Saturday, October 20, 2012

Second City

The events in this post took place on Oct 6th. After morning adventures in Mahabillipurim, we returned to the Le Meridian in Chennai. 

After getting back to the hotel we were ready for a lazy Sunday afternoon. So we changed and met up poolside. Some drinks and a menu, please! Except wheres that waiter? A long time passes, we flag one down. We order. An hour passes. No drinks, nothing. We pack up, go inside and start complaining. Forget the food: we'll take the buffet. Of course now they all spring into action and we end up with our food plus items from the buffet.
I tell this minor incident to set the stage that we are now irritated and tired and are pretty much ready to go back to our rooms and do work.
But still a last complication: Ro had brought an item for her friend Gurjeet. Gurjeet couldn't make it so he was sending a friend. Now we were waiting on this guy. So we were crabby and stuck waiting in the restaurant for an extra half hour or so before the contact arrives. He finally does and I was expected a quick hand off, hand shake and head out.
But he's personable and warm and wants to know if we'd like to see the city. Now, we have both spent over a month in Chennai on different occasions. We've seen it, and to quote a popular guidebook "there isn't much in Chennai to be enthusiastic about." So, we look at each other and perhaps surprise ourselves by saying "Sure. Let's go."
This made all the difference. Now we were touring the city and being driven through it by someone who was not shy, spoke excellent English and was full of energy. He said that his energy and directness were more typical of Northern Indians whereas the Southerners tended to be quieter and more reserved. He was right up  our alley.
So, we went to a history museum which was mostly artifacts from the British rule. Some interesting oil paintings and an exhibit on coins, but pretty small and ho hum. Next we tried to go to an art museum but it was closed. But on the way around, we saw a bunch of young men playing some pick up cricket in a school yard.
This was much better than the museum. We stopped and watched. Our guide explained the points of the game and we cheered on a sixer here and there. So this is what you want to see: real life, not some stuffy artifacts. Right. After that the trip changed.
We drove through streets where stolen cars were ripped apart, and markets where the locals go. We got the answers to questions that had always eluded us. Like where would a typical employee of our vendor live? How would they live? What was typical?
And remember this street?
I wrote about visiting it in 2010. At the time I was a little grossed-out by the flies on the fish and the shanties they lived in. Did our guide ever shop there? Are you kidding? This is the freshest fish! They catch it right there.
We got out of the car and watched some men taking small mackerel out of a net. We chatted with them briefly on the bustling street, dodging stray cricket balls here and there. Now we were getting somewhere; our guide was a manager at a large corporation. He was well educated and going places and you bet he shopped here. Pretty much everybody did.
And as for the shanties? Don't feel too sorry for those guys, our guide advised: you go in those huts and they have 50" plasmas. They make good money selling fish and they own oceanfront property. If they built it up, the government would tax the heck out of them.
We went from here to a second beach. By now it was getting to be dark.
First, Rochelle had her fortune told by a hamster. This guy:

In other places we had seen people with parrots. We had thought it was just to have your photo taken with them. No: these were fortune telling parrots. All along the beach were fortune tellers of different kinds. The hamster had a deck of cards. He would move them off the stack until he found the one that told the correct future. For Ro, it was the card of Lakshmi: goddess of wealth. The guy read from a book about what that meant, with stops for our friend to translate. It was fairly accurate if a little broad, as those things tend to be.
And remember these things? Back in the St. Thomas blog, I referenced these as music machines. They are not. They are astrology forecasters. You put in data about your birthday and such and it gives you your horoscope.

So now we were hungry and it was time to eat. We drove off to a hot spot called Zaras. It was a tapas bar that played 70's Western rock. They almost didnt let us in because I wasnt wearing socks. The cricket world cup was on and the place slowly filled up with tall, hip Indians. We had a great time, noshed and headed back.
We owed a lot our guide, who showed us the real Chennai in a breezy fun way. He was a self-described travel enthusiast who kept a tent in his car and had once been offered a pilot on a travel show for the BBC. It would have been a great show, if this impromptu afternoon was any indication. Thank you Gurjeet, and thank you Nilesh!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Morning in Mammalipurim

These events take place on Oct 6th. We've seen historic sights and rested in nice hotel. Now we are getting up for what we thought would be the end of the trip and the start of a lazy Sunday afternoon back in Chennai. 
 This is Arjuna's penance. You may recall that I've discussed this some here. I posted there that I think its really Descent of the Ganges and not about Arjuna. In either case, we get there after a light breakfast at the Chariot Resort. Some of the flacks that I had brushed off yesterday were there waiting for us. I sometimes say "Perhaps later" instead of just "No" with these guys. I think no doesn't work as well with them and later gives us both wiggle room, so I go down that road. Of course now was later and one of them smiled gap-toothedly at me. "Remember yesterday you said tomorrow?" he chided. I had to chuckle. He was selling pervy Krishna palm drawings for way too much, though so I still wasn't buying.
Next came the guide question. One had pegged the car on the way in and asked after it. His English was good and he seemed personable enough so I fixed a price with him.

