March 10, 2008 1:42pm
Varkala Beach, Kerala, India
Hello everyone! It’s been awhile since I divulged our exciting India adventure onto a computer screen. Quite a lot has happened over the course of just a few weeks. We’ve now been in India for 1 month and outside the US for almost 2. Surprisingly it seems like we’ve always been on the road, it’s amazing how you fall into a routine: “You carry the sitar, I’ll carry both the violins, oh and don’t forget to buy more bottled water and we’re running low on toilet paper.” The essentials. Thankfully food, water, toilet paper, and a place to lay our heads at night are our biggest concerns. No worrying over gas prices and deadlines for term papers (sorry for all of you who have to worry about one or both). Instead we watch the US exchange rate fluctuate with avid interest and are appalled when the Canadian Dollar rises above the US dollar. (They are both at 40 rupees to each respective $ for those interested, the best we’ve seen so far). Catching trains and laughing at wily auto rickshaw drivers has occupied our attention. So has eating French food in places where French is more widely spoken then any other language and answering the incredibly repetitive almost mantra inducing questions “Do you want to come into my shop?” “Where are you from Madam?” “Taxi?” and more recently “Fresh fish? Cold beer? Maybe later” We are never bored to say the least.
After leaving the spectacular liveliness of Kolkata, we traveled by night train to Puri. The small beach side town of Puri is in the state of Orissa, south of Kolkata. I had a lovely day of horrific stomach flu, which colors my entire outlook of our stay there. Thankfully, knock on wood that is the only time I’ve been sick in India. While lying on my back in bed, I became incredibly familiar with the intricate mandala-like design painted on the roof around the base of our rickety fan. There were five, sometimes six petals on each of the flowers ringing the outside edge of the red,orange, blue design. I couldn’t figure out if it was a symbolic purpose or merely the ascetic preference of the artist. I was also treated with a magnificent array of bed bug bites all over my calves and feet from the forced repose upon our less than 5 star quality bed. (Malachi escaped the invisible army, but they caught up with him a week later in Mamallapuram.) I counted 75 bites on one leg, and 45 on the other. I’m still at a loss about the insanity of the human body being able to sleep through hundreds of insect bites, but not being able to sleep through the occasional buzzing of a mosquito on the OTHER side of the mosquito net.
We took a city bus from Puri to Bhubanswar and received our first taste of what travelling cheaply with 3 instruments would be like. Our luggage was divided throughout the bus and placed in various racks and besides various seats to accommodate the press of people who ride comfortably packed like sardines. Once in Bhubaneswar we found a craft fair showcasing crafts from all over India and attended the free Odissi dance concert held outside and amongst the ethereal stone pillars of the Temple Complex of Mukeshwar. We sat down in plastic red lawn chairs surrounded by an enthralled Indian audience, when we were beckoned forward by one of the overseers of the performance. We were motioned into the VIP seating area in front of the red lawn chairs and separated by more than just a flimsy metal fence. I was horribly embarrassed to be sitting in VIP for no reason other than my skin color. There were cushioned red and gold benches that were sparsely occupied and looked as though they belonged in the atrium of some old maharaja’s palace. The only faces who we now sat surrounded by were white or very well dressed Indians. I was sweaty and rumpled from the day’s bus trip and successive stroll around the dusty craft fair, and in no way did I look as if I belonged in VIP seating. If I was Indian I would resent the treatment of us spoiled Westeners. No wonder skin whitening advertisements abound. On t.v you see popular Western brands espousing their whitening results to an Indian audience. The memory of colonialization has been harsh to such a beautiful people.
The Odissi dancing was done beautifully. My favorite was a young man who has been dancing with his specific guru since he was 4. (He must be at least 18 or so now) Odissi is such an amazing synthesis of storytelling, spirituality, and interpretive dance that conveys an entire spectrum of emotions by the tilt of the head, the flick of a wrist, and the coy glance of beautifully khol lined eyes. Hopefully I’ll find a teacher to study with while I’m here.
From Bhubaneswar we took a 20 hour train trip down to Chennai in Tamil Nadu. I love the train. Even waking up to “Chaaaaiii gram, chaiiiiii graaamm, chai gram, chai, chai, chai,” and “Koffey, Koffey,Kooooofffffeeeyyy” Melea you described it perfectly. The random snacks handed through the windows at unnamed train stops to reveal some of the best meals, have been eagerly excepted, even if later tireless attempts to find the same dish in restaurants proves to be difficult. If it is one thing that we’ve discovered, it’s that eating in India is always an adventure and a surprise. One dish by the same name can be made in infinite ways, and all of them delicious, even if they weren’t what was expected. The only dish that I have tasted and I’ve utterly and completely loathed and found to be the most disgusting thing in the world, of course was one that was made with bananas. Malachi enjoyed it.
