Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Last Days of the Maharajas

It is eight a.m. in India, but outside our airplane window, it is pitch dark. I have no idea where we are in our flight path right now – all I know is that the sun will be rising when we land in Frankfurt.When I last wrote, we were packing to leave Chennai. Our last few days there passed in a flurry of good-byes, gifts, final meals, and frantic attempts to stuff all our belongings into our suitcases. We were sad to be leaving our temporary home on Karpagam Avenue 3rd Street, but excited to be taking one last excursion before heading back to the United States. This time, we planned to visit a little of Northern India, with a day reserved for Agra – home of the Taj Mahal.

We set out from Delhi on December 26, stopping to pick up our friend, fellow Fulbright Teacher, Evelina, who would be joining us for our travels. Our first day did not bode well for the trip (inauspicious!), as we encountered horrible traffic driving into Agra. We got in so late that we had to postpone visiting the Taj until the next morning, which actually worked out better, since we got there as the sun was rising. Our first glimpses of the monument were stunning – slightly enveloped in the early morning mist, it looked ethereal and I felt like we had stepped back in time. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with the bright idea of viewing the Taj at sunrise, as a lot of people were already there when we arrived. However, the site is so spread out that we never felt too overwhelmed by the crowds. We wandered for hours, checking out the beautiful marble-work up close and taking loads of photos (including the famous “touching the Taj” trick photos). As the sun rose, the Taj emerged from the mist, giving us a perfect view, although, in all honesty, no photograph can do justice to the monument.

After the Taj, we did not linger in Agra, but went on to Jaipur, stopping en route to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the former palace and royal city of Emperor Akbar, that served as the capital of the Mughal Empire for fourteen years, during the 16th century. We reached Jaipur around sunset, then checked into the Narain Niwas Palace Hotel – a heritage hotel that was once the country residence of a nobleman who served the one of the Rajput Maharajas. Even more impressive than the arched facade of the hotel and the peacocks strolling the grounds, were our rooms – huge suites that were the size of small apartments, each one with a giant, gaudy chandelier, carved teak furniture, high, painted ceilings, and portraits of past maharajas and other Rajput noblemen. Yes, for our final two nights in India, we were going to live like royalty.

Jaipur is also known as the “pink city” for the distinctive pink sandstone buildings found in the Old City. On our day of touring, we drove through this area, stopping to take photos of the visually stunning “Palace of the Winds” with its dozens of windows. Then it was on to the Amber Fort, one of the most amazing palace/forts I have seen in India. Even from a distance, it loomed up on the hill, surrounded by a huge wall. We spent hours exploring the 16th century fort, crawling up tiny, hidden passageways (thank goodness for James’infrared mini-scope!), waving from the balconies where the ladies of the court would have watched processions, and taking photos of the audience hall that whose ceiling and walls were covered with thousands of tiny mirrors. After the fort, it was on to the Jantar Mantar, a really funky, huge outdoor observatory/astronomy park built in the 18th century. The park was full of huge structures that looked kind of like giant wheels and skateboard ramps, all of which were used for various astronomical purposes, such as charting the sun’s position, calculating the angle of the planets, and so on. The kids and I could not understand any of it, but Mike was clearly in his element.

On our last full night in India, we sat outside, in the cool evening air, warmed by bonfires, eating delicious chicken tikka and tandoori kebabs, while being entertained by a Rajasthani cultural program. We felt very fortunate to have come this far, and to be ending our stay on such a pleasant note. James got one last chance in the spotlight when one of the performers – a young boy his age wearing a turban – asked him up to the stage to join in the dancing. To his credit, James did a great job in keeping up with the other boy’s moves. The next morning, we left Jaipur to return to Delhi for our 2:00 a.m. flight. And now we are here, flying over Europe, slowly making our way back to the U.S. As excited as I am to be coming home, I’m sad that our journey is finally at an end. It has been a difficult, amazing, transforming experience, and none of us will ever forget it. When you leave someone’s home in South India, it is customary to say “Poitu varain,” which is Tamil for, “I will go and come back.” In return, your host responds, “Poitu vanga,” meaning, “Please go and come back.” So, India, I will not say good-bye, only “Poitu varain.” And in return, I hope you will reply, “Poitu vanga.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Leaving Chennai

I am surrounded by suitcases, piles of gifts, and books to be sorted through. Mike and the kids are at school and I am faced with the daunting task of packing everything up, as we leave Chennai in two days, on Christmas Day. I am filled with a sense of excitement to be going home, and a slight wistfulness, as I will miss our apartment and our life here. On the occasion of our imminent departure, I thought it only necessary that I give the city its due. Because, after four months of life here, I have come to like Chennai far more than I thought I would.

