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Archive for January, 2011

Wait and See

I don’t think many Indians will be offended if I say that they have a very loose relationship with time. For Westerners used to deadlines and punctuality it can be a bit frustrating to realize that if you live in India, you will never again have a meeting start on time or see almost anything completed when it originally was supposed to be.

Most people here would just say, “that’s how it is here. You decided to live here. Deal with it.” And I do. Most of the time it drives me a bit crazy. Other times it leads to incredible amusement.

I bring all this up because in the time that I have been working on my film with the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi, nothing has happened on time. The women I am following are incredible, hard-working, defiant, and always — always — late. When they’re not late they are re-scheduling or pushing things back. It’s not laziness or avoidance or procrastination. It’s just the way things are done. But when you’re making a film it can get a little bit tiresome. For every day we’ve planned to film, at least half have been rescheduled. All have started at least half an hour or an hour late. But, as everyone reminds me, this is how it is here. You can’t change the system you chose to work in.

I bring all this up because we are finally done filming. After two months of discussions, two months of shadowing and research, one broken hard drive and three months of filming (whenever we could), we were ready to finish up with one last meeting before starting to edit. I needed video of a game the women sometimes use as a tool for discussion so we had set up a meeting to film it. And I should have known that for my last foray I would get to go out with a bang.

I arrived in Dharavi by myself because my translator couldn’t make it – after all, this was the third time this particular meeting had been rescheduled and she had another work commitment. But since it was just a meeting (ie: no interviews) I figured I could watch and film on my own, and S, the woman I was following that day, has an English-speaking husband. The meeting was supposed to start at 3:30.

When I got there I called S’s husband. He said they were running half an hour late and to just go their house. I’d been there before for the interviews so I made my way into the winding lanes of their neighborhood. Normally when I go into residential Dharavi I’m with my translator or one of the women we’re following. Going alone makes me a little bit like a circus freak. Everyone stops and stares and wonders what this odd white person is doing making her way through the narrow passages and thin sidewalks. I imagine most assume I’m lost. But eventually I make it to S’s house and climb the rickety vertical ladder that leads up to her one-room home.

My head popped up through the entry-way and I saw four little faces staring back at me. S’s children, hanging out at home alone, were suddenly very interested in the person coming through their trap-door.

“You are aware my mother is not here?” I looked over at S’s eldest daughter N. The last time we met, when I was interviewing S, she hadn’t let on that she knew English. I tilted my head and looked at this tiny ten year old with two white bows on either side of her head. She was clearly responsible for watching all her younger siblings in their small 6 foot by 8 foot house with just a small television to entertain them.

“I know she’s not here,” I finally responded. “She’s on her way and asked me to wait. I didn’t realize you spoke English so well.”
“I’m learning it in government school. I’m good at it,” she said, while looking me up and down. She didn’t say anything else, she just continued to watch me, as though she was wondering what I’d do next. I decided to start setting up my camera since she didn’t have any more questions.

After a minute, she asked, “your phone is very expensive, yes?” I looked down at the iPhone in my hand. It’s hard to explain to people here that you can get it cheaply in the US – in India it costs around $800. But then, even spending $99 on a phone would be expensive here. I didn’t know how to respond so I just handed it over to her, so she could play with it. She pushed the button and looked intently at the screen.

“Who is this?” she asked, about the picture that comes up when you first turn on my phone.
“Those are my parents. They live far away so I keep a picture of them on my phone.”
“Your mother has very yellow hair. Why don’t you have yellow hair?” I didn’t really know how to answer, but it didn’t seem to matter. N had already figured out how to slide the phone to show the main screen and she was scrolling through my apps, clicking on different games. I turned back to the camera.

I hadn’t noticed that N’s siblings were fascinated with the camera sitting on its tripod. N indicated that they wanted to take photos so I switched the camera into photo mode and showed them what button to press. I sat back and watched. N was absorbed in a card game on my phone while her siblings giggled away taking photos. Most of the time they were standing too close to the camera, but the flash and the resulting blurry picture usually made them laugh more.

