Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: September 15-24, 2018

This is the view from the bridge that goes between Amritapuri and Vallikavu.

I’ve been back in Seattle for 9 days, so it is high time that I finish the last post about most recent visit to Amritapuri, Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: September 15 to 24, 2018. I have previously published three posts that focused on individual events that occurred during those dates.

Swachhata Hi Seva- September 15, 2018
The Intriguing Pond Heron
What Happened to the Amritapuri Swachhata Hi Seva Trash?

Sadness

Much of my last week in Amritapuri was spent packing, cleaning and doing the other things I needed to do to get ready to leave. I felt a sense of heaviness throughout the week. I had noticed that sensation towards the end of my last trip and have begun to realize that it is caused by an underlying sadness. Even though I felt ready to go back to Seattle, I felt sad to leave my family (Sreejit, Chaitanya and Akshay), Amma, and my Amritapuri friends.

Western Cafe and Western Canteen

People from so many western countries come to Amritapuri. I find it interesting to see how our food habits differ from each other. One of the things that has always seemed strange to me is that some people spread peanut butter and/or chocolate on their pancakes. They may also put peanut butter or chocolate in their ragi porridge. This year, a friend from Australia joked that peanut butter belongs ONLY on toast. I responded that peanut butter is good on bananas too, but she didn’t agree, restating that it only belongs on toast.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that I like chocolate on everything else, so that I’d probably like it on a pancake too. And chocolate and peanut butter go together great. So, on one of my last days in Amritapuri, I tried chocolate on a pancake. I don’t think I’d do it again but it definitely was tasty. I just don’t need more reasons to eat chocolate.

People from some western countries only eat fried eggs that are cooked “sunny side up”. They don’t call them that though. I remember someone laughing at me years ago when I referred to their eggs in that way.

My favorite Western cafe items are cinnamon rolls, pesto omelets, lemon bars, chocolate bread, and pasta with cheese, soya, and tomato sauce. My favorite Western canteen items are all of the soups, mashed potatoes, Mexican rice and beans, and coconut beets. I’m sure there are some items I’m forgetting but those are the ones that come to my mind now.

Prasad Giving and Prasad Assistant

As I mentioned in an earlier post, during the last part of my visit, I started taking the opportunity to hand Amma the prasad she gives to each person who comes to her for a hug. (In this case, the prasad is a packet of ash and a piece of candy.) I loved doing this seva as much as I usually do.

Prasad-giving is also a good way to practice staying focused. I’ve learned from experience that if I don’t keep my eyes on Amma’s hand, I will miss the gesture she makes when she is ready to be handed the prasad.

There are often extra challenges to this seemingly easy job. One of the first times I handed the prasad to Amma on this trip,  a woman dressed in a white sari was whispering something into Amma’s ear. Part of her sari was draped in-between Amma’s hand and me; I couldn’t see a thing. I had to find a way to move  the sari so I could see at least part of Amma’s hand as well as get the prasad into Amma’s hand when it was time. It was a tricky situation but I did it.

At the beginning of my visit, I had said no to taking on a prasad assistant job. I declined the opportunity because I wanted to stay focused on my decision to attend more of Amma’s meditation, Q and A and bhajan programs and to sit in the front of the room rather than in the back or sides of the large auditorium. While it was possible for me to do all of these things, I didn’t want to overload myself with commitments; I was already working in the cafe every morning.

One of the prasad coordinators came to me about a week before I left Amritapuri and told me that she had lost one of her prasad assistants. She asked again if I would do it. This time I said yes. I served as a prasad assistant on September 16 and 21. That job required me to make sure that the prasad-giving line was always full of volunteers and that they were trained. I also was responsible for calling prasad-givers up to the stage in 2 minute intervals.

My shift was during a time of day when it is hard to find volunteers so it was an intense job. And as it turned out, I not only did my own hour long shift but also forty minutes of the person’s shift that did the job before me. Keeping the line filled was a challenge. Luckily, my supervisor helped find people too. The reason finding volunteers was difficult at that time of day was that many of the devotees were chanting the Sri Lalita Sahasranama and a variety of other chants during that time, and once that program was over, many of them went to lunch.

My Experiment

I have mentioned many times that an important focus for me during this trip was to sit in the front of the auditorium so I would be closer to Amma and could be more attentive than when I sat in the back or far sides of the hall. I also promised myself that would go to more of the programs. While I did not attend all of the meditations or Q&A sessions, I did go to more of them than I have in many years.