When the Fulbright committee first informed us, back in March, that we might be assigned to Chennai, the first thing I did was grab my world atlas and look for the city. I had no luck finding it, leading me to believe that it must be a tiny village, too small to merit a dot on the large map of the Indian subcontinent. However, after a quick Internet search, I found out that Chennai was not a small village, but a bustling city of over six million people, located in southeast India, on the Bay of Bengal. The reason I had not been able to find it was because it was formerly known as Madras until the 1990s. When I had the chance to peruse the travel section of our local bookstore, what I read about Chennai did not inspire me. The guidebooks pointed out its lack of tourist attractions, and one book wrote that it was “polluted, crowded, and muggy.” Although these books did not instill a feeling of confidence in me, we accepted the posting nonetheless, as we thought it would still be exciting to spend five months living in India. I am so glad that we chose to come. In fact, as far as postings go, Mike and I think he got one of the best assignments.

So what is it I like about Chennai? Perhaps it is the tropical vibe – the coconut palms and flame of the forest trees, the huge expanse of Marina Beach, and the bustle of life all around me. In many ways it reminds of Los Angeles, a city near to my heart, because of the beaches, the palm trees, and the crazy traffic. On the one hand, it is a city full of Western conveniences, be it Pizza Hut and KFC, movie theaters that show English-language blockbusters, Levis stores, and video game arcades. On the other, it is a city still steeped in tradition, where religion is an integral part of daily life. During our morning auto-rickshaw commute to Vidya Mandir school, we pass by the huge Kapaleeshwarar temple, a dominant landmark in the Mylapore district. All around it are women sitting along the curb, selling garlands of jasmine and marigolds, which will be bought by the people going to the temple to do puja (prayer). Many of the doorsteps we pass by are freshly decorated with kolam - patterns made from rice powder -which have decorative as well as religious purposes. The morning ride is never dull, and my senses are always full of sights and sounds – wooden carts piled high with pyramids of limes, bananas and apples; green-uniformed sweepers cleaning up the streets; coconut vendors; women selling freshly caught fish and prawns; men on bicycles carrying everything from buckets to huge tins of filter coffee, and children of all ages, in their various colored uniforms, walking to school or riding with their parents on motorcycles.

I was told, after arriving here, that the people of South India are far more hospitable than those in North India. I cannot vouch for the north, as we were only in Delhi for four days, but I would definitely agree that the south is a welcoming place to be. Throughout Tamil Nadu, we have found most people to be friendly – if someone approaches us at a temple or a tourist site, it is usually not to harass us, but to ask us where we’re from, how we like India, and inevitably, if we will pose for a photo with them. The people we have met during our stay here, especially the teachers at Vidya Mandir, our Tamil instructor, my yoga teacher, and James' keyboard teacher, have made us feel very welcome in this country. Although this trip is meant to be an exchange, I feel like we can never properly reciprocate the generosity we have received, unless people choose to visit us in the U.S.!

When I have gone out to explore Chennai on my own, I have never felt threatened, even though Western women are not a common site. Most people let me go about my business, without any hassles. I was warned that the auto-rickshaw drivers would try to cheat me at every turn, but most of them have been fair. The drivers at our auto-stand at the end of Karpagam Avenue 3rd Street always greet us cheerfully, and have even come down the block to pick us up during the monsoon, when our street turned into the “Karpagam River.”

I also feel fortunate that we were given such a great place to live. Our apartment, which is now decked out for Christmas, has been very comfortable and centrally located. We also really like our Karpagam Avnue neighborhood. On the corner are James’ keyboard classes, the local grocery stand, and a South Indian vegetarian restaurant, which sells awesome samosas and onion bajji (onion rings). Down the block, we have the bustling Santhome High Road, with our favorite afterschool hangout, 36 Degrees (with the unusual slogan “At 36 Degrees U go Minus”), where we get brownies, French fries and awesome banana milkshakes. The delivery guys at Sangeetha (vegetarian restaurant) and Hotel Marina Park (non-veg, with great chicken tikka) know our address by now, and can be here in twenty minutes. School is a ten-minute auto ride away, in Mylapore, where you can buy just about anything, super cheap from the Luz shopping district. It is a fun, interesting, colorful place to be, and visually, there is rarely a dull moment.

