Tamil Nadu

A Long Bumpy Ride

When I left you last, I had just found my way to Auroville, the intriguing international community just outside of Pondicherry. This was the first time since my arrival in India that I really settled into a place, for more than just a night or two. Five days all in all I spent in Auroville, trying to get an idea of what this place was really all about. There were many interesting encounters, mostly with Europeans, who were passing through Auroville in the hopes of curing some-or-other malady of western life. Their means were varied, among them: meditation, reiki, vegetarianism and other interesting dietary choices. One man we met had decided the answer was through an entirely liquid diet, no solid foods was his path to enlightenment. He explained that it gave him incredible energy, “digestion by the mind”, was his sort of metaphysical explanation. It all went pretty far, some of it over my head, but what I did understand was that a juice-and-ice-cream diet for years on end was decidedly not any cure I was looking for.  For his part, the fifty-something year old balding man seemed about ready to keel over, as much energy as he proclaimed his diet gave him. I was surprised to find some parallel ideas when reading a compilation of some of Gandhi's texts, La Voie de la Non Violence (The Way of Non Violence), the basic idea being that what you eat affects how you think, how you act and how you live your life. In plain English it is summed up in the old adage: you are what you eat. Gandhi took this adage to the extreme, describing his own experimentation with his diet. He was a vegetarian from a young age for religious beliefs, non violence for Hindus and Jains includes animal and vegetal life. This was all certainly food for thought for me. I was happy to be reading Gandhi. So much in India has proved to be entirely beyond comprehension, I have been seeing, smelling, hearing and talking so much and it feels good to find a balance with reading, a different type of cultural intake and a different way to process the experiences I have been living.

Our home during our stay in Auroville, one of my favorites
Our home during our stay in Auroville, one of my favorites
Soaking up the sun at Aurobeach
Soaking up the sun at Aurobeach

After five days in Auroville, enjoying the beach, meeting new friends and venturing to various hippie drum circles in search of le son (the sound), it was time to take the road onwards. We decided to forge ahead to Tanjor, taking a bus by night. We arrived at 12:30 to a sobering scene: the stench of sewage and roads full of garbage, the city was more or less silent; India goes to sleep unabashedly early. We made the tour of hotels, waking up several unfortunate hoteliers, who were sleeping in the lobby area, but alas! all of the ruckus to no avail. All the hotels were full and no one seemed keen to invite us to share their floor. We weren't out of luck yet, this was the perfect opportunity to make use of the tent! So many people were sleeping outside that we assumed we would be in good company and, after finding a park near the city temple we struggled to mount the tent. It was a good half-hour struggle, the stakes did not want to take to the arid ground and without a hammer, or even a rock it was a losing battle. And then, glory! One lone rock extricated from the corner of the park. We snuggled into our tent feeling more or less secure, if hot, and we settled in for the night. Only a few short hours later we were awoken, as a mystified Indian poked around our tent, undoubtedly confused about what in the world it was doing in the middle of a park. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, we broke down camp, fitting everything back into our packs to take on the temple. If the sleep had been marginal the night before, the temple did not disappoint. Ranked as one of UNESCO heritage sights, it was stunning, bigger than the other temples I had seen until present. In the place of the bright colors of other temples, carnavalesque at best and unapologetically gaudy at worst, the temple had maintained its simple rock facade, adorned with intricate stone carvings. In an outer court, Hindus passed a piece of money to the temple elephant, in exchange for a blessing of some sort. I napped on the steps of the temple's interior court, making up for the few hours I had slept the night before. Later, we made our way to the city center, with cars and rickshaw stuck in a traffic jam, as a procession passed by, and we spotted our second elephant! While it was tempting to stay another night in the city, we were tired and we couldn't find a hotel in our price range, and so, a little disappointed we took the bus on to Madurai.

Holy elephant! Outside of the temple at Tanjore after a night of camping
Holy elephant! Outside of the temple at Tanjore after a night of camping
Arrival at the tanjore temple, one of the biggest we have visited
Arrival at the tanjore temple, one of the biggest we have visited
Ganesh, a Hindi god
Ganesh, a Hindi god
Elephant procession blocking the streets of Tanjore
Elephant procession blocking the streets of Tanjore