I was present for all of the bhajan programs. I routinely sat on the floor in the front section of the auditorium at that time. That was a major accomplishment for me. Being up front helped me stay focused. I loved singing so many of the older bhajans and looked forward to singing some of them at satsang once I returned to Seattle.

Darshan

I have also mentioned that this year devotees have been able to go for Amma’s darshan (hug) more often than “normal”. I’m so used to going only when I arrive and when I leave, or when I feel a strong need. Going frequently often feels wrong to me.

Generally, darshan tokens are given out in the morning. Sometimes, later in the day, Amma tells the token coordinators to hand out more tokens. On the evening of September 16 or 17, I was offered a darshan token and accepted it.  I started to question that decision as I was going through the darshan line.

As I neared the front of the line, Swami Amritaswarupananda started singing a slow version of Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. That is one of my favorite bhajans. When I was directly in front of Amma, and was next in line to be hugged, she started talking to someone. They talked for quite a while, so I was close to Amma much longer than I would normally be. My consciousness became so altered (i.e. I was going into a meditative state) that I wondered if I was going to be able to kneel down and stand up easily. Then I was in Amma’s arms. I no longer had any doubt that I had made the right decision when I chose to go for darshan.

I wonder how much stress I put on myself unnecessarily. Maybe I should just trust that if Amma asks the darshan token coordinators to hand out more tokens, I should just take one.

Geckos

There are often one or two small geckos in my flat. In December, the geckos that are living there are bigger than the ones that are present when I come to the ashram in August. Early on in this trip, I saw a little gecko in my room. A few days before I was to leave, I saw a really tiny one; it wasn’t much bigger than an inch. I enjoy having the geckos as roommates.

 

Returning to Seattle

As I age, I have had a harder time getting over jet lag. There is a 12 1/2 hour time difference between India and Seattle and switching day and night is not easy. Several years ago, I started spending a night in the Dubai airport hotel and that has helped. I added another “make it easier” step this time. My practice has been to take a taxi from Amritapuri to Trivandrum starting at 4:45 a.m. on the morning of my flight. That means that I need to get up around 3 a.m. This schedule has been stressful for me and I have had a hard time sleeping that last night.

I decided I would take a taxi to Kovalam, a town near Trivandrum, the night before I was to leave India. I left the ashram at 3 p.m. on the 22nd and arrived in Kovalam around 6. I was able to get a good night’s sleep in the Kovalam hotel before leaving for the airport at 6:30 the next morning. It really did make my leaving easier and I was rested when I boarded the plane. I plan to follow that schedule in the future.

Getting a good night’s sleep the night before I left India, and another one in Dubai helped a lot. The 14 1/2 hour flight between Dubai and Seattle still seemed endless and since I couldn’t sleep on the plane, I was exhausted when I got to Seattle. I hoped that my decisions would help the jet lag. And it did. For many years, it has taken 6 weeks to regain a normal sleep pattern. When I first return to Seattle, I don’t sleep for more than two hours at a time. As I am writing this (on October 3rd), I’m not back to “normal”, but I’ve slept five hours several times!

Greenbelt

I was out in my beloved Greenbelt within an hour of returning to Seattle. I discovered that all of the trees and most of the shrubs we had planted had survived the drought.

I noticed that some of the vine maple leaves were already turning red. We have planted MANY vine maples throughout the site. I am eager to see what the planting areas look like as all of them start to turn red. I imagine they will be even more beautiful as they grow. I wonder what they will look like at this time next year.

To read the previous posts in this series click here.

What Happened to the Amritapuri Swachhata Hi Seva Trash?

In a recent post, I talked about  Swachhata Hi Seva, a cleanliness campaign that was initiated by India’s Prime MInister Narendra Modi.  On September 15th,  Amma’s Amritapuri ashram residents and visitors, as well as students from Amrita University, participated in Swachhata Hi Seva by cleaning up six kilometers of land in communities near the ashram. More than 1600 people, including Amma herself, participated in the clean-up.

