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.

smooth operator

He was a smooth operator the way he showed up just at the time I was leaving to walk to the great temple.

Kannan told me that he speaks 5 or 6 languages and he has a sister in Germany, so he is smoother and savvier than most of the men of his type that I met. He is also married and has children, and acting as Rameswaram’s unofficial official tour guide is all he does.  He has carved out a niche for himself, a good enough niche to be mentioned in the popular India travel guide, The Rough Guide.

I was exhausted by the time we got back from watching the children dance. Kannan and I had been out for about four hours, and this was after a day of traveling seven hours from Kodaikanal up in the Palani Hills to a place that was only five miles from Sri Lanka. We walked to the hotel’s restaurant and Kannen started to tell me about where we were going the next day, how much the bucket ceremony would cost me on the morning of the third day, how much I should pay the rickshaw driver he used, and all I heard yet again was how much money another Indian wanted from me.

So I did what I rarely do in front of anyone — I started to cry. If I was a child I would have been told that I was over-tired and cranky. I was almost shaking and I yelled at Kannan that I was not made of money, that despite the fact that I could afford to go to India, yoga teachers don’t make much money, that I was tired of Indians looking at me and seeing only dollar bills and I hated that.

He looked shocked and hurt and his eyes got very wide.  He put his hands to his ears, then to his forehead as if he had a headache, and started to shake his head and say “no no no no no no….”, a low murmur at first, then gradually louder. He looked like he was going to cry.  Suddenly he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled me close, and kissed me. Not a passionate kiss, not even on the lips, but close enough. Remembering what I had been told about South Indian culture and especially about Indian men, I stood there amazed.  “Tomorrow,” was all he said.

He smiled and said I should get some sleep because we had a long day tomorrow, walking the beach to Danushkodi. Still dazed and speechless I walked into the restaurant to relax and ordered black tea, not chai. I wanted comfort from something familiar from home. I closed my eyes, started to take long, deep, calming breaths, and felt someone behind me. I did not turn around because I knew it was Kannan.  I opened my eyes and his hand was in front of my face, holding some flowers.  I slowly turned around, looked at him out of the corner of my eye, and half-smiled.

“From the bush outside,” he said, “I could not leave you sad.”

Smooth.kannen