Monday, 27 February 2012

Varanasi: Death, Life and the Whole Damn Hoopla

Two minutes into my first walk along the ghats a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man stopped in front of me smiling and said: "Gokarna.  Kudle Beach? You were always dancing on the beach at sunset."

"Yes.  Yes, I said.

We hadn't actually met, but had been there at the same time, and seen each other. And that made us part of a family. So it came to be that I spent the day with the very sweet and lovely Frederico from Rome.

"Yesterday I went to the burning ghat," he said, "and I didn't know what to think.  I saw a dog chewing on a human arm.  It was so strange and upsetting."

We were now at the "Burning Ghat. Smoke was billowing our way.  Women grabbed their saris and held the fabric over their nose and mouths.  We walked past piles of logs, discarded marigold flowers; we side-stepped piles of cow and buffalo shit and stepped up onto the landing just above the funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges.
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The air is thick with smoke.  Piles of smoldering logs cave in on themselves.  Men douse them with water from the river. Joss sticks send trails of incense  that merge with the smoke of the cremation fires.  The air reeks of cow and buffalo piss, incense, marigolds and roses.

One woman draped in a pale pink sheet lies on a bed of logs waiting for cremation.  Another woman covered in bright orange and gold wrapping, garlands of marigolds trailing over her body, rests on a palanquin by the edge of the Ganges.  Four men grab each of the poles and submerge her for the final ritual dip in the purifying water of the Holy River then pull her out. It's believed that being dipped into the holy waters of the Ganges after death brings deliverance from Moksha, the cycle of reincarnation.
One man takes her by the shoulders while another man lifts her by her feet and place her upon the pile of logs. The ornate orange and gold wrapper is removed and she lies in a green and red sari upon her funeral pyre.

The attendants adjust her body, pulling her head more center, her feet closer together; pushing an arm up against her side, pulling her torso a little more toward the middle of the pyre.

These are dead bodies that are being lifted and shifted and prodded in place over those logs.  Those women were once mothers and wives, someone's friends and confidants.  Now they're dead and about to evaporate into smoke and ash and gristle. 

Meanwhile two men with shaved heads (usually the eldest male child) walk into the Ganges and anoint themselves with the water, then wrap clean dhotis around their waists.  They are each handed a burning bundle of long twigs.  They circle the body of their loved one and when the flames get too close to their hands, a new bundle is thrust into their hands and exchanged for the burnt one.  Seven times they circle the body and finally lay a fresh bundle of burning twigs in the space between the bottom logs under the dead women.

A huge pile of logs is stacked under and on top of  the red and green saried women.  Clearly she is from a wealthy family that can afford to pay.  The other woman rests on a small stack of wood with only one thick log atop her body.  The rich woman has twenty-six men attending the cremation.  The poor one only two.

The attendant squeezes copious amounts of ghee over the rich woman's body and logs, throws handfuls of some amber-colored powder all over the logs and the body..  When the shaven-headed man lays the burning twigs below her, the dry logs quickly ignite, flames rising up.  But the poor woman's logs refuse to ignite. Over and over the attendant places more bundles of twigs below, but to no avail.  As flames consume the rich women, the poor woman lies with her pale pink shroud burnt away, revealing her slightly scorched body.

A strange scenario goes through my head.  I can hear the voice of the poor woman's soul lamenting to her husband:  "Can't you ever get anything right?  The same story all my life.  Never enough.  Always a ruppee short.  All my life there was never enough money for anything to be done properly.  And now you've even screwed up my funeral!"

I know she's dead and yet I feel this awful pain and humiliation for her.  As twenty-six men squat before the massive flames of the rich women, two men grumble to the cremation attendants about the poor woman's lack of fire as her blackened body lies exposed and vulnerable.

And as this drama plays out before the banks of the Holy Ganges River cows munch away at the wreaths of discarded marigolds.  One black goat attempts to hump a white goat.  Semi-wild pai dogs play out their alpha and submissive roles; the alpha males snarl and bark and the submissives whine and yelp.  Scrawny dirty children walk up to foreigners with their hands out asking for "Candy?"  "Money?"  Behind Frederico, myself and other onlookers to this spectacle a group of men play cards and gamble.  Water buffalo walk out of the water and up the steps of the ghat pissing yellow streams of hot piss. Young boys play cricket, the occasional "whack" when one of their flat wooden boards connects with the ball.  Men lather their hair and body, naked but for a small pair of briefs.  Boats cross the river.  Motor boats and row boats.  Women scrub clothes on the rocks.  Men swing their wet wash overhead in a arc, a loud "Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!" as the wet cloth hits the washing rock.  

