Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pondicherry, Also Belated

Bear with me while we go back in time a bit here. I had wanted to write about all these places when I got back to some free internet, but we all know what happens when “I'll do it later” comes in...later gets real later. And I'll be the first to admit I'm not the best at after-the-fact journalish activity. But here goes, with help from my real journal....

11 October 2010
Nathan and I are staying in the Scholars' Home, which is run by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It's nice, with lots of practical conveniences: clothesline, washing machine, drinking water faucets, kitchen. For Rs. 200 a night for the two of us. That's about four dollars. I think the ashram must subsidize it somehow...?

Pondy is—I don't know what to think yet. The first thing that happened to me, really, was that a woman with a baby came up and asked for food as we were buying samosas. We haven't encountered much of this, as Sirsi is a town of working people, and I suppose those without work are taken care of by their families. And it's not particularly a wealthy town and not touristy at all, so there is little money to beg for, I guess. So I am somewhat fazed by this; I wonder if I should give her a samosa; Nathan says “Come on!” and walks off and I follow. The woman gives me a look and walks away.

I hate looking at those people like I don't see them. I hate acting as if I am fine with the haves and the have-nots. I think of karma, of stories of kindness to strangers. I don't want to be a stingy rich American. But I don't want to be preyed upon, either. And in the stories, there aren't rackets and drugs. But it doesn't make it any easier to walk away.

Other than that, Pondy is interesting. The streets have French names and lots of autorickshaws, honking their squeaky bike-horns. Kids all smile and say “HI!”

Day 2 in Pondy: We bought tomatoes and onions at the street market—a bunch of rickety stick-and-tarp awnings under which women sit selling vegetables and fruits and fish. One of my favorite things about this part of Pondy is that everyone (actually I take that back—all the ladies and some of the men) is doing something—selling, cleaning, building, driving, riding, carrying, sweeping, eating, chatting.

Two blocks over, on Rue de la Catedral or Mission Street, we try to find a store that the hotel lady said was the place to buy spices. Nilgiris, it's called. This street has large signs hanging almost out to the middle of it. Parked motorcycles line either side. Nathan laughs. “Are we in Reno?”

We find the store, which turns out to be a...supermarket. I must have gotten used to the markets, to all the foods acting as themselves, to seeing the food and not its plastic wrapper, because I am thoroughly tripped out. I can't handle all the products. I stare around as if I have suddenly landed in Barstow, California, or as though I have never seen Kinder eggs and plastic-wrapped cheese before. Also I'm not that used to seeing white people, and this place is full of French-speaking ladies, with the worn faces of white people who have lived long in a place where...evolution did not put white people. They don't smile back, that's the weirdest part. We buy some stuff hastily and walk out of the universal supermarket back into Tamil Nadu. I am relieved. But I have questions. Where does all that stuff come from? Who grows it? Now I am used to seeing the farmers with their produce, it seems weird that the food is there without them. How quickly we humans adapt to things...Will more and more of India's food be purchased like this soon? Will India do just what we have done, eliminate the small farms, make a few people wealthy enough to live western lifestyles while shutting out many? Are farmers educated enough to fight for their rights, and most importantly, will they want to?

And the watercourses—milky gray and full of scum and trash. I am particularly bothered by this treatment of water. It is a precious resource, it makes up 75% of each and every one of us, and it's so pretty and full of life when it's cared for...and can be a killer if it isn't. (I have long been an advocate of not shitting in our freshwater resources; check out the Humanure Handbook. When I get some land...) And then if you think how we treat the land, which makes up the rest of our bodies—and our mothers and grandmothers who give us our shapes before we're even born—What are we taking care of?

That said, I think mothers and grandmothers have it somewhat better in Pondy than in other places. I see lots more women riding bicycles and motorcycles and owning shops. I think the large foreign presence and progressive ideals of the Ashram have something to do with this. Still—I have never been to a country where gender divides were more evident. More on this another day.

And language! India is made up of states. When you travel from one state to another, the language changes. Imagine if, for example, to move to California, you had to learn Californian. So having struggled and struggled with Kannada, I now find myself needing to know Tamil. We pick up a phrasebook and learn a few words: rhuma nandri=thank you, vanakum=hello, yellani=coconut, pattu=ten.

We go out and smile at the first old lady who looks at us. “Vanakum!” I say. She gets the biggest smile on her face and says “Vanakum!” back. Then she turns to a bunch of other ladies, who all smile at us and say Vanakum too. Nathan has also perfected the universal Indian acknowledgement, a sort of sideways wobble of the head. We clumsily try to buy rice and laundry soap at a shop. Most people know numbers in English...but it's the “Rhuma nandri!” at the end that makes people grin at us. I saw this in Mexico, too: people SO STOKED that I tried to speak even a few words of botched Maya. I couldn't figure it out, but now I think I know: it's a respect thing. An acknowledgement that we're in a place not our own, and we're willing to try to learn the ways of that place out of respect for the people of the place. It's valuing someone else's culture. It puts people at ease: we know we're foreign here, how are things done? We're here to learn.
So friends and family, when you travel, try to learn a little of the language. Out of respect, out of interest, out of curiosity, out of wanting the real experience of a place. Because you will make people happy. Just a few words—thank you, hello, goodbye, I don't understand—it will make you friends and it will make people less shy to talk to you.

I liked Pondy, and I liked my week of being a tourist, and I liked having a traveling buddy. But now it is time for me to go to the Conservation Education Network meeting in Kotagiri. To do this, I have to take a night bus from Pondy to Coimbatore, and another bus from Coimbatore to Kotagiri. Nathan leaves me at the bus stand. I ask for the Coimbatore bus and a Tamilian family adopts me—a man and a woman and the woman's mother, who has huge holes in her earlobes but no earrings...perhaps once a tribal girl from the Nilgiri Hills. They speak no English and I speak about five words of Tamil, but we get along.
The bus is like a school bus. I have my backpack on my lap. Mercifully, I fall asleep, a strange numb half-sleep. Next thing I know the bus is stopped, loud Indian pop music is giving the night a heady rhythm, a chai-wallah is hawking chai, and most of the people are getting off the bus. It's dark. I look at my watch: 1 am. This is one of the most surreal things I have experienced since about eighth grade. How do you say “Are we there yet?” in Tamil?
The woman next to me says the name of a city. It's not Coimbatore so I stay on the bus. I half-sleep some more. It gets light.
The bus pulls over on the side of the road. Five men take turns poking at the engine. Everyone gets off the bus. “Next bus! Bus broken!” a girl says to me. We all wait on the side of the road next to our broken bus. Buses pass and buses pass. At last a bus stops. Half of us get on—my adopted bus-mom drags me with them—and the other half keep waiting. 45 minutes later we are in Coimbatore. Miraculously, I arrive just in time to catch the bus to Kotagiri...and sleep all the way into the mountains. When I wake up, I am surrounded by tea plantations, rolling hills, and red-roofed houses that look as though they belong in Europe. The air is a cool that I haven't felt since home. Here, I will meet Sunita and the rest of the Conservation Education Network for a 3 day conference on conservation education in India. On the way to the guest house, the auto driver keeps pulling over and yelling, “Northern Hay guest house??” In this way I make friends with an official of the Kotagiri Womens Welfare Trust...who shows up at the guest house an hour after I get there, just to make sure I got there safely. India!

Oh! And we jumped in the Bay of Bengal. Very important, this. Joy has swum in all the oceans...maybe one day I will, too.

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