Thursday, February 28, 2008

Return to Paradise

That Glorious Stretch of Beach & Bass Beats
I am in Goa again, at Palolem - the same party-hard beach I wrote about disliking so much a few months ago. What a difference time and circumstances can make! This time I return to a place that is familiar - something rare on the road that warms the heart in and of itself - and to the friendly faces, warm smiles and welcoming hugs of many travelers I met on my last stay and who seem to never move!

Yesterday I explored a beautiful beach called Patnem, slightly south of here and a beautiful place, and today I will check out a stretch of sand called Agonda - one of these two will win the grand prize of hosting Kristin (my younger sister, who arrives tomorrow) and I for a good portion of the next two weeks.

I have a good feeling about Agonda, as it is reportedly relatively undeveloped - which means it should be "boring" enough to keep away the drugs and alcohol crowd - and apparently has an Osho center that does Satsang (teachings) every morning.

I am pretty sure that Kristin and I are on the same page regarding activities over the coming weeks, which can be summed up as reading, drinking lassis, swimming, eating Palak Paneer (spinach cottage cheese) and veg curry, and talking about life and the world as the sun sinks into the sea - lather, rinse and repeat!

Me. Myself. And Why I am Here
As for me, I am in a pretty good place now physically and mentally. Some of you know that I was hospitalized for a few days again last month, but I have bounced back fully and am into a regular yoga and pranayama practice that I feel good about.

But the health alerts on this trip do make me think about what I expected from this trip, which was - to be embarrassingly honest - a "yoga miracle" (as I have written about in previous posts).
Well, if i have had a miracle it is in a more subtle sense than the classic "water into wine" deal that the world immediately conjures in our minds. I have learned new practices and precepts that will make life a miracle everyday if I am diligent in their application - which means incorporating them into everyday life when I settle into Nova Scotia in the not so distant future.

So don't expect an entirely "new" me - but even if I look relatively the same, don't doubt that it is an "improved" me!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Land of Spices

In the mountain range that surrounds Kumily, Kerala, temperatures soar in the day, but plummet at night, making a warm blanket and a hot shower seem less of a luxury and more of a necessity. The cool temperatures are actually a relief after months of humidity and heat on the sweltering west coast of south India.

Tea and spices form the backbone of the local economy, and surrounding hills are verdant with tea bushes and aromatic plants forming the backbone of a spice trade that traces a lineage in centuries: cardoman, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and dozens of others.

But Kumily also boasts a lineage of tigers that are said to haunt the nearby, more-than-700-square kilometer wildlife sanctuary of Periyar. Local officials claim a population of 35 to 45 of the majestic beasts, so I set off with a few new friends yesterday morning in anticipation of an intimate encounter with the animal that symbolizes my very life - my 1974 birthdate falling in the Chinese zodiac's year of the tiger.

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright

In the forest of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

We set off at dawn to meet our guide at the sanctuary ranger station, where we were faced with the several dozen other intrepid tourists eager for a taste of the exotic. As groups of 5-7 camera and binocular touting Europeans set off at short intervals into the so called "tourist zone" of the park, I began to realize that I might be harbouring unrealistically high expectations...

But off we went, into a lush but obviously highly trafficked forest echoing with the mating call of the black monkey. And the monkey is pretty much where the romance of this safari stops, as this powerfully-lunged simian was not nearly outshone by our subsequent encounters with a pig (yeah!), a chicken (yeah) and caterpillar (yes, a caterpillar - yeah!).

Now in all honesty I never expected to see a tiger, but had harboured faint hopes of a wild elephant or two, or maybe a herd of bison or Sambar deer - all dashed, of course, as this reserve is surely the Disneyland of all wildlife reserves in India. Hundreds of package tourists a day pass through its gate and add to the labyrinth of tracks and cacaphony of morning noise that ensures no tiger in its right mind would come close.

The Big Picture?
But what about India's other wildlife reserves? Less accessible tracts of land only visited by adventure tourists that make it a priority to visit the wild outdoors rather than an after-thought on a crowded itinerary.

I am sad to say that it is not a pretty picture, with USA Today reporting that "India's population of royal Bengal tigers is half of what it was just five years ago, and only about 1,400 remain in the wild, according to a new study." (Feb 13, 2008)

A sobering fact, pointing to yet another of the most majestic species on our planet that does not stand a chance against the tide of modernization and globalization that is sweeping it away - the Polar and Panda Bears being other examples that come to mind...

Thursday, February 07, 2008


As might be expected, the quiet French charm of Pondicherry in early evening did not survive unscathed in the hot equatorial sun of the day, with its attendant surge in the daily Indian life, incongruous though it seems in these surrounding. The French quarter is still very peaceful in relative terms, but that peace is tenuous as rickshaws careen past, men spit paan juice and beggars implore.

Leaving my guest house the other morning and entering the bakery next door for a cappuccino and a croissant, I was accosted by two elderly Indian women making the standard gesture of petition - a food to mouth movement that is crystal clear in its intent.

