I’m composing this Sunday morning, not a time I typically work on my blog, but it seems a good time to update, even if it may not be possible to post until Monday. The power outage now is scheduled between noon and 2:00 and I think I would like to go to the ashram in the afternoon. Since I feel some obligation to come back to the office to give the kitten more milk, perhaps I will be able to post this on Sunday.
Yesterday I went to Madurai for my long-awaited shopping excursion – and was incredibly disappointed. I had hopes that I would be able to spend some quality browsing time in the sari store and purchase a couple which I would later likely make into something else with the silk fabric. I had even determined which colors should be highest on my priority list so I wouldn’t get sidetracked when I was offered too many choices. Apparently I misremembered the sari shopping I did before where I saw cheaper saris with interesting designs – they were not silk saris but rather a blend. I was unable to find anything in those that really impressed me and the silk ones were more expensive and equally uninspiring. I tried looking at the full range of saris but somehow after seeing the beauty of the traditional handlooms, the saris with sequins and glitz were even less appealing than they had been before and I did not feel any need to purchase them. Don’t despair though, I revisited the shop which had me on the roof my first day in Madurai and purchased a beautiful embroidered wall hanging which was definitely the most expensive thing I could afford. My philosophy was that I should purchase anything I would regret not buying later – it’s not like I’ll make it back to shop in India in the foreseeable future. I’m glad I purchased what I did and not trying to fit many saris into my suitcase should make packing for my return more reasonable (though there still appears to be a LOT outside the suitcase and quite a bit stored within it), The biggest frustration for me was procuring cash. I had tried to go to the bank machine in Tiruchuli (one and only one) three times on Friday and it was either closed or the line was ten people long. Saturday morning it was closed so I could not get more cash before I took the bus in. When I got to town I started stopping at machines and they were all either closed or under repair – and everyone simply points down the street and tells me there’s one just a ways down. When I finally reached the point where I could no longer shop, it was REALLY hot on the streets and I walked at least a mile stopping at multiple machines with no success. At this point I’m losing my patience and no longer enjoying myself, which was certainly not the point of the excursion so headed back to the temple to ask my friends at the shop if there was another location I should try. I then ended up finding a functional machine and by then have to admit that the shopping had lost much of its appeal – I was hot, sweaty, tired, hungry, and the timing seemed off for most restaurants to just stop and enjoy a nice lunch. Maybe it’s actually a case of recognizing that I really didn’t need anything… though even I find that unlikely ;-)
I had a suggestion to shop at a different large sari store, Rajmajal, which is where the locals apparently prefer shopping. I felt so out of place there as all the signs were in Tamil and there were no clues on what was where. When I asked to see the silk saris they actually had to take me outside and to their separate store across the street. I don’t enjoy being so clueless. I was so intimidated by the process and couldn’t really find anything well enough so after walking through, decided it just wasn’t a place I could shop.
Perhaps the toughest time in Madurai was that there seemed to be more beggars in the street than usual, perhaps because the season is ending and there were less targets. I started the trip off being picked up by a rickshaw driver who was trying to convince me to hire him for the day. Though that could be practical at times, I really didn’t want to be tied down in this way. I had no firm plans for how long I would be in any particular place and returning to a specific area and trying to find my driver each time I was ready to move on did not sound appealing – particularly remembering the frustration of the taxi driver we had my last day with Christa and Stefan in Madurai. From that moment on it felt like everyone seemed to want something from me (read $$$). I am really not a RICH American and it is disconcerting to be perceived as somehow stingy because I am not purchasing all they would like. I imagine my impression of this likely created a good deal of my dissatisfaction with the day.
So now I’m sitting in the nice quiet office this morning enjoying some time with my kitten, who missed me a lot yesterday, catching up on emails, and downloading a couple things while the system is not too overloaded. Tea was just delivered and I am enjoying being out of the city and back in my sweet little village. My husband has asked if I’ll be able to readjust to being around others or if I’m going to be a recluse and I can’t honestly answer him. The crowds yesterday were disturbing, but I think the language barrier adds a great deal to that. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to reintegrate into American life.
