Post 32 – Taxis

DSC00883Getting a taxi in India involves a series of negotiations and is most often unpleasant. As white foreigners, we are presumed to be both wealthy and stupid. And we assume taxi drivers are crooks. We may both be right. Every once and a while, you reach your limit. This has happened to me in Kolkata, where I basically went berserk when the cabbie refused to go where I wanted him to, at the same time refusing to turn on the meter. “Just drive!” I screamed at the hapless cabbie. Gesturing madly, “Left at Guriahat! Meter!! Drive godammit!” It is doubly effective, albeit exhausting, when Jerri and I scream in tandem. This does work, but only if you are able to physically get in the cab before he asks where you’re going and then refuse to leave when he starts yelling.

DSCN1772The day before, in Kharagpur, we had taken an auto-rickshaw (a “tuck tuck”) to the train station, where it was presumably easier to get a cab. But each cabbie was worse than the other, wanting to charge outrageous sums to take us to the Balaji Temple. Finally, Jerri had had it. She began berating the cabbies for trying to take advantage of Americans, for not seeing us as people, for playing a nasty game. She didn’t mind paying a bit more, but not 200% more. I do not like confrontations; I do fine but it takes its toll on me, words and gestures and emotions playing out for hours if not days. Jerri, at least outwardly, thrives in these exchanges. And this was a case where going nuts paid off.

Any altercation in India attracts a crowd. The joke is that if you simply point to a building, 20 people will show up instantaneously and all start pointing, seeing what it is they thought you saw, even if nothing is there. Soon a small crowd gathered and a man asked if there was a problem. We responded that there was, that we were being ripped off for a cab ride. Duncan introduced himself as an “Anglo-Indian” and assured us that, as such, he would never cheat us. I was instantly on my guard, the term “never cheat you” causing me to check my pockets, but things turned out well. He’d ask his driver to take us where we needed to go, wait for us and take us back to our hotel for a fair price!

ThalesOur new driver, Thales, was also Anglo-Indian. He spoke perfect English, and became our mainstay for the next few days. We’ve learned that drivers in India are an absolute necessity, avoiding the hassles and waste of time of protracted negotiations, sidestepping the drama of a buyer in need and a seller in power. We can’t rent a car and drive ourselves—they drive insanely fast, on the wrong side of the road, pay no attention to lanes or rules and are clearly unafraid to die.

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Plus, you have to somehow avoid cows; bicycles laden with anything from entire families to hundreds of coconuts to car windshields to giant pots of rice; pedestrians; goats and chickens; trucks; buses; the occasional elephant; motorbikes; and of course dogs, who clearly own the street and will just lie there in the middle of the road, the world whizzing around them in all its fury. DSC01353 Dog-shrine_web

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Post #27 – Jerri’s Musings #8 – Walking with the Elephants

Once again our India serendipity brought us up to unimaginable heights. Kerala is a heaven on earth. Why anyone would retire to Florida is beyond me. Come to the Marigold Hotel in Kerala and live like royalty.

DSC01782-BxW_WebI don’t know why I’ve always loved elephants so much. Maybe it’s because they are the largest land mammals, generally docile, somewhat funny looking with their large trunks, and very intelligent. With people, they seem to have created quite a connection – there have been so many stories.

Maybe it’s because my mother had always told me that elephants are good luck, and when someone graduates from school or has a significant birthday, you always give a small elephant statue. I always wanted good luck.

We had an Indian family friend back then, Manjit Singh. I thought he was so exotic, with his turban and distinguished accent. Once, after a trip back to India, he brought my mother a small ivory carving of an elephant. It was beautiful and my mother immediately had it made into a pendant, to wear on a gold necklace. I mentioned at the time that I thought it was ironic that the piece was made from an elephant’s tusk – that perhaps the elephant had to give up its life for this little carving. We argued. After she passed away, I took the necklace and wear it sometimes, trying to focus on her love for the pendant, rather than my guilt for wearing ivory. We had a similar argument over a South African gold Krugerrand. But that’s another story

DSC01783-BxW_WebThe Kettu Kazhcha festival in Kerala is an annual event where elephants from various temples are gathered and in the evening, walked from one temple to another, about a three km walk. We happened to be there during this remarkable festival, famous throughout India. Yet another “ZT serendipitous moment.” If everything is “meant to be,” then the Hindu Gods are giving us an extraordinary gift.

