Tag Archives: Tamil Nadu

Goodbye to the Salem Network…

While Sellappan ran some errands, I spent the day relaxing and playing with the millions of photos we’d taken on our trips. Zubair popped over and we all had some snacks thanks to Sellappan’s mam.

Later in the evening, Sellappan and I went to see the Doctor at his surgery. As we were chatting there was a sudden rush of patients, so we left and Sellappan took me to a department store where he wanted to get a souvenir for me. He ended up choosing a stainless steel dinner set – I had asked for a plate, which was included in the set – and he got it engraved with the dates of my trip. It’s common practice to engrave cookware with names. As Sellappan’s birthday was coming up, he also needed to get some party supplies like paper cups and plates, so we got those too.

We paid a visit to a kitchen showroom for Sellappan’s mam, accompanied by Zubair. We also went quickly to a CD/DVD shop to get the soundtrack for Highway, the Hindi film we had enjoyed so much. We even managed to squeeze in a few more minutes with the Doctor, seeing as his rush had subsided.

We went to a restaurant and met up with the whole Salem network for a meal. The young waiter ran around for us like the floor was made lava, and we got lots of different dishes. I finished off my meal with a sweet lime juice which was very tasty. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to everyone, and we left to the sound of “Happy Birthday” and “Safe journey home”.

 

Last Minute Rush to Wait – and Geocache 13, not so unlucky

Today we finished up lots of little odds and ends, but first we paid a visit to Naveen and Ashwini, who wanted Sellappan to come with them to view a property they were thinking of moving to. Once we’d had a look around and a chat about it, Sellappan and I went to the Forum mall. We went for a geocache first – my first attempt in India (GLDJ1M23). There aren’t many in India at all, but there are a couple in Bangalore and this one was close to Sellappan’s place so we were able to go for it in the morning before work. Thanks to the hint, we got to the right spot almost immediately. Unfortunately, there were lots of people around, and while we were surreptitiously searching, someone came up to us to ask for money. Eventually Sellappan persuaded them they were on a hiding to nothing and we zeroed in on the likely spot. I couldn’t see anything obvious at first, but sitting down on the wall for a think we dismissed most places around us until only one remained. Sellappan stuck his hand down the back of the likely spot and bingo! Cache in hand! The log was signed and the cache was replaced quickly.

Signing the log book.
Signing the log book at the bus stand.

We crossed back to the mall for the next few tasks. We went to a bookshop and I got some comics as a gift, and got three books for myself in case I needed something to read on the plane. One of these was a second copy of The White Tiger, a book which I had enjoyed before visiting India – I wondered if it would feel the same having been there. We also managed to find a Chumbak store to get the motorbike shirt we’d seen when we were waiting for Sujay and Kallu at the cinema across town. Time was running out, so with everything stuffed into my backpack, Sellappan dropped me off at the flat with some brunch before going to work.

After work, we were making full use of the fact that Mohan and Kowshalya were back in town, and so went out for dinner with them to a restaurant specialising in food from Andhra Pradesh. We had to wait a little while before getting into the restaurant and getting seated which normally isn’t a problem, but we had a bus to catch! Sellappan, Mohan and I enjoyed some non-veg dishes while Kowshalya stuck to the veggie options. We left it at that and paid the bill before rushing back to the flat, picking up our bags and heading for the night bus to Salem via rickshaw.

We made it with some time to spare, and then Mohan and Kowshalya appeared on their bike to keep us company. It was really nice of them to do so, especially as we ended up waiting ages for the bus which was late! Eventually we got on and Mohan and Kowshalya disappeared off into the night.

We hadn’t managed to get our usual seats of 17 and 18, and ended up sitting in the back row of the bus, which felt very strange after always sitting in the middle. Clearly this didn’t bother me as much as I thought, as the next thing I knew I was waking up on the outskirts of Salem, with Sellappan laughing at me because I’d actually managed to nod off before he did. My bus sleeping level: Advanced.

We got off at Salem bus station and got to Sellappan’s house by taxi, and had a nice morning’s sleep on beds that didn’t move.

