#23 Looking back on my India Trip

I came to India without expectations, partly because over the years, I heard such conflicting information—from the emotional toll to the physical difficulties. I read books on India, saw movies and documentaries. Before our trip, we welcomed, and gratefully listened to advice on food, water and shoes—and we got conflicting information. With all that, nothing prepared me for the first taxi ride to the hotel. I arrived alone and at rush hour. People on foot, bike, motorbike, tuk tuk, cars, trucks, vans, busses and later, ox-carts! By the time I left the country, at least I got the driving thing—just honk, go and keep moving, space will appear, don’t be polite, you’ll confuse everyone.

Ultimately, we made our own way, with endless help from Deepa, the owner of India Magic Tours, our guides, especially Freni and Ragesh, our drivers, and our guardian angel, Suresh.

I have never traveled like this before. I have backpacked, camped and stayed at the Pierre. I usually plan my own trips. (Last year I relied on Boby and he planned an amazing trip for us, (me, Boby and Gage) in Cambodia and Burma. I don’t like group tours, though I’ve been on many, and led even more.  I never thought I could afford a private tour. Thank goodness, Ronni knew better, and we managed an affordable (very) trip tailored to our specific desires and expectations. Magic India Tours was always making sure we were safe and accounted for. Every hotel knew we were arriving, and had been contacted by Magic India just prior to our arrival. Each driver had our itinerary and checked it against ours.

What I do know is that India not a place to visit once. We saw a small fraction of the country, and of that, we saw it under one set of conditions. I was grateful to travel with Ronni and Pinchas. We share many of the same interests and Ronni gained a shopping partner. When Ronni and I were stumped by our guide’s questions, Pinchas came through with a brilliant answer, or an even better question. I read aloud relevant stories of the dieties while we were driving to temples. Ronni kept us up to date on current Indian politics by reading aloud from the newspaper. Too often, my stories of the dieties and their troubles sounded exactly like the issues in the daily news.

By having long conversations with our guides and drivers, we learned something about attitudes toward local politics and politicians. There is a sometimes ruling Communist Party in Kerela. There is a less successful Communist Party in Tamunadil. The top Community Party politician in Tamudadil changed his name to Stalin. (That’s just stupid) The chief Minister of Tamunadil is a woman named Jayalalithaa. She added the final “a” to her name after consulting with her astrologist. Her name and picture is plastered all over Tamunadil. She supports and sponsors everything EVERYTHING that goes on in her state. She is lovingly referred to as Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) or as Amma (mother). She is not to be confused with the Hindu spiritual leader and guru, Amma, who is revered as a saint by her followers and widely respected for her humanitarian activities. Amma’s face is posted all over Chennai (capital city of Tamunadil) as she is soon to appear there. You might have heard of her as the hugging guru. She has hugged over 32 million people.

With our guides and drivers, we talked about the intricacies of arranged marriages. We learned that the caste system is illegal, but in the Karola paper, there are ads for arranged marriages according to caste. All our drivers and most of our guides were in arranged marriages.  Even if they met their spouses on line, on their own, they come back and go through the proper “arranged marriage” steps.

I learned the extent of tolerance, especially from the Hindus we spoke with. (Unless you are left-handed…)

I learned that although I can’t drink the water, my hair loves it. Never been so soft…

I thought I only brought home pictures, but I just opened my suitcase, and it appears I brought home the smells of India as well…

I expected the country to be an explosion of color. It was.

I expected friendly people, and was blown away by the kindness, generosity, curiosity and frankness of most everyone we encountered.

I expected to get at least a little sick. I did not (I’m not counting my cold). I’m not over Indian food, but I might have to have a hamburger soon.

I love my new clothes, and though they might look a bit odd in LA, I’m not sure I care.

Our photographs are all over India; we posed with children, their parents and their grandparents. I stopped worrying about taking pictures of people when I realized people were taking far more pictures of us.

I’m sorry my family was not with me—all of them.

