Monday, January 31, 2005

Scottyji Phone Home

Mobile phones are currently a sore point with both Colin and I.

Despite bringing our mobiles with us (Orange and 3 networks respectively) neither of us have been able to send texts as planned (at 1.80 a minute to make and 0.80 a minute to receive calls, it's just a bit too expensive). I checked 3's website and found out that I needed to enable International Roaming, so phoned them from here to do so. Which was a complete waste of time, as you need to be in the UK for them to activate it (and do so at least 24 hours before leaving the country!)- so Negative Karma Points to 3 Network for a stupid set-up. Colin has no idea why his isn't working, Orange website says it should be okay and he has been receiving them okay.

On the other hand, International calls here are outstandingly cheap - 4 Rs a minute to UK landline, and apparently 8 Rs a minute to UK Mobile Phone. Quality is not fantastic but not terrible either, think they are using some sort of voiceover IP across the Internet.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Flowery Introduction

The day dawns with a bit of trepidation - today we meet our classmates and having heard of how some previous classes failed to gel there is a bit of concern. But the excitement (and determination not to let that happen) takes over - plus there's the fact that we're meeting Claudia for the first time too.

Which is an interesting experience in itself - not that anything out of the ordinary happens, quite the contrary. It's just so strange how we met via the Internet and immediately get on so well together.

So just before 4pm we head over to KYM for the introductory meeting. Most of the teachers and students are there, and the place is buzzing with subtle anticipation. I pay the remainder of my fees by banker's draft, only then realising that it is possible to pay by credit card (which would have saved some minor hassle). Admin over, we head upstairs to the practice room that is to be home for the next four weeks.

The sea of faces there tells us how International this course truly is. Soon we are asked ot introduce ourselves, and we find out the countries of all our new friends - USA (one originally from India, one from England), Germany, Israel, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Chile, Australia, India, Costa Rica and, of course, Scotland. Colin, I notice, seems to forget he is a Scotsman when introducing that he comes from England so I let everyone know that when I introduce myself, just to be on the safe side ;-)

The feeling in the room is very comforting - an amazingly accurate precursor of how well we gel together in days to come. Everyone seems so fascinating, with a real story to tell. I know that my focus is the course itself, but it seems such a wonderful life opportunity to get to know all these fascinating people that I won't be stopping myself from that distraction for sure.

Little Rosa from Portugal (there with her mum, Ana, who is doing the course, and dad, Gonzalo), who is three years old and has the clearest blue eyes you ever saw (and impish smile to match) steals the show and earns not one but two garlands of flowers from Desikachar himself. "Sir" (as he is known by staff here) talks briefly to us before handing us back to Shridharan, who is to be our philosophy teacher. After our introductions we each receive a bag full of books and CD's from KYM Publications and a garland of flowers. Then it is over and slowly we begin to drift away.

Claudia and Pedro are thinking of going back for some sleep, but jump ships when they hear our plans to visit the beach. So off to Elliott's Beach we head again, to another beautiful sunset, though not quite so special as the day with Navin and friends as it has become slightly familiar now. We spend an hour there chatting and taking in the ambience before heading off to Hotel Bharani (see "Conned in Chennai") for another excellent dinner.

A brief browse on the net, and then it's off to bed once more with thoughts of the possibilities of next day and beyond filling my mind.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Under The Spreading Banyan Tree (Finally)

We meet with Pedro for lunch but have one more obstacle to overcome before we finally get to walk in the grounds of the Theosophical Society - the security guard at the gate. Yes, we had the audacity to arrive at 5 to 2, and walking hours are clearly stated at 2pm. If he lets us answer the oceans will dry up, all cattle will be stillborn and a plague of ladybirds will descend upon Chennai for a year and a day, feasting on every Thali they can find. At least I think that's what he's trying to tell us. In punishment we are made to wait until 5 past 2 before entering.

Our first stop is the Banyan Tree, which is the second largest Banyan in the world at over 250 feet wide. It is reputed to be between 200 and 400 years old (sources vary greatly). It is just not what I expected, being spread out over a wide area with numerous smaller trunks and aerial roots.

