India stories: It’s a mad mad mad mad Madurai


The day I left for Madurai I went to a beauty salon to get mehndi on my feet. The salon ladies were fascinated by my tattoos and they were admiring them when the owner walked in. She was a big woman wearing a beautiful hot pink sari and heavy with gold jewelry — her personality matched her appearance. She shoved her way through the crowd saying, “I want to see everything!” She stuck her finger in the air and announced, “I want to learn this!”, as if learning the art of tattooing is the easiest thing in the world.

They caught a glimpse of my shoulder tattoo. I did not plan to take off my clothes but the owner commanded, “Take off top, BE FREE, BE FREE!” I wore a camisole underneath so I removed the top of my salwar kameez. Everyone gushed over the intricate flower vines surrounding a colorful butterfly.

Then they saw the large sun/moon tattoo peeking above the waistband of my salwar and two women began to pull it down. The moon has eyes and a Nepali woman loved it so much that she kissed her fingers and touched my tattoo. “The eyes is talking to me, the eyes is talking to me,” she said as she repeatedly kissed her fingers and touched the eyes of the moon.

Women took pictures of my tattoos, the mehndi was started, and the Nepali woman drew my tattoos in a sketchbook. She told me that she loves tattoos and wants to become a tattoo artist, but there is no place in Chennai to learn. The women asked if I wanted to get my nose pierced and the Nepali woman confided that some Indian women get their nipples pierced. “But only married ladies after one baby,” she said very seriously. I loved that she was so open with me, a westerner whom she would never see again. I was just one of the girls that afternoon.

That night I left on the 9:30 train to Madurai and as I sat alone in my berth two young men in their 20s came in. When they saw me they looked as if I had lifted up my kurta to flash them. Their mouths dropped open in unison and they did not say a word. I thought their reaction strange and I felt like saying, “Hello, boys, you’ve never seen a woman before?” I said hello in Tamil and smiled. They sat across from me and as I sat across from them with a half smile on my face they tried to look anywhere but at me.

I’ve been told that sometimes this is typical male behavior when so close to a woman, especially one as strange as me — western, a tattooed ageless hippie chick, dressed in Indian clothes, and bold enough to look them in the eye. I’ve also been told that some young Indian males are starved for any kind of interaction with the opposite sex — usually there is no premarital sex and there is hardly any communication between boys and girls at school. Growing up like this leaves men clueless as to how to behave and some also believe the misconceptions about western women.

At the last minute an older man sat next to me and I said, “We’re all going to be just cozy now, aren’t we?” The young men again looked like I had not only flashed them but also blew them a kiss. At least the older man had the manners to say hello to me. These boys looked so nervous I felt sorry for them. They finally got their act together, i.e., making sure they never looked at me, and we all settled into our berths for the overnight train ride.

As the train pulled into Madurai in the morning, the older man wished me a nice day and the boys tripped all over themselves in a rush to get out. I was sure that this was the first time they had slept so close to a woman.

After a nine hour train ride I was in no mood for nonsense, but I was instantly accosted by a dozen auto rickshaw drivers, so much so that a station security guard told them to leave me alone. I chose one driver and as we walked through the phalanx of drivers they started to laugh and yell, “here madam, here madam, you want ride, madam?” “That’s it,” I said as I threw down my bag. I spun around and yelled loud enough to make the street dogs run: “ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!” That got everyone’s attention and I never saw a gaggle of drivers shut up so quickly. “No tension, madam, no tension, come with me,” my driver said. That was more like it and when we got to the hotel I paid him more than what we agreed to.

I stayed exactly 90 minutes at the guesthouse that was closest to the great temple. I took the recommendation of a well-known guide book and I decided that the writer must have been hallucinating from too many bhang lassis when he wrote the review.

I don’t mind cheap hotels in India but I draw the line at towels that looked like they were used to wash a car and greasy hair stains on the pillows. The place was disgusting. It looked like a room for serial killers to hold up during their rampage. The guts hung out of the air conditioner in the “deluxe AC room.”

The room was considered “deluxe” because you could walk out onto the roof of the floor below for a fabulous view of the temple. However, the window did not lock so anyone on that roof could crawl into your bed. The room also had a frosted glass door so it was not safe for a solo female traveler. When a man tried to get into my room about a hour after I checked in, I asked for another room but it had the same greasy towels and pillow cases. I got out, losing 500 rupees, and moved to a better hotel. I learned a valuable lesson for future trips to India: always look at the room before you hand over the rupees.