After awhile I looked up at the clock. It was 4:15, already 45 minutes had gone by and no one was here.

“What is this picture?” N asked, snapping me out of my thoughts. I looked over. She had opened the folder that contained all the photos I’d taken with my camera. She was holding up a picture of Phoebe.

“That’s my dog,” I replied.
“She is cute,” she said, while laughing a little bit at the picture.

N proceeded to go through all my pictures. She wanted to know why I had taken every one. Why do I take so many photos of flowers? (I like to email them to my mom). Why does my dog look different in these pictures? (she had a haircut). Who is that person and where are you? (I’m on a beach with my brother). Is that a picture of your mother when she was younger? (No, that’s my sister). Is that what snow looks like? (Yes, it is).

She got the most amusement out of a video of my friend’s dog I had taken at Christmas. The dog is a french bulldog and N seemed to think she resembled a cat. She had all sorts of questions about the size of the dog, why its ears were like a cat, why it was jumping around so much. I tried to answer every one but I just kept thinking that this girl was really something. I’ve been in enough schools to know that she probably sits in a class with crumbling walls and 40 students packed in with one teacher. And yet she’s managed to learn almost perfect English by an age when a lot of girls have already been taken out of school. Here she was, wanting to understand every photo of this strange life of a person entirely foreign to her. I couldn’t help feeling like it all wasn’t fair – an inquisitive young girl in the US would have every chance in the world. I wondered whether she’d even be allowed to grow up and avoid getting married so young like her mother and perhaps even go to college. Maybe since her mother works with a progressive organization she’ll be able to push her daughter out of the cycle.

But of course, all the dramatic thoughts going on in my head were once again interrupted by a question.

“I like this camera on your phone. Can I take a picture of you and my sister?” I agreed and her four year old sister sidled up next to me on the table where I was perched. N snapped the photo and both she and her sister giggled with delight.

“Do you have email?” I asked. “I can send it to you?” N shook her head.
“Not yet. I do not have it yet.”

I was liking her optimism.

By now it was almost 5pm and I was about to call S again. But a few women started arriving and filling up the room. Within a few minutes the small room was holding eighteen women and seven children. When they started the meeting I knew I needed to begin filming, so I lifted a child off my lap and uncrossed my legs. Two women had been sitting next to me on top of the table and their legs were crossed and over mine, so I had to extricate myself. There was no personal space and I had to sort of smash myself up against the wall in order to try and get the camera to see the whole room. N still had my phone and when I looked over she was showing the video of my friend’s dog to one of the women.

It was 5:30pm by the time we started filming, two hours late. But at least on this occasion, I’d certainly had an interesting time waiting.

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I’ve been really lucky — through my various film projects and Book of My Own- to be able to spend time in many different kinds of schools in India. But few stand out like the one I went to today.

A friend of mine works for an organization called Mumbai Mobile Creches, and she suggested that Book of My Own do a donation at one of their schools (If you didn’t read about Book of My Own before, click here for a previous blog about it). Mumbai Mobile Creches is a particularly special organization because they are looking out for the children who probably have one of the hardest upbringings imaginable – in slums on construction sites.

When you drive around Mumbai you can’t miss the shells of empty, growing buildings around you.  Everywhere you look another skyscraper is rising from the ground, aided by giant cranes that take over the skyline. The city is expanding as quickly as could be imagined and it seems like the construction is never-ending.

One of the untold stories of all this construction is the slums that pop up around the building in order to accommodate the influx of migrant laborers that work on-site. 30 million Indians live like this. They move from site to site, shifting their homes every few years after they’ve built homes or offices for someone else.  And it’s often entire families that are along for the ride.

What Mumbai Mobile Creches does is set up daycare, pre-school and primary school on the grounds of the construction site. Often they put the school in the building itself, as it is being built. The kids learn Hindi and English, they’re given three meals a day (a life-saver for many parents) and a doctor visits frequently to make sure the children have adequate medical attention. Essentially, they’re creating a life and a community for those who otherwise might have nothing.  I was excited that Book of My Own could give back a little bit to this organization and the kids they are serving.

