Friday, May 12, 2006
Chennai to Madurai
Here's the latest from my journal. Sorry it hasn't been kept up like I wanted. But there's some good stuff in here.
May 7, 2006 - 20:17 IND
Defeated by the city. After spending 30 minutes sending out emails and updating the blog (I really feel like such a nerd saying things like "Oh, just updating the ol' blog" so off-handedly like that), Ben and I took a moment to relax in the rather dimly lit hotel lobby. There were English- and Tamil-language newspapers there, so Ben grabbed the English paper and started reading about some of India's hot topics. Election day is tomorrow, so I think many buildings and facilities that would normally open will be closed. There were stories about several political parties and about restrictions placed on exit pollers, and once we made it through those we browsed on to sports, entertainment, and opinion sections. Two older men stood transfixed watching (what I assume was) a Tamil-language Bollywood film, a fan blew air down from the low ceiling. City life continued its tulmult outside.
After this time we decided to take a walk. I realized that I had left the key in the room (Kem had said "Lock the door" but not "Take the key"! I should have understood...), so the walk sounded like a good enough idea. We passed the shops lining the walkway that led us out to the gated complex out front. Through the low gates and into the street we went, careful to avoid the cars, busses, and bikes that were making their way through the narrow way. It was a flood of flashes in the early evening's darkness, an overload of stimulus as the sights and sounds and smells of the street all competed for my attention. We came to the corner, where countless vendors had set up shop and been at it at least since we returned from church early this afternoon. Their one-word calls to come look over their wares ("Buy! Buy!") only added to the confusion, and I was suddenly not in any mood to be out and about in the city. Still, we walked a block towards where we had been dropped off by the public bus after church, and Chennai kept at it. Small clothing and electronics stores, fruit and shoe vendors' stands, trash and children in the streets. At the next corner, where we stopped, I watched a man who was sitting in the middle of the traffic circle there, on the grass beneath a tall statue, showing no sign that he for any reason would seem out of place.
And I realized that my likely problem was that my sense of space was being violated, undermined, ignored. On the way back I noticed a man closer to my hotel whom I had seen before, but this time I realized that what he was doing had the same effect on me: he was wearing little clothing and a long gray beard and was perched on a broken cement fixture just off of a wall to our left. The clothing and the beard didn't bother me at all, just his position. I was becoming keenly aware of the fact that I didn't know where people belonged in this place - or if there was any sense of 'belonging' and 'not belonging' at all among it residents. Back home these were the kinds of places you sat when you wanted attention. Or if you didn't want the attention you were bothered when you inadvertantly got it. The two men in question seemed too comfortable where they were to suggest that they expected the same kind of attention one would gather at home, and I found myself thrown as to why in the world this behavior wasn't abnormal. And that disorientation, on top of the flood of sensory stimulus I was getting, was too much. We returned to the hotel, asked for a spare key at the front room, and came upstairs.
It occurs to me that this feeling of defeat and the retreat into my air-conditioned room to type in my journal is probably a sign of some culture shock. Maybe some major culture shock. I can admit that - though, believe it or not, a few years back I would have considered culture shock sort of a shameful thing to be going through, as if somebody experiencing it were somehow weak, shallow, or closed-minded. Well, either that's not true - people who go through culture shock can actually be strong, profound, open individuals - or to some extent I myself possess those 'negative' characteristics I saw in other people, and now I'm just big enough to admit those traits.
May 9, 2006 - 02:45 IND
On today's tour of a couple of Chennai city sites, I felt less despair in the face of the city. I think being aware of culture shock is greatly helping prevent it from festering. What's more, Ben and I took a short walk to locate an ATM today, and as we got further from the street where our hotel is located, which is right in front of a major train station, the number of cars and vendors dropped by probably 90%. Suddenly the city became manageable, and I saw that this was not a neverending flow of humanity. There was plenty of that to be had, of course, but at least there was some place I could let my mind feel at ease for a while.
Also on that walk, I discovered a topic that really interested me here in Chennai. I'll have to see if this phenomenon occurs in other towns and cities as well here in India. There was a tall gold statue, marked as representing a mayor (former or past, I'm not sure), and while that in itself was not uncommon - there are gold statues on pedestals in a number of public places throughout the city - here I noticed something strange to my eyes. There was a narrow, walled metal platform that ran in front of the statue, parallel to the street the statue faced, and leading up to the platform was an open staircase. Anyone who wanted could approach this statue of a mayor and do anything to it. I had seen flowers around some other public statues' necks (as well as around Hindu images, hanging both from paintings' frames and around statues' necks), but I did not know how they had gotten there. Ben pointed out that if anyone wanted to they could go and break an egg right on top of his head, and he was right. I did see that something now dry had dripped down his head, but I didn't seen any other possible sign of vandalism. I wasn't even sure that that's what this was.
