A Short Indian Diary - of a holiday, also a trip with a purpose, that Judith F. Hubbard-Jones and Nicolas G. Hubbard took during 23rd February – 6th March 1998.
Written by Judith F. Hubbard-Jones © 1998
Part 2 (1st - 6th March 1998)
Leave Milton Keynes in rain, unlike the unseasonably warm weather we have been having recently. A chatty taxi driver who (it turns out) doesn’t really know his way to Heathrow Terminal 4! We get there late, but just in time to check-in etc.
The first ‘emotional’ realisation of the closeness of India comes when I hear Tamil spoken for the first time over the speaker system – Indian faces lighting up as they hear the announcement made in Tamil after weeks, months, years perhaps of English only in public places. The flight left half an hour late – very cramped conditions for such a long journey, however we cope the best we can, have two snacks etc. It gets dark early as we fly into the night. The most interesting thing to see from the window was the burning oil flames burning useless gas all over the Gulf states, especially over Saudi Arabia.
Arrive Chennai (Madras) eventually! Western/British culture seemed more prevalent than on my pervious trip to Pakistan, when Eastern/Muslim culture took over far sooner. Perhaps it was to do with being on a British Airways plane, I don’t know.
Chennai airport OK but a bit tatty! For example there were horrendously dangerous wheelchairs offered for those who needed assistance, pushed by the ubiquitous porters – safer not to take the offers! We were met by a travel rep. and driver. However a bit later when he (a Mr. Kumar) gives me his card he is not a Pettit's official rep!! Anything can happen! We see glimpses of Indian early morning life as we leave Chennai –cows everywhere, palm trees and people going about their businesses in the early morning. (A few reminders of Pakistan.) All the cars have a vintage 1950/60’s look about them. Our car is an Ambassador – basically a Morris Oxford.
We get to Fisherman’s Cove Hotel about 7am. Muddle No. 1 – although we had expressly asked for two single rooms, all the vouchers say one double. I know it seems extravagant – especially to Indian eyes, but it was what we had asked for and paid for. Nick and I did feel we wanted separate rooms! The travel rep promises to sort out the muddle before we get to the other hotels.
Anyway the food is OK!! There is some ‘International’, but I stay clear of that and go for the local and fresh which is all wonderful vegetarian or fish.
This is very much a ‘1st World’ hotel in a ‘3rd World’ situation. The rooms are fine, but the water is a dull brown and probably very bad for you if swallowed. Outside (through my bedroom window) I see ‘1st Worlders’ bathing happily in the sparkling swimming pool (unlike the bath/shower water, it is bright, chlorinated and very inviting). Six Dalit women walk stately by in their lovely saris carrying heavy loads of bricks on their heads, for some building project towards the beach.
Nick and I are resting up today. Body says ‘tired’ but cannot really sleep properly!
We change some of our money into Rupees and visit the hotel shops (where plastic money is better!) We see some wonderful sandalwood carvings –especially that of Ganesha! (The elephant god.) Will buy tomorrow!
From the material shop we buy some batik hangings having haggled and every one is happy enough. I see similar birds to those I saw in Islamabad and Lahore parrots and the bird that they call ‘blackbird’ but is a different type of bird to our blackbirds. These blackbirds have chicks with them. It is incredibly hot and humid, especially at midday. Goodness knows how it must be in the ‘hot’ season. As one leaves the comfort of an air-conditioned bedroom, spectacles steam up!
The flowers are a riot of colour- but I don’t know any of their names of course. Evening – had a delicious meal of fresh grilled fish by the seashore at an outdoor restaurant also owned by Fisherman’s Cove Hotel. There are no mosquitoes here as the breeze coming in from the sea pushes them away. We watch lights far out at sea of boats coming to and fro from the harbour at Chennai (Madras).
