Writing the last post made me think of my own India stories. I leave for Spirit Rock this weekend and will be gone for 15 days so I decided to re-post one India story a day for your reading pleasure.
I entered these stories in a travel writing contest sponsored by a travel website (I didn’t win so I’m not mentioning the name!) The grand prize was a trip to Machu Picchu and the other prizes were bags — I would have been happy with a bag! I wasn’t bummed out when none of my stories were selected because I know they kick ass anyway.
India is definitely not for everyone, but it must be in my DNA because as soon as my foot hit Indian soil (my first overseas trip, alone, at the delicious age of 51), I felt like I had come home. There has not been one single day since 2005 that I have not thought about Ma India. Not one. Not even when I returned from my third trip in January 2008 with virulent salmonella food poisoning. I flew 18 hours from India sicker than a mangy Indian street dog — I almost passed out in the Chennai airport before I even got on the plane.
I used to be a moderator of the best India travel website in the world , a site with over 30,000 members, each one with their own story about India, and most, I’m sure, with a love/hate relationship with India. Last year one of my teachers told me that I’m a native now — that the first time you go to India you’re a little scared and apprehensive; the second time you love it and you want to stay forever because nothing is ever wrong; the third time you begin to see things as a native does — the good, the bad, the horrible, the indifference, the enthralling, and the enchanting. India in all its glory. Last year instead of people asking me “what country, madam?”, people asked me, “do you live here, madam?” Ahhhhh….I had finally arrived.
In an old post I wrote: “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.”
India nourishes me and I need to visit Ma India as much as I need the air to live. One of my favorite bloggers once wrote: “…if I don’t follow my Heart, I will lose a piece of my aliveness. It doesn’t take too many compromises to become a walking dead person…”
So these stories are not about your India or her India or his India. This is MY INDIA and I count the days until I am in her arms again.
I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .caught in a cattle crossing, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can’t remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was starving and inhaled the meal as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles watching me eat.
I arrived at the Hotel Tamil Nadu, showered, and took a nap. I woke up about 5 pm and planned to walk to the temple and find dinner. The phone rang and being alone in India, getting a call was shocking. A man told me “if you want to see the temple, I can take you.” Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that’s what I’m going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who’s calling, where are you, whaaaat….? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.
I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and the clerk was behind the desk with another man. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said “R. Kannan, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services.” I asked the clerk if he knew R. Kannan, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, “this is Kannan”. Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah…delicious serendipity. No….most likely he got the call, “feringhee in da house, come on over!” I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens.
As it turned out, I spent four hours with Kannan that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautiful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug out of the sand. Kannan and I planned my weekend all within one hour — I was to spend it with him.
As we were driving back, Kannan asked me if I wanted to see the children dance — of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people — local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.
So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and Kodaikanal in the morning was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.
We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is — a very popular Tamil actor. You’ve heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Kollywood with their own set of popular stars.
There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures and of course that started a riot. “Madam, Madam, take me, take me!” I yelled “dance like Vijay!”, and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choreographed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they ran over wanting to see it, then ran back to dance again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren’t watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.
We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannan asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone’s hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.
We turned around and Kannan asked, “can you jump?” “Jump?” “Yes, climb and jump,” and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. “Sure, why not, what choice do we have?”
Kannan jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high with barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low “ooooohhhhh” coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder “ooooooohhhhh” now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. How often did these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar kameez would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of whatever, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.
The young Vijays exploded. Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling “Yes, madam!”, as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, swirling around in a rainbow of colors.