Horizontal Living/Are we on fire?

Horizontal living in the very, very literal sense happened today, at least for Sellappan. I sat up on the sofa while he lay on the living room floor. Another day of relaxation with home cooking and films was very welcome.

We took Casper up to the roof and Sellappan tired him out with fetch as the bucket filled. Once Casper was just about worn out, he submitted to the dog shampoo, dousings with water and scrubbing quite happily, thoroughly enjoying the attention and rarely soaking us with a shake. He smelled loads better after his bath!

We headed to the bus station late in the evening, and Sellappan bumped into a schoolfriend who had booked the seat behind us. We settled in for our standard commute back to Bangalore. Just as I was wondering if the air conditioning was sucking in fumes from the bus in front, someone came from the back of the bus to speak to the driver, and asked him to stop.

The smell was getting stronger, and the driver eventually pulled over and we turned around to see the back of the bus beginning to fill up with blue-grey smoke. We all got off the bus, and looked around the back where smoke was pouring out. Initially it was thought that the AC unit was malfunctioning, but it turned out that the engine was overheating!

The driver and conductor started making phone calls to the bus company, and sure enough, a couple more buses stopped to help. After a while standing under the stars and speculating what was happening, yet another half-full bus turned up and there was space for some passengers to jump on and continue their journey, which Sellappan and I did. We ended up on the conductor’s hard sideways seat at the front of the bus.

I watched out of the front for the rest of the journey, denied the joy of reclining by having to sit on the strange seat. Sellappan got some sleep (of highly dubious quality) before we arrived at around 4am in Bangalore. After the usual rickshaw ride home we did our standard catch up nap.

Wash It

While I have had the luxury of some quiet times in Bangalore between trips, Sellappan has been working those hours to ensure he has enough leave to travel with me – and to keep his manager on side! This weekend being just over halfway through my visit it seemed reasonable to have a more chilled out weekend at home. That, and he really needed to wash the dog. And his clothes.

We woke up at Ashwini and Naveen’s place at 6 and caught a rickshaw to where the buses stop. This was at a flower market, and we stood on the corner as people were laying out their metres and metres of garlands behind us. The combination of the thick jasmine scent and the diesel of the buses was very odd indeed!

Plenty of buses sailed past until Sellappan chose the one he wanted to flag down, the 3.33, so numbered because that’s how long it takes the bus to get from Electronic City back to Salem. Sellappan caught some extra sleep while I watched the world go by outside, which was interesting as it was only the second daylight trip I’ve taken by bus in India.

We arrived to the house late in the morning, and had a lazy day to top all lazy days. Sellappan washed the bikes with minimal interference from me, and I made a call home while he polished them. Sellappan ran some errands in the evening.

Auroville, Mangroves and the Loud DJ

We started the day nice and early, leaving the house to get into a guided tour of Auroville. Balu had obtained passes for Sellappan, Jay and I to go on the tour. Children aren’t allowed to go on the tour, so Shalini looked after the bairn. Once we arrived we went into a small auditorium set up for videos. The 15 minute video explained the history and ideology behind the site. After the video we were herded onto minibuses and driven to the centre of the community, the Matrimandir.

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The Matrimandir was only completed fairly recently, and had been designed over thirty years ago by a French architect, working to the specifications of Mother. We handed over our bags at the kiosk and then joined the rest of the group and listened to the correct procedures for going inside, what to do when inside and when and where to come out. Even the area leading up to the entrance was a designated quiet zone.

We took off our shoes and headed down between two of the brick ‘petals’ to the West entrance. Inside the light was very dim, and two spiral walkways starting at opposite sides of the circle curved up to the meditation hall. There were also four skinny sluices with water running down a golden channels to the lotus pool far below. The architecture here was white carpets, with walls of white granite or marble, and the walkways were lined by glass panels. The overall effect was certainly impressive. We were given white socks to cover our feet and the progressed up the spiral walkway to the main hall.