Books in hand, we drove into the construction site that held one of the schools – on the site three thirty-story concrete buildings stood half-completed. The school was in its own stand-alone building. The classrooms were painted with charts similar to the kinds you would see hanging in a school at home, only these were more permanent. It was a good attempt to brighten up and liven the rooms.

Students picking out books

As soon as we walked in the kids were curious. But once we started laying out books a group crowded around to see. The floodgates burst when we finally let them in the room. They rushed over to the wide pile of books to start finding the one they wanted. They all carefully surveyed the books, walking around them and staring at covers before gingerly picking one up and flipping through. The students were different ages and different reading skills. Some were only mastering the English alphabet. Others could manage basic reading. But all were excitedly trying to decide which book to take.

 

Reading books

I love watching the kids pick out their books and seeing what they love about them. Some like the more tactile books – with pop-ups or different materials. Others are attracted to pictures. Some love the particular stories, if they can read that much. But I don’t think I’ll ever get used to watching how excited these kids get over a book.

After the first round some of the kids went to swap and found new ones. Eventually they started putting them back in the original pile. I didn’t understand — but apparently they didn’t really grasp the concept of keeping the book. They thought they’d have to give them back. We explained that they each got one book to take home. One of the teachers started handing out books without looking at which ones they were, but I insisted that the kids pick the books out, again, themselves. One girl started searching and could not find the book she wanted. My friend who works for Mumbai Mobile Creches asked her which one she was looking for, and she started jumping up and down like Tigger. We immediately located the Winnie The Pooh book she had been looking for.

With a round of ‘goodbyes’ from the teachers and children we left, our box of books much lighter than when we began. I craned my neck to look up at the huge concrete buildings and really appreciated being able to be part of this incredible program for just a day.

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Locating the Zen

I’m having a difficult time moving my body today. And no, it has nothing to do with my recent illness.

It really mostly has to do with my own sad un-athleticism and lack of doing anything remotely representing a workout for years and years of my life. That is, of course, until Daniel and I started yoga.

When you move to India, everyone seems to think that the natural thing to pick up is yoga – why not learn about America’s favorite Indian import in the land of yoga itself? But for a long time I avoided doing yoga much like I’ve avoided doing anything athletic my whole life. As a New Yorker you can convince yourself that you don’t need to work out because you walk so much. And for me this was always a bit true – I’d walk the dog every morning and night. I’d walk to and from work. I kept up a brisk pace in all this walking. It seemed to me like I was moving enough to avoid a gym.

But in Mumbai, there’s not a lot of walking. There aren’t a lot of places to take a stroll. And even when you are near a place you could stroll, the weather (monsoon or extreme heat) usually makes it seem sort of unappealing. So Daniel and I both agreed, after living here for some time, that we needed to try something in order to not resemble the elderly when walking up a flight of stairs. Yoga it is.

To avoid extreme embarrassment we agreed it would be best to have a teacher come to the house. Luckily here that ends up being cheaper than most large yoga classes you’d find in New York. On recommendation from a friend we were put in touch with Niranjan, a yogi who specializes in private instruction. We agreed he would come four times a wee, whip us into shape and perhaps give us a little enlightenment.

He showed up for the first class and we introduced ourselves. Phoebe was jumping around excitedly, as she always does when a new person arrives, and he leaned down very slowly and calmly to pat her. He quietly asked if we were ready and then led the way.   He certainly had the demeanor of a yogi – every step seemed deliberate; every move was fluid. I began to think that he was in for a big treat with us.

We began with breathing exercises that made my head feel light. Niranjan assured us this would get better with time. Then we started with some asanas, or positions. Our flexibility was certainly in question. Daniel couldn’t really cross his legs, and needed the help of a pillow to do it. I kept losing my balance when I needed to stand on my toes. But with every apparent failure Niranjan would just smile and say, “In time, you’ll be able to do.”