My first day in Madurai and now I knew why some westerners had that glazed “dead man walking” look in their eyes. It’s a defense mechanism – act deaf, dumb, and blind and maybe you’ll be spared from the incessant touts. I met nice old men who told me their life stories, and how America is a great country, and how their brother/uncle/son/cousin/sister’s husband has a clothes/jewelry/art/silver shop with a great roof top view of the temple, “just look, madam, no buy.”

The market across from the temple was filled with stalls of all types of merchandise and a great place to see those dead men walking. I ended up telling shop keepers and touts, “I’m a poor yoga teacher, no money” or “YOU buy ME something?” or “It’s against my religion.” The last story always worked. I also ended up with a screaming migraine headache from the constant harangue of “just look, no buy” and the heat and the closeness. I went back to my room, turned up the AC, put a cold cloth on my head, and didn’t wake up until the evening.

My second day was spent at the Gandhi museum, an inspiring and peaceful place where about 100 schoolgirls were more interested in me than in learning about their own history. The girls were sitting on the floor listening to the curator as I walked in. He immediately stopped talking and all heads turned around at the same time to look at me. I smiled and brought my hands to my chest and bowed. Everyone said hello to me in English, and I responded with a loud vanakkam. They exploded in laughter and with a big smile the curator asked, “What country, madam? America or UK?” “America.” “Ah, America!” Bigger smiles all around. Their teachers had their hands full trying to keep order all because of me.

As I walked around the exhibits I felt the schoolgirls’ eyes on me. I turned around and the girls would giggle. “Shhhh,” I said, putting my finger to my lips. “Read your history, don’t look at me.”, I told them with a wink. Occasionally I would feel a light touch on my back and I would turn around and a hand would cover a mouth, a giggle unsuccessfully suppressed.

My last day in Madurai was spent on a tour bus. An Indian tour bus is usually not decked out with plushy seats, air-conditioning, and a restroom – most of our seats were ripped and frayed but adequately comfortable. Sometimes you have the pleasure of listening to music played full blast through a shabby speaker, driver’s choice of music of course. I settled in and waited for the day’s adventures.

Once again I was the only westerner and I noticed that everyone had the same reaction to the condition of the bus. They walked up the stairs, stopped, looked around at the frayed seats, and either gulped or sneered. Off we went, all windows open to the Madurai heat and dust.

I don’t remember exactly what was on the tour, I just enjoyed riding around with a bus load of Indian tourists. Every time we stopped the driver would announce in Tamil where we were and how long we would be there. At the first stop I asked him how long and he sneered at me and grunted. I was on my own. I knew that if I did not get back in time, I would be left in the street. Finally a man told me in English “20 minutes” and at every stop I would look at him and he would smile and tell me how long we would be.

I loved the vignettes framed by the bus window. I saw a huge ram with massive horns sleeping peacefully in the gutter while a woman carefully swept the street around him; two flower sellers with their carts, talking quietly, engrossed in conversation as only women can be, as a street goat happily munched the flowers from one cart.

It was a lazy day and the only excitement we had was when the driver took a curve too fast and I felt the tires on my side of the bus lift up for about three seconds. People started to scream and the woman next to me flew out of her seat. She would have landed in the aisle had I not caught her sari and pulled her back down. I practiced equanimity — if I die in India so be it. I started to doze as the passengers yelled at the driver.

At one stop we were besieged by begging children, girls and boys. I saw that Indians rarely gave to beggars, so when a beggar sees a feringhi it’s an onslaught of constant cries for money. Trapped on a bus, I was ripe for the picking. I sat next to the rear door and it was the perfect place for a little girl to plant herself on the steps in front of me with her hand out with a constant cry that sounded like “ma” over and over and over again.

You need a thick skin to handle the beggars in India, even if they are children. I was not in the giving mood so I ignored her and stared out the window. Occasionally I would look at her and shake my head and tell her no in Tamil, but she never stopped. Every Indian also ignored her, but I had an idea. I pointed to each person on the bus and told her “ask him” or “ask her” and rubbed my fingers together, the universal sign for money. I said, “They give rupees, I give rupees”. She left me and went over the Indians. That finally got everyone’s attention, and when she started harassing the Indians, a woman said something and she left. The bus finally started and as we left I looked back to see the begging children swarm the next group of tourists, like yellow jackets to fresh meat.

