A Travellerspoint blog

Amma the Guru

"We got a genuine Indian guru, teaching us a better way." -Dr. Hook

Two days ago we arrived at an ashram. I know exactly what you are thinking: Dave, ashram, spiritual enlightenment...huh?

So seriously, we are at an ashram in south India which started in the 1980s around a female guru named Mata Amritanandamayi or Anna (mother) for short. Having never been to an ashram or any person centric organization, we thought it would be a good opportunity to drag the kids along and see what it was all about.

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Amma's ashram on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Let me paint you a picture of the ashram. It is a large pink gated compound on the ocean composed of many buildings including four 14 story highrises, a massive hall for dining, blessings, songs, etc, a four story temple and countless smaller buildings for things like food prep, offices, printing presses (running full tilt spewing out leaflets) and meditation. There are three types of people here: long term residents who wear all white, the Amma followers who make regular pilgramges to see her from around the world and the normal schmuks like us who are dropping by to find out what all the fuss is about.

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Evening Meditation on the beach.

And fuss there is. People revere her as a living saint, a being that has foregone heaven to come and teach us mere mortals how to live and reach nirvana. The place revolves around Amma when she is here and everyday she is either leading meditation, singing or doling out her blessings in the form of hugs.

In thirty years it is claimed she has hugged 30 million people worldwide, though when you do the math it is more than a tad far fetched. People travel the world to get a hug and there is a ticketing system and lineups to get your cluddle. The ashram is full of devotees who have given up their western lives (and money) and moved there just to be close Amma after one of those magical hugs. Not willing to miss my opportunity for a life changing experience, I had to get my hug.

On one of the darshan (hugging) days, I first had to pick up my ticket in the morning to get in line later in the day. Darshan takes place in a huge hall with hundreds of people watching in awe as Amma hugs her devotees one by one. When my number came up (actually there was a range of 100 numbers) it was my turn to get in line. I sat in line moving down a few seats every ten minutes or so and chatting with the people next to me. They were both foreigners making their annual pilgrimage to come spend a month or so at the ashram. Toward the end of our three hour line up we were sitting on stage with about one hundred other people all sitting as close to Amma as possible, facing her starry eyed and glowing in the positive cosmic energy she supposedly gives off. When it came to be my turn, I was pushed to my knees, and had my arms placed on the arm rests beside Amma who was chatting animatedly in Malayalam to people around me. As they stuffed my head into her bosom Amma wrapped her arms around me and I couldn't help laugh at the ridiculous situation. Amma has not found a convert in me.

I have to say, being in the ashram really gave me the creeps after a few days. First, the devotees were largely women, many of them western and in their 50s or 60s. They all refer to Amma as "mother" and talk about the amazing healing power and energy. I got to sit in one line up for a hug, but there is a long line to simply sit on stage and bask in the glory while she doles out cuddles.

Second, people all give themselves Indianish names. I met one 10 year old from Seattle whose name was Goran and when I asked him how it was spelled he said, "I don't know, I only know how to spell my real name, John." It turned out that his mother had invented an Indian name to use at the ashram.

Last, no one really seemed to be very happy. Everyone was in awe of Amma and seeking enlightenment but from what I saw, there wasn't a lot of joy in the place. I have to say, I'm not exactly selling all my possessions and moving in and donating my money to Amma.

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A very serene sunset at Amma's

Audrey's 2 cents:

As Dave said, we were part of the latter group - the schmucks stopping in on their way by to see what all the fuss is about and to possibly learn a thing or two. Just to counter Dave's underwhelming hug a little bit, Amma has built schools, hospitals, and houses and supports many environmental causes as well as sitting on UN religious committes. Her foundation supports a plethra of projects for women and children around the world, even some in North America. She has been at ground zero of many natural disaster relief efforts such as after the Haiti earthquake and Asian tsunami, all great things.

Amma is the daughter of a fisherman and grew up in a small and very poor fishing village which is actually where the ashram is built. It is astonishing to think of what it took for a poor girl in rural India to build this type of empire. What she has accomplished is very impressive especially given the obstacles.

