South India

We didn’t post for a month because internet was so scarce and then we didn’t post because it had been so long since we’d posted and we were daunted by playing catch up and then we didn’t post because we were embarassed we hadn’t posted for so long.

But now I break the cycle!
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With only a few days left of our four month trip through India, we find ourselves in Auroville, an intentional community dedicated to research guided by Perfect Consciousness, and a reflection on our last two months couldn’t be more appropriate.
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BUT first we should play catch up about where we’ve actually been these last two months:
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Mumbai

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From the caves at Ellora, we returned for a slightly longer stay in Mumbai. We ended up couchsurfing at the apartment of a really friendly expat in the ‘suburbs’ of Powai. Staying in the ‘burbs sounded like a drag, but it was a genuinely interesting experience for some very unexpected reasons. Powai is home to most Western businessmen working in Mumbai and many wealthy Indians besides and so embodies a strange ‘Disneyland’ that caters to the (.000000)1%. In all of India, it was the only place where the streets were well-paved, where there was a park, where there was a strip mall, a KFC, a Baskin Robbins, hell, there was even a Chili’s. I’m sure this sounds very pedestrian and, well, suburban, but in India, it was almost eery. Verdict: you can lose your soul in the ‘burbs regardless of the continent.
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The view of Powai, a ‘suburb’ of Mumbai, from our couchsurfing apartment
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The caves on Elephanta, an island off of Mumbai
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Having fun on Elephanta
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Goa

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We then took a train down to Goa, which had a few things we had never thought we’d see in India: bare shoulders, cheap alcohol, and space to breathe. We went to the southernmost beach of Palolem, which had less drunk, partying Russians and more picturesque palm trees like this one:
The view from our beach hut

The view from our beach hut

We were there for a good ten days, but I can’t remember most of it as I was lost in a haze. I know it sounds like I’m super spoiled (and I probably am) but north India was stressful.
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A friend here in Auroville referred to India as, simply, too much. Too much love, too much spices, too much religion, too much commerce, and even the pace of modernization.Just too much. Which is why we love India. And why it was nice, for a week, to forget we were in India, which for better or worse, is really easy to do in Goa.
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There are a lot of Westerners, a lot of water sports, and a lot of picturesque images of palm trees and sand. In Goa, for the first time, traveling felt like a vacation.
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But then that got boring. So, we dropped by Northern Goa, which was not our scene at all, spent a few more days even further north on a beach that, pleasantly, made me think of a post apocalyptic world, and then we entered back into the fray of continent.
Mandrem Beach in (far) North Goa

Mandrem Beach in (far) North Goa

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Ooty (Udhagamandalam)

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We took a series of buses, trains, and rickshaws to ascend to the hills of Tamil Nadu, also known as the Western Ghats. The town we arrived in, named Udhagamandalam, is popularly known as ‘Ooty’. The British couldn’t pronounce its former name “Ootacamund”, so they opted for a more diminutive alternative. It’s name alone tells what anyone in India can tell you: colonialism’s a bitch. After three years without winter, Ooty’s chilly climate was some much welcome relief from the heat. Ooty is a ‘hill station,’ where Indians and British alike would (and still do) flee the unbearable heat before the monsoons. We got to wear sweaters and use a fireplace. Just using those words feels exotic.
A tea plantation we passed through on our hike

A tea plantation we passed through on our hike around Ooty

"Nilgiri Hills" means blue hills. I get it.

“Nilgiri Hills” means blue hills. I get it.

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If I haven’t said this before, I haven’t said this enough, India is so incredibly diverse- geographically, culturally, linguistically- that moving from one place to another truly feels as if you’ve gone to another country and our transition from Goa to Ooty encapsulates that feeling perfectly. From our heat-induced lethargy under gently swaying palm trees, we were transported to chilly blue mountains, hiking through eucalyptus trees. Within a few hours, we had changed climates, changed languages, and changed wardrobes. A few hours away, we felt comfortable drinking a beer with dinner, in Ooty, the few who dared drink anything had to descend into cold basement shops to buy cheap whiskey at exorbitant prices.
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The strangest thing about Ooty was how British it was. There was a Botanical Garden, a rose garden, and countless chocolate shops, and hotels with English surnames.
In the Botanical Gardens

In the Botanical Gardens

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Wayanad (Tholpetty)

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Although hestitant to leave the cold embrace of Ooty, we wanted to see wild elephants more and so we headed to a lovely home stay near Wayanad National Park. A six hour bus ride on twisting mountain roads the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Ladakh took us to the small, remote village of Tholpetty that sits at the entrance to the park.
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There we ate and saw wild peacocks and ate and saw wild bison and ate and saw wild elephants and ate and even saw a tiger(‘s footprint)! and then we ate some more. The good and bad part of a homestay with all meals included is that they include rich, varied, and plentiful meals and you.. eat them all. But the best part about staying in a homestay- or at least this homestay- is that the proprietor genuinely seemed to want us to enjoy our experience at all costs- whether that meant personally escorting us to the local theyyam ritual or waking us late at night to see the herd of elephants on the road. And then giving us some food.
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Wild elephants!

Wild elephants!