Guide or no guide- this wall is pretty awesome. He talked mostly to Ro as I filled up my flash card. The problem with guides is that your experience is, well guided by them. Their timetable and yours may not be the same. I would have liked to stay here a little longer. On the other hand, they keep the other salesmen away, so if you balance it right, it kind of works out. 
So, we got our snaps & story and moved on additional temples and Krishna's butterball

Oh, and there were cool goats around pretty much everywhere.
We actually saw a different temple than the last time we were here. In fact, we went a different way leaving the area. Of course you know where that road leaves: to unwanted shopping.
This time our guide announced he was afiliated with a sculpture school and wanted to show us. The "school" turned out to be a couple guys sitting on the ground scratching detail onto cut forms. I saw no signs that they did anything there other than that. They likely got the forms from somewhere and just etched them. The school was just a one-room stand with sculptures on the shelves.

They had a Michael Jackson sculpture here which I found amusing. Later we would find out that he is pretty much the only Western pop star with any traction here. But what to do about the sales pitch? I picked out a couple of small pieces and we did the dickering. He wanted way to much and I talked him down to just too much. I think its important for us to put something into the local economy and it wasnt that bad. But the real value came in that we were now going to walk through the town and go to an ATM to get the rupees. I enjoyed the town and chatting with the guide.
After the ATM, we were close to the Shore Temple and the guide suggested we just walk the rest of the way. I was very amenable to the suggestion as I was enjoying the morning walk. On the way we saw some people gathering behind a fenced-in large pool. I had seen the square pools in other cities and knew they were used in ceremonies.
This time it was a parade that was starting for a man who had died. Our guide was sketchy on the details, but we worked them out later that afternoon with a very different guide.
Fifteen days after a man's death, they have the parade.
This guy is dressed as Yama, the lord of the dead. In some versions, he is the first person to die and thus rules the dead by power of seniority. Here they are getting made up and ready for the show. Later we would see that he wore a large colorful, elaborate arced cloth behind his head.
The gent on the ground is dressing as Chitragupta. Sort of a Hindu Saint Peter, he keeps the books on your life, recording all your good and bad deeds. We also learned that the nature of your deeds impacts how long you live this current life. This had some surprising implications that we didnt dwell too long on.
So, the plan here is to tally up the merits and demerits and see if the local man was going to heaven or hell. A band was there as well, striking up an upbeat number that put me in the mind of a funeral in New Orleans. There was also a small political parade that went through town that morning. They were wearing the same style shirt as me and encouraged me to join the rally. This was the kind of stuff that made the sculptures I bought worth the price.
The Shore temple was good solid entertainment as well. The last time we were here we couldnt go inside, so that was a nice additional detail.

So, we wrapped up our morning in the town and found the car. We headed back to Chennai and had lunch at the hotel. That was when Gurjeet called and the day took another turn.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Chariot Beach Resort

The events in this post take place on Oct 5th. We have gone on a road trip to Mahabillipurim, have seen some sights and are now heading into town.
After the heat of the Tiger Cave we were ready for maybe one more sight, but the driver took us straight to the hotel. Now, I spent some time fretting about the hotel I had selected for us. After the disappointment of the hotel in Pondicherry, I was concerned. I knew that I would be ok with whatever, but I didn't want Ro to be in an uncomfortable place. All I had to go on was online reviews and they were mixed and hard to judge from. 
I needn't have worried. 
The Chariot Beach Resort was exactly what we needed. After check-in they golf-carted us off to our bungalows all Fantasy Island style. The rooms were fairly big, clean and featured private outdoor showers. Yes, please. After a refreshing splash it was out to see the grounds and perhaps a fresh lime soda by the pool.
Then its back in the car and off to see sights. The hotel got its name because it is literally right behind the Five Rathas site which I wrote about before here

