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OFF TO AMRITAPURI AUGUST, 19 2019

It was a nice, clear summer August day when I arrived at the OKC airport to take an American Airlines fight to the Dallas/Ft Worth airport.  I had a Schlotzky’s sandwich and waited for Bruce.  At DFW we would meet our friend Nancy who lives in Ft Worth and board a big Qatar passenger plane bound for Doha, Qatar.  From there, we would transfer to another Qatar airplane for the flight to Trivandrum in the state of Kerala, India.

Qatar

The Flight to Doha is about 16 hours but it passes rather quickly.  This feeling of wow-that-didn’t-take-so-long is enhanced by how many hours one can sleep on the airplane.  For me it was probably 5 or 6 hours.  The airplane has two walk rows and three columns of three seats so each row number had nine seats.  The airplane is spacious and the food is delicious.  The flight attendants are mostly young women in their 20s – all of them fair to look upon and everyone is wearing a smart uniform with perky hats and even the shoes all match.  This is how US airlines were in the 60s.

So, 16 hours to Doha, a 4-hour layover and then 4 hours and 15 minutes to Trivandrum (TRV) landing at 2:45 am.  We move through customs fairly quickly, exchange some dollars for rupees at a stall in the airport and pass from the womb of the airport into the warm, humid air of the land of saints, seers and holy men. 

Unlike airports in the US, no one can enter the airport unless they are there to board an airplane.  There is no meeting someone in the baggage claim for example.  Those who have arrived to pick someone up, are all standing outside the airport on the far side of a metal retaining fence made of several metal horizontal bars.  There are maybe 100 people there.  We had previously ordered a taxi through the ashram website and, looking for our driver, we walked past the ocean of people – a landscape of faces bright with angst and anticipation.  There he is! He has a sign with my name on it.  There was previously a moment of trepidation wondering if he overslept or some cog in the wheel missed a beat somewhere and there would be no on to pick us up.  Unreasonable fear conjures the feeling of the possibility that we could be stranded on a desert island without food and water for all eternity.

We are in a nice diesel car something like a Corolla with a standard transmission.  Standards are standard here.  There are no freeways or fastways or highways to make the trip which is 2 hours and 30 minutes.  There are no straight roads at all and everything is two lane which locals make into three lanes to accommodate more efficient passing and there is a lot of passing.  We commonly find ourselves staring into the tail of a truck or buss or autorickshaw.  Then when we pass, we are staring into the oncoming headlights of the same typical stream of vehicles and we dart back into our lane just in time to avoid a head-on collision.  For the uninitiated it is better to fix one’s eyes out the side window or close them altogether.  If one has some beads and a mantra that helps too.  The good news is that it’s now about 4 in the morning and there is not much traffic.  But “not much” is a relative term.  We are surprised to see tea stalls and other stores open at this time.  I am faintly reminded of Times Square in New York City which never shuts down.  Not too many of these stores but a few.  And people milling about! 

It is raining on and off as we wind through the Indian roads.  Finally, we cross over the fabulous back-waters and onto the beach road which leads us to the ashram entrance.  We are in a forest of palm trees. We turn in and come to a stop in front of the International Registration office.  I open the door and there is 3 inches of water standing everywhere.  Something in me recoils – “Arrggh!  I’ll have to get my Converse All Stars and socks wet!”  This is, of course, a cursory gut reaction which is the first of many such cringes of adaptation.  My logical mind kicks in and takes control, “So what if your tennis shoes get wet?  Won’t they dry?”  It turned out that the logical mind was right.

Ashram

A man is just then opening up the International Office which is a portico open to the outside with big windows behind which sit the directors of our room fates.  We speak through round holes in the glass.  Nancy wants a room to herself which is normally available this time of year if you don’t mind paying double ($250 a month instead of $125).  Our Room Meister declines her request and puts her in a room with two other women.  Bruce and I request a room in the Sahyadry building which we had occupied for the previous two years.  It’s a 5-story building and we like the stairs for exercise plus it’s close to everything.  We go to the room and it’s a dog.  It smells musty and there is no toilet seat on the toilet – only the foot wings that allow you to squat while pooping.  We go back to the office and I tell the guy I can’t poop that way.  He has another room in the Kapila building – room 122 – but it has just been vacated and has not been cleaned.  We say no problem we will clean it.  We have stayed in the Kapila building before and the rooms are spacious, new and nice.  But he takes a last shot at us and warns us he will have to put a third person in with us.  So far that has not happened but it surely will around Christmas.