Late at night when everyone was tired, hungry, and complaining we stopped at a Murugan temple, our last stop, and most of the passengers did not get off the bus. The temple would have been the highlight of my day because it is a very important temple, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, an important Hindu god worshiped in south India. It is huge temple carved into rock, but it was impossible to explore in the time we had, so I had to be satisfied with a quick walk-through. I should have planned my last day more carefully, but I wanted to leave the planning to someone else, even if it was a bus driver who spoke no English. Go with the flow, there will be a next time, and I remembered the words of the Chennai beauty shop owner, “be free, be free.”

We headed back to Madurai, everyone quiet now for the ride home. Despite the heat, the dust, a migraine headache, and the incessant touts that I experienced over the last few days, I again felt at peace here on a bus with strangers in a strange city in a strange land and I almost fell completely asleep.

We were in Madurai and I woke up to people screaming at the driver again. Apparently he wasn’t dropping people at their hotels, he was dropping people off wherever he felt like it. It was late, and the streets were crowded with people walking to the temple so the bus driver had trouble getting through the streets. I watched everything with detachment, watching group dynamics and mentally placing bets on who would win.

Every few blocks he would kick people off the bus, and the people would complain as they flagged down autorickshaws. Finally it was me and an older couple. I got off the bus and the husband started to argue with the driver. There was much hand waving and head wobbling, but the driver won and the husband finally got off. The bus left and the three of us stood in the middle of the street. Suddenly they spoke to me in perfect English, complaining about the bus and the driver. How funny that they never said a word to me all day yet we had sat across the aisle from each other.

I returned to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the roof-top restaurant, looking out over the temple complex and thinking about what India had taught me so far – more patience, how to be in the present moment, and detaching from the outcome. Anyone on the yoga path knows that these qualities sink a bit deeper into the consciousness the longer one does the work. But somehow, being in Ma India, my heart could open more fully, just as the lotus opens its petals as it rises out of the mud to reach for the glorious sun.

Goodbye Madurai. OM MURUGA, lead me from the darkness and into the light.

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Gandhi: the movie

For those of you who loved the movie Gandhi — or those of you who have never seen it — there is a 25th anniversary special edition DVD. it came out in 2007 but I just found out about it! the 2-disc set has interviews about filming in India, about finding the right actors, along with archival footage, plus the picture and sound have been digitally remastered.

from the reviewing website:

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, a labor of love that took nearly 20 years to make it to the screen, is one of the last true epics that spans decades yet keeps you tied to an emotional, human anchor. That anchor would be Gandhi himself, Mohandas Gandhi or Mahatma “Great soul” Gandhi as he was referred to later on in his life by the people of India.

Winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture (1982), Best Director (Attenborough) and Best Actor (Ben Kingsley as Gandhi), Gandhi has been released for a second time on DVD, this time however as a glorious 2 disc set celebrating its 25th anniversary that has to be one of the best DVDs released in 2007.

The film chronicles the leader of the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century. It opens with an appropriate statement from Attenborough stating, “No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling…least of all Gandhi’s….”

I have never been to north India where Gandhi spent most of his life. but what many people don’t know is that he also spent time in Tamil Nadu, the state that I travel to in India. I have been to Madurai twice, the last time just this past January, and I always make time for the Gandhi Museum. It is a place where I find peace in the riotous city of Madurai. the exhibits tell the story of Gandhi’s life in south India and how important Tamil Nadu was in the India’s struggle for independence. the last exhibit is in a room that is painted black — it is a glass case that contains the dhoti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated and it still contains his blood stains.

I can not describe how much I love spending time at the museum, just walking around the grounds, visiting the bookstore, buying chai from the chai seller, who can’t speak English but always has a big smile for me when he gives me free pictures of Gandhi.

During my 2006 trip, on the train ride back to Chennai from Rameswaram (a 17 hour ride), my compartment mate was a businessman who started a conversation with me when he saw me reading Gandhi’s autobiography that I had bought in Madurai. It was the first time that I heard about how some Indians hate Gandhi. It really surprised me. I asked him why and he said that many Indians blame Gandhi for the Partition: “The partition of India left both India and Pakistan devastated. The process of partition had claimed many lives in the riots. Many others were raped and looted. Women, especially, were used as instruments of power by the Hindus and the Muslims; “ghost trains” full of severed breasts of women would arrive in each of the newly-born countries from across the borders.”