So I think the guidebooks were wrong. Perhaps, if you were just passing through for a day, you wouldn’t notice the city’s charms, and you would have no desire to linger. But as for us, after four months here, we feel like we couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay for our life in India.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Excursions in Karnataka

With only a few weeks to go before leaving India, I decided to take the kids out of school for one last trip. Mike, unfortunately, did not get to join us, as he had to stay and teach at Vidya Mandir, but I figured that I had acquired enough India-savvy to travel on my own with the kids. For our destination, we chose Karnataka, the only other state in South India we had yet to visit. Our plan was to divide our time between the city of Mysore and the national parks near the Kabini River. The journey to Mysore, on the Shatabdi Express, was quite pleasant, if a little long (seven hours). Along the way, we did not go hungry, as we were given water bottles, South Indian coffee, breakfast, lunch, cookies, candy, and tomato soup!

Mysore is a popular city among school groups, as it has a lot of historical monuments. The most well known is the Amba Vilas Palace – an impressive structure dominated by domes, turrets and colonnades that was home to the Wodeyar family (former ruling dynasty of Mysore). As beautiful as the palace is by day, it is even more striking at night, when it is lit by over 9,000 bulbs. We also visited the Brindivan Gardens, a terraced garden at the foot of the Krishna Raja Sagar Dam, notable for its beautiful fountains, illuminated by colored lights in the evenings. This being Southern India, we had to see a few temples as well, and we went to the 11th century Chamundeswari temple on Chamundi Hill, though we chose the easy route of driving to the top rather than walking up all 1,000 steps! I liked the area for its great views of the city, while the kids were captivated by the cute temple monkeys. We also visited the 13th century Hoysala temple of Somnathpur, located about an hour outside the city, which had great rock-cut carvings. Along the way, we saw coconut palms, big banyan trees, sugar cane fields and bullock carts carrying huge loads of wood. There were times, driving through some of the smaller villages, where I felt like I was transported back in time, other than the large satellite dishes on top of the tiny houses!

After Mysore, it was on to the Kabini River Lodge, located just outside Nagarhole National Park (formerly a hunting preserve for the Mysore royal family). We chose the Kabini Lodge because it offered small jeep safaris into the park twice a day – at sunrise and in the late afternoon. On our first safari, we were very fortunate. Not only did we see elephants, sambar deer, eagles, peacocks, and monkeys, but we had a female leopard cross our path. As soon as the leopard ran into the bushes, our guide directed the jeep to race at a breakneck speed to a spot where the leopard might emerge. For our family, seated in the back row of the jeep, it was a crazy, bumpy ride, kind of like at an amusement park, and even though I was clinging on for dear life (there were no seatbelts, of course), the kids were loving it. We never did find the leopard, but we found another one (a male) hiding in the bushes, stalking its prey. It amazed me how our guide had such amazing senses – he could see birds and animals that were very well hidden and knew when certain types of animals were giving out warning calls. Alas, this first trip set the bar a little high, as our guide was now obsessed with finding more big cats to show us on our next two safaris, but with no luck. However, we did see some wild elephants up close – the solitary males with their huge tusks, eating bamboo, and the females with their young, drinking from a salt lick and spraying themselves with dirt. On our river safari, we were treated to a peaceful scene of various animals – monkeys, wild board, deer, peacocks, egrets – hanging out by the river as the sun was setting, while across the riverbank, we could see a male elephant taking a drink and spraying water from his trunk.

Even at our camp, there was wildlife to be seen, because right outside our cottage was an elaborate treehouse with a huge rope net underneath. I assumed this was for the guests to play on, even though I would not let Taz and James climb up to the top of the treehouse, as the ladder was far too dubious looking. However, we soon realized that the house and rope net were not for people, but for the resident monkeys, who used the structure as a huge play area. We had great fun watching them, until we heard a strange cry above us and saw an enormous swarm of the biggest bats I have ever seen – flying right over our heads. But even that did not drive us inside – it was only when Taz felt her feet burning and realized she was being attacked by fire ants that we retreated to the safety of our cottage! In all, though, we loved our experience of being so close to wildlife, and we only wished we had time to visit some of the other nature preserves in India before leaving at the end of December.