Nancy is in the 13 story AJ building in room 928.  One roommate is Dr. Jeckle and the other is Mr. Hyde – but female of course.  So we help her get her bag up there.  The view is utterly spectacular.  The stairs are all open to the outside because it is tropical and there are big landing areas on each floor – big enough for a yoga class!  The views of the back-waters and palm trees as far as the eye can see are breathtaking.  Later when we see Nancy she reports that the nice roommate is from Spain and she has been to the ashram many times.  She is extremely helpful and Nancy carries on with her in Spanish because Nancy is a fluent speaker of the language having even taught Spanish in a school for several years.  The grumpy person has her stuff on both decks of a bunk bed and constantly throws logs onto the path to impede everyone’s happy motor.  The Spanish nice person says the Mr. Hyde roommate  does this to run people out of the room.  The nice person is going back to Spain in a few days.  Nancy is on the floor and we go to a storage room to get a foam pad.  After a few days, Nancy again inquires at the International Office and sure ‘nuff they have a single room for her on the tenth floor of the same building!  It also has a fabulous view with the window overlooking the back-waters.  And the room is really nice with a real bed!  The two elevators in the AJ building, however, are no bigger than postage stamps.  Truly, 6 people is it.  So she mostly takes the stairs both up and down.  One day Bruce took the elevator down and I took the stairs to see how they compared for time and the stairs won by several minutes.  

Ariel

The mattresses in the Kapila building where Bruce and I are staying are thin pads maybe an inch thick.  It’s a bit hard getting used to (pardon the pun) but I reason that we are in an ashram and we are trying to detach ourselves from so much futzing about the body and its comforts and that I will probably get used to it over time.  Yes, I did manage to sleep on it and sleep all night.  I normally sleep better here at the ashram than I do at home.  However, after 2 weeks Bruce gets access to the mattress storage room and comes in dragging a nice 3-inch mattress behind him.  Yipeee!  I go and get one too.  These are the mattresses we have had all the other times we have been here.  So now we have the 1-inch mattress on top of the 3-inch mattress.  Much better.  The score is attachment to the body - 1 / detachment from the body - 0.

When Nancy went to see Amma for the first time this summer in Santa Fe, she was blown away with the first hug with tears of love from being overwhelmed by Amma’s love and compassion.  The next couple of hugs in Santa Fe were not as dramatic.  I explained it doesn’t happen like that every time.  So she arrives here at the ashram and the next two hugs are also not block busters and she is starting to feel she is doing something wrong.  I explain no, no, no this is normal and just be patient.  So the very next time she goes for a hug, she is in the line of 5 chairs just before going into Amma’s lap and Amma looks at her twice and makes eye contact.  Then when Nancy gets hugged its huge.  Bigger than the first one.  This is Amma’s omniscience.  Amma knew Nancy was struggling so she gave her the looks which were very comforting to Nancy and blew her socks off again with Divine Love.

Amma hugging

There are sooooo many classes and events one can sign up for.  Nancy took a class in yoga and breath which she really liked and right now she is in a class for Ayurveda and yoga.  She also has passes to morning yoga that starts at 7:15 am.

 

MEDICAL HELP

Nancy is having some trouble with adult onset allergies so we took her to the huge ayurvedic hospital and clinic across the back-waters and on the edge of the small town of Valikavu.  This is a big 5 story building with lots of doctors – all ayurvedic or herbal.  They prescribed a series of 7 treatments for her plus herbs and concoctions to take.  She has now completed those so we will see the result.  They massaged her face vigorously each of the 7 days with certain herbal oils.  Then she was instructed to keep cotton in her ears and to stay out of the sun and the wind.

