Mumbai to Bhopal

Flying into Mumbai we were given our first view of the slums that covered what seemed to be most of the city. When we finally arrived at our hotel we were lead to a room with a view of the adjacent buildings wall. Thankfully the place lived up to its reviews when it came to customer service and our hosts were always very helpful. Leaving the hotel we walked up the road heading for the Gateway to India. We never actually arrived, having underestimated the distance plus we were overwhelmed with the crowds and squalor. Having come from Kerala, we had been a little spoilt with scenery, which still contained the typical level if Indian rubbish everywhere, as well as levels of poverty that was unknown in Australia. Mumbai however seemed to be overrun, even with us staying in the nicer touristy area. Having seen enough we made our way back for an early night.

After getting up early to head to Starbucks for breakfast, the only thing open before midday on Sunday, we returned to await our guide who was to take us through the slums where he was born and still lives. The start of the tour was delayed due to other guests but this gave us a great opportunity to learn about Shaelesh’s life. He had recently started his PHD in chemistry, taught 30 local children chemistry in the evenings as well as ran tours for his new business on the weekends. We discovered that the slums were not as bad as Hollywood had made them out to be in the movie “Slum Dog Millionaire”, the very slum he lived in and were soon to visit. With the other guests arriving, our little group headed to the nearby train station for our ride. This itself was an experience with us having to dash on the train, aggressively shouldering our way past the locals so as not to be left behind. Thankfully it was a quiet Sunday so the train only had a few people hanging from the open doorways. Exiting was just as hurried but in no time we had arrive at the slums. The next couple of hours we walked the streets, learning about the many businesses that were in operation here; from plastic recycling to baking to leather making. This one slum was annually generating $650 million in profit. Many of the streets we went down were no more than narrow alleys between the congestion of buildings, the homes themselves just a ram shackled room housing whole families. After the tour we took a taxi back to our hotel, passed many other slums, most less “well to do” than the one we had just come from.

The next day we checked out to head to the train station for our journey to Jalgaon. Along the way we passed a funeral procession where the recently deceased was being carted down the road on a bed of flowers. The train station itself was the worst we had yet come across with the heavy stench of faeces in the air due to the tracks being covered in it from the trains. Thankfully before long we were inside and on our way. Arriving at Jalgaon around 8:00pm we were unable to find the hotel we had aimed at staying at, instead having to walk the streets to find impromptu accommodation.

In the morning we caught a public bus to the Ajanta caves, 50km away or a 90-minute ride. The next few hours we spent walking through the many Buddhist temples that had been carved into the rock, dashing from one to the other to avoid getting too wet. As we left the area, headed for the bus stand, the heavens opened up in earnest. Soon we were on our way back to our room ready to catch the train at 5:30am the next morning.

The train arrived early and we soon discovered that our seats were taken. So we squashed ourselves into berths, packs and all, for the next couple of hours. As dawn broke we approached the conductor to see if we cold move to other seats, only to discover we had gotten on the wrong train. Thankfully it was heading to the same destination and our correct train was behind us. Leaving the wrong train at a village in the middle of nowhere we patiently waited for our own train. This arrived as we were told, even if it was an hour late. We finally arrived in Bhopal, late in the afternoon.

Straight away we felt uncomfortable, with unhappy smiles, and locals that seemed to be trying to scam us at every opportunity. Walking down the main, dust-ridden street, we were unable to initially find our hotel… again. We decided to try somewhere else but before Kayla could get herself through the hotel door she was being told to leave. After getting better directions we finally found the place we were meant to be staying at. This turned out to be a dingy hotel with our room looking like it had never been cleaned. Unfortunately there had been few other options that we had seen heading here so we had no choice but to grin and bare it. After requesting the room be cleaned, we returned after dinner to find the staff’s efforts to be almost non-existent.

After a fitful sleep we woke with the intention of heading to Sanchi to see the Buddhist Stupas the area was famous for. However, the thought of a 2-hour bus ride was too much and we decided to stay in for the day, made easier due to the fact that I was getting a cold, probably due to the dirty room. After spending the day in the room, we left the following day, happy that we were leaving Bhopal. 


The rickshaw ride from the train station was harrowing, with the driver more focused on us instead of the road, for most of the journey, while he tried to sell us a tour with him on the following day. Halfway to the hotel we unexpectedly stopped outside his home, with his wife and kids waiting on the side of the street. He then proceeded to invite us in so we could see how he lived and how badly he needed our business. With us still saying no and once again requesting to be taken straight to our hotel we continued on, arriving at our destination in Fort Kochi at around 7pm. We would learn over the coming days that this hard sell by the local rickshaw drivers was common and constant.