The main hall is huge, and all of the surfaces are white marble, except the floor which is carpeted in white. Twelve slim pillars hold up the ceiling, and in the centre of the room there is a big crystal ball, probably about twice the size of my head. Everyone sits facing this ball. This crystal ball serves as a focusing point – somewhere to put your eyes as you contemplate. This crystal ball is also the source of all the light in the room. When available, sunlight is focused down into as narrow ray and through the roof into the ball. This ray continues through the ball and down into a smaller ball placed in the centre of a white marble lotus flower with water running down the petals to the centre. After spending some time in the upper hall, we came down to the lotus pool and spent some time there.

On the way out, we passed one of the twelve smaller meditation rooms, each housed in one of the petals. As Balu had explained yesterday, each room has a theme such as power or bliss, different coloured lighting to promote that feeling and is egg-shaped inside. These themes were the extended to the gardens coming out from each petal. The gardens are still under construction.

When we came out we headed back to the bus and to the visitor centre to meet Shalini and the little one, and went for breakfast. We went to a Starbucks-style cafe with sandwiches and cakes, and got a veggie sandwich and chocolate brownie for breakfast. All that contemplation had been hard work after all.

Back at home, we waited for Balu to come back from his excursion to say goodbye to him and his family, then headed off in the car towards Picharvaram, a mangrove forest. On the way we stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant which conveniently had a playground right next to it! Around the playground there were some fallen unripe coconuts, so we played a few games of catch and there was juggling, of course. Turns out they’re the perfect size and weight for that!

The road to Picharvaram took us though lots of small, rural villages, past plenty of bright green rice fields, goats and cows. We got to Picharvaram at about 4pm, and were lucky enough to get a boat ride almost straight away. We went out in a row boat with a guide who looked like he’d spent his whole life rowing tourists around the place. From the boathouse on the shore it was about ten minutes to cross to the mangroves, and from there you could take any trail through the vegetation which grew straight out of the salty water. The water itself was only a couple of feet deep and at the bottom there was muddy silt, which occasionally sucked at the oars of the boat.

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As we went up and down the green lanes, wading birds flapped away, and kingfisher type birds stayed motionless on the roots. Tiny bright silver fish leapt out of the water in sunny patches, and little gangs of silt brown crabs clambered over the roots and each other, hunting for food. In a quiet spot we came a cross a woman fishing by hand for these crabs, moving silently up to her neck in the water, with her catch net between her teeth, busily grabbing the crabs from the roots. I wonder how many nips she got as thanks!

Our ride lasted around an hour, and we got back to dry land and into the car, bound for Pondicherry. The sun set as we drive back through the rice fields and Sellappan and I said goodbye to Jay, Shalini and little Krishita outside the Hotel Accord in Pondicherry. We had a couple of hours to kill before our night bus left at ten, so we passed some time in the bar with plenty of snacks to replace dinner.

We had arrived fairly early and there was only us and another group in the bar. Nevertheless when the DJ turned up he switched on all the psychedelic lights and cranked up the dance music. The other group left, and Sellappan and I shouted at each other for a few minutes before realising the place was empty, so we asked the very attentive barman if the music could be turned down to a slightly less deafening level. He replied apologetically that unfortunately the DJ was hired to bring the party, so he wouldn’t be able to turn down the music. Sellappan and I both found this pretty funny, but didn’t press the issue!

We got to the bus station by rickshaw and boarded the bus, this one didn’t have air conditioning but it did have windows and you get a good breeze going on the highway! After chatting until about midnight I managed to get at least four hours sleep and a great deal more dozing besides. As usual, Sellappan did an excellent job of sleeping through the bounciest and noisiest sections of the drive. We arrived at Bangalore at around 6am and got a rickshaw back to the flat for a bit of proper sleep.

Mahabalipuram , Pondicherry, ELEPHANT!, Auroville

We got up and piled in the car for the drive to (eventually) Pondicherry. There were a few stops to be made on the way, though…

We headed first to Mahabalipuram, and stopped at a hotel for breakfast. For a change, I had poori, which are sort of like balloons made from chappatti. I’m not really sure how else to describe them! They come with some chutneys and sambar, and you pop them first to let the steam out before mopping up the gravy. In the street there were gap year people aplenty, all skinny, sunburnt and dreadlocked. The unusual hairstyle led to questions from Jay, who wasn’t really impressed when I let him know how it is achieved!