Now the standard wisdom amoung travellers in India is to ignore the beggars with a thousand mile stare, or, for the more stubborn - usually the younger ones - one is sometimes forced to resort to such a harsh and direct NO that there is no doubt left that this tourist's heart is too black and hard to consider charity.

But both of these options leave you feeling like shit and the undoubtedly poor and hungry supplicant no better off than before.

So I choose my moments of charity depending on a criteria that I am at a loss to explain beyond the fact that I give when the spirit moves me. And I give food, not money, a policy that separates the truly poor from the professional opportunist very quickly - the latter scorning your gift and the former returning a smile of true thanks for benevolence.

You Just Can't Win
So on this day I purchased a few croissants and handed them to the ladies upon exiting the bakery - but to my surprise, the numbers had swollen since my entry, and I was left with two croissants for three women that were just going to have to share, but were visibly and vocally loathe to do so.

With my act of charity thus nullified in the resentment of its clear inadequacy, I set off down the street feeling slightly chagrined. A sentiment that was multiplied moments later by my need to return to the guest house for a forgotten item, which left me facing the same three women, all seemingly unaware that I had fed them moments before.

Where was the humble look of thanks for the goodness I had bestowed? Where was the moment of satisfied silence where I was able to bask in the purity of my motives and the reward of satisfaction and justification - justification for coming from a rich country, a comfortable home and life and a bank account to cushion the peaks and valleys of my life.

What Its All About
But its not about me. Its not about my satisfaction. Its not about me feeling good about myself and my benevolence.

It is, in the end, about these women and their hunger. These women and their poverty. These women and the fact that my croissant makes barely a rain drop of difference in the ocean of their lives.

And its not about winning or losing - because in that paradigm I am always the winner and the beggars are always the losers. And those labels are not ones that I wish to ascribe...

So I will just continue to mete out my charity how and when I see fit, as the raindrops of water I bring to this ocean of need...

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Pondicherry, A French Twist

Arriving in Pondicherry, the former French enclave abutting the Bay of Bengal on India's East coast, the slight scent of salt in the air excited the lungs, quickened the heart and put a smile on the face of this maritime boy.

I checked into an overpriced, underspaced room overlooking the canal that runs through the heart of the French quarter - really a trickle of foul smelling effluence of a strangely green color - took a quick shower and headed towards ocean. A short stroll brought me to the waterfront, where the Bay of Bengal breaks hard on the coast, sending dramatic plumes of sea spray into the air and a salt mist over the boardwalk.

I was in love with this town, with its continental elegance built of low-lying French architecture flanking wide, tree-lined avenues and boulevards. The streets are still choked with modern Indian traffic and the noise and pollution that is part and parcel to the urban India experience, but the ambiance is unmistakable in its charm...

I only plan three days in Pondicherry, but it looks as if these days will be filled with surprisingly good food, seaside promenades, French-era cathedrals and local galleries sellign beautiful paintings at prices that are lamentably more in the range of package tourists than scraggily backpackers.

Could I possibly get "trapped" here for a longer span...?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Creature Comforts

I seem to - once again - have been remiss on updates of my progress, but that should be interpreted as a good sign - I have been out living India instead of inside blogging India!

Valley of Stone
The past few weeks have seen me leave the crashing waves of the Western coast and head inland again. I spent about 2 weeks in Hampi, which 500 years ago was the capital of an empire that carved its first city from the rock face of the earth itself. This place is alive with energy that is all about the minerals that you walk on, climb on, sit on and gawk at.

One great shield of rock that at some point experienced such a cataclysm as to rend it into massive fragments (if you will excuse the seeming oxymoron) that literally litter the earth. Boulders ranging from the size of apartment buildings to houses, to cars to toaster ovens are piled and scattered as far as the eye can see. Each mound has its cave of rock carvings, its temple to Krishna, or its elephant stables (seriously). For those in Nova Scotia, think the coast around Peggy's Cove multiplied many fold.

I am not a boulderer myself, but I spent many many hours in a close approximation that I would call "scrambling" over the granite.

I also met my mortality again in Hampi, contracting another strain of gastroenteritis that landed me in hospital for a few days. I won't belabour this point, as I am through it and recovering as I type, except to say that I once again have to thank the legion of truly good and kind people that seem to far outnumber the evil or small-minded amoung us.

It is amazing how keen your perception of people can become on the road - you just KNOW who you can trust and who are good people. Not only did travelers who had been strangers days before spend hours helping me in my illness, but those same former strangers carried and cared for my passport, wallet and all of my cash and TCs during my illness and never abused that trust. Thank you.

Western Comfort
So now I sit in the tech center of Bangalore for a few days of R&R that is doing the body and mind good in a strange sort of way - going to see western movies in gleaming shopping centers with Baskin Robbins ice-cream, Tommy Hilfiger stores (!?!?!) and Sony shops. I can highly recommend "The Golden Compass" if you have read the book first (which I also highly recommend), and, in a very different genre, "American Gangster."

Sometimes even a taste of the worst of western, capitalist, consumer culture can be a breathe of fresh air on the road....