of like going in and out of a waterslide…the build up, the quick actual experience, and then the shock of “whoa that was fast but quite the experience”

These roads are just horrendous, and the traffic would make my mother have a heart attack – it’s a two lane road here on the way way to Cochin, but when it comes to passing other vehicles, people do what they feel like. Just now a tanker truck was speeding toward us in our lane head on, horn blaring and lights flashing, and our driver didn’t even flinch – the tanker roared over back into his lane with about 20 feet in front of us. No problem, and seconds later, our driver does the same thing to a couple motorcycles, which then roar into the pedestrian lane in order to give us room. Meanwhile, the potholes in the road are 3-4 feet across each, and they travel in groups apparently – we slow down to about 30 miles an hour to take those, instead of 90 miles an hour. Christine next to me has her head down in her lap – this sort of swerving bouncy driving isn’t doing either of us a favor. I think I’ll put the tablet away before I make myself nauseated looking at all this text, and hope that we don’t get smashed into!