Sunday, February 12, 2012

Letter from India 2


 
Day 5

I climbed a sacred mountain.

In the temple at the top

the sadhu sang
his long clear notes

while we sat cross legged,
backs against the stone wall
hypnotised by his song

and the monkeys fought like dogs
outside the temple windows

and we waited for our companions.


6.30 a.m. Josie's alarm goes off. I am already awake but I still groan and moan as I swing my legs out, twist this way and that to get the creaking bones moving. The shower is lukewarm and spreads to cover the entire tiny bathroom and everything in it. I switch to the bucket and scoop. Contact-lens in, sun cream factor 50 on my face and then we are out on the main road and in a tuk-tuk, sorry auto, they call it here – thats ‘ow-toe’ – not the English pronunciation.

We meet at the 'stolen sandals ashram' (Ramana Maharshi) and take off our shoes to walk across, along the marble sacred walkway round the temple, over the compound and out the other side, where we put our shoes back on. Warren has come fully equipped, he has heavy climbing boots and socks. I wear my new 300 rupee (£3.50) sports sandals, the soles are quite thick and they strap behind my heels, as well as across the foot. They are not glamorous, but functional. I also wear a long blue cotton dress, with a dark blue linen short-sleeve shirt over it. It’s hot already, the thought of wearing big boots and thick socks is unbearable.

Jenny leaps on ahead - we are at first walking up a gentle sloped rock path, I see her blonde head, pale green ¾ trousers and long cream cotton shirt disappearing round a corner in the distance. I keep my attention on my feet as the rocks are uneven. I find myself leading the rest of our little group but as the slope gets steeper and my breath is beginning to come in short gasps, I am overtaken and soon am at the back with just Teresa (who had the operation last year) behind me. Where’s Josie though? I think she must be up ahead as I haven’t seen her for ages.



At an opening in the path after about 20 minutes some large rocks are there and a kind of ancient sadhu figure, awaits us, welcoming – he speaks broken English and tells us the story about the Maharishi and how he meditated alone for 17 years at the top of this mountain – Jane has already told us this. We and a prosperous looking Tamil business man with wife and young daughter listen. The sadhu starts to talk in a rehearsed, public address sort of a way. He is dressed in a clean white dhoti and has white paint stripes across his chest and a red smudge on his forehead. He has very bad teeth. Once I have my breath, I wait for a pause in his flow and quietly get up and walk on. The others follow – Jenny has disappeared into the mists above, so has Warren I think.

At the top another old man in a white dhoti tells us to take off our shoes before reaching the temple. I take mine off but carry them with me, he becomes distraught, so I reluctantly put them down near the temple door, hidden. Jenny gives me a look - I frown at her – I don’t want another pair stolen. We go in and on the left is a narrow darkish room with a small window and smooth rock floor where people sit cross legged. Straight ahead is a small doorway – inside is dark, low ceilinged and a few people are sitting in there too. It looks claustrophobicto me, so I move to the left and the others follow. Warren finds a plastic chair and I sit on a small grubby rag cloth between him and Jenny. There are 5 others in the tiny space. We sit in silence and try and meditate – inside that other dark room, a sadhu starts a sing-song chant, his voice clear and pure holds long notes. It induces a trance like state in us listeners.

When we leave we’re guided a different way down – rock steps, past a hawker of small stone carvings. I wonder again where is Josie – a missed shopping opportunity, but if she was behind us somewhere on the way up, we won’t pass that way on this route.The quality of the objects are OK and the hawker does not pester you like they do in say … Egypt. However the same barter rules apply. The hawker quotes a silly price. You offer a third of that price. He appears to be shocked by your appalling callousness, don't you know the workmanship, the cost of the materials, the family to feed etc. He offers the original price with 10% off, you start to walk away, he comes down you look round without expressing much interest. When the price reaches half his original quote, you agree to it if its something you want. I buy a small carved heartstone which starts at 200 rupees for 90 rupees.

When we get to the bottom, we are in a tiny back street. We pass 4 girls in bright coloured saris at a sweet stall with large jars, then a tailor at work on an old Singer sewing machine with a foot pedal in a dusty hut. Jenny says ‘your shirt’s ripped at the back – ask him to fix it.’ I take off the shirt and hand it too him, showing him the hole, near the arm-pit – he does the Indian head nodding thing and turns it this way and that with expert fingers. He respools the cotton on the shuttle fast and places a small patch on the inside seam of the shirt, zooming back and forth with his machine. It is done in a few minutes and virtually invisible. I have only a 100 rupee note to offer as payment, expecting he might ask more. Clearly we are Westerners. He takes it to the stall next door and gets change and gives me 80 back. He has charged me 20 rupees – about 12p! I thank him.