We continued to the Shore Temple, a world heritage site on the coast. We got tickets (10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners, again Jay was not impressed). This small ancient temple has certainly suffered from its placement on the sea, with the wind and salty air constantly eroding the carvings, but people are working to preserve it. The temple itself is small, and you can only just squeeze in and walk around the tower. There were ancient Tamil inscriptions in the surrounding rocks, as well as many statues. The sun here was unforgiving, and most of the foreigners were starting to slowly boil. Naturally this was an opportunity for lots of pictures of ourselves standing in front of the famous thing!

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On the way out there were ice creams and mango sticks (basically a mango flavoured mivvy, yum) and then we took a very short drive to the Five Rathas, another ancient site, with spectacular statues. The central attraction is the huge stone elephant, and of course there were many pictures to be taken here too. I also caught a bit of shade in the pillared buildings while watching the families queueing up for their stone elephant picture.

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We escaped from the crowds back to the car and headed for Pondicherry, where a (more modern) temple visit was in the plan, but we went for dinner first in a hotel, which was quite western to my eyes. The menu contained a mix of south Indian food and European dishes. Krishita had some chips with her food while the rest of us went for rice and nan with our curry – no one could resist pinching a few chips though.

We got into Pondi proper and the first thing to strike me was the Frenchness of the place. It was very strange to see the blue street signs with rue de la something and the Tamil script above.

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There were lots of European tourists/ex pats about, and the usual bothering to buy souvenirs switched subtly from “madam” to “madame”. There were also a lot of cafes and restaurants with French sounding names, although I wasn’t convinced by the one offering Indian, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and Italian cuisine. Seemed like a bit of a stretch to do all of those things well! We left our shoes in the car and walked to the temple on the hot road.

We waited in the busy street for the temple to open, while market traders sold flowers, souvenirs and food behind us. When the temple opened we bowled in with the crowd and filed through the railings to visit Ganesh. Somehow we got stuck in the slow lane again, but eventually got through and made the rest of our visit.

We came out of the temple and headed to Sri Aurobindo ashram, but what should Sellappan spot but an elephant lumbering through the market. I don’t think much prepares you for the sight of a huge elephant striding through a busy street, with only passing interest from the crowd! The elephant was painted and was on her way to the temple to give blessings, so we decided to visit her after the ashram.

I didn’t know at the time but this ashram is linked with Auroville which we visited later. Upon entering the ashram, silence is mandatory so I didn’t have the chance to ask any questions! The ashram had gardens full of flowers, and then a central table filled with picked flowered arranged in intricate designs. We sat there for a while, and then exited through the gift shop as is traditional. The large shop sold works by the founder in many, many languages, as well as texts on meditation and spirituality.

Of course, all I wanted to do was meet the elephant, so off we all went to where she was standing outside the temple. Sellappan gave me a two rupee coin and told me to give it to the elephant and she would bless me by bopping me on the head with her trunk. I considered this for a moment (how do you give an elephant a tiny coin?) but he went first to give an example. The coin goes in the crook of her trunk, and then vanishes. Then, she lifts up her trunk, and touches you on the head with it – it feels like getting hit on the head gently with a heavy cushion.

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The elephant trainer was a slim man with a tiny stick, and he kept the elephant supplied with water and food, as well as collecting the silver coins sprayed out of her trunk. He also fed Lakshimi (the elephant’s name) football-sized balls of rice straight to her mouth. She wore two silver anklets that jungled as she shifted around.

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Just then we had a call from Balu who was passing through Pondicherry to pick us up and show the way to his house. We left Lakshimi behind and followed him to his place outside the town. After meeting the family and freshening up we went to Auroville, his and his mother’s hometown. Auroville isn’t just any old place though. I think the closest word I have in my vocabulary is a commune, but it describes itself as an International Community.

Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman “Mother” and started its life as a red soil desert. What is there now is a town of about 2500 people, which is fairly self-sufficient and run on green power, with lots of organic farming. Aurovillians are all paid the same amount regardless of their job in the community, and everyone is expected to work 9-5, Monday to Friday at whatever job they do. Auroville looks after you in return, including housing and healthcare, you also have access to its education programme and evening activities which teach a huge range of skills.

Balu grew up in Auroville with his mam in a house periodically visited by snakes in the woods. Auroville accepts citizens from all over the world, and membership is not easy to achieve, Thorough background checks, questions bout ideology and trial runs in the community are just three of the hurdles to jump. There is a great sense of peace and tranquillity  inside the town, and the whole place is beautifully maintained and manicured. It was only through Bali’s invitation that we were able to come in at all.

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It was sunset as we walked around the grounds towards the Matrimandir, the enormous meditation hall. This hall is covered with huge mosaicked concave discs, made from tiles of glass and gold leaf. The Matrimandir is almost in the centre of the community, but the actual centre is an enormous tree which grew from one trunk, and then put down roots from its branches to form the 33 trunks it now has. It is a single-organism mini forest!

Next, Balu took us to the house he grew up in in the middle of the woods. There was no lighting, so we went by the light of phone screens and Baku’s sense of direction until we reached his place. On the way there he told us about how his mam used to find snake skins in cupboards. Sitting in his second home we chatted, and a little orange lizard ran under the door to investigate, it quickly changed its mind and zipped back outside again!

We returned to Balu’s house outside Auroville for a family dinner cooked by his mam and his wife. They filled our plates until we could take no more! Balu’s house is a new build, and has only recently been finished. There are three storeys above ground and a basement which has space for lots of guests, lucky for us! The air conditioning in the room was a real blessing too and after such a busy day sleep was very welcome.

Paying Visits in Chennai

Chennai is the capital city of Tamil Nadu, and is on the coast. The climate is hotter and more humid than Bangalore.

We woke up to breakfast by Shalini, and soon Krishita, Jay and Shalini’s daughter, was home from nursery. She immediately wanted to tell me all of her rhymes – she has a book of them and recites lots of them for English practice at nursery. She reeled off about a hundred of these before Shalini managed to get her to have some lunch.

Sellappan and I went on the grand tour of Chennai, and the first stop was Madras University, which we reached via a road going along the beach where Sellappan, Alka and the gang passed many a spare hour. We walked around the campus and Sellappan introduced me to a few of his teachers.

Next on the list was present shopping for the friends and relatives Sellappan has in the area, or more accurately, for their kids. We spent some time in a department store and picked up toys and clothes for a variety of ages and then headed downstairs again to get them giftwrapped. Meanwhile, I made a quick phone call to a patchworker to wish her many happy returns.

Our next stop was Loyola, another beautiful set of buildings which we weren’t allowed to photograph. Sellappan reminisced with his teachers and told me stories of his time there. We stopped for milk (I had mango milk, Sellappan had blackcurrant) to rehydrate and then it was time for the next visit.

Sellappan’s sister-in-law Renuka lives on the other side of Chennai with his nephew, Raghav. They were just coming back from school and we went to their place for a quick visit and passed on Raghav’s birthday gift to him. He was very excited to see Sellappan and showed him all of his toys, lining up dinosaurs and elephants for inspection.

After a little while we headed home to meet Shalini, Jay and Krishita to go out for dinner. We went to a restaurant specialising in middle eastern food, and had a mixed grill with hummus to start, and then Indian food to finish off. The restaurant was busy as it was Friday as well as being Valentine’s day. We ended the evening by going to the beach, and played in the sand with Krishita, much to her delight! She really loves playing in the sand, almost as much as she loves copying Shalini cooking with her toys.

Back at the flat we gave Krishita her gift of mini stainless steel pots and pans and cooking utensils. She cooked us up a mean invisible chicken biriyani before we went to bed.