The past week or so has been largely dominated by two very different events: our first big trip out of Puducherry to the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, and our purchase of a guitar.
Our trip was exciting because we arranged and executed it all on our own. We had our driver, Moris, take us out of Puducherry and first to the 15th-18th century fort complex at Gingee/Senji where we spent about three hours hiking around the complex and up to one of the three hill-top forts that, along with 8 miles of wall, protected an area of about 4 square miles that the Brits referred to as “the Troy of the East.” We were there with a number of school groups which was great. An ideal hike complete with old ruins and monuments, snack vendors, monkeys, happy kids in uniforms, boisterous teenage boys, and (my personal favorite) a stylish young Muslim woman wearing a hijab adorned with the Apple Macintosh logo done in black sequins.
It’s important to note that despite their expressions here, the kids had both been yelling “Mom! Not so close!” right before the shutter snapped.
We were struck by how much these fort lookouts were like the ones we saw in Croatia, and how much bigger our kids are now than they were when we took their pictures in those!
After Gingee we drove another hour to Tiruvannamalai where we had booked a hotel right next to the 11-story Annamalaiyar Temple. As it turned out, our “Deluxe Room” truly was deluxe as our rooms were on the top floor of the hotel with balconies that provided stunning views of the temple, which was less than 100 meters away. After reading up on proper temple etiquette we journeyed out about 5:00 as the sun was going down and temperatures were cooling. The temple complex is 20 acres big and includes four huge temples so we were very glad when we ran into a state-sponsored official guide who for a very small fee led us around for the next two and a half hours. His guidance was key because without him we wouldn’t have felt comfortable going into all the various buildings and engaging all the different ceremonies that were going on. I found him fascinating because he was a truly devout Hindu, but aggressively insistent that most Hindus got lost in all the mythologies and stories and forgot the fact that there is only one true message, “You are the light.” As we asked questions about Shiva (whom the temple was dedicated to) and Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesh, and the various other manifestations of the divine, he answered our questions but constantly reminded us that those were just stories of how certain people experienced the light; that each generation and each enlightened person experienced the light differently and when they share their experience, some come to think that that is what Hinduism is, forgetting that it’s just one path. To drive his point home he went to an area where people were lighting small lamps and very respectfully asked several of them why they were lighting the lamps–what it meant. He then translated each of their responses for us, noting that all of them said different things and that none of them remembered that the flame was to remind them of the one message–that they are the light–they are one with god.
The temple at night from our hotel balcony
It was a beautiful evening, well after dark by the time our tour was done, and the sounds, smells, sculptures, and serenity of the temple were quite magical. The whole experience did make me wish that some of my own denominational members back home, who are currently dividing themselves along yet another set of ideological lines, would be able to experience the idea that our differences of expression of our devotion to God are ours, not God’s–the same is true of the divisions that those devotional differences cause.
Perhaps most rewarding about the trip, however, was the experience of coming “home.” As we pulled back into JIPMER and the car stopped in front of the Guest House and the familiar smiling guard came out to greet us, it was the first time that a part of India felt like it was where we belonged.
Just last week we finally traveled outside of Pondicherry. We went to an ancient Hindu temple in Tiruvannamalai, which was from the ninth century, and had tall walls and beautiful architecture. Minus the beggars we had a good time, even though we didn’t get to see the main part of the temple due to us not being Hindu, we had a good time. I still have not gotten over missing home, I miss my cats, especially Pork (Pokey, Pocahontas) even though she died about one month ago. Along with my friends, my records, and most of all fat Hannah, who has now gotten used to the people who are staying in our house. When I finally get back home I will try to convince my family to get a dog.
The monkeys here are not scared of humans at all; if you walk up to one it will simply look at you with an expression much like saying “what up”, and if you have bananas it will grab it from your hands, or in the case of my mom it will just cling on to the bananas and make loud screechy noises until you let go. Now we know to not let a monkey know when you have more than one banana. Some time in the next month I will begin helping students learn to read English in the rural areas outside of Pondicherry.
I suppose this entry will carry on with my usual theme, trying to find things to do that fills up my time. Well, it seems as though I’ve found something. For a while, my parents were having a bit of a problem with a woman we refer to as “the guitar lady.” Not because she was rude and certainly not because she was demanding a ridiculous price for her merchandise, but because she always told us what we wanted to hear regarding when the guitar was supposed to be shipped. We deposited our initial down-payment for the guitar about four weeks ago. When we asked when we ought to return to pick our new guitar up she, with finality, replied with a simple “tomorrow.” Now, it seems as though that wasn’t the case. So, after returning to the store eight times and leaving every time with another shower of “tomorrow”s, we decided to take our business elsewhere. (In case you were wondering, we did request our money back, to which she replied, unsurprisingly, with a “tomorrow.”) There was another music store that sold us an awesome guitar. (We didn’t realize that it had a grim reaper dude painted on the body until it was too late. I’ve actually come to like him and have started calling him Tim. Tim’s my buddy now, though some day I think I’ll put a happy smiley face sticker over him.)
This guitar isn’t spectacular by any means, but, to be fair, neither is my playing. To be honest, I never actually played a guitar until we purchased this one. For a little over an hour a day I’ve been stumbling through Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison while uncertainly singing along in the background. Although I can’t play worth anything, I can at least say that I’m trying. What I’m really looking forward to is actually developing callouses. The tips of my left hand’s fingers are starting to acquire a pleasant maraschino cherry red that I really would rather not have the rest of my life. Hopefully, by the time I get back, I’ll be half-way decent, that’s the goal, anyway.