Phoebe found this all quite a bit more exhilarating than we did. She didn’t grasp the seriousness of what was going on, but to her it seemed like one big game. With every move or position change she’d try to lick our faces or sit on the yoga mat or run in circles expecting us to follow. She sized up Niranjan and would only sit quietly next to him, looking up and hoping he would give her another pat. She certainly didn’t understand why her parents looked so tired and strained. I’m sure Niranjan began wondering very early on whether the pathetic white people with the overly-excitable dog could ever really accomplish anything.

By the end of the first lesson I was starting to look forward to the asana where you lie flat before going into ‘cobra’ pose. My arms were like jelly and my legs were stretched to a point where it was tiring just to stand. Our ‘Yoga for beginners’ is not an easy route to greater flexibility and balance. It is an all-out full-body workout with an instructor who corrects us when we’re trying to cheat and and ensures us that we actually can go into our sixth mountain pose, even if we’d rather just lie down and take a nap. He does this all while maintaining his unbelievable air of calm and demonstrates every pose that is being done incorrectly with indescribable ease.

By the third lesson Niranjan seemed to beleive that we had already begun to improve flexibility. “Look at how much further you can go toward your toes?” he said as I leaned over, grasping more for my calves than my toes. He put his hand on my back and pushed me to try a little harder, grab a little further. Daniel was able to cross his legs without the pillow.

I know these are not drastic improvements. I was still winded by the end and my body still hurts today. But slowly, with a lot of practice and a lot of help, I think we’ll get better. I’ll still probably look forward to the breathing and meditating more than the asanas, but it all comes as a package. Four mornings a week we’ll do salutations to the sun and hope we’re improving our bodies a little bit too. India style.

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Post It

I’m not quite sure how I had managed to avoid the Indian Postal Service until today. I didn’t realize I was missing one of India’s greatest bureaucracies in action.

Normally when I have to mail a letter, Daniel can send it from work. But I wanted to mail some presents to friends in the UK and I figured it was a little more complicated so I should do it myself. Of course, I’m really a fool for assuming that something more complicated would be a better task to take on.

The difficult to identify Bandra Post Office

I arrived with my lovingly packed presents in hand. The presents themselves represented one of my favorite things about India: they were two unique hand-made gifts and I’d wrapped them in a beautiful hand-painted yellow wrapping paper made from recycled paper. But my I-Love-One-of-A-Kind-Amazing-Things-Made-In-India joy for my presents was soon mockingly destroyed by the fact that India’s own postal service wanted to crush my spirit.

 

I tentatively walked into the Post Office, or, more accurately, what looked like an abandoned building. Confused by the darkened hallway, I walked up to the only window I could find. Heavy wooden shutters were open onto a window with heavy wooden bars. The only large opening in these bars was well below my height (clearly, and understandably, made for small Indian women), so I ducked my head down and said hello. The representative looked back at me, amused. He seemed delighted by the fact that a gangly white person in a kurta had to be so uncomfortable to talk to him.

My new friend and his wooden bars

“I’m trying to mail two packages to the UK. I want to use the regular Indian Postal Service.”
“No Indian Postal Service now ma’am.”
“Why not?” I replied
“Ma’am, Postal Service only until 2pm”
“Oh, you mean it won’t go out until 2pm tomorrow?”
“No, we do not process after 2pm. You can only do Speed Mail now, but its ok because then you can track it. Look at the sign.”

The very useful sign

I looked over to my right at a large red sign that indeed had a whole listing of times for different services. Of course, you wouldn’t know these times unless you were standing in this particular post office. And, of course, it also made no sense. Why couldn’t they process their own mail system after 2pm? I decided to not ask these kinds of questions to a man sitting with a ledger instead of a computer. In fact, when I looked behind him stack upon stack of dusty old ledgers sat haphazardly as if they’d been there a lifetime.

“Hand me the packages, I’ll weigh them to determine the cost.”

I did this and he started opening and looking through them- and not in a gentle way that indicated his love for artisanal wrapping paper (I know, I’m lame), but in a way that one would normally handle trash.

He actually opened them...