A boy clangs the temple bell over and over, men beat drums, clang cymbals,speakers from the next Ghat blare recorded music.

Smoke billows from the massive flames of the rich women's cremation.  And the smoke pouring up out of the fire, the smoke blowing toward me, the smoke I'm unsuccessfully trying to filter out by holding my shawl over my mouth and nose like the Indian women, the smoke that still filters through--that smoke is the smoke of a women's burning flesh and bone and tendon and heart and spleen and brain and a million experiences.

She's dead and burning while goats copulate and street urchins beg for candy and that's just how it is.  Life ebbs and flows, dances and pirouettes, flames and sputters and coughs and ends while new life careens on its own wild course in a never-ending mad chaos.

And in India it's all out in the open, before your eyes.  It's in your nose and ears and in the dust that coats your skin.  And who knows?  Maybe Madame Bizarro and Space Baba engaged in conversation at the Happy Banana Cafe in Arambol were right--maybe we do suck up the molecules of every new place--the smoke of that burning corpse seeping into my pores.  And maybe her unrealized dreams might be manifested in my life.

And it all reminds me to LIVE LIVE LIVE because you never know when it might end.


Friday, 24 February 2012

the kindness of strangers

I wondered what i would do when my plane landed in delhi.  i had read accounts of people exiting the airport, being barraged by so many aggressive taxi rivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, bicycle-rickshaw drivers, touts, hotel owners and guesthouse owners, that they ran back into the airport and booked the first plane back home.

I knew enough to know i could find a pre-paid taxi stand and get a ticket and deal with asserting myself into a taxi amidst the hullabaloo.  the huge question was: where would i pre-pay the taxi to go?

i had roughly six and a half hours between the landing of my plane and the departure of my train.  plus, the train was not the convenient northern train station from the old bazaar area of delhi, but the new station for eastward bound trains that was created across the river and far from any tourist attractions.

"i have always depended on the kindness of strangers," said Blanche DuBois.

i could say the same, but under happier circumstances.

Yael beckoned to me at the Goa plane station.  "Would you watch my bag while i go to the toilet," she asked me as I slowly walked around the small waiting room munching on a samosa.

"Of course," i said and when she returned, she sat down next to me and suddenly we were talking like old friends.

It's like that with some people.  You meet them and it's instant soul to soul communication.

She asked where I was going and when I explained my situation, she immediately invited me to come with her.

"Listen," she said, "I'm going to take a pre-paid taxi to the Bazaar District and take a room.  You can come with me, drop your pack in my room and then we can have some lunch and wander around a bit.  Would you like to do that?"

And so it was.  Our conversation deepened.  Yael told me about how her life was changing.  How meeting up with a French Buddhist and going to Bodhgaya where Prince Siddartha Gautama sat under the Bodhi tree and reached enlightenment had opened her eyes and heart and mind.  She planned to return to Israel and change many things.

She insisted on treating me to lunch.  We talked and shared our lives; walked through tiny alleys in the bazaar, past barbers, hotels, metal workers pounding on long rods, tailors pumping their legs on treadle sewing machines, and emerged into sunlit chaos.

We went back to her room, I picked up my pack and headed to the metro that goes to Anand Bihar Train Station filled with love for a wonderful new friend.

Monday, 20 February 2012

13 grandmothers and one ex-hog farmer

At sunset drum circle, while sipping water in a pause in the wild orgiastic dancing to the beating of many djimbes, darbukas, bendirs, and other percussion instruments, my friend Joke from Sweden (pronounced Yoka) asked me if I'd like to join her for a showing of a film about the "13 Grandmothers."

"I met one woman this afternoon and she invited me to her home to see this film.  You know about the 13 grandmothers?  You know, these healers who came together to try and save the earth," she asked me.

I had heard of them.  Going to someone's home in the fields behind the sea to watch a film about these 13 grandmothers seemed like it could be an interesting adventure, and so I agreed.

