Friday, March 28, 2014

Leaving Chennai

I am taking off on the next phase of my India adventure today after lunch.  I am not normally a lover of cities, especially big, noisy, chaotic cities.  But for whatever reason, Chennai has captured my heart.

There are usually quite a few people out on the beach at sunrise.  Days start early here because once the sun is up, it's too hot to be out unless absolutely necessary.

The sunrise over the Bay of Bengal; the women in brightly colored saris, kurtas and salwars;  the men in plaid veshtis with striped shirts; the bougainvillea; the people people people everywhere, walking in the streets; the cows, dogs, goats, emus;  the beautiful houses; the piles of garbage; religious festivals; temples; political rallies; the street vendors; the piles of fruits and vegetables on carts everywhere;  the colorful flower vendors outside every temple; families of four all on one motorcycle; the kolams outside every house.

The waves pounding;  people speaking the kings English with the distinctive Indian accent;  people speaking Tamil; dogs barking; horns honking, honking, honking all the time;  chanting here at home and in the distance; ceiling fans whirring;  crows cawing; the squeak of the gate out front opening and closing; the zoom zoom of motorcycles; the putt putt of autorickshaws; 

The wonderful smells wafting from Indrani's magic kitchen; the ocean; fresh mangos; autorickshaw exhaust; the cow shelter down the street from us; 

These have been the sights, sounds and smells of home for me these last three months.  I will miss them.

The puja room.  Sheela does a morning ritual here each day.

On the terrace, chanting the Yoga Sutras with Ravi.

Sheela and I enjoying the sunset breezes at the beach, while Pravin and Shruti look at the shells they've collected.

My best attempt at a kolam so far.  I need some practice.

In about 15 second, Indrani drew this crow.  Crows are always given the first rice anytime rice is served, usually every lunchtime.  It is symbolic of feeding one's ancestors.

One of the many constructions sites I pass on my morning walk.  Many have these dummies hanging out front, which kind of freaked me out at first.  Ravi said they are hung to keep away even spirits.

The construction workers, usually whole families, live in the shelter of the home they are building.  I often saw their laundry drying in the morning.  Ravi said these families are often farm workers who come to the cities when the seasonal farm work dries up.

This fellow does all the mending for families in the area.  His treadle sewing machine sits on the corner just down the street from us.

The rooftop vegetable garden at Lalitha and Kannon's lovely home.  The solar panels provide most of the energy they need.

Yep, that's what it says.  Dizzied World.

Just down the street is VGP Universal Kingdom.

Outside HeyMath!  Where Sheela works.

I don't know how they do it.

Stringing flowers to be used as a temple of offering.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are everywhere and most are quite inexpensive.

This is beachfront property.  There is a family who lives here.  I suspect their home will soon be torn down to make way for one of the big new homes being built in this area.

Like this one just down the street.  It has been decorated for the first night.  A puja is done when the house is ready, and people spend their first night in the house.

I think it must get hot sitting in the middle.

I will miss the bright colors.

I will miss the cultural events....

and the quirky storefronts.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Bicycles and bathrooms

I have just one week to go in Chennai.  The girls are still taking board exams and keep wishing the time would go by more quickly, while I'm wanting to slow the clock down.  They say I'm winning; I think they are.  In the meantime, life here continues much as it has.  A treasured routine of study, yoga, reading, walking and riding, scrumptious food from Indrani's magic kitchen, with special activities sprinkled in to make the routine even more appreciated.  Even a few valuable cooking lessons from Indrani.  Temperatures are rising and by soon after the sun rises it's almost too hot to be out.  Our compensation is that it is now mango season!  Let the feasting begin!

Riders and organizers of the Tamil Nadu cycling club's Pink Ride, 2014.  I'm the one with the white hair, far left in the back.

Last Sunday I participated in a "pink ride," a women's bike ride to celebrate International Women's Day which was March 8.  There were 72 women, children and men riding, 26 of whom were women.  The ride was about 34 kms. from the starting point.  Lalitha and I added another 10 kms. or so onto that to get between home and start.  We left home at 5:30; the ride started at 6:30.  Some friends have asked why so early.  Two reasons: heat and traffic.  The ride was organized by the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club.  It was well organized and very pleasant, with a fabulous breakfast at the Radisson hotel in Mahabalipuram as our reward.  There was also a break point a little past midway with water and snacks.  Jean asked if there would be a porta potty.  I doubt it I said, having yet to see one of those here.  And indeed there wasn't.  But there was a nice bathroom at the hotel, and it even had toilet paper.  And now you see, I've managed to segue into my second topic, one that I promised to write about long ago.  

