FIRST TIME TO INDIA: Praise for Tamil Nadu Temple Tour, September 2015

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October, 2015….Marilyn R., Elgin, IL

“I returned from my trip approximately 4 weeks ago and it has taken this long to have a clear mind and heart to sit down and attempt to write this commentary about the trip.

First, let me start off by saying that Linda has been not only my yoga instructor but also a mentor. She has talked about her own personal trips to India for several years and at first I was slightly jealous that she was brave enough to make these trips on her own as I had never traveled outside of the US.  But she continued to talk about them and the places she had visited and I became more interested and the thought of going to India sometime didn’t seem so impossible or scary. Her postings and photos on Facebook just added to my interest.

Then a few years ago Linda planned a yoga retreat to Varkala, India but the timing was not right for me. After hearing about this trip it just sealed the deal and I was bound and determined that I would find a way to make her next retreat possible for me. And that I did!

When Linda confirmed that she would be setting up a trip for the fall of 2015 I knew this was my time. Once the dates were confirmed I booked and paid for my airfare. I knew this way if I had invested the money for the airfare that I would not be able to back out. As Linda says, “if not now, when?”

Our itinerary was made available early on and gave me time to research the cities and temples we would be visiting. I read a few books to help familiarize myself with the country and its customs. This helped but nothing compares to the actual experience. As the departure date neared our travel group met to discuss the details. What clothes to bring, what luxury items to bring (TP is one of those luxuries), how much spending money, what the weather would be, who would meet us at the airport upon our arrival, every possible question was answered and more. This was in additional to the numerous emails that were provided with updates and reminders. And when I received these emails I got little butterflies in my stomach with excitement.

D-Day: I was packed and ready, so off to work I went as my flight was not leaving until later that night. It was difficult to concentrate knowing what was in my future. Arrived at the airport with enough time to navigate the international terminal at the airport. Even as my trip was just beginning Linda was already sending text messages for safe travels.

Arriving in Chennai: Once I landed and made my way thru customs. It was hard for me to imagine that I was actually in India. My driver was waiting for me just as Linda said he would be. Once I arrived at the hotel, approximately 4:00am, it was hard to sleep. My roommate, Rebecca, had already arrived and all we could do was talk. We were both too excited to sleep but we did manage to sleep for a few hours before meeting Linda for lunch and starting our trip.

The city is busy, always. There are no sidewalks and everyone walks either on the road or on the shoulder. And believe it or not I didn’t see anyone get hit by a vehicle. Vehicles drive on the opposite side of the road as we do with the driver sitting on the right hand side. There are very few traffic lights, I think I saw maybe 3 or 4. Everyone just drives and pulls out into traffic at will. This includes city buses, trucks, cars and lots of motorcycles. And let’s not forget the cows, goats and bullock driven carts.

Everyone shares the same space. We were only on a highway as we know it once and it was a two lane road going in each direction. I think we actually got up to about 45mph. Vehicles pass each other at will and sometimes with very little room to execute the pass. And lots of horns honking.

We didn’t stay in one city for more than 2 days allowing us to see as much as we could in our 2 weeks there. It was a temple tour so we visited at least 1 temple in each town but it was more like 2 or 3. The temples are beautiful, each one different from the next, magnificent grandeur, colorful, and inspiring.  It’s hard to believe the time in which these were built and the intricate detailed stone cravings and how did they build these massive temples without modern machinery?

Then there was Pondicherry with its French influences, the bronze museum, the Gandhi museum, Auroville, the rice and sugar fields, and the people. Even as I am writing this my experiences and the sites are popping from my memory and putting a smile on my face.

Our driver, Subramani, was phenomenal. He added a few extra stops along the way which really added spontaneity to the trip. He took very good care of us, walked with us to cross the streets, walked with us to the temple entrance, stopped for bathroom breaks when needed, arranged for side tours (i.e. a family home, glass tile maker, bronze statue maker, weavers and even a jeep ride to the beach at the southernmost tip of India). Subramani has a good sense of humor, after all he tolerated this group of western women. He is kind, polite, and knowledgeable, speaks English fairly well, and is an excellent driver. He dropped us at the airport in Madurai for the flight back to Chennai and he asked that we text him to let him know we were checked-in and that everything was okay. One doesn’t receive this kind of treatment here in the US.

