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.