so many things I love about India….

…and so many things I hate:  Sex selection in India.

“In a culture that predominantly views girls as an expense rather than an asset, women are put under intense pressure to produce sons.The trend for smaller families is also deepening the aversion to daughters, with the use of ultrasound technology now being used to plan families.   This is despite the existence of laws banning prenatal sex detection and sex selective abortion.

ActionAid has also found that girls are more likely to be born but less likely to survive in areas with more limited access to public health services and modern ultrasound technology.  In rural Morena and Dhaulpur, deliberate neglect of girls, including allowing the umbilical cord to become infected, is used as a way to dispose of unwanted daughters.”

Disappearing Daughters Report

Without knowledge, millions more women will go missing in India.  Thank you, Barbara.

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how I spent my last day in India

(WRITTEN JANUARY 24, 2008)

This is how I spent my last day in India, flat on my back from food poisoning.  I am still sick and have had “loose motions” and stomach pain since last Friday evening — a long time.  I am sporting the fashionable emaciated heroin chic look right now.  I weighed myself this morning and have lost almost 10 pounds.  I wanted to lose weight in india, but not this way!

I won’t bore you with the gory details but I was stupid and ate a “jam cake” in Fort Cochin, Kerala late at night.  I realized at about 3 am Saturday morning when I woke up with projectile vomiting that the thing had been sitting out all day in the heat.  What an idiot.  I have survived indian street food and drinking chai from street vendors where the chai cups are washed out in who knows what type of germ-infested phlegmy water, and a pastry does me in.   I’m going to rethink drinking street chai for my future trips — chai cups washed in water that sits out all day doesn’t appeal to me.   While I’ll be contributing to India’s worsening garbage problem (like it could get any worse), think I will only drink chai from stalls that use plastic cups from now on.

My friends Nick and Sushi (my thankachi in Tamil, i.e., “younger sister”) picked me up Tuesday morning from the 5 star hotel I stayed in for my last two nights in India — where I spent most of my time in bed or on the toilet — and took me to their house.  Since I was facing two flights totaling 18 hours, Sushi thought it would be a good idea that I go to hospital for an IV, a “drip” as it is called in India.  I had thought that on the way home from the airport I was going to tell my husband to stop at an ER for the same thing.

When they took me, I was very sick.  I basically had not eaten anything substantial for 5 days and my brain felt like it was in a fog from lack of food.  I felt very disoriented.

They took me to the hospital that is admininstered by Sushi’s daughter-in-law’s father.  Sushi made the call and they were waiting for us.  I was treated by the head doctor and the head nurse — for free.  The head nurse is in the pink sari and Sushi is in the orange sari, but she is hiding on the left side.   I saw Nick taking the picture and said “oh no you don’t!” and put my arm over my ashen face.

They wanted to give me two bottles of glucose and salt but it was already after 6 pm when we left and I had to repack my bags, we had to get back to the house.   The hospital director did not ask for one rupee, but I would not have felt right if I did not give something so before we left I gave him 1000 rupees for my treatment and told him to donate it to a charity if he wants to — 1000 rupees is about $26.   By the way, the hospital is for leprosy, TB, and AIDS patients.  The room I was in was a private room.

This was my third trip and I never got sick before this.  My husband said since I got sick I should never go back to India.  I looked at him and said, “you know that’s not going to happen…”

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Today is October 6 and I leave for my 4th trip on January 6, 2010….keeping my fingers crossed I don’t get sick like this again!

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.

Kodaikanal, part 2

I hired a car to tour the local sights on my second day in Kodai.  I can’t remember the names of where we drove, but most of the spots would be called “scenic overlooks” or “nature viewing areas” here in the US – and also one golf course, where the only golfers I saw were the monkeys cavorting on the greens.  I thought it was interesting that a golf course would be a feature included in a sightseeing tour.  At least I was impressed with how lush the grass looked and they probably did not douse it with lawn chemicals like in the US.  Unfortunately this little sight-seeing expedition was where I experienced my first taste of nastiness.

The driver dropped me off at Coaker’s Walk, a path that winds up and around a hill where on a clear day you can see all the way to Madurai.  My driver said he would meet me on the other end. It was a beautiful day and I started walking slowly, enjoying the views, stopping to take pictures.  The view was fabulous and the air smelled fresh and green, really the first time I smelled “green” in the air in India.  Couples and families were walking around, and as usual, I was the only westerner.  About half way through my walk, two youngish couples walked toward me, they were maybe mid- to late 20s.  They slowed down, stared at me, then pointed and started to laugh – at me.  I stopped and looked behind me, thinking someone behind me was acting goofy.  It never dawned on me that I was the one they were laughing at.  It wasn’t just a guffaw or two, it was a steady stream of laughter and talk amongst themselves.

