I woke up this morning with the knowledge that our first Air India flight was to take place. I wasn't sure why, but I wasn't obviously nervous, even though Alf had provided me with plenty of graphic details of the adventure to come. Instead, Annie and I headed out to the streets of Madras once last time, to get a feel of what it was really like in the city. We caught a cab back towards the Sheraton, and due to the time of morning, the trip took about three times a long as it had the night before. We didn't walk far before we came across a construction site, and Annie started taking photos with her Polaroid. Production halted altogether while the workers crowded around to see their images develop before their eyes. Of course, the crew wanted to keep the picture, however, Annie's film was limited, so she had to negotiate how many to give away and how many to keep to send in for this journal. I'll tell you, getting away with any of the photos was a mission that practically entailed the physical prowess of Austin Powers combined with the social abilities of, let's say, Martha herself. Somehow, explaining that the photos were going to Alf Erickson's web site just didn't register with this particular crowd, and we walked away more than once feeling like jinxes were being thrown in our direction.
Upon our return to the hotel, we were loaded onto the bus to head for the airport. Still not nervous, I was beginning to think I had licked this flying phobia thing. Everything at the airport couldn't have gone more smoothly, so I boarded our flight with no trepidation. I was especially soothed by the presence of five striking flight attendants, all wearing saris and flowers in their hair, and none of whom, Alf noted, were either "long of tooth, or of ample girth." Oh, boy, but then I entered the plane. Now, I know that the cosmetics of a plane aren't what really count when it comes to safety, but until that moment, I hadn't realized how much comfort I gleaned from the familiar sites on board any given plane. Somehow, seeing the dented, metal interior, fashionably held together with color coordinated duct tape, combined with the prospects of rivets dancing down the aisles was proof that this particular 737 had been born in Seattle very early in the production run. Presumably its initial flights were with one of the top tier airlines, however, according to our aviation expert, like with women, advanced age is not a cherished asset. Too many landings and too many take-offs had forced this tiring hulk of aluminum on to the Indian sub-continent, where we were buckled up and ready to go.
I know that I'm used to Western flight crews, but when that captain began his taxi to the runway, he took off like a Ganesh with a mouse on its tail. Thoughts of whiplash came to mind as we raced to get to the runway first since we had lost precious time loading the plane. There was no hesitation between taxi and take-off , so there was barely time for that panicked feeling to reach my stomach before the we had whizzed down the runway, made it to our our flying altitude and were having boxes of curry being thrown at us. Given the requisite two minutes to finish our meals, boxes were collected and our descent began. They must have known that Alf was on board, because they performed a high speed, perfect corkscrew descent, giving us just enough time to throw our soda cans at the flight attendants and don our pith helmets.
The minute we got off our plane, we knew we loved Kerala, "land of Communists and Coconuts." The airport alone was enough to come for. With the open air luggage claim and make-shift conveyer belts, we knew we were in relaxed country.
A new place, which meant a new beginning with another guide. Annie and I crossed our fingers as our meeting time approached. The fact that not one, but two guides came to great us did not escape our notice. Our primary guide (we'll call him Professor) for the Meenakshi Temple made us immediately feel like we were on a 6th Grade field trip. At any given moment, we were afraid we'd be made to sit in a corner of the bus with a dunce cap. We made it all the way through our first stop at the Tirumal Nayak's Palace, without any incidents, though Annie and I were painfully aware that the second guide was tailing us, making sure we didn't fall out of line. Had word gotten to the A&K Headquarters about our wandering ways? We theorized that our tail man was hired as an extra precaution after Gilly told on us, so we promised one another that we would be good little tourists and not ruffle any Gods' feathers.
We were on a really good roll, when we made our second stop at what our guide proudly described as the Floating Festival Temple Tank (see, we were listening!). Now, to the uneducated, non-Hindu eye, this tank might have resembled an oversized cement pond, complete with temple. To our Tour Guide's great dismay, this was about all we got out of it, because we immediately turned our attention and cameras in the opposite direction towards a bustling school yard. How were to know that it wasn't customary for obnoxious Americans to walk right in on the lessons being taught in the courtyard? Could we help it that the children all turned towards our cameras and became unruly? Could we help the ensuing hysteria that occurred when we so carelessly sauntered through the classrooms? Could we really turn down the poor Headmaster's weak invitation for us to look around, when he realized that there was no getting rid of us? As he graciously inched us back towards the gate, whistles and whips going full speed behind us to get the children back in line, we promised to send photos and bid adieu. Only when we got back on the bus, did it occur to us that our guide was wishing he had a whistle of his own for us.
Once we entered the Meenakshi Temple, all ill will was forgotten, and while the three women of the group didn't flinch at the idea of walking through the temple grounds barefoot, Alf brought out the temple socks, implying that we may be going home with something more severe than athlete's foot. Our tail man seemed to be following us even more closely, and Annie and I decided to try to find out more about him, but every time we tried to chat, he deferred to the Professor, mumbling small apologies about how he really couldn't talk to us freely, but he would explain later. So, what could we do but accept the fact that we would have our very own shadow watching our every move?
