Sri Balaji Hospital, Chennai

Heavy rain in Mamallapuram. My last view of the town, and this calf trying to shelter, just before I caught the bus to Chennai.

I quite forgot that I had already written in July about how my journey from Mamallapuram, via Chennai, to the airport then home to England was severely curtailed by my Indian Adventure ending up in a hospital stay.

My rickshaw driver in Chennai: after that – a train ride … and an ambulance ride.

But you might like to hear a little about it.

What picture have you got of an Indian Hospital? I bet it’s wrong. My ward at Sri Balaji Hospital resembled pretty much any ward in an older-style British hospital that you may have come across – only cleaner. It sparkled with clean paint, fresh blue and white candy-striped sheets and general good order.

View from my bed in Sri Balaji Hospital, Chennai.

There were four beds in my  unit, and it really surprised me that there were both male and female patients.  This is a country where I had quickly learnt that it was not OK for me to sit next to a man on a bus, yet here I was in the much more intimate setting of a hospital ward, right next to one man and opposite another.  We were looked after by two nurses at night and two by day, all in smart white jacket-and-trousers uniform. The nurses, being Tamil, are of quite astonishing physical beauty: I really couldn’t take my eyes of ‘my’ night nurse, Jhoti, whose loveliness extended to her personality.

They appeared equally taken with me, and would pat and stroke me, or chuck me under the chin at the least provocation. As I started to get better, they amused themselves teaching me Tamil. With one exception, they didn’t speak much English, but what they did know, they’d learnt at Nursing School. Phrases like ‘Go to the toilet’/’Use the bathroom’ etc. were not understood, until light dawned. ‘Ah! You want pass urine?’

Besides nurses there were:
– Nice ladies in saris who appeared to fulfil some kind of auxiliary role.
– Doctors – lots.
– Men in blue jackets and trousers who seemed to be gophers, called Ward Boys.
– Men in brown, ditto – porters.

Dili and friends, the Ward Boys at Sri Balaji Hospital

The night nurses did twelve hour shifts, just like many of their counterparts in British hospitals. Before you feel too sorry for them, they told me that when doing night shift, they work just 10 nights a month.

Medication and tests of all kinds flowed freely – they make the pill-popping French look amateurs.

No TV, no radio, no nice ladies from the WRVS dispensing sweets, newspapers and library books. No getting up either. You lie in bed until you’re good and better, and meanwhile you do nothing. I was caught attempting to wash in the bathroom on my last day, and was chivvied back to bed and given a bed bath.

At visiting time, those of us without visitors did not go without attention. Dozens of noses were pressed against the glass wall of the ward as curious onlookers gave us all the once-over. I felt a bit like an inmate of Bedlam in the 18th century.

When I was discharged, I had a bill to pay of course: one which, together with my altered journey arrangements, would eventually be settled in full by my travel insurance (there’s a moral there.  Though they made a big fuss that I hadn’t got in touch with them from the hospital.  I told them that on a busy ward, I’d been able to make just one call – and that wasn’t even to my husband).  I was utterly terrified of what horrendous sum might be taken from our bank account for my three day stay.  I can’t remember exactly what it was.  But it was in the region of £30.

So that was it.  Feeling still pretty ropey, I had secured an internal flight back to Bangalore, and after an interminable wait through the middle of the night in a draughty luggage hall, an onward flight to London, and later, back home.  Where, apparently, I barely spoke for three days.  But I made up for it later.

Mamallapuram: on the coast of Coromandel

Picture a perfect tropical beach.  The palm trees.  The white sand.  The sun in a cloudless sky above a calm blue sea.  That’s Mamallapuram.  Now look just behind the beach.  Are those statues, monuments?

Beach at Mamallapuram with the Shore Temple in the background.

Yes, they are. This town was once a thriving international port.  The Chinese came here.  The Romans came here.  Sailors and traders from around the known world came here.  An 8th century text describes how ‘the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, big-trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps‘.