Another beautiful day! (We slept quite well last night and the time difference of five and a half hours has not been much of a problem so far.) This morning we went with the hotel’s ‘Mr Activities Man’ to the beach. We took off our shoes and sandals and left them on the sand. We then walked a quarter of a mile or so to the fishing village nearby. We hired a chap with a balsa wood catamaran with a small outboard motor. Sitting on/in the little craft was an experience in itself. It felt really safe, one can always trust wood even if it is sodden and water is over it! We saw and met to talk with several fishermen, some using a huge drag net, others hook and line fishing. But the catch today was poor. The last good catch had been over a month ago. The fish stocks are now very poor. The trawlers out at sea take too much and traditional ways of fishing cannot compete. The fishermen were all older men or young boys. Young men and women now work at the hotel instead. Traditional roles in work have changed a great deal. When we came back ashore again we watched the hauling in of the dragnet. It was three-quarters empty with only poor little fish and anchovies, two flat fish, lots of horrid bloated fish and jelly fish which had to be thrown back into the sea. They were not a happy bunch of villagers. It was interesting to see the role of women as being the dictators of what should happen to the fish once landed – not that there was much to dictate about. The villagers are very dark indeed and very beautiful. We are told that the village is a mixture of Christian, Hindu and Muslim and that all get on well together. Fundamentalism would be a serious obstacle here. We had a nice lunch from the buffet bar. We answered a student’s questionnaire on tourism in India even though this is only our second day.
Afternoon – we visited a ‘Heritage Village’ three kilometres away called Dakshin Chitra. It is a fairly new project with ancient buildings of particular interest being rebuilt here. In ten years time it would be worthwhile revisiting. Already school visits come here. There is a lot of craft work on display and for sale.
Today Nick and I spent quite a lot of time and money on buying things. Nick has bought a carpet, shirts, ties, carved elephants etc. Me – a sandalwood Ganesha, Shiva and Krishna as well as a festival elephant. There are no fixed prices so it takes ages as we all arrive at prices we are happy with. The carpet chap is nearly on his knees begging me to buy a nice little carpet but I am holding out! However some three silk shirts have been bought as well! How I don’t know!
I have seen a mongoose in the garden; several squirrel like creatures; lizards; nectar seeking birds and huge crabs on the seashore. Tonight as I write this I am even more struck by the huge differences between rich and poor here. Wherever Nick goes with his huge camera he is really admired – or rather the camera is. Already he has had several offers for it or part exchange. Even my more modest camera is coveted. We have occasional blackout/power cuts but never for long so far, not like the ones we experienced in Pakistan.
Today we passed a beautiful Banyan tree with its many trunks and roots. On the way to the Heritage Village we passed a swampy area with lots of leaves. Two hours later the leaves were also a profusion of pink flowers. They only come out in the evening.
Saw some pigs, nice wild looking little things, like pigs should be with plenty of bristle. I suppose they are bred for bristle rather than for meat.
Had a bit of hassle last night sorting out all the paperwork for our stay and for our bills. Indians like a great deal of paper work in the same way as the Pakistanis do. Anyway we got away early – 8.30ish.
Mr Biju drives us (averaging 45 miles per hour) in his black car along the new coast road to the Mahabalipuram, a site of historic monolithic temples 7th Cent CE. Very interesting and worth reading up about more. The visit is spoilt a bit by the hassle of persistent vendors of poor quality items. However we buy some carved stone pendants from a little boy who is probably wage earner for his mother. A fairly sleazy guide takes us round who has a cold and horrid cuts all over his face. His information is OK however. We go into an active temple where a Brahmin gives us blessings and prayers, shows us a reclining god and then asks for a donation! Another chap had already put ashes on our foreheads as we looked at a Ghanesha. (Ash Wednesday was yesterday!) I am happy for Hindu prayers to be said! We travel through lovely countryside, full of activity. Rice fields, palms of different sorts, different ground crops, peanut fields, cashew trees etc. We also pass vast salt pans where extremely poor people work. On the main road itself, folk lay down rice or lentil plants so that passing traffic helps crush the grains or peas out. The trouble is that the stalks can get caught and clog up the prop shaft of the cars. This happened to us later on. Women use the road to lay out the rice to dry in the sun. The police take no notice we are told, as it is not really seen as a criminal offence. The police however were happy to stop us at a road check and examined the boot of our car.