The Partition is still a very sensitive subject for many Indians. my compartment mate told me that many Indians hate Gandhi the same way that many Americans hate George Bush. those of us who know how much Martin Luther King, Jr. admired Gandhi will find this sentiment shocking.

some photos of the Gandhi Museum, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India….






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"you are all Gandhis"





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 had 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 at full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way…
an Indian cop who wanted 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 what always happens to me in India — my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with a regular rickshaw 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 that tourists usually don’t go.

We drove past a small school where 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 had 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 the Pongal custom 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 wanted me to say some last words to the kids. 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 kids 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 being 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 got back outside and 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.


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om muruga, goodbye madurai

The last stop on the Madurai tour was the Thirupparamkunram Murugan temple, about five miles outside of Madurai. Unfortunately this was much later at night when everyone was tired, hungry, and complaining. Most of the people did not even get off the bus to walk to the temple.

The temple would have been the highlight of my day had it not been the last stop because it is a very important temple, one of the six abodes of Lord Muruga, an important South Indian Tamil god. Many people in the west are familiar with Ganesha, the god with the elephant head who is the son of Shiva and Parvati, but few know that Muruga is his brother. His temple is huge, carved in rock, and it is where Muruga married Deivanai, the divine daughter of Indra. In the main shrine, besides Muruga, the murthis of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, and Durga are housed. There was no way I could have explored it in the time that was alloted to us, so I had to be satisfied with a quick walk-through. This made me a bit sad because for reasons having to do with someone in my life, I had promised myself that on this trip I would spend time at an important Murugan temple, maybe go to Palani, a town near Kodaikanal. I realized that instead of the bus tour, I should have hired a driver and gone out by myself to spend the better part of a day here. I should have planned my last day more carefully, but I was tired and wanted to rest my brain and leave the planning to someone else, even if it was a bus driver who did not speak English. Oh well…go with the flow, there will be a next time….

Less than 30 minutes was not enough time to explore this temple, so we piled back on the bus and headed back to Madurai, everyone quiet now for the ride home. Despite the heat, the dust, the migraine, the incessant touts that I experienced over these last few days, I again felt at peace here on a bus with strangers in a strange city in a strange land, and I almost fell completely asleep, dozing in and out of yogini dreams.

I woke up to people yelling. We were back in Madurai and people were yelling at the driver again. Apparently he wasn’t dropping people off at their hotels, he was dropping people off wherever he felt like it. It was late, and the streets were crowded with people walking to the Meenakshi Temple so the bus driver had trouble getting through the streets. I watched everything with detachment, as I usually did, a half smile on my face — watching group dynamics and mentally placing bets on who would win, on what the outcome would be.

Every few blocks he would kick people off the bus, and the people would complain as they tried to get autorickshaws to pick them up. Finally it came down to me and an older couple. I started to get off the bus and the husband started arguing with the driver. I assumed he was complaining about not being taken to their hotel, being dropped off in the middle of the street. They got in each others’ faces with much hand waving and head wobbling. It was just another Indian adventure for me. The husband finally got off the bus, the bus left, and the three of us stood in the middle of the street. Suddenly they start speaking to me, perfect English, complaining about the bus and driver. How funny, I thought, that they never said a word to me all the day, yet we had sat across the aisle from each other.

As we commiserated about the driver’s rudeness, the wife gave me their business card. They were from Andra Pradesh, a state north of Tamil Nadu. She was an artist, he ran some type of nature preserve. Two people whom I would haved loved to talk to during the day about two of my favorite subjects, art and nature. They told me to come for a visit…maybe one day…it is these chance encounters with people that I treasure the most from my trips.

They asked if I wanted to share a rickshaw with them, but we were going in opposite directions. I got back to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the roof-top restaurant, looking out over the temple complex, digesting not only my dinner, but also what India had taught me so far….more patience, being more present, and detaching from the outcome. Anyone on the yoga path knows that these are qualities that sink a little bit deeper into the consciousness the longer one does the work. But somehow, being here, my heart could open more fully, just as a lotus rises out of the mud and into the light.