Shore Temple, Mamallapuram

And so it was that just before this time, King Navasimharavan and his successor Rajasimharavan built a series of magnificent temples portraying the events of a great Hindu epic Mahabharata.  There are pavilions.  There are shrines shaped as temple chariots.  There are imposing carved elephants.  Here: you can wander round as I did, together with many Indian Sunday trippers.  I simply enjoyed these monumental carvings, without going deeply into their history.  I was quite simply too exhausted by then.

Later I ambled round town.  I bought soap and a toothbrush – remember, I hadn’t planned to spend the night here when I left The Hotel from Hell in Chennai.  I got a few more souvenirs to take home. I ate on the open terrace of a sheltered restaurant, finding easy company in fellow-travellers.  It was a perfect day.  My last day.  I’d be getting up in the morning to go back to Chennai, pack, get to the airport and … fly home.

An entry for Six Word Saturday.

 

 

B****r Chennai!

I was off to Chennai because I’d found a CouchSurfing host – an Indian woman and her husband, not much younger than me. That would be interesting. What an opportunity!  To stay in a real Indian household!

I had no idea what a confusing city Chennai is. It makes Bangalore look like a market town. Busybusybusy with chaotic housing and business districts jumbled together with shanty towns and piles of uncollected rubbish. I thought I’d got used to all that, but this was in a different league, especially after Pondicherry. 

When I arrived chez my prospective host, she told me she didn’t plan to put me up, but had booked me into a local hotel, the only one in the area. I hated it.  The traffic screamed and hooted all night. The shower didn’t work. I had to get up at 2 a.m to ask the manager to turn down his Bollywood DVD he was whiling away the night with, and the traffic and hotel clamour began well before 5.00 a.m., mainly men loudly clearing their throats, spitting and coughing. I stomped round the area looking for another hotel, but there wasn’t one, good, bad or indifferent (indifferent would do).

Some of Chennai’s endless traffic.

Later,  I quite enjoyed being whisked round the city by my CouchSurfing host – highlights were the ancient banyan tree in the Theosophical Society Gardens …

… and sundry Catholic churches pretending to be wedding cakes. Lads on the beach playing cricket.  Though I wasn’t allowed to pick my own photo opportunities. ‘ Here! Take photo here!’

But at the back of my mind all the time, when I wasn’t fighting sleep, was the dread of spending another night at that awful, awful hotel. I was dropped off after our day out at 4.30 and fully intended to take a nap, but clamour prevented it. I gave up and went and rang dozens of hotels – no vacancies. My CouchSurfing host’s plans for the next day included a taxi to Mamallipuram, with, or apparently without her. 

Night came and endless hours of listening to traffic and my fellow guests throat-clearing and spitting. So at 6.30 I got up, wrote and delivered a note to my host, and got a rickshaw to the Bus Stand. Let me tell you it’s not easy when three different people give you three different bus numbers, and three different stops, and the bus destinations are only in Tamil script, but I was determined to get to Mamallapuram good and early, so I coped. Chaotic Chennai traffic eventually gave way to palm trees, lagoons, and views of the sea, Finally I was happy.

Advice for my fellow hotel guests,but seen in Mammallapuram.

Mamallapuram struck me as a more congenial place to be. It’s a small seaside town, albeit touristy, With Added Culture. It’s a World Heritage Site with fantastic temple architecture and sculpture which I’ll share images of in my next post.

Walking down the street, I suddenly thought ‘I don’t HAVE to go back to Chennai tonight’. The first hotel I called at had a room, monastically simple, but clean. Outside my room was a shady courtyard, and as I started to talk about Chennai to the American tourist relaxing there, I just burst into tears. I didn’t know just how badly the noise and exhaustion had been affecting me, but I DID know that a night at the seaside was just what I needed.

View of Mamallipuram from the Shore Temple

A little bit of France in India: Pondicherry

Pondicherry.  Until 1954, a French Colonial settlement.  I wanted to stay in this most French bit of India, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Only its historic old town built, French style, in a grid pattern retains a Gallic flavour these days, but what fun I had there.