I thought of them every day. They would have loved it.

#22 Mahabalipuram and Chennai, India

Sunday

Suresh was waiting for us this morning, my last full day in India. We met Rebecca, our guide for the morning. She has a Christian name because she is 3rd generation Christian. We drove to the ruins by the shore in Mahabalipuram, and again found something different than anything we have previous seen. The town, leading to the historic site, is filled with granite stone cutters and carvers. Their yards are filled with deities and occasionally modern abstract sculptures.

The ruins date back to the 7th century and It is thought that the area served as a school. The different sculptures may have been examples of different styles of architecture, demonstrated by instructors and practiced on by students. There are mini-temples, elephants, carvings of deities and the stories that support them. According to our guide, much of the carving is unfinished as war interrupted the work and it was never resumed. One of the highlights is Arjuna’s Penance, a huge carving on the face of a granite rock depicting scenes from the Mahabharatha. Arjunaq and other figures are in yoga poses. Nearby, we saw a priest hand painting a Ganesh in a small shrine with turmeric paste. He was working with great care and reverence.

Near Arjuna’s Penance is a monstrous rock that sits perched on a grassy sloop, called Shiva’s ball of butter. The Sunami hit this part of India and there was a question of its stability. It hit hard and 10,000 lives were lost. When the water receded, everyone near the shore walked toward the sea to see this curious ocean behavior. I might have done the same. There are endless thatched hut villages, housing fisherman and their families along this coastline of the Bay of Bengal. The villages just disappeared.

We made one more stop before Chennai at an Indian cultural center. We enjoyed walking around and identifying the styles of homes we now recognized. Again, it was a place for locals and mostly Indian families were there.

Our hotel for the night, or in my case, a few hours, is the Footprint B&B in Chennai. We have 2 rooms of a 3 bedroom apartment. This time, the bathroom has a beautiful stone plate with oil, a candle, and incense. Lovely touch, no soap…. It is on a quiet residential street, and I love it even for this short time. Suresh picked me up and dropped me at the airport at 11PM. Check-in does not start until 1:45AM and the security guard at the airport did not want to let me in to the terminal. I think he relented when he saw tears in my eyes. The tears were actually for Suresh, but whatever works… I mistakenly assumed that if one gets to fly first class, one (me) should be able to go right to the Etihad lounge. Boy, was I wrong. So here I am writing my last bit about this trip. It is now 2:30am. I got to security about 2 and the officer asked me for proof of where I stayed in Chennai. Seems he does not know the Barefoot B&B. Of course, I had nothing. I fished around and found a card for my hotel in Allepey and for some reason that worked. Eith ad gave me a pass for the Air India Lounge. It is in the old part of the airport, has no wifi and I’m afraid to eat the food here. Looks like it’s been sitting forever. One more hour and I’ll be in my Etihad business seat to Abu Dabhi.

The first Etihad flight was nothing special, and when we got to Abu Dhabi we had to go through this insane crush of people and pass inspection again. Two minutes later, I was showering in the Etihad lounge, then got a foot massage in a private massage room, with scented water, scrubbing salts and lotions. The guy was great and it is just part of the services offered in the lounge.  I still have not really slept. They wanted to make me breakfast, but I had to leave for the next round of security and board my FRIST CLASS SEAT to JFK. So that is where I am now. I have pretty much my own room, with a door that closes, a chef and when I’m ready, they give me pjs and make my bed.

#21 Mahabalipuram, India

Friday we drove from Punducherry to Mahabalipuram. We checked in for two nights at the Ideal Resort. This place is truly a beach resort. There are hammocks between Palm trees, a pool large enough to swim laps, and a very international collection of guests. The gift shop is stellar as is the food. From Pondicherry on, we’ve been back to eating fish, fresh juices, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. I think I drank 3 glasses of carrot juice today.

