Friday, January 21, 2011

Araku Valley/Vizag "Vacation"

Day 1 - The Journey Begins...

So my journey out to Araku Valley with Gopal, a friend I made here in Hyderabad, started on Friday morning around 4:30 when we hopped in his car with his driver and headed out for our long trek to Vizag. We anticipated it taking about 12 hours and planned to arrive late afternoon so that we could check into a hotel, grab dinner, and make our schedule for traveling to Araku Valley on Saturday before driving back to Hyderabad on Sunday. The drive was beautiful, we had good tunes playing on my iPod, the company was easy and enjoyable, and everything was smooth sailing... all until about 1 PM...
We were making great timing until about 100 km outside Vizag we heard the car making a funny sound. Trying to ride it out, we kept driving until the noise became louder and louder and then the engine light finally turned out. Pretty confident it wasn't safe to drive the car any longer, the driver pulled over, put on the hazards, and popped the hood.
Fast forward 1 hour... we've now been sitting on the side of the highway, we're waiting for the Ford guy to show up, and my occasional head rest on his shoulder led to discourse amongst the locals who sent a guy by on his bike to address how we were being "public nuisances." Really?? Wow, okay. So... we're waiting waiting waiting, finally we see 2 sedans pull up, both of which are Ford cars, and this guy hops out of one of them - apparently this is the Ford guy there to fix the car. Long story short, he takes a look at it and lets us know it can't be fixed until Tuesday and ready to be returned by Friday. There was a festival over the weekend, Sankaranthi (sp?), so there wasn't anyone working and we had no other options. Awesome. Now we're car-less AND we're stranded in Vizag for a week. Really??
So it turns out the other 2 sedans who were there were being driven by other people who were having car issues as well and had Ford come out to fix their vehicles. One of the cars left and kept driving and the other car then squeezed me, Gops, oh wait AND the Ford car guy in the back of their car with one another person and the two up front. They graciously drove us the next hour to Vizag where even though we were without our stuff or Gops car at least we were each in one piece.
We left his driver back with the car who found a local auto that was willing to tow his car to the Ford dealership in Vizag. Man oh man... this was just Day 1.
So now we find ourselves in this city, without our stuff, without a car, without a hotel reservation or transportation to a hotel, without his driver, without food or water in our systems, and the sun is starting to slowly set. We hopped an auto to the beach, walked around, saw some creepy monkey wearing a dress, and then found a nice hotel and decided to splurge for the evening. The room was worth about a third of what it cost but there was a beautiful restaurant at the hotel right on the beach where we were able to grab some dinner by the water and enjoy some curried fish (shout out to me... I was even adventurous with my food and ate prawns! I'm really venturing out there ;) ). Post dinner we grabbed some coffee, ordered a few drinks, and crashed for the night.

Day 2 - Araku, Where Are You?

So the trek out to Vizag was purely because we wanted to spend time out in Araku Valley. We'd both heard from several friends that it's one of the most beautiful places in Andhra Pradesh and that there are beautiful caves, water falls, and hiking paths for trekking out there. We woke up too late in the morning to catch the AP Tourism bus out to Araku (about 3 hours away) so we needed to a) look into a plan B for getting out there for the day, and b) we needed to make sure that before we left to go anywhere we figured out how we were going to travel back home to Hyderabad to get back to work by Monday.
So, once we were up, grabbed some breakfast, and we were ready to start the day, we checked out of the hotel and walked across the street to a few travel agencies where we were able to hire a car for the day to take us to/from Araku and then get bus tickets for the next day to take us back home. By about noon (maybe a little earlier) we were finally settled, in the car, and aside from the giant holes burnt through my wallet by this point, we were content, excited, and ready make the most of our day.
The drive out to Araku was beautiful! The rolling hills (mountains?), the green, the occasional rural villages and wandering villagers, the clean air, the peaceful energy, and the luxury of seeing it all from a car were just spectacular.

About 3 hours after leaving Vizag we found ourselves at the famous Borra Caves. This is the point where I get stuck and I'm not really sure how to describe what I saw... I'd like to say that they were mystical, batman-like, enigmatic holes in the Earth, but really... whomp whomp. I seriously can't believe Lonely Planet would even consider making mention of this site. The caves honestly just felt like an overcrowded, claustraphobic-inducing attraction at a local amusement park. Within probably about 30 minutes we saw the whole thing and were doing our absolute best to laugh it off and write it off as just another misadventure of the weekend. After all, we still had the waterfall to see and hikes to take around the valley. Or so we thought...We hopped back in the car and the driver continued on his way toward Araku which he said was about 30 minutes away. We continued to be mesmerized by the beautiful scenery and though slightly disappointed by the passing of time and lack of productivity we kept our heads high and fingers crossed that we'd make it to Araku soon enough and with enough time to venture around that it would all be worth it.