We move on, and even though there are some interesting parts to the grounds I have to say I am disappointed with the neglected feel to the place (even though there are quite a few people working on the grounds). The main headquarters is impressive in a white marble sterile sort of way, and just outside a little lotus tank catches my eye (and my camera). Les guides us to a little Buddhist Shrine which is another great photo-opportunity as I leave Les and Pedro (Colin has headed off to KYM for a consultation) chatting about the differences (and similarities) between Zen and Vipassana meditation.

After a while we head back to the gate and await the return of Colin (and Suresh). Back at the hotel I go for a nap, exhausted by the touring we've done. I awake with a start and kick my travel alarm across the room, having lain round the wrong way. A few hours later, after hitting the Internet, I am back in bed and again wake with a start, this time kicking a glass across the room with more damaging consequences. A mixture of the cold and jet lag keeps me from a good night's sleep, but eventually I manage to drop off.

Only exhaling that which I have inhaled

After breakfast (a lovely plain Uttapam) our first stop today is a trip to KYM for the Saturday morning lecture by Desikachar at 8.15am. Colin is still not feeling too hot, so Les and I arrive early and take up seats near (but not too near) the front, in the room we will be calling home for the next few weeks.

It is perhaps not quite what we westerners expect from a practice room - perched on the first floor, it is a large room with a bamboo scaffolding providing the framework for a roof made from dried coconut tree leaves. Light comes in through woven bamboo grilles that are open to the world, allowing in the breeze, dust and noise from outside. As with everywhere else in Chennai, there is no such thing as peace and quiet as the car engines, auto-driver's horns, dogs, geese, children and goodness knws what else conspire to distract us from the now.

The room fills, a good number of people sitting in anticipation, and finally Desikachar enters heralded by everyone rising to their feet. He waves us down and proceeds with the lecture, talking in a calm sing-song voice that reminds me of the ease with which he walked past two nights before. He calls on Kausthub to exlain the Sanskrit base of the word 'yoga', something I have never heard before. He then goes on to talk about tapas and mantra, and the importance of diet, eating the right food in the right quantities (consuming our food without it consuming us). Almost as soon as it is started it seems to be over, but somehow I have written 6 pages of notes on what was said.

A quick trip back to the hotel, then I return to KYM again for my consultation with Kausthub. Before I get there, as I wait for Suresh to arrive at the hotel, I am approached by a younger thinner version of Antonio Banderas - Pedro has arrived. A quick hello and arrangements to meet for luch, and then I'mm off again.

With Kausthub we chat about some practical matters (about which I can maybe reveal some more details in the next few weeks, but am sworn to secrecy for now). Kausthub then suggests that I should wait until the course is started before deciding whether a personal practice is a good idea right now, with 2 practices a day during the course itself it seems a good idea. I take his advice and agree to see him during the week. And then, like a yo-yo, it's back to the hotel again.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Indiamike Meetup

However, Kausthub was held up and had to cancel, rescheduling me for the next morning. This means that we are actually on-time for our next item on the agenda, planned the week before - the Indiamike Chennai Meetup.

Arriving at the Landmark Cafe in Spencer's Plaza (Anna Salai) just in time (having asked Les to drop by just in case we were later), we had the pleasure of the company of Nick (Nick-H), Paul (Pooch), Vinay (Vinayverma) and Archan (solostyle). Despite the noise we had a good time - Nick and Archan answering our many questions on classical Indian music, and Paul revealing his darker side as the Gordon Gecko of India's emergin markets.

We departed shortly after Paul and Vinay, mostly on account of my ever-worsening head cold (with the choking traffic pollution, lack of sleep and probably a little stress at so much rinning around).

Back at New Woodlands I fell asleep for an hour and a half before waking up and writing 17 pages on the past day's events. I then skip back to sleep, with Ganesha (or at least a shadow on the wall that looks vaguely like an elephant's head and trunk) watching over me.