Joke guided me off the beach, back through some lane, across a field, along a narrow path between two stone walls, past a five-foot high white, wooden cross to some woman's home.

"Hi.  Welcome," said the woman of the home with a slight French accent peppering her English.  "My name's Gypsy."

Gypsy, a woman in her late sixties with piercing light brown eyes, had a short tie-dyed yellow and white fringed sarong wrapped around her waist and wore a rainbow-colored, loose knitted pull-over.

"This is my son, Neptune," she said and a lovely young man with blond hair and blue eyes shook hands with us.

The usual "where are you from?" back and forth parlay ensued.

Gypsy had been born in France.  "I spent a lot of time in the U.S., though,"she said.  "Mostly north of San Francisco."

"Where exactly," I asked.

"You know Laytonville?"

The town of Laytonville and the name "Gypsy" stirred some foggy past images.

"Yeah," she said.  "I used to live on the Hog Farm with Wavy Gravy," she added.

I leapt to my feet and threw my arms around her.

She was part of what is the longest-running continuing commune in the world, started and run by activist/clown Wavy Gravy who was involved with the organization of Woodstock and other concerts.  My old friend Marion the fruitarian was involved with them and when Gypsy gave me her card for her ethnic clothes shop in Laytonvillle I suddenly had a vivid recollection of stopping there on one of my peregrinations through the area North of San Francisco.

We watched the film about the 13 grandmothers on Neptune's computer.  It's an amazing account of the 13 healing women who came together and shared their visions and dreams.

Ah yes, another night in India.  

Breakfast at the Happy Banana Cafe or Madame Bizarro meets Space Baba

one of the many walls covered with flyers
How to describe Arambol.
To start: Arambol sits at the northern tip of Goa's beaches.  Part Russian beach playground--many menus, flyers and signs In English and Russian; part hippy haven. Flyers for every kind of yoga--hatha, kundalini, himalayan, vipassana, acro-yoga and tantric; meditation sessions; tribal belly dance; fire stick twirling lessons; reiki workshops; ayervedic massage and medicine; tibetan massage and re-birthing are taped, tacked and stuck on walls all over town.   And every evening at sunset hundreds of people gather at Magic Park in front of the Full Moon Cafe where drums are beaten, flutes are fluted, trumpets tooted, jews harps twanged and it's easy to believe you're in a  "Be-In" scene from a film about the 1960s taking place in the Haight-Ashbury.

Morning I shuffle along the main street as Indians set out their clothes, bangles, carved Ganeshes, drums, wooden flutes and other goods.  My destination: the Happy Banana Cafe.

The tiny shack is stuffed with hippies; old and neo.  I order my fresh pineapple juice and fruit salad, muesli, curd, honey and squeeze onto the bench next to a middle-aged, totally alternative woman.  Her orange-hennaed hair is pulled back from her face in a pony-tail of skimpy dread locks.

"Yeah," she says in a loud New York accent to the guy sitting across from her," My dreads are just breaking off from the radiation.  I've been living seven years in Japan now. I think it's time to move."

"Wow," says the guy. "Me too. See how short these dreads in the front of my head are?" He flips his front dreads up from where they hang across his forehead.  "Not like these." He grabs a handful of the massive dreads dangling down his naked back.

He is a skinny bare-chested man in floppy black knee-length shorts, dark sunglasses and mangy beard and mustache.

"Yeah, you know you pick up the DNA from the molecules of the air where you are," the man continues.  His voice is loud, his long skinny arms gesticulate.  "I've lived in India one year.  Just think how much Indian DNA is in me now," he says.

"I've lived in Japan for seven years now, so I've really picked up too much Japanese DNA.  But really in India, you think you're tan, but really you're just covered in dust.  And it creeps into your pores and you absorb the dust of India and it transforms you."

"Yeah. Yeah," the guy agrees with enthusiasm. He bends his skinny body over his crossed legs and leans towards her.  "You know every seven years our body's molecules completely change."

"Yes, it's true," she agrees loudly trying to make herself heard over the din of voices in the tiny shack. "Every seven years all of our molecules become a whole new set of molecules.  And if yo're like me living in India, Japan, Guatemala--you take all these different molecules in and become something else completely."