From inside the cave looking out

Our half hour passes, we're slowly cruising down what appears to be a main road of Araku Valley and our driver says, "okay, we're done with the tour now." Just like that. That's all. Um, what?! We're done? Hm? Come again? Not possible. "But what about the waterfall?" we asked, to which he speedily replied "oh no, they're all way back by the caves and if we went now it would be too late and dark for you to be there anyway. Ha, uhhhh, okay... "well what else can we see out here?" "There's a garden I can take you to close by." Okay fine, so we went to the garden, which turned out not to be exactly a garden but more like a cemetery for shrubbery and all plants that were once living. Not only were all the plants dead but there was garbage everywhere and even a giant fire of burning trash in the middle of the whole garden area. Really?? Okay...
Dead tree at the "garden" with garbage stuck in the branches

Burning garbage at the "garden"

Hands down the creepiest statue I've ever seen - also at the garden

So we hop back in the car and tried our absolute best to laugh everything off and keep our fingers crossed that maybe we can have just one success of the day - all we wanted was to get to the AP-renown Jungle Bells resort (yeah, that's right... Jungle Bells...), get a room for the night, wake up in the morning for some hiking, see the waterfalls, and be done. The driver swiftly takes us to Jungle Bells and we hadn't even gotten out of the car before the person standing at the reception yelled to us that they were booked for the night. Ahhhhhhhh!!! So at this point we're tired, a little stressed, and super hungry so we decide to hop out of the car, eat at their restaurant and come up with a plan for getting a place in Vizag and spending the night there.
Lucky for our frozen bodies the restaurant was 100% outside. In typical Indian fashion, we decided we'd just do whatever we want until someone told us not to so we walked right into the kitchen and opted to stand by the stove for some heat. No joke...
Warming up in the kitchen!

Now I'm not sure what ended up being my favorite part of standing in the kitchen. A) that we were standing in the kitchen and no one said anything, or, B) wait for it... the cook who was making the pasta actually strained it by throwing it on the sewage covering on the ground where he threw the rest of the garbage. Yep, that's right. Then he just picked it back up, threw it in a bowl, and set it up to be served. (That's when we changed our order... no pasta for us).
Starving... believe it or not we ate our food anyway... (hey, we took what we could get), jumped back in the car, trekked back to Vizag, and stayed at the AP Tourism resort across from the beach.

Day 3 - Rushikonda Beach: The Weekend's Saving Grace

The sun rose, it was a new day, we didn't want to have to work, all we wanted was to play. (I couldn't help myself, the rhyme just came to me...) We grabbed some breakfast, hopped in an auto, and made our way about 10 km to Rushikonda Beach (where I went with my roommates when we traveled to Vizag a few months ago). It was the most beautiful day maybe I've had in India just yet, we found a fabulous restaurant (the same one I went to last time) where we sat and spent several hours just basking in the sun, eating good seafood, and having great conversation. After a few hours we went for a walk down on the beach and by the rocks and when it got hot enough we decided to just jump in and go swimming with all our clothes on. As a woman in India I'm typically pretty aware of my behavior in public because things we wouldn't even think twice about in the States could be considered really inappropriate and offensive here - swimming in the ocean certainly felt like one of those things even though I was fully covered so our spontaneous clothed wave jumping adventure was short lived but certainly enough fun that we can't actually deem the entire weekend a complete failure.

Slowly but surely we headed back up to that same restaurant to sit just one last time for some seafood, dry off under the sinking sun, and then head out around 6 to make our way to the bus. Time flew, 6 PM snuck up on us, and we didn't make it to the main road to catch an auto until about 10/15 after. Well, the final adventure began... few autos were out driving around but finally one stopped for us the only problem was that there were already two people sitting up front with the driver, three people in back, and yes there were 2 people in the trunk. So, he stopped why? Well to see if we needed a ride of course! Such is the Indian way! So without any other options we squeeze the luggage between the 2 men in the trunk and we hop in the back with the three other men. Given all the weight in the auto, and simply just the fact that we were in an auto, the thing could not have possible driven any slower. In fact we might've been able to run the 10K faster. On the way the driver mentioned that he'll do his best to get us to our 6:45 bus on time but it usually takes 45 minutes to get there anyway. Really!? Wow... all I could think is this is not happening... 
Time passed about as slowly as possible and we finally arrived at the bus. We literally got on the bus as it was moving and taking off from the station... no kidding. The good news was that it was a Volvo A/C bus and hands down the most comfortable bus ride I've had yet. They didn't even play a Bollywood movie!!!  Whaaatt?!?! That never happens! It was amazing!