We reach Pondicherry at 1pm. Pondicherry is a noisy bustling place, very third world with clogged up drains, dispossessed outside the temples, etc. There are many small-time traders and shopkeepers, a bit like Quetta, but one can see the French influence, especially by the seaside with remains of French colonial buildings.
In the afternoon we drive to Auroville – or rather the huge Meditation Hall – as we were too late today to see ‘Centreville’. The Dome was truly inspirational. We had to enter it in single file and in silence. It must be built spiritually as well as physically. The inner and upper sanctum was a beautiful white-lighted rounded space. How it is done I don’t know. On going back to Pondicherry we visit the Mother’s Mausoleum. I must read up more about her. (See page 999 in the Rough Guide.) Our hotel is more Indian and far cheaper than the last two nights and we like it. We have a more simple meal of one vegetarian tandoori and one biryani with two gulabjamuns. The whole lot was £3 per head. (Expensive by Indian terms!) The only fault was the playing of European light classical music. I would much rather have light Indian classical, or local folk but my hints are not taken. On the one hand India tries to shake off western colonialism, on the other hand, loves to embrace anything new from the west.
It has been a long day today! Travel is really quite slow and so going 95 miles or so has taken us nearly all day! However we spent a long time at Chidambaram at the temple of the Dance of Shiva. The somewhat dirty appearance and sticky floor that one had to walk over barefoot, put me off. But then I am a fussy westerner! The beggars didn’t help and certainly distract one from any sort of meditation. In places where we were told ‘no talking’ we were hassled by all sorts (because we were westerners.) However the architecture itself was fascinating (see page 1001 Rough Guide.)
We met our first elephants! They were walking along the road. We stopped the car and the larger one came across greeting us. I gave him a banana. His companion, a smaller elephant was very put out in not having one straight away, rightly so, but I put matters straight with a second banana. Their skin is lovely to pat - sort of soft leather but very strong and thick. The tip of the trunk is very dexterous. There were other elephants and their mahouts – perhaps a traveling show? Our driver, Mr Biju wasn’t sure.
The bullocks who so patiently pull carts and wagons look so benign and docile. They generally look OK although some are pitifully thin, but then most species of being is thin out here. In such a hot climate you don’t need fat.
We saw a wonderful romping herd of jet black pigs with their herder running behind them.
Goats generally run free, however I saw the sad sight of a hobbled goat, the largest in the herd therefore probably the leader so that they wouldn’t go far or fast with a person walking behind them. Far better if you can lead them, which we have seen.
Society here in South India is certainly a peasant one, but has a good interaction with people, animals, plants and land. Everyone and everything has their/its place in life. Indian life might seem inefficient at first but at least no one is lonely and redundant as in Britain. I don’t know ‘why’ the beggars, but even they have their place and get by. Life expectancy is very short of many I imagine.
We had our first taste of coconut milk – the juice inside the not quite ripe coconut. Also the soft white flesh before it goes hard as it does in a few weeks time.
There is far less evidence of British Raj down here in South India. Pakistan had far more. French is definitely the second language here in the hotel. Oriental Towers, Tanjore, is a huge hotel but nicely Indian, unlike Fisherman’s’ Cove. Here we have proper Indian food served on palm leaves and it is even cheaper!
Nick and I take a walk around the immediate surroundings – a typical bustling Indian city scene.
South Indians generally eat with their hands so all eating places generally have a basin in which to wash one’s hands.
The yokes that the bullocks carry are quite large. Yesterday the theme of ‘My yoke is light …etc.’ was one to muse on. Biblical images come alive in a culture such as this. No wonder church/biblical language is dead to most people in Britain.
