Thursday, January 15, 2009

Days 6, 7 and 8

Pictures (Note: because of size of pics and power outages, we're struggling to load the pictures, so they will appear as we are able and go into a slideshow site when we return)
6. Shrine
7. Shrine atop the motel where we take a bio break, built right into the original architecture
8. Sign 1
9. Sign 2
10. Statue of Ambedkar where Curt decided to give us all sunburns
11. Kids in one of Curt's small villages
12. Sadhu (local priest) in the village attending the shrine
13. Shrine atop one of the buildings
14. Public art in Chennai (2 pics)
15. Martin, our guide, in front of one of the great stone carving in Mamallapuram
16. Coffee before it is made into a moccachino (cup sitting within bowl)
17. Typical fruit Cart
18. Glory to Jesus tut-tut (small taxis), guess Hindus and Muslims don't mind as long as they get there

Day 6 - Jan 12, Mamallapuram

- Department of clarifications
- A walk on the beach
- More songs about food and buildings
- Eating local, no lefties allowed
- Advanced rock carving for level 2 dummies
- Gossip in mild form (hmmm, what does that mean?)

Clarification: the famous local that helped redefine the untouchables as valued members of society is a guy named Ambedkar, a true Indian hero.

Today we start at noon, so MHB and I work out, then take a walk along the beach into town and back to the hotel. Town is not much, and the beach isn’t either. Lots of fishing boats (using nets) and and a few people (westerners) in the surf) and a few sunbathers (westerners) on the beach.

Town is semi-touristy, in a rundown Indian fashion. Lots of street level action, and since the sidewalks are taken over by either businesses or parked motorcycles, all walking is done in the street amidst honking cycles and cars. Small farmers market, all veggie, most recognizable, with also stalls selling 4 or 5 varieties of bananas.

We start with a lecture on women roles in India vis-à-vis the caste system (it’s different for bottom than top), corruption, agriculture disruption by global forces, symbols, and Martin’s hints of his socialist political viewpoints. Actually quite informative and some good q&a.

Some of the learnings: seeing white and red colors in Hindu symbolizes semen and blood, corruption is ubiquitous in India and taken as the accepted state of affairs, women carry and men don’t (which is why we see women at construction sites carrying rocks or gravel on their heads),

Off to lunch, which is in a local veggie spot in town, family style. There are 4 levels of meals, we are at level 3. That’s 80 cents (yes, cents) and somehow the tour hasn’t sprung for the $1 (PER PERSON) lunch. Not to worry, the bigger concern is not the money, it’s that we are eating on banana leaves using only our right hand (no utensils, we’ve gone native). Starters are a naan and sweet square of something with chocolate on top. Then they give you seven little tubs to mix in with your rice, which is piled up on your leaf. Tubs include yogurt, diced peppercini-like greens, sambar, sort of a chutney, etc. Unlimited refills if you finish one of your little tubs. Unlimited rice if you finish. Of course, I finish my rice and a number of the tubs, having mastered getting the rice into balls and shoveling into my mouth, mostly by remembering my Chinese upbringing of bringing the food as close to my mouth as possible (in this case, dropping my mouth to the food rather than lifting the rice bowl up).

Who is at the biggest disadvantage? My (poor) HB, as you MUST eat with your right hand, the left historically being looked at as tainted and polluted. So, no utensils and right-handed shoveling.

We finish up with coffee with milk, the coffee comes in a little metal cup sitting in a large metal bowl, and our waiter proceeds to move the liquid back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, mixing up the contents. He’s a natural barista, and thus we finish with excellent moccachinos! There’s a sink right in the middle of the restaurant, everyone uses it by turning on faucet with their right hand and then rinsing off same. Fascinating…

Then to the rock carvings, the first two are again shockingly good, and we see them up close while Martin explains what it all means. Exceptional, worth the trip! I’m cutting this part short (DAMN! Finally…) because I can’t really describe them well in words. You have to see them (highly recommended) and they are terrific art, which is always hard to convey in words. Since they are three dimensional, even pictures don’t quite help (enough).

Aside: These pieces, especially the first two today which are about 10x15, are very upper end museum quality, so we should be thankful the Brits didn’t figure out how to get them out of the caves and move them to the British Museum. For a fleeting moment, I wondered how good would these look (okay, maybe only one of them) in the loft…really good! We’ve got the room, we love them, maybe in rupees we could afford them…damn, it must be the collector’s disease.

We spot a monkey, apparently we’re going to see many more on the trip, and also a large lime green parakeet (finally, the binocs are in hand when I need them). Looks like a large all-green SF wild parrot, I’m assured it is a parakeet.

