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Meditating under coconut palms

Posted: 2007-04-04 20:06:15, Categories: Travel, India, Cycling, 1309 words (permalink)

Gate of the Sahaja Yoga center in Ganpatipule. I stopped for four days to relax and meditate in a Sahaja Yoga center at Ganpatipule by the west coast of India. There I was able to wake up several times before half past six without an alarm clock, which probably already sounds amazing to those knowing my usual daily rhythm. But before more details I'll tell briefly what happened after I left Pune.

The first day when I continued my trip was said to be the New Year of the state of Maharastra. I didn't see any special celebrations while riding about 60 km south, but in the town of Khandala I was received kindly by the officer in charge of the government guesthouse. He said that I could stay at the guesthouse, I wouldn't even pay the modest room rate because I was his guest, and on top of that invited me for a dinner at his home. The meal consisted of several dishes made specially for the New Year, including different rice cakes and puranpoli, a kind of soft bread eaten by dipping it into a sweetish milk or cream based sauce.

After Khandala I took a mountain road up to an altitude of about 1300 meters and stayed for a couple of days in hill station Panchgani. There my base was Ecocamp, a group of large tents set up in a stunning location overlooking the Krishna river down in the valley. The friendly owners of the place, a Canadian-Indian couple, lived in a house next to the tents. I rode my bike to the scenic spots surrounding the village, walked around a strange flat highland plateau called Tableland, and took a birds-eye view from a paraglider. The paragliding ride was fun but didn't match the experience of trying skydiving some nine years back. I guess I'd need to stay longer in the air and be in control of my own wing (as was the case during the skydiving course) instead of flying in tandem.

From Panchgani it was still a short ride uphill to Mahabaleshwar, another hill station. The serenity of ancient temples in old Mahabaleshwar created a pleasant athmosphere and views were again impressive, but overall I found Mahabaleshwar less attractive than Panchgani. Without a vehicle the difference would have been even larger: Panchgani was small enough to walk around while a half-day sightseeing in Mahabaleshwar stretched to 30 km by bike in addition to the walks.

A joyride down the western side of the hills brought me to the Konkan region. I turned right from the southbound highway at Khed and arrived to the sea coast a few dozen kilometers further west. Coconut palms were lining gorgeous beaches next to small, quiet towns and villages. Although mostly not marked in my map, a network of small roads winded up and down the hills near the coast. Traffic was minimal and the beaches far from crowded, many even completely empty. I had arrived to the most pleasant region in India up to now during my trip.

The living standard of average villagers seemed to be somewhat better than in Rajasthan. They had nicer houses, more living space, and beautiful green surroundings provided by the nature. People were perhaps slightly more shy than their northern Indian brothers, but still very outgoing, helpful and hospitable. They were careful enough that I trusted newfound friends to go for a round on my bike, sometimes disappearing for a while with all the gear except the small bag of valuables which I always detach when stopping. Attempts to cheat or take advantage of a western traveller were completely missing. Nobody was begging or trying to charge "tourist prices" — many would even refuse to take a tip if I rounded up the bill in a small restaurant.

After a few days of pedaling south along the coast I was approaching Ganpatipule and decided to try camping again. I set up the tent on a patch of grass with a sea view, went for a moonlight swim and cooked my dinner in solitude on the beach. Later I heard that swimming after sunset is not advised and that cobras also live in the bushes near my campsite, but I only met a large colony of ants and some flying insects. The main problem was heat: despite fully opening all the ventilation holes my high-tech two-layer tent was succesfully blocking the wind and keeping the hot air inside.

In the morning I went swimming to wash off the sweat and bumped into three guys from the nearby Sahaja Yoga center. I had recently become more interested in yoga, partly through reading Autobiography of a Yogi which I had just incidentally finished previous night. The book was about a different school of yoga so I didn't have any previous knowledge of Sahaja Yoga in particular, but the people seemed sincere and I was in a receptive mood so it felt exactly the right time to give it a try.

The center had actually been more active ten years ago. There was a big stage were ceremonies for several thousand people had been held, a couple of weeks ago such gathering with more than ten thousand participants, about one fifth of whom from abroad, had been in Pune. A few dozen people had continued after the big gathering to this more secluded place by the sea, and by the time I arrived it was less than twenty. Most were from Russia and Ukraine, the only Indians being the caretaker of the center and a couple of part-time helpers. There wasn't any fixed daily program, but people generally got up around six, did morning meditation either at the site or by the sea, had meals together, spent a lazy afternoon, went swimming a couple of times per day and gathered for a group meditation session around 8 pm. Sahaja Yoga is a completely non-physical form of yoga, there weren't any lessons and the group was small, so the program didn't need to be very organized. Sleeping was outdoors by the big stage; there were also bunks in a couple of buildings but it was nicer to sleep in the open air.