Friday evening I went back to my apartment after work and was enjoying a cold Limca on my patio watching the evening shift to sunset when Jayama, our cook, came upstairs and said “temple going?” as though we had discussed going to the temple. I was willing so grabbed my shoes and bag and we went off to the main Mariaman temple just off the main street beyond where I turn to go to the office. I had been in a back temple in that area during the large festival but that is apparently an older temple and not often used so we visited the front temple, gave an offering (which we purchased on the way to the temple) and received our chalk blessing. Though I am not familiar with the ritual, I am not able to perform it as gracefully as those around me. Jayama then directed that we walk around the temple (clockwise) and at the back she touched a dirty spot on the wall, as did the woman following us. This was revered as the gods were just on the other side. I would not have realized this was part of the activities if she had not been there to explain. She told me that during large festivals everyone goes three times around the temple bowing on the ground constantly, which has to be pretty hard on her old body, though I admit she appeared pretty comfortable doing it several times in a row to demonstrate. We then sat quietly for a few minutes at the front of the temple and headed back to the apartment. We stopped to visit at the neighbor’s house. An older woman was outside who was very pleased to hear I had gone with Jayama to the temple and went to great lengths to describe that if you are very lucky/holy/or something else that you could see the holy vibrations in that place. I must not have whatever it takes to see this, at least not this visit, but it was a fun conversation. Jayama introduced me as her little sister, and knowing that she tends to consider the younger volunteers more as children, I consider this a compliment. I was very flattered that she offered me this opportunity and realize that it would not have happened if there were other volunteers here – her knowing I am alone gave her impetus to invite me. She tells me we’ll go back next Tuesday, something about the times that the temple is available. Jayama has small books, rather like comic book printed items, which have little stories and colored pictures of gods, which she spends considerable time cutting out. She tells me that she takes these home and glues them to old calendars – I believe essentially creating small shrines. I really wanted to find her a nice book with god pictures while in Madurai to give her as a gift but couldn’t locate anything like this. I was told I might find something like it within the temple but it was so crowded with pilgrims that there were really long lines for security when it opened at 4:00 in the afternoon and I didn’t feel I would have time to explore the venders in there and still make it back to Tiruchuli at a reasonable time. As it was I had to bus through Arrapukuti so didn’t get back to dinner (normally 7:30) until almost 9:00. I felt fortunate that I had seats on both buses heading back so it was a nice way to re-energize after the frustrating and hot day of shopping.
Last week I came home for lunch one day and a palm leaf thatch roof was being installed in the alleyway to my building. Jayama explained that an old woman had died in the house next door (same one I spoke with the lady on Friday night) and that the roof was being put up to accommodate the anticipated guests to the funeral proceedings. By the evening there were many plastic chairs in place and people were sitting out there visiting as the viewing and other activities took place. Jayama explained that the old woman had an accident the year before (I think involving a car) and apparently had issues after with one side and her head and her health had not been good since. She died in her sleep. This may have been the closest I ever was (proximity) to someone who died as the building she lived in is maybe 50 feet away from my room at the farthest and is also three stories so she couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred feet from me when she passed. I think India has made me more aware of the day to day activities and occurrences than I ever am in my insulated American life. The son arrived from Chennai the next day so the funeral procedures could proceed. I was told the woman was Christian so Jayama had no idea exactly how the process went, being familiar only with Hindu practices. The next day at lunch there was a huge fight outside their house – if it was the States the police probably would have come to tell them to quiet down. Jayama spent a good deal of time explaining, in very broken English, that the family was fighting over the little bit of money and jewelry the woman left. When she finished and I indicated that I understood, she asked how I was able to understand her and I told her it was because apparently people everywhere are the same in this way and that I am familiar with such family disagreements at times of loss. No matter how different we appear, we are all the same at heart, with the same life issues just played out in diverse ways.
