Saturday, February 04, 2006

Poopipatti and Godgay

Sorry to burden you again with my ponderings, but as I sit here they are dripping water all over the floor and doing some sort of mopping exercise. That's impressive unto itself. A clean surface will result.

Clean surfaces are hard to come by. When they serve you a thali, they wet the table and squeegee the whole thing. Then they place a banana leaf in front of you. They bring a pitcher of water and pour it over your banana leaf, expecting you to smear it around with your hand to clean the surface. However, if you are a hypochondriacal American, you freak out when the water starts to be poured on your leaf, so Bethany reaches into her backpack and pulls out a bandana to dry the leaf. (She is the most prepared person on the subcontinent. What would I have done without her thermometer or Metamucil or Febreze?). Then they scoop a lump of white rice onto the banana leaf and walk around with a scruffy metal contraption to scoop dal and paneer and sambar onto your rice. You should have washed your right hand by now because that is your utensil to smash the curries into the rice and scoop the concoction into your mouth, keeping your fingers out of your mouth. Try it at home. It can be a challenge. When you want to be served no additional lumps of rice or puddles of curries, you fold your banana leaf and they bring you a small paper napkin.

The food has been tantalizing. While many of the restaurants look unhygienic to my bacteria-seeking American eyes, some of the best masalas have come from drab open air dining establishments. Actually, my last Indian Airlines flight served a tastly channa masala. The doughy samosa wasn't remarkable, but the airline-prepared gulab jamin were actually better than those at the wedding. After visiting the spice farm near Munnar, I bought a new supply of ground cardamom, cumin, pungent asofeotida, vanilla beans, soft brown tongue-numbing cloves, premixed garam masala, whole nutmeg and cinnamon bark. The Wolf range will be spitting out some ghee-drenched culinary delights soon.

I spent the last two days on a shopping and wandering pilgrimage in Chennai. With seven million residents, it's the largest Indian city I had the chance to experience. My oasis of a hotel had a high wall shielding it from the massive river behind the building. On my walk this morning I discovered why. The river is black. Pure stagnant putrid sewage. The banks of the river are stacked with rubbish: paper and plastic. Small aluminum and straw shanties are built atop the trash by those who dwell in the river.

Most of what I saw was surprisingly clean and orderly for an Indian city. Although one is hard-pressed to find a sidewalk along the busy six-lane Anna Salai Road in the heart of the city, Chennai has a number of traffic signals and generally drivers seem to respect them. I found some architectural gems that reflected the city's past but accidentally wandered into a ghetto. When the goats started following me, I realized it was time to retrace my steps back to the main street. I passed a couple of brand new buildings. Buildings less than one year old look brand new. Buildings that have stood for one year or more look just like the buildings that have been here for 20 or 40 or 80 years. Maintenance seems to be a challenge.

Chennai was a big change from Madurai and Turichipally. We hired a driver for the ride across the south and weaved, jerked and honked our way through some of the oddest sites I'd ever seen. We passed Godgay. We passed Poopipatti. I would hate to be a resident of Poopipatti. We passed a whole bunch of something-a-pattis and rice paddies and oxen and people bathing in rivers and colorful temples drawing pilgrims from across India. We went to some of those temples. Shoeless, I was blessed by the temple elephant in Madurai, who put his trunk on my head. We walked to the top of the Rock Fort temple in Tiruchipally. On the journey up, I decided to take advantage of the toilet at the halfway point. Only problem: I was barefoot. Using an Indian toilet is unpleasant enough. Walking barefoot across the urine of countless pilgrims who peed before me resulted in an evening foot scrubbing.

So now I sit in the Mumbai airport once again, ready to begin my final three flights. I just got off a 40-year old Indian Airlines A-300 with flight attendants wearing creamy saffron saris and am waiting to get back in that Austrian Airlines clown car, filled with those stern blond women wearing bright crimson suits. It's early in the day Saturday in the US; it's late at night here. But I'll be home tomorrow afternoon, which will require about 20 hours of flight time remaining plus some transfer time. Good thing for Ativan.

India is incredible. As chaotic and shabby as it is, everything is a miraculous photograph. My digital photos will not have done this trip justice. As pushy as people are in markets and stores, it's not a threatening place: people are kind and do the bobblehead thing a lot. And as overwhelming as the poverty and the begging is --particularly children and people with disabling conditions (leprosy, deformity) -- it makes for an amazing patchwork. It's a nice reminder of how fortunate I am to have the life I lead.

Okay. Enough reflective sentimental crap.

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