Tuesday, January 11, 2011

India At Last!

I arrived on schedule in Chennai just after midnight on Saturday morning after leaving Thursday afternoon from Houston.  No issues on the trip – the flights were long, as anticipated, and relatively uneventful.  I felt Lufthansa fed me too much with two meals on each of the two flights and I probably felt worse from overeating than the time shift by the time I arrived.  No activity plus rolls/bread at each meal were out of my routine.  The cab driver who had been arranged was waiting for me and raced me to the hotel – even at 1:00 in the morning there was a lot of traffic on the Chennai streets and the mad driving routine lived up to its reputation.  I was grateful I knew it would be that much of an adventure so I wasn’t as concerned for my safety as I would have been.  On Saturday afternoon a lovely young woman, Suganthi, from Salem who now lives in Chennai picked me up and took me for necessary shopping.  I got a cell phone – an absolute necessity – which I still haven’t completely decoded and then we shopped at a new mall in Chennai for clothes.  With my “personal buyer” I came away with some beautiful and bright clothing.  I’m sure to be the best dressed person in Tiruchuli!  Once again riding around the streets with Suganthi I was so amazed by the traffic flow.  I’m not certain why they bother to paint lane markings on the main roads or invest in traffic lights (which were few anyway) as NO ONE paid them any attention.  Roads that were two lanes would most often have two cars and at least one motorcycle all abreast of each other and jockeying for position with horns blaring the entire time.  Though I found all of the honking disconcerting, it doesn’t appear to be a rude gesture as it is in the States – it was communicating that they intended to come through and you’d better be aware.  Obviously the system works for them as there were no accidents.  However, they are all master drivers fully aware of the dimensions of their car and exactly how close they can come to the other drivers (mere inches at full speed).  This while driving manual transmission vehicles – something I cannot do.  What was even more astounding were the families on the motorcycles weaving through traffic.  Picture a young child seated in front of the father who is driving with the mother on the back sitting side saddle and holding the baby.  We’re not just talking no seatbelts or helmets here – I have no idea how they survive.

Early Sunday morning I flew to Madurai – a much smaller place but still a good sized community with the same crazy traffic.  The airport is a considerable distance from the town and the drive in is gorgeous.  Walking out of the airport I was immediately hit by the humid heat – I’m sure it was over 90 degrees at 10 in the morning.  Though it was bright and sunny as it had been in Chennai, there was no blue sky – not sure if it was pollution or just a hazy day.  Everything was green with trees and occasional palm tree stands, though I understand that is temporary after the rainy season and that by March or April it will be brown and dead, which is familiar coming from Texas.  The small communities we passed were filled with people all appearing to be waiting – not sure for what.  There were some of the picturesque moments like passing the truck overloaded with wood that you couldn’t imagine not toppling and the wagon pulled by white oxen who had been painted at some point and had faded pink and blue indistinguishable markings on their bodies.  The cattle, goats, dogs, and people were all nonchalantly moving in and out of the traffic seemingly unworried by the perpetual honking.  Again, that center line in the road is a figment of my foreigner’s imagination – you can pass virtually anywhere and drive on the wrong side of the street as long as convenient while managing to avoid front end collisions constantly.

I had the opportunity to wander around Madurai on my own and left the hotel about noon with the intention initially of visiting the Meenakshi Amman Temple but fortunately was informed it didn’t open until 4:00 pm so headed instead to the Ghandi museum, a reported short and easy walk.  I never found it but had a great walk seeing everything I expected and more – groups doing laundry in the river, cows wandering everywhere (and all appeared to understand traffic rules), Western dressed and very modern people right alongside incredibly traditional folks, open sewers, stands everywhere selling unusual items (the eggs kept outside on the street in the afternoon heat was probably the oddest thing for me – could they still be good?).  What was the most pleasant surprise was the friendliness of the people.  I was literally the only foreigner I saw walking in the two hours I was first out and most people ignored me, some were friendly, NONE were threatening or begging or disturbing me in any way.  I probably walked five miles (retraced my steps so really covered only a couple miles) and saw only one beggar – though many who appeared rather destitute were seated on the sidewalk hawking small, cheap items for a livelihood.  I felt utterly safe during the day walk.  I returned to the hotel hot, sweaty, and had an incredibly delicious buffet lunch followed by my second shower of the day and a brief siesta.    The doorman negotiated with the driver to take me to the temple and told me to pay only 50 rupees and no more.  The driver spoke no English but was very considerate about stopping at times and pointing to various things he thought were worthy of photographing.  Generally he was right but I was flashing pictures of everything I could capture.  The photos I most regret not being able to catch were two different movie posters – one of Avatar with Tamil writing and English which was cool and another for a Tamil movie with the caption “from the producers of Lord of the Rings” which made me curious how meaningful that would be there.