We also visit a temple on the edge of town out by the water that is NOT carved out of one piece, it was done later (maybe 800 AD) than the rest of the local carvings, which are done in situ out of one massive solid piece of rock. It much more resembles what the Angkors copied 300-600 years later.

When we get hundreds of crows are flocking in and around the trees at the GRT Hotel. We put our hats back on to walk to the room, looking down we can tell we’re in a danger zone.

The rest of the tourists:
- One couple is from San Mateo
- One from our old neighborhood in Oakland
- Single woman from Rockridge
- One couple from Boulder
- One couple from Montana
- And, of course, Martin and Carol, our tour guides (I call Martin the leader and clearly he is much discomforted by the idea of leading anything)

Hmmmm…how much do I say in print, out to the entire blogosphere? Can I camouflage them somehow? Some of you know some of the people on the trip, so you know more than I do about them!

Okey dokey, maybe I will just make up random happenings and assume it is all fiction, you know it is fiction, and yet there has to be a kernel of truth in it somewhere, right?

We have a retired geologist/professor, retired cardiologist, retired dancer, retired management consultant, retired Levi’s guy, retired medical profession person, out-of-work camp administrator, manager of fire jumpers, and a couple of people I’m not sure what they did or are doing now.

We are doing a good job of mixing and matching at meals and on the bus. Generally the consultant and the ex-Levi’s guy take seats on the van behind each other in the row of single seats, though sometimes they sit together (this is VERY boring…not even really gossip).

We’re almost the youngest on the tour, the Montana couple have just recently become a couple and are clearly younger than we are and still working, one woman is still working and younger also, and I think most of the rest are now retired (though one couple I’m not sure about).

One of our fellow members is having stomach problems, so the remedies are springing up from all sides (there’s plenty of rice and bananas available, so my suggestion doesn’t have to be made). One brought lots of stuff (three suitcases full) which included food (like canned tuna fish), and is taking my good natured teasing well (and thinking I may come begging for some of the stash later). The leaders (oops, not camouflaged very well) are fascinating together, very easy going and yet since they have to keep us going they have to reach agreement on what’s next and there‘s always a bit of a negotiation. It does appear they are helping us all become Indian by keeping the agenda at such a high level we don’t know at what time anything occurs (or even what is next) until it is next up on the to-do list. I am enjoying this, makes it easier to listen to the lectures and not worry about time constraints.

The consultant and one other couple go off for massages. The consultant and the ex-Levi’s guy appear to be the only ones using the fitness centers (both so far have been excellent).

Dinner is same-same, buffet at the hotel…

Later, Ralph and MHB

Day 7 - Jan 13, From Mamallapuram to Chidambaram via Pondicherry

- Maybe real French bread today?
- Lunch upstairs
- Red Roof Hotel
- Going topless in the Temple or Dancing (semi-) naked with Shiva
- Dos y Dosa
- Notes from here and there

We set off around 8:30 to visit the French provincial town (more of a small city) of Pondicherry. It was originally French harbor city, the British razed it and the French rebuilt it in the late 1700s and then left India in 1954. Now it is mostly known in the west because of a “utopian” ashram run by The Mother (now dead) and the many buildings owned by the ashram painted dull grey and off-white. We visit the local museum where there are a number of bronze statues of Dancing Shiva and Martin gives another lecture. This turns out to be prophetic, well, only because I do not bother to read our itinerary…we’re visiting the most famous temple in India later today and of course it is the Dancing Shiva temple.

We see real sidewalks in Pondicherry, not that anyone uses them.

We stop at what looks to be a local bazaar, it is the front of a temple. At the entrance is a good sized elephant with a Jewish star on its forehead. Ganesh is the god of obstacles, and most often takes the form of an elephant. You pay homage to Ganesh to help you get around obstacles, and here that means giving the elephant some grass (conveniently sold in the stands in the bazaar) or some rupees. In exchange, the elephant touches the top of your head with his trunk. I am blessed by a Jewish elephant, something many in our family never saw happening.

For those of you now searching the internet to find out if elephant is trafe, slow down. The six pointed star is actually a representation of the male and female getting it on (overlapping triangles). For those of you jumping ahead for the topless/naked think, we’re not quite there yet.

Then we have a shopping excursion to a store selling Mother’s handicrafts, some quite nice, and a local bookstore selling spiritual related material (more noted by some for its stools and cool air).