Madurai! One of my favorite cities I have visited so far on this trip. It was bustling and fast but the people we met were kind and the city had a definite charm. Our first trip on the city bus was offered to us by a stranger, who bought our tickets before we had even realized what had happened and without the time to give thanks. We visited the city temple and the market just across the street, buying a few souvenirs. I finally had to give in to all of the tempting fabrics. It is overwhelming for the eyes. So many patterns and colors, each one more beautiful than the last.  The market was situated in an older, secondary temple, the stalls of the vendors surrounding the middle, holy area. It is such an interesting relationship here, between the sacred and the material. The two are in close co-existence, but instead of denying this partnership, like we do so often in the western world, it is accepted and even seems to be encouraged to some extent. The temples are often home to vendors, relentlessly hassling even the most pious to buy what I can only describe as religious memorabilia. It is all there; for a few roupees you can buy offerings (the classic coconut and banana duo), what I think are prayer beads, and then of course the more mundane pants, fabrics, clothes, etc. Every god has to be paid its dues. Being devoutly religious, I am starting to religious, comes at a cost here.

Shopping in the old temple, converted to market
Shopping in the old temple, converted to market
Psychadelic temple art, Remis expression says it all.
Psychadelic temple art, Remis expression says it all.
On the temple steps, our first photo together  from the trip!
On the temple steps, our first photo together from the trip!

Religion is everywhere in India, marking even the landscape. We took an afternoon trip to village just outside of Madurai. Home to a temple of its own, Tiruparankundram was nestled against the base of a small mountain. And at the top? You guessed it, another temple. And as a special bonus, it was also home to a mosque. We climbed the mountain with the idea of watching the sunset from the top. Even in the afternoon with the sun already lowering in the sky, the heat was intense climbing that mountain. Even summertime in humid Vermont cannot compare. The mountain was crawling with monkeys, who were just waiting for the moment to snatch an apple or camera from our unsuspecting hands (it wasn't until the way back down that we actually had to fend off a monkey that tried to rob Remi). The top was a welcome relief, and to our surprise and delight, a Muslim family almost seemed to be awaiting us, inviting us with open arms to join them for the dinner they had prepared to eat at sunset. Atop the mountain we joined them for a chicken briyani, though they spoke little English and our Tamil is nonexistant, we laughed and joked together, one of my favorite encounters from the trip so far. Their hospitality and openness were unassuming; it was such a simple act of eating together and yet so genuine, bringing out the best of the religious ideals that they lived by.

The Hindu temple that marked the halfway point on the trek up the mountain
The Hindu temple that marked the halfway point on the trek up the mountain
A lone monkey
A lone monkey
An impromptu meal at the summit!
An impromptu meal at the summit!
A picture with our gracious host
A picture with our gracious host
Laughing, as our hosts instruct us to pose
Laughing, as our hosts instruct us to pose

The religious fervor was at its peak in Rameshwaram, au bout du monde, or on the edge of the world. This holy place is doubly important, first for some historical, or possibly mythic, figure who came here to pray, but at the base, because it is the place where the Bay of Bengal and the Ocean Indian meet. Protruding into these waters, it is the very south eastern tip of India, like the Indian Cape Cod or Florida Keys, plus deep religious signification that doesn't apply to the American examples. Remi's impression of the temple: aqualand, indian version. We walked in, not knowing what to expect. Inside the temple everything was dark and wet, the ground drenched, we grimaced as our bare feet met the slimey temple floors. A certain odor oozed from the walls of this closed place that had been wet for too long. We almost wanted to turn around (at least I did!). And yet, as we came into one of the outer courts, a burst of light, and we came upon processions of people, milling around, sopping wet! Indians raced around in inexplicable delight! The crowds were crazed. Priests were quickly hauling up buckets of water from the various wells in the temple (22 in all, quite a circuit for these ardent believers), sloshing bucketfuls of water on the heads of the gleeful temple goers. Wow. We left the temple dazed, happy to dry off our feet and absorb all that we had seen on a more tranquil beach, a few kilometers away from the Pilgrims beach that butted up next to the temple.

The infamous barber
The infamous barber
The edge of the world: Notice the different colors of the water on either side
The edge of the world: Notice the different colors of the water on either side
Walking kilometers to the end of the world
Walking kilometers to the end of the world

The next day we made a pilgrimage of our own, to the bout du bout as our French Guide, le Routard adeptly names this place. A rough English translation leaves you with, the end of the end or the tip of the tip in this case. In fact Rameswaram is about 20 kilometers inland from the actual place where the seas meet, giving us our mission for the day: reach that point. We got somewhat of a late start, missing the first bus we wanted to take by minutes, but by twelve noon we were on the bus in the right direction. White sand and a deep azure ocean met us as we stepped out of the bus, to an overwhelming sun. While there were shuttles that would take you the remaining 5 km to the tip, the beach was too inviting. We made it our project to walk to the end, but what we didn't know was that the 5km marked in the guide book, were actually closer to 10 or 12km in the real world. Would this walk to the end of the world never end? And yet, I admitted to Remi, it felt appropriate that such a walk be at least a little bit epic. We were walking to the edge of the world, after all. Enrapt, we watched as the beach grew smaller, at long last, we jumped into the ocean, feeling the water crashing together. As it was growing dark, we caught a ride back with some friendly Indian tourists.