"Hey, yeah, that's so true," the guy says straightening up and tossing some stray dreads over his shoulder.  "Say, what's your name, mate?"

"I'm Madame Bizarro," she says.  "And you?"

"Hey man, I'm Space Baba."

"So, pleased to meet you," Madame Bizarro says to Space Baba.  "Are ya stayin' here in Arambol long?"

"Well, I"m waitin' for this girl.  I kinda have this girlfriend.  She's gone for a few weeks but she's comin' back next week.  So I gotta see what happens when she gets back.  But she's so sweet, I don't know what to do."

"Whaddya mean," asks Madame Bizarro.  "What's there to do?  Do you like her?"  Suddenly she seems like a character out of a Woody Allen film in some Woody Allenesque relationship dialogue only instead of taking place in a hip New York cafe, this conversation has moved to Arambol.

The sweet Eveline, a Swedish woman I had met the night before, enters, orders and sits.  I join her and after breakfast we make our way to the sea.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

sunset jams, strange apparitions, and red-toothed friends

Back in paradise.  Blazing sunsets.  Crimson-tinted waves.  Music jams in the afterglow.  1 Frenchman on guitar.  1 Italian on guitar.  1 Israeli on djimbe drum.  1 Turk playing violin.  1 German playing flute.  2 Indians beating drums.  1 Swede whistling.  And me dancing dancing dancing before the sea.  Into the darkening night.  Under the twinkle of Orion and Cassiopia.  And when it gets too dark I sit in the circle and scat.  Do "do wop" back-up singing as the Italian or Frenchman sings. Sometimes wha wha whaing like a trombone.  No electricity.  1 candle in the middle of the circle illuminating us in our divine musical cavorting.

Three mornings ago climbing up the rocky path from the beach to hillside, I heard a whip crack.  I looked up and blocking my way stood a young, bare-chested boy.  A red sarong was draped around his waist.  His was painted in red, white, and gold patterns.  Behind sat a box with a leering demon face on its front also painted in black, red and gold.  The boy grimaced fiercely, cracked his braided leather whip.  His eyes bulged in his black face.  "Money!" he demanded cracking his whip twice. 

I scurried up the path away from this demon boy. 

Later when I asked other people if they had encountered the demon boy, they looked at me strangely and murmured, "No."

Was he an apparition?

New friends
But yesterday, as I climbed up and over the hill to town, four women giggled and said, "Hello Madame."
Their lips and teeth were red from chewing betel/pan.

"Where are from?  You walk with us?"

So we walked up and over the hill, along the hot dusty plateau and into town together.

No demon boys bothered us.   

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mammallapurum to Mangalore: part II

After my two seconds of biryani container hurling stardom, I returned to my former spot in the train.  My biryani hurling coach sat down next to me and began hurling questions at me faster than I could hurl a biryani container. It was the usual round of inquiries: Where you from?  Why you come to India? How do you like India?
When I told him I was from the U.S., he gave the response I've come to expect: A wide-eyed and exuberant "Oh, very good, Madame."
I turned the question game on him. "And you, if you could live anywhere--where would you like to live?"
Without hesitation he answered: "I'd like to be a rich man in Kerala."
After fifteen minutes of his inexhaustive questioning I tried to stifle a yawn as the the cooling breezes of India's darkening skies came rushing in through the metal slats of the open window and shadowy rice paddies and villages zoomed past.  But my sensitive new friend immediately said, "Ah, Madame must be tired."  He got up and lay down head to toe next to his mother on the lower berth of the aisle seats.

The Man in White sitting at the aisle end of my berth then removed his carpet bag that lay between us on the faded blue bench,set it down on the floor, and indicated through hand gestures that I could extend my legs--perhaps even put them on his lap?  Not in the habit of of putting my feet on the laps of strange men, I lay on my side in a fetal position and half-dozed for an hour until the Men in White rose, collected their carpet bags, and exited the train.

The little India man across from me now lifted the padded, faded-blue back rest, attached a chain to either end from the upper berth, creating the middle tier of our three-tier, non AC car.

"It's best to do this now, " he said, "because people will come later on and will have to disturb you to make their bed.  This way you won't be disturbed."

