Daily life at Anandwan follows a simple routine and rhythm. I wake around 6am both because I feel rested having slept from about 9.30pm and because I’m cold! The temperature drops to about 8 degrees overnight (up to mid to late 20s in the day) and all I have are some thick cotton covers which are not very effective in keeping the heat in. I share a stone floored room with 3 other women, mosquitos, geckos and dust. The beds are simple painted metal with thin cotton filled mattresses. I am so grateful for the small inflatable camping mat I brought with me – every night I give thanks for this foresight which comes from the memory I have of many uncomfortable nights spent on Indian beds on past travels.
I get up whilst the others still slumber in the dark to settle on to my meditation cushion, wrapped in layers of clothing and a cover to sit with my breath, my waking body and the sounds of the morning. There seems to be constant noise in India wherever you are. Even in the rural idyll of Somnath I rarely experienced silence and here we are living opposite a block of men’s toilets, a building site and a road! In the morning I hear the whir of wheels from the tricycle wheelchairs or the slap slap of flip flops as men come for their morning ablutions, the various mechanical and people based sounds from the building site … yes, even at 6am, the sound of the cows and buffalo walking to their daytime pastures, the odd car or scooter, a mobile phone or two ringing and people greeting each other. I’m always amused by this … I remember leading meditations at Penny Brohn Cancer Care and being irritated by small disturbances such as people talking as they walked past the room or by the lawnmower as it went back and forth in the summer. Now this cacophony of noises are simply the background music to my ponderings and if I ever get distracted by them I view them as a support to bring me back to the present not as an irritation or disturbance.
The mornings though cold are beautiful in the gentle early light and David and I always meet at 7am to walk past the lakes and in to the surrounding fields before breakfast. We meet other people who may be walking for pleasure or to work, some regular joggers and the old men who live in rough shacks who are warming themselves by an open fire or starting their day by sweeping the leaves that have fallen overnight away from their patch.
Breakfast is in silence in a sparse canteen where we have all our meals. It alternates between Poha which is made from flattened rice flakes reconstituted with boiling water and then fried with mustard seeds, onion, peanuts and a bit of chilli and Upma which is made from semolina mixed with onion, herbs, nuts and any left over veg they have. Both are simple, but hot and delicious and washed down with several small cups of sweet chai.
We then head to work. I work at the hospital in the morning for just over 2 hours and either the Elders Home or with the children in the afternoon, again for a couple of hours. It feels wrong calling it work when I see women on the building site, in the heat of the day, loading their head baskets with 9 heavy bricks,
or the labourers in the fields bent double as they plant or pick the food that is eventually cooked in the canteen, or the attendants who live in the Elders Home who offer their services day in day out, year after year. However, my time in these various places does have its challenges which I’ll write about another time.
I come back from my morning stint in time for meditation at 11am. I love this meditation time. Nearly always there is something that has touched me, challenged me or bewildered me during the morning and it feels valuable to have the luxury of 45 minutes to let things digest and settle.
Lunch is at 12pm. Always the same format – white boiled rice, one spicy veg curry, one non spicy veg curry, dhal, chappati and a salad of various finely chopped raw veg and herbs. It is simple, but it is tasty and on the whole pretty healthy and nutritious. The only downsides are that they use a lot of ghee (clarified butter) in their cooking and there’s not a whole lot of protein in this diet. I’m also consuming far more sugar here than I would at home … the chai is addictive and snacks and treats all seem to be sugar based .. even fruit!
We then have an opportunity for some free time to walk or rest or do our washing or to meet at the “cafe”.
This is not a “Primrose Cafe” sort of cafe, simply a few tired benches and plastic chairs around some creaky old tables outside a small row of buildings that house the cobbler, some other workshops and the shack that makes do as a shop. But here we can get more hot chai (sometimes weak milky coffee if they have Nescafé available) in small China cups that are mostly cracked or chipped. And we chat as you would in any cafe sometimes about inconsequential things other times we put the world to rights. There are 21 of us in all including the facilitators – mostly Brits, but also representation from France, Germany, Romania, USA, Canada and Israel – so there is always someone to converse with.
I had forgotten how cheap everything is here. The small cup of chai costs 7p, a packet of biscuits may be 20p. When we were eating out before arriving here a meal would cost about £4.50 for the two of us and it’s possible to eat much more cheaply; nuts are expensive as they are in the UK and when comparing things to home loo roll is the most expensive at 60p a roll! Most accommodation I’ve been booking for our onward travels is about £15 a night for a double room which often includes breakfast. Here we are paying about £5 for full board – extraordinary.
The Rest House where we are staying becomes a silent space for the period after lunch to give us some time out if we don’t want to chat and from the general hub-bub. The afternoon work period starts after a 2.30pm chai break (more sugar, biscuits, sugar!) and I either head to the Elders Home or the schools. There are something like 250 elderly living in very basic accommodation here and they love receiving our company and massages. There are two schools. One caters for children with hearing impairment or complete deafness, all of whom are mute and the other for those who are blind or have visual impairment. They are confident and boisterous and sap our energy, but are cute and inspiring as well!
We are finished for the day around 5pm and then have free time until supper at 7pm which takes the same shape as lunch. I am amazed at how happy I am with this monotony of meals. Occasionally I fantasise about my homemade muesli, or a slow roasted shoulder of lamb with roast potatoes or a helping of my mum’s apple crumble with cream but these really are fleeting images. May be I’m getting institutionalised but it’s very restful not having to think what I want to eat and to have to order from a long menu. There is enough variation in the curries to keep me interested and the tastes are good and there is always plenty so what more do I need? Mmm, well …. croissants, toast and marmalade, coffee, bangers and mash, risotto, bacon and eggs, Bakewell tart, OK may be I do need a break from it!
We usually have a group activity at 8pm for an hour, either some group sharing, a mediation or some chanting or a discussion and then back to silence at 9.30pm by which time most of us are in bed!
On Wednesday we have an unstructured day when we can work or not as we please, we can meditate if we want but there are no set times, we can go in to the local town or visit the weekly market or we can just hang out and do very little. Sunday is given over to a complete day of silence which has a timetable like in Somnath of seated meditations and walking meditations. David and I have tended to go “off piste” and though we do many of the sitting meditations we head off in to the surrounding country in the afternoon for a long walk and we do talk, but, shh, don’t tell the facilitators!
So that’s it! Simple, efficient, a good balance between work and rest, talking and silence, it’s suiting me very well!