So after that 5 day meditation retreat we had one day in Kandy to get used to the so-called "real" world again. First we took a trip to Helga's Folly on top of a hill overlooking Kandy. It's a very eccentric hotel with tons of arts, paintings and kitsch everywhere. We had a little drink to celebrate our "freedom" and plugged into the online world - not only to search for a nearby hotel but also to check the gazillion of messages one would get after 5 days without telephone. Well, I think I had 5 messages. That was all? Apparently nobody had missed me much.
We booked a nearby hotel (or so we thought). An hour later we were still wandering along the street with our backpacks and asking around: our hotel didn't seem to exist. Desperately we walked the street further down and looked for the house number booking.com provided. At the right number was a hotel, but it had a completely different name. We asked inside and they said yes of course it is the right place. Aha. Just a completely different name as on booking.com! Hmpf. The room was nice though, hot shower, aaaaah heaven, a proper bed, mmmhm :) Of course it was Masala Dosa time for dinner.
The next day we threw ourselves back into the "normal" life. And it was harder than we thought. We walked aroundthe town to buy a few things - and felt absolutely drained by midday- all our senses which had been in shut down to a minimum for 5 days got overly stimulated by the people, the noise, the traffic.... In the aftrnoon we both had a headacher. My eyes hurt and I felt absolutely drained. It's crazy what our senses deal with every day :o To make things worse, my credit card didn't work at the ATM, and in the afternoon when I tried to check in for my flight to India, the website said they couldn't find my flight.
But all that meditation helped - I stayed pretty calm and just tried to figure everything out.
Eventually I got checked in, and the day after we hopped on the local bus to the airport, eating our last vadas. Then it was time to say goodbye - Tamzin on her way to Australia, and me on to India!
When I wanted to drop my luggage I got asked for an onward flight ticket. I confidently said I wanted to travel over land to Nepal. Apparently this had worked for other travellers - well it didn't for me. It's so annoying. They don't even tell you that you need an onward ticket. It's all just a big scam. So I got forced to buy a ticket at the counter as there was not enough time to get me one of my famous fake tickets online. The woman at the counter said I could get a refund but I didn't count on that. Anyway, I stayed calm again (unlike another woman who was in the same situation and very angry), and eventually boarded my flight to Chennai (after a ridiculous amount of security checks, it must have been at least 7! Even when boarding the plane, they opened the hand luggage again to have a look inside. Seriously!?)
We even got food on that 1 hour flight - more vadas !! :D
I arrived at 6:30 in Chennai and was quite excited - my first time in India! And so I was very surprised to see a really empty airport. Chennai is a huge city, India is full of people, I had expected a big chaos and lots of crowds. Nothing. It was deserted.
I filled out my form, went to the visa counter, got sent to the first time visa counter. No queues, nothing. The guy looked at me, took my fingerprints, asked about my plans and where I was going. When I mentioned Tiruvannamalai he asked about my interest in Lord Shiva and which religion I followed. I hoped it wouldn't affect my visa stamp if I said I didn't follow any.
Got my visa, easypeasy, went to get my backpack, which came after 1-2 minutes, easypeasy, and straight to the exit, where my taxi driver was waiting.
I somehow had expected more drama, but India seemed to welcome me gentle and kindly.
During the 3-4 hour taxi ride through the night I felt completely safe, relaxed, and home, and so I dozed off, until we reached Tiru around 11 pm. I got into my room, the wind was howling outside, and I slept my first night in India.
Now it's been a week here in Tiruvannamalai, and so far all is well. India continues to be kind and gentle, so far I had no problems at all. The guesthouse I had booked for the first week, is very nice, in a quiet area, with a dim and smoky little cafe downstairs. In the early morningI get up to the roof terrace and meditate until the sun rises above the holy mountain, the Arunachala - it is very impressive.
The town is full of spirituality. Lots of sadhus, temples,ashrams,and westeners that had been here since the 70s, proper old hippies. One of them is a good friend of a friend, so I meet her on my first afternoon, and she shows me aroundthe main ashram a bit. I know less than nothing about Hinduism, Vedanta and all these things. So I kind of feel a bit at the wrong spot, but I must say I feel a special energy in this place. Sometimes so much that it makes one a bit lightheaded. - but maybe that's just the strong black tea.