"Yes, that's a good idea, " I said, and he immediately lifted my back rest, chained it up, and with a gracious smile wished me a "Good night, Madame."

However, "undisturbed sleep" was not about to grace my night.  The "Big" family made sure of that.

The "Big" family were big in numbers and size; hefty by India standards.  They first stood in the aisle shouting and when I lifted my groggy head to see what all the fuss was about, they stood there staring at me accusingly,  In my half-consciousness all I could think to do in response was to smile and wave.  They returned neither the smile or the wave,  When the sleeping Indian man opposite me finally woke up and looked at them, the largest of them--a man of an award-winning girth charged at him and began speaking rapidly.

Smiling graciously, the little Indian man took his bags, tossed them up to the middle berth on his side, climbed up, covered himself with his yellow daisy- patterned sheet, turned his back to us, and went to sleep.

A mother and small baby lay down in his vacated place and she began nursing the crying baby whose whimpers instantly changed to slurps and gurgles.  Then a debate began for who should be the lucky person installed in the berth above me.

"Please.  Please," I silently prayed, "don't let it be the Big Mr. Big."  Visions of Mr. Big, cradle and all collapsing. slamming down on me, and rendering me a cartoon pancake slipped through my sleep-deprived mind. 

Meanwhile, standing directly in front of me, between me and the nursing mother, a young girl of about eight, dressed in an orange and black sequined outfit  proceeded to jump up and down, put her foot up on my berth and try to leap onto the middle one above me, like some kind  of bizarre bobbing halloween hallucination.  Squealing and whining in what I assumed where pleas to be allowed access to the berth, she and one beefy woman were finally assisted in attaining the lofty heights of the middle tier, non AC berth above me.   Following this another big woman came and stood between the two berths alternately talking to the nursing mother opposite me and the beefy woman and little girl above me.

Big Mr. Big came and went, came and went strutting back and forth, brows knitted, looking very serious and self-important in his role of looking after all the Big Family.  Clearly, he was the man in charge of everything.

Then a big man who looked like Big Mr. Big's younger and slightly less big brother was allotted the highest tier on my side.  With a heave and a grunt, he grabbed onto the top rung of the ladder on the aisle, placed one massive bare foot on the first rung, his other foot on the middle berth of the mother and university son's berth, and hurled his bulk onto the top berth as I held my breath and hoped it would hold.

Thank goodness, one time good old Indian construction stood the test of use.

Finally, everyone was ensconced in a berth somewhere and silence and peace drifted over the non AC, 3-tier, sleeping car.

For a short time.

Sometime before dawn, The Big Family rose, collected one another and their belongings and amid more shouting eventually departed.

I fell into a half-sleep --the lurches and jolts of the train interrupting any real sleep; the smells of urine-saturated train tracks and occasionally as the train strained its way over the mountainous Western Ghats,  a smell my mind classified in its drowsiness as engine "sweat"-- an acrid, stinging odor--unsettled me and drove away sleep.

At sunrise, the mother and university son rose and exited the train and the little India man opposite me, rose, restored his middle berth to the back rest of the lower berth, ran his slight hands through his hair and beard, gathered his belongings, and left.

Alone, I got up, unchained the middle berth and lowered it; called to the first milk tea hawker, sipped my sweet milky tea and watched the back waters float by like bollywood backdrops past my window.

The train pulled into Mangalore at 9:30 am.  A sixteen and a half hour journey.  I hauled a rickshaw, went to the bus station, and boarded a local bus to Kumta.  Five hours later, I got up, jumped into a bus that was about to depart for Gokarna and one hour later I was at last back to Gokarna.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Mammallapurum to Mangalore: Part I

At 1 pm I heaved my backpack onto my back and strode through the main tourist street of Mammallapurum past the shops selling ali baba pants, embroidered shirts of the thinnest cotton, mirrored sling bags, and all varieties of hand-carved trinkets from palm-sized to big enough to fill a palace.  I turned left at the major intersection and made my way to the cement slab of a bus stand.

Then the fun and games started.

"Trivanmiyor," I said to a man standing by an empty bus, and pulled out the slip of paper on which I had someone write it out in Tamil.  He waggled his head from side to side which I was just beginning to conclude signified an affirmative, but the waiving of his hand toward the other end of the urine-saturated bus lot led me to believe he was telling me  "No."