And while we are talking about food, the street fried potato ships in Chidambaram were memorable. It was a few days ago, and the temple was closed until 4PM so we walked around the city, taking pictures and enjoying the archecture and the people. The potato chips were an added bonus. The guy offered us each one and 20 rupees later, we had a bag of chips, sprinkled with hot red pepper powder. We also found a woman making masala chai near the entrance to the temple. We ordered three then sat while she made it in the traditional style. She served it in paper cups, then decided we were ready for the real deal and switched each one out to the metal cups everyone else uses. At this point, it was an “oh well”. Obviously, we are not drinking the water, but when we go to local restaurants, order bottles of water, then pour the contents into wet metal cups, I know we are getting just a little bit!

The other interesting incident involved a local woman who attached herself to Ronni. She stuck to Ronni’s side for about 15 minutes, talking nonstop. Ronni clearly gestured that there was no common language, but that did not seem to be a viable concept. The woman did ask, or gesture, what kind of car we drove, but then did not get that we did not have one. She might have wanted us to take her with us. It was a strange, and uncomfortable encounter.

Back to Mahabalipuram, I finally caught a cold, so I pretty much laid low, slept through lunch and dinner. Saturday, I sat out by the pool, caught up writing all of you guys, and watched the mostly French tourists. At breakfast and dinner there is an extensive buffet. Breakfast is always included, but we splurged tonight and got the buffet. I think it was $14.00!!! Every evening, there are three musicians playing classical ragas. We sat for a long time, enjoying the evening, the food and the music.

#20 Punducherry or Pondicherry, India

Then began two nights in Punducherry. We found ourselves in a beautiful hotel with hair dryers, flat screen TVs, magnifying mirrors in the bathrooms and even occasional hot water.  Hotels have been quite an experience here. Two had Gideon’s King James, one of those also had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.  Beds were important. We were willing to give up most everything for a good mattress. Light switches were interesting. I counted up to 16 switches in one room. I never remember to ask if there is a main switch, sometimes there is, sometimes not. When it gets dark, I just explore the room and play with the lights.

Bathrooms came with a variety of amenities, from no soap to handmade soap from the Ashram. Sometimes the shampoo was organic, sometimes it had a neon glow, sometimes we had none. We had bathrooms with separate showers, and rooms that were showers, mostly with toilet paper, once we had to ask… One of my favorite toilet accessories (present in every Asian country I’ve been in) the the flexible water hose, but I always wondered how one was supposed to dry off. Somewhere along the way, one of our male guides introduced Ronni and me to a female guide so that we could ask “delicate questions”. Turns out Indian women use panty liners. Oh, we have so much in common.

We set out to find dinner and entered a part of India different from anyplace we’ve been.  We are on the Bay of Bengal, that alone sounds exotic. There are beautiful beaches. Every evening the beachfront blvd. is closed to traffic and everyone walks up and down the promenade. It is called the French Riviera of the east.
Punducherry is a union territory of India. It has four unconnected districts, in three other Indian states! This all has to do with the legacy of the colonial period, retaining the borders of former French India. The city of Punducherry has French named streets and French style villas. There is a growing population of expats and you can hear French spoken on the streets.

There are Indians with French citizenship who are descendants of people who chose to keep French citizenship in 1954. There is a French consulate and schools run under the French Minister of National Education.

There are four languages used here. Most of the population speaks Tamil, and the district is governed by Delhi. Delhi is very far away, the whole arrangement seems very confusing…

We found a great restaurant for dinner, not so western that we had to use utensils, and up to our now picky standards. The next day we set out for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which represents another side of Punducherry. We visited and spent some time in the meditation courtyard. We felt very welcomed and included.

Nearby is a small temple dedicated to Ganesh. The inner walls are painted with statues of Ganesh from throughout Asia. It was beautiful and different from any temple we’ve seen.

We walked the streets, then the promenade until evening, then treated ourselves to dinner at a hotel that had been the home of a French mayor. Dinner was ok, and it was lovely sitting on the patio listening to john Denver, Johnny Cash and Adele. It was, for me, the beginning of the end of our trip.