the official transporation of this blog

At the end of some television shows there is an announcement that the “official transportation for the X show is……”   I decided that the official transportation of this blog is the always lovely AUTORICKSHAW…

Less than five months from today I will be back home in Ma India., first in Chennai, then Kolkata, then Bhubaneswar, then Delhi, then Haridwar, and back to Delhi.   One of the things I love about Chennai is the traffic (believe it or not!) because I’ve realized that it operates on Chaos Theory.   It took me about two days during my first trip to figure out how the chicken crosses an Indian road — basically you walk into it, because if you hesitate, you’ll really screw things up.  Or you sneak into a crowd of people on a street corner and walk with them in relative safety in one fast moving blob of humanity, the idea being that if you’re surrounded by people, chances are someone else will get hit by a bus.  If you are a really lucky, the bus will stop, but hopefully not on top of you.

The above video was shot in Hyderabad, but it’s close enough to show you what Chennai’s traffic is like.  Actually it has less traffic than on a typical Chennai street.  Watch it and you’ll see lots of autorickshaws, the Official Transporation of this Blog!

I’ve been in one minor accident while in a rickshaw, have run out of petrol once,  and have only seen a few roll overs, so don’t worry — we’ll get you where you want to go…eventually.  Just sit back and relax!


view from an autorickshaw, Chennai, 2005

“you are all Gandhis” (2008)

Pongal festivities were in full swing when I arrived in Madurai in January.  India has thousands of festivals and Pongal is an important one in Tamil Nadu.  It is a harvest festival and I read in the paper that it is similar to the American Thanksgiving because it is a time to give thanks and hope for a bountiful coming year.  Wherever I went in Madurai people would wish me “Happy Pongal!”

Just when I thought India had thrown me for a loop this third time around. . .a stolen necklace in Chennai; a four hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai watching cheesy  Tamil videos from the ’70s played full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way; an Indian cop who tried to take my Swiss Army Knife I always carried when I tried to re-enter the Meenakshi Temple on one side when I was allowed to enter with it on the other side…

…something wondrous happened.  That’s  how it always happens to me in India — my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with an autorickshaw driver for my stay in Madurai and we were driving through the slums along the river.  Somehow I always get drivers who know I am not afraid to go off the beaten path into the places where tourists don’t usually go.

We drove past a small school and I saw children in a doorway dressed in their dance clothes.  The little girls were beautiful and I told the driver to turn around for a quick photo.  Of course as soon as they saw me stop about 10 kids ran outside and surrounded me.  Some of the teachers came out to see what the commotion was.  I saw a stage inside and a woman talking into a microphone.  I apologized to the teachers, I said I did not mean to cause such a ruckus and disturb their show by taking a photo.

A male teacher came up to me and said “no problem, madam” and he invited me in to celebrate Pongal with them.  He said they had planned a special celebration and it would be their honor if I came inside.  I tried to beg off because I knew the commotion my presence would cause and I’m not one to have people fuss over me, but the children grabbed me and the teachers insisted.  I planned to sit in back and watch quietly, but I was led to the stage steps.  I stopped and turned around and there had to be at least 100 kids sitting on the floor, all eyes glued to me, big smiles on their faces.  I was stunned and I kept shaking my head no, but the teachers kept pushing and pulling me until I was given the guest of honor seat, between the principal and the head mistress.  I felt like a rock star.

The teachers asked where I was from and what I did.  They introduced me, telling the children that I had come all the way from America for them, then they asked me to get up and say a few words.  I was still in shock so I mumbled something about “stay in school and get a good education” and that got a huge round of applause.

It is Pongal tradition to boil a pot of rice and when the rice boils over the sides, that signifies a fruitful coming year.  As the Pongal pot of rice was boiling the teachers presented me with a Pongal gift — a towel that they draped over my shoulders.  The price tag was still attached and it said 20 rupees which is about 50 cents, but to me it was priceless.

As the children danced on stage the teachers told me that these were slum children, that the school gets money from the government to educate them.  There are about 600 kids in the school and they are taught English, computers, reading, and math, among other subjects. One of the teachers took my camera and took pictures of the dancers for me.  When he returned my camera I took the perfect Pongal picture — a picture of the pot just as the rice started to boil over.  Serendipity.

Finally, the teachers asked me to say some last words to the children.  By this time it was over an hour later and I was composed enough to say something intelligent.  I spoke and it was translated into Tamil….

