I got on a boat through the "backwaters" and we chugged along through wide and narrow waterways, past villages where local people were washing their clothes in the water and had even errected some makeshift "showers" near to the river bank. It was a lovely day and I found myself on the roof of the boat under a shading canopy. There was only about 14 other people on the boat and most of them seemed to be keeping themselves to themselves in the heat, so we chugged down the waterways in silence (except for the engine noise obviously). We stopped for lunch at a small shack by the riverbank and the food was served on palm leaves and there was no cutlery. It tasted really good though. After lunch I got chatting to a Kiwi guy who seemed nice enough but had a strange passive/agressive thing going on.
I was actually getting off the boat halfway through the trip at the Ashram of the "hugging mother". An Ashram is a temple complex and the woman in question is a local girl who blesses people by hugging them. She has a fanatical following of both Indians and foreigners, with more then 3,000 people living at the ashram in some large tower blocks. She also raises money for charitable causes and to help the poor, so she seemed like a good person. I was to discover though that many people at the ashram see her not as mearly a good person or a religious figure, but as a daiety; indeed in many parts of the ashram there are unsubtle hints that she is on a par with Jesus and the main Hindu Gods, which I dont personally believe.
Anyway the ashram is a very open place and anyone and everyone can just drop in and spend a night there so I was checked in at foreigner registration by a German guy who gave me so many fake smiles I wanted to punch him and then found my room. It took a little while finding the room though as my room number was 1312 which meant room 12 on the 13th floor, but in some initial confustion I went to go to room 13 on the 3rd floor, only to find the lift taking me to the 2nd floor when I pressed 3. After that faffing and again getting confused with the strange lift/floor numbering system I eventually found the right room and then hurried back to the shop to buy some white trousers as the shorts I was wearing was forbidden in the conservative ashram. I loved the new look anyway - I wasnt sure if I looked pius or like a member of the Italian mafia!
After being briefly press-ganged into helping carry some books around I went on the introductory tour. Everyone was quite alternative you could say. One girl in particular got my attention as she seemed incredibly impressed by everything that everyone said and would say "Wow" regularly, with a big spacey look on her face. The tour itself was interesting. The woman showing us around had lived at the ashram for over 20 years and she went through the history of the place and of Amma's good deeds (the hugging mother was called Amma which means mother in Hindi), which were many. Sadly Amma was not around as she was off hugging people in Australia so it looked like I was not going to get a hug here *sob*. Apparently though she has hugged over 27 million people worldwide so far and her hugging sessions can go for 16 hours straight through the night with little break. If nothing else she is certainly patient and passionate about hugging and spreading love around.
Over the course of the day the place started to feel more and more like a cross between a cult and a commune but set in the middle of India. Everyone I spoke to was quite intense. For example the very first guy I spoke to in the lift when trying to find my room for the first time:
Me: So have you been here long
Him: Since January
Me: Wow thats a long time, you must really like it here
Him: I actually come here for 6 months a year. This is my 10th year. I normally go travelling with Amma as well. This place is my life.
Another slightly strange thing about the place was the relationship between the Indians and the foreigners. There was a lot of segregation going on with each having their own eating areas, living in seperate blocks, paying different prices and for foreigners there was the concept of "Siva." This was volunteer work and everyone was encouraged to do it. I thought as I was here I may as well get stuck in so after dinner I went to the Siva desk in the dining hall and volunteered to do something that evening or the following morning. He asked if I could sort through rubbish and I refused, I had a limit. He then asked if I would do some gardening tomorrow morning. I agreed to that.
I headed back to my room and found that my room mate was finally around - an English guy called Richard. He was a nice bloke and we were chatting for a few hours before going to sleep. Everything closed up in the ashram after 7pm and alcohol was strictly prohibited so we didnt really have anywhere else to go. We did have a sound track of sorts though as the local village was having some religious festival which meant for 10 days starting at 5am and going on into the late evening there was the sound of someone reading passages in Hindi, with the occasional piece of music thrown in. Over many loudspeakers that were situated everywhere.
I was up early in the morning to meet a German girl for gardening duty at 7.30am. Also coming on our little gardening trip was a large Austrian guy. Both of them seemed a little offended when I said that I was heading back for breakfast at 9am and asked why I did not go to the earlier breakfast. I told them I did not know that the earlier breakfast existed; what I did not say to them was that I was only willing to put a basic amount of effort into the place as I was only around for 1 day. Anyway for the next ten minutes as we walked out to the gardens the Austrian guy told me about how he always stays until at least 10 or 11, as though he was a volunteer snob or something. I wasnt very impressed.
Anyway we arrived at the gardens and started weeding some plants, which I was told the name of by the German girl (but which I immediately forgot) and I was also told represeted one of the main Hindu Gods for a variety of reasons and so could be sold for charitable purposes. It was at this point as well that I realised that working in white trousers is not very suitable for gardening. Also that gardening in India is hard work, even early in the morning, as the heat and the effort makes you sweat bucketloads. I was quite relieved to head on and I also felt that I had done my bit.
I met up with Rich back in the room and we hung out and chatted for a while before we got the boat on down the river. While waiting with our bags we got chatting to an Isralie couple (there are loads of Isralies in India for some reason) who told us about a town called Aureoville in the south east of India. It was to be their last stop. Apparently the town is built on land reclaimed from wasteland with a series of communes on it. Visitors are not actively encouraged and the only way to really get into a commune is to know someone there already or to hang out in the center where the guesthouses for several weeks before people started taking you seriously. The centerpiece of the town is a large meditation room with a large crystal dome that reflects light into the circular room below. I later verifyed all of those details in my guidebook. The couple then went on to tell me though that before the first commune set up shop a woman had a dream that a "big wave" was coming but that it would not hit the area around Pondicherry, where the communes are now based and sure enough, when the tsunami came a few years ago the communes were spared. Im not sure whether to believe that or not.
I had had an interesting day at the Ashram but it was all a little too intense for me. Certainly I was glad that I went there but I failed to meet Amma and instead ended up doing some gardening.