Four of us cram on a tuk tuk, me in front next to the driver, I nearly fall out twice as he swerves to avoid girls in red saris,large lorries and cows with big horns. We get to a coffee stall and our coffee is served in tiny aluminium cups inside a small flat bottomed bowl, it is thick and frothy with what could be carnation milk. The sign says Best Coffee in India. Watching the men who come to buy coffee there, we sit on benches outside, we see that you pour the coffee into the bowl, then back into the cup to cool.Two men are eating something from the stall next door – a kind of hot ball of doughy stuff with vegetables inside – deep fried – we buy some and eat out of a square cut piece of newspaper – straight from the hot oil. It is delicious.

Then we get a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. Josie is there in a bad mood. She had not climbed far up the mountain and had waited for us at the bottom, for hours, she is cross (she says ‘upset’). I explain what happened. She stays cross for a while then gets over it eventually. She and I go walking down the dusty side lane to a place that does pedicures. A man in his thirties puts us in a room with two beautiful giggly young girls in saris who work on our tired feet, trimming, massaging, and painting toe nails. Then we go back to the hotel. Josie goes off to get an outfit she has bought in a nearbye shop altered again.
I take a bag of washing down to reception. How much to wash this much I say. The young man gabbles at me, then takes the bag and starts rifling through. I snatch it back,it contains my underwear as well as dresses etc. I tell him he is a man and cannot do that with my washing. A woman in a sari is sweeping the floor – he says something to her, she smiles and picks up the bag, takes it to the back of the wide open reception area and tips the contents on the floor and starts rifling through the contents. It appears she is counting the items and their size for pricing purposes. I am now furious and embarassed – my unwashed underwear amd clothes are strewn across the floor for all to see – I snatch it all up, put it back in the bag and stomp off to my room. I'd rather wash it myself thanks. I am upset (very cross). Later I buy my own washing soap.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Letters from India

I was in India in January and while there, I wrote a series of emails to family and friends at home about the experian. It began to almost seem like a book... maybe it will be one day... here is the first letter:

