Shave and a Hair Cut, two bits


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January 1st 2009
Published: January 6th 2009
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OK, so it wasn't really two bits. I did get a haircut, shave, and a head massage for 380R (about $8). It was the first time I've ever been shaved by a straight blade. I was little nervous, but it was the best shave I ever got.

So you really don't care about me getting a shave do ya? I'm sure I did more than that in my 3 weeks in India, so here are few short notes on my trip.

The Wedding


So The Wedding was the main reason and the catalyst to get me to India over this holiday. My friends Ram (Rammohan) and Anu were kind/foolish enough to invite me to their wedding in India. Before I say anything about the actual wedding I have to thank Ram and his family. They really made me feel welcome and I felt very taken care of... more than I truly deserved.

OK, back to the wedding. Alot goes into an Indian wedding, more so than a western wedding. I know that Ram had some ceremony on Sunday morning. Sunday night was the engagement ceremony. It is an official ceremony where the two families agree to the wedding and it is formally announced. This was followed by dinner.

The wedding itself started at 6AM Monday morning. Of course there were pre-wedding ceremonies that started at 5ish or 530ish... I don't know, we arrived at 540ish and the ceremonies were already started. This time was picked because it the time the stars decreed were favorable for the wedding.

The wedding lasted until about 9 or 10ish, and then there was a break until evening when the reception started. Oh yeah, there was breakfast and lunch in there as well. Now, even though the ceremonies are very long. The guests are pretty much free to move around, do what you want, get close, take a picture, have a conversation, get some coffee. Every time I was standing around watching, people would move or show me where to stand so I could get the best view or help me take a picture.

I remember that there were many different ceremonies to symbolize lots of different things. There is the formal giving away of the daughter, which symbolizes the giving of the goddess Lakshmi to Vishnu. There is a knot tieing ceremony. There is singing, done beautifully by Ram's sister. There is the ceremony to ward off the evil spirits. I don't know all the ceremonies that happened. Even Ram didn't. He told us that most of the time what he was supposed to say and do, he found out right at that moment. That is the priests job, he tells everyone what to say and do. Unlike western weddings there is not a rehearsal.

I think the reception must be very hard on the newlyweds. It is essentially a receiving line for them. They stand on stage and greet all the people that come to congratulate them. The rest of us just stand around and eat and be social. Not a bad gig for a guest.

Everyone joked that the wedding was the reason that marriages stick in India. Nobody wants to go through all of this a 2nd time.

The day after all of the formal ceremonies Ram and Anu had a private reception (with booze this time). This was a great night. It was outside of Chennai at Ram's Uncle's beach house. Wow was this house amazing. It would be a mansion anywhere. It was good to get to spend time with Ram, Anu, and other friends and family outside of the wedding ceremonies and get advice and tell stories and hang out.

Another advantage of this reception was that we managed to convince Sree to spend another day in Chennai to go to the party before going back to Bangalore. So Sree and I spent a day trying to entertain ourselves in Chennai. We managed to do that by riding the local train, having me buy Sree a long distance train ticket at the foreign tourist ticket office (see below about why I can do it easier than him) and going to a movie. Movie sounds stupid but Sree made me go see a Tamil movie. No I didn't understand most of the words and their weren't subtitles, there was the occasional English phrase thrown in. Yes, I could follow the movie just by how obvious the plot was. But the most impressive part is all the cheering and dancing that goes on in the audience. I remember the audience cheering for each of the main characters the first time they appeared, and then singing and dancing whenever the movie would break into a song and dance number. It was quite the 3 hours, and well worth the time.

Temples, Ashrams, Ruins, and Palaces


After the wedding I had just over two weeks to tour around India. I didn't have any big adventures planned, and really didn't have any happen. I planned to spend most of the time in Tamil Nadu and take in some temple sight seeing.

I really enjoyed the ruins in Mahabalipuram, old temples and other weird structures. Nice way to spend an afternoon.

I spent time in Pondicherry, but wasn't really in need of European (French) architecture and cuisine yet. The Ashram there didn't really live up to expectations either. It was sort of come in, look around, meditate if you want, but we don't provide any guidance or classes, or instruction. We do have a bookstore. So I decided to head to Tiruvannamalai and the temples are Ashrams there... maybe they would be different.