We spent only a few days in Chennai, enough to find myself a beautiful red and gold sari that I have no idea how to wear, but couldn’t resist the beautiful fabric. The highlights of Chennai were the harrowing auto rickshaw that left my knuckles white and my heart palpitating and watching the new “Rambo” in a theatre full of wood floors, lazy boy like seats, and cheering Indians. Of course we watched it because it was the only English language film being played. Just like in Thailand, we stood for the national anthem to be sung before the movie, and were treated to a 15 min intermission of a 1 1/2 hour film. Be glad you didn’t have to see “Rambo” Mom, it was what you would expect from a Rambo film, blood and guts. I did enjoy hearing the Indian audience cheer at all the cheesy hero lines and at the triumph of good over evil though. The incredibly friendly staff at the Paradise Guest House, made our stay much more enjoyable in this not very touristy city.
A 2 hour bus trip brought us to the very mellow, very relaxed, and shopping oriented town of Mamallapuram. Carrie, the Greenwoods Guest House was great. We spent a couple days wandering the endless Kashmiri shops and dining in places like the Bob Marley Cafe that featured an enormous poster of Bob Marley, but played Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I woke up early one morning and bought Malachi a silver bracelet for his birthday. It really is difficult to keep secrets and plan a surprise when you are with someone 24/7. Malachi had been debating on buying it the entire day before, and finally decided to buy it, so we went into the store later that day only to find out that the bracelet had been purchased already by “someone” else. I gave it to him the next day over his birthday dinner.
On Malachi’s birthday (Feb, 24th) we made it down to Pondicherry on another 2 hour (empty!?) public bus ride while making faces to a beautiful little girl. This was after a failed attempt one day before. A sitar and two violins doesn’t make for easy access to packed city buses. Pondy (as most people refer to it as) is a French mecca full of French food, French people, and French street names. We had dinner at the French cafe Rendezvous (it’s in the book for parents) for Malachi’s b-day, after which he spent the next day sick. Thankfully we’ve been sick at different times. I had dinner one night in a French restaurant which was run by a very large round French man, with a smaller version of Gerard Depardieu’s nose. His size at once made me aware of the decadent French food I was eating, but also reassured me that he must not only eat, but enjoy what he served. I watched him great people with the very European kiss on each cheek and almost thought I was in a France, not the south of India.
We found an amazing coffee shop (Coffee.com) full of mazagrand mochas, French baguettes, home made ice cream, and friendly family owners. We visited Auroville and found it’s mission and purpose great, but not quite the friendly easily accessible place we were hoping for. Completely understandable considering this is 2000 people’s home, not a tourist destination. It was established by a French woman known as the Mother 40 years ago to be a cosmopolitan city belonging to humanity where people can pursue there dreams of research and education in whatever they please. Not a place for the transient travelers that we are at the moment.
From Pondicherry we took a bus up to Chennai and bought an unreserved train ticket to Mysore. Not a good idea. A young guy from Chennai explained the whole process to us while we waited for the train conductor to let us know if there were any available sleeper seats. I was designated as “the one who should ask because you are a white female, and therefore the train conductor will of course listen to you.” I managed to get us two seats and was again designated as “the one to bribe him because you are a woman and you won’t have to pay as much.” The people we sat with explained the entire process and even chided me on trying to “bribe” the conductor in front of the “public” even though I thought I was just paying the remainder to the cost of the tickets, not bribing him. The “bureaucracy” of India.
We made it to Mysore in Karnataka without a hitch. We ate amazing Mysore Masala Dosas, and visited the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. I was nervous and excited and a little daunted by the fact that I was actually visiting the place where Pattabhi Jois taught (now his grandson Sharath does the teaching along with his mother). I dropped off my application with the date May 1 as my starting day, but I’m going to use the next two months to decide if I really want to go. The program at AYRI is designed only to take two hours of classes in the morning. I think instead I would like to study not only asanas but also meditation, philosophy, Sanskrit, and live the intensive ashram experience. I’m still debating. Georgia or Heidi if you have any insight let me know.
After Mysore we came by over night train to Varkala in the state of Kerala. We’ve been chilling out on the beautiful cliffs, enjoying the sun and the super power waves of the beach, while staying at the amazingly friendly MK Gardens. Salim the host made the entire house the most delicious dinner on the rooftop Saturday night. We’ve been attempting to make it to some yoga classes, and decide where we want to go next. We’re thinking Kodai Kanal (Thank you Thomas for the recommendation, we’ve been carrying around the list you and Carrie compiled for us). From there North.
We’ve met some amazing people from all over the world, some that we keep bumping into, and the experience has been fantastic. I love it. India captured my heart in Kolkata. The South has been lush and green and beautiful, but I miss something about the crazy hecticness of the North. I’ve laughed uncontrollably with a rickshaw driver at his attempt to tout us and I’ve almost been brought to tears by the poverty and inhumanity that India forces you to acknowledge exists every day. I’ve admired breath taking sunsets, and smelt the incredible retch inducing smell of hot sewage. I’ve eaten French dishes for dinner and Indian savory snacks for breakfast. I’ve drank delicious hot chai on the train, only to discover I must throw the cup out the window to dispose of it. (No trash receptacles, all my counter littering instincts cease up in terror every time.) I’m continually assaulted by the complexities of India and the amazing opportunities for reflection on some of the most heart wrenching aspects of humanity. I look forward to each day and what crazy experience it will bring.
Sorry for the novel, I’ll either try to write less or more often from now on.
Lots of love to everyone,
ps please write back, I love hearing from everyone!