Having finally arrived from a long day of travel, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice the small hotel was and even more so by the offer of a complimentary upgrade to a bigger room. Exhausted, we ate at the local restaurant, which was pricey by Indian standards but the food was very nice, before retiring to our air-conditioned room, looking forward to our first night in a comfortable bed in over a month.

We were up at 5:30am to do a yoga workout in the small confines of our room, in the hopes that the hard work we had put in over the previous four weeks wouldn’t be for nothing. Our first day of freedom was spent relaxing in our room, catching up on email and planning where we were going after Kochi, now that we had Internet after weeks without it. We walked the streets a little, said no to the hard selling rickshaw drivers a lot, and generally took it easy.

After the previous days lounging we decided to take in some of the local sites and walked along the outskirts of the island, past the Chinese fishing nets and the many spice stores, until we arrived at Jew Town. Here we paid to visit the small synagogue before continuing back to the hotel for the evening.

We had decided to head back to Ernakulum on the main land for our third day. So we made our way to the ferry port, paid the 2-rupee fare and squeezed onto the ferry alongside rickshaws and motorbikes. Soon after we arrived at the other side where we began to explore the shop filled streets. After several hours and with the weather becoming wetter we decided to head back to Fort Kochi. After freshening up we headed to the Greenix village for a night of kathakali. Before the performance started we were able to see how the dancers prepared themselves, their faces concealed in heavy make-up. The venue also contained a small museum, which gave more of an insight into this Keralan performance style, as well as a local art gallery. The show started with a short demonstration of the eye, facial and hand expressions used in a typical performance, as well as their meaning. This followed on into the main event, which was amazing and intricate. The evening ended with us having dinner at the attached restaurant before walking back to our room for the night.

Over the previous few days we had attempted to catch up with a friend, Jane from the UK, who we had met at the ashram. This had been more difficult than expected with us communicating via email in an area where power outages often meant communication was delayed. That morning we were advised by the hotel staff that someone had dropped by looking for us, which they were telling us after they had left… We walked the short distance to Jane’s homestay only to discover that she was currently out, so we decided to go for a wander before heading to a local café we had told her (in an email) we were having lunch at, in the hope that she may meet us. Lunch came and went but still there was no Jane, so with it being our last day in Kochi we wandered a little more, went sari shopping and then headed back to the hotel. We sent off a final email to Jane, stating that we would be having lunch at the Dal Roti at 6:30pm, if she would like to join us. As we arrived we were happy to find that she had received the invitation and we enjoyed a fantastic dinner, reminiscing together about our time in Kochi and the ashram before.

We had organised with Jane the night before to catch a taxi with her to the airport, so after getting up at 5am and walking down to her homestay, we all bundled into the car for the drive to the airport. After checking in we spent the hour before the flight to Mumbai chatting before saying our goodbyes.

Sivananda Ashram

The journey from the train station took us through one small town after another, all merging together into one long main road. Finally, we turned off, heading up a steep hill to be delivered to the gates of the ashram on the banks of the Neyyer Dam. Being a Friday, which was the free day, the place was quiet except for the staff that greeted us and showed us to our room. Our new home was basic but provided all we needed; bedding, study desk and some shelving. The first real shock that we encountered was when we went up for dinner. The large dining hall was laid out with a few bamboo mats for the small number of off-season guests to sit on, with a metal plate on the floor in front of them. No utensils were offered and we soon learned how difficult it could be to eat with only your right hand (the left deemed unclean) while sitting up straight and cross-legged. After our dinner we had a small amount of free time before our first satsang, which was the second surprise. Having read through the information provided about the ashram we had come to believe this would be either some meditation, chanting or lectures. We soon discovered that what actually happened was we would meditate for 30 minutes, chant for 30 minutes and finally have a short lecture or reading. Sitting cross-legged for extended periods (having already sat this way for 10 minutes at dinner!!) was starting to take its toll, which meant the first 30 minutes, was us meditating on our aching legs. As the chanting started, our chant books in hand, we fumbled our way through the Sanskrit words, having no idea what it all meant. Finally, we were offered an insightful reading, drawing our first Satsang to an end. We headed to our room, ready for lights out at 10:30pm, to spend our first night here on the hard beds under mosquito nets.