Ather highlight of Rameswaram was Remi's unforgettable  haircut. The barber was totally old school, you could tell that he would never replace his scissors with an electric razor. But the cut wouldn't have been quite so memorable if it weren't for the (entirely) unsolicited massage that followed. The barber took to Remi's back and neck as if it were a nice slice of meat that needed to be tenderized before cooking. After what I can only describe as a well intentioned beating, the icing on the cake was the extra 50 roupees the barber wanted to charge Remi for his “massage” treatment. He assured us that he offered full body services and he could, indeed, accompany us to our room if we wanted round 2. We graciously declined and got on the next train out of town, headed toward another famous gathering point of the seas.

Kanyakumari fits a similar description as Rameswaram: holy both for its dramatic location at the cusp of the earth and sea, and for some other mythic and/or potentially real person who came here to pray some 200 years ago. We arrived at 5 in the morning, after a night of little sleep but lots of crazy-man-talk on the train. A Hindu had decided to serve as our personal companion for the train ride, chatting incessantly in Hindi with an occasional word in English, but more drastically deciding to purchase an additional ticket at his intended destination to see us to our final stop: everything in the extreme. We got off the train feeling a little extreme ourselves: who wants to pay for a night in the hotel when you can sleep on the beach? Maybe it was the spirit of India that had gotten into us, maybe it was just the promise of a free night of lodging. In any case, it was already 5 in the morning and we had nothing to lose. We were hot and tired from carrying our sacks, which somehow felt heavier than when we had packed them in Rameshwaram, when finally we saw a promising sign: Sunrise Point, 200 meters! Onwards we marched, collapsing into the sand with great joy. We didn't even really think to question the hundred something hindus that were already gathered here, at the feet of the temple where the land extends into the sea. I closed my eyes and escaped into sleep. Needless to say, everything was clearer in the morning!  We awoke, surrounded by Indians, who seemed only slightly surprised to see our makeshift camp, and were more delighted than anything to greet us and come take pictures. You couldn't blame them, really; we were quite the site. Everyone had assembled here to watch the famed sunrise at the edge of the world. Without further questioning, we joined them, rejoicing the new day.

The sunset over Kanyakumari
The sunset over Kanyakumari
Makeshift camp on the beach!
Makeshift camp on the beach!

Arrival in India

Our first train ride, Chennai
Our first train ride, Chennai

It is hard to believe that more than a week has passed since my arrival in India.. loud, colorful, vibrant India. All the sights and smells and encounters seem to take up more space than a weeks worth of time. I arrived in Chennai after 16 hours of travel from Paris, with a layover in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Although it was a relatively brief 3 hour layover, it definitely marked the entrance into a new world; Remi and I were directed to opposite sides of the room for security checks: men in one line, women in another. I managed to get a few hours of sleep on the plane before arriving in Chennai le bon matin, walking straight into a wall of heat as I set foot outside the airport. We made our way to the local train, growing sweaty under the weight of our backpacks, hassled by the cries of all the taxi and rickshaw drivers.  The adventure was just beginning. Of course, taking a taxi directly to the city center would have been much too simple, (not to mention way too expensive) so we squeezed our way into the train, to the surprise and I think delight of many of the Indians, many of whom gave us directions in broken but decipherable English. The train was packed! People sitting, standing, sweating: it felt more like a train for cattle than people. Yet everyone around us was friendly and accommodating, curious to see backpackers braving the train. One time we got off too early, but we quickly corrected our mistake and set off anew, on the right path once again. We transferred trains once, making our way to Triplicane, a neighborhood in Chennai that promised guest houses for travelers on a budget.