(Not) Under the Spreading Banyan Tree

Away from the fan club, we made our way to the Theosophical Society , who turned out not to be such big fans. We discovered on arrival that people are only allowed to walk in their grounds from 8am to 10am, and 2pm to 4pm. Plan B took us to the Reading Room (library), which we discover we are also not allowed to use (unless sponsored by a TS member or something like that).

Our consolation prize to be shown around the 'Display Room', which had some interesting old books and suchlike, but still quite a poor show. The bookstore was also open, and full of interesting books to buy at the same ridiculously low prices (although some items had a western price tag, so do check). I didn't buy anything, a bit early for that - maybe I should have told them I can only buy books between 8 and 10 or 2 to 4.

I then got myself some short-sleeved shirts (3 for 525 Rs = less than 6 pounds) as that seems the most sensible thing to wear, and off to KYM for a consultation with Kausthub.

Chennai Sunrise

I really didn't sleep well at all, less than 4 hours sleep. I'm not sure if it was the heat or what, but I really don't feel that tired at all.

Les, Colin and I meet for breakfast and then off to Sri Parthasarathy Temple, a Vishnu temple in Triplicane. As we get out the auto a woman approaches with red ash and without thinking I let her put it on my forehead as Shuresh did at Kapaleeshwarar. I then hand her ten Rupees, brain still firmly switched off and thinking she is a temple official or something. The the paisa drops and I realise she is just a more cunning form of beggar, as she turns to a bemused Colin and demands ten Rupees also. He is about to hand it to her, following my lead when I interject. Off to the place where our sandals are kept, with this woman and a further 3 or 4 beggars now swarming, only leaving us as we enter the temple proper. The magic "Ilai" doesn't seem to work this time, this crew are professionals.

"Is no camera-a!" one painted devotee tells us. (As an aside, it seems you can make a rough-guess translation from English to Tamil by adding -a to almost anything) Suresh had already informed us, so ours are soundly packed away, but we smile anyway and move on. It's okay by me as I didn't find this temple very interesting at all. Another woman is less judgemental, and as we wander into another part of the temple she guides us with a smile in a clockwise direction around the golden pillar.

I ask Shuresh about a winged golden creature on the roof, and he asks someone else, telling me that this is Garuda, Vishnu's eagle. There are also quite a few large mirrors about the temple, but here the language barrier breaks down and Suresh cannot tell me why.

Back out in the street our admirers return, and they join us as Suresh leads us over to this massive decorated chariot (maybe about 50 feet high)that is dragged through the streets by devotees on festival days. Quite a feat, as this thing looks very heavy indeed.

Then it's time to rescue our sandals and leave behind our fanclub.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Posted by: arjunaweeping

Back at the Music Academy, we soon find ourselves the guests of honour - I must say, so far the Chettinad hospitality has been outstanding!

Not only is this performance free (as are all Arangetram), but there are free snacks before, and everyone seems to want to, as the only Westerners in the audience, fetch us food. Les indulges despite his recent Thali - apparently he missed a few meals on the way here from Mysore rather than risk train food and has a few meals to catch up to. I am stuffed and politely refuse, pointing to Ganesh's belly under my shirt.

What we didn't realise at that time, and have since discovered, is that an Arangetram (pron. arran-gay-trum) is a sort of coming of age ceremony for young Bharatanatyam dancers. It is their debut performance (Arangam = stage, Etram = performance), but also more like a First Communion in Catholic communities or its equivalents in other societies.

We enter the auditorium, nice and cool from air-conditioning, and very soon the lights dim and the music begins. More snack offers, we soon find out this is the family of the two dancers offering us their hospitality. But the music immediately catches me in the chest - my skin goosebumps and a heady feeling fills me. This is only my second experience of classical Indian music but it has always been the same -I have no explanation of this other than to say that the power of the sound they create is something I have never experienced elsewhere (except perhaps in chanting).

Then the dancers begin and I am transfixed - to attempt to describe this would be foolish. They move with such grace and power, intricate hand mudras, rhythmic footwork, the outstanding expressions of the dancer's face combined with movements of their big white eyes. You quite simply have to see this to understand how wonderful it is, no description will do it justice.

