Sunday, January 1, 2017

On Our Own...sort of

Happy New Year!

Well, our traveling companions have either returned directly home to Portland, or headed in various directions for other adventures. They were an interesting group. There was Ted, the professor from Concordia University, who knows and loves this area of southern India where he grew up. Our scout was JP, a retired Indian native who knows Ted from childhood and loves him like a brother. Dave is a retired art teacher from Concordia who along with Carol adds a lot about architecture and how things are made. Two other participants know Ted, from a committee they sit on in Vancouver dealing with mentally challenged adults. Three of the young women are Concordia students, who will get college credit for the trip if they submit a paper. We traveled together in a small van, our luggage secured each day of travel on the roof by our trusty driver, who negotiated the traffic that I described in prior blogs. It was better not to watch, but if you did, you often held your hands in front of your eyes. Often the other vehicle (or cow or pedestrian) was missed by inches.

On the first night of Hanukah which was also Christmas eve as we gathered for dinner, I wished everyone a Merry Christmas and gave out the Santa hats Carol and I had bought. I explained that this was also the first night of our Jewish festival. I brought out the Hanukiah and candles that I had stuffed in our luggage and gave a brief explanation of the Maccabean revolt and their internal and external battle with Helenism without which Judaism most likely would have assimilated into the dominant culture. Carol and I then sang the brachot and lit the first candle. The rest of the days we lit our Hanukiah in our room at night.

Some other events of note:
1. Arrangements were made for us at one stop for a concert of traditional Indian music. Three drummers, a violinist, a singer and a woman who played a most unusual string instrument called a veena. They played several distinct pieces, but to the untrained ear, they sounded much the same.
2. We spent a day at Auroville, a community of several thousands, determined to live at one with the land and each other. This was the brainchild of a famous Hindu guru and his partner who had been referred to simply as Mother. We learned from a Britisher who re-named himself Krishna about the richness of the soil and how so much of its produce we do not appreciate and waste. We then divided into three groups, prepared small plots of land and planted gardens. We then took of the produce that the land there had provided and chopped and helped to prepare our own dinner.
3. We spent a morning where elephants were cared for. When we arrived the baby and full grown elephants were being scrubbed from trunk to tail in a pool of water. They lay playfully as the young men washed every inch of these enormous animals. We stayed around as they were fed. A big bowl of some mixture awaited each elephant as the "trainer" placed big balls of the stuff in their mouths.
4. The biggest hit clearly was a kathakali demonstration prepared specially for us though several locals came to see as well. Though described as a form of dance, it really is theater. The three actors spent two full hours in preparation, mostly painting and having their faces painted by an meticulous artist and putting on their costumes. Then one of the three demonstrated how through movement of the eyes and face, body and feet that various emotions could be expressed. Then they put on a piece of a classic play in which an arrogant king takes on the Hindu god Shiva, who battles back. The king must learn humility in battling the god and eventually it is Shiva's wife Parvathi who makes peace between Shiva and the humbled king. We then spoke with the actors and took photos with them.

Kovalam was our last stop together. It is a beach community where Indians come to lay out, eat, play and buy scarves, saris, or jewelry. Emily, a young Concordia staffer, put a video together of our trip, which gave prime space to our Hanukah candle lighting. We took photos together, joked about funny moments and spoke of a reunion.

We have now commenced the last section of our journey, a guided tour just for the two of us. We are beginning that experience in the city of Kollam, a bit further north on the south west coast of India in the state of Kerala. The differences between Tamil-Nadu and Kerala are immediately obvious. The roads are better, the streets cleaner, the entire area wealthier. To some degree that has to do with the west coast getting more rain and the land being more fertile. No cows or goats on the road. We can see the ripe coconuts, mangoes and papayas as well as all kind of other produce hanging from the trees ready for harvest. Our driver told us that Kerala produces 12 distinct varieties of mangoes and 19 kinds of bananas! We've been eating red ones which are especially delicious.

Additionally each state elects its own government. Kerala presently elected a Communist government. As an American it is strange seeing posters and banners with a hammer and sickle. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in all of India. Interestingly our driver said that Tamil-Nadu by contrast has extensive social safety net for the poor and elderly.

Tonight we are in a truly gorgeous spa/resort on the banks of Lake Ashtamudi. I swam in the pool which we can see from our room, ate lunch and dinner and took a sunset tour on the lake. It's kind of dream-like. The cranes hang in the trees and ravens fly overhead. It's picturesque and gorgeous. It's not what I imagined when I thought about coming to India. The guests are predominantly Indians, though I would imagine of the more economically successful sort. They come here with extended families, three perhaps even four generations together. They are Hindu, Muslim (with women in chador) and Christian.

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