Another man, an older man with close-cropped gray hair and a bushy mustache quickly shuffled over to me and began speaking a language I thought may have been English, but sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.  He repeated a word which I thought may have actually been the name of the town I was heading toward, and insistently pointed to the bus on his left.

"Thank you," I said looking around and finally spotting the "Enquiries" booth.  Three officials in khaki-green uniforms and pan-reddened lips and teeth stood around laughing and talking and spitting red pan juice onto the red-spotted earth.  One finally motioned to me.  I told him I wanted a bus to Trivanmiyor.  He leafed through a wel thumbed-through list of time schedules and told me to take the #559 at the corner.

Meanwhile my diligent caretaker had followed me over and seemed very agitated at this piece of information given to me.  With authority he spoke to the official who had told me to take the #559.  The official looked up at the gray-haired man, consulted his two colleagues and said: "Take this bus.  (The one originally indicated by the gray-haired man.) It leaves in fifteen minutes."

The gray-haired man trailed me over to the bus and continued with seemingly the very best of intentions to try and impart further instructions in a garble of unintelligible jabber

"Thank you. Thank you," I said as I heaved myself and my pack up the incredibly steep first step of the bus.

The bus filled and in fifteen minutes it pulled out from the original spot but then was ordered to stop next to the another bus at the main street.  The bare-foot bus driver pulled both his legs up onto the seat and sat cross-legged until one man in charge blew his whistle and we were off with a lurch and bounce and a jostling of passengers.

For two and a half hours I rode in relative comfort sharing my seat with only one lady as was the intention for this small two-person seat, but which in the past has had to seat three.  I got off at Trivanmiyor and stood among a mob of waiting passengers on a busy inner-city street corner.

When th A1 bus to Chennai Central Railroad Station arrived, passengers hurled themselves in the open side door.  I should have been suspicious about why nobody sat on the slightly raised seat just inside the back door of the bus, but it was the perfect height to slip my backpack onto while I perched on its edge.  Male passengers looked over at me, but then again most of the time I'm the only non-Indian riding local busses and tend to get a lot of curious lookers.

The ticket seller took my money, handed me my print-out, said nothing, and blew his shrill whistle two times indicating that the driver could take off.

At each stop more and more people jammed into the bus and suddenly the ticket taker motioned impatiently for me to get the hell out of HIS seat.  I swung my pack off the seat and squeezed it through the crowd onto the floor of the bus where its padded waist belt straps sprawled out like huge crab claws across the feet of the standing passengers.  Everybody leaving had to step over it.  Everybody entering had to step over it.  Everybody leaving and entering looked from it to me and back again several times as I smiled apologetically and repeatedly made redundant efforts to do something to alleviate its intrusion.

Finally "Central!  Central!" was called out by the ticket taker.  I lifted my scuffed and foot-printed pack and made my way into the railway terminal.

My train- The Chennai-Mangalore Express" was listed as "on time," which was a great relief as in my last sleeper train experience two years ago, my train from Margao to Kochi was delayed six hours, stranding me in the "Good Ladies Special Waiting Room" where I sat among the mothers and children and watched a group of good ladies play charades.

The Chennai-Mangalore Express slowly chugged onto platform 3 at 4:30pm.  I reread the car and berth number on my print-out but had to ask a young man which car to board.  With smiling good manners he showed me to my car, wished me a "Pleasant journey, Madame," and I heaved myself and my pack up the steep narrow steps and into the train.

I found #57 while Indian families rushed aboard as if finding their seat was a competitive sport.  A short, thin Indian man with a short-cropped beard and mustache, kind black eyes, a plaid button-down shirt, and brown trousers sat by the window with three iron bars across it on the faded-blue seat across from #57. I showed him my ticket and he gently assured me I was in the right place--the non-AC, 3 tier sleeping car, seat 57, lower berth.

Next, two men in dazzling white came and sat down on the end of our benches, across from each other.  Attired identically they wore pure white linen short-sleeved button-down shirts, ironed with a crisp crease across the sleeves, and bleached to an eye-searing whiteness.  They both wore slightly less white longyis--an ankle-length sarong wrapped around their waists.  Both were white-haired, their hair cropped short.  Serious men, they spoke little and spent a good deal of time gazing down at their thick hands that lay on their white-draped laps, fingertips touching.