During the first sessions I didn't feel anything special, but already during the second evening meditation there was a kind of vague sensation of energy. It was different from that suggested on the Sahaja Yoga web site (see also the Wikipedia page for a more objective take), but everyone I asked at the camp explained their experiences differently anyway. I got similar feelings a couple of times later as well, generally in the evening after a period of silence, not during worship which was also practised there. Whether there's anything divine to it is another question, and in particular worshiping the person who had founded the movement didn't feel like my thing. I don't have any plans for joining the organization, but as a technique for mind relaxation I'm planning to explore it further on my own for at least some time.

Again trying to follow my intuition, I left the yoga camp after four nights. Only twenty kilometers later in Kotawade I met a group of happy people at a small village temple and joined a local festival dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. The celebrations were a combination of old and new: there were long readings of prayers and traditional songs but also an outdoor disco and a film screening to entertain people later in the evening. Around a dozen people slept at the temple and I joined them. I also had the option of staying in a room at one of the homes nearby and my luggage had been taken there, but this time it didn't feel impolite to turn down the offer and stay at the temple instead. In the morning I woke up early, had some chai (milk tea) and continued my trip.

University life

Posted: 2007-03-19 10:02:47, Categories: Travel, Work, India, 509 words (permalink)

Main building of the University of Pune. I came to Pune to visit my friend Helena, but as I was at the university campus it felt like a good idea to get in touch with people of my field. A couple of meetings were quickly arranged and it didn't take long before I was invited to give a guest lecture about grid computing, which I had been working on during my three years at CSC. I accepted and set aside a couple of days to catch up with the latest news and prepare a talk.

The lecture was organized at the Computer Science Department, with students from a couple of other departments joining as well. There were about 60 people present, and their many good questions assured that at least part of the audience was interested in the topic. The announcement and my slides are available online. The following day I went still a bit more into technical details with people at the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, which resembles CSC in Finland, and heard what they are doing in India.

The discussions gave me also some perspective into the working culture in Indian universities and research institutes. It is easy for a foreigner to get involved as students generally speak good English, are welcoming and eager to meet new people. I didn't notice the Japanese kind of social pressure to not leave work before the supervisor, but at least Helena's friends in the National Centre for Cell Science did very long hours and spent also weekends in the lab. It might have been partly related to their field though, as they needed to check the results and take further actions at specific times after starting an experiment. For example the CS deparment, where you might expect nerds to code all night, got empty earlier in the evening. Organized free time activities and student parties seemed to be rare compared to Europe. A group of friends might decide to go out and you could always find a game of cricket on the fields, but bulletin boards carried job and course ads instead of party posters.

We spent one nice weekend outside the city in the mountains. Sanjeev, the lead scientist in the lab Helena is working in, is an outdoor person so when the lab went for an outing it included some hiking too. We had accommodation indoors, but many people had never slept in a tent and were curious to try. Sanjeev brought two tents and I also set up mine for the first time in India. For me it was more exotic to get a ride on top of a jeep so I tried that in exchange. :-)

Staying in the NCCS guesthouse on the campus was the closest to having a home since June 2006 when I left Finland. There was even a fridge in the room so I didn't have to think in the grocery store which items would get spoiled quickly in the heat. However, today I'm again loading my gear on the bike and returning to nomad life on the road.

The joy of Holi

Posted: 2007-03-06 15:56:05, Categories: Travel, India, 708 words (permalink)

Me and Helena after playing Holi. On Sunday I had the exhilarating experience of playing Holi. I got carried to a mud pool, soaked with buckets of water, painted all over with dozens of colours and had extraordinary fun the whole time. Due to apparent risks of carrying a camera in such event I don't have any photos of the best moments, but on the right you can see how I and my friend Helena looked like after the play.

Holi is called the festival of colours, marking the end of winter. It's a two day event. Bonfires are burnt in the evening of the first day, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. The main celebration begins in the morning of the second day, when people pour colour powders, paints and coloured water on each other, commonly called "playing Holi". Often friends play together but bypassing strangers are not saved either. For more details, special Holi foods and local varieties of the festival check out holifestival.org which tells all about it.

