A lone European blonde traveling through India on her own

Having backpacked as a solo traveller for nearly a decade now I am used to the delights and the pitfalls of going it alone. However nothing could have prepared me for the complete culture shock that was India. A country where the smell, noise and food bombard your senses endlessly. In a country where women are still rarely seen outside the home, a lone, blonde European was bound to attract attention, not all of it welcome. However in spite of the difficulties and tears often shed I found a sanctuary that was an incredible solo experience.

My travels were focused in beautiful Kerala, in the South of India. In spite of the oppressive heat the area was far more green and lush than I had expected. Kerala is famous for its sleepy backwaters where during a trip you will see all aspects of rural Indian family life, including toilets at the edge of gardens, complete with seats! Booker winner The God of Small Things is a great depiction of this lifestyle.

Feeling a little uncomfortable I took a daytrip on one of the hop on hop off tour boats in kottayam. One of the disadvantages of travelling alone is having to share trips like this with noisy western tourists rather than being able to charter a private vehicle. The trip promised a running commentary and an ‘authentic' Indian meal… by lunchtime I was starving and bored so by the time we got to the next stop I probably would have jumped ship wherever it was. Luckily for me it was an Ashram.

Ashrams have a mixed press in the Western world. Many see them as a place where hippies went to drop out in the 60s and there are tales of free love and nudity that apparently feature in some of the more specialist Ashrams. The Ashram I found myself dumped at was more of a spiritual Butlins. the place had a school, hospital , huge accommodation blocks and workshops where they would prepare incense and ayurvedic preparations to sell the public.

The rules of the Ashram were pretty strict, no meat, alcohol, tobacco and for some no talking as I soon discovered! So my dreams of sitting round with a few beers, discussing world peace were soon thwarted! I was shown to my basic accommodation which I would be sharing with two girls who were long term residents.

Having spent years having to put up with all kinds of nonsense in mixed dorms I thought this would be easy, however I soon realised that there was not just a language barrier between me and my new roomies, they had both taken a vow of silence! I soon discovered that being in a room with people who you are unable to talk to is a very uncomfortable business. Luckily they were able to write things down and in my limited French and their limited English we established a relationship of sorts.

The Ashram was headed up by a an Indian woman called Amma or ‘the mother' she had apparently been dismissed as a mad child and had grown up in extreme poverty and deprivation until it was discovered that she had an amazing gift of healing. I felt as though I was taking part in a PR exercise for much of the information given about her and it amazed me the strength of devotion her followers seemed to display.

The Ashram itself was non- do nominal however worship was a main part of daily life and the chanting and singing was at times beautiful. This was an incredible opportunity for me to get up close to many of the religious ceremonies that would have been restricted to practising Hindus only. Purely as a spectator these were incredible and very moving to watch.

This was also a fantastic place to meet people ‘off the beaten track'. Backpacking can often seem a bit of a merry go round where no matter which country you are in you always meet the same ‘types' of people: The gap year kiddies, the seasoned travellers who always manage to have been to more far flung places than you and of course the leeches who travel alone but only so they can surgically attach themselves to anyone else who is travelling solo!

However at the Ashram I became friendly with, amongst others a local teacher who worked at the Ashram , a retired builder from Germany who had met Amma on one of her travels and consequently set up home in India and an English family who were all born and raised on the Ashram. Visitors are allowed to stay in exchange for some work. For me this meant a week of preparing veg in the simple kitchen as well as cleaning the temple. Its amazing how menial work can have a whole new fulfilling side to it when done in these surroundings.

What generally amazed me about the place was the overall sense of calm and friendliness. I would often be sitting lost in my thoughts when someone would introduce themselves and sit down for a chat. In this way I found out far more about India's culture, language, religions and areas than I ever would have from a guide book.

I actually keep in contact with a few people I met there, including the mute French girls who much to their relief are now fully communicative! In the end I almost had to force myself to leave the oasis of the Ashram as there was so much more to see, I can quite believe it when people say they just get stuck there. This was an incredible opportunity to emerge myself in the culture in a protected way. However that first beer and chat over dinner in a hostel the evening I left was also a welcome relief!

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