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The theyyam ritual in particular was a very intimate, cultural experience. Originating from the local religion which predates Hinduism, theyyam is a ceremony in which a shaman is painted to resemble a god and then becomes the god through possession. He proceeds to bless the local people. I can’t pretend to completely understand what was happening during the ceremony but I did walk away with a better understanding of the Keralan tourism video I had previously seen.
Theyyam ritual

Theyyam ritual

And we hiked to a waterfall!
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Varkala

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Okay, maybe the beach in Goa got a little monotonous after about two straight weeks. But let’s be real, where else can you so effectively hang out and not care about the passing time than a beach? And when we read about a beach that also included stunning views from high cliffs, we couldn’t resist and headed to Varkala. We enjoyed it so much in fact that we failed to take a single picture.
We spent a lot of time studying (which is another story, see our upcoming post: the LSAT in Bangkok) and even more time being swept away by the ocean’s ridiculously large waves and strong current. All actual swimming was in vain. We simply entered the beach at one point and exited the water 100 meters down the beach 5 minutes later, like a salty water park.
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Kochi

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And to round off our adventure in India, in came the relatives! Daniel’s parents came to visit us for ten days to see Kerala. We were happy to see some loved ones in(and be spoiled by) Jennie and David. We spent the first few nights in Kochi and got to appreciate how truly used to India we had become. Jennie and David pointed out a lot of things about India that- at some point- had become normal for us. Wait, Kochi is dirty? Barnyard animals are uncommon on urban streets? I guess 90 degrees is warm. How else would shop owners sell their wares but harassment?
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We especially enjoyed our visit to Jewtown, yes, Jewtown. I feel like a bigot every time I say it but, Jewton is the accepted term. Apparently, there was a fairly large community of Jews that lived in Kochi before World War II, although now they’ve mostly relocated to Israel. The Jewish graveyard and the synagogue were lovely reminders of an unexpected but rich culture that had taken root in southern India. However, the area of their legacy, “Jewtown,” was mostly shopping. Really nice shopping, but shopping nonetheless.
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Hmm..

Hmm..

Chinese Fishing Nets

Chinese Fishing Nets

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Allepey/Kottayam

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From Kochi, we took a taxi down to Allepey (its actual name is Allephuza, but the British, who apparently have few linguistic skills, couldn’t pronounce it and so “Allepey” it became). We spent one night on a houseboat, drifting through the shockingly green backwaters. And eating. Apparently when lodging provides food in India, they’re not joking around.
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We floated to Kottayam and our hotel, Phillipkutty’s Farm, an island oasis in the middle of the backwaters. And we ate some more (shocker). The most interesting experience we had in Kottayam was a traditional Ayurvedic massage at the local hospital. Ayurveda is a holistic health practice (I guess is the word) throughout India that is especially prevalent in Kerala. And the Ayurvedic ‘massage,’ is more of really intimate oil rub down/bath than what you might traditionally think a massage might be. All too soon, we were saying our farewells to Jennie and David and heading on a train for Family Part 2: meeting my mother, Joyce, in Tamil Nadu.
Backwaters in Kottayam

Backwaters in Kottayam

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Auroville

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Trains, rickshaws, and taxis later, we had found my mother and arrived in Auroville, a community I’m still struggling to understand. Auroville is an ‘intentional community’ founded by the followers of the politician/poet/guru Sri Aurobindo, specifically a woman known as ‘the Mother’ (creepy). Auroville means different things to basically all of its residents, but its primary purpose is to be an ‘experiment,’ a community dedicated to researching ways to Human Unity. Founded in 1968, it has enjoyed unexpected longevity for what seemingly (to me) must have originated as a refuge for ideologues and hippies. Two thousand residents strong, it represents over 35 countries. There is a spiritual component to the teachings of the ever prolific Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, but it is an optional component to what I think is a pretty interesting and complex community.

Us in front of the Matrimandir, the physical and spiritual center of Auroville

Us in front of the Matrimandir, the physical and spiritual center of Auroville

We stayed for a only a few days, but my mother, Joyce, will be returning for a longer stay in Auroville and later, Tiruvanamali, to explore them more deeply (you can keep up with her on her blog gpsjoyce.com). In our short time, we had an intriguing glimpse into what our guide/friend, Aran, referred to as ‘idealistic anarchy.’ There are no leaders, there is no voting, and there are no rules. We ate in the communal kitchen, rode on their communal bikes, and learned about their variety of ever-experimental schools and enterprises.

Under a Banyan tree

Under a Banyan tree

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Pondicherry

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For our last stop in India, we three came to the former French colony of Pondicherry, which is no provencial French town on the Mediterranean but still retains a surprising French influence. Stately mustard-colored buildings on leafy boulevards have made walking through the French quarter of Pondicherry tres bon (those are words, right?) But most importantly, Pondicherry has retained the French influence on its food. Croissants, baguettes, and quiche! Oh my! I love Indian food, but four months of almost exclusively Indian food has definitely dulled my appetite for it. Many long walks on the promenade along the Bay of Bengal, several slow meals of delicious French food, and some sweet reminiscing of our last few months was a wonderful way to cap our time in India.

Joyce overlooking the festive Promenade at night

Joyce overlooking the festive Promenade at night

Joyce receiving a blessing in front of the Ganesh temple

Joyce receiving a blessing in front of the Ganesh temple

The Promenade

The Promenade

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Tomorrow we leave on a flight to Bangkok.

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Namaste India. It’s been real.

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