Monday 14 March 2011 - Friday 25 March 2011 33 °C
Wow! Our two months in India are at an end. It seems like only yesterday that we arrived to the overwhelming chaos of Delhi, so naïve about India that we would unknowingly hand over two hundred rupees to someone thrusting a “blessing” upon us and then demanding a “donation”. On the other hand, Delhi – or rather our naivety – also seems such a long, long time ago. Looking out over the streets of Chennai while writing this, that same chaos we experienced two months ago now seems so completely “normal”. Not only do we not fall for the blessing ruse anymore (three attempts in two temples today), our Indian savvy is such that we refuse to buy water from a street vendor who tries to overcharge us two rupees – a little more than $0.04. So… are we suggesting we have India figured out? Not even close.
As we moved north through the state of Tamil Nadu, we immersed ourselves in the rich temple culture of the region. We wandered through temples that were over a thousand years old, with origins going back beyond recorded history. We sat inside the cells of gods, carved by hand into the side of granite cliffs or out of single boulders larger than four city buses. We were invited on several occasions to enter the inner sanctum of the temples to experience our own darshan (viewing of/by the god), something that is typically off limits to non-Hindus. We chatted with temple priests in between their blessings (and their text messaging), several of whom took great pleasure in teasing us about Canada’s poor showing in the Cricket World Cup. We’ve read temple signage stating it’s a “proven fact” that worshipping a certain god will deliver results such as becoming pregnant. We’ve been told that certain holy plants will die if touched by an “unclean” (menstruating) woman - again, an absolute “fact”. Warren even had a one-on-one discussion with a sadhu; the fact that neither could understand the other was of no consequence (a sadhu is essentially a wandering holy man that has renounced all worldly possessions and relationships). Through it all, we’re still just as, if not more confused about the Hindu religion and its millions of gods and rituals. But on some level, we’ve come to appreciate and admire the richness and sheer joy religion brings to people in India. And in seeing this joy on countless faces throughout our travels, trying to figure it all out just doesn’t seem that important any more. But India being India, even the steadfast commitment to religion has its contradictions. For example, take Auroville…
Auroville has its origins in the city of Pondicherry; a city that in itself is a contradiction. Annexed as a French territory in 1672, it was only returned to India in 1954. As such, while wandering around what can easily be described as a typical Indian city, you will suddenly find yourself wondering if you’ve somehow magically left the country. Without warning, the city suddenly transforms as you approach the Bay of Bengal. There are sidewalks - real sidewalks - lining straight, paved streets; buildings are complete and well maintained; there are actual street signs (in French!); and there is silence (“no horns” signs are posted everywhere). It is within this small slice of France that in 1968 a Parisian woman known as “The Mother” brought forward a vision of united humanity and the city from which it would germinate. A short distance from Pondicherry, the utopian community of Auroville is now home to 800 families, representing people from over 35 countries around the world, linked by a common charter that has among its primary underpinnings the complete abstinence of any and all religion. Only in India would such an apparent contradiction to the norm not only be permitted, but welcomed, encouraged and even supported by other community, business and even religious leaders.
While we’re on the topic of leaders, our journey through Tamil Nadu has coincided with the upcoming state election. It has been quite interesting following the drama, especially with regard to the openness of the corruption. Just this morning, the paper outlined the “benefits” the two front runners would provide their constituency should their respective party win. Among other things, the list includes laptops, grinders, mixers, fans and rice. Most notable was the offer of cash and gold for “marriage assistance”. Despite grandstanding about doing away with dowries, this financially punishing institution borne by a bride and her family is still going strong (which today’s paper also cited as the cause of 3 recent suicides in the region). In an attempt to clean up some of the election process, the Election Committee has initiated what they call “flying squads”. These teams set up road blocks to seize cash, TVs and clothing being brought into major centres to bribe voters (our car has been stopped and searched twice). It came of no surprise when it was discovered that the flying squads have been a little light fingered with the loot they have seized; seems they have been taking any money they can, regardless if it is legit, and neglecting to document it… Our driver just laughs at this because it’s all situation normal. Last election, his family received a bribe of 1,000 rupees per family member to vote for a certain official; this year he’s expecting 3000 per person. It’s hard to judge anyone for working the system when the program starts with the very leadership of the country (which we’ve also been told any individual can secure a senior position in…if you can afford it).