So were these stairs and platforms for political or religious purpose? Or some other purpose? I don't know what they're used for, who uses them, or how often. But this is interesting stuff with potentially interesting theoretical significance - for example the question of public access in general, and more specifically of public access to religions, political, and/or mythical figures. Is this something to make up for a lack of popular access to public works? Or perhaps a reflection of the public's involvement in politics or religion? Perhaps (or probably) none of these. But an interesting question nonetheless.
Sleep patterns are getting strange since I went with Brandon and Kem to pick up Chelsea at the airport yesterday morning at 2:30. We didn't come home until around 5:00 or 5:30, and I just wasn't tired. So I didn't sleep. I stayed up and read my scriptures, then showered and laid down while the sun came up and lit our room bit by bit. Marc stepped into the bathroom for a shower and Ben woke up. I asked if he'd like to go get some breakfast, and he agreed. We invited Marc as well, and he accepted. Kem was still asleep.
Kem slept for a long while, and during the beginning of the trip I was a little concerned. He had gotten suddenly quiet on the way back from the airport that morning when I interrupted him in the middle of a story to point out a line of motorickshaws to Chelsea. Since then he hadn't really talked, and I wondered if our interaction hadn't triggered some fit of depression. When I was working through some emotional stuff after my LDS mission the strangest things would trigger a depression episode - usually dealing with wanting to do multiple things to help or be with multiple people, especially when they suddenly came up one after the other, and all seemed important. Little things that triggered a huge emotional response.
So I was worried about Kem, but as I had done so many times before, he seemed to come out of it quite a bit as he got out, moving around and interacting with people and with the world around him. Jokes didn't help, offers of emotional support didn't help, showing interest didn't help. Only his own self-motivated (to some degree - there was some indirect social pressure that initially got him out I think) locomotion and social interaction led him out of whatever funk he was in. I was really glad.
(Later he went with Autumn and Marc to pick up a camera for Autumn. I fell asleep before they returned, but I remember waking up to Marc talking about the beach too, so I imagine they had a good time.)
During our group tour today I got really frustrated with being around so many people, becoming terribly conspicuous and very uncomfortable interacting with any locals for fear of drawing a Western crowd around me. On the street, in the Gandhi park we visited, or on St. Thomas Mount where a church and monuments have been constructed to memorialized the spot where Thomas the Apostle is said to have been martyred, I only wanted to be in (at the very least) a smaller group. Maybe even by myself.
I wasn't unhappy, you have to understand. I did get really quiet - as a reaction to the group dynamic thing, I think - and that could be taken as depression. I think Brandon got a bit worried, and he came up and asked how I was doing. I think my "I'm actually doing really well" convinced him, and that's good. I hope I didn't bring the group down emotionally, though I think part of my internal motivation for separation and quiet was in part to somehow pull a little of the 'edge' off of the group - to reduce the level of noise coming from a big white group of Westerners.
That, and I was tired from being up since 2:30. I'll try to maintain a more normal sleep pattern.
I'm on a train with the whole group. It's a sleeper car - 2nd class Air Conditioned - and I'm in a lower sleeper underneath Ben, who's asleep on a bed up top from where I've tried to hang a sheet to hide the fact that I'm using a laptop. By now, though, most of the lights in the car are out and I think most of the folks around are probably aware that the computer's here. I just didn't want to show it off. Maybe I should have just used it to avoid more attention-getting. What's funny is that the car's attendant man, who was in the middle of bringing out sheets and blankets and small pillows, laughed as he came by in the middle of my efforts to hang this sheet up. What's more, he stopped the next time by and put it up the rest of the way for me. I was kind of embarrassed to have caused such a disturbance, but it was probably worth it for this trial run.