“Oh… sir… I… those are wrapped. They’re presents!”
“So?”
“So…. You’re ripping the paper.”
“I just want to see what they are.”
“For customs?”
“No, I’m just interested. What ”

I stood there, dumbfounded. He looked up and me and saw that I wasn’t amused so, as a gesture, he started to tape it all back together. With packing tape. I gave up trying to salvage my paper.

“Ok,” I responded, “So how much is it to send two packages to the UK?”
“Well if you send separate it is 900 rupees for each. If you send together it is 1,000 rupees. It is based on weight, you see.”

I didn’t really see. It made no sense. But I made the executive decision to send them together (the packages are going to two friends anyway, so I figured they’d see each other). My new friend told me to go outside and deal with a guy who would help me with my customs form.

What could he possibly be making?

Baffled as to why this would take place outside, a new man gestured for me to come towards him on the sidewalk, so I just went with it. I tried to explain that I’d need bubble wrap or paper or something to keep everything from breaking. But he wasn’t’ really listening.

I started to stare intently at what he was doing – what was he doing? He had taken what looked like a piece of burlap and was sewing it with a large needle and a piece of string. I couldn’t make out what he was creating. So I just stood there, in the street, where homeless people were sleeping and one child was urinating while a man from the post office sewed something together that apparently was needed for international packages. No one else seemed to think this was weird. To them, I was what was weird.

Finally it came together – he was sewing a sack to put everything in. Was this intended as my bubble wrap or buffer?

Yes, my presents are inside

No, no it was not. This was my package. There’s no “International Mail Box” I was being given or even a padded envelope. I was required to send my packages via burlap-sack. Then handed me a customs form to fill out and I wrote in all the details and gave it back to him. He started sewing the customs form onto the parcel. I had to stifle a laugh. It was just too absurd. Really? Really? I’m standing on the street while a man sews a customs form onto my burlap parcel?

He handed it back to me and told me to go inside to pay. I went back to my original friend and gave him the package.

“It’ll be ok, right?” I said, hoping he might tell me about the greatness of ‘Speed Mail’.
“Ma’am, only God will tell.”

I guess in three to five business days I’ll know how the sack held up.

My customs form being sewn on

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They were four little words you definitely do not want to hear while living in India:

You. Might. Need Surgery.

It’s bad enough to be lying in a fetal position after spending your day taking tests. It’s another to contemplate having your body chopped into while living in a foreign country. I was not a happy camper.

It probably started with me boasting that I hadn’t gotten ‘India sick’ yet. I like to say this to people a lot – to be fair, it’s mostly to try and comfort people who are visiting. Such as, “Oh, you won’t get sick from the food. I’ve lived here six months and I haven’t gotten the notorious ‘Bombay Belly’ yet!’ I think I do better than my friend D who just likes to declare that she has a stomach of steel.

But I think there was a little bit of karma involved when I started to feel ill. It was as though the India gods were saying, “ok, you don’t need to get sick from food. We’ll give you a good-old-fashioned-regular-illness instead.”

I felt a bit ill on Friday but I only started to worry in the evening, when I took my temperature and it was above 100. I called my friend A.

“I have a weird question to ask you,” I began. “I have a fever. And Daniel is out of town. If this was America, I wouldn’t be nervous…”
“But it’s India.” she responded, clearly understanding where I was going.
“Right, so maybe you could spend the night over here in case something happens in the middle of the night?”

She, of course, said yes. You see, there’s an interesting thing that happens to all expats who live here: you get paranoid. And it’s justified. You hear too many tales that begin with, “Oh I thought I had a cold. But really it was dysentery” Or malaria. Or dengue. Everyone has horror stories about eating the wrong food or drinking the wrong juice. And these horror stories are much worse than your average food poisoning tales. So even the smallest hiccup or cough suddenly starts your brain ticking. What did I eat yesterday? Did I see a new mosquito bite on my ankle? Did I really wash that apple enough? You could go crazy worrying about getting sick – which is why most people stop obsessing over the small things after they’ve been here awhile. We start brushing our teeth with tap water and accepting ice from places that say they use mineral water. But it always lives in the back of your mind, the fear that India’s many health scares are coming your way.