Bruce, Nancy and I decided to get our blood tested at the clinic here at the ashram.  It’ costs around 10 to 20 dollars depending on what you want tested.  I had high cholesterol (245 with normal being 150 to 200) which has to be genetic because I eat such a low cholesterol diet.  I looked it up on line and 1 out of 250 people have a genetic disposition for high cholesterol.  So I took this to the ayurvedic hospital and the doctor gave me a prescription of two types of tablets and a liquid.  I was to take two of the tablets before a meal and two of the tablets after meals along with 30 ml (1 ounce) of the liquid.  I have been doing that faithfully.  The doctor was quite confident and said it will definitely come down and to come see him in 15 days to see if we need to adjust.  The cost for the doctor visit is whatever you want to donate.  The herbal concoctions were about two dollars US.  *** OK it’s two weeks later and yesterday I had blood drawn. Today at noon I picked up the results and cholesterol is down to 176 and both HDL and LDL are within normal range.  That is really dramatic!  From 245 to 176 in only two weeks!  Better than statins without the side effects.

There is a clinic here with western style allopathic doctors, a blood lab, a pharmacy and a 10 bed hospital.  There are also several ayurvedic doctors and an ayurvedic pharmacy, a chiropractor, acupuncturist and esoteric modalities like cranial manipulation, Rieke and energy healing – all within the ashram grounds.  There is also a dental clinic open every Saturday.  Of course, there is the Ayurvedic hospital about a mile away which is huge and then Amma has the AIMS hospital in Kochi which is an 1800 bed hospital that does specialty surgeries including heart bypass, stents and other high-tech procedures.  There is a medical school, nursing school and so on.  This is about three hours by taxi ($40 US).  Not long ago AIMS performed the first ever hands transplants in India.  They put hands on a fellow who had lost his in an accident.

Today is September 7, Saturday and they had a big graduation ceremony lasting all day for the university students.  Amma’s university is spread over 3 states so we were just having students from the branch that is across the backwaters from us.  Her university is quite impressive and you can read about it here.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amrita_Vishwa_Vidyapeetham 

It was very festive and they had completely transformed the big hall into a palace with curtains, streamers and even cloth boots that slipped over the plastic chairs.  All very colorful!

 

SEVA

When anyone stays at the ashram, they are asked to do 2 hours of seva (work as an offering) having to do with the operation of the ashram.  If everyone didn’t pitch in this way, the ashram could not function.  The seva Bruce and I are doing is veggie chopping.  Bruce does the 7 am to 8:30 am shift and I do the 2 pm to 4 pm shift.  First of all, there is something relaxing about chopping a bucket of carrots into small one-centimeter cubes.  But the most bestest part of veggie chopping is the people.  Some of those doing chopping are here for a week or so as they are pilgrims that are hopping from one ashram to another.  Others are here longer and still others live here full time.  It is so interesting to talk to these people from all over the world!  Europeans, mainland Chinese, Australians, people from Finland!  Most Europeans can do some English and many are quite good at it.  Germans especially, as they all study English from early grades on as a requirement.  Many of them have such good English I would never guess them to be German.  It is very fun to hear from all these diverse people how they met Amma, what their form of spiritual practice is and, of course, what is their favorite color (just joking).  

 

THE WALK

Bruce and I are in room 122 of the Kapila building which is a two-story structure with maybe 60 flats (apartments) in it.  You would think by the room number we would be on the first floor but in India the first floor is 0 (zero).  So our room would be 022 on the bottom floor.  We are on the second floor which is room number 122. 

I counted the steps from our room to the main hall and it is about a quarter mile if you figure each step is 2 feet. We are at the back end of the ashram.  Bruce and I figure we go back and forth 5 or 6 times a day so 6 times there and back would be 3 miles of walking which is just awesome!

Coming out of the front door we turn left and there are many plants and trees along the face of the building.  There are 5 or 6 rudraksha trees which were planted there.  It is common for people of India who have not only a spiritual bent but also a bit of renunciate in them to wear these beads.  There are malas (like a rosary) which are 108 beads and we wear these around our necks.  There are also wrist malas which may have 27 beads.  I have rudraksha wrist malas on both wrists and a 108-bead mala around my neck which I have worn for many years.  We believe rudraksha beads protect us from negative vibrations and especially the gravitational pull of maya.  Maya is the Cosmic Power of Illusion and the universe could not exist without Maya.  It is an aspect of the Divine Mother who is the creator of all that exists.  In India it is God as the mother that gives birth to existence.  Maya also is the force that pulls is into a hypnotic fascination with the minutia of existence causing us to never ask the most important question – who or what am I?  According to Amma and many saints in India, Self-Realization or God Realization (these are really the same) is the goal of our human existence.