Then a mother and university son sat opposite each other, between me and Mr. White and the little Indian man and the other Mr. White on the faded blue benches.

Meanwhile Indian families strode through, looked at numbers on the wall, looked at us, shouted, questioned, and moved on as hawkers sallied through announcing their goods: children's books, toys. games. bottled soft drinks.  Canisters of sweet milky tea and coffee were carried through and touted.  Women beggars, babies astride one hip came through making the universal gesture for food: fingers and thumb pressed together, their hand going to and from their mouths.

A loud "thunk," a lurch and at precisely 5 pm the train groaned in the first chug of its sixteen hour haul across Southern India.

Several hours later, when the "biryani" man made his appearance in our car yelling: "Biryani! Biryani! Veg! Chicken!" he was welcomed with orders from all of us.

One by one as my fellow passengers finished their meal, they left their seats carrying their aluminum and cardboard biryani containers with them and returned empty-handed, wiping their mouths.  When I had eaten all I could, I too got up and walked in the same direction.  Below the sink, where in other trains there had been a a trash container, there was only empty space.  I walked through to the next car but it also lacked a trash receptacle.  I cautiously opened the latch to the "Western Toilet," and found only a western toilet and a sink.  I did the same to the door merely marked "Toilet," and saw only a hole in the floor of the train with two metal runged foot slots on either side and a sink.

I stood holding my biryani container staring around in bewilderment when the university son came up to me.

"What is wrong, Madame," he asked.
"I can't find a place to throw this, " I said holding up my biryani container.
He looked all the places where I had already looked and found the same thing I found.  There were no trash receptacles.
"Usually there is a place under the sink, but this train hasn't got one," he said.
I continued to stand, biryani container in hand.
"You must throw it out the door," he said.
I looked at him in dismay.
"Yes, Madame.  No other way.  Just do it, Madame." He was starting to sound like a Nike ad.
Still I held back from littering and adding more rubbish to India's piles of trash.
"Madame, you can do it," he urged me.  "Throw, Madame, throw!"

I suddenly felt infused with his eager encouragement.  It had become an Olympic event, and I could do it!  My companion was urging me on to new heights.
"Throw, Madame, throw!:"
In a burst of enthusiasm I hurled the biryani container out the open door of the chugging train watching its aluminum catch the moonlight and momentarily shine like a hurled discus riding the wind.

"Very good, Madame," my companion commended my sterling effort at littering.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Culture Shock!

When I first kicked off my sandals, walked up the flight of stairs and entered the German Bakery in Thiruvannammalai, I thought I had accidentally interrupted a meditation session.  Everyone's back was to me as people sat gazing at holy Mt. Arunachala.  Soothing Indian mantras played over the sound system.  "Om shanti om shanti om shanti om."  From the terrace of the guesthouse opposite a man in a red loin cloth did yoga. And all the people adorned in varying arrangements of soft Indian clothing soaked in the holiness of the holy mountain. 

After 2 weeks of soaking up all the spirituality of Tiru (or Guru Junction as I like to call it), I was pretty much saturated with goodness and light and decided to hit the road.  Mammallapurum, is like Tiru, an enclave of foreigners, but with some major differences.  Mammallapurum is touted to be an "artists's colony.  Indeed, everywhere in the tiny town you can hear the tuk tuk tuk of hammers hitting stone as men fashion carvings, sculptures large and tiny.  Ganeshes and Hanumans, Shivas and Lakshmis.   

In search of some coffee, I entered the German Bakery in Mammallapurum.  I sat down at an outside table. First shock: pounding bass and driving unaltering beat of drum machines. A rapper spits out the lovely lyrics: "Hey bitch, I wanna slap yo mother-fuckin ass."  And all the tourists are clad not in flowing saffron sarongs, ali baba pants and draped shawls.  No.  They're wearing normal western wear.

I think it's time to return to Gokarna and rejoin my lost tribe.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

from Thiruvannamalai to Pondicherry India

Hawkers enter the public bus displaying their goods, shouting out the name of their edibles: samosas, bagged sweets, deep fried lentil puffs; urging the passengers to buy trinkets or charms of one of the 330 million Hindu deities.  I'm the only non-Indian in the bus. Many eyes scan me with curiosity. 