Goodbye Madurai, hello Kodaikanal. Om Muruga…lead me from the darkness and into the light….

last day in Madurai

My last day in Madurai was uneventful and actually a bit relaxing. I spent the last day on a city tour, going from an old palace to some small temples and a return visit to the Gandhi museum.

The bus picked me up and stopped at other hotels along the way picking up other passengers. An Indian tour bus (or a city to city bus) is usually not decked out with plushy seats, air-con, and a restroom in the back – most of the seats were ripped and frayed, but they were adequately comfortable. Sometimes you have the pleasure of listening to music played full blast through a shabby speaker that is circa 1970, driver’s choice of music, of course. And don’t ask about a rest stop. I settled in and waited for the day’s adventures.

Once again, as is so common during my trips, I am the only westerner on the bus, and I love it this way. Indians stare at all foreigners, that’s just the way it is, and if you are uncomfortable with being stared at everywhere you go, don’t go to India. But I was dressed Indian-style, and after I got the once over (or twice over or thrice over), I found that Indians generally left me alone (except in Kodaikanal, but’s that’s another story, stay tuned.)

I love watching group dynamics so I watched everyone get on the bus – young couples, parents with kids, seniors. It was funny seeing almost everyone have the same reaction to the condition of the bus. They walked up the stairs, stopped, looked around at the frayed seats, either gulped or sneered, especially the travelers who looked more “upscale”, then took a seat. Off we went, all windows open to the Madurai heat and dust.

I really don’t remember exactly what was on the tour. I just enjoyed being out riding around with a bus load of Indian tourists. The driver did not speak English, so every time we stopped, he would announce in Tamil what we were seeing and how long we would be there. At the first stop I asked him how long and he just looked at me and grunted. I was on my own – I had a feeling that if I didn’t get back to the bus in time, he’d leave without me, wherever we happened to be. Finally a man told me in English “20 minutes”, and at every stop I would look at him and he’d smile and tell me how long we’d be at the stop.

Everywhere we went, I loved the vignettes that were framed by the bus window, glimpses of Indian life. Sometimes I was lucky enough to snap a picture, but there were many that I wish I could have gotten – the huge ram with massive curled back horns sleeping peacefully in the gutter while a woman swept the street around him, not disturbing him; two flower sellers with their carts, talking quietly, engrossed in conversation as only women can be, as a street goat happily munches the day’s profits from one cart. Thinking of those scenes now make my eyes tear up because I miss India…

It was a lazy day and the only excitement we had was when the driver took a curve too fast and I literally felt the tires on my side of the bus lift off the ground for about three seconds. People started yelling at the driver and the woman next to me flew out of her seat. She would have landed face-first in the aisle had I not caught her sari and pulled her back down. My reaction to this was total equanimity — I shrugged it off, and went back to staring out the window, listening to the other passengers yell at the driver. I must learn more Tamil!

At one stop we were besieged by begging children, girls and boys. On my trips I saw that Indians do not usually give to beggars, so anytime they see a foreigner, it’s a no holds barred onslaught of constant cries for money. Trapped on a bus, I was ripe for the picking.

Some of us were sitting on the bus waiting for the others. I was sitting next to the middle door so it was the perfect place for one girl to plant herself on the steps in front of me with her hand out with a constant call that sounded like “ma” over and over and over again.

In India, you have to develop a hard skin and pick and choose which beggar you will give to, if at all. Right then I was not in the mood, so I ignored her constant cries and stared out the window. Occasionally I would look at her and shake my head and tell her no in Tamil, but she never stopped. Every Indian also ignored her, staring out the windows. Finally I got an idea. I saw how Indians rarely give money to beggars so I pointed to each person on the bus and told her “ask him” or “ask her” and rubbed my fingers together, the universal sign for money. I said, “they give rupees, I give rupees”. She left me, and went over the Indians. AH! That finally got everyone’s attention, and once she started harassing the Indians, a woman said something to her and the girl left the bus. We finally left and I looked back to see the children swarm the next group of tourists…..

One of the last stops was the Gandhi museum. This was late in the day and people were feeling tired and hungry, they moaned and groaned and really did not want to get off the bus. By this time I surmised that many of the passengers could understand English so I said that I had already been here, and it’s not to be missed. That perked everyone up and with big smiles most got off the bus. Some of the women didn’t, and the driver pulled the bus underneath a tree for shade. We could have stayed there the rest of the afternoon, that’s how peaceful I felt at the museum.