18swachata-16
Photo credit: Amritapuri.org

I had never thought about what would be done with the trash that was picked up that day. In the West, we would have either dropped it off at some waste management facility or city employees would have picked it up. A few days after Swachhata Hi Seva, I started seeing notices from the ashram’s recycling depot asking for volunteers to help sort the litter. It was then that I remembered there was no infrastructure in India to deal with garbage (or at least none that I know of) and that all of the trash that had been collected during the ashram work party would have been brought back to the ashram. I decided to help for a while.

There were many processing tables set up on the beach, with approximately eight volunteers at each station. One bag after another was brought to us and the contents were dumped onto the table. This photo shows what the garbage looked like, although the items in many of the bags were dirtier. Some of the bags contained the biggest ants I’ve ever seen.

We sorted the trash and put the items into new bags. There were bags for hard objects, soft plastic, metal, shoes,  plastic bottles, glass bottles and fabric. I was impressed by how fast we were able to sort each bag and be ready to move on to the next one.

When the bags of sorted items were full, they were moved to a separate area.

Next, someone sewed the bags shut.

After the bags were sewn, they were moved to another pile.

The sorting had already been going on for days. I don’t know how many bags of litter had been brought back to the ashram after the work party, but this photo shows how many bags still needed to be processed when I left the recycling depot that afternoon. The original pile must have been huge.

When I left the beach, I felt happy that I had participated in the work. A day or so later, I started to think about the situation again. What was going to happen with all of those bags? The ashram has had a recycling program for many years and I knew the recycling companies they sell to wouldn’t take dirty garbage.

Before I go on, let me say something about the ashram’s recycling program. There are recycling stations all over the ashram. Residents and visitors separate their garbage into many different bins- hard items, soft plastic, yard waste, fabric, metal, dirt and hair, sanitary items such as toilet paper, cardboard, paper, food waste, and soiled plastic.

The garbage bins are picked up daily and taken to the recycling depot. Volunteers do a second sorting there. They move any items that were put in the wrong bin and separate recyclables from non-recyclables. After the second sorting is done, the yard and food waste is taken to the composting facility and objects that need to be washed are washed.

Then, an even more detailed sorting process occurs. For example, there are at least 10 types of recyclable paper and many types of plastic and metal.

The day after I worked with the trash, I found myself sitting next to the person who is charge of the recycling depot. She confirmed that the more in depth sorting will need to be done and that the recycled items will have to be cleaned before they can be turned in. The thought of doing that work, in addition to all the regular ashram recycling, has got to be overwhelming; I imagine it will take all year. Maybe the next time I’m in Amritapuri, I will help them again.

Swachhata Hi Seva- September 15, 2018

Towards the end of last week, we started to see signs posted around the ashram about an upcoming event planned by  Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The event, Swachhata HI Seva, would be held from September 15 through October 2. It was timed to be near Mahatma Gandhi’s 149th birthday and the 4th anniversary of Prime Minister Modi’s campaign to clean up India. To read Amma’s encouragement for everyone in India to participate in the clean up click here.

 

We soon learned that Swachhata Hi Seva would begin with a video conference where representatives from many different groups around India would report to Prime Minister Modi, and each other, about the clean up work they had done during the first four years of the campaign. They would also share their plans for Swachhata HI Seva.

Amma was to be one of the speakers. After the video conference, ashram residents and visitors, students from the local Amrita University and groups from Amma’s other institutions in the area would be cleaning up a six kilometer stretch of the coastal region near Amritapuri. Work parties would also be held at Amma’s schools, universities and institutions throughout India.

During the afternoon of the 14th, I glanced into the auditorium and saw lots activity. There were at least ten men setting up and testing cameras; I believed that they were from Amrita TV and surmised that this must be part of the video conference preparation. Later in the day, and throughout the night, chairs were set up in and around the auditorium, and the auditorium was decorated.

Seating began at 9:15 a.m. Amma arrived around 10:15.  Ashram residents and visitors as well as students from Amrita University and people from Amma’s other local institutions were present. I thought it was interesting to listen to the speakers; they represented so many groups dedicated to cleaning up India. Only a few of the presentations were in English but it didn’t matter to me. I enjoyed seeing and hearing the speakers’ passion for the campaign. The Prime Minister responded to each presentation.

Amma watched the video conference on a monitor that had been set up in front of her. The presentations were projected onto numerous larger screens so that everyone seated in the auditorium could watch… and hear…them.

Amma was the last speaker to present.