I told them that I had read in the paper that morning that Pongal is like the American Thanksgiving and I explained a little about what Thanksgiving meant, about giving thanks, having gratitude.  After wishing them Happy Pongal, I told the children that their teachers teach from their hearts and to never take their education for granted.  I told them that they were the future of India and with their education they could change the world, that they could be anything they wanted to be.  I told them, “you are all Gandhis, never forget that.”

When I finished I saw some of the teachers dabbing their eyes and I thought about how some upper caste Indians would look down on these children and down on me for even being with them.   I thought about how so many people in my white bread suburban community have no idea, or worse, don’t want to know, how the rest of the world lives.   Here I was in a slum school half-way around the world and I felt blessed to be with them.   All things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences.

A teacher then told the children how it was their privilege for the American yoga teacher to visit their school today.  I said, no, it was MY privilege to be treated with such graciousness, a total stranger.  The principal took my hand and said I was a gift from God for them…and that’s when I started to cry.

The principal and I walked off the stage as the Pongal lunch was served to the children.  We went into her office and she asked me to write in their guestbook so I wrote what I said at the end of the program, about changing the world.  I was also given the special Pongal lunch, as was my driver, and the principal told me more about the school.  Before I left I gave her a donation and said she should use it for whatever they needed, food, books, anything.  The principal told me she would make sure that each child got a pen, so I bought about 600 pens that day.  You have to travel in india to know the significance of the question “one pen, madam?”, so when she told me she would buy pens I thought it was a very appropriate purchase.

The principal wrote the address of the school for me and told me I am always welcome to return.  I told her that I had a beautiful time with them and that I would always remember them as long as I live.  I left and got into the rickshaw as children and teachers came out to wave goodbye to me.  The driver started his rickshaw and we left, and when I turned around about a block away they were still waving goodbye.

This is the India that cracks open my heart and makes me count the days until I can run back into her arms and lose myself all over again.

100 days

(written 100 days before leaving for my third trip in December 2008)

One hundred more days and I lose myself in Ma India for the third time.  These pictures are only three out of the 500+ pictures I took during my first two trips.

the vibrant colors of flowers from a flower seller’s cart in Pondicherry…

the joy of a man dropping flowers onto another man in a flower warehouse in Chennai…

and finally the children — children who have nothing compared to many American children, yet they seem to have what is most important…

These are some of the images that are burned into my mind ever since I returned from my first trip in 2005.  There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about Ma India, the good and the bad and the ugly.  Some days I wake up thinking about her, and some nights I go to sleep thinking about her.  I can’t explain it, it’s just the way it is.  For those of you who have been to India, and love it as I do, you know exactly what I’m talking about, there is no need for explanation.  To paraphrase Louis Armstrong when he talked about jazz, “if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.”

I long for that very early morning in Chennai at the end of December when I step outside the airport and hesitate, stopping to drink everything in with all my senses, the sights, the sounds, and yes, even the smell — a damp, cloying smell mixed with green and smoke and diesel fuel that attaches to my skin like wet cloth — and then step into my freedom.

Yes, freedom, because I feel light and free in India.   I’ve just read the book Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff by Rosemary Mahoney and she describes for me how I feel when I go to India, a solo woman traveler of a certain age…

I was alone, finally, with no one to protect me. I wanted to sing for happiness — a rare, raw, immediate sort of happiness that was directly related to my physical situation, to my surroundings, to independence, and to solitude. The happiness I felt that morning had nothing to do with the future or the past, with abstractions or with my relationships to other people. It was the happiness of entering into something new, of taking the moments simply for what they were, of motion, of freedom, and of free will. I loved not knowing what would happen next, loved that no one here knew me. I felt coordinated and strong, and the world seemed huge and vibrant. It was a relief to be alone…My happiness was a feeling of physical lightness, of weightlessness, like drifting on air…

To prepare for her trip up the Nile, Mahoney read the Egypt travel journals of Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale.  She writes that she recognized in Flaubert’s notes (written about 1850) the same kind of happiness she felt.   She quotes Flaubert as he witnesses the Nile:

I felt a surge of solemn happiness that reached out towards what I was seeing and I thanked God in my heart for having made me capable of such joy; I felt fortunate at the thought, and yet it seemed to me that I was thinking about nothing: it was a sensuous pleasure that pervaded my entire being.