Letter from India 1
Anna Meryt
January 2012
Day One

The heat crept up on me. We arrived at 3 am, fell in to bed – it was 5 hours ahead. Three days later I'm still dozing off from jetlag. That first day, after breakfast, me and two of our group decided to go down the high street shops – well shacks really. By the time we got half way down the road our faces were wet and our clothes sticking to us.
Who were my companions? Josie, who I have been 'buddied' with after drawing lots. Short and stout, after a few days I realise she is an obsessive shopaholic. She dives into clothes shops and hunts for Indian shalwar shamiz with generous cuts, then fusses for hours and returns back and forth to the shops getting them to alter here or there. She also says she's psychic and gives us all home spun philosophy lectures – a lot. She reckons she knows and has it all sorted. However as she's never travelled anywhere before, she is terrified of walking up the road to the ATM, unless one of us goes with her.
The leader of our little band ('I'm not the leader, I just said I was going if anyone wanted to come') is Jane - seventy something, active, thick white hair, she came with the most minimalist baggage I’ve ever seen – one medium size half empty rucksack, very light. Unlike me with my medium size but packed to bursting suitcase and rucksack. Jane is kindly warm, friendly and is I think....a devotee of this Ramana Maharashi who's dead – more of him later. She is also a devotee of all things Indian - she wears pale coloured shalwar shimez (long top and baggy trousers) and introduces us early into eating with your fingers. I'm afraid I look with distaste at her curry covered fingers and think, No thanks, for the first day or so. By the 3rd day I've given up somewhat – rice dished onto banana leaves, and little pots of different veg curries in a circle around – she says it's called 'a meal' and that when we get to the ashrams that's the only way to eat – they don't do cutlery. She says we must always eat with our right hands, the left hand is considered the hand you clean your backside with, most unhygienic (unhygenic? Here? Have they looked out the window at the filthy hovels all around, the huts and kiosks that do for shops, the piles of rotting refuse on the roadsides everywhere, the stinking fetid mosquito ridden pools of dirty water trailing along the verge in so many villages?? the dirty canals where women wash their multi coloured saris and just round the corner they’re used as a urinal. Unhygienic – they are having a laugh....)
The rest of the group – Warren – mid sixties,the only male, large belly, wears Nelson Mandela tops and a variety of Nigerian type embroidered fez, retired shrink, mixed race doesn't like women crying in public, likes things to follow an agenda – says it's a male thing, doesn't like all that touchy feely women stuff. However he's fine – you know where you are with him.
Jenny – mid 50s has escaped from 7 - YES that's 7 children + grandchildren – calls herself a novice at all this – 'you all seem to have done lots of reading and studying about religions and philosophies. I'm new to it all, I don't know where I am with all this..’ Beginner's mind I tell her – great place to be – 'I'm confused', she says. Considering the tribe of children she has given birth to, she's slim and attractive, blonde hair tucked behind her ears. Very unsure of herself.
Delia – maybe late sixties, rather smart – wears silver greys and soft beiges that suit her, pale hair, pulled back – softly spoken with a pukka English accent, age indeterminate – anywhere from mid 50s up ( much later I am shocked to discover she’s 70). She’s not slim but clothes hide it well, feminine, softly spoken. Except yesterday, I got a shock when I looked at her bare feet, she was sitting opposite me – I swear she has the feet of a troll, large solid feet, heavily planted on the ground. They do not go with the rest of her – I have to stop myself from staring at her feet.
Teresa– shaved head looks like a buddhist nun – wears these fabulous deep pink and mustard shalwar shamiz, she's not a nun though – she's had a lumpectomy and chemo. She is chatty and warm and honest and a bit of philosopher too. Her shaven head is a beautiful shape – it suits her..
Helen – very tall, short curly white hair, rather ungainly looking, very quiet, doesn’t give much away,
Ok, so two nights in a hotel – the beach is 200 metres past the restaurant, but we're not talking the Med here. We walked down there on the morning of our first day, a few of us. One person trod in what appeared to be human excrement, the sand was littered with rubbish, big waves were rushing in – we all had a paddle and then returned to the swimming pool and didn't go back there. It seems some of the poorer dwellings further along the beach don't have toilet facilities – so their main toilet is the beach....
Breakfast in the hotel was buffet style – long help yourself tables -you picked up a big round lime green plastic tray – small round cakes of rice next to curry sauce, fruit salad, curds, muesli, truly disgusting powdered coffee, paratha pancakes with syrup, small ripe bananas, thin overcooked toast, curry. Afterwards I go for a walk in the tiny village around the hotel. Each road has something new and exciting to photograph, colours, colours, splashed from a paintbox, clashing colours seem to work here, bright pinks and greens, ochres, blues and reds, yellows and gold and turquoise, many of the houses have facades painted with these colours, I take lots of pictures ….girls in gorgeous saris ride past on motorbikes, I take more pictures. Many houses have reliefs and sculptures on the top of Ganesh etc, again painted exotic colours.






Day 3
We’re picked up and drove in a mini bus for 4 hours to reach Ramana Maharsha Ashram. Lush green scenery, rice paddy fields flashed past. Going through towns and villages, everyone blowing their horns, skid round wandering sacred cows, yellow tuk-tuks (small 3-wheel passenger vehicle), huge lorries with garlands of flowers draped inside the cabin and round the front grille and pictures of exotic deites, Ganesh (the elephant god) Shiva and Lakshmi and Krishna, brightly coloured paintings decorate the cabs.
We pass a huge group walking in single file along the road, of girls and women in deep red saris. I take lots of photos for Facebook.