Lunch is upstairs in another typical South Indian place, with the banana leaf and a number of accoutrements (more than we‘ve seen before, including something that looks like curry powder), plus we get fried fish cutlets. The revelation: a local specialty drink, it is from some type of orange we don’t see in US, and tastes just like an Orange Julius, including being foamy. Excellent! Lunch (I ask Carol) is about $4/person. We don’t see a French bakery anywhere and needless to say, lunch did not come with French bread OR naan, a major disappointment that we overcome by going across the street to Richie Rich’s Ice Cream Parlor: coffee crunch (think Blum’s or Edy’s) and green pista for MHB - pistachio that tasted a bit rose-like to me. And, one of tour spots Archie’s place as we are driving out of town.

Naked, didn’t he say he was going topless? Not yet…not yet!

Back on the road to Chidambaram, through rural agriculture and a number of large manufacturing plants of some sort, at least one smells rather foul as we drive by. There is much litter along the road in spots, much much litter.

We arrive at our hotel, out front is a shrine to Ganesh (it’s the day for elephants), including a rat watching the shrine (pic maybe to follow). A statue of a rat (though a real rat would’ve fit), the rat is one of the vehicles that Ganesh uses (between elephants and rats, all obstacles can be overcome). It’s easily the most downscale place we’ve stayed, we can’t figure out how to flush the toilet (turn a slick knob above the toilet that is camouflaged as a push button). There is no ledge to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom (not uncommon in the East), and the a/c goes at a loud roar (to drown out the street noise? Very effective!). Per the leader, this is the best place in town. Just another obstacle to overcome (I‘m in favor of using the elephant, want to keep the rat for dire emergencies).

Hot water is only available at certain times, one of which I am waiting for now while typing up notes…we’ll see, only a few minutes to go….a few minutes go by as I take my semi-warm shower…I do get naked…THIS IS NOT THE NAKED PART.

Off to the Temple, which is only a few blocks away and we drive, much hubbub in the streets and many snack shack places mixed in with normal commerce, Many people and vehicles roaming the streets. The Nataraja Temple is so famous that in all of India if you say you are going to the temple, this is the one. Nataraja is the name for Dancing Shiva. AHHHHH, now I remember the lecture in the museum (sorry, no I don’t, MHB reminds me this morning of the connection).

We take off our shoes and socks and leave with them a spot just outside the temple. Between us and the Temple is cowenploppen. Interesting location for the shoe locker place. Of course, we see a cow IN the temple, so it didn’t matter. Just outside the temple we meet our guide, one of the 380 (all male) priests who come from a small caste (intramarriage within caste, not between the families of the caste). His name: Ganesh (slight, tallish, overly large trunk, er, nose, glasses, about 25-30-ish). He is friends with Martin and Carol and this turns out to be great for us as we get access to areas of the Temple and services not normally granted to others and particularly not normally granted to non-Hindu westerners. He speaks English, even so Carol often translates for Martin.

Just inside, another elephant (apparently not Jewish or sexual, she’s missing the star), and we learn that most of the blessing elephants are female. I don’t tempt fate and pass up this blessing (or is it I tempted fate and passed it up? I better go ask my guru)

The Temple is made up of different layers, and the main service (power in hotel just went out, I’m typing off battery anyway, starting to think about using the rat), is in the inner sanctuary. The outside layer is a 30 foot granite base with carvings, topped by a seven story pyramid-like brick covered with stucco and plaster, with brightly painted figures on each story all the way to the top where there is a room/layer where priests and others can go and light candles and pray and look out over the city and Temple. The columns are painted white (semen) and red (menstrual blood).

There are six services a day, and the following description is kind of like trying to describe art, it won’t do it justice. We were in the service (I’m almost at the naked part), not just observers. A group of visitors congregates on a platform opposite the main sanctuary square. On our platform is another smaller shrine being attended by a priest doing ministrations. Across the “road” from us in the main shrine, priests are moving about with trays of flames, some quite large. At the same time, the large church bell starts ringing and a small rod with about 15 bells is being turned and the priests are chanting. Quite (VERY) magical and mystical. Goes on for 10 minutes or so, with a few solos, including one by what I assumed was a young priest (think bar mitzvah) and it turns out to be by a girl (think bat mitzvah). This is quite a recent innovation; discrimination is outlawed legally, it took several “suits” to grant women and other castes into the service (per Martin, many many people won’t enter the levels of sanctuaries that their caste was prevented from using as it goes against their “being” or knowledge of self).