Mahoney quotes Florence Nightingale’s reaction to a Nile sunrise:

It looks. . .so transparent and pure, that one really believes one’s self looking into a heaven beyond, and feels a little shy of penetrating into the mysteries of God’s throne…


rameswaram sunset #2a

This is the sunset taken from the top of a temple in Rameswaram and just beyond the horizon is Sri Lanka.  As I  stared into the limitless expanse of ocean I began to cry as I imagined the monkey god Hanuman leaping from rock to rock to rescue Sita.  Like Flaubert, I also thanked God. . .and Buddha and Shiva and Kali that I was “capable of such joy.”  Such profound joy and pleasure that it indeed pervaded my entire being.

Finally Mahoney describes Flaubert and Nightingale as neither having “any desire to fit the tediously cliched expectations that society had slated for them”; that they both “prized solitude”; and both traveled Egypt during periods of “considerable personal uncertainty and self-doubt”, agonizing “over how they would use their talents and answer their natural impulses.”

I am a woman of a certain age who travels alone, relishing my solitude.  It is possible for me to feel solitude in the chaos of an Indian city.  I also do not suffer tediously cliched expectations gladly.

Ma India, I’m coming home.

the colors spoke to me

I keep drifting back to stare at this picture I took in September 2005 during my first trip to India.

It was taken on the grounds of the Park Guesthouse in Pondicherry. The guesthouse is on the Bay of Bengal and I woke at dawn one day to do yoga outside, facing the rising sun.  Surya namaskar on the Bay of Bengal at dawn is a good thing.

This is an amazing display of Bonsai Frangipani, which are trees in India.  You might be familiar with its other name of Plumeria.

Looking at the thickness of the stems the plants must be quite old and would surely be several feet high if growing normally.

I tweaked the photo a bit to make the colors pop, but what you see is what you get in person.

I went to Pondicherry during my first two trips and it’s where I sent my yoga student and his girlfriend when I hit the road in the opposite direction.

Images of My India.

Enjoy.

my last day in Chennai (2005)

flower sellersSeptember 2005

My last day in India was the best day I experienced in Chennai.

On my last night in India I met one of the yoga students at the Eco Cafe for our goodbyes and she told me that I was probably the only one who was not in the group picture.  She also said that a tea was given for the students at the end of the day.  But frankly, a group picture, a tea, and teary goodbyes to people I only knew for a month and probably will never see again mean nothing to me compared to what I experienced that last afternoon.

The Banyan is a women’s organization that is about an hour from where I stayed in Mylapore.  I wanted to donate money and also the clothes and toiletries that I would not be bringing back with me.  Suresh got lost a few times but we finally found it.   I thought it amusing that he never asked women for directions, he only asked men for directions to the women’s shelter.

Visiting Banyan was an overwhelming experience for me because I teach yoga in a shelter similar to this one.   There are approximately 300 women there and not just from Chennai.

I almost started crying when I walked through the gates — two dogs came running, barking loudly, protecting their home.  One dog had a bad rear leg so he ran on three legs.  The other dog must have broken her pelvis because she dragged her back end, pulling herself along with her front legs.  But she was still fierce and tried to protect her home, her paralysis did not stop her.  I watched her as she dragged herself all over, she had old crusty sores on her back legs from dragging herself.  But when she laid down exhausted she looked up at me, wagged her tail, and seemed to smile.

I was greeted by a young Finnish woman.  She told me that she came to volunteer after the tsunami in 2004 and stayed on in Chennai, learning Tamil.  I asked her about the dogs and she said “oh, we adopt them too…”  It did my heart good when she told me that they also have yoga classes for the women.

I was given a tour and I talked with tsunami survivors, to an ex-movie actress who was rescued from the streets, to a woman from Mumbai who has the same curly hair as I do — she hugged me because we had something so mundane in common, our hair.  She did not speak English, but she came up to me smiling, pointing to her hair, and then touching mine.

I lost it — I started crying because I thought about the women in the shelter back home where I teach yoga.  The woman who was the ex-actress came up to me and told me in perfect English, “don’t cry, madam, we love it here, we are happy here.”  They have nothing and yet they have everything.

I left and Suresh took me to the warehouse district where we walked through huge warehouses filled with fruit and veggies and flowers.  I was the only Westerner and Suresh made sure no one crowded me too much.  I took my most favorite photos of India at these warehouses.  I was mobbed everywhere I went, people wanting me to take their pictures, then crowding around me to see their face on my camera.  Surrounded by 20 men at one time and never hassled once .  They yelled their thanks to me and kissed their hands and touched my cheeks, some bowed and made anjali mudra to the OM tattoo on my wrist.  One old man saw the OM tattoo on my wrist, kissed his fingers, then touched the tattoo.  He put his hands to his heart and bowed to me.