As we get further away from Madras/Chennai the less we hear English being spoken. Bill boards are mostly in English, but hardly any English is spoken in the hotel, which makes it more interesting for us! There is a ‘supermarket’ under the hotel, but all sorts of people employed to help you choose your items!
This morning we visit the Brihadishwara temple were we were blessed by an elephant. Being blessed by an elephant means letting this huge but gentle creature lay its trunk on your head in a sort of curious caress. This temple was quite a different experience from the dirty Chidambaram temple. This place (see page 1011 of Rough Guide) was clean and felt generally more positive. Real prayers were being said here but the remarkable thing was the sheer engineering feat of being able to place such large stones into such a building. All the stones fit without mortar. Some of the statues are simply huge and would have taken many elephants and people to move them. We could imagine how Stonehenge could have been at one time. Today the images of OT stories of calf worship sprang to mind. The images and statues of many bullocks are important in Hinduism and especially in the temples we visited quite early this morning. Yesterday the stones of the outside of the temples were too hot to walk on in bare feet but today are better.
We next went to the Royal Compound (page 1012 in Rough Guide). The complex is in need of money spent on it, however it proved interesting in a faded sort of way. The remains of the local royal family still live nearby. Visited library, museum, art gallery and music hall. Lots of school children are here today. Saturday seems a day for visits or sport. Children love to pose for photographs!!! A local elementary school teacher gave us the school address for us to send copies of our photos. Shaking hands with us is another fun pastime! I bought an ‘angel house’ in a shop over the music hall. It is a sort of cloth tube, decorated, to hang up in the house so the angels of the house can have a rest!
At lunchtime we were introduced to have in a ‘meal’ which is the name for South Indian Tali or Thali, lots of little vegetarian dishes to eat with chapatti and rice by hand off a banana leaf. I’m sorry to say I resorted to using a spoon for the gravy instead of mopping up with copious rice. As we had decided not to go all the way back to Kumarakom (page 1081) which we had traveled through yesterday but was some problem to do with staying there), we did a bit more local sightseeing. Visited a church (C of I) named after Mr. Schwartz, an early SPG brotherhood member. English, Danish and German all seem to have played their part in the formation of this church. Several interesting memorials to clerics and serviceman and families buried out here. We then went on to a small village where our guidebooks assured us of an interesting temple, but it was shut. We took photos of a new temple in the heart of the village. The villagers were so surprised to see us (white tourists) that everything came momentarily to a standstill as we were stared at. It is so much more interesting to be off the tourist track. Mr Biju finds it quite amusing. Everything is now much cheaper and we are beginning to pay for things at Indian normal price. We can now get an excellent meal at £1 a head. Tonight we had an evening meal of Dosa – a Tamil specialty a sort of crisp pancake and lots of little dishes – a bit like a thali.
We had another walk around the streets tonight, nightlife being as fascinating as ever. Nick and I notice that we are beginning to walk slowly like the locals and at the side of the road rather than on ‘pavements’ which (as in Pakistan) are too fraught with open sewers, small businesses, people sitting or lying down etc. We joined in with the locals in crossing the railway line long before the barriers were lifted up after a long train had passed.
Tonight I found a HUGE beetle – a sort of cockroach in shape, coloured brown but probably not a cockroach as these are usually in ‘collectives’ or colonies – could have strayed from its colony? Anyway I trapped the poor creature under a glass. I then rang reception to remove it. He didn’t understand the word beetle so I told him I had a small animal in the room with me! A young chap arrived not knowing what to expect. When he saw it he was quite amused and ready to stamp on it (where was all that Indian ‘let’s harm nothing’ gone?) I said ‘no’ so he managed to take it away in the glass with a plastic bag over the top. A little while later, a chap on reception rang and profusely apologised for all the inconvenience etc! No doubt where they live at home such insects are common. This beetle was a good two and a half inches, or sixty-five millimetres long, quite wide - a bit like having a grown mouse in the room and running about.
Part 2 (1st - 6th March 1998)
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