smooth operator

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

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

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

So I did what I rarely do in front of anyone — I started to cry. If I was a child I would have been told that I was over-tired and cranky. I was almost shaking and I yelled at Kannen that I was not made of money, that despite the fact that I could afford to go to India, yoga teachers don’t make much money, that I was tired of Indians looking at me and seeing only dollar bills and I hated that. He looked shocked and hurt and his eyes got very wide. He put his hands to his ears, then to his forehead as if he had a headache, and started to shake his head and say “no no no no no no….”, a low murmur at first, then gradually louder. He looked like he was going to cry. Suddenly he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled me close, and kissed me. Not a passionate kiss, not even on the lips, but close enough. Remembering what I had been told about South Indian culture, and especially about Indian men, I stood there amazed. “Tomorrow,” was all he said.

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


kodaikanal, part 2

View from Coaker’s Walk

Palani Hills

I hired a car to tour the local sights on my second day in Kodai. I can’t remember the names of where we drove, but most of the spots would be called “scenic overlooks” or “nature viewing areas” here in the US – and also one golf course, where the only golfers I saw were the monkeys cavorting on the greens. I thought it was interesting that a golf course would be a feature included in a sightseeing tour. At least I was impressed with how lush the grass looked and they probably did not douse it with lawn chemicals like in the US. Unfortunately this little sight-seeing expedition was where I experienced my first taste of Indian nastiness.

The driver dropped me off at Coaker’s Walk, a path that winds up and around a hill where on a clear day you can see all the way to Madurai. My driver said he would meet me on the other end. It was a beautiful day and I started walking slowly, enjoying the views, stopping to take pictures. The view was fabulous and the air smelled fresh and green, really the first time I smelled “green” in the air in India. Couples and families were walking around, and as usual, I was the only westerner. About half way through my walk, two youngish couples walked toward me, they were maybe mid to late 20s. They slowed down, stared at me, then pointed and started to laugh – at me. I stopped and looked behind me, thinking someone behind me was acting goofy. It never dawned on me that I was the one they were laughing at. It wasn’t just a guffaw or two, it was a steady stream of laughter and talk amongst themselves.

I knew that Indians stared at foreigners especially ones dressed like a “typical tourist” (imagine a man with snow white legs sticking out of khaki shorts wearing white socks with sandals or a woman wearing tight, revealing clothes), but I was wearing loose cargo pants with a traditional kurti, nothing strange about my clothes at all, I wasn’t showing any ankle or shoulder. At first I thought the way these people were acting was strange, then my blood began to boil. I walked past them, then turned around and confronted them. If you ever saw the movie Taxi Driver, I did a Travis Bickle. I yelled, “You talking to me? I said, ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?” They stopped pointing and laughing and just stared. “What’s your problem? You got a problem? The hell you looking at? Why don’t you take a picture? You want a picture? Here I am!”, I continued to yell non-stop. They turned around and walked away, probably grimacing when my south side Chicago accent hit their ears. I truly hoped they thought I was a crazy American woman and would tell all their friends about me.

My equanimity immediately flew out the window which told me how much farther I have to go on the Path. Calm down, I told myself, but I was almost in a rage because I could not believe people could be so cruel and ignorant for no reason. How dare they. What the hell did I do to deserve that treatment and who the hell did they think they were? In my old neighborhood on the south side of Chicago their behavior would have gotten them a rightous ass-kicking, including the women. The same IndiaMiker who told me about the Kodai tribals told me that “Kodai gets a lot of young tourists, who now have lots of money and lots of confidence. I imagine that the people who were rude to you were the young smug newcomers to India’s middle class–software, call center types, trying to impress their girlfriends/wives. Rather like the jaded Upper West Siders of New York sneering at the tourists in Times Square.”

Their actions (well…my reactions to their actions) totally put me off the rest of my walk and when I got back to the car I took it out on my driver. I asked him if it was common for Kodai Indians to treat tourists like I was just treated. I asked him if people here were always so mean. “What’s wrong with you people?”, I asked him. He acted like he did not understand me, but I knew he did, and we drove to the next stop.

I started feeling better when we drove to waterfalls and into some pine forests. Nature has always been my church and sanctuary. I’ve hiked the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico, canoed in northern Minnesota. But when I got out of the car and started walking with other tourists in these natural areas, I was struck by how the Indians treated these areas as if they were in an amusement park. These were the most pristine areas I had seen during my India trips, but the ground was littered with empty film canisters, film boxes, and other non-biodegradable trash. I didn’t understand it at all. These hills were beautiful, but there was no awareness or care whatsoever.