Attend final classes that afternoon?  Scheduling classes after our graduation ceremony in the morning was anti-climactic.   I never would have given up the experiences I had that afternoon for anyone or anything.  The best part was experiencing it alone, on my own terms, deliciously secure as only a woman of a certain age can be.

leaving Rameswaram




I returned to my hotel after the bucket ceremony and lounged around for a few hours thinking about my past three days in Rameswaram. I sat on my little balcony staring out into the ocean wishing that I did not have to leave this place.  Of course I was under no delusion that if Fate decreed that I stay here that Rameswaram would be peaches and cream.  I’m sure it would be just like when you meet a man and have a wild weekend love affair only to discover when you do try to make it work that he really hates your cats and he farts all night.  I packed my bag.

Kannan returned in plenty of time to take me to the train station.  I had to pay him for his three days of being my guide.  He told me on the first day that I should pay him what I think he’s worth, that it was totally up to me, he never asked for any money during our time together.

When he arrived he said, “Kannan wants to talk to you,” referring to himself in the third person.  I thought that quaint.  He came into my room without asking and I thought that was rather bold.  I left the door open and stood close to it.  He sat down on my bed and I thought that was even bolder remembering again what I had been told about South Indian culture and men.

“What do you think of Kannan?,” he asked.  My guard was up and I knew I had to be careful in what I said.  I told him that I thought he was a good and kind man and also a quietly spiritual one.  He began to tell me how he felt a connection to me these past few days, that he knows I am a spiritual woman.  But then he told me that his wife did not understand him and that they always fight, that he has his life and she has hers.  I groaned inwardly and I bit my lips to keep from smiling.  Are men really the same all over the world?  Is there a Universal Male Playbook that contains these lines?

I looked at him and slowly shook my head.  “You are married, and so am I,” I said very seriously.  Then I said something that I knew he would understand: “and I have a dear friend.  Understand?  ‘dear friend?’,” and I pointed to my heart.  “He is always in here.”  Kannan nodded that he understood.

We walked out and he asked me for $40.   This was over and above the rupees I had given him for his guide services.  I raised an eyebrow, squinted, and looked sideways at him.  Then he asked me if I would buy him a cellphone when I got back home and send it to him.  One would think that this conversation immediately after telling me that I’m a spiritual woman would infuriate me, but it didn’t.  I thought it was hilarious and tried very hard to keep from laughing.  For some reason it did not phase me at all.

I told him that there was no way I was going to buy him a cellphone and send it to him when he lives in a country where even the Shiva babas own cellphones.  I told him that Indian cellphones are much cheaper than American ones.  However, I did break down and give him an extra $20 in American money.  His guide services were definitely worth it, and besides….his wife didn’t understand him, how could I refuse?

I gave him a bandana covered with OM symbols that was still wet from the temple water.  I told him he could remember me by it.  He put it in his shirt pocket telling me it would keep me close to his heart.  Quaint.  A smooth operator.

We said goodbye at the train station and he told me that when (not if) I return to Rameswaram, he will always be there to help me, to “please call Kannan.”  Of course I will.  How can I not?

I sat in non-air-conditioned First Class for my 17 hour train ride back to Chennai.  My compartment mate was a businessman going home to the state of Andhra Pradesh.  Compared to my first compartment mates on the train to Madurai which was a long two weeks ago, this man was polite and talkative, and spoke perfect English.  We talked about yoga and meditation, about Gandhi, and the politics in India.  He told me that there are many Indians who hate Gandhi and this surprised me very much.

I loved the train ride because since it was not air-conditioned, there was no window glass, the windows had bars across them.  In every station we came to along the way I heard the cries of the chai merchants or food sellers and they would hand me my purchases through the window.  A magazine seller walked by and seeing the feringhee woman, he pushed English magazines through the window at me, telling me to “buy, madam, buy! Look! English!” I kept telling him “no” in Tamil as the train pulled away.

We pulled into Chennai at about 8 am and my compartment mate made sure that I knew where I was going.  I did, and Suresh picked me up in his rickshaw to drive me back to my hotel.  Although I loved my travels, I had missed the cacophony that was Chennai.  I spent the next two days chillin’ in Chennai, and did a day trip to Tiruvannamalai, another famous temple town, visiting the famous ashram of Ramana Maharshi.