When Kate and Ramsey first came to India they purchased a guitar because Kate enjoys playing sometimes. They have always kept it in storage here when they would return to the States but since this was their final stay, Kate gave the guitar to Elavarasu to give to a musical friend of his. It has been in the office all this week and I’ve heard them playing it occasionally. This morning Elavarasu played it and for some reason found there was a dead scorpion inside. They shook it out onto newspaper to throw away and showed me (probably a mistake) and this was the ugliest, biggest, blackest scorpion I have ever seen. We have a lot of scorpions in Texas but this thing was close to four inches long and would have terrified me if I’d seen it alive somewhere. The idea that this probably entered the guitar either in the apartment below me or in storage within the mess on the first floor of my building is not particularly comforting. Shortly before they left Kate and Ramsey were having problems with a RAT coming up through the drain pipe they have in their kitchen. Fortunately that does not run up to my apartment but it was not particularly comforting picturing a rat running around. I was told at one point they had issues with rats in the office and that is why the big cat was brought in – and they no longer have rat problems. The worst story I heard of my apartment was when one of the volunteers living there opened the door to find a rather aggressive monkey on the patio – but they simply closed the door and called for others but the monkey was long gone before any help arrived. I have even heard the story that a couple years ago a COBRA came into the office – while volunteers were here not less. I think the locals, who truly are not brave about such things, still found it amusing that the volunteers were all up on the tables. I am not sure how well I would handle such a visitor and am very grateful that my time here has not given me any opportunity to find out.
The news here has been interesting. Most, obviously, concerns the big national elections (voting on Wednesday) but another interesting event has been coverage of Sai Baba’s illness. Even those who are not familiar with Indian gurus may have seen this guy – he has really big hair and can manifest physical objects (usually rings and watches). The gentleman who originally owned the Hard Rock Café is/was a follower and when he sold the business in the 90s, he put ALL of the money from the sale (apparently almost 200 million dollars) into one of Sai Baba’s projects. Sai Baba is now 84 and is having significant health problems and has been hospitalized for over a week. Since he told his followers he would live to be 97, perhaps there should be no reason for all the fuss. At any rate, the news of his illness is receiving a great deal of coverage here. Information about the election primarily relates to efforts to prevent corruption and I have to admit I truly do not understand the system. Somehow a major form of corruption is buying votes and all efforts are taken to keep large scale gatherings from happening as these could mask attempts to buy the public. Apparently this is particularly problematic in Tamil Nadu. I find it fascinating that a party buying dinner for voters is seen as a major issue – in America we’d eat the dinner and then vote however we wanted. In reality, in the States we would have to PAY for any dinner or other opportunity to spend time with candidates – fundraising being what it is. However, it is apparently a promise made if one takes money or bribes of some type and one keeps that promise because it would reflect badly to the gods if one did not (at least this was Elango’s explanation). He also told me that many people see that there is corruption on either side so as individuals, they take advantage of what they can get personally. That certainly seems reasonable. One of the most interesting articles I tried to understand related to the power outages. Summer is tough on the power drain so there are even more shortages than normal so times without power ought to increase from the usual daily two hours. I think these additional times are normally scheduled in the middle of the night to prevent further disruption to businesses, though I have to say these middle of the night outages are miserable as the power going out means the ceiling fans are off and it becomes unbearably hot very quickly but also stops the available mosquito movement the fans provide so everyone is bit right away. At any rate (sorry for the sidestep in the story), the government is concerned that there should be no night outages because corruption could be masked by darkness. I only wish I could imagine what, exactly, the candidates could do effectively during a middle of the night outage. At any rate, trying to get a handle on the cultural differences on their election process has proven fascinating for me. One day a couple weeks ago the parties began making promises – which reminded me of a humorous version of a chicken in every pot. First one party promised electric blenders for each family and a three month maternity leave period for government employees (female only). The other main party countered with electric blenders anda six month leave. The original party then came back with blenders, six month leave, and laptops for every school child. It is like a fascinating bidding war for votes. At some point in the past apparently televisions were promised and every household has a TV – the sight of satellite dishes on small huts is not uncommon. This is a very different world.
I am now completing the blog in the afternoon. The power went out at noon as anticipated but did not come back until 3:00. Meantime, the weather shifted and what was a cloudy day became grey and fraught with rain. So far we received only a few drops, which made the air smell nice for a short time but which did nothing to cool things down. Since impending rain makes it seem unwise to walk to the ashram, which would be a muddy walk if the rain caught me, I’ve returned to the office to finish up a couple things (missing Saturday makes this reasonable enough).
This is probably enough babbling about my insights on Indian life for one day. Congratulations if you made it to this point in the post. Since I’ll be leaving next week, the blog will probably cease soon. I may write in it once or twice when I return home, sort of a reflection on the return to my normal life (would I have to call it bret-back-from-India?), but figure those of you who have checked the blog often will have a respite soon.