We drove to another overlook where there were lots of monkeys and lots of people because tour buses were dropping off their passengers. The monkeys – well-trained to get close because people would throw them whatever food they had – were running all over, but as soon as they got close, someone would throw a rock and then run away – yeah, real macho guys. I almost got knocked over some boulders by idiots throwing rocks at the monkeys and then running away from them. The women would also run away from the monkeys, screaming. What was wrong with these people, why don’t they shut up and enjoy the view, why are they hassling monkeys? The eyes of the monkey in my photo in the previous post say it all. I would try to take a close-up picture of a monkey and some moron would walk in front of me, totally clueless. I finally got so sick of what was going on around me, I sat on a rock and started to egg the monkeys on, out loud – “go ahead, get him; go ahead, bite him, bite his hand”. I knew that some people could understand English and I didn’t care. I was hoping that a monkey would get really pissed about getting hit with a rock and just go ape shit on somebody (sorry, just had to say that.) I was out of there – the whole day made me wonder why I ever wanted to go to Kodaikanal. There was nothing here for me, and my claustrophobia crept in again. It was the first time that I truly felt alone in India.

There were a few more stops and the driver left me at the hotel. I beat myself up for not going to Palani instead to visit the great Murugan temple. I spent the evening wandering around Kodai, eating Tibetan food, drinking chai, going into all the stores. I slowly walked the 3k around the lake back to the hotel. I could not wait to get out of Kodai.

Early the next day I left for Rameswaram, where I would lose my heart to India all over again.

kodaikanal, part 1

two of the friendlier citizens of Kodaikanal…

I arrived in Kodaikanal and the bus dropped me off in the middle of town. My two old Brahmin friends who discussed yoga philosophy with me bowed their heads and placed their hands in anjali mudra and told me that these “two old jivans” (jivan is a living being – the individual soul which in essence is one with the Universal Soul) were honored to sit next to me and they hoped I would be blessed for the remainder of my trip.

One of the scenarios the old jivan presented to me was this: he looked out the window and waved his hand at the poor people along the way. He said, “what do you think, madam? Why is one man born a king and the other born a beggar? Is that not fate?” I shrugged and said that karma is not fate, it is cause and effect, that karma is karma, no more, no less. I told him that the beggar could very well have been a king in a previous life, and because of his past actions was reborn a beggar, maybe because he treated beggars very poorly when he was a king. A man sitting in front of us turned around and said loudly, “She is right! Karma is karma!”, then said nothing more for the rest of the trip. I smiled because I loved these little Indian vignettes. The two old jivans laughed and discussed karma between themselves, maybe discussing how it was their karma to sit next to an American woman of a certain age who was dressed like an old hippie chick and who was reading an Indian book on meditation.

I was in Kodai only for two nights and I admit that maybe this was too short a time to form a proper opinion. But as of right now, I would not return to Kodai, at least as a solo traveler. I believe Kodai is best visited with other people, unlike the other cities I visited. Despite the beauty of the surroundings compared to the dry Tamil Nadu I was accustomed to, I felt claustrophobic in Kodai, I felt trapped. This was the first city where I felt bored and antsy. One thing that was remarkably different was that I was never besieged by touts or beggars in Kodai – that was a refreshing change! It was interesting how I was in a relatively clean, quiet town with the least amount of people so far, not hassled by touts or beggars, but I felt uncomfortable, and I did not feel that way in maddening Madurai or busy Chennai…maybe it was a past life thing….

The place where I stayed was considered a “resort” and was more for tourist groups or for families. Kodai is known for hiking trails, but I knew I would not feel safe hiking in the hills alone, as I did in the US. The center of town is small and there’s not much to do or see. The connections at the two internet cafes were exceedingly slow. Walking around town I found an ayurvedic store and made an appointment for another ayurvedic massage, hoping it would as wonderful as the one I had in Chennai. I thought it might even be better since the store was run by an ashram – they had a convincing brochure about their services but I should have relied on the old adage about not judging the book by its cover.

When I arrived for my massage, I was taken into the basement of a nearby hotel and was shocked. The basement was cold, damp, and scary, and it really looked like…an unfinished basement. I was taken into a small, dark room that was literally freezing, the first time I had ever felt that sensation in India. I looked around, disgusted. The “masseuse” put an old, ratty towel on the table that was a duplicate version of the one in Chennai, like a doctor’s exam table from the 1950s. Only this time the towel was greasy looking. No way was I going to go through with this massage. This room looked like the photos I remember pre-Roe v. Wade of where a back-alley abortionist would meet his customers.