Sacred Heart Church, near where I was staying. A Catholic church in glorious technicolour.

I think Pondicherry remains in my memory as  a haven of peace because -well, it was.  My solo Indian journey was stimulating, exciting, eye -opening: but exhausting.  A solo female traveller had few options for daytime relaxation.  I wasn’t spending my days in tourist Meccas, so there were no coffee shops for me to enjoy simple down-time. Men had their tea shops.  Women – not so much.  Pondicherry provided these, and the shores of the Bay of Bengal. And French patisseries where I discovered the joy of an Indian croissant and a strong shot of coffee as an antidote to spicy fare.  I truly loved my spit-and-sawdust all-you-can-eat-piled-on-a-banana-leaf cafes, but they weren’t places to linger after you’d downed your food.  In Pondicherry I went up-market, without the up-market bills.

I stayed in a hotel called Le Rêve Bleu, and was immediately transported back to the town’s colonial days.  Older staff spoke French, because they would have been taught in French at school.  Sadly, this no longer applies to anyone younger than 55 or so: it’s English now.

Rooms were large and elegantly proportioned, and there was a leafy courtyard.  Christelle, the young and cheerful French owner whizzed me about on her motor bike on shopping sprees to make sure I wasn’t ripped off when choosing the textiles I wanted to take home.  She found me a young local woman who gave me a couple of wonderfully relaxing and rejuvenating massages.  And her male staff cooked up beautifully spicy breakfasts that I ate in that courtyard.  Yet this was a budget hotel.

All the same, I didn’t sleep much there.  My room overlooked a quiet road where from midnight, the female street cleaners would get busy.  They spread themselves over several streets, and shouted conversations to each other.  They’d sit down cross legged on the pavement near my window and chatter during their breaks.  I was charmed by them.  Night birds called.  Dogs fought. At 5.30 there was the Call to Prayer.  At 6.30, the (often female) builders showed up at the building site opposite.  Hopeless really.

A fuzzy night photo of the street cleaners sit in the road and have a nice loud chat in the middle of the road outside le Rêve Bleu at midnight.

So I’d get up early and go for a walk along the seafront.  I’d look as the schoolchildren piled into rickshaws or onto the backs of bikes arriving  at school.  I’d smile at the policemen in their fine French kepis, and enjoy passing public buildings still signed in French.

To be continued….

New readers:  This is Chapter Something-or-Other of an occasional series of memories of my month long trip to India in 2007.

Another India Season: Thanjavur

After I’d left my new English friends to do solo travelling, my first stop was Thanjavur.  I wanted temples in Tamil Nadu, and it seemed to be a toss-up between Thanjavur and Madurai.  Thanjavur won, because I suspected it was less on the tourist trail.

Thanjavur and its Chola Temple at sunset.

In case you don’t know, CouchSurfing is an online community in which travellers offer and make use of hospitality offered. It’s based on the premise that this makes travelling more affordable, but more importantly, gives travellers the opportunity to experience the community they’re visiting at first hand, rather than in the somewhat detached way hotels can offer.

So I stayed with Gwen, an American doing post-graduate research at the University there. We’d exchanged emails over a month or two, and she didn’t feel like a stranger when I met her. She gave me a wonderful welcome and few days with her.  Gwen had made it her business to be part of the community she lived in. She’d learnt fluent Tamil, so had good relationships with her neighbours. So while there, I had the chance to mooch round and enjoy with her the rangoli decorations and lights put out at night for a Hindu Festival of Light (not Diwali, yet another one).

Rangoli decorations lit up in the street at night.