Today we were coming back from purchasing Coimbatore-Delhi train tickets at the Chennai Central Station (you have to buy them way in advance) and I noticed that everyone was really giving to each other. I bought Ashley and Brandon's tickets from Egmore Station (right down the road from our hotel) to Central Station, as well as the return tickets - something I wouldn't have done before but thought would be nice. And standing with the group waiting for our return train I realized that maybe one of the reasons I don't like this group dynamic thing is really just that I don't know how to function well in it. I mean, yes, there is definitely still the issue of making noise and drawing attention, things that I think can really hinder the efficacy of our interactions with local residents. But maybe - no, proably - I don't actually know how to 'play well with others'. I don't know that I ever learned to just really give, to think of what folks around me might need or want. And that must make all the difference in being happy within a group. It made me think that, sometime here in the next couple of months, I might have to learn these kinds of lessons about how to really help out a bunch of people in need.
For example, tonight we were looking for our train to Madurai at Egmore station. We really didn't know where we were going, but I knew I could help figure it out. So I set off in the lead, talked to people around us, and tried to locate our train platform. We got there relatively quickly, and I think I was able to contribute significantly to that effort.
Maybe I can learn these lessons sooner rather than later.
Right now it's getting pretty late - almost 10 pm - and I've been falling asleep as I've typed up my field notes and this journal entry. I'm going to pack up this laptop, my camera, and all the 20+ mini DV tapes I pulled out of my backpack. Then I need to sleep so I can be awake when we go looking for Madurai-Coimbatore tickets when we arrive at the Madurai Station at 4am.
May 12, 2006 - 02:29 IND
I've just woken up in the middle of the night and figured that since my computer was on the bed I should get to the old journal. Sorry you haven't heard from me since I was leaving Chennai. The past two days in Madurai have proven to be busier than I expected, and for some strange reason I can feel myself succumbing to this city's pandering to the tourist crowd. The huge temple here (worth Googling!) attracts tremendous numbers of people (though this, being the hottest time of the year in Madurai, lands us right in the middle of the offseason for tourism in the city), and all around the hotel where we are staying there are all sorts of vendors who have been 'well seasoned' - as my friend Ben has put it - to the presence of tourists. We find ourselves describing Madurai's residents as 'pushier' than those in Chennai, 'more relentless', and simply more concentrated. I've gotten very good at avoiding eye contact with just about anyone, and at raising an uplifted hand and blurting out a quick "No, no thank you" at the first hint of a sales pitch. Still, periodically an especially bold or desperate vendor will prove to be more relentless than what we're used to even here in Madurai, and it takes some real fortitude to just keep your path and let them wear themselves down or see that you're just not going to be interested. It's worse for the women when they are in groups by themselves without a man: for some reason many vendors respond immediately to a man's 'No' and will persists even at a woman's repeated refusal. I have been in groups with girls where, several times in the same walk, they were being hounded by vendors and all it took was for me to turn, look the man in the eye, and give my firm "No, no thank you" routine - and they walked away. On a number of occasions we have been offered drugs - it's happened more in these last two days than it did throughout all of high school. I mean easily more times. Like by a margin of 100 to 200 percent.
Still, many of the people I have met have been awfully endearing. Even - I should say especially - one of the shopkeepers, a charismatic man whom I'll call Ali. Ali is a family man with a wife and a child who came to Madurai from up north in Ladakh, where he also ran a store geared toward tourists. Three other members of the BYU group and I discovered his shop while looking to enter the Hindu temple here. We had already started to enter through a different gate but felt strange about it when a woman insisted that we needed to take our shoes off and leave them outside before we come in. By outside I mean right by the wall of the temple, next to the gate forming the fourth part of a four-way intersection with two very busy streets. Though there was indeed a pile of shoes there, I didn't feel at all comfortable with leaving ours in such a heavily trafficked place, and all the more when she insisted (and you just stop trusting people here in Madurai) that this was the main gate to the temple. So many random people have attached themselves to vendors here and try to guide tourists to their patron-vendors' shops that I just don't trust anyone to lead me, disinterested, to do anything while I'm here. Plus I trust my gut. So we told the woman we just wanted to see the outside of the temple and walked along the outside wall, which spanned a couple of city blocks both ways. Rounding a corner to the right we continued on and eventually came from the western gate to the northern, where once again we were told to remove our shoes. But this time a man led us across the street to an enclosed shop to leave them, and we felt much better about that. Plus two of us - Ali (whom I know originally from church at BYU) and I - stayed behind to watch all four students' shoes while two others went in to look at the temple's interior. We would switch later. This shop proved to be run by the man who would quickly become our new friend Ali.
