I’ve been at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwanthari Ashram in India for a week now. I’m finally feeling like myself again and comfortable with my surroundings. I had one of the longest travel days so far on my trip getting here last week traveling from Paris to Kerala, India. Europe in general was under severe weather conditions that caused all kinds of delays everywhere. Even though Paris wasn’t as cold it snowed almost every other day while I was visiting. In fact, it had snowed in Paris the day before my departure and delayed Paula’s flight back to New York by more than 6 hours. With Heathrow still completely closed and most flights in and out of Paris either canceled or delayed, I wasn’t sure that my flight would make it out of Paris on time. My real problem was the connection in Doha, which wasn’t very long (1.5 hours) so any delay in taking off would put the second leg of my trip in Danger. It concerned me but I was mentally prepared to either return back to Paris or spend a night or two in Doha.
All seemed to be well when I woke up and looked outside- NO SNOW! Hopeful, I headed over to the airport. Good thing I checked in for my flight the night before because the airport was packed and the line to check in at Qatar was a mile long. When I went up to get my boarding passes, both for the Paris-Doha flight and Doha-Trivandrum flight, the ticketing agent asked whether I had a ticket out of India. She said I should have it ready to make sure I can get through Indian immigration without any problems. “Just in case” she said. I had read that they require you to have an onward ticket when you enter the country but trying to be spontaneous I actually hadn’t booked a ticket yet. A slight panic set in and several scenarios ran through my head- will I be allowed in the country? Will I have some time to book a flight before I take off? Can I book a flight during my transit time in Doha? Argh!
I was able to use Charles De Gaulle’s 15 minutes of free wi-fi to write a quick note to my brother to ask for his help and to look up a few flights, but there wasn’t enough time to actually get my tickets. However, I did spend a few last moments with my beloved puffy vest to say goodbye. It was a good vest. A vest I bought at Gap Kids many years ago and worn everywhere, including on this European leg of the trip. But with my journey taking me to India where I would no longer need it, I decided that our time to bid adieu had come. So my black puffy vest may be at the CDG’s Lost and Found or I would like to imagine a young French child wearing it Paris… After we were delayed by about 45 minutes before we boarded and on board we sat on the tarmac for another 45 minutes. To prepare for a possible missed connection in Doha and thinking that I would have to spend the night there, I had packed a set of clothes and my toiletries separately in my carry-on. It looked as if the likelihood of my seeing Doha was getting greater and greater…
While I was a bit stressed I told myself this is just beyond my control and I should just try to make my journey a pleasant one. Luckily, the flight out of Paris wasn’t quite full and I have to say that the food onboard Qatar was very good. If I had my camera handy, I would have taken a photo… What I do remember is a delightful couscous salad, some fresh tomatoes with herbs, and a main dish of shrimp paella, cheese and crackers, and flan for dessert. Not bad, right? Meanwhile I peeked over at the estimated landing time to see that I would have about 30 minutes to make my next flight. Hmmm. A night in Doha, maybe a few days in Doha while I’m at it?
When I was planning my trip, almost everyone asked me whether I had read “Eat, Pray, Love” and was I doing my own “Eat, Pray, Love.” I had resisted reading the book for several years but I finally did read it a few months back. One of the top pick for the in-flight entertainment for my flight? “Eat, Pray, Love” of course. So I watched Julia Roberts eat her way through Italy, meditate in India, (looking gorgeous at a comfortable looking ashram) and fall in love with Javier Bardem in Bali. Only if things were so beautiful and easy…
Back to my real life. We landed in Doha with 20 minutes before my flight’s take off time. And because the Doha airport is going through major renovations (expect the new airport to open in 2012), we were all put on shuttle buses and taken over to the transit terminal. There, hundreds of frantic travelers scrambled to get through another set of x-ray machines and security. I had basically given up on the idea of making my connection and thought that it’s just as well since now I can take my time booking my flight out of India and spend a day or two in Doha. But just for my own curiosity I went over to the gate where my flight was to be. And to my shock and amazement, the gate agent looked at me and said, “good, you made it” and let me through! I look up at the time and it was 6 minutes before the scheduled departure date. It turns out because of all the delays in Europe, most of the connecting flights were making extra allowances. But regardless, I was the only person from my Paris flight going to Trivandrum and within minutes of my boarding the plane we took off. I thought to myself perhaps the universe is helping me along and I was truly meant to get to India.
After a very smooth flight and a good vegetarian meal (but with no sleep as usual) my flight landed in Trivandrum at 4AM. As I walk off the plane, I’m dreading my turn with the immigration officer. In my head I’m going through what I’m going to say- well, I have an e-ticket and I don’t have a print out. I’m leaving on April 19. Yes, I’m flying out of Delhi, etc. It is now 4:25AM and I hand over my passport and immigration papers to the officer on duty. He looks for my tourist visa, check. He flips through my passport looking at various ports of call, check. He scans over the front page of my passport, check. He looks at up me. He gives me a little smile. My heart skips a beat. He looks back down and without a word, he stamps my passport and hands it back to me.