I could write a short novel about this trip; the places we visited, the people we talked to, the food we ate, the conversations we had, the experience, etc. but I want to keep this as brief as I can. This trip was one of the most profound, energizing, emotional, gratifying, exciting, and humbling experiences I have ever had. I am not the same person I was before I left. It was worth more than the financial investment in many ways and I would do it again in a heartbeat and never think twice.

I have a list of bullet points that I keep handy just as a quick reminder of my trip.

  • Cows, goats, monkeys, street dogs
  • St. Thomas Church
  • Ganesha
  • I.W.C. (Indian water closet)
  • Lime soda
  • Kingfishers
  • Street traffic
  • St. Thomas Church
  • The Ocean”

how safe is a solo woman traveler in India?

kali2After not writing for four years, I’ve come back to this blog about my adventures in India.  I don’t know why I stopped writing about my India travels — maybe because of the increase in travel blogs (and many about India) and I thought “why bother?”

I certainly am not a professional blogger (i.e., one who earns money from writing or gets invited to places or who receives free hotel stays or airline upgrades by writing good things about a hotel or airline) so I’m a minnow in the very big pond of travel writing.  But I have four years’ worth of stories and my niche is unique as I write both about India travel and Yoga in India.

Like every traveler is unique, every traveler’s experience of India in unique.  After 8 trips I’m still learning and I hope to continue learning until my last trip (that I hope is many years into the future.)  I know more than a few people who consider me an expert on India travel — I’m planning my 9th trip that will be for three months in 2015 — but whether I’m an expert remains to be seen.  While some travel to the typical tourist places of North India (I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal but I did motorbike into the Thar Desert in Rajasthan this year — yes, on the back of bike, with an Indian man, and I wasn’t afraid), I consider myself a South India (Tamil Nadu) girl. North India compared to South India….it’s same same but different (one of my favorite Indian idioms.)

The first time I traveled north was four years ago when I went to Calcutta for the first time (my second favorite city after Chennai) and then went to the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.  Up until that time I had always stayed south.  Before I went north the woman I shared some of my trip with (who had been to India 9 times) told me I would be shocked by the north (specifically Delhi) because it and the men are “rougher.”  I took what she said with a grain of salt and when we got there I found it no different from the places I’d been in the south.  OK, maybe more chaotic and noisier than the south but I took everything in stride.

The thing is, I’ve been listening to what I call “fear talk” about India ever since before my first trip in 2005. People were terrified for me that I would even consider going to India alone.  Last year I did a walking tour of the Dharavi slum in Mumbai and when I told my story when I got back people were incredulous.  Why the hell would I walk around an Indian slum?!?  Wasn’t I afraid?  Because of course their mental image of India is one of mass poverty and filth — it’s that but also so much more.

The issue of rape in India is a huge topic ever since the gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in December, 2012.  Since then my newsfeed of Indian newspapers has daily stories about rape and abuse of women.  The latest is about the woman who was raped in an Uber taxi in Delhi.

Since December 2012 India has been under intense media scrutiny for its rape culture and treatment of women but rape culture and misogyny are a global problem.  One only needs to do an internet search for “Steubenville Ohio rape” and the latest on frat party rapes on college campuses. India is certainly not alone regarding misogyny — google “right wing war on women” in the United States.  As a long time feminist and activist for women’s rights I can only think the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Back in the day John Lennon wrote a controversial song about the status of women in the world.

Some of the comments I read from India on Facebook pages regarding these incidents disgust me: “she should not have been out that late”; “she should not have fallen asleep in the cab”; she should not have been drinking”; she should not have been out alone”; “she should not have worn those clothes.”  But the same is said in the West when a woman is raped, it’s not any different, not one bit.  Same shit, different day.

I tell people who ask me how I can go to India because of the rapes or how women are treated that they should not be so smug about it because we have our own shit that needs to be cleaned up.  Bill Cosby, anyone?  The same things happen here to women and it happens even when you’re in the “good” part of town or during the day. You don’t have to be alone in a cab in the middle of the night in India — I’ve been there, done that, and had no fear.  Honestly, if something is going to happen it can happen anywhere.  Statistics show that the majority of rapes are committed by someone the woman knows and many occur in the “safe” setting of the home. 