The waking bell came at 5:20 am, as we shuffled out of bed and headed back to the hall for another Satsang at 6:00am. Even with our aching legs crossed we seemed more able to meditate this morning than the night before, although it’s possible we just fell back to sleep. 7:30am brought the end to the morning Satsang and we all made our way outside for tea and a snack, where we met our first visitor, Natalie from Switzerland. 8:00am the bell rang again to herd us all off to our yoga classes, currently a mix of beginners and intermediates due to us having arrived a couple of days before the end/start of the yoga vacation, where we reintroduced our bodies to yoga with a grueling 90-120minute session. At 10:00am, we headed up to the dining hall for one of our two daily meals, before heading to our karma yoga (selfless service) meeting where we were assigned the duty of emptying the bins around the ashram at this time each day. After our chores we had some free time until the next teatime at 1:30pm, which we were able to use to organize our laundry. This would turn out to be almost a daily chore to ensure things dried in time with the monsoonal weather, and consisted of hand washing the items in a bucket before hanging them on rope we had strung up in the room. After the 1:30pm tea time we had our first lecture at 2pm which lasted until our second yoga class for the day at 3:30pm. Our yoga class ended just in time for dinner at 6:00pm and then a little more free time before the evening Satsang at 8:00pm, which gave us time to shower and feel sorry for our aching bodies. Being a Saturday the Satsang was slightly different, offering instead the weekly talent show (after 30 minutes of painful cross-legged attempts at meditating) which turned out to be a great deal of fun with some remarkable talent. We were back in our rooms by 9:30pm to wind down and reflect on our first full day in the ashram. One thought that kept recurring was what were we thinking paying for a whole month in advance (no refunds!!)

Thankfully after a few days things began to get easier. We could now sit cross-legged for a whole 12 minutes plus the next yoga vacation had started so we were attending the beginner classes. Along with the new vacation arrived many new guests and we were slightly consoled to learn that we weren’t alone with the difficulties we were experiencing. Satsangs were becoming easier and starting to be enjoyable as we started learning the words to the songs (plus the meaning behind them) allowing us to start to join in a little more in our unique off-key fashion. During this time we had to contend with another obstacle; mould. With the constant rain and humidity, random items e.g. camera straps, ski jackets, wallets etc. were starting to get mouldy requiring an ongoing effort to check all our gear and clean what was affected. Before we realized the week had passed and it was Thursday, the day before our free day, and it felt like Christmas Eve!!

After the morning Satsang we headed to the Elephant Rehabilitation Centre with two of the yoga vacationers, Tom and Aisha. We had gone prepared with two large stalks of bananas for feeding the elephants but discovered they couldn’t be taken in, being instead required to buy feeding food from the centre, leaving us with enough bananas to feed a small country. Entering the rehabilitation park we were first greeted by a couple of very young and friendly elephants before heading to the dam to assist in the scrubbing down of a couple of teenagers, made more difficult due to them not wanting to behave. Our short visit ended with us seeing how they fed the animals followed by tea and some bananas. Our taxi then took us to Kovolom where we spent the afternoon enjoying a little more variety in food mixed with wandering the beachside shops. At 6:00pm we headed back to our taxi to leave only to discover he had disappeared, leaving us standing in the car park as the rain started to pour down. Joining the locals lead we headed for the closest hotel foyer as we all squashed in to keep dry. In typical monsoon fashion, the rain ended quickly and our taxi finally appeared. The first half of the drive back involved torrential rain and a slow pace while the second half was worse with the same level of rain but our new knowledge that the windscreen wipers weren’t working (or being used) on the taxi.

After an enjoyable day off, the rest of the week progressed steadily as we continued with the scheduled routine and we were rewarded as we watched our yoga skill increase dramatically.  The Saturday nights talent show was once again impressive and ended with everyone getting up to be shown some dance steps by a Bollywood dance instructor followed by our attempt to stay coordinated while simultaneously imitating and hysterically laughing.

The next Friday we caught the bus back to Trivandrum for the princely sum of 50 rupee, outdated guidebook in hand, determined to find western food. The restaurant that the book had recommended had unfortunately closed down so, famished, we headed for the closest restaurant. As we took our seats, the staff pulled the roller doors down, closing the shop up, causing us to become mildly concerned at our current situation. With relief that we weren’t about to be abducted, we soon learned about (and heard) protests that had just started outside our restaurant, which happened to be across the road from the Secretariat. It turned out that protests were a common occurrence, usually peaceful and not to be concerned about.  Having already lost our appetite for the time being we decided to look elsewhere for sustenance. Heading back the way we came we discovered an excellent eating establishment, proceeding to overindulge in non-ashram food. Our bodies recharged we headed off to the Trivandrum Zoo (the inspiration for the zoo in the book “Life of Pi”), enjoying a leisurely couple of hours wandering within it’s confines. At times we seemed to be more of a spectacle than the animals with us regularly being stopped by Indians for a chat and a photograph. We were able to view some animals we had never seen before, and overall the zoo was a nice visit, although at times the enclosures were depressingly small for the contained animals. The day was beginning to draw to an end and we still had a long bus ride back so we decided to stop off for an early dinner before the return journey. The restaurant was the complete opposite of our lunchtime gem, with expensive low quality meals but we did get to sit in air conditioning for a short period. Heading back to the bus port we finally found the bus we needed to catch to return to the ashram and half of India piled on for the 90-minute ride back. With the bus overfilled we headed off, ensuring we stopped every 5 minutes to squeeze more people on.