The temple and mountain that are the backdrops for the town are impressive. I ended up staying several additional days hanging around the Ashrams as well. I met a really nice Swedish girl, that though she didn't know it at the time, was about to become my unofficial tour guide. She had been here awhile and new all the places and events going on. She took me to a Satsang and some music thing. I really enjoyed these and even learned a little. Actually I learned that I don't have too bad a philosophy on life... at least that is what I think I learned, maybe it was what I wanted to learn.

I was really amazed at the number of western tourists that come to Tiruvannamalai. Apparently it is a spiritual destination for those seeking enlightenment and just spiritual study. While I feel lucky to meet several very "normal" people there were also lots of people that I can across here that would border on kooks or fanatical.

While in Tiruvannamalai I/we attended the 32nd birthday celebrations for Paramahamsa Nithyananda. He is apparently a very popular Swami, and I must say he seemed very charismatic and a good speaker, as far as I could tell. We were originally hanging out at the back of the festivities, standing, thinking we would listen to him talk for a bit and then head out. The place was packed with Indians. We suddenly find ourselves invited to sit up in the VIP section (sometimes being foreign has its privileges). The problem we ran into was that the formal speeches and stuff started on Indian time, and they were in Tamil. None of us spoke Tamil. But we listened to about 30-60 minutes of introductions that we didn't understand, and then 90 minutes of Paramahamsa's speech. Like I said he seemed charismatic. He would tell jokes, well the people laughed. The tone of his speech seemed engaging and I'm sure I would have enjoyed it if I knew the least bit of what he was saying.

The funny part was after about an hour of sitting and listening and not understanding any of the speeches we were ready to leave but didn't know how to extract ourselves from the seats. We would have to walk out right in front of the stage an everyone. After about 2 hours or more of sitting we decided that we could handle the embarrassment and made our way out. It wasn't as bad as we thought.

My last temple was in Madurai. This is the biggest temple and I think oldest. I believe this temple took almost a century to build. The real shame for this temple was that they were repainting all of the towers on the outside, so they were all covered in scaffolding and paper. It is still a very interesting temple. I even managed to accidentally walk into the "Hindus only" section. This is what happens when you wander aimlessly around and walk through every door you can see unless someone stops you. I figured it out pretty quick, and went back out the door I came in.

All this templing taught me a few things.
1) To see a temple, only takes about a day
2) Many look very similar and I was templed out.
3) Pictures and words don't really do justice, but pictures probably do a better job of describing the temples.

The end of the trip was spent in Bangalore and Mysore with Prashant. I really want to thank Prashant for his hospitality. He let me stay at his place and damn it, wouldn't let me pay for anything. I had a great time in Bangalore, and we ate very well.. too well almost.

Prashant and Sree also decided to accompany me on a day trip to Mysore to see the Palace of the Mahrajah. It is an impressive construction. Like #3 on the temples list above, the pictures are the best explanation.

The Ghats


I decided that I wanted to get out into the country side for Christmas, so I decided to head up into the Western Ghat mountains. I went to the resort town of Kodaikanal. This is a popular resort for both Indians and Westerners. I actually met some cool people on the bus and basically just glammed onto them Christmas. We rented a house in a neighboring village. Liv and Gabe had brought red wine for mulling and we had a kitchen to cook up our own Christmas dinner.

I mostly went hiking and exploring. We were at about 2000meters (7000'), pretty high up. The scene was amazing. The mountains just drop right off, almost cliff like. It seemed that we were either always in mist/clouds or looking down on the mist in the valley. Just a short hike down from our hut were beautiful sunrise and sunset spots. Two great rock outcroppings, one overlooking the east valley and one overlooking the west valley. I watched sunrise on Christmas morning from the front porch of a church under construction. Sort of a surreal moment.

I did forget to mention that the Indians all come here for holiday. They seem to hang out on the lake in town.... paddling around on peddle boats. The kind your propel with your feet. It almost had a comic, small town America fair feel to it. I bought cotton candy and there was a guy with a BB gun shooting booth to win a prize.

Getting Around, Roads and Trains


The driving in India may be some of the most chaotic that I've ever seen. The first thing you notice is that there appear to be no rules. If your side of the road is clogged, you can drive down the wrong side of the road, it is ok. Also there is no limit to the amount of vehicles that can fit on a road. Say you are on a 2 lane road. Well you can fit 2 cars, that is normal. But in addition, you can fit an auto rickshaw or two, and at least 4 motorcycles. Everybody has the side mirrors on their cars folded in, they need those extra 6 inches of space for driving down the lane. Not that anybody would use the mirrors anyway.