The advice to women travelers to India about always staying in “nicer” hotels is, in my opinion, misguided and can give a false sense of security.  I’ve stayed in $10/night guesthouses in south India and felt safe.  In Haridwar I took a rickshaw back to my hotel at 3 AM on deserted streets.  I’ve backpacked through Tamil Nadu riding the dusty buses with mostly men.  I’ve been in overnight train compartments where the three other passengers were men.  But I am NOT saying things can’t happen — a friend was seriously injured when she jumped out of a cab to get away from a driver whom she thought was going to assault her.

So you are a woman thinking of going solo to India?  I say GO and don’t listen to any fear talk.   American culture has been very fear-based since 9/11 and I think many people live in fear.

Some of the things people have said to me about India is also said about Chicago, believe me, especially about the south side where I grew up.  As I tell people, the credo of the news media is “if it bleeds, it leads” meaning the worst news is always the first read on the news show.  My friends in India have bad opinions about America because of what they see in news reports so is it any wonder that people here believe the worst about India?

As a reminder to readers, I had never been overseas in my life until I went alone to India to study yoga at the age of 51.  No one showed me the ropes about how to handle things, in fact, I found that once I got to India the advice I was given was inaccurate especially about what to wear.  If I had taken that advice seriously I would have ended up wearing a burqa!

I grew up in Chicago in the ’60s so I have more street smarts than some.  Use the common sense in India that you would use at home.  Walk confidently even if you don’t feel confident.  Body language can be everything in certain situations.  Always trust your gut — if it feels dicey, it probably is.  I’ve seen too many Westerners in India, both men and women, put their common sense in their back pocket and be afraid to insult someone over something that seems suspicious.  I checked into a $20 room in Madurai and checked out 90 minutes later because the door was not secure enough for me (in fact, someone did try the doorknob) and also because someone could have easily come through my window from the terrace on the roof.

Here is some of my advice from my yoga retreat trip last year:

India is both modern and conservative —  tight or revealing clothing for women is usually not worn but I’ve worn my skinny jeans.  I wear sleeveless kurtis (similar to a western tunic top) all the time with my salwars (baggy Indian pants.)  I cover my shoulders with a dupatta (large scarf or shawl worn with salwar kameez) on the street.  Because it will be hot, women AND men will be more comfortable wearing baggy cotton (or another fabric that breathes) pants and tops. I always tell first timers to go to a Goodwill or other thrift shop and get some cotton drawstring pants, capris, cargo pants, tunics, T shirts, etc. because traveling through India is rough on clothes.

If you are staying at a hotel with a pool feel free to wear a swim suit but no thong bikinis. Many Western women wear two piece suits and a sarong or a tunic top, long-ish shorts or capris, and skirts above the knee, but still show respect — no short shorts or minis.  I had no problem wearing a bikini at my hotel pool in Goa but I thought twice about it at a hotel in Mumbai.  I used my common sense.

Use your best judgment but always respect the culture.  You WILL be stared at no matter what you wear. It is just the way it is in India wherever you go.  If you have tattoos, don’t be concerned.  I have many tattoos and my experience is that Indians are very curious about them and appreciate them, especially the women.  I am never worried about showing my tattoos in public, however, I always keep my shoulders respectfully covered in temples.

In 10 years I have never been hassled in a major way in spite of what is referred to as “eve- teasing.”  Have I been told by men on the street or in a store that I am beautiful or that I have beautiful hair?  Yes.  Has that made me itchy sometimes?  Yes.  In Haridwar a man chased me trying to take my picture at the Kumbh Mela and men have told me that they “want to make friend” with me, but I am fortunate to have never felt unsafe in India.  However, although I travel in India for months at a time, I will always be a visitor and as a visitor I can not imagine what it is like for an Indian woman to be groped or hassled on a daily basis.

I can not overemphasize about USING YOUR COMMON SENSE but never let fear shut you off from living life at the fullest, whatever that means to you. 

I am NOT saying that negative things will never happen to you in India because shit happens everywhere.   But how you react makes all the difference — sometimes we can not change our circumstances but we can always control how we react to them.

the dichotomy that is India

“In some ways, India is like another home. There’s a familiarity of myself here. It’s the rawness of life that resonates with me, in its myriad forms – beautiful, grotesque, otherworldly. The systematic stripping away of distractions and compulsions; attachments that keep us from being fully present.”

This is what Barbara Raisbeck has to say about India in her blogs The Daughters of India and India in Stories. Go to her blogs to read the rest of the above post and her other powerful stories.  When I got her email with this post the above words resonated with me very much because I feel the same way.   I’ve said before that as soon as I put my foot on Indian soil in 2005 I felt like I had come home.