I knew that Indians stared at foreigners especially ones dressed like a “typical tourist” (like a man with snow white legs sticking out of khaki shorts wearing white socks with sandals or a woman wearing tight, revealing clothes), but I was wearing loose cargo pants with a traditional kurti, nothing strange about my clothes at all, and I wasn’t showing an excessive amount of skin.  At first I thought these people were just acting was strange, then my blood began to boil. I walked past them, then turned around and confronted them.  If you have seen the movie Taxi Driver, I did a Travis Bickle.  I yelled, “You talking to me? I said, ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?”  They stopped pointing and laughing and stared.  “What’s your problem?  You got a problem?  The hell you looking at?  Why don’t you take a picture? You want a picture?  Here I am!.”  I continued to yell non-stop.  They turned and walked away very fast.   I truly hoped they thought I was a crazy American woman and would tell all their friends about me.

My equanimity immediately flew out the window.   Calm down, breathe, I told myself, but I was in a rage because I could not believe people could be so cruel and ignorant for no reason.  How dare they.  What the hell did I do to deserve that treatment and who the hell did they think they were?  In my old neighborhood on the south side of Chicago their behavior would have gotten them a rightous ass-kicking, including the women.  The same person  who told me about the Kodai tribals told me that “Kodai gets a lot of young tourists, who now have lots of money and lots of confidence.  I imagine that the people who were rude to you were the young smug newcomers to India’s middle class–software, call center types, trying to impress their girlfriends/wives.  Rather like the jaded Upper West Siders of New York sneering at the tourists in Times Square.”

Their actions as well as my reaction to them totally put me off the rest of my walk and when I got back to the car I took it out on my driver.  I asked him if it was common for Kodai Indians to treat tourists like I was just treated.  I asked him if people here were always so mean. “What’s wrong with you people?”, I asked him.  He acted like he did not understand me, but I knew he did, and we drove to the next stop.

I started feeling better when we drove to waterfalls and into some pine forests.  Nature has always been my church and sanctuary. I’ve hiked the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, canoed in northern Minnesota.  But when I got out of the car and started walking with other tourists in these natural areas, I was struck by how the Indians treated these areas as if they were in an amusement park.  These were the most pristine areas I had seen during my India trips, but the ground was littered with empty film canisters, film boxes, and other non-biodegradable garbage.  I didn’t understand it at all.  These hills were beautiful, but there was no awareness or care whatsoever.

We drove to another overlook where there were lots of monkeys and lots of people because tour buses were dropping off their passengers.  The monkeys – well-trained to get close because people would throw them whatever food they had – ran all over, but as soon as they got close, someone would throw a rock and then run away – yeah, real macho guys.  I was almost knocked over some boulders by idiots throwing rocks at the monkeys and then running away from them.  The women would also run away from the monkeys, screaming.  What was wrong with these people, why don’t they shut up and enjoy the view, why are they hassling monkeys?  The eyes of the monkey in my photo in the previous post say it all.  I would try to take a close-up picture of a monkey and some moron would walk in front of me, totally clueless.  I finally got so sick of what was going on around me, I sat on a rock and started to egg the monkeys on, out loud – “go ahead, get him; go ahead, bite him, bite his hand”.  I knew that some people could understand English and I didn’t care.  I was hoping that a monkey would get really pissed about getting hit with a rock and just go ape shit on somebody (sorry, just had to say that.)  I was out of there – the whole day made me wonder why I ever wanted to go to Kodaikanal.  There was nothing here for me, and my claustrophobia crept in again.  It was the first time that I truly felt alone in India.

There were a few more stops and the driver left me at the hotel.  I beat myself up for not going to Palani instead to visit the great Murugan temple.  I spent the evening wandering around Kodai, eating Tibetan food, drinking chai, going into all the stores.   I slowly walked the 3k around the lake back to the hotel.  I could not wait to get out of Kodai.

Early the next morning I left for Rameswaram where I would lose my heart to India all over again.

palani hills

Palani hills

Kodaikanal, part 1

kodaikanal mama

two of the friendlier residents of Kodaikanal


I arrived in Kodaikanal and the bus dropped me off in the middle of town.  My two old Brahmin friends who discussed yoga philosophy with me bowed their heads and placed their hands in anjali mudra and told me that these “two old jivans” were honored to sit next to me and they hoped I would be blessed for the remainder of my trip.