After the chanting and bells stop, another 15 minutes of priests prepping the sanctuary, moving things around, more fire, etc. We then go down to an area opposite of the steps to the shrine, and Ganesh appears. NOW!! The men have to be bare-chested to go into the shrine, so we remove our shirts. Ganesh gives us a small folded paper with writing on it (…like the Wailing Wall?) filled with leaves and passes out snacks of nuts and rock sugar (Martin starts munching, so so do I). Then we each approach Ganesh who is holding a tray with candle and small leaves and tell him our name and zodiac sign (hmmmmm…you come here often?) and he says a prayer for us while we say a prayer of sorts for people or animals past or present (Bert and Babe and Kozi, you were prominently mentioned),

Then we ascend the steps to the sanctuary, and stand in line to see the bull statue, the room of emptiness (I can’t see it….I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!)\ and then look at the statue of Shiva in the middle of the back of the sanctuary. The statues are always very dark or black, from rubbing oils applied over the years, so I have a hard time seeing the statues, plus they are covered with flowers, mostly yellow.

We exit the sanctuary, a place where few westerners are allowed, and put our shirts back on (much relief, not one of the women comments on what a pretty sight it was to see a bunch of old western men half-naked, along with a bunch of Indian men half-naked).

Then Ganesh takes us up to viewing spots on the 2nd and 3rd levels. Now I know what happened to the lift-down ladder that used to be in our garage on Trestle Glen before we remodeled the garage. It has been reincarnated as the steep set of stairs between the two levels, complete with loose handrail. So, only 7 of the group make it to the next level, which is now open to the sky and very pretty with views of the two opposing pyramids and the candles and shadows in the observation levels (think Raiders of the Lost Tomb, or was it the Missing Ark?). We make donations to Ganesh, he’s done a great job leading us through the service and showing us around.

We exit the Temple, quite a thrill, even more thrilling is putting our shoes on. Back to the hotel for a late dinner of dosa, a large crepe filled (in this case) with potato. You top it with chutney and spicy salsa and pick up what you can and use a spoon to get the rest. More Orange Julius (mombasi). I want another dosa, but it is getting late and people are already heading upstairs to bed. So, those of us remaining have ice cream for dessert and I order chocolate, which comes as a scoop of vanilla with chocolate sauce poured on top. Wonder what the sundaes on the menu were? Martin orders extra sauce to put on his plain vanilla…

Miscellaneous notes:
  • Today, our driver was wearing an airplane pilot’s shirt complete with epaulets. Not sure what it meant though he drove like a jet fighter pilot. Picture may be posted at later date.
  • The roof of the Temple inner sanctuary (actually, two roofs side-by-side) are covered with 21,600 solid gold tiles and affixed with gold nails. Best question of the day: how did these get by the British and the French? Answer: hidden away…hmmmm…and supposedly 21.6k is the number of breaths in a day.
  • Priests can’t become priests until they are sexually active, so they marry very young, 15 or 16. We never see a teenage girl (almost never, can’t tell for sure), maybe they stay hidden until married.
  • There are three giant chariots (large stone wheels from 6-10 feet in diameter) outside the temple with some intricately carved large ringed pieces on top. During festivals, giant ropes are attached, more shrines/statues are placed on top and up to 5,000 people help pull them through the streets. Carol has participated, said it was quite a thrill.
  • In the very middle of the temple is a large gold column, so large it extends into the floor above. I thought this was a lingam, aka a penis or phallic symbol, that goes with Shiva (I believe). Next to it is a small yoni (looks like a lotus leaf), which represents the female receptacle for the lingam. These are often paired, and the lingam is often open with Dancing Shiva and others inside. Turns out the smaller more suggestively rounded "columns" are lingams! The tall gold columns are the axis of the earth (true?)
  • Ganesh was introduced to Martin and Carol by Curt, we would’ve thought it was the other way around. Curt has given Ganesh a mobile and access to the internet, these priests may look humble in their sarongs, they clearly are 21st century.
  • We see an occasional building under construction with an effigy, more a scarecrow, hanging from the scaffolding. This is to ward off the evil spirits (VERY Blair Witch Project, primitive) and is only seen on Hindu construction, never Christian or Muslim.

Time to get undressed for bed, MHB suggests maybe I wear a top tonight.