Things I have done so far -
-I climbed up the Arunachala (around 800 m) which was special. They say Shiva is the mountain. At the top the stones are black from the burned ghee and the view over Tiru and it's temples is amazing. Further down are also the caves where Sri Ramana Maharsi meditated for years (and there is me complaining about 5 days of meditation!).
-I visited the main temple. The towers are massive and almost look like Maya buildings. It's a shame I know so little about Hinduism so I just wandered around a little
-I walked around the Arunachala which is what the pilgrims do, and a lot of people do it on full moon. It takes about 2-3 hours. Apparently there is also a walk in the forests but I just followed the main road.
-I ate a lot of dosas (and will most likely continue to do so)
-I had the most lovely Christmas dinner with some new friends and a local family who hadprepared n amazing buffet of traditional Indian food - so good
-I meditate every morning on the roof terrace. Really. Ok, it's usually just 20 minutes or so but I do keep it up, and it is somehwat easy with that setting, facing the holy mountain. I go to bed at 9 pm and get up at 5. This feels like the perfect rhythm for me
-I got a fantastic ayurvedic detoxifying massage, followed by a steam bath here you sit in this boy and only your head sticks out - felt so good
-I also ate a lot of papayas. In general I feel I am constantly hungry here. I guess the food is pretty light, and somebody said it is also not very nutritious because the soils are so depleted.
I likeTiru, and I feel quite calm here. There are certainly quite a lot of interestingpeople around here, as well as lots of pseudo-spirituality. But all good, I also feel relatively safe, even walking alone through the narrow market streets downtown - which I loved. There are cows just pissing in front of shops (as well as men btw), a lot of poor people laying on the streets, beggars, and of course men looking, but I usually dress and walk and behave like a dude, which together with my tattoos helps to keep them away I guess, so far I had no problems. But I also would not walk alone after dark on the street.
One downside: I didn't take many photos yet.
For one, my camera is really shitty, and it is a shame but I had to choose between buying a new camera or saving the money for more travel days. And secondly, there is just so much to take photos of. I think India is best experienced in person ;)
Remember "Eat Pray Love"? That cheesy bestseller about that American woman traveling to Italy, India and Indonesia to find herself? Well, I felt like I did a bit of a shortened version of it.
I had a week of eating in Kandy and Ella, finding back my appetite for food, and indulging in all the good stuff Sri Lanka has to offer.
And now I was in the Pray Section. I had signed up for a 5 day meditation retreat in the hills of Kandy.
Just long days of sitting and meditating.
I had left Ella via bus because the trains were still on strike, and made it relatively quickly and easy up to Kandy. There I met up with my dear chocho aka Tamzin again. We celebrated with a late afternoon meal at my now favorite place in Kandy, the dosa place, and shared a massive curry, and 2 dosas. The waiter looked at us and warned us that it would be a lot of food, but we wanted that food - hell yeah! We managed to eat almost all of it! Absolute piggies. Totally stuffed we did a little walk around the lake, followed by an evening spent on the internet, scrolling through facebook as if there was no tomorrow. Because for the next 5 days there would be none!
The next day we took the bus to the buddhist meditation center 1 hour outside of Kandy. Well, we got off at the junction of the dirtroad, that is. The center is 7 km up a steep hill in the mountains. In the middle of nowhere. Away from everything. I guess that's the point. Worried about the food situation of th upcoming days (would it be just plain rice and lentils every day?) we took comfort in our last meal before the retreat - a little shed at that dirtroad junction had some wadas in the window so we got a few of those, and then the guy offered us someof his dhal curry. Served on metal plates covered with plastic (as they do), it was fabulous and felt a bit like the last supper. We soaked up the goodness with our wadas, and were fially ready to hop onto the tuk tuk that would bring us up the hill.
We got greeted by a sign at the gate "Silence please. Meditation retreat in progress", way colder damp weather and - well, silence.
