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Published: December 24th 2015
Getting ready for a new paint job.
It's those moments of connection, confusion, or understanding that I relish when I travel. My ultimate joy is laughing with people. The following are moments that I treasure as I continue my journey in India:
The Arunachaleshwar Temple in Tiruvanammalai is an important destination for pilgrims from all over India. I visited several times. One evening it was crawling with pilgrims, men shirtless and wearing black dhotis, women in red and yellow full-of-shakti-energy saris--all creating a striking contrast with the stone walls and the giant gopurams, or towers, at the temple's entrances. It was the new moon, an auspicious time to visit and pray to the Shiva deities dwelling deep within the inner sanctum spaces.
I joined the clamoring crowd, and was ushered by a river of people to a long table of tiny pots of burning ghee. A woman grabbed me and gathered some unlit pots, placed them on the table, indicated I was to light them, and held out her hand until I filled it with 20 rupees. I duly lit the candles, surrounded by other young women doing the same.
I was later told that unmarried or childless women go to this
Filled to the brim, nose running, happy!
Waiter wanted my Facebook address.
place to light the ghee, hoping to be blessed with a good husband and children. We shall see if I am so blessed--having a child would be a true miracle, and acquiring a husband would be just as miraculous!
I always learn a few words in the local language when I travel. I have an advantage with Tamil, because I remember some from my student days in Tamil Nadu 40 years ago.
But I also found that speaking Tamil can lead to misunderstanding. In Tiruvanammalai, I said a few words to an auto rickshaw driver, and immediately became fluent to his mind. He chatted away. I couldn't hear because of the motor noise, and I kept saying I didn't understand but he couldn't hear me. On arrival at my guest house, he smiled and gave me his phone number--I thought in case I wanted to use him again. Soon after I returned to my room, Durga of the guest house knocked on my door and said the rickshaw driver wanted to give me something, and did I know him? No, I said, I just hired him. I thought it was kind of weird he was calling
Devotees with Nandi
At Arunachaleswarar temple, Tiruvannamalai
me back, so I asked Durga to speak with him. Later she told me that he wanted to give me an invitation to his wedding. He insisted that I had told him I would attend!
On Funny Drivers
Muthu drove me from Mamallapuram to a lovely bird sanctuary, then the next day to Tiruvanamalai, then on to Madurai. So we were together for many hours. I enjoy asking local people questions about their lives. Muthu was my captive as I sat next to him in the front seat, and he answered my probing questions with poise and frankness. He told me about his arranged marriage to his 15 year old niece, stopping school at age 12 and "working" by selling peanuts as directed by his father.
"Do you feel anger toward your father for making you work at age 12?" I asked.
"If he hadn't done that, I never would have met you and other tourists," he replied.
He babies his car--his first, purchased two years ago. He is constantly cleaning it, and even put newspaper on top of the mat in the front seat so I would not get the mat dirty! I told
Arunachaleswarar Temple in Tiruvanammalai
Massive gopurams seen from the Arunachala mountain.
him he needed to name his car. He laughed at the suggestion, but I told him travelers would like that. I suggested "Jasmine Mobile" because he likes to hang fresh jasmine from the rear view mirror, which gives the car a heavenly smell. He modified that name to "Jasmine Car" and smiled, satisfied.
While traveling in Muthu's Jasmine Car, my phone rang with an unfamiliar caller id number. The woman shouted in Tamil so I handed it to Muthu. He started talking, she kept shouting. Five minutes later he hung up and handed me the phone.
"Who was it?" I asked.
"She said, 'Why didn't you come? I called you many times, and you never answered. Why didn't you answer? It's not been working for three days!' After a while she calmed down, and I told her I'd be there in 10 minutes."
"Well, who was it?" I asked again.
"Some woman, she thinks I am the cable repair man."
I told Muthu he was a terrible person. He and I laughed a long time about the lady who thought she'd see the cable guy in ten minutes.
I learned a lot of
Tamil from Muthu. He taught me the disrespectful use of "mardu" which means "cow." He demonstrated by calling people that word, especially women and old people, as they ambled across the road, forcing drivers to slow down. I got the hang of it very quickly, and together we labeled many a pedestrian "mardu."
One can make friends easily here. I like the groups of young women students who walk together. I offer to take a photo of all of them, we chat, they practice their English and giggle a lot, then they want a photo of me with them, and then we're friends!
Muthu and I stopped for lunch in Kumbakonam. I went to a place where they served the traditional thali, the plate of small cups of various vegetables, chutneys, soups, and sambar along with rice and sometimes bread. It was my first restaurant version since arriving, and I was excited to join all the Tamil people in this popular eatery. My waiter identified the spicy selections. But I didn't care, I love spicy! So my hand shoveled it in, and soon my nose was dripping and I was happy. My waiter responded to
Vedanthagal Bird Sanctuary
Because of recent rains, the place was teeming with bird life.
my Tamil requests for more of some items, and brought me more of things that I didn't want. After eating I asked him to take my photo, all bloated and happy. Then came the question:
"Do you have a Facebook ID?" he asked. I hesitated, then said no, sorry, I do not use. My friends know I use Facebook.
That's what happens--10 minutes of conversing with someone, and they want to be "friends" on Facebook.
In Madurai, while standing on the busy street waiting for my call taxi, a woman and young man walked by and smiled. She pointed to the string of jasmine I had poked in the zipper of my handbag and said, "You should put in your hair."
"I don't have hairpins."
She walked to the vendor nearby, bought some hairpins, and returned.
"Here, I'll put it on you." She attached the strand atop my head of short hair, framing my face nicely. She smiled, asked my native country and name, and then said, "Selfie?"
I could not refuse, so now I'm in her selfie catalog, with a strand of white jasmine on the top of my head.
I accused Muthu of Driving Over it
He denies running over the snake (rightfully), but I frequently reminded him of having done the deed.
of those Things
Some incidents seem so predictable. My friend Pushpa wanted to help me as I waited for an auto rickshaw on the road in front of her house in Tiruvanammalai.
"Don't do that," she says, "just flag down a motorcycle." She stopped a passing motor scooter driver and told him to give me a ride to the temple. I hesitated, as I preferred the relative safety of the back seat of the three wheeled rickshaw. But she told me to get on, and the poor guy couldn't get out of it. He was carrying a big container of kerosene or something highly flammable, and there were no pedals on which to rest my feet. But on to the back of the scooter I sat, and held on for dear life. Two minutes and 300 meters later, his scooter sputtered to a halt in the middle of the road. It had run out of petrol. So I was back to waiting on the road for an auto rickshaw! Classic, just classic.
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