The driver drove through a maze of small side streets (I would NEVER have found my way out) and got a phone call so stopped the car to talk.  I sat there patiently waiting for him to finish and then he signaled that we had arrived – there in front of me was the 64 meter tower of the North entrance to the temple.  Perhaps if I’d been walking I could have seen it but it was a bit embarrassing to be so distracted by the alleyway not to notice a gigantic, colorful temple right in front of me.  There were a few adventures viewing the temple, none bad, which I may go into some other time.  Basically it was a really incredible and large place filled with lots of pilgrims, though I was told it had been much busier the day before.  I have not yet reviewed my photos to see if I captured any of the mystery of the place (it was very dark and am not sure the flash didn’t create problems) but will post some if possible later.  One of the most impressive areas was called the temple of a thousand columns (even had to pay to go into this area) and it strongly reminded me of the Lord of the Rings’ dwarf city of Khazad-dûm – sorry if you’re not a fan but I found it amusing – and I can’t imagine I’ll ever manage another posting with two LOTR references!

Monday morning the driver and someone who spoke English from ODAM came to pick me up and we drove for a couple hours (with a breakfast break for the guys) going on smaller and smaller roads.  We passed through several villages and I was never certain if we’d reached the destination until we continued on – then we reached the outskirts of a village with a large garbage pile with a dozen pigs and baby pigs rooting around in it.  Great welcome to Tiruchili, my new home ;-) 

I was given a really fun room – very small but functional.  ODAM owns (rents?) a couple buildings and apartments and I was placed into a building which has the volunteer mess on the first floor, a larger apartment on the second floor, and my small apartment with a balcony on the top floor.  The balcony overlooks many homes – everything is VERY close together – and is probably as far from the constant street noise as possible, though that is really not far enough.  The most interesting feature of my new home is the bathroom – which is about 3-1/2 feet x 10 feet – with a central cement cistern (~ 2 ft wide, 2-1/2 feet long, and 2 feet high) which is my water supply for several days.  There is a pump on the ground floor which when switched on fills the cistern – there is no faucet, just a pipe pouring water until the pump is turned off.  At the far end (yes, you walk through the <18 inch space around the cistern) is the incredible “pit latrine” which is my toilet – a fixture mounted in the floor which you squat over (no, I’ll give no further details!) and then pour water from the cistern so the waste will go down the holding area to avoid the smell coming up.  All the waste apparently goes down to the trench along the street which you hop over to get to the stairs to the apartments.  This open sewer is actually less disgusting than I would have guessed, though I certainly hope I never misstep!

There’s a small balcony off of the opposite side of the apartment as the large balcony which has a small clothesline conveniently set up.  There are three windows in the main room (two small in the bathroom) which are open with bars and inner shutters which can be closed if necessary.  The ceiling fan and the airflow through the windows make the room very comfortable.  I understand the other two volunteer accommodations which are housed just down the street have actual toilets and showers but they’re directly over the street and do not have good air circulation so are not as comfortable that way.  The furnishings of the room are very sparse with a built-in shelf from floor to ceiling about three feet wide, a single bed which has a metal frame – hard, not springs – and a two inch mattress.  Pretty hard for this spoiled American body.  The first night was a bit difficult but I think my excitement level and the time shift didn’t make it any easier for me to sleep.  Hopefully tonight will be more restful but my energy hasn’t lagged yet.

After moving my belongings into the apartment the first day, I returned to the ODAM office, became acquainted with the other volunteers – four very nice people I’ll write about later – Ramsey and Kate, a couple from Ohio, Christa from Switzerland, and Sophia from Germany who is leaving the end of this week.  I then had the opportunity to accompany Jeyaraj and Kate to the girls’ school.  It’s about a twenty minute drive outside of town (opposite direction of my initial dump site welcome).  It was even more fun to see than I anticipated.  The girls were so excited to have us come out and to meet me.  We spent most of our time with the sixth grade advanced class but we determined while there that I would work with the eighth grade girls in the evening on English.  This should start next Tuesday, after the upcoming Pongal celebration.  Hopefully I’ll have some wonderful things to write about the festival but right now am not certain exactly what I’ll see.  It is a big annual event in this area with many festivities in Madurai and we volunteers are checking into the possibility of going to see the bullfight there on Sunday (not like the Spanish ones – minimal abuse of the animals).  Today some of the local stands started putting out the packets of colors which I thought were like the colors they throw on each other during Holi but was told they’re just to paint the kollam designs in front of their homes – very ornate chalk drawings on the ground with some competition for this artform.  They’re already starting to get more ornate for the festival.  I’m told they’re usually white but during this time they add more color.  I also learned that the color throwing apparently happens in the north of the country and not in this area, even during Holi.  This is a shame as the photos of that look so interesting.

This morning I toured the local temple right next door to the ODAM office which is a smaller version of the Meenakshi Amman Temple (the office was apparently once part of the temple grounds).  I will return soon for photos – probably one morning as the light then was very nice.  I also accompanied Christa to work with a young disabled boy she does occupational therapy with – what a sweetie.  The rest of today has been pretty mellow and I’ve worked at catching up with my email backlog for being offline most of the week. 

I am having a WONDERFUL time and hope my future posts cover some of the excitement without being so lengthy.  If you made it to this point, I have to thank you for your patience.

Take care!