March 22nd, 2007

I Heart Trains & Temples, But Not Dogs OR Speak Softly And Carry A Big Stick

A definite mixture of perfect travel days and one less than perfect interlude.

I set out from the big city of Chennai to go to the little village of Hampi, a town of temple ruins, crazy boulders, and lush green fields.  My whole trip from Pondicherry to Chennai to Hampi was absolutely easy.  "No Problem" as so many Indians have said to me.  There was always a person who knew the way, a sign clearly marked, and the perfect amount of time to wait for my train and when it arrived....could it be...yes!  An upper bunk!!--lucky seat when you usually can't even get sleeper class tickets on the same day (...I think the guy at the railway station hooked me up).  Upper bunks are nice because it makes me less noticeable, I can keep my stuff up high and it stays in the folded out position the whole time, whereas lower bunks get folded up when people want to sit up in the daytime.  I was comfy and cozy.  I sneakily listened to my iPod and fell asleep.  The next morning I awoke to calls of "Chaiiii--Chai Coffeee--Chhaaiiii!"  The doors to the train can be opened, and I stood near the door (but not too close) and watched India go by.  I really had the sensation of falling in love, a deep, soft yearning.  So nice.  While changing to a local train the next day, I met this very sweet girl from England.  We both intended to go to Hampi and find a guesthouse ("on the other side of the river", as everyone had told us it was the best spot), so we traveled the rest of the way together.  We sat with families and the babies either smiled or cried terribly at the sight of us.  One man bought us samosas and told us over and over, "Indian culture is the best culture," while some young guys sitting next to me cracked up.

Hampi was so beautiful, and I really haven't found precise words yet to describe it.  The first day I wandered through ruins--the Krishna temple, the Ganesh temple, and the main temple in town called Virupaksha.  It was so hot out--I think near 100 degrees, maybe over 100.  But I was so totally fascinated by it all...the figures carved in stone, whoever it was that carved them, whoever it was that worshipped there (and who still does), what it is that drives people to erect temples and worship the Divine.  Happily, I felt more like a pilgrim than a tourist that day.  I couldn't resist paying my one rupee, though, and getting a blessing/pat on the head from Laksmi, the temple elephant.  Some young guys near me kept taking my picture with their cell phones and I gave them a few dirty looks, then wandered away to the back of the temple.  This old guy motioned me to come follow him.  I wasn't sure at first, but I went.  Everything became very quiet.  He said, "Come, come," then motioned towards this water filled area, "Shiva water tank," and to an enclosed area that contained a Shiva linga (a phallus, or fertility symbol of the god Shiva), "Shiva linga."  He banged on it with his fist, "Shiva linga."  He led me over to some stonework that hard a bunch of snakes on it, "Cobra.  Sssssssss."  He made slithering motions, and showed a second, bigger carving, "Mahacobra.  Ssssssss." (Maha = great or big)  "Shiva," I said pointing, trying to imply that the cobra is associated with Shiva in the mythology.  "No," he said, "Ssssss.  Cobra."  We walked out and he held out his hands.  I gave him five rupees, which I thought was fair.  "Ten rupees," he said, and I forked it over.  He led me back to the main part of the temple.  Inside, there were a series of rooms, each with a priest performing puja at a statue of a deity.  The first one I came by was again of the cobra (SSSSS!!!).  He (the priest, not the cobra) motioned me to come over and sit.  He gave me a flower for my hair and water to drink.  Even though it was definitely local water, I decided to drink some, since it was holy.  He took the candle flame and circled it several times in front of the statue, then dabbed my forehead with red powder.

The next day I walked probably 2 miles past little villages and vibrant green rice fields and banana plantations.  I was looking for the Hanuman Temple, and when I finally found it I had to crane my neck because that sucker was at the top of a mountain.  And it was really, really hot out...  But like a good little pilgrim, I walked the steps to the top.  At first I felt a little disappointed when I got there because I was picturing monkeys all over and some crazy shrine to Hanuman (the monkey faced God).  The temple was under construction and I talked to a tattoo covered British Sadhu ("London Baba") who was living at the temple and helping to rebuild/repair it.  Really, the vastness of the view and the walk it took to reach it was, for me, the essence of Hanuman, who represents devotion.  I could see SO FAR in every direction, until distant mountains became hazier and hazier and disappeared into the bluest sky.  And the monkeys did come.  I was drinking some water and when I looked to my right---MONKEY!!  Right next to me, staring at me!  Back at the bottom of the mountain I sat at a stall and had a bottle of 7Up and some bananas.  It was owned by a woman and her teenage son.  I think they lived in the cave that the boy kept pointing at.  She offered me some chai for free (!) and I had a really nice, human moment where no one was trying to get anything from me.  It was just me with some people, drinking chai at the base of a mountain.