Day 4 - There's No Place Like Home

So the bus arrived back around 6:30 AM and to Hyderabad we returned... ahhhh... I slept for the next few hours that morning and then opted to take the day off work to recover my vacation. You know how those first days back can be...  
All in all this was quite the adventure and series of unfortunate events. Luckily I was in fabulous company and I've learned the invaluable quality of patience while living here in India. It took me a looooong way this trip, I'll say that much.  I hope reading this was more enjoyable than my weekend was... then at least I can say that even though everything else failed I came out with some good stories :)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Mysore Adventure Midweek Turning Point


Wednesday and Thursday were uuuuunreal days! I had the most amazing yoga classes and felt absolutely fabulous :)  I took classes both days at 6 AM and spent the rest of the morning and afternoon at the Mandala cafe just eating, resting, and talking with other yogis. It's quite an international crowd, each person presenting with a rather unusual and philosophical story. Later in the afternoon on Wednesday I went with one of my roomies, Daniela, to the market place downtown, which continues to be one of my favorite activities when traveling - I just love markets!  Thursday afternoon I went to a second yoga class in the afternoon and had private instruction again - yay!  The pix and video below say it all...

The fruit and veggie market

Kids who work at the market taking their lunch break

Colors! These powders are used as face/skin paints
The cute lil family of kittens that live at the Mandala - how sweet is this?!    

Mysore Adventure Days 2 + 3

This is a copy of an email I sent home to some close friends and family on the second day of my trip:

Dear everyone I miss talking to right now, (initially this email was intended for just my parents but my phone's being funky and I have limited internet access so I figured I'd just forward it on to all of you I miss talking to right now)
So here I am safe and sound in Mysore. I'll keep this brief (which means it's likely to still be long-winded) because my computer doesn't get wireless so I'm in an internet cafe and want to be able to walk home before it gets dark out.
This has been quite a challenging experience thus far... thank goodness for the calm and peace I feel during yoga classes. I just find myself vacilating a whole lot between having tons of fun and then also wondering why in the world I chose to travel alone this week to a new city. It's taken me 2-3 days now to get adjusted but I think I'm on more of a routine now so the next few days should be smoother sailing. What I've learned the hard way is not to make assumptions... before coming here I assumed that a) Many yogis travel to Mysore so it should be a city that caters to tourists. Well, while a lot of yogis travel to Mysore, Mysore doesn't have a lot of yogis... the vast majority of people are all natives (making it harder for me to navigate and more frequently getting ripped off) and it's not at all the kind of city (like Hampi was) I was wanting to spend my week in. b of all) I assumed that since I'm in the "Ashtanga capital," if you will, then I must be getting the best Ashtanga instruction. Also false. It's totally romanticized because it's India . I think so many of us tend to live with these notions that everything that happens overseas is just so romantic and incredible simply because it's overseas... Well, truth be told I happen to LOVE my instructors in Nashville and I find their mix between Eastern and Western styles to suit me far better than the traditional Eastern style I'm coming across out here. In terms of yoga instruction I say boo India yay Nashville.
So... accomodations, the first night I arrived I stayed in a little cottage because it was the first thing I could find and it was inexpensive. I moved the next day to another area of the city called Gokulam and found a sweet, old couple who rent a room of their house to yogis. They typically do it for monthly rentals but they were willing to accommodate me for just the week. The room is clean, nice, and quiet, and 2 friends I made today in my morning yoga class decided to rent the other room that they've got available so now it feels as if I've got roommates. One of the girls is American but now living in Paris and the other girl is Italian but also living in France. They're sweet and easy company so it's nice to know they're just outside my door if I feel like being social. The only downside is that I don't have a shower... while I love finding an excuse to be dirty and not have to shower, after living in this pollution and taking 2 yoga classes a day it's probably a health issue more than anything :) So the challenge is not having a shower but the opportunity is getting to learn how to bathe like an Indian.. wahoo.. cold water and bucket it is! I will never again complain about a cold shower... at least it's a shower.
Traveling alone so far has been rather eye-opening. I'm discovering that I'm far more independent and capable than maybe I'd perceived myself to be before. I think I'm also coming to see that while I happen to love being in just my own company I think sometimes it can be nicer to share these kinds of experiences with other people too. I tend to want to do everything myself all the time just to prove that I can but I think I'm losing steam on trying to assert that, I'm also kind of not really seeing the necessity to prove that to anyone else or myself anymore. Deeper thoughts continuing to unfold...
Okay and so lastly... yoga! Thank goodness for yoga! I love it! At some point I absolutely need to go through a teacher certification program... it's so me and I love how at home I feel on my yoga mat regardless of where I am in the world or who's in the room with me. I attended one class this morning... whomp whomp... it's Mysore style (I didn't know what that was before I came otherwise I probably wouldn't have come to this city...) so the class is structured in a way where each person individually works through the asanas (poses) of the series they're working on (for me it's primary) and the instructor comes around to make adjustments and provide more specified instruction as necessary. Okay, so it's nice to have some one-on-one instruction, but I miss the community feel and energy of group classes. I'll write that one off as having been a good experience purely for being something new and secondly because I met these 2 girls. This afternoon I traveled back to Laxmipurum (where the cottage was) and went to another yoga studio for a drop-in class on back bending. That was AWESOME. My goal before the class was just to learn something new. Well, not only was I the only student in the class so it was super personalized, but, I also learned that my back is crazy flexible. She said I was the only student who went through all the asanas on their first class. Wahoo! Yay me! I'm going back to her class on Friday and maybe also tomorrow depending upon my exhaustion level after the 6 AM class I'm attending.  So... all in all I'll call today a successful yogic day. I'm starting to feel my body becoming more alive and ridding myself of the nasty toxins I've been feeding it with my Hyderabadi diet - ew.