In the daylight, the festival is jaw-dropping – with animated floats, male dancers representing various female deities in flamboyant costumes, hundreds of drummers, hundreds of young men dancing, high on either some kind of substance or on life itself. And then come the elephants. Majestic creatures, themselves also adorned in vibrant hues of all kinds, shimmering in gold and sparkles, becoming brighter as dusk falls, the lead elephant being the most adorned. The young men perched on his neck, holding high the gold discs, make him appear even larger than his already enormous bulk. I wonder if he knows how absolutely magnificent he is. Priya is convinced that the lead elephant knows his position within the procession. She tells of one that was placed second one year and became so ornery and aggressive, sulking in a corner, that they had to place him first the following year. I guess he knew his ranking in society.

DSC01831-BxW_WebThe drumming picked up tempo as the sky darkened, the people absorbing the excitement that the darkness brought on. I started walking next to an elephant; I felt my heart pounding as I got closer. I looked up at him, enthralled. I couldn’t believe we could walk this close to each other. I was not afraid as I drew closer and closer. I heard the shuffling of chains as they scraped the concrete road. The shackles made me very sad, but then I imagined a five ton animal getting spooked by a sudden noise and a stampede starting. We chain and collar and rope our animals to make them do what we want. Maybe that’s where “chain of command” originated. I suppose the chains are necessary here. Do the elephants have a choice? Priya says that he is strong enough to break through the chains, but doesn’t. How many years did to take to tame these creatures to submission? Does a docile temple elephant transmit its “obedience gene” to its offspring I wonder?

DSC01785-BxW_WebThe parade stopped for a moment. I was very close now. I think Kala asked the mahout if I could touch the elephant. He said yes. I touched the elephant’s trunk. He’s beautiful. I was surprised at the softness of his skin, so very warm to the touch. I talked to him, tols him how remarkable he was. I looked up at his eyes. They are so small and look so sad with their two long tear stains shining on the wrinkled skin. Am I reading too much into these eyes? Does he see me – does he know I’m here? Can he feel me stroking him? Can he feel my deep affection for him?

DSC01805-BxW_WebI touched the enormous tusk and followed its graceful curve. How beautiful and smooth it was. I thought of the ivory pendant that was hanging on my neck, and silently apologized to him. It’s not my fault I say. Not my mother’s either – she just loved beautiful things.

The parade started moving. I quickly kissed my hand and touched him as far up as I could reach and then reluctantly dropped my hand. There have been moments in my life where I’d wish time would just stand still. This was one of those moments.DSC01830-BxW_Web

Post 25 – Kerala

We’d been working practically non-stop since we arrived in India back in November. When Max’s girlfriend Priya’s parents suggested we join them for a week’s vacation at a resort in Kerala, we jumped at the chance. We’re not really “resort” people—but I could get used to this. Ashtamudi Lake is a large and beautiful body of salt water that is considered the head of the ‘backwaters,’ the intricate network of canals and rivers that are a defining feature of this region. We spent the first night on a permanently moored houseboat. My dream has always been to live on the water. This was pretty close. We spent the week sharing paradise with Kala and Shyam (Priya’s parents) and their friends Subhash and Sonal. And I got to live my other dream—a swim before breakfast.

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Kalimurti-dancer_webThat evening, our ‘Mahindra Resort’ offered a cultural program. I expected something cheesy, but instead we were treated to a Kathakali performance, a traditional story-based dance form, with each movement and gesture having a specific meaning. A young boy was sitting directly in front of us, and, once again, art’s power was evident. He jumped when the dancer moved and grimaced, turning around to us, utter glee in his eyes.

Temple_webThe next day, we visited a small temple, which was getting ready for a festival. We would end up returning to this place several more times to witness a memorable elephant festival (no, no…that has nothing to do with elephant memory.) Then to the Tangasseri Point Lighthouse in nearby Quilon. One-hundred-ninety-three steps and worth everyone of them.