I got off and walked to the little book stall. The old clerk remembered me, gave me a big smile and put his hands together for “namaste”. He gave me more pictures of Gandhi, which he had also done the day before. I walked to the chai cart and ordered three cups of chai. An older couple said hello to me, asked where I was from and what I did, and we chatted for a while. I found out later that yoga classes are conducted at the museum. Mmmmm…if I lived there…how sweet that would be to take or even teach yoga at place dedicated to Gandhi….

it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad Madurai


I arrived in Madurai and was instantly accosted by rickshaw drivers, so much so a train station security guard told them to leave me alone.

After a 9 hour train ride, sweaty and hungry, I was not about to put up with any crap. I chose one driver and as we walked toward his rickshaw, he yakked it up with his fellow drivers along the way. More drivers started yelling, “here madam, here madam, you want ride, madam?” “That’s it,” I said as I threw down my bag. I stopped and yelled loud enough to make all the stray dogs howl within a five mile radius…”ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!”, together with a few more choice words in south-side Chicago vernacular. Not very yogic, but I had had it. Needless to say, that immediately got everyone’s attention, I never saw a gaggle of drivers shut up so quickly. The wrath of Kali! “No tension, madam, no tension, come with me….” That’s more like it, and when I got to the place I thought I was going to stay in, I paid him more than what we agreed to.

I stayed exactly 90 minutes at Sri Devi, a guesthouse close to the great temple. I took the recommendation of the Rough Guide, and all I can say is that the writer must have been hallucinating when he/she wrote the review, smoking too many chillums.

I don’t mind staying in a cheap hotel in India, but I draw the line at a “bath towel” that looked like it was just used to wash a car, and at greasy hair stains on the pillows. The place was disgusting. And this was the “deluxe AC room” as described in Rough Guide — uh, yeah, the AC that had its guts hanging out.

The room was considered “deluxe” because you could walk out of the long window to the roof of the floor below me, and sit there and have a fab view of the temple. Unfortunately, the window did not lock, so anyone on that roof could crawl into your room. There was also a frosted glass door to this room — the entire door was glass, so not very safe for a solo female traveler. When a guy tried to get into my room about a hour after I was there, I asked for another room but it was no better than the first….

So I got out of there and switched to the Hotel Supreme that has ceiling fans where you can actually control the speed! If you’ve ever stayed in an Indian hotel you know that your two choices for a ceiling fan are “off” and a 747 taking off. I stayed in their cheapest room (about 500-600 Rs) which was heaven compared to the Sri Garbage.

now off to explore…

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Day One…

I’m in a town where the touts are worse than in Mahabalipuram. Now I know why so many westerners walk around India with a glazed “dead man walking” look in their eyes, no reactions, no smiles. It’s a defense mechanism, act like your deaf, dumb, and blind and maybe you’ll be spared…but I really did not want to morph into that animal.

I walked around the temple area and if I had a rupee for every time I heard “no buy, madam, just look”, I’d be able to pay for my plane fare home. I’m tired of looking like a walking $$$$ sign. I know everyone has to make a buck, but I did not come to India to support every shop keeper in town.

I was “befriended” at least three times by nice old men who told me their life stories, how America is a great country, and oh, by the way, my brother/uncle/son/cousin/sister’s husband has this clothes/jewelery/art/silver shop that has a great roof top view of the temples, “just look, madam, no buy.” The unfortunate thing is that I am beginning to not trust anyone’s friendliness because my first thought is “what do they want from me”, and I don’t want to react that way.

There is a market across from the great temple that is filled with little stalls of all types of merchandise — a great place to see dead men walking because the calls to buy are incessant — so much so that I walked out totally drained and physically ill with my first migraine in years. However I was not THAT drained that it kept me from ordering two custom made skirts for $10, which will look fabulous! What finally got to me was that not even inside the temple is one left alone in peace…time to go before I get totally disgusted…

I finally ended up using one of these lines for shop keepers and touts: 1. I’m a poor yoga teacher, no money; 2. YOU buy ME something?; and 3. it’s against my religion. The last one usually works…..

Honestly though, I don’t consider anything I have experienced so far on this trip as a “hardship” or something that I can’t handle. I take everything and everyone I encounter with a huge grain of salt and just chalk it up, go with the flow. However, I don’t like the assumption that I am a walking bank account, pull my arm and rupees come pouring out of my mouth! And tell me why if I ask to look at one salwar kameez, I am shown 25 more in different colors?? AARGH!! I have run screaming from more than one store!