The most important thing to be said about public bathrooms is that there aren't any.  Okay, maybe a very few and probably not places we'd choose to go.  There is even an organization called Sulabh International whose primary goal is to provide proper toilets, especially for public use.  It is not a trivial issues.  In the absence of such facilities, people do what they must, which is to use ditches, roadsides, railroad tracks.  It is not unusual to see men using vacant lots.  I've learned to just look the other way.  Given the number of people here who die every day from waterborne disease, sanitation is a major issue.  And its impact is felt in many ways.  Ravi says it is one of the things they must think about before the family heads out traveling.  And one of the saddest stories is one that Sheela told.  She works for a company that sells software to schools to help kids learn math.  She went to pitch their software to a school where the government had provided internet access and one computer.  The teachers just laughed at her.  Forget about math they said.  We don't even have bathrooms and because of that we can't get the girls to come to school at all.  I've included a blurb here about Sulabh.  Their website is in case you want to learn more.  I suspect they will be a charity of choice for me from now on.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak

Sociologist, social activist, and Founder of Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, Dr. Pathak believes the toilet is a tool for social change. He has received a great deal of national and international recognition for his work, including the Stockholm Water Prize in 2009, and he is considered a pioneer for social reform.

As for the toilets that exist, once again the story is best told with pictures, so scroll on down. Suffice it to say that some of the differences seem quite strange to us westerners.  Before you judge, just let me say that our habits seem just as strange (and uncouth?) to the folks here.  I've adjusted by always being prepared, which means carrying toilet paper with me.  In this respect, I haven't "gone native."  It took a while to gather the information presented here.  Bathroom etiquette can be a difficult subject to broach.  If you have questions, let me know.  I suspect this may be one of your best chances to get a straight answer.

Ready, set, go.  This is always the trickiest part of a group ride, and this was no exception.  A rider fell right in front of me just as we were taking off. Fortunately she wasn't hurt and I was able to stop before I contributed to a chain reaction.

I must have been enjoying the ride.  This is a smile, not a grimace.  And I managed to stay upright the whole time on this one!

I followed Lalitha's lead most of the ride.  We ride well together.  Either we are well matched, or she slows down to accommodate my speed.  Either way, it works.

Our breakfast spot was very pleasant.

And the food was great.  This was just my first plate, not my last.

And now on to bathrooms.  Most toilets I've seen look pretty similar to the ones back home.  But when I first got here and was dealing with jet lag, I kept trying to push the knob on top to flush.  When I finally figured out I had to pull it up, it worked just fine.

There are showers, no bathtubs.  Every shower has a shower head and also a spigot with a bucket and a cup underneath it.  This is used for "bucket baths" when one wants to freshen up but not get their hair or whole body wet.  In a place where frequent freshening up is needed due to heat and bare feet, it's a great idea.  And it saves water.

This is the "geiser," where water is heated.  There is one mounted in each bathroom.   It has to be turned on for each use, off afterwards.  Makes great sense not to be heating water when you don't need it,  and I've found that it's really fast.  Just a couple minutes is all you need.

This is the panel of switches just outside my bathroom.  The switch to the far right is for the geiser.  It took me a while to remember that up is off, down is on.  Just the kind of little thing that can be confusing at first.  The three pronged thing is an outlet that is controlled by the switch next to it.  All outlets must also be turned on and off.

This is a sign on a toilet stall in the fancy new mall where we went shopping.  There is toilet paper in this stall, as indicated by the graphic.

This is a sign on a different stall in the same bathroom.  No toilet paper here, but instead a hose next to the toilet with a little spray attachment, as indicated by the graphic.  These signs were a giant clue to help me figure out why there was no toilet paper in so many bathrooms.  The simple answer is that people here clean themselves with water, not with paper.  And then they let nature dry them off.  Sounds uncomfortable to me.  But I've read that it seems less than sanitary to people here to just be cleaning oneself with dry paper.

The hose and spray attachment.

This is the public toilet at the visitors center at Auroville.  Needless to say, not a good place to read the daily paper.  I've seen toilets like this in a couple of other public places.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Turtle Walk

(Font size is driving me crazy, which doesn't take much after being up all night.  So please be understanding.)