The center is run by a friendly meditation guru. We got showed to our kuti, our little room (or cell). Prison like beds out of concrete with thin simple mattresses. No mirror in the bathroom. No electricity so pooping by candle light. Fair enough, I hadn't expected a luxury resort. On the table a part of a book somebody had left. Page 105-166 of - Eat Pray Love. The Indian part of course.
We are waiting for our first meditation session in the afternoon - and I am already bored. Oh dear.
The daily schedule is:
Wake up gong at 4:45. Meditation from 5:00-6:00
6:00-6:30 Morning Tea
8:00-9:30 Working Meditation
9:30-12:00 Meditation (sitting, standing, walking), followed by some teachings
12:00-14:00 Lunch, Rest and Reflection
14:00-14:30 Walking Meditation
14:30-15:30 Self-guided Meditation
15:30-16:30 Tea and more working meditation
18:00-18:30 Dinner Snack
20:00-21:00 Group Discussion, Questions and Answers
I am aware this is already quite a moderate meditation schedule, broken up in parts and including some movement, not like hardcore vipassana retreats of 10 days straight sitting. And still. There was no day I didn't want to leave.
What did I expect!? It's like running a Spartan Race without having trained at all before. I didn't have any meditation practise! Here and there a little, combined with my yoga practise but that was it.
I must say I had underestimated this stuff.
The first morning during our cup of morning tea I felt an intense bliss and joy to be in this special place, I had tears in my eyes and was flooded by gratitude.
Sure enough, this feeling would soon be replaced by an ever increasing feeling of irritation, frustration, and the growing wish of climbing over the fence and run away as far as I could.
Of course. Impermanence. All emotions are fleeting, that's why we should not give much attention to our them or our thoughts. Easier said than done though when all you want is go back to kandy, eat Masala Dosas and chill by the lake.
The hardest part was the lack of exercise or movement in general. The yoga in the morning - yin yoga! Veeery gentle and veeery slow. Just like everything these 5 days. The walking meditation is walking in slow motion, the way the teacher talks about our sufferings and thoughts and so on - suuuuuuuuuuuuper slow. Very frustrating when you are used to our day's fast pace, and are an efficient German. More than once did I think "Get to the point, mate!!!". Shame on me and my un-mindful mind.
That mind. One time in yoga the teacher was asking "Where are you now with your thoughts? Come back here" so bring us back to our awareness. I just thought "You don't want to know my thoughts" having just thought about where to get best a fanny wax.
Working meditation was sweeping and removing leaves. A sisyphus job, considering the wet and cool climate with leaves falling every day. Oh, did I mention the leaches? They were everywhere. Lovely little creatures, helpful to practise loving kindness when they suck the blood out of you. Sigh.
The first meditation sessions my mind was racing at the speed I woul scroll through Facebook. Often times I would drift into this half-asleep state where your thoughts don't even make sense. It gets all a bit psychedelic.
Well, they call it thhe monkey mind, chattering along all da long. And funnily enough, durin gthe first days there was a horde of monkey around the center, running over the roof of the meditation hall as if they wanted to make a point about that monkey mind. The last days, when my mind had calmed down quite a bit, the monkeys outside had disappeared too. I almost thought the center had hired them as a metaphor :)
I actually didn't meditate that much. I thought. A lot. I thought about the past week with Rahul that had been so much fun. I thought about the yummy food I had eaten, and what I was going to eat when the retreat was over. I thought about friends, lovers, sex, future plans, travel plans, basically everything my monkey mind could come up with to distract me.
Because the mind (or the ego) is basically like a little pouting child. It doesn't like it when you don' give it attention. It comes up with anything to get your attention. Say, you focus on your breath, then the mind gets bored instantly, and come up with yet another thought. It's hopeless. You have to make friends with the mind. Have a look at the thought, don't judge it, drop it.
My back starts hurting, and my knees from sitting sitting sitting. My skin gets bad and spotty. Everything is damp.
Thanks to all the Heavens - the food is amazing! Good traditional Sri Lankan food with Rice and Curry for Lunch, savory breakfast stews, even some desserts for lunch. Dinner is just a light snack of toast and jam, so I have to ask the chef to save me some rice from lunch since I don't eat gluten.