The first video below shows the Prime Minister introducing Amma. It also shows Amma giving her presentation. (The flags you see waving in the background on the photo above and in the video are Swachhata Hi Seva flags.) To read excerpts from Amma’s speech in English click here.

The second video is of Prime Minister Modi’s response to Amma’s report. There are English subtitles at the bottom of the screen throughout the video. The Prime Minister’s respect for Amma was palpable.

After the video conference was over, instructions to go to the beach to board buses were given over the loud speakers. There were so many people. Some of the female college students grabbed each others waists so that they wouldn’t get separated. I felt like joining them as a way to make it through the crowd, but I resisted the impulse. It has been a long time since I’ve been in the middle of a crowd that big.

I had originally thought about going to the beach and helping with the cleanup. I knew that I couldn’t do it for very long in that heat and the last time I did litter pick up without a litter grabber, I hurt my back and was out of commission for most of the  year. I thought I could help for 15 minutes though. When they started talking about buses, however, I assumed that going for a short time wasn’t going to be an option, so I headed for my flat.

Later, I learned that Amma had gone to the beach to help with the clean up before she started giving darshan that day. The couple that she was going to marry at the beginning of darshan helped too, in their wedding garments! I’m assuming that Amma was at the beach closest to the ashram, so that would have been an option for me too. Seeing the photos below reminded me of all the times Amma has joined in the ashram work. In the early days, I remember her carrying building construction materials, such as bricks and bags of gravel. She was, and is, SO strong.

More than 1600 people participated in that day’s 6 kilometer clean up!

(This has been the first of two posts about this event.)

The photos and videos came from Amritapuri.org.

The Intriguing Pond Heron

Two days ago, I visited a small garden that is near the Western cafe. When I walked into the garden, I saw a friend who lives at the ashram.  For years, devotees have brought her injured or abandoned birds that they have found. She nurses the birds back to health and then frees them. On that day, she was interacting with a pond heron. I was intrigued.

The “hole” towards the back of his head is his ear.

A Visit to the Nature Sanctuary: September 2018

I first visited the Nature Sanctuary, which until this year was called Kuzhitura Farm, in 2014. It is located south of the Amritapuri ashram. That was before I had a blog, so I don’t have photos from that year. The photos below are from my 2015 visit.

(Click on any of the galleries to enlarge the photos.)

The gardens have changed so much over the years. The volunteers have overcome so many obstacles. Their persistence was well worth it; entering the property yesterday  was like walking into a magical wonderland.

When I turned onto the path that leads to the sanctuary, I noticed that there were plants lining the borders of the path. Many of them were potted roses. I don’t know what the other plants were.

When I reached the entrance, I saw two new signs.

I walked into the lush wonderland.

There were so many beautiful flowers.

Plants grow so fast in the tropics. There were some rudraksha trees in this garden that were planted a year ago. They have grown 4-6 feet since that time. I’ve been excited that some of our Seattle Greenbelt trees grew 6 inches this year.

There are numerous turtles on the property. When I visited these gardens in January of 2018, the volunteers were installing some tubs for baby turtles to live in. The babies would move or be moved to bigger ponds when they got older. This is what the tubs looked like 8 months ago:

I was amazed at how different the tub area looked on this visit. It was so dense with vegetation. I could barely see the blue tubs.

The ponds were not easy to spot either. The photo below shows one of them:

A volunteer asked if I wanted to see some of the turtles that are living in the bigger ponds. Of course, I said yes. Once there, he told me that we could feed them treats; if we called to them, they would come. When he called, a turtle that was about the size of my palm responded right away. It would not take the food from his hand though. He said that the turtle might respond more readily to my voice. He was right. The turtle came to me right away and took the pellet from my hand. Once he ate it, I offered him another one, and he took that one too!

I learned that there are turtle eggs all over the property. When the eggs hatch, the babies find their way to water. So no one carries them to the little tubs, they find them on their own.

Later, I learned that the nature sanctuary does not have any problem with mosquitoes because there are tadpoles that eat the mosquitoes when they are in larva stage.

I saw butterflies that day and in the past and I’ve seen bees and dragonflies in these gardens. If there are tadpoles then there must be frogs! I wonder what other kinds of wildlife are in the sanctuary.

I could have stayed there all day and not have seen everything that there was to see. I look forward to my next visit.

To read the previous posts in this series click here.