SO. I owe you all an explanation of the last 5 ish months. Eek! It’s been that long! Well, I think we all know updating this blog in a reasonable and timely manner is beyond me, but NEVER MIND. My recount of that time is in the works, but for now, I’ll fill you in on where we are now…
We left behind the beautiful and friendly country of Sri Lanka and our happy memories there. We flew from Colombo, directly to the south of India, on a flight we chose for the sole reason it was the cheapest one we could find. It was a short 1 hour flight on a small propeller plane landing in Madurai, a city I had never even heard of before, but home to over 4 million people. A hub of spirituality and a pilgrimage site, in the heart of religious south India, Madurai is also known as ‘the Athens of the east’ due to its many beautiful Hindu temples.
The airport at Madurai was surprisingly quiet. All my defenses were up, remembering my visit to Delhi almost 10 years ago when I was 17, preparing to be ambushed by touts and beggars. Yet all we found were a few lazy tuk tuk drivers and some local workers. I was quickly relieved of all my fears. One man even changed some cash for us at an excellent rate when we found the only ATM in the airport didn’t work.
We were 2 of the total 4 people waiting for the bus to the city (and certainly the only foreigners), and while we stood waiting for the bus to come, a friendly businessman offered us a ride to town in his car instead. It sounded like a potentially risky operation but we found enough reason to trust the people around us and accepted. I felt ashamed of my distrust. Everyone treated us with the utmost courtesy. When I profusely thanked the businessman for his kind help, he flatly refused to accept, saying no thanks were needed as this was ‘his duty’. It was times like this that made me wish that in the past I had been as open minded and generous to act so nobly toward tourists and immigrants!
We arrived in Madurai and found our hotel, and later while wandering around the city near the main temple grounds, we met a crazy yogi with an interesting story. Half Indian, half Indonesian, with long hair and beard and bright blue eyes, he offered a striking appearance. He had met and married a Dutch tourist, and traveled to the US to teach yoga and spirituality in Portland, OR in the 90s. He had two children, but now had decided to live his life alone near the temple in Madurai, as a renunciate sadhu (Indian holy man). He walked around with us and chatted, showing some of the sights, and an excellent local eatery, where we bought him tea.
The following day we visited the temple, walking barefoot across wet, muddy stones, through to the inner temple which was crowded with prostrating Hindus and hot with the scent of ghee lamps. We ran into our yogi friend, Ganesh. ‘What are you doing baba?’ We went to eat together, then carefully trod home with muddy puddles of unimaginable contents squelching through our sandals.
In Madurai we were lost in the swirling mass of human bodies and human spirits moving through the streets. Women in colorful sparkling saris and jasmine flowers in their hair walked past large groups of bare footed bare-chested men, draped in black and gold dhotis (sarongs) and holy beads – pilgrims who had traveled from all over India to visit this holy site.
After 2 days exploration, we took the train to our next destination, Pondicherry. The 5 hour trip starting early in the morning was made much better by the offer of hot food, tea and coffee available pretty much constantly by men wandering up and down the aisles of the train with urns and trays of food. Another bus ride from the train station and then a tuk tuk transfer brought us to the doorstep of our new home, a children’s home in Pondicherry city.
The children were still at school, so the home was unusually quiet, as we settled into our basic room on the ground floor. Two hand sewn mattresses on the floor and a large bookshelf built into the wall comprised its lonely contents, but we quickly made it into a home. As the children arrived from school and had afternoon tea, they stole cheeky glances and giggled and whispered to each other about the arrival of the new volunteers. When I went upstairs for the first time after that to start helping with the girls’ homework, I was immediately bombarded by a mass of tiny arms and kisses welcoming me in! These little girls were beautiful, well-behaved and affectionate – a little different from my (occasionally) cheeky monks in Nepal who, for obvious reasons, I wasn’t able to be as hands on with.
So it’s only been 3 days so far but we already feel so welcome. It’s still difficult for us to find everything we need here in India (we’ve already spent about 2 hours looking for toilet paper in nearby shops – to no avail…) but we learn more day by day.
Although everyone here has treated us so well, and they are all so friendly and helpful, India is still a difficult place to adjust to. You really do feel the presence of a huge population, houses spilling onto the streets, which are piled with rubbish, and full of cows, dogs and chickens (and their respective excrements…). The people are modest and shy, and don’t readily smile. At once you can be overwhelmed by the scent of a garland of jasmine flowers in a lady’s hair, and the smell of sewerage floating up from the gutter.
We’re learning to sail this crazy sea. But it’s going to be a little while yet before we find our feet.