BUT - I got heavily constipated! I guess it is the lack of movement and exercise. Maybe it is also a metaphor - digestion and mind are full of shit that needs to come out. Maybe that is also why the Buddha always has such a big belly - constipated, dude!
On day 2 I sneak secretly to my room during the working meditation to do some exercise. Just some squats and push ups. I feel my muscles withering away by just sitting!!
The good part too is that you have soo much time. I could write a whole book in the time when I should be meditating. Maybe not the point but just shows how calming the mind can bring out more creativity.
On day 3 I am having a meltdown and cry a bit during the walking meditation. I want to leave badly. But I don't. I don't kow why actually. Nothin gto prove. But I am not a quitter. Only 5 days I tell myself.
Thanks to the book part Eat Pray Love I find back to the mantra I had used before, and I am using it now for the meditation: Om Nama Shiva Ya. I say it over and over in my mind and it is the first time I can actually focus and my thoughts don't drift off.
It did get a bit better on day 4, and the last session on day 5 felt like I could sit here forever. maybe just because I knew it was over after this.
At the end, I am happy it is over. Very happy. Maybe it is not for me, maybe I am just not ready. I do believe meditation is a great tool, and I have learned a fair deal during those days. But it doesn't make sense to me to do it that intensely and extremely. The physical body needs movement.It is very exhausting to meditate that much. Plus, there is a whole world out there, and human beings. What good is Metta (loving kindness) if you don't practise it out there in the real world?
Tam and I get into the van that brings us back to Kandy, to the sunshine, to the people, the tuktuks. We have a drink at the posh Helga's Folly above the kandy Lake and book a hotel room. Then we take the nicest hot shower, wash off all the dampness and walk (walk! Moving!) into town to have a big fat Masala Dosa. Well deserved.
I am having a big fat poop too. ;)
Rahul wanted the traditional Egg Hoppers for breakfast so we had another mission. Finally e found a tiny local spot that seemed promising. For myself they had rice and curry. Yes i can eat that for breakfast lunch and dinner - in fact it was one of the best breakfasts so far, with a super spicy onion anchovie mixture, yum.
afterwards we walked to the Ramana Cave 2 km outsie of Ella. Lots of steps to climb up to a prehistoric cave. Then we took a tuktuk to the Ramana waterfall.
For lunch we tried the lump rice which is basically rice and curry cooked in bana leaves.
After our afternoon nap (this becoming a habit!) we wanted to book train tickets - just to find out there is a national train strike! No trains for th next days. So we decided to give Ella more days.
we were still so full from breakfast and lunch but then passed by a sign for Black Pork Curry, and Rahul got intrigued so we decided to go to th most touristy place in town (something we would not do otherwise) and share a portion. Well, we ended up ordering a second portion too, it was so good. And two cocktails. We literally pigged out :)
The next day we got told we couldn't stay another night because it was booked already. No problem in our time and age, we quickly found another place online and brought our stuff over. Then we went on a hike to Little Adams peak, followed by the Nine Arch Bridge. Beautiful. Train strike continuing.
So we decided to stay in Ella and take a day trip by bus to Nuwara Eliya the next day. Luckily we came a cross a direct bus that took about 2,5 hours, quite full though.
In Nuwara Eliya we came across a massive food market with the biggest variety of fresh fruit and vegetables - mmmh. Unfortunately no ripe jackfruit, something we had hoped for. We enjoyed a few freshly made and hot wadas and then had lunch with sour fish curry and jackfruit curry (my favorite so far!!)
The bus back was super full, we had to stand most of the time crammed like sardines. Phew.
Small dinner of perfectly ripe avocado and papaya.
We woke up to the stunning view of our porch over the river beneath us. Breakfast was served on the porch, sun came out, so good.
we grabbed a tuk tuk into town and started exploring. First of course the famous temple with the Buddha tooth. The temple at the lake of Kandy is a pilgrimage place, because it is said that they keep a tooth of the Buddha himself here. It was very beautiful and touching to see, many people come here every day, offer flowers and coins and bring their babies for blessings.