One of the scenarios the old jivan presented to me was this:  he looked out the window and waved his hand at the poor people along the way.  He said, “what do you think, madam?  Why is one man born a king and the other born a beggar? Is that not fate?”  I shrugged and said that karma is not fate, it is cause and effect, that karma is karma, no more, no less. I told him that the beggar could very well have been a king in a previous life, and because of his past actions was reborn a beggar, maybe because he treated beggars very poorly when he was a king.   A man sitting in front of us turned around and said loudly, “She is right! Karma is karma!”, then said nothing more for the rest of the trip.  I smiled because I loved these little Indian vignettes.  The two old jivans laughed and discussed karma between themselves, maybe discussing how it was their karma to sit next to an American woman of a certain age who was dressed like an old hippie chick and who was reading an Indian book on meditation.

I was in Kodai only for two nights and I admit that maybe this was too short a time to form a proper opinion.  But as of right now, I would not return to Kodai, at least as a solo traveler.  I believe Kodai is best visited with other people, unlike the other cities I visited.   Despite the beauty of the surroundings compared to the dry Tamil Nadu I was accustomed to, I felt claustrophobic in Kodai, I felt trapped.  This was the first city where I felt bored and antsy.  One thing that was remarkably different was that I was never besieged by touts or beggars in Kodai – that was a refreshing change!  It was interesting how I was in a relatively clean, quiet town with the least amount of people so far, not hassled by touts or beggars, but I felt uncomfortable, and I did not feel that way in maddening Madurai or busy Chennai.

The place where I stayed was considered a “resort” and was more for tourist groups or for families.  Kodai is known for hiking trails, but I knew I would not feel safe hiking in the hills alone.  The center of town is small and there’s not much to do or see.  The connections at the two internet cafes were exceedingly slow.  Walking around town I found an ayurvedic store and made an appointment for another ayurvedic massage, hoping it would as wonderful as the one I had in Chennai.  I thought it might even be better since the store was run by an ashram – they had a convincing brochure about their services but I should have relied on the old adage about not judging the book by its cover.

When I arrived for my massage, I was taken into the basement of a nearby hotel and was shocked.  The basement was cold, damp, and scary, and it really looked like just what it was — an unfinished basement.  I was taken into a small, dark room that was literally freezing, the first time I had ever felt cold in India.  I looked around, disgusted.  The “masseuse” put an old, ratty towel on the table that was a duplicate version of the one in Chennai, like a doctor’s exam table from the 1950s.  Only this time the towel was greasy looking.  No way was I going to go through with this massage.  This room looked like the photos I remember from the pre-Roe v. Wade days — it looked like a room where a back-alley abortionist would do his work.

I told the woman who brought me that the room was disgusting and cold.  She turned on a heater that looked like it couldn’t heat up a closet much less a room, and she changed the towel to one that had smaller grease stains.  I shook my head and told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted my deposit back NOW.  She shrugged, didn’t try to argue, said no problem, and I left. So much for my wonderful ayurvedic massage.

I walked around town and met Tibetans for the first time.  The ones I met were open and friendly, very different from the Indians I experienced in Kodai.  I found a wonderful Tibetan restaurant where I would hang out and enjoy the warmth and I’m not talking about the temperature.  Fabulous steamed momos and an awesome soup that was so thick I ate it with a fork, all for less than $1.

I felt an underlying tension in Kodaikanal, an almost imperceptible violence that was waiting to explode.  I had never felt this before in my travels and I’m a good one for picking up the energy of a place.

An IndiaMiker told me this when I told him my feelings about being in Kodai:

“Most of those people selling fruit and trinkets to tourists in Kodai are tribals.  The only other source of employment in the area is the coffee and tea plantations, and the contracts are usually indenture.  So they are bonded laborers who try to scrape together a little cash when they aren’t picking leaves or beans–it’s either that or starve.  They live with all the caste discrimination and violence you would expect.  They’re even included in Human Rights Watch reports.  It’s genuinely cold in winter, at which time it also get the monsoon.  Roads wash out. Living in a thatched shack isn’t easy.

There are also plenty of monied interests–hotels, property development and luxury real estate, the plantation owners, etc.–that keep a firm hand on Kodai with bribes, violence, and other incentives.  The place is really a cesspool of corruption and environmental waste, with the people at the bottom little better than slaves.”

And here I was…