I went on the turtle walk last night.  This event is organized by the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network:  These folks walk the beach every night during nesting season, looking for nests, then digging up the eggs (usually more than 100 per nest) and taking them to a hatchery just up the beach.  When the eggs hatch they release the hatchlings back to the ocean.  If they don't, the eggs can get dug up by dogs or other predators, or the hatchlings will walk inland toward the bright lights rather than toward the ocean.  Instinct tells them to head to the light, which works well unless there is light pollution.  There are groups all over India, and the world I believe, who do this.  Here the nesting season runs from early January through end of March.  During that time, they invite volunteers to join them on Friday and Saturday nights.  

I signed up for last night, when the moon was almost full.  The event begins at 11 PM, and I arrived at the beach, escorted by Ravi, at about 10:45.  There was a small group of college students there, and I joined them.  Nice young folks, acting like young folks act.  They were from all over India, so they spoke English, the one language they all had in common.  About 11:10 others started to arrive. The event organizers finally arrived about 11:30, and we got started soon thereafter.  About 50 of us altogether.  I was a good 15 years older than the next oldest person there, and the only non-Indian.  Most of the participants were probably between 16 and 21.

The event starts with information sharing and discussion.  About turtles, about the environment, about issues, about activism.  There are seven species of sea turtles.  The one species that nests here on this beach is the Olive Ridley.  You can read more about them here. Like all sea turtles, their survival is threatened by human activity.  Two major issues are light pollution and fishing nets.  This group has been trying to deal with those problems at a higher level, but in the meantime they walk the beaches to ensure that at least some hatchlings survive.  They use the opportunity to educate folks, especially students, about the issues.

Discussion started slowly, but finally got going.  A resident activist said that poverty isn't the problem, properity is;  to solve world hunger, we first need to address over-consumption.  One of the young folks said the whole problem is that people don't know when they have enough, an idea I've been musing about, especially now that I've realized I need a third suitcase to get all my stuff home!  The walk was a time of reflection for me.  Staying up all night, walking along the Bay of Bengal with a bunch of kids when the moon is almost full can have that effect.  Especially after several months of visiting ashrams and temples and studying the Yoga Sutras.

This was not a walk in Paradise, like walking the beach at Cinnamon Bay.  This is more like Paradise Lost because of the litter and pollution.  We walked past several fishing villages, each being guarded by a pack of barking, growling dogs.  And the villages were very active.  At 1 to 4 in the morning, we saw small boats coming in with their catch, others just going out.  How they manage those tiny boats in the ocean with such high surf is beyond me.  By the way, these small fisherman are not a problem.  They are also concerned about the turtles.  It is the corporate trawlers who flout the law, refusing to use nets with escape hatches for the turtles and fishing close to shore.  Both illegal, but common practice here.

We found two nests where the eggs had already hatched, saved three hatchlings, and found a dead turtle.  Our walk finished at about 4:20, at which point I called Ravi for a ride home.  Bless his heart!  I finally got to bed a little around 5:30 and slept till about 9.  Please attribute all typos and incoherence to my short night!

The pictures, such as they are, tell more about the walk.

Starting the walk, after the discussion.

Digging for the eggs.  In this case, all of the eggs had already hatched.

They can tell from these tracks that the hatchlings from this nest had headed inland toward the lights.

We fan out, combing the area for surviving hatchlings.

Success!  Three hatchlings were found.

The hatchlings were put down close to the ocean and guided out to sea by a flashlight.

One of them had a very hard time moving at all, but eventually made it with a little help from friends.  Will they survive?

We send our blessings out to sea with them.  The older, dressed up folks at the back here just stopped by at this point, mostly for photos with some of the walkers.  My guess is that they were grandparents.

A dead turtle that had washed up on the beach since the previous night.  They have found more than 200 such turtles just along this 7 km. stretch of beach this season.  No marks on them, so it is assumed they drowned, trapped in fishing nets.