What did we learn differently this time? Well after some thought, I did engage a guide. He was interesting if somewhat of a know-it-all. He would quiz us on things that were a little out there and then laugh that we didn't know the answers. Well, the story he told was that these were created by the Pallava and that there was some sea-based war going on with Sri Lanka. Or maybe they were from Sri Lanka and the locals were fighting them out. I don't think I was clear on that. Anyway- that's why some of the sculptures and such are unfinished; they needed resources elsewhere for the war effort and civic projects like these got put on hold. 
The other spin he had on these were that they weren't really connected to the Panduva brothers at all. They were really about the core gods and the Panduva associations got added later after the place became less directly religious. He underscored the point that these were historic sites now and not active Hindu places of worship. He also pointed out the different styles in each of the buildings. Some scholars believe that that is consistent with the location actually being a sculpture school. In any case, the place is pretty awesome and was nice to revisit. 
But now the little bald guide wouldn't leave us alone and wanted to take us all around. I didn't care for him laughing at us so I said no thanks, but then of course he starts whipping out the merch.
We went into the shop stalls across the street and bought some nicknacks. We both ended up buying these sandals, which seemed like a good idea, but anded up being slippery and painful. By now we were swimming in flacks and I pulled us out of there.
We went down the road a little to the two lighthouses.

On the way up we ran into some young Swiss (?) girls who were riding up from Pondi with their boyfriends on motorcycles. The had puppies on strings that they had adopted there. Cute enough, but they looked weak and maybe sick and that couldn't end right. We went up the hill and Ro ignored the temple to try and pet goats. This earned the scornful attention of a group of Indian teenage boys. We didn't care for that but now we had the attention of the other tourists. This turned friendly though as people asked for pictures with us and for us to take shots of their groups. By now it was 4:30 or so and the day was cooler. The breezes at the top were nice. 
We legged it down the hill and thought we'd try some light shopping in town. But things were closing and the shills were making it unpleasant. 
So we went back to the hotel. 
We went to the pool and tried a cocktail. We chatted with the pool manager. He was named Harvey and had married his cousin when he was 23 and she was 14. We also saw a couple clowning around as their child was underwater for too long in the pool.
We decided maybe it would be good to walk down to the beach. The sand was awesome and had been recently raked. The hotel was building a new restaurant on the beach and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We waded in the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal. 
By now it was dark and we turned around to look at town, we were treated to an amazing electrical storm over the town. It was low heat lightning with no thunder that lit up a cloud bank with dazzling pink purple light. That was a singular moment in the trip for me; feeling the warm waters in a still temperate night and watching that show.
After a while we went back in for dinner at the hotel. They let us eat outdoors under the stars to continue watching the sky. I slept well for the first time on the trip.

Return to Mahabillupurim

The events in this post take place on Oct 5th.
After some discussion we decided that we go to Mahabillipurim for the weekend. While I had seen it, I  wanted to spend more time in the town and would enjoy the chance to visit the UNESCO site again. Faithful readers will remember the place from a series of posts that start here.
I found that the re-visit gave me a somewhat different perspective and filled in some questions. This will turn out to be true as we re-toured Chennai with a new guide. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

We organized a car for ourselves and took off Saturday morning. Our driver was the white haired gentleman that also took us to work. His English wasn't great and some of the logistics of the situation weren't entirely clear, but we were happy to put some physical and emotional distance between us and work. We hopped in laughing and hit the road

First stop was an alligator park. Did we want to stop and see? Absolutely. 

These were mostly mid-sized, indolent beasts doing the best that they could to beat the heat. The most remarkable thing about them were there numbers. There were gangs of them in seemingly too-small enclosures. Only one or two lucky large ones had extra space. Draw your own metaphors here. 
The pond there had a thick verdant scum growing atop it. Occasionally a set of bubbles would appear and croc would break the surface and the monotony. 

But it was amusing enough and we looped through. I enjoyed scaring Ro in the snake house by saying "Oh, there's one there on the floor."
And soon enough we were at the gift shop and bathrooms. Ro bought her husband a hilarious bat mask and we braved the facilities. They were the worst of the trip - the old hole in the ground. We bought cold drinks and headed to the car. The usual set of beggars and salespeople made their bid as we passed. We shook them off. One little girl asked for money. I thought I had given her some on the way in so I said no. Well how about a drink of your coke then? Hmm. Ok. I finished off what I wanted from the can, gave her the rest and hopped into the AC of the car.


Ok, so next stop is Tiger Cave. Carved by the Pallava kings, the spot we are sitting in is supposed to be where an important king would sit and contemplate the rising sun. 
Important disclaimer: this information comes from the Coconut King and should be treated with the correct amount of skepticism. 
Who is the Coconut King and why shouldn't we completely trust what he says? He's this guy. 
Now, most of what he told us I believe and accept. I just think that the Raj isn't above telling a good story here and there. For instance, he told us how we was the guide of the beach and business was bad. Then one day, the tsunami came. This is the famous storm in 2004 that revealed some of the ruins in the area. Well, the king here claims he was standing there when it happened and he escaped by climbing this rock. 

