Monday, November 25, 2013

Loving India

Ready for the school holiday party.

I'm falling in love with India. Some might think it's a crush. We've been here not even two weeks, after all. Am I seeing India through rose-colored glasses? Don't I see the social problems, the garbage, the crazy traffic? 

Of course I see these things. But this is unconditional love. I'm not in this relationship to judge it but to soak it in.

There's a vibrancy pulsing through Chennai in the shops, temples, streets, and homes. Everywhere there are adorable children in school groups or with their extended families. I'm fascinated by the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, as well as the co-existence of so many different religions and ethnicities. I love that yoga is important here, and I feel transformed after each yoga session. I ascribe that not only to the stretching and movement, but to the super oxygenation from the breathing exercises.

School children. Cuties!

I'm aware of how saying "I love India" after having experienced only Chennai is like saying "I love the U.S." after visiting only California. India is a huge country. But I'm glad we aren't hopping around at break-neck speed to snap photos of every iconic site. Instead, we are rooted at the home of our friends, Karen and Widi. We have the privilege of experiencing their daily life and exploring places with the help of their driver, John.

John has lived in Chennai his whole life and has worked as a driver for more than thirty years. I asked him how Chennai has changed since he was a child. He told me back then, no one but the super rich had cars. Everyone else got around by walking, mule, rickshaw or bicycle. Now there's a larger middle class, and many more people have cars, motorcycles and mopeds. The human-powered rickshaw is a relic of the past; now auto-rickshaws buzz around like honey bees at a hive. Also, it seems everyone has a cell phone, even many of the poor.

Kapaleeshwar Temple

One of the most memorable places John took Dave and me was to Kapaleeshwar Temple in Mylapore. (Almost everyone calls it Mylapore Temple, probably because that's pronounceable!) Built in the 8th century, it's covered in stunning sculptures.

There's an area of the temple where only Hindus are allowed. John and his cousin went inside and got two gorgeous, fragrant garlands blessed and then placed them over our heads.

With John at Kapaleeshwar Temple

We had to take off our shoes not only to walk inside but on the outside part of the grounds. You can't be persnickety about getting your feet dirty here. I noticed that in the city, there's a lot of barefoot walking (and, frighteningly, motorcycle riding)! The weather is generally quite warm, so that makes sense--as do the free-flowing clothes that shield the body from the sun yet keep it cool.

Another incredible outing was to Mahabalipuram, which is about an hour outside of the city. I enjoyed seeing the rural areas and a number of seaside resorts as we passed. Mahabalipuram has to be seen to be believed. It's a 7th century mix of magnificent historic rock temples and alfresco bas reliefs butting up against beautiful beaches. (Who knew we'd see surfers in India?)

Lunch that afternoon was an incredible whole fresh fish cooked for us in garlic butter, served with rice and veggies. 

We chose the one on the right.

Food here is very inexpensive. Twice now we've been to a crazy-delicious restaurant, Sangeeta, that John characterized as "medium-priced" at $2 a person. That's compared to the  20 cents you can spend for a very filling portion of street food. We haven't braved street food, but Karen and Widi--who have lived here for five years--eat it, and they've never gotten sick.

That could be because they are citizens of the world. They met 27 years ago when they were both working at a refugee camp in Sumatra. Prior to that, Karen had been in the Peace Corps in Benin. Widi, who's Javanese, was recruited to work with the refugees while he was still in college. After they married in a traditional Indonesian ceremony, they moved to Thailand to work in another refugee camp. The decline of Karen's father brought them to Massachusetts, where they stayed for 18 years. They both worked as teachers there: Karen in the public schools and Widi through Lutheran social services. 

Widi and Karen's wedding picture
Widi told me the move to the U.S. was an adjustment for him. He was bowled over by the abundance of goods in stores. His first time in the city of Albany, they went into a huge mall and he'd thought the mall contained the whole city! Also, Widi said that Indonesians maintain harmony by agreeing. It took some time for him to learn how to "agree to disagree" in both his work and personal life.

Soon, their son John (yes, there are two Johns in this household) was born. John is now a senior in the international high school here in Chennai where Widi and Karen teach. Like his father almost 20 years before, John underwent an adjustment period upon moving. In fact, he's now writing an essay for his college application about his personal transformation. He evolved from hating India to being grateful for the opportunity to live here. He feels he's grown in ways he couldn't have if the family had stayed in small-town Massachusetts.

At Mahabalipuram

I find it fascinating how life brings people together. We met Karen and Widi on an Alaska cruise three years ago. And now here we are with them on the other side of the world. I thought about that the other night when we took a walk with Jaga, their sweet dog. It was hot and humid out, and the gold full moon shone over the Bay of Bengal. People were out and about, walking, eating at stalls, riding bikes and motorbikes, or sitting on the ledge of the promenade. Cows, down for the night, slept in groups of three or four along the road. Many of the street dogs slept too, but others barked at Jaga as we passed.

On the beach with children, Jaga and other dogs.

Widi took us on a detour down a dirt road through a village filled with small shacks. Most had their doors open to dirt floors. People hung around out front and nodded at us as we passed. Suddenly a group of girls--probably ages 4-8--came running up to me, squealing with delight. They grabbed my hands and reached up to touch my hair. 

"What is your name?" asked the oldest one. 

"Kate," I said, and they chanted "Kate! Kate!"

I asked each of them their names, and they stared into my eyes. Their accents made it hard for me to hear but I did my best to repeat each name. They laughed and caressed my arms. As we pulled away, I waved and we all said, "Goodbye, goodbye." Then I felt the tears come. I was so moved by these lovely little spirits who live a life so different from mine but who connected deeply with my heart.


Wandering_Roger said...

Thanks again for all the detail, Kate. You really help bring the place to life. Love the story at the end. :)

lisa francesca said...

I fell in love with India too, Mysore and Kerala! So happy you are soaking it up and taking time for the little treasures :)

Gede Prama said...

Amazing and thank you friend, there are many inspirational articles