When tracks indicate that a turtle has come on shore, these volunteers try to find the nest by probing the sand with a small metal rod.  The sand has a different feel where a nest has been dug.  It isn't always easy to find, because the tracks have been wiped out by footprints.  Last night they finally had to give up, so we didn't rescue any turtle eggs.  They'll be out again tonight, looking.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Rambling about Chennai

I've been kind of restless lately.  Very aware that I'll be leaving here, what has come to feel like home, in about two weeks.  I'm trying not to get ahead of myself.  After all, I am still here and have some pretty interesting things planned.  Continued studies of the Yoga Sutras, an all night walk along the beach looking for turtle eggs with a conservation group.  A "pink ride" on bikes for a belated celebration of International Women's Day, and an overnight bike ride, if things go as planned.  And even when I leave here, March 29, I still have 5 more weeks in India.  But last night I couldn't sleep, and after 2 cups of coffee this morning, I realized why.  It's time to start planning my return trip!  More about that later.  I do miss some things about home.  I miss my friends and family.  And as I told my friend Brian, I miss doing things like cooking meals, washing clothes, grocery shopping.  (Then he mentioned Walmart, and I had to think twice about that.)  All this being waited on is really too much sometimes.  I'm not complaining, just sayin'.

This is called the Natesa, better known to most of us as the Dancing Shiva.  This is one of hundreds of beautiful bronze statues we viewed yesterday.  No photography was allowed.  This comes from the museum website, where there are many more.

Ravi and I spent a very enjoyable few hours yesterday at the Government Art Miseum.  The bronze gallery was impressive.  Lots of very well preserved, very old beautiful bronze statues of Shiva in all his manifestations, of his consort Parvati  in all her manifestations, of Ganesh, of Murugan, of Vishnu, of Lakshmi, of Rama.  The whole bunch of them.  I'm still trying to figure out who they all are.  A very western thing to do I'm sure.  They aren't meant to be figured out.  I hate to admit it, but I want to draw a chart and put them all in categories.  

We also went to the state library, which is located on the same grounds as the museum.  I wondered out loud.  How much overlap is there between the books in this library and the state library in Columbus, OH, for example.  How many of these books have never been checked out?  They still use the old-fashioned way of stamping the due date on a flap in the book, so we started looking to see.  We did find a few, just in our short investigation, that had never been checked out.  And there were ones that had been checked out many times that made us shrug our shoulders or chuckle.  Like "Care and Feeding of Your Husband" which had been quite popular.

I've collected quite a few pictures of Chennai that don't necessarily fit a topic.  They just show life here, in all it's chaos, vibrancy, noise, insanity, creativity, resilience.  I could go on and on with adjectives.  Chennai is everything I dislike about cities.  I'll be glad to go, and yet I want to stay.  I will miss it.  I am experiencing  all the contradictions that are India.  They are real.  

So, about that return trip.  I'm thinking probably the fall of 2015.  A couple weeks in Chennai doing a yoga workshop with Ravi, then a couple weeks trekking in the Himalayas, then a couple weeks in Bhutan, where they measure Gross National Happiness rather than GDP.  I ran it past Ravi, and he thinks it sounds like a great idea.  Anybody want to come along?  Seriously.  It will be an adventure you will never forget!

So on to the pictures.  Some speak for themselves.  Others will have commentary.  Many were taken from the car.  Most are pretty ordinary scenes of people just living their lives here in Chennai.  First a few more from the museum and library.

The museum buildings and grounds are magnificent.

There were statues located outside as well as inside.  This one was labeled Jheshta.  There were several others that were similar and had the same label.  Ravi didn't know anything about it, and I couldn't find anything very helpful online either.  If you know, please comment.

This book had actually been checked out a couple times, but not as much as the one about care and feeding of your husband.

One of the groups performing at the women's day celebration.  It was interesting to see how much he was able to communicate through hand gestures.

It's not a trek or a surly, but it has been very nice to have to ride here.

Indrani looking particularly beautiful again.  Today she showed me how to make vegetable Koothu. And she just now gave me a glass of watermelon juice, which is very refreshing in this heat.  I will miss her, and not just because of her cooking.

Every day I walk or ride past the press wallah, the guy who does all the ironing, including for the Shankars.  This day I asked him if I could take a picture, and he agreed.  He heats his iron with coal.  Ravi said that it would cost more to have the ironing done at home due to the cost of electricity.

This is the house right behind the press wallah.  Did I mention that India is a land of contradictions?

Nap time.  Look closely.

Retired from its days of being a carousel for small children on the beach.

India would be a safer place if people followed this advice.  I read not too long ago that there are no atheists on Indian roads.  We are all praying we will make it to our destination safely.