India. There’s so much to say about this country and yet, no words at all that are adequate to describe the heights and depths of emotions I experienced in a week. I love South Africa like a lover. I can see a future, laughter, good food, wine, music, a life created together. I love India like a friend. I want the best for her, I’m better for having known her, she confuses and challenges me, points out the good and bad in me, and calls me on my bullshit, makes me want to be a better person. This post is likely to be fairly unpopular as it isn’t my usual beer and BS.
We sailed into Chennai on a steamy, morning. An industrial marina with ambiguous fires burning in the background, majestic temple spires scattered along a skyline of familiar looking business high rises. We had been warned about the dirt,noise, pollution, grime, beggars, poverty, heat and dust for weeks before we arrived, and I felt as ready as I ever would to face this country of contrasts. Solbeam’s stories and love for India ignited my curiosity last year, I read books, magazines and scoured the net in preparation.
I initially couldn’t decide if I wanted to head north to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and the majesty of the Taj Mahal. Should I head toward Calcutta or Bombay? Auroville? In the end I chose to head south to Kerala, the most southern state in India, for two reasons. One, its the homeland of one of my best friends, Anil, and I was intrigued to see the country of his parents and grandparents. The other was the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. The Special Section: Passages Through India. Though in my opinion there is nothing that can prepare you for India, I am certain that I made the right choice and I am more certain that I want to return one day.
I spent my first day in Chennai (on the east coast of India in the state of Tamil Nadu). Though I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler, I was challenged, frustrated, exasperated, and mesmerized. First, the heat is unlike anything I’ve experienced yet on this trip. Cape Town was cool and breezy, I spent the majority of my time on Mauritius either in or on the water. But Indian heat is different, its the heat of a billion bodies, millions of animals, hundreds of thousands of vehicles, thousands of trains and boats, hundreds of ships, dozens of factories…and you. The dust billows at every turn, making me shield my eyes whenever the windows are rolled down.
That first day we hired a taxi driver to take us around and found out the universal truth of tourism in India, they’ll take you were THEY want to take you. They beseech you to spend “little time here” and “just look, just look” at the wares of the various stores and shops that promise them either liters of petrol or commissions based on the number of visitors they bring each day.
This led to us spending time in mega bazaars with prices that had doubled, tripled, etc as soon as the ship pulled into port. The Indians bargain, and expect you to partake in the game. This got to be fun when I adjusted my attitude and remembered my global citizenship versus my american aculturization. When they’d quote me a ridiculous price I would counter with “That’s not a price you’d give to someone you love!” which left them exasperated but kept everything light and full of humor. We got ripped off by our cab driver in a long story I won’t get into, but in the end we suffered the loss of a mere $6 and a hot, sweaty walk back to the ship.
I didn’t get a malicious vibe from India. It isn’t a place that I worried for my safety beyond the general precautions. Yes, someone might pick your pockets, yes someone might snatch your bags, but I wasn’t nervous except for the one time when our cab was surrounded by men and one tried to open the door. Not understanding their language or intent, I demanded that we be taken where we
wanted to go. Ultimately they were just trying to be helpful.
You know all turned out well because I’m typing this, but it reinforced that women the world over always have to be on guard and this pissed me off because its not fair that men can take up space, move and roam freely, without fear of violence or rape and women, even in the safest of communities, bear the responsibilities for preventing or anticipating violence against us.
But I’m getting too deep.
I headed south via train to Kerala. First we stopped in Madurai (still in Tamil Nadu), arriving on an amazingly sunny morning with barely time to brush our teeth and change shirts. We headed out to see the Meenakshi Temple, one of the focal points of Hinduism and the 2nd largest temple in India, drawing over 15,000 pilgrims and visitors a day during festivals and events.
When we first got dropped off by the bus, I couldn’t see any sign of a temple, instead shoving down my exasperation at being dropped in a dusty, dirty side street with animals all around, the hot sun beaming down and no idea what the hell we were doing. We started walking and our guide stopped at a little shop to buy dhotis (long skirt like apparel) for everyone in our group who had on shorts. To enter any temple your legs and shoulders must be covered, you must remove your shoes and leave them with a guard (you can’t carry them with you).
We walked some more, laughing in the sun at our western t-shirts and Indian dhotis, relieved to be off the ship/train/bus in the sunlight and safe in pursuit of adventure. Trading our frustration for flexibility and a new experience. And there it was, Meenakshi. We rounded a corner and I saw the first tower and I literally stopped in my tracks. It was breathtaking and you could tell it was going to be massive in size. And it was.
We spent 3 hours walking barefoot on hot stones, lulled into dreamlike states by the incense, the incessant and beautiful chant ” om namah shivaya” which roughly translates into “I bow to the divinity that resides in me”, broadcast over and over again without pause, on speakers throughout the temple of Shiva.
We saw thousands of people going about their daily business of worship, prayer, offerings, fellowship. The bright colors, the flowers offered in honor and love, the chants of peace, the statues, the architecture-beautiful. Like the Churches in Mexico, the Choir in Cape Town, they were quite simply divine. And not the least because I was blessed by an elephant.
Next we headed to a truly Brokedown Palace that at first didn’t hold any appeal to me, but when a fellow traveler exclaimed “could you imagine what this place would’ve been like as a working palace?” And I let my imagination wander the long hallways with amazing arches, the carved and painted ceilings, the sheer scale fo the place transported me to a past that I may not have known but could feel in the pillars.
We finally headed out for lunch which was an amazing array of Indian food and attempts at western cuisine-all of which were fine by me. After rehydrating with equal parts water and Golden Eagle beer, restoring our sodium balances and cooling our sun-kissed skin down, we headed out for the long drive down to Periyar in Kerala.
Along the way we saw monkeys, cows, cows and more cows, humanity going about its daily business, cotton trees (yes, really!) and we scaled a mountain full of treacherous switchbacks, with few guardrails, and many other vehicles careening up or down alongside us and I had to just let it go and relax. If my fate ended on a road in India then I would have perished doing something I love.
Periyar gave us a short break from the constant barage of poverty, a change from the unremittant scenes of hunger, lack, dirt, hopelessness, illness, deformity. We spent the night in a lodge in a spice grower’s paradise. complete with pool, a cooking class (pepper chicken masala!) and a performance of local dance and music. I fell asleep that night dreaming of a golden sun, dust, haunting brown eyes looking into mine, and the rythm of an ancient chant reverberating in my chest.