The rest of the week in Hampi was more of same, visiting temples, but becoming a lazier pilgrim as the heat really hit and the fan in my guesthouse room became more appealing.  I fell into a kind of sweet, hazy solitude, keeping to myself, and reading and writing a lot (I just finished 100 Year of Solitude by G. Garcia Marquez...sooo good....).  Enjoying my time with myself, but still thinking it would be nice to be with someone who knew my jokes and secrets.  In the day I walked around, inspired by finding the tiniest crevices between boulders, with candles and flowers at a hidden shrine inside.  I walked over long plains of rock and thought about the words, "Beware, oh wanderer, the road is walking too."  (That phrase maybe become a tattoo soon.)  I ate amazing huge lunches and chatted with interesting tourists.  I talked with one guy from London about conspiracy theories for almost two hours.  He was really into this idea that the British royal family are secretly part of a race of lizard people, which I've heard before.  Many guesthouses showed movies at night, to entice people for dinner, so I went to a few of those.

Okay here is part two, the less than ideal part.  Leaving Hampi, I was walking to the train station.  I had about eight hours to kill before my train came.  And there's nothing to kill time like GETTING BIT BY A FUCKING DOG.  I had a friend at Sadhana Forest
who got bit and I had thought, 'Oh that sucks, good thing it won't happen to me.'  Well I was walking down the road and--I don't know why it happened.  Maybe it was because I was thinking ugly thoughts about dogs.  Maybe I looked like a super threatening giant with my big pack on.  Or maybe India is just full of nasty, mangy, rabid dogs.  In Karnataka, the state where said attack took place, there is currently a controversy over a decree to exterminate stray dogs.  Normally I am very against hurting livings but now I have this strong mixture of fear and hate towards the dogs I've seen since (maybe that's the pre-frothing stage?).  Don't worry, I went to a doctor right away.  That was an adventure in and of itself.  When the attack happened I was in front of this family's home and they saw it happen.  I sort of stood there in shock and lifting my pantleg to look at the bite.  A crowd started to gather.  A young girl said in the most serious and sweet voice, "You must consult a doctor immediately."  I was close to panic, "Which way?? Which way??"  The girl and her sister led me to a nearby doctor, but it was Sunday night so he was not in.  The girls flagged down a rickshaw driver and told him to take me to the government hospital.  "He will explain to the doctor," she told me.  I thanked her about eight times and got in the rickshaw.  This driver was so unbelievably helpful.  I was a bit of a mess.  I followed him into the hospital and thorugh the upstairs ward.  Since it was Sunday, I think the doctor was technically not on duty.  There was a lot of speaking that I didn't understand a word of, and me trying not to full on cry but feeling really scared because I'm, you know, in a dingy hospital with geckos on the walls and I'm wanting to not get stuck with some dirty needle.  He told me to come back in the morning, and I explained that I was supposed to get on a train for Jaipur.  He said I could get the first one right then and the second one when I got to Jaipur.  I was concerned that it was not normal to wait that long for the second one and tried in a few different ways to ask if that was normal.  Finally, the rickshaw driver and I walked across the street to the medical supply shop to buy my injection supplies.  Thank God in India you get to buy needles in a fresh package yourself instead of seeing it come out of a hospital cupboard and wondering where it's been.  Well the shot didn't even hurt, and I mentally gave myself a smiley-face sticker for being brave.  The rickshaw driver drove me finally to the train station.  I gave him Rs 600, which is a ridiculous amount, but I felt so much appreciation for his help.  You can always tell when you really overpay because they'll carry your bags at the end.

After all that dog business, I had the great pleasure of spending 36 hours on a train with some very nice young Indian men.  It was true hospitality and included no attempts to grope me whatsoever.  There was a group of eight guys--five were nursing students on school holidays, and three were cousins going to see family..  They had a huge bag of food--homemade by mom--which they shared generously, so that at each meal I was instructed not to buy anything.  I was included like family.  They sang songs in Hindi and asked me to sing songs in English (The request was the theme from Titanic).  I made up stories about a boyfriend who I was meeting in Delhi in order to halt any hopes on their part.  They all wanted my email and I said, "Okay--but friends--I have boyfriend," and they laughed.  Whenever I had any trash, I made a little pile in the corner because I just couldn't bring myself to begin the custom of throwing it out the train window.  They thought that was funny.  Everytime I would wake from a nap, my trash pile would be mysteriously gone.

Finally I am in Jaipur.  I am about to go to the Vipasana meditation center outside the city to attend a 10 day meditation course.  I am not sure if they're going to let me in, because on the fourth day of the course I need to have another crazy dog injection.  The course is pretty strict--no reading or writing, no phone calls, no talking, no anything that could be distracting.  So they may not let me do the course.  At first I felt disappointed about this, but now I feel really excited with whatever direction it goes in.  I met some really great people, an Irish/Czech couple, at my guesthouse yesterday.  The woman is also interested in doing some buying of silver and textiles, so if I don't do the course I'm going to hang with them a couple days before moving on.  We'll see!!