Here is what our average day looked like. Our room was simple with a fan (no A/C) and only gym mats for beds. With that said, we had 4 large mats so our square footage for bedding was the biggest yet.

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One fraction of a crumb of food in our room would immediately attract an army of ants - not good when you are sleeping on the floor. Before the sunrise at 5:00 am, chanting would blare on the loud speakers and awaken about a 1000 birds. I was the only one who noticed, the boys all slept through it. This was a nice opportunity for me to get up and practice yoga for 2 hours with all of the other yoginis and meditators which I did three out of four mornings. It was breathtakingly beautiful actually.

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Food was available at set mealtimes and was shockingly good and ridiculously cheap. The Indian food was actually free but you could pay like $1 to get an upgrade which we did. We all had to wash our own dishes as well. The whole experience cost us about $90 all in (food and accommodation) for 4 nights.

The boys spent most of their days catching crabs with a pack of other boys their age while Kaito and I spent our two hours daily volunteer time cleaning up one of the gardens.

The spiritual surroundings did inspire some interesting questions from Kiyoshi such as, "Who is the main God, Shiva or Krishna? Is he still alive and where does he live?" He even reminded me that Shiva is the blue guy and that he turned blue from consuming a poison which saved all people from death."

In the end, we had to leave in a hurry. There was a thin facade of being a family friendly environment. It was like the folks liked the idea that people would bring their children, they just didn't actually like your children. For example, Kaito fell and scraped his knee and I was quickly given dirty looks and shoed away. Maybe it was because the type of people who tend to BRI g their kids there believe in the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child but take it to the extreme and take advantage of the save environment by leaving them on their own all day.

On our way out I asked him what he learned while at the ashram and he said, "Not a lot. Actually nothing."

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PS. Please excuse the mistakes as I wrote this while on a bus and with a sleeping child on my lap.

Posted by McNouye 22:53 Comments (6)

Yala Safari

semi-overcast 30 °C

By Taro: At first I was really excited, but then I got a wake up call saying "wake up for the safari today". It was 5 in the morning. By that time I totally forgot about the safari. I got out of bed, got dressed, and brushed my teeth. I was ready to go. Then we picked up our breakfast that had two boiled eggs, an apple, a banana, sausages, pineapple and a slice of banana bread. Then we got in the truck that had two seats in the front and six seats in the back. It was a bumpy 45 minutes to get to the gates and buy our tickets.

I know this looks like a many big bumps in the lake, they are not. They are water buffalo having a morning bath.

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By Dave: Once we got to the park, we were greeted with several gracious peacocks posing for us on the "Yala National Park" sign.
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It turned out that the peacocks were everywhere throughout the park and we did end up with some nice pictures of them from many angles.
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Birds are abundant throughout the park. We saw toucans, macaw's, painted storks, pelicans and something that looked an awful lot like a chicken.
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By Kiyoshi: There are leopards in Yala National Park. Leopards like to hide in tall grass. When they want to attack, they hide in tall grass.

Back to Dave again: You always have to keep your expectations low when there are 20 illusive cats spread out through nearly 1000 square km but apparently people do see them from time to time. Shortly after arriving in the park, their existence was confirmed when our driver pointed out a leopard track in the mud beside the road.
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It turned out that we weren't the only ones looking for leopards. Once a leopard is spotted, cell phones ring and the trucks all convene where the last sighting was. You pull up to a traffic jam of diesel chugging trucks full of hopeful westerners.
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All of the trucks are jockeying for position and the gringos all have their cameras. You would hear a buzz from people a few trucks ahead and scan the horizon looking for the leopard. Finally we did see one walking between some bushes. It wasn't close to us, but you could definitely see what it was and we did get a reasonable picture. If you zoom in just a little...or a lot.
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The rest of the morning we saw three elephants (which came so close that we quickly had to throw our food into the front of the truck), water buffalo a crocodile, mongooses (or is it mongeese?) and many other critters.
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We finally stopped for breakfast at 9:00 at a nice spot on the beach. It was at this site that several tourists as well as Yala staff including our driver's father were taken by the ocean during the tsunami. Throughout Sri Lanka, we have seen remnant of tsunami which hit the coast 10 years ago killing thousands - very sad.