Afterwards we strolled a bit through town until we got peckish (i learned an important new word here). Rahul asked around for the best idli and dosa place in town and sure enough found one (later we found out it is THE Indian food place in town, even on the big city map , right along KFC). I got a proper first introduction to Indian food and learned about all the gluten free goodies I could eat (luckily that list was long!!). The idlis and masala dosa were amazing!!
After a little siesta we decided to take a boat ride on the river to watch some birds. We saw a lot of super blue king fishers, monitor lizards and trees full of hanging sleeping bats. Was very nice.
Afterwards we felt like a little drink but sure enough no pub or booz store in sight. But oncenyou have a goal (alcohol in our case) you find a way so we asked a couple of guys along the road. They looked a bit helpless at us. More guys joined to see what the gringos wanted. More helpless faces. Finally the woman of the house came out and told one of the guys to drive us to the next booz shop 3 km away. We negotiated the price and settled at a good arrangement, drove all the way to the store and bought cheap rum and juice. Mission solved.
After a little drink on our porch of thenhome stay we had another yummy curry dinner.
The next day we grabbed an early tuk tuk to the train station to catch thebtrain to Ella. The train journey from Kandy to Ella (and especially from Nuwara Eliya to Ella) is supposed to b one of the most beautiful train rides of thr world.
Sure enough we couldn't get a reserved seat. But we stayed ever hopefull for getting a seat. The 7 hour journey cost us not even 2 Euro!
While waiting for the train we had enough time to kill, so Rahul explained to me the rules of the holy game kricket which was on television at the station. Sure enough I was about to learn more this week than in all the precious years before.
Finally the train came, and we were about to use our elbows and other weapons to catch a seat - if only. Of course our weak souls let everybody else in and we found ourselves standing. Luckily Sri Lankans are some of the most helpful and kindest people you can imagine. An older guy told us that the young fellow next to him would get off at the next station, so that would give us at least one seat. Then a family father who was about to go even further than Ella (which means more than the 7 hours we would spend on this train) even offered me his seat next to his family - a real gent! Of course I refused.
Eventually after a few stations we managed to grab some seats and enjoyed the rest of the ride. People were selling milk tea, wadas (rice and lentil snacks), and other food goodies so it was a rather pleasant ride. The landscape was stunning indeed, and more than one silly tourist risked their lives for a selfie hanging their bodies outside of the door. I wondered how many of them they had to scratch from the train tracks each year.
After 7 hours we fonally arrived in Ella, and walked to our guesthouse uphill.
We got a little Gin and Tonic and a lovely curry at a local place.
We woke up to the most stunning view of our new place - a magical landscape over the surrounding mountains and a waterfall!
The guy from our guest house suggested we do Ella Rock in the morning and Little Adams Peak and Nine Arch Bridge in the afternoon. We decided to take it a bit slower, and just do Ella Rock in the morning. He also said we could not get lost. Ha!
We left early and planned for a breakfast along the way. The only place we came across was a hotel so we had a look and ended up in a posh breakfast lounge. It was going to be the most expensive breakfast of my 6 months travel. Later we asked how much the rooms were - 190 dollars per night! Ridiculous!
We went on with our hike up to Ella Rock(1300 m) - yes you can get lost! About half way we met a local who showed us the way. How nice of him, and he said it was even his birthday! Of course after a while it dawned on us that he was just a local guide making money. We guessed that probably all sightseeing signs in Sri Lanka get immediately taken down from the locals, to make mony out of helpless tourists.
But finally we made it to the top and th view was amazing indeed.
The way down went a bit faster, and then we had a nice lunch of fried rice.
After our siesta we had a daiquiri at a chill out bar and decided to stay another day in Ella to do a bit more. We liked the place and most of all the weather was lush, sunny but not hot and sticky, and most of all almost no mosquitoes.
Dinner was rice and curry once more at a local older lady who runs her 3 table restaurant all by herself. Home made food, yum!!