Day Two…

I highly recommend the Gandhi museum in Madurai! It’s very interesting and inspiring, but when I was there, there were about 100 school girls who were more interested in me than in reading about their own history!

A large group of school girls were sitting on the floor listening to the curator, as I walked into the museum. He immediately stopped talking and all the girls turned around to look at me, the only westerner. Silence. I smile and put my hands into “namaste” and bow. Then everyone says hello in unison to me, in English, and I respond with a loud vanakkam, which is Tamil for “hello” — this causes a huge explosion of laughter. The curator asks loudly, “what country, madam? America or UK?” “America” “Ah….America!” Big smiles all around. Their poor teachers have their hands full trying to keep order all because of me!

As I walk around the exhibits, followed by a crowd of school girls, I feel eyes on me. I turn around, and a few start giggling. “Shhhh,” I said, “read your history, don’t look at me,”, I told them with a wink. Occasionally I would feel a light touch on my back or arms and I would turn around and a hand would suddenly cover a mouth and a giggle is unsuccessfully suppressed….

The cloth that Gandhi was wearing when he was shot is there, blood-stained, in a room painted all in black. His sandals, his glasses…one is in awe…

There is also a government museum on the grounds — admission Indians, 5Rs, foreigners, 100Rs. I was “invited” in but when I saw the price I said to the guard, “hmmmm……I thought Gandhi was in favor of equality?” No comment in response……

I loved the museum and the surrounding grounds, but was disheartened, once again, to see garbage all over the place. A center for transcendental meditation is also there — tried to find my piece of quiet — but sitting outside amongst garbage did not appeal to me.

to be continued…

all aboard, Madurai


March, 2006

I left last night on the 9:30 Pandian Express, and contrary to what I was told, the train left right on time.

I was sitting alone in my 2A/C berth when two young guys came in to be my berth mates. They looked to be in their 20s. When they saw me, the looks on their faces were as if I had lifted up my kurti to flash them. Both their mouths dropped open in unison. Not a word was said, and I thought their reaction was strange. “Hello, boys,” I felt like saying, “you’ve never seen a woman before?” I said hello in Tamil and flashed them a big smile. As they sat across from me, and as I sat across from them with a half smile on my face, they tried to look everywhere but at me – they stared at each other, they looked at the floor, they looked in their bags, they looked at their hands, they tried to look out the window. Again, I thought this was a little strange considering they looked “modern”. How I wished I could understand Tamil!

But from what I learned in India, this is common behavior for some Indian men when confronted by a woman, especially one as strange as me — western, hippie-looking, dressed in Indian-style clothes, and bold enough to look them in the eye. I’ve been told that most “boys” in the 15-25 age group are starved for any kind of normal interaction with women — usually there is no sex before marriage, and there is hardly any communication between boys and girls at school. Growing up like this culturally there will be lots of illusions about women, and therefore, men will be clueless as to how to behave when confronted with an “outside the box” man-woman situation.

Thirty seconds before the train left, an older Sikh man came to sit next to me. As he sat down I said, “now we’re all going to be just cozy, aren’t we?” The young dudes again looked like I not only just flashed them, but blew them a kiss while doing it. At least the older man had manners and was friendlier, he said hello. These young dudes looked so disconcerted I really felt like playing with them for 9 hours but thought better of it — I did not want to scar the poor babies for life….

The train ride to Madurai was very comfortable and my berth mates did not say a word to me. The young guys probably had trouble sleeping thinking about the western woman of a certain age sleeping in such close proximity to them.

As the train pulled into Madurai, the Sikh gentleman wished me a nice day, and the two young guys could not wait to leave — it was comical watching them trip all over themselves in a rush to get out. Might have been the first time in their lives that they’ve slept so close to a woman…

In the station I paid 2rs to use the very clean Indian toilet (using an Indian squat toilet is like doing malasana in yoga, no problem!). The rupee collector made me smile when he told me that he liked the OM tattoo on my wrist and then asked what my “sweet name” was — in these two trips to India, that’s the first time a man had ever asked me what my sweet name was — and he happens to be a rupee collector sitting outside a train station toilet. Oh well…it was a nice change from the boys on the train….