I thought about all of this as I tossed and turned throughout the night. I couldn’t get comfortable no matter which position I picked. At 2am I looked at WebMd’s symptom checker. Bad idea. Once you say you’ve travelled to a third world country it starts giving you even more ideas. At 4am I wikipedia’ed dengue. That was comforting – apparently I would have had a rash, so it couldn’t be that. At 6am I took my temperature for the 20th time and was nervous to see it had gone up to its highest point so far. By 8am I woke up A.

“I think it’s time to call a doctor.”

My symptoms sounded bad- pain in the abdominal area on the right side of a female usually means appendix or ovaries, neither of which should be left unchecked. So we headed over to a clinic the doctor had recommended in order to get an ultrasound.

As I waited my turn in the plush waiting room I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad.” It looked nicer than any clinic I’d seen at home. I was able to stretch out on a leather chair while a flat-screen tv showed the day’s cricket match (not my cup of tea, but interesting enough). Even with the nice setting the whole ultrasound only cost 1,200 rupees, or roughly $26. That’s before I even submit it to my insurance. For all the things to complain about the on the potential-diseases-you-could-get spectrum, I also had to be impressed by the low cost of everything. It’s not a low cost relative to the average income in Mumbai (where a large percentage of people only make a few thousand rupees a month), but compared to American health care, it’s a steal.

However my initial optimism soured a bit with the results of my ultrasound. I had “edematous gall ballder walls with sludge’ and ‘enlarged lymph nodes with fatty hila’. How was I to know what that meant? Sludge certainly didn’t sound good. Most annoyingly, they unfortunately they couldn’t get a close enough shot of my appendix to tell if it was bursting. So it was off to a CT (which, just as an FYI, cost around $120).

I’ve never had a CT before, but I can assure you that it is all the more unpleasant when 5 out of 6 techs in the room do not speak your language. They didn’t really understand that I was in a lot of pain, and therefore was having difficulty lying in one position. I couldn’t explain that my elevated fever was giving me the chills, which was also making it hard for me to not shake a bit. Finally a woman came in who spoke English and put a few blankets on me. I thought she might be my savior until she informed me that I would need an IV that would pump warm contrast into my veins as well as a tube going into another area (which I won’t go into depth describing here, since this blog aims to remain family friendly!). Needless to say, by the end of the CT I was feeling worse for wear.

That didn’t compare to my doctor’s visit after it all, where the idea of surgery was finally raised. As I lay curled up, exhausted from tests and fever and an unflinching pain, I listened to what the doctor had to say. You see, my appendix was fine. But that darn gallbladder was indeed inflamed and it would either need to respond to multiple medications or it would have to come out. A surgeon was lined up and at the ready in case I needed him. I suppose that was supposed to be comforting. We would just have to wait and see whether the inflammation and infection could go down before surgery became necessary.

Luckily the combination of the largest antibiotics I’ve ever seen, anti-inflammatories, pain medication, and an anti-nasuea medication normally reserved for chemo patients (the antibiotics apparently can be too strong to handle without some other medication) has made me start to feel like a new person (and all the medications together cost around $5). Within a day my fever went from almost 103 to almost normal. I’m certainly not at my best (those antibiotics are really not making it too easy on me), but at least it’s looking like I can keep my gallbladder.

So what have I taken from my few days of true illness in India? Well, firstly I will never make the silly claim of not having been ‘India sick’ again (although technically, lets be honest, 6 months of no food poisoning is pretty amazing in here. Knock on wood). I’ll also appreciate the cost of medicine here; it’s really something we Americans forget when we have insurance and something we decry when we don’t. If India can do it this cheaply why on earth can’t we even lower our costs a bit? I alternately appreciate being able to see a reliable doctor here and having the means to pay for it. I couldn’t help thinking of all the women I’ve met in Dharavi who clearly can’t afford to even get the kinds of tests I was able to get. It’s scary to think of how much pain I was in and the idea that someone couldn’t get the right diagnosis to lead them to the proper medication. It’s certainly something to be reminded of.