I told the woman who brought me that the room was disgusting and cold. She turned on a heater that looked like it couldn’t heat up a closet much less a room, and she changed the towel to one that had smaller grease stains. I shook my head and told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted my deposit back NOW. She shrugged, didn’t try to argue, said no problem, and I left. So much for my wonderful ayurvedic massage.

Walking around town introduced me to Tibetans for the first time. The ones I met were open and friendly, very different from the Indians I experienced in Kodai. I found a wonderful Tibetan restaurant where I would hang out enjoying the “warmth”, and I’m not talking about the temperature. Fabulous steamed momos and an awesome soup that was so thick I ate it with a fork, all for less than $1.

As for the general atmosphere of Kodai, I felt an underlying tension, an almost imperceptible violence that was waiting to explode. This was a feeling that I never felt before in my travels and I’m a good one for picking up the “energies” of a place.

An IndiaMiker told me this when I told him my feelings about being in Kodai:

“Most of those people selling fruit and trinkets to tourists in Kodai are tribals. The only other source of employment in the area is the coffee and tea plantations, and the contracts are usually indenture. So they are bonded laborers who try to scrape together a little cash when they aren’t picking leaves or beans–it’s either that or starve. They live with all the caste discrimination and violence you would expect. They’re even included in Human Rights Watch reports. It’s genuinely cold in winter, at which time it also get the monsoon. Roads wash out. Living in a thatched shack isn’t easy.

There are also plenty of monied interests–hotels, property development and luxury real estate, the plantation owners, etc.–that keep a firm hand on Kodai with bribes, violence, and other incentives. The place is really a cesspool of corruption and environmental waste, with the people at the bottom little better than slaves…”

And here I was…

on to Kodaikanal

I moved on to Kodaikanal after Madurai. Perched atop the Palani range, about 120km from Madurai, Kodaikanal is what is called a “hill station” surrounded by temperate forests of pines and deciduous trees. Kodai’s wooded – and not so wooded anymore – slopes contain waterfalls and rocky outcroppings. According to the Lonely Planet travel guide, it’s the only hill station in India that was established by American missionaries. I had read about the greenery, the different climate, the different geography, and I was looking forward to a change of scenery from the dry, dusty Tamil Nadu I had become accustomed to.

The bus ride itself was once again an adventure. I got on and the few seats left were in the back, along the long row. I have long legs and did not want to spend hours with my knees up around my chin sitting behind one of the back seats, so I parked myself right in the middle of the long seat, my legs out in the aisle. We picked up more people and two older men came toward me, I could tell they expected me to move over to the window. Not a chance. They shrugged and proceeded to squeeze past me. One sat next to the window, the other was trying to squeeze in next to me, on my left, next to his friend. He had a hard time doing so because the person next to me on my right wouldn’t budge. I got up a little, and as the man was squeezing in between me and his friend, I pushed him in next to me, like shoving someone through a door. “Thank you, madam!”, he said with a big smile.

Within 15 minutes they start talking to me, the first question always being “what country, madam?” and then “what job, madam?”. “America.” “Yoga teacher.” The man next to me translated that for his friend next to the window. Big smiles all around. “We also do yoga, every day,” and my friend told me that just that morning he had done headstand AND shoulderstand. These men appeared to be in their 60s, by the way…. They also made sure to tell me that they were Brahmins, the highest caste. I found it interesting, that people, always men I realized, would tell me that.

Then my friend told me that his friend (the one next to the window) has a brother living in the ashram of Swami Nirgunananda in Chandigarh, which is close to Delhi. Before I know it, an address book is pulled out, and I have the Swami’s cell phone number! Outstanding! Life is all about the connections we make…seems so especially in India. You can bet that I have that scrap of paper with the Swami’s phone number tucked away in a safe place. I googled his name, and to my relief, not much came up, which to me means he’s the real deal. That tells me he’s not a show biz guru or rock ‘n roll yogi. Another time, another trip, I have the rest of my life….

We settled in for the three hour bus ride to Kodai. I pulled out a book I had bought at the Ramakrishna Math in Chennai, Meditation According To Yoga Vedanta. After a while, my friend next to me saw the book and asked to look at it. He showed it to his friend. I never got to read another page because for the next two hours, I was grilled like a school girl before her school masters…