The "water cooler" in my office
My colleague Sabita has two sisters who live in Pondicherry, in a southern Indian state called Tamil Nadu (TAH-mill nah-DOO). She thought it was a place I'd like, so I decided to take a trip down there. My supervisor has been wonderfully flexible: We agreed that I would extend my assignment by 10 days to make up for taking this trip. One of the perks of not getting paid is not being shy to ask for time off.
My friend Jason, another volunteer in India through the American Jewish World Service, lives in Madurai, also in Tamil Nadu.
Since I was going to be in southern India during Passover, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to celebrate together. We decided to meet for a couple of days in Trichy (TRITCH-ee), a city of close to one million people that's almost equidistant from Madurai and Pondicherry. I flew down to Trichy via Bangalore; Jason had a somewhat harrowing and very noisy three-hour bus ride, but for $1 he didn't seem to mind it so much.
On Saturday we went out to lunch, and Jason impressed me with his drinking water out of a bottle skills.
In India people never put their lips on water bottles (even brand new ones) or cups. You hold the bottle close to your mouth, tilt your head back, and pour; I spill all over myself every single time. (Just try it, you'll see.) In my office there's the Indian version of a water cooler: A metal drum with a tap that sits on a stand, with a communal metal cup (the no-lips-touching rule extends to the cup) sitting on top. The drum is filled with filtered water, though I have no idea if the water is changed daily. Paper products are seldom seen in general in India, so I'm not surprised that there isn't a supply of little paper cups. Anyway, Jason has figured out how to do it; he tried to teach me -- something about opening up your throat for the coming stream -- but it was useless. (By the way, I just drink out of bottles as I do normally, lips touching and all. I figure that's not going to be the thing that tips people off to my being a foreigner.)
Now that's some serious bling
Later we went down to the main temple in Trichy, called the Rock Fort Temple, which is built atop a massive 2,000-year old rock (hence the name).
It's a 437-stair climb up (but who's counting), so we went in search of a bathroom before starting. We wandered into a fancy jewelry store; after reveling in the initial whoosh of air conditioning, I noticed the place was packed with Indian people. Our attempt to just blend in and look for the bathroom was futile. The manager immediately came over to us and started chatting. He wanted to show us around. So, we walked with him through five floors of the store, trying on major jewelry (at his insistence) along the way. It turns out his name is Jacob, which somehow seemed very fitting considering that Passover would be starting at sundown, in about an hour. We just let him ramble about whatever he wanted to -- his family, business, spiritual practice, etc. -- and it was so interesting. After walking around with Jacob for an hour we did use the bathroom, and we made our way over to the temple.
We left our shoes downstairs as required and weaved our way through the intense crowd. The sun was setting, but it was still sooo hot, and I had made the mistake of wearing jeans. But the climb was worth it. At the top, we went into the small temple, took puja, and got ashes on our foreheads.
After that we walked around and took it all in. The scenery was beautiful, with a view of the city at twilight. The scene was fantastic; it's impossible to describe the sights and sounds -- the mood was festive and celebratory -- and photos don't do it justice. We were the only foreigners, and it was a glimpse into life on a typical Saturday evening at the temple. (Somehow I don't think anyone knew it was the first night of Passover.) We sat for quite some time, talking about life and being Jews. For those of you who have read my previous blog entries, you're probably sensing a theme by now.
Jacob and Jason
We made our way back down and then wandered down the street, which was lined with shops. Jason got a shave and a haircut for something like 80 rupees ($2), and I think I'm highballing it at that. He opted to keep the 70s-style mustache that's oddly ubiquitous in India. I also tasted jackfruit, which I've never seen in northern India, for the first time.
(If you're curious, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackfruit.) Really, really delicious, and we got a huge bag of it for 25 cents, which we devoured on the spot.
Looking up at the Rock Fort Temple from street level
Later at the hotel restaurant for dinner, Jason asked for two bowls of hot water -- why, I had no idea. Turns out he brought instant matzo ball soup! It was like ramen noodles: Add hot water, replace the lid, wait two minutes, and voila! It didn't come close to my Mom's delicious soup and kneidelach, but it was actually pretty tasty. We ordered food that we hoped was suitable for Passover -- mutton, fish, eggs, rice, and potatoes. Later I serenaded Jason by singing the Four Questions (part of the Passover seder). I don't know what he thought of my singing (usually the response I get to it is "don't quit your day job" -- oops, already did that), but he was duly impressed with my having committed them to memory in Hebrew.
Jason caught a bus to Madurai on Sunday night; I left Trichy on Monday morning and took my first bus ride in India.
It was quite an experience. People hop on and off while the bus is moving, there's no door, the stops have no signs and the driver doesn't announce them. Well, maybe they have signs but they're either in Hindi or Tamil. (One of India's many official languages -- I think there are 14 -- Tamil is supposedly the most difficult to learn.) I asked the ticket guy enough times during the four-hour ride when we would arrive at Viluppuram (for transferring to a bus to Pondicherry) that he made sure I knew it when we did. Turns out it was a big enough station that I wouldn't have missed it. I got on a bus to Pondicherry.
Only 400 steps left...
This one was much more crowded, one of those buses with people hanging off the steps. Thankfully I'd gotten on before it got crowded, so I had a seat at a window. A woman sat down next to me and proceeded to fall asleep, out cold, on my right arm. It actually wasn't so bad. I listened to my ipod and watched the sights -- mostly consisting of the aforementioned people hopping on and off the bus while it was moving, and the ticket seller/collector persistently working his way through the crowded bus, deftly managing a huge wad of bills with one hand. A little over an hour later I arrived in Pondicherry.
Almost at the top...