After arriving we have to go and register at the Ashram to pick up the keys to the apartments. I am wearing an expensive pair of sport sandals that are extremely comfortable and light and have soles made from car tyres. They look nothing special, but my feet know better. I had found them in Turkey and got them for a bargain price. We are told to take off our shoes in the car park – there is either the shoe man where we can leave them or a place by the steps – ie inside the gates of the ashram, near to the sacred marble walkway, There are many shoes there. I decide on this option as other wise I must walk across the rough sand and stone covered car park in my delicate feet.
We go in the office. There is one young man dark, Tamil, in charge of accommodation...apparently. Jane explains why we are here. Warren is also there to back her up. The ashram guy is polite, Jane is polite back. He keeps answering his mobile phone and talking. Forms are produced – we must all fill them in, show our passports. He explains where the apartments are, Jane and Warren both know the location – it is a block about ¼ of a mile from the ashram, we leave to tell the others.
Jane and Warren walk on ahead, as I can't find my shoes. I know the exact spot where I left them. Has someone moved them? I circle round and round and round, they are nowhere. They are gone. They have been stolen. I go and get Jane, she is tired and dismissive, Oh dear what a shame. I go back to the minicab looking tragic, no one cares really, they make noises. Really all they want is for me to shut up so they can go find their accommodation. I want to cry.... loudly, I want everyone to acknowledge my loss, my feet are in deep mourning, but only I care. I try to report it to the young man in the ashram office – he is at tea and won't be back for 20 mins. I get back in the minibus. Everyone heaves a sigh of relief and we go find our accommodation.
I go in my room, to be shared with Teresa – the shaven headed one. It’s a reasonable size room with 2 beds and an ensuite – inside which there’s a toilet, tap, bucket and scoop for showering. Ah this reminds me of Indonesia – all bathrooms have these there. There’s no toilet paper but Teresa has remembered Jane’s email warnings and brought some.
I hate everyone and blame everyone and most of all I hate the fucking sacred ashram – I thought Maharshi was supposed to be 'everywhere' in his dead state according to Jane...’inside everyone at the ashram'. 'Oh yeh – well he let in the thieving bastard who stole my shoes. No one cares ...'. I feel my loss has been unacknowledged by all. My favourite and only sandals. When Teresa comes in I pour it all out on her and no I don't want to go to evening meditation with everyone. She says she'll come and get me at supper time. I sniff.
She doesn't come and I fall asleep on the rock hard bed. She comes in later and is all apologetic when I remind her she was going to come and get me. She says she’s sorry, she doesn’t remember saying that, they’ve already eaten. I stomp off to Osho's cafe round the corner and eat omelette and toast and start to feel better. I go back and chat to Teresa for an hour then we fall asleep. We must be up for morning meditation at 7 am.
We have a pleasant enough meditation, starting with walking meditation, walking round some guys next to a statue of Ramana Maharshi. I later find out they are Hindu Brahmins – high caste and that annoys me – why should high caste people be used at the ashram and singled out for special functions at the ashram. They are dressed in kind of loin cloths and have red spots on their foreheads and white streaks on their faces. One of them is a peculiar fat shape, like he has dropsy. We later do meditation in a smaller room – Jane takes us there.
When I leave the ashram I tell the others I'm going to report the theft of my shoes in the office. I find the young guy who had taken our passports the day before. I start to tell him, in a very polite tone of voice and he immediately becomes attacking and defensive – it's my fault f they are stolen, I should have put them with the shoe man etc etc. I try to get a word in to say that maybe they could put up a sign saying it’s dangerous to leave shoes there, warning people. But he won't let me finish a sentence or listen to me... he says I don't want to hear about it, tell someone else, he becomes nasty. I stop but end by saying 'where's the loving kindness towards your guests, as taught by RM?' He walks off.

Later we go for coffee followed by 'darshan' with a Mother Mia type of woman. We go at 10 a.m and sit in a room with this woman in silence. More about that later.

The following afternoon in true mad dogs and English (wo)men style I drag 3 women down to the shops by tuk tuk and buy a new pair of sandals. They are not the same. They can never be as good. But they cost c.4 quid, so I buy them and a pair of flip flops in case.. They're OK. The shops are in a busy market area near the R M ashram. This has four huge gateways kind of pyramidical but very high.. We then go for coffee at The Best Coffee shop in Tiruvani (the world etc)

Later four of us, Jenny, Josie, Me and Teresa – the Groovy group one of them's son calls us when he texts, meet up in someone’s room and sit around drinking tea and talking about important subjects like shopping and the hygiene(?) here. They all had been to lunch with Jane at this place and these banana leaves were put directly on the table and then when someone fussed about hygiene the guy came over and wiped them with a tap watered cloth (No No No) and his hand, ready to put the rice on. They had not said anything for fear of upsetting Jane. I told them if they all get dysentry it’s on their own heads and I am not helping them...

I'm writing this in Osho's cafe round the corner – Oh! I moved from the ashram accommodation – the beds were impossibly hard, Josie and Julia have rooms in a nearby hotel – Josie had a spare bed in her room – which she offered to me. I took it and went for a look – IT HAS (OH JOY) AIR CON.AND A SOFT THICK MATTRESS. I'll give her some money. Meanwhile here I am in the cafe, in a pool of sweat, being eaten alive by mosquitos, in spite of insecticides, anti hystamin, lavender and geranium... they are descending on me with feeding frenzy. That's it - I’m going to run back to the hotel and the air con and anti mozzy plug ins and have a snooze and maybe wake up in time for evening meditation. Perhaps?