Mostly though, I’ll just appreciate (almost) having my health back. I’ve been lying around thinking of writing and being sad that I have no stories to tell other than the woes of a nauseous person with an enlarged gallbladder. It’s time for me to get better and back to everything I enjoy about living in India. Other than, of course, its predisposition for making us foreigners ill.

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“Can we possibly order three cups of chai, one order of onion pakoras and some firewood?”

That was certainly a phrase I didn’t know I would ever utter.

The road driving up to Munnar

Everything changed after we drove off the red dusty roads of Tamil Nadu and up into the lush mountains of Munnar in Kerala. As we drove, it seemed like the world we had just been in was slowly disappearing – the air started to clear; the language subtly changed from Tamil to Malayalam; the cows and dogs and goats that populated the streets started to look healthier; tropical plants were replaced with tea plantations and rugged trees; and of course, we lost all cell phone service.

The altitude, the dramatic scenery and the windy roads felt like a new world.  Munnar was like no place I’d seen in India – it is truly off the grid in every sense imaginable. In a weird way, the trees and mountains and lakes kind of reminded me of a bizarre version New Hampshire – except it wasn’t snowing in January and everyone was Indian. Except us, of course.

Our hotel

We arrived after a long drive up into the mountains, and then onto a rocky dirt road that we could only get up with the help of an ancient 4-wheel-drive Jeep. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere- a few houses and farms spotted the area, but otherwise it was just the hotel. Breathing in the clean, crisp air it was hard to remember we were in the same country we’d just come from.

After a night’s rest and the inevitable ordering of firewood (yes, our cabin got quite cold at night!), K and I decided that the only activity for the day could be a hike. So we set off with a guide from the hotel, who instilled a bit of initial fear when he told us to watch out for leeches.

taking a picture half-way up

We climbed and of course I lagged behind – I always love a good reminder of how completely out of shape I am. I was a little bit embarrassed when I saw a chatty group of older women sauntering up the mountain as though it was nothing at all. We had stopped halfway up and I was watching them as they climbed. When they saw us, they giggled and took a moment to gawk at the funny white girls trying to climb up their mountain. One of them offered us a piece of fruit – it was yellow on the outside and looked like a passion-fruit. Our guide said it was okay to eat and I thanked the woman. I stood, catching my breath and eating a piece of delicious fruit- that certainly wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.

As we continued to climb we eventually saw the same group of women heading down – but this time, they weren’t quite as chatty. As they came towards us I noticed they were all carrying huge, long stacks of wood on their heads. Their arms balanced the wood while their bare feet balanced their bodies down the narrowly demarcated path. They were hardly breaking a sweat. I caught the eye of the woman who had given us the fruit, and nodded. She smiled back, completely unfazed by the poundage bearing down on her head.

A view of Munnar

Since moving to India I’ve been endlessly enjoying watching the ways in which people go about their days.  And as I continued to pathetically huff and wheeze my way up the mountain, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be what I’d remember when I’m back in New York and totally caught up in the day-to-day pressures and expectations of my life. It’s amazing how much it feels like none of that matters when you’re so far away from it.

View from the top

But these thoughts dissipated as soon as we reached the top because all I could think of was sky and mountains and clouds. It was really something to see.

I hate to invoke the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance I don’t even think a thousand words could do justice to the breathtaking views. So I’ll end this post with some photos – and a true appreciation for the little slice of India called Munnar.

The mountain we climbed (in the background)

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I sometimes forget that only a few months ago India was a complete unknown to me – I think and behave now as though I belong or that I have a deeper understanding of my adopted country. I haggle and head-bobble to the point of surprising (and maybe even disturbing) friends who aren’t accustomed to my adopted Indian ways.

But of course, every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, India reminds me that I know nothing.

Coming to Tamil Nadu was like a kick in the gut – my Hindi means nothing here in a Tamil-speaking stronghold. After being assured by everyone up and down that there was no possible chance of rain post-monsoon, we encountered an afternoon storm. Familiar food staples have been upended by a world of thalis and dhosas. Despite having spent time in South India in Kerala, Tamil Nadu seems like an entire world away from safe familiar Bandra – and every Tamil I meet is happy and eager to explain to me how different they are from ‘northerners’. I have to say, it feels amazing to be reminded that whatever Indians might call me-  white person, foreigner, gora or ‘Canadian,’ (what one Tamil person seemed to think the Tamil word was for Caucasian) – as a perpetual outsider I will always have quite a lot to learn and be surprised by.

