Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Practising the India Travel Yoga

[slideshow]

Cycling Stats:
Pondicherry to Chidambaram 68 km (East Coast Road)
Chidambaram to Lakshmi Villas (T. Nedenberry)16 km

Now that we have hit the real India, I am realizing I’ve got a lot to learn about travelling here.

In the traffic-laden areas, cycling takes pure concentration and becomes a kind of dance — a kind of cycling yoga if you will. Motorcycle slides up beside you on your left? Make sure you don’t swerve into something on your right to avoid him. Bus passing another bus up ahead? Get out of the way – like onto the shoulder or dirt. Horn honking — well there’s always horns honking — learn to figure out if it’s meant for you and move accordingly. Always give trucks the right-of-way. It is a lot like cycling in Vietnam.

We cycled our first day on the road from Pondicherry to Chidambaram, leaving a lot of the western tourists behind. Traveling outside the touristed part of cities like Pondicherry we are learning how the poverty prevents hotel staff from delivering up to western standards. The staff simply don’t know what that means.

In Chidambaram our very basic room (22 Cdn a night) looked out over a temple and the grounds leading up to it – despite this being a reasonably big town, people were getting water from a local well. On our way out to the rural resort where we have spent Christmas (Lakshmi Villas) we were transported back in time to farmers living in thatched bamboo huts, working the land by hand, and tending goats. On our walk through the local village yesterday we were a novelty and were greeted and giggled at. A local potter called us in off the street to show us, with great pride, his manual potters wheel. Many people ask us to take photos of them – this was true in the local village as well as the main temple site (Najarata –a huge temple complex that dates back to the 12th century and worships Siva) in Chidambaram. I had read that we needed to be careful about taking photos of people worshipping but we were asked numerous times.

The living conditions explain why the waiters never wipe the table we eat at with a damp cloth — they simply wipe it with a napkin, leaving a residue that hardens and which I recognize the next meal. The walls have probably never been cleaned despite the enormous number of staff hanging around. Our only real issue with this is we are paying western prices (60 dollars a night nets you a clean motel room these days in North America). However, the staff are charming and genuinely try and feel badly if they feel they haven’t measured up.

Today we had a big issue with trying to pay with a visa card, although the owner had reassured us in Chidambaram (16 km from here) that there wouldn’t be a problem. (If we’d known they needed a cash payment we would have come with the right amount of cash, of course.) I figured out eventually that the staff had not been trained to troubleshoot the visa card reader (I urged the manager to phone the help line on the device and he gave up when he was put on hold – I think he was having problems understanding the English voice recording although I bet if he’d waited he would have been talking to someone in his own dialect in Chennai). Eventually we discovered that there was an ATM in the local village and our problem was solved – but not before a bit of a tussle with the hapless manager who wanted to send us back to Chidambaram in a tuk tuk at our expense. My only issue here is charging western prices for non-western service…something the owner will eventually need to figure out. Once we are out on the rough again (this was a Christmas treat) we will expect grubbiness and haplessness but will be paying less.

On Christmas Eve night we shared the resort with two groups of Western tourists. We had as much fun watching them as we did the dance troupe (which included an acrobat who was quite amazing). One group, the Veggie Voyagers (not kidding) were lovely, sweet, eccentric and in love with all things Indian. One bony elderly lady came back from the temple with garlands in her hair and looped over her ears – she reminded me of a goat festooned for a wedding — but she was thrilled and looked as though she expected a goddess to manifest right in front of her. The other group were Italian and they were a bit bitchy about whatever they perceived was not up to snuff and kept popping out of their rooms in various states of undress asking for extra towels and pillows, and complaining about problems with hot water etc. and so we were treated to the Indian version of Faulty Towers as we sipped our evening beer and giggled a little to ourselves.

Arguing about the lack of (promised) internet for four days was an interesting experience and made me think about the differences between Indian culture and Western culture. We expect to take control and be in control. Indian culture accepts and shrugs. This ability to roll with it and surrender is one of the big attractions for westerners learning yoga and meditation – we are so programmed to be in control we get anxious when we aren’t and learning to let go relieves anxiety. But there is a limit to acceptance as well – non-action isn’t always the right way to go. The caste system here is served well by the fatalism that is inherent in Indian religion and now when the government run visa website doesn’t work, or when the Internet is down in a hotel for two days, the answer is to shrug.

Striking that balance between accepting a situation that can’t be changed (or isn’t worth the hassle) or deciding to stand up for yourself, in as culturally appropriate and polite a way as possible of course, has become our own personal yoga practise — the Indian travel yoga practice.