So, shocker, this wasn't at all a brief email. If you've read this far than I'm glad you could bare with me :)  I'd love so much to hear from each of you when you get the chance - I'll come back on the internet again before the week is up and perhaps send another update. Especially those of you traveling now I'm definitely pumped to hear about what you're up to.
Much love and big hugs to you guys!  I miss you all...

Mysore Adventure Day 1

So I find myself now in a nice quiet home, on a comfy bed, clean, hydrated, satiated, and ready for bed. I did end up spending yesterday exploring the city and while it was exhausting and really a job that merited multiple days as opposed to just one, I was able to find myself a new place to stay and a few yoga schools to try out. I’m no longer in the cottage rather I’m renting a room from a sweet old couple who live in an upscale residential neighborhood in the part of the city for yuppy yogis. I’m learning that this neighborhood is full of little sweet secrets but they won’t be found unless you spend time just walking the streets, visiting the shops, and speaking with others in the area. For that reason I’m wishing I had more time here. It appears as though yogis with one week to practice are better off in Hampi while yogis with at least 2 weeks, if not several months, are best off in Mysore.

After a day of adjustment and orientation I woke up this morning with my plan to attend my first yoga class at Yoga Darshanam, located just 10 minutes by foot from my room. So at 8 AM I made my way over to Gokul Chats for a dosa breakfast, and I spent some time just simply sitting and letting my food settle. Several insights came to mind that I wrote down as I let myself just simply relax. I recorded my stream of consciousness as follows:
-         I’ve felt a pressure not to share with other yogis (and particularly instructors) that a significant motivating factor to practice yoga is to improve my physical body in terms of both health and appearance. I’ve found that often times there’s a judgment about Western people with that motivating factor—that they don’t understand yoga is a practice about mind and body (and spirit), not just the body itself. However, I no longer see this factor as something shameful for my truth is that I’m also as interested in learning how to exercise my mind –how to work/join with it rather than let it define my identity. 
-         We don’t change things by resisting what they are, rather, they are changed once we learn to accept them. Accepting something is different from resigning to it.
-         Maybe this is my work… rather than resigning to my body I need to foster an acceptance of it.
-         I’m intimidated to start a new class. My judgmental mind and competitive mind is highly active… Will I fit in? Will I be advanced relative to others and thus feel a sense of confidence? Will I be a beginner relative to others and thus intimidated? Why is my sense of confidence powered by others’ performance? Hm…
-         It’s so nice right now to feel so full (not just from the dosa) but full inside. I’m not lonely. I feel all here. And, I feel capable of anything.
-         I read earlier a passage in The Joy of Living that really spoke to me. It says, “The yearning most of us feel for a lasting happiness is the ‘small still voice’ of the natural mind, reminding us of what we’re really capable of experiencing. The Buddha illustrated this longing through the example of a mother bird that has left her nest. No matter how beautiful the place she has flown to, no matter how many new and interesting things she sees there, something keeps pulling her to return to her nest. In the same way, no matter how absorbing daily life might be—no matter how great it may temporarily feel to fall in love, receive praise,. Or get the ‘perfect’ job—the yearning for a state of complete, uninterrupted happiness pulls at us. In a sense, we’re homesick for our true nature.”