Of course there are rules, and I only saw one accident the whole time I was there. Apparently the #1 rule is the car in front can do what they want. If I am ahead of you, then I can change lanes and you have to stop. Of course, I MUST honk to let you know that I might be passing you or maybe just that I'm there. There is lots of honking.

And I'm sorry Prashant, I still think Chennai is worse Bangalore.

Some of the most fun I had was traveling by train. I traveled at almost all classes sort of. My first trip was in a 2nd class reserved car on an express train, very sane. Next trip I did an overnight train ride in a sleeper car (sleeper class). This trip was also very sane. Sane means that you get a seat/berth and aren't sharing with more than you are supposed to. I remember the ladies on the sleeper class telling me to be sure to chain my bag under the bunk so if someone came through the train at night they couldn't take it. They said they did it as well.

On the trip to Mysore, Prashant and I had reserved 2nd class seats on a passenger train. This really meant that we got seats, of course we had to share our seats with 2 other people. On this train there were people standing in the aisles and it was packed... but at least we had seats.

My last train ride was on the Shatabdi express to Chennai. This is the flash train. It cost 600R, the other rides cost at most 150R (50R = $1). Anyway on this car you get captains chairs that recline, food, bottled water, and everyone pays attention to what seat they are supposed to be in. Oh yes, it has AC as well. The other trains I road on had AC options, I just elected to take non-ac... I'm like a dog and want to stick my head out the window.

The train rides are fun. They almost have a life of their own, from hanging out watching the people at the station to the coffee and food vendors on the trains. "Coffee, Coffee, Coffee." After the wedding I think the train riding was the best and most unique experience I will remember from this trip.

And now the secret to train travel.
1) be a foreign tourist.
2) don't worry to much about waiting lists
So the first time I went to buy tickets the guy told me that all the trains I wanted were full, no seats. I panicked, what to do. I really wanted to ride the train at least once. I was told I might be able to get a Tatkal seat (basically you pay a hefty premium 5 days before you travel and it helps you find a seat). You don't want to go in unreserved car... that is a true cattle car.

I did some research and got some good advice from Sree. Basically being on wait list isn't so bad. You are likely to get a seat, because many businesses and stuff just have seats reserved that they cancel at the last minute. It costs them almost nothing. So this was how I got on the first train.

But then I found out that there is also a foreign tourist quota. This means that there are seats reserved for foreign tourists. So if you are at a large station, (Chennai or Bangalore, or... ) they probably have a foreign tourist desk and can check all trains for this quota. At a smaller station (Madurai) I went and saw the station ticket manager. He said "Buy a normal wait list ticket, bring it to me, and I will confirm you a seat on the train. I can only do that for trains leaving Madurai, but for your train from Bangalore the station manager there can do it." So there ya go, something to keep in mind.

And if worse comes to worse, apparently a little baskeesh to the ticket checker will help to find you a seat, I never had to find out. But even if you are wait listed... get on the reserved car and see what happens.

More pictures from India
I am trying google for my picture storage. Sometime this year, I hope to get all of my pictures stored in one location. So if you have a preference between google/picasa, shutterfly, or slide, let me know.

Logistics, if you care.
So in the big cities I never really found any great places to stay. In Tiruvannamalai I stayed at a place by the Ashram called Pink Hotel (or house). Nice place and the manager was very nice. Weird enough I met the nephew of the owner in Kodaikanal. Turns out he is studying Electronics Engineering, though I'm convinced that everyone in India is studying Electronics Engineering. Prashant says that is just in the south. In Kodaikanal, we stayed in a village called Vudukanal (spelling). Not really a guest house here, you just rent the whole house or cottage. Though there is a rumor that this is going to stop soon.


Additional photos below
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6th January 2009

World Traveler
Great to see that you got back to your travelling roots.....Did you try to catch up with Mitch while you were there?
26th October 2009

Pink Hotel Tirunvannamalai
Hi Mike- The Pink Hotel was recommended by a friend, but we both can't find the contact info on-line. Would you happen to have a phone number or email contact for the Pink Hotel? Thank you.
12th January 2010

Pink Hotel
I don't have any contact info for them either. I just walked up. Sorry.

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