Checking out the beach, indian version
Checking out the beach, indian version
Make shift carnaval on the beach
Make shift carnaval on the beach
Exploring the streets of Chennai
Exploring the streets of Chennai

After a few attempts, we found guest house in Triplicane for a reasonable rate: the King Royal Palace. Palace might not be the word I would use to describe this hotel, where a few friendly cockroaches greeted us in our room, but the grandiose name was a (comical) statement in and of itself. We were situated right off High Road, one of the busy main streets in Triplicane, where there seemed to be zero rules of the road: between the cars, taxis, tuk tuks and bicycles ran the street at all hours without any seeming order. Other striking first impression: the filth! Garbage was everywhere, in the streets, in the train, in the water. Chennai is a coastal city, but the shore is covered in trash and even if the strong ocean current wasn't enough to keep people out of the water, I imagine the trash would be. A few people had warned me before my depart that Chennai was an unfriendly and uninteresting place to visit, but I was pleasantly surprised by the two days I spent there. It is true that Chennai is not a tourist city, but I liked that, especially for the starting point of this trip. People were surprised and usually happy to see Remi and I, as we blundered through the public transport system and got lost at night, walking circles around the street that led to the King Royal Palace. We visited our first temple and we enjoyed the carnavalesque beach. We met some really interesting and authentic people.

Street encounter, she practiced her English!
Street encounter, she practiced her English!

Street encounter, she practiced her English!

Making friends in Chennai!
Making friends in Chennai!
Chennai Baba at a local temple

Chennai Baba at a local temple

After two days, we were ready to move on, and we were excited to say goodbye to the cockroaches.  We headed on to Kanchipuram, but not before an exciting ride on the city bus, which took us to the bus station. I had thought the train was crowded, but once I took a look at the bus situation, it turns out it wasn't so crowded after all. We squeezed in with our backpacks; this time the Indians were decidedly less delighted to see that we were taking up about twice the amount of allotted space per person. More offensive still, we had yet to learn proper bus etiquette! Only a bit ruffled, the Indians pushed us into place, at the front of the bus, where we were supposed to have been all along. We made it to the bus stand unscathed and with a rush of adrenaline, we were off on another bus, this time to Kanchipuram (and with air condition. Luxury.).

While I had bid farewell to the cockroaches, the Guest House in Kanchipuram was home to its own fine array of insects as well, although more so the nocturnal variety which we would find out a few hours later. We had settled in after a brief tangle with a local rabatteur, who had made off with 500 roupies (Remi had accidentally paid the middle man instead of the hotel). I was in the room, so I heard the scene from above and didn't particularly care to implicate myself in the proceedings. Remi raised enough of a commotion that the townspeople rallied, bringing in the guilty man with a look of shame on his face and the 500 roupies in hand. With that fiasco resolved, Remi and I set off to visit the temples of Kanchipuram. The city is a place of pilgrimage for Indians as well as foreign visitors, for its nearly 125 temples in the area. We decided to do the visit by bike. Renting bikes proved to be relatively simple, 6 roupies per hour and we just had to return the bikes before 9:30 when the shop would close. The shop keeper gave us a few vague instructions to start out and we were off! Into the craziness of Indian traffic, with me in a full length skirt, and reverse traffic rules (legacy of the British rule). After a few wobbly starts (that bike was heavier than it looked!) I started to get a feel for things, and after one corrected wrong turn, we arrived at the first temple, which was right in the city center. It was much bigger and more impressive than the temple we had visited in Chennai, and there were buses of Indians outside coming and going. The adventure continued, as we traversed the town to see two more temples, to the shock of the oncoming traffic. There were smiles and car honks, and even one older man on a motorcycle who pulled up next to me, all the while pedaling through traffic, as he inquired where I was from. A beautiful and thrilling experience all in all; the traffic felt much more navigable as a biker than a pedestrian and I'm already excited for my next ride. The night brought a different type of adventure, although it was of a less thrilling nature. The hotel was mosquito ridden by night, even with the windows closed tight, and the sheets seemed to crawl. Remi and I were awake all night, tossing and turning, and scratching! We were more than ready to leave when morning came.

Temple visit in Kanchipuram
Temple visit in Kanchipuram
My favorite means of transport, our trusty bikes!
My favorite means of transport, our trusty bikes!
Inner court of the temple in Kanchipuram
Inner court of the temple in Kanchipuram
Kailashanatha Temple under the moon
Kailashanatha Temple under the moon
Ready to eat after our biking adventures!
Ready to eat after our biking adventures!