My month in India was finally over and I cried the night I had to leave.  But I knew I would be back.

I can not stay away from Ma India.

out with the old karma, in with the new



Kannan and I walked to the ends of Dhanushkodi, almost to Sri Lanka, in the noonday Indian sun, but I was too hot and too exhausted to walk back to where we had started.  I opted for the 30 rupee truck ride back.  Others joined us in back of that truck and at one point we got stuck in the sand — we all got out and the men pushed and pulled the truck until we were free.  Using the rope that was tied to the top of the truck I grabbed it and swung myself back up, enjoying every moment of the ride back.  I did not understand a word anyone was saying, but I felt comfortable, never out of place in the back of an old truck on a beach in India.

My right-out-of-the-ocean fish lunch was waiting for me – and for Kannan, of course, since I paid for his lunch and the ride back.  It seemed to me that I had never had a more delicious meal. Sitting at the fisherman’s makeshift lunch counter in front of his open fire, I watched him cook as his daughter cleaned the planks that were used as seats and tables.  Kannan told everyone that I was an “American yoga teacher” and everyone smiled and nodded their heads and asked me if I liked India.  “I love India!,” I said, and that brought even bigger smiles.  One Indian showed me his Bible and asked me if I knew Jesus.  I told him that I certainly did know Jesus and the man was satisfied with that, he did not try to convert me.  When we left, the fisherman asked me to stay in Rameswaram to teach his daughter English.  I laughed and told him I would if he could find me yoga students.

I got back to my hotel and that night Kannen and I walked to the great temple. The Ramalingeshwara Temple was built in the 12th century, and has magnificent pillared walkways, 1,212 pillars on the north and south sides.  This temple is different from other temples as it is a temple for worshipers of both Shiva and Vishnu.  The temple contains 22 temple tanks (wells) each with water where one can “bathe”, that is, three buckets of water from each tank are poured over you by a temple attendant.  Each tank is said to have special benefits: one gives you relief from debt, one gives you “complete wisdom”, one gives long life to a woman, and other things.  I was to go through this dunking early the next morning.

Kannan and I sat and talked for a long time.  Once again, as in all my travels, I was the only westerner.  We sat by a tank where a man was pouring water over a boy and Kannen pointed out that was what I was going through tomorrow.  I felt very much at peace in this temple, I felt like I could have slept there all night.  Kannen told me about his life, his children, how his sister lived in Germany, how he likes meeting so many people from all over the world.  He said he would arrange for my bucket ceremony.  He told me it would cost 300 rupees, which I knew was a scandalous rip-off, but I did not care.  I saw what the price was on the sign outside the temple and the cost was at least three times less than that, but I also knew that prices are automatically increased for foreigners.  Besides, when would I be here again?

Kannan picked me up at 6 AM the next morning.  We walked to the temple and I met my “bucket man”, a friend of Kannen’s (of course.)  We stopped at each tank with the rest of the pilgrims and my man would put the bucket in the tank three times and pour the water over my head.  However, he was practically running from tank to tank.  I figured he was thinking, OK, I got my money, let’s get this show over with, and I told him to slow down, that I did not want to fall because the marble floor was sopping wet from the dripping clothes of all the people.  He got the hint and we walked a bit more reverently.  I was going to take as long as I could to get through all 22 tanks.  I noticed that one tank was all about Brahma and it said that water from this tank would extinguish my past karma…I liked that.  I must say that I did feel a bit more cleansed after that bucket of water washed over me.

The last stop was going into a temple room with other women where I wrung out my salwar kameez before meeting the temple priest for a puja.  I bought flowers and fruit and made him an offering and he smeared sandalwood paste on my forehead, blessed me, and gave me a packet containing “temple things” including a little container of temple water.

I was done.  My bucket man had disappeared, my 300 rupees was in his pocket together with a new pen.  I think he appreciated the new pen more than the rupees.  I found my sandals and started to walk back to the hotel, knowing that I was in a different state of mind.

I slowly walked along the beach, stopping every so often to watch the pilgrims bathing in the ocean before they walked into the temple. Halfway to the hotel I looked up and saw Kannan walking toward me.   “You look beautiful,” was all he said.

He told me to rest, to not take a shower for a few hours, that I should just let the energy from the temple water soak into me.  My train to Chennai was leaving at 3 PM and he said he would come back to take me to the train.

“Beautiful,” he said, as he walked away.