Holi is celebrated with greatest enthusiasm in North India, but the large student population in Pune also knows how to have fun. I joined the party with Helena, a Finnish girl whom I also had met first time at INSA in France — already the third INSA friend in India during just a couple of weeks. She was doing part of her research in the University of Pune so it was a natural choice to celebrate the festival there. Dressed in white T-shirts we had bought specifically for Holi we stepped out of the guesthouse around ten in the morning.

It was rather quiet on the campus but already after encountering the first two people we had a fair amount of colours on us. Then we had water war for a while with nearby kids, getting at least as wet as they were. However, the real fun began after spotting a group of students singing and dancing in front of the bioinformatics department. From their outlook you could already guess that it was going to be the full treatment...

They greeted us in the friendly Holi way: smearing colour on our faces with both hands, hugging and wishing "Happy Holi!". After the welcoming hugs someone asked in a playful voice: "You want to see real Holi? ;-)". A moment later we found ourselves in a small mud pool where apparently all our hosts also had been once. That gave a good base paint for our clothes, so we continued by applying more colours to make it look better, singing and dancing on the lawn. As the time passed more people came and were equally dragged into the group.

In some places Holi celebration is apparently nowadays a kind of super soaker and water balloon war, but in this group there wasn't any competition. Everybody readily shared their colour powders and seemed to be as happy of being painted than painting others. Occasionally there was a colour attack on someone trying to run away, but it was part of the game, all done in good spirit and generally friendly way. If someone really didn't want to play, the wish was respected and they were let to leave with just some colour on the face — but at least a little bit was the rule of the day. Although it didn't look like it, people also surprisingly well avoided spreading the colours to the eyes and mouth where they would be harmful or at least unpleasant. It was like traffic in India: looks chaotic but normally nothing bad happens. :-)

After a couple of hours of playing bhang was ready. Bhang is a drink prepared specifically for Holi, using milk and a variety of dried fruit, spices and herbs. There isn't normally any alcohol in it, but depending on the chef it may include some special kinds of herbs. ;-) We were about to find out how was this particular bhang, but Helena's lab mates came and we went away to continue playing with them tasting just a small sip. Maybe it was safer that way, but that also leaves still something new to try next time. After all, Holi alone is already a good enough reason to come to India again. :-)

Mumbai, city of contrasts

Posted: 2007-03-06 15:23:02, Categories: Travel, India, 581 words (permalink)

A view of the Walkeshwar temple area in Mumbai. Mumbai, also known as Bombay, showed itself to me as a city of contrasts. It had a touch of British glamour from the 19th century and modern highrise buildings, but also large slums spreading haphazardly in every direction. The local commuter trains were the most packed I've seen anywhere but it took only a short boat ride and a few steps away from the beaten path to escape the city and be alone inside a forest.

A walk through the Fort district clearly showed that Mumbai was an important city under the British rule. The Victoria station, main post office, public works office, high court and other buildings in the area were constructed during the 19th century in grandiose style. A few details such as double decker buses still remainded of Britain, but otherwise the atmosphere was very much Indian: the mix of small shops, street vendors and beggars told loudly that it wasn't Europe no matter what the buildings looked like.

I stayed in Mumbai with Gaurav, another Indian friend from my INSA year in France. He lived 20 km north from the center and a ride there showed the more recent development of the city. The road went through vast areas of slum dwellings, dotted with islands of modern highrise buildings. Construction companies are actually making big money from these so called slum rehabilitation projects, where they get valuable land in exchange for arranging housing to the people whose homes are bulldozed away. The constructors proceed by building high towers containing dozens or even hundreds of apartments each and arrange them around a western style shopping area. Security guards sit at the gates watching that outsiders don't come in.

Gaurav lived in one of these newly developed areas which are housing increasingly larger numbers of Indians. Many of them are singles or young couples who have moved away from their parents' house and are working for multinational companies. They do long days in the office and spend free time in the shopping malls, which try to mimic their American and European counterparts in almost every way. One particular difference which still tells it's India is the smaller number of household appliances in the apartments — it's cheaper to hire a maid to do cleaning, laundry and dishes than to buy machines for those tasks. Gaurav told that the daily maid service for him and his two flatmates was 1500 rupees per month, less than ten euros per person.