Ali reports (in very clear English even) that he came to Madurai because whereas the tourist season here lasts around 9 months out of the year, only three peak months attract tourists to Ladakh. More money was to be had here. Not that the move didn't come with some (substantial) sacrifice: with a smile Ali tells me that here it far too hot. And so he relishes his return visits to Ladakh, where in fact his family is now waiting for him to join them for a holiday. (I have to admit that it really would be far too hot for many of the folks back home to take - I'm thinking of Dad especially here. Sorry if pointing you out specifically embarrasses you, Dad.)
He also uses those two weeks in the North to seek out more wares for his curio (is that the right word?) shop, where we found ourselves looking through an extensive and beautiful collection of statuettes in bronze and rosewood, jade and silver jewelry, painted boxes of paper mâché, and throws and scarves in endless piles. The wide variety and beauty of the wares took us aback, and Ali's knowledge and visible genuine excitement for each piece were evident. Periodically he would beckon us back to the far end of the shop, where he would crouch down and retrieve a piece from a lower shelf, where several more scattered pieces seemed to be hidden. "This piece," he would say, "is very special piece," and then he would go on to show us how fine the handiwork was, how beautifully an artisan had put together a certain inlay, what kind of care had gone into a certain carving. He really carried a deeply felt fondness for his work.
It was while Ali showed off his collection the first night that I happened to look above the shop door and see a placard in Arabic and a photo of the Prophet's grave in Saudi Arabia. "You are Muslim, sir?" I asked, and he gave a quick nod of his head. We continued looking through the various items for sale, and before long Shauna and Lily returned and I left with Ali for the temple. (I've just realized that A-li and a-LI look the same in writing. I hope you can tell them apart from context. Best of luck to you.)
A question soon arose that I felt I should somehow address with Ali: he being Muslim, how did he feel selling images supposed to represent Deity? Islam prescribes to its faithful (as I have come to understand it) a rejection of the applying of physical features to God, who in ultimate and magnificent superiority remains formless. To give God any physical attribute is to bring God down from Heaven, is to pinpoint God and therefore is to deny God's infinite and eternal nature. You can see how any image of God would represent an atrocity in the Muslim's view. And yet here were the statues of Ganesh, of Vishnu and Shiva and Krishna and Kali. I would have to make a return trip to discuss the question with our new friend.
This we did - Ali, Shauna, and I, along with Sara. We went to shop as well - Ali picked up some gifts for her little sisters and Sara fell in love with some jewelry she found there. But as the girls made their selections I sat down in the narrow walkway between the jewelry case and the rack of statuettes and started to ask my question. Ali, I was pleased (and a bit surprised) to find out, was happy to answer. "That, sir," he began, "that is my big blunder. That is my only blunder. I go to God now, I have to tell Him, 'Yes, I sell those things.' I am not proud of this thing. A man came in here the other day, a Muslim man, and he wanted to start his own shop. He asked about the shop, about the figures. I tell him, 'Sir, I sell these now because I started so long ago. I cannot now stop. Sir, do not start.' And he left. 'Sell all this, the jewels, the scarves, the other things. But do not start to sell these things.' Now, whether he do or whether he don't, I don't know. But I tell him, 'Sir, do not start.' This man was older, yes. I have longer to live, yes, but this man, this man should be in mosque."
I had anticipated this answer, though one other possibility - that these were not the One True God and therefore didn't matter - had entered my mind as well. Still I was taken by how fervently Ali had answered, and I could see that this was not an answer given just to be playing to my expectations. This was a sincere answer, the right one for him, and he had shared a piece of himself in giving it. I'll be going back for a third time now tomorrow, and perhaps I can find a way to share somehow a piece of myself too.
One more item before finishing this entry - it's just after 04:00 IND now. I hope I haven't betrayed Ali by sharing some of his feelings here. Please understand that this is an individual, a really nice and caring man with real feelings and a real family and business and life to take care of. And a spirituality as well. I thought that sharing something of this conflict between religious belief and practice might be enlightening for all of us, and I appreciate Ali's willingness to share with me. I am far too often too willing to open myself up to the world, to wear my heart on my sleeve, and sometimes that ends up revealing information about others that needn't be shared. I hope you understand that I've done my best to treat Ali - whose name I have changed here - with the greatest respect, as religious practice is a deeply personal thing that has raised conflict in my own life as it has in his. Please take this not as an opportunity to learn about the strange Other people Out There, but take a moment to find out what Ali's situation might mean in your own life as well. I think you might find something worthwhile.
Just a couple images from Madurai, by Jed's request. Kind of touristy stuff.