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Near the resort, we had passed a sort of idol graveyard—a place where old sculptures used on floats were stored, probably repaired and brought out of storage when needed. These aren’t actual consecrated idols—imagine the floats in a spiritual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, without the inflatables, but with the same huge crowds.

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India has thousands of years of spiritual searching under its belt. This takes all sorts of forms. One of them is an ashram started by “Amma,” Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, which was nearby. Known as the “Hugging Saint,” she literally hugs thousands of people and has a non-sectarian belief in the power of love. India has definitely opened me up in many ways, but I’m still basically a transplanted New Yorker, so I can’t help but look at such things with a jaundiced eye. This is probably my loss, since so many people find solace and meaning in places such as this. It is quite an operation—large buildings looming out of the jungle, thousands of devotees who came to the ashram from all over the word. We hadn’t seen so many white people in months. Unfortunately, Amma wasn’t in that day, so we weren’t able to experience the transformative nature of her universal affection. It is definitely impressive to see so many people devoting so much time to a deeper sense of their lives (seriously.). Jerri I and I disagreed, but I am also certain that such a large number of attractive young people all in the same place all seeking meaning…also find other, more physical paths to enlightenment.

Men-on-Fishing-boat_webJust outside the ashram lies a small fishing hamlet. I had Murugan, our driver, stop because Ihad seen a fishing boat near the shore, with men silhouetted against the sun, hauling their nets. Pretty classic scene but thankfully there is still a difference between seeing something in real life, no matter how “picturesque,” and seeing its image, no matter how many times it been recreated. It’s that postcard dilemma I wrote about in our 2011 blog. I can’t help myself.  Fishermans-wife_webPlus, we got to talk to the fishermen on shore and to see their family shrine, so tiny that you had to bend down to enter. Here, they would offer prayers both for a good catch that day and for their survival at sea. It is still a dangerous way to live.

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Structure_webWe then returned to Temple Guruviayurappana at Shakthi Kulangara, where a huge shrine was being built. It was to be carried in the elephant processional the next night; this was a smaller gathering, in preparation.  Musicians blew strange curved trumpets, the elephants were all decorated, crowds gathered. There is something magical about not knowing precisely what is going on around you. I think it is being in that state of childlike wonder that is so appealing, where experiences flood all over you and you are simply too young or too inexperienced or too stupid to possibly understand—and it doesn’t matter at all. It just is. (I probably shouldn’t live here too long or I’ll always talk this way, which really isn’t appealing at all.)

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We spent the next day relaxing, an alien concept, even when we’re on vacation. The resort had a terrific pool, and as is true in every hotel I’ve ever stayed at, I was the only person to use it.

That evening we went to the town of Kollam, a starting point for the great elephant festival ‘Kettu Kazhcha.’ Temple elephants from our small temple and others were marched down crowded lanes and onto the main road, where they would walk several kilometers to a larger temple in Valli Kezhu. The elephants with their mahouts and their finery walked along with drummers and dancers, transvestites and trailers carrying immense, often animatronic floats, replete with gods and goddesses, fiberglass, plaster or paper maché animals and trees, sound effects and lights, dazzling colors and throngs of people. It was Mardi Gras on steroids…with elephants. It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen. Jerri will go into more detail, but it was really spectacular on so many levels.

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Canoe_webWe needed a break after an intense evening, so spent the next day exploring Kerala’s famous backwaters. The resort had a traditional style boat that ferried guests deep into the area, past houses and small temples, boatbuilders, cows and fields. It was beautiful and silent. I want to buy a house here.

Jajo-dancing_webAnd the other remarkable thing is this: Jerri suffers from intense sea-sickness (which clearly has had a negative impact on my desire to sell everything and travel around the world on a sailboat) yet she was fine on the 3-hour boat-ride. The secret? Another guest started dancing to Bollywood music on the boat and when he offered his hand to join him, she was a more than willing participant. The Silly Dancing Cure™ worked, although Jerri insists she didn’t get sick because she had also asked for assistance from Ganesh.

Our last day in paradise was spent at Varkala, one of the great beaches of the world. Cliffs in the background from which para-gliders soared, beautiful open sandy beaches, sunshine, seafood.

What a glorious week.

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