Post 38 – Jerri’s Musings #12 – On Being…

ON BEING A ROCK STAR

“I don’t want to go home.” I started saying this when we reached the half way mark of the trip. I don’t want to go home. Here, I’m a rock star. Back home, I’m a nobody. Here, 20-something cute young men (and they are always cute) come up to me and ask: “Can I have a picture with you m’am?” Back home, no cute young man wants to have his picture taken with me. Here, scores of children have asked me for my autograph. Back home…OK, you get the picture.

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We were at the Kolkata airport, heading towards our gate, standing on one of those long rolling walkways that do the walking for you. We were tired. We just stood there, facing forward, Alan clutching a coffee. A young man came along side of us. He was walking as we were being propelled gently forward, keeping perfect pace. He had his cell phone poised at us, filming. “Hello,” he said. “Hello,” Alan replied. I ignored him. It was way too early, I was way too tired. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Chicago,” Alan said. He asked a few more questions. Alan’s so polite, he answered them all. I slowly looked over at him, gave him my best Greta Garbo look, and said: “You know…we’re rock stars.” “Oh,” he said. He turned off his device and let us continue on the automatic walkway to our gate. Alan alerted me that I still had my sunglasses on.

ON BEING A GURU

Emma-at-Krnagargh-2011We became rock stars on our last trip to India. Perhaps the first time we became aware of our stardom was at the Dandeshwar temple, in Karnaghar. We were with Emma, and she didn’t quite know how to handle the crowds of people that always formed around us when we opened our binder of photographs. She especially, with her blond curly hair.

Our stardom definitely continued into this second trip. Almost everywhere we went, people would stop us on the street, start conversations, invite us to their homes for a “proper Bengali meal.” Everyone wanted their pictures taken with us. I was of course always delighted when a cute young man was involved. I later learned that Bengali men have a very strong connection to their mothers, and that perhaps I was a “mother figure.” I was fine with that.

But my rock star status escalated to the guru stage on a trip we took to Kerala in January. It was the one vacation we would take during almost 5 months. I was lying on a hammock, stretched between two palm trees, looking up at a blue cloudless sky, a cool breeze was coming off the lake, removing some of the heat from the sun. A perfect Kodak moment. Occasionally I’d try to read, but usually I just dozed off.

Karishma_webAt one point I sensed a presence and opened my eyes, only to find a young woman standing by the hammock. “Hello m’am,” she said. “Hello,” I replied. “My name is Karishma. Where are you from?” she asked. And the conversation started. The inevitable question arose quickly: “What are you doing in India?” As soon as I mentioned photography, she lit up. “Oh m’am, I LOVE photography. I had a really fine SLR, but I dropped it in the water and it got totally ruined. Now I just have a small one, and I go into a camera store and ask them how to take a good photograph. They take out the camera manual and hand it to me. That is not what I want. That is not what I’m asking.”

As it turns out, she is in college in Delhi, studying business management. Then she plans to go to graduate school and get two MBAs (don’t remember in what, just remember the ‘two’). She will get married after that, and perhaps then she can pursue her real passion, which is photography. “It looks like you have it all planned out. But why do you need to wait till after you are married to follow your passion?” I asked. “Because my father says that I need to get an education and a job first and then later I can do my hobby.” “Oh, but I think you need to do what you really love NOW. Do not wait for later. That time may never come.” I was really taking a chance here, totally contradicting her father as well as the standard Indian educational system.

I don’t know what got into me, but I proceeded to talk to her about photography and the excitement of making art. Of training your eye to really ‘see’ what there is and to translate it into an image. I talked about Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment, about Eugene Smith and his remarkable vision. About Robert Frank and Dorthea Lang. About some of the incredible Indian photo archives that we had visited in Delhi just a few weeks before. About how she should perhaps volunteer at one of these places, just to be able to handle real photographs from real moments in time – to be a part of history and hold it in her hands, relishing its importance and artistry.

At one point Kala came over and both women were sitting on the grass at my feet! Very empowering indeed. Karishma was clearly absorbing everything I was saying. She had the most beautiful smile. I said I would send her a reading list. She thanked me profusely for my knowledge, for my time. “Now you are my guru,” she said.

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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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