After recording this flow of thoughts, I walked on up the road and made it to my first yoga class. It was taught in Mysore style, which I’d heard of but not understood until today. Each student in the room works at an independent pace while the instructor works his way around the room providing individualized attention and making adjustments for students as needed. While I appreciated the individualized attention, I found that I really missed the sense of community and the energy felt with group classes. I didn’t particularly enjoy his instruction or the fact that we only did standing asanas, but, I did enjoy moving and trying something new. Additionally, I met two sweet women in my class who are visiting Mysore for just a few days and ended up renting the other room in the home where I’m staying. It worked out well for them and for me because if I feel like being social now it’s nice to know I’ve got great company right across the hall J

Later in the afternoon I visited Mysore Mandala Yoga Shala to grab a bite to eat at their amazing and super healthy cafĂ© (yay!! Major score on that find!) and collect information. I discovered there that they were offering a back bending course at 2:30 so I figured I’d eat lightly and give it a shot. Best move of the day!! I ended up being the only student in class so it was tailored entirely to my needs. The teacher was wonderful—she knew exactly how to challenge me and also recognize my limitations so as not to push me too far. Early on in the class just as we were finishing our warm-up, I asked her what the health benefits are to back bending asanas. Her response was, “It exercises the mind.” Oh gosh I thought… that’s totally code for ‘None that I know of. I’m just good at them so I teach them.’ Well, once I tried the first asana and found that the only thing stopping me from doing the full form was my own mind, I was convinced she knew exactly what she was talking about. My body was totally capable but it was my mind that got in the way. This is why I love yoga! How many scenarios can you think of where that same situation occurred—having the capability of accomplishing a particular task or goal but struggling to do so because of mental blocks.

Tomorrow morning I’m attending a 6 AM yoga course to start my day. It’s located at the Patanjala Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Shala which was is run by Shishadri who happens to be the ‘guru’ or ‘master,’ if you will, of my very favorite yoga instructor back in Nashville!  Wahoo!!  I can’t wait to take his course and see what all the hype is about. So, given that it’s now the late hour of 9:48 PM I’m thinkin it’s about my bed time.

Inside the cottage

The cottage... it actually looks kinda cute in the daylight :)
A temple outside the Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace

Swadesh and Kouchel's home in Gokulam where I rented a room for the week

Mysore Adventure Arrival

Wow so it’s been quite a long day of travel via 1 train, 1 bus, and at least 4 rickshaws, and I’ve finally arrived to Mysore. I got here after dark and I had nowhere to stay so I got dropped off at the yoga shala where I knew there would be lots of foreign yoga students and I’d heard there was a guest house nearby. I found a cottage across the street for 150 rupees a night (~$3) and while it doesn’t have a shower or hot water I think I should be able to make due for just a night.  Given that I’ve already counted 4 daddy long legs on the walls and I have an endless supply of dead ants on my sheets, I’m thinking that I’m going to wake up in the morning, grab my breakfast at a restaurant up the road, and look for other options in a different neighborhood I researched called Gokulam.

I’ve been vacillating lots this past day between being super pumped about my solo adventure of the week and then also wondering what the heck I’m doing out here all on my own. Part of me thinks this little cottage could be fun and that Mysore must have more to offer than the little bit I saw tonight, and then another part of me is dying for something comfortable, familiar, and not questionably full of bed bugs, and disease-ridden bacteria in a town a bit smaller and more quaint. It also doesn’t really help that I can’t call anyone on the phone now since it’s Christmas morning at home, all my friends in India are busy traveling, and the internet spot across the street isn’t working (I’m typing this as a word document), so I’m basically totally and completely on my own.

I’m hopeful that after I get some food in my system and a good night’s sleep I’ll be able to wake up tomorrow energized and able to find a new place. The current game plan is to spend tomorrow getting to know Mysore, exploring my options for yoga classes and hostels, and then get started bright and early Monday morning. Boy, I can’t wait!