My trip this time was a very mixed bag.  One of my teachers told me that on your third trip you become a native, seeing India for what it is, warts and all.  Well, I saw plenty of warts, my own included.  India is always the country that attracts and repulses you all at the same time.  Just when India drop-kicked me in the head, another wonderful moment occurred just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I read a story before I left about a baby elephant that was rescued.  A baby elephant had fallen into a pit in the forest and the mother and the rest of the herd tried to rescue him.  After awhile the herd left, but the mother stayed there trying to rescue her baby, with “tears streaming down her face” the article said.  The villagers saw this and called the Forestry Department who sent a working elephant and a vet.  The mother elephant would not let anyone near her baby, who by this time was not moving, so the working elephant with her mahout kept the mother away while the baby was pulled out of the pit.  When the vet treated the baby, it was discovered that the baby had also been stung by a scorpion, that’s why he was not moving.  The article said that after treatment the baby would be released back into the forest. Definitely a feel-good story.

Compare that story to the one I read about a Chennai hospital that was being investigated because they threw a patient, still connected to tubes and IV bags and a urine bag, out into the street.  Imagine walking along and seeing an old person in hospital clothes still connected to tubes and bags just lying in the street outside a hospital.  The article said that the patient was indigent, that no one claimed any responsibility for this person.   In other words, the hospital was not going to be paid for treating this person, so they threw the patient literally onto the street.  The article said the hospital was being investigated but I noticed there was no mention of what happened to the patient, whether he had been taken to another hospital or what.

Over breakfast one morning I read another story about 13, 14, and 15 year old girls being raped by their husbands.  In the Chennai area there are still tsunami camps, refugee camps where people still live despite the tsunami happening in December 2004.  Mothers fear for their daughters in these camps so they think if they marry off their daughters, the new husbands will protect them from the unwanted advances of men.  However, given that these young girls know almost nothing about sex, they refuse the advances of their new husbands, so their first experience with sex is rape.   I read how one young girl was drugged into unconsciousness so her husband could have sex with her.   These girls of course become pregnant and have babies at these ages, in a refugee camp.   And the cycle continues.   Lovely breakfast reading.

For every story like the first one, there are two or three of the other.

There are still people who think India is the land of yoga, incense, and spirituality, some romantic place where one only needs to travel to the Himalayas to find their guru and nirvana and all their problems will be solved.  If you read an Indian newspaper every day I can assure you that your rose-colored view of India will change.  I am reading a book right now called Children of Kali and the author says that India is very good at exporting spirituality and gurus, but doesn’t have the guts to look at its own problems.

Like anywhere else, India has its angels and its devils.  I’ve met the friendliest and kindest and most gracious people in India but I’ve also met the most arrogant and the most rigid.  I’ve met people who could not think outside the box to save their own lives.

But the thought of never returning to India kills me.  I came back this time sicker than an Indian street dog with the thought that I will take a break from India for a while.  But as soon as I started to get my strength back, I started having Tamil Nadu dreams again.

What keeps drawing me back?  I can honestly say that I don’t know.   Maybe it is the rawness and the grotesqueness that Barbara writes about that keeps bringing me back.  Maybe it is those 4 hour bus rides through the Tamil Nadu countryside that I said I would never do again, but that I achingly miss right now.  Maybe it’s those fleeting moments of human connection with a total stranger, no words spoken, but completely understood via a smile and hand gestures and the eyes and the head wobbles that have settled deep within my heart.

India has her hooks in me like an old lover — an old lover who you’ve told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever.

You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time.  I have no answers, but Barbara comes close:

“The only way I can answer is, in suffering, in our own or being a witness to it, there is an opening that occurs.  That opening can consume or liberate us.  Or both.  Consume, then liberate.  And just at the moment that we think we’ve been liberated, the consumption starts again.  The suffering doesn’t just end, even when we beg it to.  But I have learned that to observe it, allow myself to feel it, hold it, accept it, I can then let go of it.  Not completely since our wounds leave scars, but enough to help me out of the fire and into the awareness of the lesson, that will, when I am ready, appear and show me a way through to the other side.”


(originally written January, 2008, after my third trip to India.)

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…”

________________________________________________________’

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!

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.