You can practically see Ro disbelieving his story here. The King of Coconuts climbed the rock and was stranded there for 8 hours before the waters receded enough for him to climb down. After that, tourism at the beach was great. So, it was good for his business but 2400 people in the area died he tells us.
He showed us another Shivalinga temple after that. Good stuff, and you could see fresh worship had gone on there. These are historic sites and generally not for active worship, but the locals weren't entirely getting the message. Because 100 yards from that was this place

This is a small shrine. Coconutraj sat us down and solemnly asked us how old we were and if we had had children together. Whoah there Raj- we are business associates. He apologizes and goes on to explain that this was a fertility shrine. He points out several stones there where couples could come and sacrifice goats and chickens, make a puja and would be blessed with children. The graffiti you see around the door are people who have gotten kids from the shrine's magic. 
We split that place.
There was another dig site a ways further that we saw as well. By now though, the Coconut King had to compete for our attention with both the brutal sun and a hilarious puppy that lived in a cave in the ruins. 
He was game, but the tour was over. The puppy refused to eat strawberry Mentos so we went back to the car. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Short walk a long distance

Every day we drive to work past a series of small shops and food stalls. I've always been curious about them and today we decided to walk over at lunch and see.
We spend too much time insulated from the culture in expensive hotels and first class accommodations. Time to see reality a bit. So, we stepped out into the blazing sun and walked the several blocks over.
It was an eventful quarter mile.
There were chickens fighting, a near- naked insane man screaming at the world, a midget (yes), a lesson in glass recycling, a couple dozen hard boiled eggs covered in flies, a strangely-charming bakery (pictured above) and a mosque at prayer.
It was a dirty but informative fifteen minutes and an experience of the stripe I'd like to repeat.

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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Gift Shopping

After my awesome night of not sleeping I was ready to go to work and watch my computer struggle with a lack of WIFI connectivity.
Watching a computer task is a great way to fall asleep, but it's even better when you are in a hot room.
So, after 6 hours of this, my partner took pity on me and we went downstairs for a coffee and some shopping. At the coffee shop, she surprised me with some Pringles. I had no thoughts at all before this, but upon seeing that friendly can I became excited for the crisp uniformity of these American wonders.
We pop open the can and:

Not one solid chip.
In fact, most chips missing at least 60% of original size. It was like a can filled with the remainders of other cans.
But I was buoyed when I saw a container boldly touting the Perfect Gift Options.
And while its hard to see in this snap, the Perfect Gift is a lonely can of Red Bull. You could also give a bottle of water according to this display case.

I was in the mood for gift-buying now, so I went into the little store in the building. They sell an odd mix of things: trophies, used books, old dollar-store comic book- things like that.
Oh, and this guy: the king of dogs. This is in the high rise office of a major multinational corporation.

I went back to work but the wifi troubles eventually drove us back to the hotel.
After a couple of hours we went for dinner at a pretty- good Indian place in the hotel. I picked a cocktail from the menu purely by its name: The Bad Man.
Upon closer inspection. I found that it contained the perfect gifting option to me: red bull. And booze.
Man, I hope I sleep tonight.

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Work, and doesn't work

We are in Chennai and I am writing this at three in the morning. Since I last posted we worked a long day in Coimbatore, went to the airport, and then flew here.

We pulled into Chennai and got to the hotel around midnight. I had a series of minor frustrations that added up. Couldn't get on wifi (the 7 they drew looked like a two), someone zip-tied my luggage shut and I had no way to open it and there was no iron in the room.
I called down about the iron and they seemed non-plussed. "You want it now?" Yeah, and I want outlets that work when the lights are off.
I understand the need to conserve power, but I need to sleep and charge my devices at the same time and the plug in the bathroom only works for shavers.
What a first world crybaby I am.
The monsoon here wasn't strong this year and a lot of folks are without water full time apparently.

Meanwhile, I've been dining in places that have chandeliers that drop down multiple stories.
But, six hours later I was getting up for a large business meeting. It lasted the bulk of the day and then I got blasted from all sides with work issues.
I was pretty tired when we got back to the hotel. I tried to stay up because our work schedule changes again today, but it's 3am and here we are. I'd unscrew the lightbulb, but I can't get to it.

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