With the two week Yoga Vacation coming to an end for many of the guests, the Saturday night festivities were filled with fun and laughter, which also included everyone participating in a choreographed Tai Chi aerobic workout. Over the following days, Kayla and I continued with the schedule but sadly watched many of the familiar faces leave making it a tough week, with us sorely wanting to start travelling again. New faces arrived, and a lot more of them, life continued for us in the ashram. The highlight for us that week was our first Ayurvedic massage, requiring us to strip down to nothing but a small rectangular piece of cloth to cover our pride. This was followed by an hour-long oily massage, which was relaxing but didn’t appear to make us any more flexible. 

Another week passed, with us now in the intermediate class, as well as having a little more free-time, due to no longer required to go to lectures, giving us the opportunity to spend the time reading and studying our own topics of interest. Friday arrived and we had put our name down for an excursion organized by the ashram. This had us piling into a bus at 6am for the 2-hour drive heading to Kanniyakumari, the most southern point in India. Along the way we called into a traditional palace for a tour of the sprawling complex filled with intricate wood and stone carvings. At Kanniyakumari we all boarded a ferry, after each of us got our own life jacket to carry with us on the trip, heading for Memorial Rock. This consisted of a temple and shrine commemorating a notable swami on one sea bound rock with a large statue on the other. After returning to the main land we all headed off for a late lunch before wandering the street side shops until we were picked up by our bus to be taken to a local beach.

Making our way from the bus to the beach involved walking along streets filled with anchovies, laid out for drying. The local villagers all seem to be part of the enterprise with men carting crates of fresh anchovies back and forth while women evenly sprinkled the nets on the roads with the newly acquired fish. The beach itself was one of the cleaner we had seen in India so far, although it still contained a concerning level of broken glass within the sand, made worse by the local kids throwing light bulbs for fun. While many of the group went for a swim the rest of us enjoyed the view, the relaxation briefly broken with a quick game of beach cricket with the local kids. This was one-sided with the kids giving me a quick lesson as to why India was beating the Australians at the game.

As the light dissipated we headed off to a local temple to see how they celebrated. To the amusement of the women, the men had to remove their shirts and wrap themselves in sarongs before they could enter. Once inside we were briefly shown various statues and rooms of importance before we became part of the procession that was circling the interior corridor of the temple. We were lucky enough to have visited at a time when this took place giving us an opportunity to experience the local culture more fully, and after being lead through many back rooms, painted with all sorts of dyes and shown how the temple doubled as a musical instrument, we headed back out, everyone of us beaming. Our final stop for the evening was at a restaurant for dinner before the return 2-hour journey whereby we arrived back at the ashram at midnight. It had been a long and wonderful day.

The week then continued in typical ashram style; Satsang, Teatime, Yoga, Brunch, Karma yoga, Study, Teatime, Yoga, Dinner, Satsang, Sleep and repeat. Being the second week of this yoga vacation we had to watch as others began to leave making our time here once again harder. On top of this the Internet had been down for a fortnight, cutting us off from the outside world, plus the food was starting to taste decidedly repetitious. With our own time here drawing to a close we decided to have our free day early, heading back into Trivandrum to organise our train tickets on the Thursday. The tickets cost the both of us $10 for the 5 hour journey to Cochin and would have us leaving the coming Monday at 1:00pm.  This was followed by an hour of catching up at a local Internet café, where we were able to research and book our upcoming journey. We made it safely back to the ashram after being driven by India’s craziest bus driver, ready for our final few days at the ashram.

Saturday brought a respite from the rain with sunny skies allowing us to trek up to the nearby temple on the hill. We had seen this from a distance each time we went to dinner, always with the intention of visiting. The trek up was longer, steeper and harder than we had anticipated but it paid off with amazing views of lush surrounds we had been living in for the past month. The evening brought our final Saturday Talent night with some great fun before retiring after another strenuous day. Sunday provided a nice surprise, being the 50th anniversary since Swami Sivananda had passed away, with a ceremony in place of the normal morning Satsang. Priests had arrived early to prepare the hall, which included a painted mural, candles and offerings, among other things. After the ceremony we were all invited to pay our respects, bringing the special ceremony to a close. With us leaving the next day, we spent part of Sunday tying up lose ends in-between yoga classes and other duties. Monday finally arrived and after a brief morning yoga session we said our goodbyes before walking down the hill one last time to catch the bus into Trivandrum. A couple of hours later our train arrived and we found out why our tickets were so cheap as we crammed onto the upper berths due to our “reserved” seats already being occupied. It was a hot and sweaty 5-hour train ride but before long we had arrived in Kochi.