Ralph and MHB

Day 8 - Jan 14, Chidambaram

- One hot sexy babe
- Potters and boiling rice
- Walking the local market
- Lunch
- More Temple
- Dinner at home

I’ve stopped reporting the weather because it pretty much is always the same: low 80s in morning and evening, high 80s to low 90s during the day, very hot when in the sun, some overcast and high clouds in the morning and possibly late afternoon. Goal is always to stand in the shade. The van is air conditioned, so we get relief when traveling. Won’t bother mentioning it unless something dramatic happens. {NOTE: on day 9 it rained! So much for not bothering to mention the weather any more}

We start with a tour of another local temple, this one dedicated to Kali, who is represented as a very hot sexual goddess. She used to be in the Temple and one of the dynasties decided she was too hot for Dancing Shiva’s own good and removed her to her own temple down the street. One haunting image: a figure of the goddess about 3 feet high completely covered in red pigment (possibly cinnabar) and just dark dark black circles around the eyes showing. We get blessed with a large swath of the red, traditional pigment right on the forehead. We also learn that many of the gods and goddesses have other names, up to 1,000 in some cases. With 330 million gods/goddesses, and 1,000 names each, one of them must be named Ralph…I’ll do the research offline. Martin, what was the name of the rat again?

Then off to a village to watch a local potter, MHB quite excited to watch his technique, including having young female (his wife we presume) turn the wheel for him. Video taken, Evans you are in for a treat!

Down the road we stop to watch the traditional boiling over of the rice for Pongal, They are making pongal for pongal, which is. a one day festival marking some agricultural thankfulness. We watch, kids gather, we keep watching and adults gather, more watching and now just about 100 people are watching the westerners watch a small clay pot attempt to boil over. We leave, it appears that a watched rice pot never boils over.

Touring the market, we find the oranges that make the Orange Julius drink, they aren’t really eating oranges. We also try two local varieties of bananas, tangerines, and finally we come on an open snack stand where we get crispy somethings (20 for 25 cents), crunch vanilla cookies for 1 rupee each (2 cents) and mini-peanut brittle bars, 1 rupee each. Yours truly treats entire bus to crispys and brittle, someone else ponied up for cookies before I could get out my next 20 rupee bill.

Lunch is at a veggie banana leaf spot, not Carol and Martin’s first, second or third choice, because of pongal many places are closed. Novelty items: it came with a corn fritter which (DUH!) I liked a lot, and tapioca which was quite good when mixed with yogurt. It’s across the street from the hotel so we get to rest up until 4 and our next outing.

We rest up for a few hours and then head back to the Temple, meet up with Ganesh and tour the rest of the Temple, of which the highlights include seeing another statue of Shiva, one of Ganesh, and ceiling paintings in an open part of the temple which were done about 700 years ago in ochre based paint and have never been touched up and are spectacularly modern and pretty. Plus a farily large pool (really a small square lake) where priests and visitors bath, and a lingam is under the water (and never surfaces). We’re very happy we went back for a more thorough look.

Then we head to a dinner hosted by our local guide, Paneer, something arranged spontaneously. The dinner is in a Swiss friend’s house that Paneer has access to, and his sister-in-law and her 4th grade daughter serve while his wife is in the kitchen cooking. Most of the standard items except much better than we’re getting off the hotel buffets. We eat sitting on mats on the floor with banana leaves in front of us. Since I can’t really cross my legs nor get my mouth down to the leaf, I feel at a disadvantage and probably eat only 1.5 times the amount of everyone else. For dessert, we have pongal (the dish where we stood around waiting for the rice pot to boil over) and it is quite good.

The house! It is at the end of a cul-de-sac, empty lot across the street. It’s dark, so I can’t tell much about the neighborhood. Two bedrooms, a living room (where we eat), a kitchen and a bathroom (somewhere I assume, I don’t see it). Probably 800-900 sq feet, maybe a bit smaller. All the rooms are empty of furniture, nada, and bare floors. The living room has a set of shelves with pictures and a TV. We are sitting on the mats they roll out to sleep on. As we eat as a group, Paneer and his relatives do the serving, we do not eat together. Eating sequence: guests (that’s us), children, men, women. There is no alcohol, just bottled water and then chai with dessert. As we eat, more and more relatives filter in and hang out in the other three rooms. There is a 14 day old baby lying on a thin sheet under a colorful mosquito net in one of the bedrooms. More relatives filter in, by the time we’re done and leave, maybe 20-25 people. Quite the experience, totally unannounced by Martin and Carol until late that afternoon, and much appreciated by all.

Back early and need to be up early for an 8am departure.

Gossip: We’ve been doing a bit of research and think that only one couple is younger than us (that’s obvious, they are 47 and 49) and some are near our age and a bunch are older. Most everyone is always on time for our departures, There are five geminis on the trip, what does that mean? At least two sagitauri, and maybe I’m the only aquarius (it took me a few minutes to remember my sign, thank goodness I still have Hair on my I-pod).

Later, Ralph and MHB

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