While there may have been a time when all of this would have surprised us, not any more. We’ve found that in only two months, many things that would cause our jaw to drop when we first arrived we simply don’t even notice anymore. Perhaps we have become desensitized to them or we have just grown used to seeing them, or perhaps we have expanded our comfort zone… We’re not quite sure. But we know our perspective has shifted because it took conscious effort (and a couple of beers) to recall a few of the things that used to illicit an OMG! Things like: traffic coming at us at high speed on the wrong side of the road; cows, goats, buffalos and other animals wandering or sleeping in the middle of the road; bullock carts on city streets and highways; sari-clad women and men wearing lunghis or dhotis (fabric wrapped in a skirt-like manner); sidewalks with man-eating holes that drop right into open sewers; bars on hotel room windows to keep the monkeys out; people sleeping on the street in the middle of the day; hearing the call to prayers from the local mosque; a family of four riding a motorcycle… all nothing more than our own “situation normal”.
However, we’re still a long way from being Indian; there are a few things that still get to us. A big one is the garbage. It is everywhere…absolutely everywhere. We are still taken aback at the sight of people throwing their garbage wherever they happen to be. Even at places like the World Heritage site in Mahabalipuram, filled with incredible stone temples and carvings from the 7th century, garbage is simply dropped anywhere. Bags, bottles, food – you name it and it’s on the ground…or in the rivers, lakes and oceans. There is also the little matter of the open sewers. For the most part, we are very used to walking around and over them. However, when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time (meaning downwind on a hot day, which is every day), the smell is, shall we say, downright nasty. And then there are the beggars. It’s been tough some days to deal with the non-stop requests (demands, harassment) for money. We’ve been pleaded with, yelled at, grabbed, cursed, crawled to… It’s been a tightrope to figure when to give and when to turn a blind eye. The advice we’ve picked up along the way is to only provide assistance to disabled adults and perhaps elderly women (they may be widowed and have no source of income). Without exception, we have been counselled (in one case by the ex-mayor of a village we stayed in) not to give anything to children as, more often than not, the children are in the “employ” of a gang (particularly in the larger cities) or it will encourage the child’s parents to keep him/her out of school if they can bring money into the household by receiving money or gifts from tourists. And finally, while seeing four on a motorcycle is no big deal anymore, if we happen to see a five, it still gets our attention.
So as we prepare to leave India to head to SE Asia¸ we look back on the countless experiences we have undergone, along with a greater understanding and appreciation for this diverse and complex nation. We have learned to appreciate Indians’ tolerance for different social customs and religions. We have accepted that we will never be able to sort out and understand the millions of Hindu gods, despite our ongoing efforts. And we’ve gained a great appreciation for how they approach their lot in life; with gratitude for what they have rather than longing for what they may not have. We leave with innumerable images indelibly printed in our minds: the sweeping deserts and massive forts in Rajasthan; the tranquility of the backwaters of Kerala; the endless fields of coconut palms and colourful, ornate temples in Tamil Nadu; the smiling faces of countless young children who approached us to ask our names and shake our hands; the kaleidoscope of colours of the beautiful saris adorning the Indian women…
In particular, we will never forget the sight of endless, heaping piles of fresh produce on carts and in baskets lining the roadside; the sound of blaring, honking horns from early morning until late at night; the pervasive smell of wood smoke from cooking fires; the feel of the burning hot granite under our feet walking through temple grounds; and the taste of masala tea (“chai”) which Lee-Ann can’t get enough of… We take away with us over 1,000 photos, a million new memories, some incredible new perspectives about life and… one small, very special bronze Ganesh (but that’s a whole other story to be told at another time…).
Goodbye India. Next stop Bangkok, then on to Vietnam.