As I turn to see what all the hawkers are yelling about, a young man whose face and upper body are painted with red and white circles enters the bus.  A thin stick seems to magically protrude vertically in front of him.  But how?

Then I see. The stick (about four feet long)goes through the middle of his tongue. He moves his swollen tongue and the stick moves slightly forward and back.

The bus driver and and the first row of passengers (all male) watch me watching this man.  They laugh and look back and forth from me to the boy.  I'm sitting in the very front seat: a single seat on the opposite side of the engine from the driver.  Suitcases, bags of grain, luggage, wrapped parcels lean against the engine creating an island of goods separating me from the rest of the bus.  Stick-tongue boy moves toward me, but can't reach me.  The driver and first row of men yell to him.  He walks out of the bus and stands outside my window thrusting a gold-wrapped box toward me. 

I sort through my wallet, find a 5 rupee coin, reach through the horizontal metal slats of the window and drop the coin through the slot in the top of his box. The bus driver and front row men smile, nod, laugh.

The driver starts the engine and we begin the three hour ride.

Villages, rice fields, hills made up of boulders stacked one upon the other zoom past.  Rice fields of life-screaming-affirmation yellow-green. Yaks pulling carts stacked with cotton bags stuffed with goods.  Trucks piled with loads of twigs and branches strapped down and fanning out over their sides. 

A motorbike man almost eclipsed by the panoply of multi-colored plastic goods tied onto his bike put-puts by.

The bus rattles and bounces along the pot-holed two-lane blacktop road.  My head swirls with ecstatic prose: rhapsodies to the beauty of India's countryside and people.  My pulse beats to the rhythm of the engine. I sing a song of silent words in praise of life.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Arunachaleswar Temple, Thiruvannamalai, India

I walk along the dusty main street into town, dodging cows and calves, side-stepping cow patties, weaving my way around rickshaws, and arrive at the Arunachaleswar Temple.  Four large gopurams occupy four cardinal points in this complex.  Hindu pilgrims come here to worship Lord Shiva, who appeared as a column of fire atop Mount Arunachala which rises  behind the temples highest gopuram.

Darshan (ritual prayers) are underway when I arrive.  A group of about forty bare-chested men clang finger cymbals, tambourines and beat drums as they chant.  Their upper bodies gleam with coconut oil.  Intense jade-green sarongs are wrapped around their waists.  Sandalwood beads strung around their necks. Framing them on either side are groups of female pilgrims dressed in flaming-red saris, garlands of flowers--jasmine, marigolds and roses woven into their thick black braids. 

Other pilgrims are dressed all in white.  Some men with shaven heads anointed in a yellow paste. 

At noon bells clang, drums beat, voices raise in a repetitive, two-syllable cry as the faithful offer their prayers to Shiva.

Some red-clothed children in the serpentine line to enter the temple spot me as I sit and write on the marble steps of the sheltered arcade opposite.  I smile and wave.  They cover their mouths and giggle, wave back.  I wave again and they wave harder.  A group of the youngest skip in my direction, then scurry away in a fit of shyness.s  They make more tentative forays and retreats waving and grinning.  Finally a mother and six children all attired in flaming red walk over to me, the littlest children hiding behind the mother's sari.

"Thank you, hello," they say. giggling.
"Hello, thank you," I return.
We continue about five rounds of this.
The mother says, "I mother," points to man now walking towards us, "He husband."
I shake the soft Indian hand shake with all of them.
"This my son, my daughter," the husband says.  "Other - my brother's children.  We are two families."
"Nice to meet you," I say.
"Nice to meet you," echo all the family members.
"What is your good name, Madame," asks the father.
"Diane," I answer.
"Diane. Diane. Diane." echo the family.
"We take photo?" The husband points to family and me.
"Oh," I say, "I thought no photos were allowed in the temple.
"Yes.  Yes.  Sorry.  You are correct.  I forgot.," he says.

Bells clang.
They all turn to see where the rest of their family is in the queue, then turn back to me, raise their hands to their faces, say: "Nameste," and scurry off.

I lean back against the pillar, appreciate the cool breeze, and study the reliefs of melon-breasted women, flowers and elephants etched into the columns.