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Bom Shiva

[slideshow]

We’ve finally left our lovely little town of Lauzun to continue our bike trip and flew Paris to Chennai this week to begin a cycle trip we hope takes us to Goa.

Despite all the annoyances and stress of airline travel, I still love the fact that in a mere number of hours I can step from one world into another. One night I am sleeping in an airport hotel in Paris and the next I am standing on the balcony of my Pondicherry hotel, breathing in warm, waterlogged air, watching the crazy traffic on the street below, and falling asleep to the sound of motorcycle engines and horns.

Pondicherry is quite a soft landing as far as India goes. Having travelled a lot in the third world we are finding that we are adjusting very well to the chaos – traffic that obeys few rules and navigates by horns; shops that spill out onto sidewalks that are already crammed with parked motorcycles so that pedestrians share the street with moving traffic, cows, dogs, and other people; narrow tiny shops with big signs that compete with all the other big signs so that it all becomes one big sign; no street names; and bewildered and bemused traffic cops with ineffectual whistles.

We’ve given ourselves five days to get over the jet lag, plan our bike trip, and to buy the odds and sods we have forgotten. (Ian forgot his underwear and is quite amused to find that in India, the men wear underwear with pockets – we guess that this is for the men who wear dhotis and have no other place to put their keys and rupees).

As we have worked down the list (maps of India, mosquito repellant, shoe laces, hair dye, underwear, batteries for bike lights) we have ambled about both the French and Indian parts of town and admired the scenery. We liked the market for its colour and overpowering smells of fish and spice. We walked the boardwalk along the ocean and admired the Bay of Bengal while people watching and dodging the come ons from local sellers (drums, jewelry, wash off tattoos, scarves etc. etc.)

There are a fair number of tourists about, many French given that this was governed by the French until 1954. Many of the tourists are interested in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram right in Pondicherry and the commune, known as Auroville, 10 km outside of town. We were able to pick out a few of these travellers from the airport gate in Paris – girls with yoga mats and yoga pants and hair piled in top knots and wrapped in Indian cotton scarves.

We had thought about visiting the ashram and commune but a very unfortunate incident this week has the city tense and the ashram off limits. It seems that the locals resent the fact that the ashram is not governed by any local authority – it reports into the federal government — and there are all kinds of accusations of corruption and mis-management. This week there was a supreme court ruing against a family who had lived in an apartment in Pondicherry which was owned by the ashram. After a decade of fighting eviction for an infraction of ashram rules, they lost in the final ruling and the entire family walked into the ocean to commit suicide. Three of them drowned and four were rescued by local fishermen. This sparked a protest by Pondicherry citizens who want local governance for the ashram and today, a day-long general strike. Felt just like France…

We took the opportunity of a relatively quiet Pondicherry to take our bikes out for their first Indian spins. All was well with them and as soon as we were three kilometres out of town we hit the real India and I quit feeling sorrier for the mangy, hungry dogs than the people (my guilt-ridden reaction to our first few days here where I felt the opposite). Yes, it is still a very poor country for some people and the living conditions are appalling.

But we were both happy to be out on the bikes and meeting people not so used to tourists. Everyone was friendly and when we stopped at intersections more than one person asked if we needed directions, including two lovely children who giggled and charmed and eventually, unable to tell us what road we were on, pointed to the police across the street and very helpfully suggested we could get help there.

We passed loads of garland eating goats and sandy-coloured dogs and happy looking cows as we plotted our route out of town (we leave the day after tomorrow when the real journey begins.)

The extremes of India – the dirt and pollution, the amazing colour (of saris, and of spices in the market and painted temples), the noise, the chaos of traffic and no queuing and hordes of people, the piles of stuff for sale, the fabulous food, the amazing smells of fruit and curry – all the stimulation is what makes it both exciting and exhausting.

I first started thinking of going to India when I was in my late teens. I had become friends with a couple who had recently come back from a trip to India. Bill played guitar with my boyfriend of the time and I thought he was one of the coolest people I’d ever met – he was in the final stage of earning his PhD in biochemistry and liked to smoke hash – this contradiction in itself amazed me — and he was supplementing his student loans by dealing a little. He had a pipe he called a chillum and whenever he would spark up he’d say Bom Shiva. He talked a lot about India and in that small prayer he acknowledged the reality of the world – the bigger world that includes both light and dark, destruction and creation, the extremes of India and our relatively easier lives in the west. And although we westerners may be lucky in many ways I, like many of my kin, can become obsessed with having enough money, especially these days as I try to get advice on taxes as a non-resident, and lose track of the precious present. I like to come to India to be reminded of that.

So, yeah, Bom Shiva.