A completely different and very enjoyable experience in Mumbai was a day trip to the Elephanta Island. Boats to the island leave from the city center and take about one hour to reach the destination. The island is famous for caves which were carved some 1200 years ago and used as temples. The Hindu sculptures in the caves were impressive, but there was also a less known side of the island. It didn't take many steps away from the main walkway to be inside the surrounding forest without anybody else around. I walked a couple of kilometers around the western half of the island, partly along the shore and partly following a small path going through the bushes. Some of the trees with lianes were quite impressive.

After Mumbai I resumed cycling and rode about 150 kilometers east to Pune. On the way I saw some more temple caves in Karla and crossed a small mountain range. In Rajasthan it was quite flat but from here onwards there'll be more hills and small mountains ahead.

India from the back seat of a white Hindustan Ambassador

Posted: 2007-02-26 19:45:29, Categories: Travel, India, 785 words (permalink)

My car and driver in Kota, in front of Circuit House. In Bundi I decided to take a train 700 km up north to meet Ankur Garg, an old friend who was exchange student in France at the same time than me. Ankur had mentioned in an email that he now had a senior position in the government, but I didn't pay too much attention to that. However, soon it became clear that in addition to meeting a friend I would be treated to a whole new kind of experience in India.

The adventure started already in Kota, a medium-sized city in Rajasthan, conveniently located along the main western railway line and near Bundi. Ankur Garg had arranged that I could leave my bicycle there. I got his friend's phone number, and upon calling was asked to ride to the Circuit House, which turned out to be an old palace converted to a government guest house. I was guided to a room where I could take a shower and rest before my train would leave; I had a ticket to an overnight train the same evening.

Later in the evening my bicycle and part of my luggage was transferred to Ankur's friend's garage. When it came time to leave, I had a car and driver waiting to take me to the railway station. As most of the goverment cars, it was a white Hindustan Ambassador, shown in the picture in front of the guesthouse. An observant reader may note that it also has a red light on the roof, indicating a VIP car.

When arriving to Chandigarh it got even better. Now there was not only a similar white car and driver but also a man in police uniform who would escort me to the car. We drove to the government guesthouse of Chandigarh, occasionally using the blue lights and siren when normal honking of the horn wouldn't be enough to make clearance. At the guesthouse I was led to a two room suite, guided how to use the room service and introduced to my personal servant...

Oh yes, then I finally met my friend Ankur and his wife Swati, who had both been busy first at work and then meeting some relatives. We could compare how different paths our lifes had led us to since the time together at INSA in France. While I had continued with computer science, Ankur had abandoned electronics after graduation and taken a series of exams to be selected as an officer in the Indian Administrative Service, IAS. There he had met his wife, who was also an IAS officer.

Almost half a million people try the first IAS exam every year, and after three rounds of selection including additional exams and an interview 35 of the candidates are chosen. They go through two years of hard training and after that are appointed to be in charge of various goverment offices across the country, a couple of years at a time, and later high level government functions in the capital. The salary is a decade lower than the same people would earn in the private sector, but benefits, respected position in the society and a network of IAS friends around the country more than make up for it.

After the overwhelming experience of being a government guest we spent some nice time together without the official side, including a relaxing weekend at Ankur's parents' home in Patiala, some 50 kilometers from Chandigarh. There we sat out in the garden enjoying the sun and cracked jokes around the dining table. We were also just in time for the Patiala Heritage festival so I got a chance to hear some Indian classical music. In Chandigarh I must mention the fantastic Rock Garden, an art park constructed entirely from rocks, stones and various kinds of waste material.

After Chandigarh I took a train back to Kota via Delhi, picked up my bicycle and boarded another train further south to Mumbai. Getting the bicycle transported was quite a lot of hassle, but it eventually arrived 12 hours after me in another train with minimal damage. Sleeper class for overnight trains was exceptionally good value, by the way. Indian Railways manages to pack 72 passengers in one wagon while still giving everyone a comfortable place to sleep. As an example, 450 kilometers from Delhi to Kota cost only 204 rupees (about 3.5 euros). For Kota-Mumbai I took 3A class, which cost almost triple compared to sleeper, but only noticeable differences were air conditioning, curtains for the windows and provided bedsheets/blankets (in sleeper class you need to bring your own). Perhaps worthwhile during hot summer season, but in winter I'd advice either traveling in sleeper class or splurging for first class, which should offer real additional comfort — haven't personally tried that yet.

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Copyright Arto Teräs <ajt@iki.fi>, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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