Author • Speaker India


Winter 2008 Newsletter

Vanakkam Friends,

In January, I spent three weeks in Tamil Nadu, the southeastern part of India. My Indian cooking teacher, Vaidehi, organized a wonderful trip for 16 people. Our group landed in Chennai, formerly Madras, where we shopped for a day for salwars (colorful three-piece outfits) before heading south in an air-conditioned bus. In Tamil, “vanakkam” means “hello” and “goodbye.” 

India’s Danish Colony
Here I am in Tranquebar, in the Bay of Bengal, pondering the history of a former Danish trading post (1620-1845), now a museum with scads of artifacts. “Tranquebar” means “place in the singing waves.” I’m half-Danish, so this heritage site was particularly intriguing to me.

Tranquebar, Danish Fort in India

Tranquebar, Danish Fort in India

India’s School Kids
The adorable girl in the middle, in the orange scarf, is Annapushpam. For $100 a year, I pay for her school tuition, books, uniforms, and lunches. (U.S. dollars go a long way in India.) She wants to become a schoolteacher. If you’d like to sponsor a smart, motivated Indian student, visit The Kolam Charitable Foundation’s website at www.kolam.info. Kolam gives 100-percent of their donations to the deserving poor. All of the operating costs are handled by the board members. The child you assist comes from a hut with no running water or electricity.

India's school kids

India’s Splendid Temples
My favorite temple was Nellaiappar Temple (700 AD) in the heart of the town of Tirunelveli. Supposedly, there were two distinct temples, one for Shiva and one for Parvati, the consort to Lord Shiva. A legend says there is a tunnel behind the Ravana sculpture in the temple corridor that connects Madurai with Tirunelveli. The Pandya kings and their spies used this tunnel for secret missions. Visitors to temples are not allowed to wear shoes. Notice my bare feet.

Nellaiappar Temple

India’s Low-Caste Housing
Our bus drove by many houses inhabited by the poor. Most are not as nice as this one, next to a stream, in a good neighborhood in Pondicherry, a former French colonial outpost. Despite the poverty of rural areas and urban shantytowns, the ruling class of most poor countries is ostentatiously wealthy.

India’s Low-Caste Housing

India’s Yummy Curries
I crave Indian food. Everyday, we ate idlis, dosais, chapattis, sambars, chutneys, pickles, yogurt, and pongal (rice pudding) for dessert, served on stainless steel. To make a simple Potato Curry with Greens:  Pop some mustard seeds in a little oil and add onion, garlic, and ginger. Sauté.  Next, add cooked, the drained greens and cooked potato cubes. Toss with salt and chili powder. Add green beans, turmeric and cumin seeds, if you wish.

India's yummy curries

India’s Crazy Traffic
On the roads, motorcycles, tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws), cars, buses, trucks, bicycles and cows compete for space. White lines are rare. Drivers honk incessantly because they are continuously passing or being passed. One night, I went on a wild ride in a tuk-tuk, a harrowing, not-to-be-missed experience.

India’s Sneaky Monkeys
A sign in my hotel room in Kanchipuram said: Dear Guest, We request you to keep all doors and windows shut to prevent monkeys from entering your room. Monkeys scamper across rooftops and peak into windows. Yes, they’re cute, but don’t touch or you could get rabies. Watching Indian monkeys reminded me of what Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins said, “We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes.” 

India’s Bugs: The Deet Goes On
Before my trip, I got vaccinated for Hepatitis A, Polio, and Tetanus. I took typhoid pills and brought a pack of Azithromycin pills (an antibiotic). For malaria, I didn’t take pills, although most of the people on the trip did. Instead, I lavishly applied Sawyer’s Controlled Release 20% Deet Formula. Happily, I had no stomach problems. Our diet was vegetarian and we washed our hands well before eating. Oh, I used-up a small bottle of Purell, an antibacterial gel.

India’s Frazzled Infrastructure
So why is India so chaotic, disorganized and overpopulated? With the bird flu raging in Bengal and mosquito-density high in five major train stations and other unexpected crises, the government does not have the time/money to collect garbage and resurface rutty roads. They’re overwhelmed. As for the people, I concluded that they don’t need to be very organized to survive. In hot climates, food tumbles from trees year round. By contrast, in cold climates, food must be stored for the winter. Scarcity is the mother of organization.

India’s White-Skin Fixation
Most billboards and television commercials in India feature people with whitish skin. Few display the average person. Sadly, lighter-colored Indians get better jobs and mates. On China Airlines, the flight attendants had white skin, too. With their gorgeous, shiny black hair, they resembled Snow White. Personally, I wish I were darker and could tolerate the sun better.

And I Did All This, Too…
• I enjoyed two Ayurvedic massages.
• I stepped in a gooey pile of cow dung.
• I saw a cow painted with purple polka-dots.
• I had a yummy lunch at the Sri Aurobindo community.
• I saw major mold on 90-percent of the buildings.
• I watched bronze sculptures being made in a backyard.
• I attended a Pongal/harvest celebration in a private home.
• I was invited to a Brahmopadesham, a coming-of-age event.
• I survived India without becoming ill or enlightened.
• I saw numerous people wash clothes beside a river.
• I watched women, gracefully, carry stuff on their head.
• I visited several waterfalls in the Western Ghats.
• I watched a silk-weaving family make sari cloth.
• I ate lots of meals on banana leaves. Try it.

There’s so much more to explore in India. I feel blessed to have had a glimpse of this complex and fascinating country.

Joy,
 

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