In about a hundred feet we turn right toward the ashram.  There is a small snack stand there that sells baked items like cookies and cakes and drinks like chai tea and coffee.  There are chairs and tables and it is always occupied by gaggles of college students.  They live in dormitories just beyond our abode.  Our walk way is always populated with college students as they take the same route we do through the ashram.  However, they continue on and cross the foot bridge over the backwaters and into the small town of Valikavu where the university is located.

Continuing on, we pass a recycling station on the left which has maybe 15 big plastic trash cans all labeled with things like soft plastic, hard plastic, compostable items, paper, metal and so on.  There are a number of these stations around the ashram.  These trash cans are emptied and collected twice a day as a young man’s seva (I did it once – ha!) and taken to the recycling area where other sevites wearing rubber gloves and aprons separate it all at and dispatch it to I don’t know where.  I talked to a lady from Sweden once who had come to the ashram specifically to study their recycling program.

We walk across a narrow village road and continue on toward the ashram and after some time we take a right turn and walk on nice paving brick several hundred feet then turn left and continue for some distance until we enter the back side of the great big main hall.  The walk along all this paving brick is spectacular with many flower plants and banana trees.  At night when we leave the program, we hear lots of frogs.  Frogs moaning deliriously – bliss comes – dressed as the night.  So that was a quarter mile.

 

AMMA

The main reason we are here is because of Amma and the spiritual vibration of the ashram.  For over 40 years Amma has been hugging all comers and passing out spiritual experiences like candies.  Because of our physical proximity to Amma (such as getting hugged) we have all had blissful, mind-melting experiences of the Divine.  It is much easier to remain focused on the Divine here in the ashram.  In order to understand the magnitude of Amma's giving we have provided a page to read: GO HERE. The text provided is chapter 6 of Swamini Krishnamrita's book Love Is the Answer.  For over 40 years Amma has been hugging 12 - 14 hours at a stretch and enduring great pain to her physical body from this. In the history of the planet, no one has ever endured so much physical suffering for our benefit.
Amma is the very incarnation of love and the reader is invited to read this book written by your author:  Amma – The Most Powerful Spiritual Light the World Has Every Known. 

 

DAILY SCHEDULE

There are no requirements to do anything at the ashram.  Even the two-hour seva is not required – only requested.  The day begins at 4:40 am with the chanting of the archana which is the 1000 names of the Divine Mother of the universe.  These names are in Sanskrit and are ancient.  The collection of names is titled the Sri Lalita Sahashranama.  Sri is an honorific title or prefix.  Lalita is a name for the Divine Mother which means the playful one.  Sahashranama means the collection of names.  I have always thought it was interesting that the whole collection of names is titled after this one name out of the thousand.  The playful one.  We have the concept that the universe is like a play – that the reason the Divine Mother brings it into existence is in an attitude of playfulness.  The Sanskrit word for this is leela.  The last name in the book – number 1,000 -  is the Lalita name and it goes like this:

Om lalitambikayai namaha

Meaning:  I bow down to Devi (the Divine Mother) who is the Divine Mother Lalita (the playful one)

Here are two more:

Om parasmai-dhamne namaha -- I bow down to Devi who is the Supreme Light

Om nir-apayayai namaha -- I bow down to Devi who is imperishable

Many people chant these names every day whether in the ashram or at home.  Amma says this about chanting the archana:

“The Archana (1000 Sanskrit names of the Divine Mother) brings prosperity to the family and peace to the world.  It will remove the effects of past mistakes.  We will get the strength to understand Truth and live according to it.  We will get long life and health.  The atmosphere gets purified.  With the chanting of the Lalita Shasranamah, the energy in every nerve of our body will be awakened.
“Devi will always protect those who chant the Lalita Shasranamah with devotion every day.  They will never face a shortage of food and basic necessities, and will also gain spiritual growth.”  - Amma

Amma gives darshan (hugs) four days of the week – Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.  She starts at 11 am and often goes into the wee hours of the morning.