So on Sunday, when the sun came out again after a whole week of pouring rain at the beach, I made my way up to Colombo. I took the train from Matara to Colombo. For a few stations I had some company of a dude in kaftan who invited me to live with him in Matara. He had an instant crush on me, and actually looked like he Sri Lankan version of an ex of me. When he got off the train, he even stood at the platform waving after me when the train moved on. In Colombo I organised a tuk tuk to my hostel. i was very proud of myself to bargain because of course the tuk tuks at the stations always take outrageous prices of stupid tourists. So the firstdriver wanted 700 rupees but I knew the place was not far so i said no thanks and walked to the next. I finally found somebody who took me there for 400 rupees. I was quite proud because usually bargaining is not my strong point. And then the lady at the hostel said it should have cost only 200 rupee! Oh well, I tried.
The hostel was nice, and I shared the room woth an older French-American couple that had the same goalas me - extending the visa.
I went out to get some food and found a little local place where they served rice and curry on plates that were covered with plastic foil. Good food though. I had a little stroll around but Colombo didn't seem to have to offer much. Christmas carols at the supermarket reminded me that it was indeed already December - you tend to forget in tropical heat.
The next morning we got up early. We had a plan, taking the bus super early to the office of immigration because we had heard it takes a looong time to succeed at this visa business. Our plan failed a bit when we saw all the busses were full as full can be - of course it was rush hour and everybody on the way to work. So we grabbed a tuk tuk. It took us 1,5 hours in the morning traffic for the roughly 4 km during which i inhaled more monodioxide than in the past 10 years.
But finally we made it, rushed into the office to the 4th floor where already lots of other foreigners were waiting and grabbed a number. The whole process was moremellow than I had expected, and only took 2,5 hours. You wait, then you wait at another place,then a grumpy dude takes your application paper and passport, you wait again,then you pay, then you wait again at another spot, and finally somebody is calling out your number and you get your passport with a nice new visa extension. Easy.
Grabbed a tuk tuk baxk to myhostel to pick up my luggage and then to the train station, or better the lush and posh Cinnamon hotel near the train station where I was to meet my friend Rahul. He had arrived in Colombo the same day, and we planned to travel for a week together in sri lanka. He had just traveled for 5 months and had done some serious trekking in Nepal and some Dengue Fever in Thailand. While I was enduring the Sri Lankan burocracy he just had a lush massage at the spa of the Cinnamon hotel while he was waiting for me.
my poor tuk tuk driver in the meantime didn't even know where this posh hotel was. Finally we arrived and I walked into the lobby, all sweaty and dusty with my big backpack. Fair enough, the fancy staff treated me very nicely instead of kicking me out immediately.
I hadn't seen Rahul in about 2 years. We had a little drink at the hotel bar and then made our way to the train station to catch the train to Kandy.
The train journey was very nice. The trains and train stations in Sri Lanka are so colonial and old fashioned, it is travelling in style.
We stood for a while in the open train door watching the bbeautifull landscape rushing by and Rahul started telling me first stories about what thos week was about to become : a love story of food! He is an absolute foodie and food hunter and a world traveler so wherever he goes he tries to find the best local authentic foods possible. I was about to gain somuch knowledge about Asian food this coming week - and probably ten pounds.
We arrived in Kandy in the dark, took a tuk tuk to our guesthouse which was abit outside of the town and got greeted by a bright Christmas tree at the porch. Dinner was served and was the most beautiful buffet of traditional home made Sri Lankan rice and curry, lit up with candle light and served in clay pots.
The start of a great foodie week.
After that surf retreat I had planned another week at the South Coast in Mirissa. One week for beach time, relaxing, whale watching etc.
Well, it becamemore a week of eating, eating, and wondering how much rain can fall from the sky.
Living in Andalusia I was definitely not used to this, and actually didn't expect this. I thought monsoon season was over, but for one week straight it poured down heavily, including some tropical storm. The streets were flooded,the skies were grey, everything got wet and even more humid. Clothes start to smell, my backpack got covered in mold - hooray to living in the tropics!
Tamzin and I did the best you could do in such weather - eat. There are a few places in Mirissa doing smoothie bowls so we tried them all. Cocktails at night at the beach bars (when the weather allowed. And also when not).
Seriously, it was a shame. But what to do.
One day when it was more or less dry, I took the bus to Galle, the next bigger town. But that was kinda boring, too.
Lets hope for better weather next week, I am going first to Colombo to extend my visa, then take the train toKandy (together with a friend who is passing by), and then we will see.