Our next stop was Mahabaripuram, considerably more touristic than either Chennai or Kanchipuram. Mahabaripuram is a little town next to the coast thats known for its rock carving, located about 130 kilometers south of Chennai. Its a little beach town, with a relaxed vibe and its fair share of foreigners who come to vacation on the beach. Here, finally, we found our first clean hotel!! Clean, truly clean (and even better, no mosquitoes!). After a little bargaining, it was only a little bit more expensive than our usual price (350 roupies, about 5 euros). We relaxed with the pace of the village, happy to leave the craziness of Chennai and Kanchipuram where the streets were constantly filled with honking drivers and city noise. My favorite place in Mahabaripuram was a public park, about five minutes from where we were staying, filled with stunning sculptures. All of the figures had been carved out of enormous boulders that lined the park; imagine a sort of a rock field transformed into a sculpture-park. In certain places, entire temples, cave-like, had been carved out of the rock! We also visited the beach, an enormous stretch of beautiful beach, unfortunately also littered with paper, plastic, basically trash. All of the Indians congregated in one area, some braving the waves with glee, but always fully dressed.  Our second beach trip, Remi and I came prepared to take the plunge, only with a few hesitations after having seen (and smelled) the city sewage that undoubtedly emptied somewhere nearby. These thoughts aside, we plunged in, refreshed by the ocean water. We stayed close to shore, since the currant was strong; I could feel how easy it would be to get pulled away.

Other park goers in Mahabaripuram

Other park goers in Mahabaripuram

We spent the afternoon exploring the cave temples.
We spent the afternoon exploring the cave temples.
Arjuna's Penance, we spent the whole afternoon exploring the park.
Arjuna's Penance, we spent the whole afternoon exploring the park.

The next morning we left Mahabaripuram, to make our way to Pondicherry, which promised to be interesting; the city has a long history of French presence and to this day it maintains a close (and somewhat unclear, at least for me) relationship with France. There are various French écoles and numerous signs in French throughout the city. The trip took us two hours by bus, a tiring trajectory especially since there were more people on the bus than seats. We arrived in Pondicherry and I still didn't have an appetite, even though I had yet to eat that day. Up to this point, I hadn't had any real signs of stomach problem or sickness, for which I owe thanks Mom and Dad and to luck for a strong stomach; street food is appealing for its variety and especially its price! But now, I was beginning to question my food choices: had it been unclean water? A chai from the street? I'll never know, but either way I was out for the day. After finding a hotel, I laid low, nursing a stomach ache and nausea in turn. Later in the evening we ventured out; Pondicherry doesn't have a beach, but there is a nice boardwalk by the ocean. The overall vibe of the city was an Indian-ized European city (which has become so popular among Indian tourists that staying for the weekend without a reservation is nearly impossible). Think streets on a ninety degree angle and boulangeries. Its appeal was somewhat lost on me, although Pondicherry did serve as a jumping off point for its neighboring city, Auroville.

While Pondicherry is known as the Ville Blanche of India, Auroville is something else entirely (although it does admittedly have one of the highest percentage of non Indian residents)- it is a sort of human experiment, living experience, blended with a certain type of spirituality. It is a relatively new community, envisaged by a German woman in the early 60s who is referred to as “The Mother”. She died only five years after the commencement of this project, but now her picture is throughout Auroville (or so I've heard, I have yet to actually see one). The basic idea, or at least as I understand it, is to form an international community that is simultaneously a spiritual community grounded in material projects. There are 46 nations represented in Auroville (or 43 depending on the day, the number varies depending on a Pakistani, Mococcan and Algerian, if one leaves the number goes down, one comes back it goes back up). Auroville is a large area of land, and while the Mother envisaged a community of 50 000, there are little over 2 000 that live there today. The largest group is Indian, which makes up 40% of the population. The next largest is French, at 30%. After that its mostly a mix of Europeans (notably Germans and Italians), some Israelis and a few Americans. And thats where I am now! More to come next about Auroville.

Checking out Auroville, first look around
Checking out Auroville, first look around
A woman we saw on the street, getting cozy with her goat
A woman we saw on the street, getting cozy with her goat

The first week in India has been a rush, an immersion in new colors, smells, language, and food. I have emerged (victorious?) from battle with the mosquitoes, newly armed with Odomo's cream, the local guard against these noxious predators. Never have I been asked by so many strangers (or any stranger I think for that matter!) to take my picture so regularly! I guess thats one way to leave a trace... I have been away from home for a month now, and I miss it. I miss my family, especially since its been hard to connect with the time difference. Wifi is few and far between and sort of shoddy in practice (ok really shoddy). This homesickness reminds me of what I am doing. It is hard to leave a place you love, even when you know you will return. Ultimately that is one reality of traveling; you are always leaving somewhere, constantly in transit. And I love what I am living. I am full of curiosity and questions, excited to look for answers that will only lead to more confusion and questioning. But that's the point.