 

UP THE BACKWATERS

We decided to take the government boat up the backwaters to the town of Allepy.  This is a 5 hour trip in a slow moving, diesel powered, double-decker boat.  The backwaters are spectacular displays of Nature’s most exquisite finery in a tropical setting.  There are many houses along the way which are also very interesting.  It is common to see houses painted in festive colors like lime green or deep purple.  The boat comes from Kollum and stops at Amritapuri (the ashram) and then continues on to Allepy.  

Back waters

We arrive at the Allepy dock and walk to a bed and breakfast that is operated by Amma devotees.  The house is really nice and has a patio with tables and chairs opening to a dense garden planting of trees and shrubs.  In the morning we are served a wonderful breakfast consisting of dosas (rice flour pancakes) and sanbar which is a stew of potatoes, vegetables and spices that is commonly eaten for breakfast.  Also, melons, pineapple, toast and coffee.

This is a gallery of pictures of Bella Homestay SEE PICTURES

Our host calls an auto-rickshaw and we depart for a cloth store for Nancy and then go visit two beaches.  Then we eat lunch at a restaurant that is right on the beach.  Bruce and I have vegetable korma and Nancy has a paneer (cubed cheese) dish.  Then our auto-rickshaw driver takes us to a landmark lighthouse and calls a taxi for us to take us back to the ashram.  Our auto-rickshaw driver is named Afsul, is 45, has 3 children and proudly tells us of their accomplishments and shows us pictures.  Afsul is an absolutely delightful person – we just love him and want to take him home with us!

Shamir arrives in a brand-new Toyota for the trip home.  He is very interesting also and tells us about working in Kuwait for 4 years.  He worked for a private company that contracted to the US government and his job had to do with managing the ordering and dispersing of parts for vehicles.  The company he worked for provided their living quarters and food.  They worked 6 days a week.  Many people from India go to the middle east like this to work for a few years and put together a pile of money.  Shamir is about 35 and is married with children ages 2 months and 2 years.  He is also an absolutely delightful human being.

 

WASHING UNDERWEAR

Today is Sunday, September 15 and yesterday I began my first underwear washing ritual.  The ashram laundry will wash everything else but we have to wash our own underwear.  We are provided with two 5-gallon buckets (but we have four). 

Yesterday, I filled one of them and swished an alum rock around in the water.  We buy these alum rocks from the ashram Eco Center which is a kind of health-food store on the ashram premises.  The water that comes out of the tap is slightly brown with solids that are in suspension in the water.  The alum causes “flocculation” which means the brown solids all fall to the bottom of the bucket.  At the end of the day yesterday, I poured the clear water off into the second bucket and added laundry soap and the underwear.  By hand, I agitated the underwear for some time in the water and then let it sit all night and until now at 12:30 pm.

Last night I set up the first bucket with more water and more alum and today it is clear with the solids on the bottom.  I took the underwear out, wringing them thoroughly by hand and dumped the soapy water into the toilet.  Next I poured the clear, flocculated water into the empty bucket and added the underwear back in one at a time agitating each pair by hand to get the soap out.  This rinse bucket is now soaking and I will let it soak the rest of the day and all night and hang them out to dry tomorrow.  There are clothes lines on the roof of every building.  *** It is the next day and I have hung the underwear on the cords that stretch across the room from one side to the other.  People have put up these cords in every room and they are used to hang your towel or whatever out to dry.  So, I am attempting to dry the underwear hear in the room saving me a trip to the roof.  Plus, it is still raining here every day and it is problematic to have clothes drying outside.  And that, my brothers and sisters, is the underwear washing ritual.  This year I brought many pairs because it is about the same amount of work to wash 20 pair as it is to wash 10 pair.  Working smarter not harder.

 

ALL IS WELL

So, all is well so far in the front end of our 6 months stay.  This is the longest we have ever stayed at the ashram.  There is part of me that wonders if I can do it.  It is very different here.  Then another part of me remembers what it was like sitting on the couch day after day in Oklahoma and that part says heck yeah you can do it! 

 

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