I met the neighbours and was invited into their homes. I narrowly avoided a big faux pas with one household: a young couple, both teaching at the university. Invited to sit down, I nearly plonked myself in the nearest vacant place on a sofa. I recovered myself in time and did not sit, after all,  next to the husband, but squeezed onto the other sofa, with the women. Gwen said it would have seemed very odd to them if I hadn’t remembered in time. We chatted to another neighbour, a Christian, who explained that she liked to keep the Hindu festivals too, and showed us her Hindu decorations taking their place alongside her pictures of the Pope.

I ran errands for Gwen, and in that way had several language-less conversations in the food market, where everyone was keen to shake my hand, because tourists in Thanjavur don’t generally go and buy half a kilo of carrots.

My friends in the market.

We zipped round on her scooter and bought takeaways.  These are known as ‘parcel meals’, and neatly packed up for you in a cotton cloth.  We caught local buses together and visited temples. We had meals, served on a square of banana leaf, in local cafés. I wandered round her neighbourhood when she wasn’t there, and saw a small community going about its day-to-day business.

I was woken in the morning to local sounds: the Muslim Call to Prayer transmitted by loud microphone at, erm, 5.30 a.m. : the church bells ringing a few minutes after that (20 % Muslim and Christian communities here): the street hawkers who kicked in at about 6.45: the day-today noise which seems to begin so early in Indian communities.

View from Gwen’s window. She looks healthy, despite her diet.

And of course it was interesting to talk to Gwen, who knew exactly what I would be finding difficult, and could guess what assumptions I might be making. She gave me the odd Tamil lesson, and more importantly a gesture one (‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are the opposite way round from ours, I learned rather late in the day). She  was much the same age as Tom and Ellie, but that didn’t seem to matter – it didn’t to me, anyway.

I’m ashamed not to be giving you an art history lesson involving all those temples.  Quite simply, I didn’t label my photos well enough.  Instead, I’ll give you a picture-show:  From Thanjavur itself; from the small town of Kumbeshwara which has eighteen temples; from the exquisite temple at Kambakonam; and from Dharasuram.  Sadly, one of my main memories of Dharasuram was the astonishing pain of trying to walk round the site.  One always leaves ones shoes at the entrance to a temple, and the paving stones were fiery hot and  burning.  As usual, no surface remained unadorned, but studying them in detail proved impossible.

Besides the detail of the sculptures, enjoy the temple elephant giving us a blessing, and the bronze worker busy working at the bazaar within the Nageshwara Shiva temple in Kumbeshwara.  Don’t think of these places as simply being lavishly decorated places of worship.  They’re living communities, with bazaars, sometimes cattle and elephants.  Some, such as the Chola Temple at Thanjavur, have inviting grassy spaces.  Bring the family for a picnic!

 

Gurukula: a Small Corner of Paradise

After Karnataka, Kerala.  Rain forest Kerala.

Gurukula: a sanctuary returned to Nature.

Simple food cooked and shared together.

Indigenous crops: bananas, rubber, coffee, tea.

Sunset, sunrise over the Western Ghats.

Gurukula is a special place.  For the last forty years it’s been a sanctuary for the rain forest which has suffered massive deforestation in the Western Ghats, causing almost irreparable damage to the habitat of thousand of plants and animals, and to our own ecosystem.  I urge you to follow this link to read all about it.

Our few days in Gurukula were special too.  We wandered freely in the lush grounds, and when nature called, we found a quiet corner- toilets were deliberately under-provided so we all took a part in fertilising the soil.  Meals were taken communally: we all shared the cooking, the washing up, the tidying.

We explored the rain forest, an almost meditative experience with the sounds of water, forest creatures – macaques in the trees, rufous eagles above the canopy.  What wasn’t meditative was the strangler fig. It grows up its host tree, those climbing tendrils thickening into sturdy sinuous branches, which strangle and kills the tree beneath which gave it life, becoming an extraordinary hollow tracery.