Sri Rangan temple

Our time in Tamil Nadu has centered around seeing temples- another thing I thought I could no longer be surprised by. After Angkor Wat and Borobudur and Prambhanan and Ranakpur I sort of thought I’d run the gamut. But because I’m traveling with two friends who hadn’t been to India before I thought that temples were a pretty important stop – and I’m lucky they let me come along with them, because South Indian temples are unique and powerful unto themselves. Over the last four days we explored temples in Trichy, Tanjore and, today, the epic Meenakshi temple of Madurai.

All of us on a roof facing one of the Vimana's of Sri Rangan

In Trichy we saw the Sri Ranganthaswamy Temple (Or Sri Rangan for short, thankfully). Dedicated to the god Vishnu, it’s a massive temple within walls within other walls over 156 acres that has been continuously built over the last 1,000 years. The most recent tower was only completed in 1987, but others date back to what is believed to be the 11th century. We got all of this information from a guide named ‘Bruce Lee,’ who insisted on telling us serious stories about Hinduism interspersed with showing us his favorite Karma Sutra carvings.  He also showed us how to be blessed by an elephant representing the god Ganesh – I told M and K they’re probably going to have to fib on their customs forms when asked whether they’ve been near livestock (see video below to watch the elephant in action!).

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjore

Our next temple was the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjur, dedicated to Shiva. Built in 1010 during the Chola Empire, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts India’s tallest Vimana, or temple tower. Standing under the sandy-colored intricately carved granite stone, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the structure – how could anyone reach those heights and carve stones so finely without scaffolding or machinery? These thoughts kept getting distracted by the dozens of tourists hounding us to take our picture – I was once again reminded of how bizarre we must seem. Two white women and a white man wandering around their temple, snapping photos and laughing amongst ourselves. One man wanted to try on M’s sunglasses while children crowded to look at the magical photos popping up on the back of K’s camera. It was a funny sensation to be among the familiar- two of my oldest friends – while being treated like the most interesting oddities around.

Exterior of Meenakshi Temple

But we certainly saved the best for last.

Interior of Meenakshi Temple

In Madurai we got to see Tamil Nadu’s most renowned and beloved place of worship – the Meenakshi Temple. We were delighted to learn this was the only Indian Hindu temple devoted to a woman, Meenakshi (or Parvati), the wife of Shiva. It is one of the largest Hindu temples in the world and certainly one of the most elaborate. While the structure was built in the 17th century, it is believed a temple has stood in this spot since at least the 7th century – and today it represents the center of the sprawling, dusty, decidedly non-colonial city of Madurai.

Getting a bracelet knotted

It was hard for me to ever imagine a city crazier than Bombay, but I think Madurai is it. It is loud and bumpy and often incredibly over-run with advertising and run-down buildings – but it has also proven to be a place where M, K and myself have all relished in meeting and interacting with a population that wants to display their (self-described) southern hospitality.  Everyone we meet – even the people blatantly trying to sell us something – has wanted to convey to us that their portion of India has as much to offer as the more heavily-trafficked north. And our guide, Natarajan, at the Meenakshi Temple, made it a point of pride to try and make sure no one took advantage of us or sold us anything too expensive. It was wonderful to take in the beauty of the temple, but I think the highlight by the end was the jokes we could share with the tailors we were haggling with or the bracelet tied on our hands (for no money! no money!) by a shop-keeper.

Tomorrow we are leaving Tamil Nadu to go into the mountains of Kerala. It will be a sharp departure from the crazy city into the lush plantations, but I feel glad just to have gotten this taste of the south. And if I forget, I’ll be able to look down at the bracelet securely knotted on my arm and remember the place that helped jolt me out of my own India bubble.

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