Unblinking Eye
                         A Journey to India - Page 5



On our drive to Pondicherry we ran into some of the worst infestations of mosquitoes I have ever experienced.  At dusk we stopped for a coconut milk and when we got back in  the car the mosquitoes swarmed all around us.  I kept smashing clouds of them against the windshield with a rag.  They were biting me through my shirt, leaving blood stains as I squashed them. We drove very fast and opened the windows to clear them out.  This seemed to help, but every time that we stopped we were inundated and had to perform the whole operation again.  I was grateful I had taken the prescribed malaria pills.

Pondicherry has a French history.  To me it seemed like a town that had lost part of its soul.  Perhaps that is because the name is so romantic.  How could mortar and bricks in the unforgiving Indian sun be anything close to my expectations of cobbled streets full of quaint old buildings?  I stayed at the Ananda Inn.  I arrived in the evening when the night life seemed to be entering a full-tilt drunken revelry.  I was advised it would not be safe to leave the hotel until morning due to carousing that surrounded the hotel.  I felt I was in the middle of a drunken tilt-a-whirl contest.  I loved the carnival-like sounds of the people, the sounds of the horns--the beeps, toots, squeaks, and honks of the conveyances.

The hotel had two restaurants, a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian.  With an hour wait at the non-vegetarian restaurant, I chose to have my meal at the vegetarian one.  The food in the South of India is wonderfully aromatic with the spices they cultivate.  In the South they have many types of bread made from rice.  I loved the spiciness of the food.  It wasn't long into the trip before I began to notice that my body had a strongly pungent smell.  I first became aware of it when I entered my hotel room and smelled the scent of another person.  I gradually realized the foreign smell was not someone who had just left my room, but myself.  The spices were coming out my pores. 

I love the South Indian coffee.  It was the closest thing to espresso I could find.  It is strongly brewed, then heated with milk and sugar.  It is always served in a metal cup and has a very rich taste, as though the sugar has almost caramelized.  A friend and I who kept running into each other had a standing joke.  Every time we would have coffee together, they would remove my large coffee cup and replace it with a smaller version of his cup.  It was a constant amusement for both of us to try to surreptitiously engage the wait staff in making sure that the other person got the smaller cup. 

The cuisine there is as involved as any in the world.  The tastes are very specific.  Since there is a minimal use of fat, especially animal fats, foods eaten there seems to metabolize more efficiently.  There were days when I felt I couldn't eat enough.  Climbing into rock forts and wandering through temples could be the dieter's dream vacation.

On the road to the Ashram in Pondicherry I noticed many effigies suspended on poles outside houses under construction.  To me they appeared quite ominous but I was assured they were only there to bring good luck to the new home.  Still, I am not sure.

My favorite thing in Pondi was the Sri Aurobindo Handmade Paper Factory.  The factory is owned by the Ashram and open to the public.  There are many buildings in this factory.  They grind up rags and other material to reshape into large colorful sheets of paper.  I was surprised at how wet the process is.  Each building houses a different part of the process.  There is a sorting room, a grinding room, and a room to press out the paper.  There are drying rooms and clotheslines outdoors where the paper is hung to dry.  Colorful sheets of paper wave in the breeze until they are dry enough to be stacked in the warehouse.  The clang clang of the presses and the grinding of the extruders and mixers underlies the sounds of workers talking and has a soothing rhythm.  At the gift shop you can buy hand made stationery with pressed leaves, appointment books with rainbow swirled paper  and many other unimaginable things for just a few dollars.

Mahabalipuram.  I dare you to say it fast three times.  I still don't think that I can pronounce it correctly.  How many times did I try?  Another coastal town that is home to smaller-scale stone temples that are just a few stories tall.  Stone carving is a living art in this town.  Be sure to visit the Mayan Handicrafts store.  These stone cutters use chisels they make on site in their own furnace.  They make carvings that will fit in the palm of your hand to sculptures larger than life.  They will ship all over the world.  If you look closely on the roads outside of Mahabalipuram you may notice people in the marshes harvesting salt.

I hate to say goodbye.  To me, it means that I may not pass this way again.   A journey is a lifetime and I will never forget my travels with Ramesh at  the wheel.  I remember my sense of the absurd when we had first begun our travels together.  We were on one of those roads through the country and I told him that I wanted to stop at the next bathroom we passed.  "Bathroom, bathroom?", he said quizzically. I remember wondering what in the world I had done to take off completely alone in a strange land where I was unable to communicate such a simple thing.  How was I going to explain this?  Somehow, we figured it out.  Just like the time I was trying to find out about where all the bulls were.  Cows were very commonplace but I never saw any bulls.  I couldn't help but wonder where they were.  Ramesh didn't understand the word "bull."  Finally, I explained that I wanted to know about the "man cows" and we were once more on common ground.

There were times when communication between us seemed effortless and others when it was exhausting.  Until this trip, I thought I had a good ear for language, but so often I found myself feeling completely tongue-tied and deaf to the nuances of sound.  How frustrating it was to travel on to the next village and find that the words for please and thank you were no longer the same. 

I still do not know how to adequately thank Ramesh for being one of my windows to India.  As an eternal outsider, these were the only views possible to me.  Quickly we had established an  evening ritual of discussing our plans for the next day.  I would thank him for the day and we would shake hands before parting.  This was of course a transgression of boundaries on my part.  If there was a doorman at the hotel they wanted to be my intermediary.  It seemed absurd to me that we should not speak after we had spent all day together.  I don't know how many  days it took to realize that while I slept in comfort in an air-conditioned room, Ramesh was sleeping in the car.   I will always remember the kindness in his smiling face as we parted at Madras and I flew on to Bangalore.  Thank you Ramesh for sharing a part of your India with me.  Until we meet again I will remember your many kindnesses and wish you and your family well.

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