Meenakshi Temple was a world unto its own, luring us into its depths with the smell of incense, the sounds of chants, and the flutter of bats. All of this made for a surreal setting, where even we religious skeptics couldn't help but get wrapped up in the complete spiritual adventure. In a moment, we would be face to face with a Brahmin priest smeared with white ash, when suddenly we would see an elephant in some distant hallway, blessing worshippers with his trunk and finally look up to see couples circling the nine planets, fervently praying for marital happiness. As we were meandering out of the temple, we ran into raucous crowd, which could have been misinterpreted by less informed students as a small riot, but turned out to be a wedding, complete with a beaming husband and peaked wife. No happy blush filled the cheeks of this obligatory bride whose face was the Eastern version of "The Scream." It was at this time that our tail, realizing that Annie and I were moving in on the sacrificial lamb, and sensing that we might try to liberate her, finally revealed his true identity. It turns out that he really was our guide and would be with us for the next several days. We were so happy when we realized this that our plans shifted from liberation to celebration. It became clear that after having time to observe us that Sabu truly understood the fine balance that we were trying to maintain between wanting to deepen our cultural understanding of India, and wanting to buy everything we saw. Finally we had found a sympathetic friend in India.
Still searching for the enviable purchase to flaunt in front of the Erickson girls, we tested Sabu to see if he could arrange a little shopping spree in Madurai later that afternoon. Being the ingenious fellow that he was, he figured out a way for us to go on our merry way with our great natured bus driver, Saleem, while he bowed out graciously. Our first trip out with Saleem endeared him to us for good, because we realized that our lives were in his hands every time we stepped in his vehicle. God forbid he hit one of the thousands of Brahma bulls (which each hold over 33 million Gods within) that rule the road, run over the drying rice on the highway, crash into one of millions of tuck-tucks, or inadvertently knock a poor soul off his feet. All this and he was able to sniff out the shops! Unfortunately, our first stop was at one of the dreaded "Government Arts and Crafts Cottage Industries." Our first day shopping lesson was not lost on us as we quickly strategized how to get past the rugs and right to the silver jewelry. Instead, we were led up five flights of stairs, past every item in the shop, for a roof top view of Meenakshi Temple. We thoroughly disappointed our hosts as we made shallow chitchat and asked to leave the shop for the streets that were waiting for us below. Free at last to wander the temple streets, we wandered slowly through taking photos and stopping only once to buy some fabric in a local market.
What we traded when we shopped outside one of the Government shops was the fact that we stood out so clearly in the streets, and people came from all around to watch our transactions and to try to get some money of their own from us, either by selling their goods or begging. The entire time we were sitting at the fabric stall, I had a small girl, holding her even younger brother, tugging on my leg, begging for anything I would give her. We had been instructed from the beginning of our trip to not give anything to anyone who begged, so I was trying to ignore this small child. Her tugs became stronger with time, and eventually turned into smacks, as she realized her time with me was running out. This moment has been played out already hundreds of times for us here, and there isn't much to say about it except that we have to live the feelings of complete discomfort that exist because of it.
We left Madurai today and headed south for the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. All four of us felt optimistic about our new guide Sabu who seemed to not only understand, but value, that we craved quiet time to look out the windows. He regularly deferred an explanation "until later", explaining that first we needed to experience India, and then he would answer any questions we had. One of his first observations of Annie was that she photographed like she was influenced by Zen Buddhism, and he assured her that he would stop the bus regularly so that she could capture as many moments as time would allow. True to his word, we stopped at rivers to photograph women washing clothes, at lakes to see men bathing their cows, at a thatched factory to see how clay was turned into bricks, and finally at an Ear Piercing Ceremony in a small village, where Sabu, arranged to have us invited to participate in the procession, and also witness the event itself.
As we were walking in the procession down a small, dirt road towards the village meeting hall, we were greeted on all sides with huge smiles and lots of laughter. Still not exactly sure what we were participating in, we kept our eyes out for Sabu, who, in keeping with his earlier manner, told us quickly that we would be seeing a young girl getting her ears pierced as the first of her marriage ceremonies, but that for the moment, we should just enjoy the experience and talk about it later. Arriving at the hall, we were personally invited into the ceremony by the young girl's mother, where we were given front row views of the 5 year old girl, whose face initially showed her delight until the needle came out, at which point she learned one of life's must bitter lessons, "no pain, no gain." Her brother had the enviable job of actually being encouraged to pin her down while the needle slowly pierced her virgin lobes. With just one ear done, the young bride's face contorted and her screams let loose, making the needle man's job more challenging to say the least. Ears all done, celebrations all around, smiles from ear to ear, except on the honoree, who didn't seem to fully enjoy her 15 minutes of fame.
As we were returning to the bus, Sabu shared with us that he had never had the good fortune to see an ear piercing ceremony before. We headed south with the feeling that good Karma was following us.
The rest of the day was filled with spices and Ayurvedic massage. You can use your imagination here.
Wild elephants and pool side relaxation. We spent our time at the Spice Village Resort enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery, lounging in our thatched roof cottages, and repairing a few minor illnesses.