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After an early start and an exhilarating morning, we all got caught snoozing on our way to our next destination.
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Posted by McNouye 03:26 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (3)

Mr. Kaito

sunny 29 °C

To most of you, Kaito is a happy, curious, content little guy. With us, he has gained a bit of a reputation. He is often referred to as Mr. Uncooperative, The Destroyer, or Fearless. Traveling with Kaito is proving to make traveling much more challenging than it was on our last trip when Taro and Kiyoshi were 2 and 4.

With nicknames such as these, it is no surprise that he walked out of our hotel room while failing to tell us that he was going to play ping pong. In fact, he has on several occasions decided to bolt to the ping pong table.

Absolutely everything needs to go up high. Note the position of the cell phones, tablets, cameras and even the AC remote control and room key.

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The most horrendous thing that he has done so far was to insert the Bum Gun right into his mouth and spray which was just horrifying on so many levels. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Bum Gun, I think the picture explains it well enough. Despite this and his urge to lick almost everything, he still hasn't been sick.

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We also have to super cautious about things like the complimentary matches provided by the hotel as he successfully lit one.

Due to Kaito's unpredictable nature, we have been staying in top notch hotels on the beach so I suppose I can't complain. Just don't ever turn your back on this one.
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Posted by McNouye 05:59 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (9)

In Canada that's not a Road...

The differences between Canada and Sri Lanka

"It is better to travel well than to arrive" -Buddha

Once you arrive at a far away destination and get your feet on the ground you quickly start to notice how many things are different between our quiet lives in Canada and what happens here. Taro and I sat down yesterday and talked about the many differences we notice.

Food
The first thing I always look forward to in the tropics is eating the fresh, tree ripened fruit, especially the bananas and pineapples, and Sri  Lanka did not disappoint. We have been eating a big delicious plate of fruit every morning for breakfast. Wherever we travel, the food is always a hot topic of conversation. Thai food is amazing, Balinese and Central American is bland, Mexican is pretty good. As a vegetarian family (ok, the parents eat fish and the kids will eat meat when they are allowed) our eating can be a little more challenging. There is a wide selection of western style food that can be ordered at all the restaurants. These are typically bland, boring meals like spaghetti (Kiyoshi's current meal), sandwiches, fried rice, and fried noodles. The yummy food, of course, is the Sri Lankan food. Many years ago I asked a Sri Lankan what the food was like and he told me "it's like Indian food but Indian food is not spicy", and that pretty much sums it up. There are a number of spicy curries based on dhal, potatoes, okra and coconut that are served for each meal.
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Taro, Audrey and I have been gobbling up the Sri Lankan food at every opportunity while Kiyoshi, Kaito and Janet survive on the bland western stuff. I'm pretty sure that Kiyoshi and Kaito will eventually come around but I'm not holding my breath for Janet.

Roads
The narrow winding snake through the center of towns. They also serve as cricket pitches, soccer fields, firecracker testing zones, kids play areas and sidewalks as there is very little public green space. Walking around the villages is challenging both from a navigation standpoint as well as a logistical one; there simply isn't very much room on the road for all its different uses.
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The roads happen to also provide vehicular transportation as well. Tuk-tuks, motor bikes, busses, cars, taxis and bikes all race through the streets and around the tight corners. Ironically, the one that scared me most was a Toyota Prius as it silently snuck up from behind. Everything else, particularly the tuk-tuks, you can hear coming and which gives you time to move over. Navigating these streets with kids that are not yet savvy to walking anywhere without sidewalks has been tricky indeed.
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The differences between Canada and Sri Lanka are, of course, too many to list.  As a family we have been watching at this country through our western eyes and noting the way things are different.  It has been a big part of our "learning all the time" homeschooling technique and definitely helps fulfill the "Social Studies" part of our curriculum. I don't think Sri Lanka is a big part of the grade 2 or 4 Alberta curriculum, but hey, what do you remember from grade 2/4 social anyway?  And did you get to work on a blog post while sitting by the pool with your dad and call it school?

Posted by McNouye 07:56 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged beaches sun family_travel Comments (7)

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