We explored the surrounding communities.  During the 1940s, communist Kerala obliged landowners to sell their land cheaply, so all citizens were entitled to buy at a price they could afford.  At first this worked well.  Families worked the land in a diverse way, growing a variety of crops for their own use and selling the rest.  These days – or when we were there anyway – there is a monoculture, with families taking whatever subsidy is on offer to grow the latest crop – till the price plummets.  Tea, coffee, rubber, bitter gourds, bananas have all had their moments of glory before a crash.  Families no longer grow the rich variety that kept them so well-nourished.  90% literacy means people are leaving the land to get work in the cities – call centres and so on.  It doesn’t sound a success story.

The highlight of every day was sunset.  We climbed a vertical and rather scary ladder on the water tower near the house, and then…. simply sat.  We watched enchanted as the sun set over the Western Ghats. As the moon rose, the sky darkened and the stars emerged.  Silence fell.  And then, distantly, we heard two mullahs from two different distant mosques chanting their call to prayer – admittedly amplified by megaphones.  This, together with a cascade of shooting stars, provided one of the most magical experiences of my life.

Six Word Saturday: a series of six words before I gave in and wrote …. rather more.

Click on any image to view full size.

 

An Animal Sanctuary, a Picnic, a Shopping Trip …. but not as we know them

“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Aldous Huxley

To travel is certainly to discover. If I told you that we were off to start the day at an animal sanctuary, followed by a picnic, followed by a spot of local shopping, you might imagine our spending an hour or two with distressed dogs or donkeys, maybe some homeless hedgehogs. Then you’d picture us with a pack of sandwiches, maybe sharing a bag of crisps and some Jammie Dodgers, perhaps on a park bench, or dodging the cow pats in a country field. Then you’d suppose we’d nipped into Sainbury or Tesco on the way home.

But this is my Indian Adventure, so you would be wrong. Our animal sanctuary was Dubare Elephant Camp. This is where elephants who’ve had a long career working transporting logs for the Karnataka Forest Department go to live out their retirement years.

We watched them enjoying their daily bath in the River Cauvery. One elephant needs maybe three young men to bathe them: good tough scrubbing brushes required to give that hard leathery skin a good old scratch.

We were in time for their breakfast. There was a cookhouse where an appetising mixture of jaggery (a dark brown palm sugar), millet and vegetation was boiled up and formed into giant balls of nourishment. Just because they ate it daily didn’t stop them finding it delicious.

That was it really. But we had to set off for our picnic in any case. With some difficulty, we waded through paddy fields, where the young rice plants were an impossibly citric green, vivid and vibrant. And there, at the end of our walk, was the River Cauvery: a perfect scene from a travel documentary: tall palm trees, knotted and intricate tree roots, little islands among the fast-flowing waters.

We were glad to climb into our costumes and plunge into the river – muddy, but otherwise clean. There was quite a current, and I wasn’t strong enough to swim the width of the wide river, so stayed close in to the banks.

And then it was time for our picnic: something special, this. Staff from our host’s residence clanked down the hill with great metal cans yoked over their shoulders: rice; sambal; a wonderful bitter curry made out of some dark green leaf also used to de-worm children; chicken curry; a sour and bitter sticky chutney; curds; and a gorgeous buttered cabbage curry. It truly was a memorable feast.

On our way home, we stopped off at our local town, Madikeri, to do some bits and bobs of shopping – get our photos onto CDs in the days when memory cards didn’t have much capacity, buy sandals, that sort of thing.

Oddly, I took few photos here, but I’ve used others from later in the trip, because with their rows of tiny shops, Indian shopping streets are standard in their own way. No M&S, Boots and Costa certainly, but there’s still a certain uniformity in the small shop fronts with goods stacked and hanging outside, and pedestrians, bullocks and auto rickshaws all jockeying for position in the crowded streets. Here’s the auto rickshaw that four of us (and our driver of course) contrived to travel home in after our trip…

The rickshaw that somehow got four passengers and a driver back home on a ten mile journey on a bumpy road.

I wasn’t so much wrong about India as didn’t have a clue.

My contribution to Debbie’s challenge, inspired by the quotation at the beginning.