I’M IN INDIA!
But would my luggage make it to India? After all, I only had 20 minutes to make my connection in Doha. No way, I thought. No. Way. So it was hard to believe my eyes when I saw my red backpack on the conveyor belt coming towards me. If this isn’t airline efficiency and a strong endorsement for Qatar airways, I don’t know what is! Let me also add that up until now, I thought the Singapore Air and Korean Air had the most beautiful flight attendants. I can now add Qatar Air to that list. The Qatar flight attendants were G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S and very good at their jobs (as compared to Korean Air flight attendants who are beautiful but incompetent vs. Japan Air flight attendants who are not beautiful but amazingly gracious and wonderful with their duties- I think I can write a separate blog on my various experiences with flight attendants…)
Ok, back to Trivandrum. It is now 4:45 and I am ecstatic to be reunited with my bag. Since my flight was so early in the morning my original plan was to wait at the airport for a little while before I ventured out, but once I left the baggage area all hopes of that disappeared. You go through a set of doors with your luggage and all you see is a pre-paid taxi window, mobile phone window, and a currency exchange window in a narrow hallway. Just beyond that is a door leading you outside where you see a crowd of people awaiting their loved ones, rickshaw and taxi drivers, and various hangers on. No place to sit, no place to even stand. And contrary to what I had read there was no ATM machine. Well, I’m going to an ashram and those people at ashrams get up early, right? So I decided to just go. Having a pre-paid taxi voucher filled out for the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam, I took my first steps out from the airport onto real Indian soil. I followed my taxi driver to his car. He didn’t offer to help me with my bags or open my door, and no one was there to welcome me to India but at least the bright full moon was out to greet me into the country and that was enough.
Even though it was 5AM there were plenty of people already out and about. Men with cloths wrapped around their waists, some down to their ankles and some just to their knees walked in and out of their houses and down the street bare feet. Bus stands were already full with people waiting. Lights were coming on at roadside shops. We drove for almost an hour on dirt roads but the destination seemed unclear. My driver kept asking people for directions to the dam and it was obvious I got the only driver in Trivandrum who didn’t know where Neyyar Dam was. I was exhausted and half asleep but I knew I had to be alert so when I spotted a sign for the Sivananda Ashram and the driver kept going, I shouted at him to stop and turn around. Up a few steep hills later, I was looking up at a set of stairs leading to the ashram. It reminded me of one of those Kung Fu movies where you see a new student goes to a temple to study with his master. Up the stairs and into the temple, grasshopper!
So I went. Up the stairs and into the ashram. At 6:25AM, everyone at the ashram was already awake and had been meditating and chanting. Not only everyone already up, the ashram reception was open as well. And there was another woman trying to check in when I arrived. After all the necessary paperwork was filled out, I was given a flat sheet, a pillow, another sheet as a cover, and a mosquito net and led to the women’s dormitory along with the other woman traveler. My guide went as far as the front door of the dorm and he told us to just go in and find an empty bed. The rest, I would just figure out with the ashram pamphlet which listed our daily schedule and the rules we had to follow.
I found two empty beds on the first floor and asked the other woman, Jane, if she wanted to join me. We got ourselves fully set up, only to realize that there were ants crawling everywhere by our one and only window and our overhead fan wasn’t functioning. I went searching for a better location and found another two empty beds a few sections later. We moved again and phew, better. Jane was kind enough to share her extra hooks and ropes with me to hang up my mosquito net and to make a clothesline over the side of the bed. She was obviously a seasoned backpacker who came prepared with supplies for all types of situations. Seeing that it was now 7:40AM and based on our schedule it was the morning tea time, we rushed down to get some. But to our absolute dismay, it was already all gone. Dazed, crushed, and thirsty, we followed the crowd to our first yoga class. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of that first yoga class or my breakfast two hours later at 10AM. What I do remember is my going back to reception at 10:30 and finding out that there was a private room available! So what if it cost 150 rupees more per night (um, that’s $4 USD)? I felt terrible leaving Jane at the dorm but we managed to have her join me in the room the next day as my roommate so it all worked out. Jane turned out to be a lovely and adventurous single woman from London, and we had a great time sharing our week of ashram life together.
I skipped the afternoon lecture and took a quick nap, but went to the afternoon yoga class and participated in the evening satsang by the lake, under the stars. But again my memory fails me here. It’s just all too fuzzy for me to recall. It had been a long day…
So here is the quick run-down of my daily schedule at the ashram.
5:20 Wake-up bell
6:00 Satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)
7:30 Tea time
8:00 Asana class (physical yoga)
10:00 Vegetarian meal
11:00 Karma yoga*
12:30 Coaching class (optional: meditation, asana, etc)
13:30 Tea time
15:30 Asana class (physical yoga)
18:00 Vegetarian meal
20:00 Satsang (group meditation, chanting, talk)
22:30 Lights out
* the ashram is run mostly on voluntary basis so everyone has to their share of work, including all the guests. I chose to serve the 10AM breakfast meal for the duration of my stay.
More on the ashram life next time…