A young Tamil boy sidles up and sits down beside Les, casting over a few glances before plucking up the courage to start practising his English on us. What are our names, our addresses, will we be his friend?

One of the girls' grandfathers sits beside me and, chest swelling, tells me about his grand-daughter. She is only 13 years old, and has been studying Bharatanayam for 5 years, the other girl for 7. He asks where I come from, and tells me of his days in Birmingham working at the eye clinic there.

He leaves and is replaced by a family, parents with two girls and a boy. A young girl, Biaka, sits next to me and it is my turn to give English practice. Next they offer us white paper napkins and ask, "Autograph, please?!" I laugh and me and Mr. Spielberg duly oblige.

And all the time there is music and dance -watching the dancers remind me of the quote that Les's website is based upon:

"At the stillpoint of the turning world
there the dance is.
And without the point
that stillpoint
there would be no dance
and there is only the dance."
--T.S. Eliot

Only the dance.

First two dancers, then one. Then both again. Moving at the same time, then one rests, her lungs heaving from the effort. Then together, then the other stops. Feet stomping, twisting, whirling, their anklet bells ringing, hands flourishing, arms sweeping, they bowing to the sun then rise up again. A single-leg balance. A costume change to stunning white outfits.

I am gobsmacked at the intricacy of these moves, their outstanding memories to even remember these postures, their precise yet unmechanical control in execution.

Finally it is over, and an award ceremony begins. There are film stars there, and the BJP leader of the Tamil Legislative Assembly, to honour their effort, and their parents, and (most of all) their guru.

Their speeches and stand-up comedy routines are in Tamil, so, almost 3 hours after we arrive we discretely leave. Senses wide open.

An Aladdin's Cave

Les took me to Chennai Arts (will check exact name and update) on TTK Road, which is an amazing shop full of wonderful colours. It sells jewellery, cloth (for sari's etc), carpets and statues of all materials, and is an chock full of fantastic things. The shop itself is very modern and air-conditioned, spotlessly clean. We went straight down to the basement despite the manager's best attempts to get us up to the carpets, as we wanted to check out the statues.

The salesmen there are very persistent, only too happy to show you items and explain their religious/mythological significance. Unfortunately we were more interested in that than buying - even though I want to buy something like this (and their works are excellent), it is way too early to be buying things on day 2. Also, we got the feeling that things in this shop are likely to be overpriced.

But we got more than our money's worth out of the salesmen with some questions on the Hindu mythos. Why is Ganesh's right tusk broken? Because he snapped it off and used it as a pen to write the Mahabharata. If Brahma is the Creator in the Hindu Trimurti (Trinity), why do we only hear of Vishnu and Shiva? Because Brahma fell into disrepute after he told a lie, and now there are no Brahma Temples on Earth! We are also introduced for the first time to Ardhnarishwara, the statue that is half-Shiva Half-Parvati.

But the sales pitch is constant. How much is fair price? Let us start with just one piece, which one do you like? I tell him I will bot buy until 4 weeks time. What price would you buy today? On and on and on they go, interrupting our cultural lecture. I am genuinely interested in a group of 8 gorgeous bronze statues inlaid with silver - made in Orissa, he tells me these are "unique" and i will not find them anywhere else. But I am not ready to buy today, though this fact again makes no impression.

Which one are you interested in? All of them, but not today. Let us start with just one piece. Which one do you like? All of them. What price, I ask. He works it out and gives me a large Rupees figure. Divide by 80, I tell him. 429 pounds is the answer. At this price, I say, my wife would kill me!

Not that I would pay that amount for some statues anyway, but i hope it will end there - no chance? What price would you buy today, special price? Again and again he asks me, but I am not buying today so I do not see the point. Still he persists. He must be used to some very weak-willed customers methinks! What price, special price?

Okay buddy, you asked for it! They say when bargaining to half the initial price and work up from there - not that I am paying that amount for statues either (and I know one beutiful redhead who will be very pleased to read that ;-). Sixteen thousand Rupees, I tell him after the eighth time of asking.

He falls silent, and despite his best poker face I can see his dismay. "A very special price, eh?" I say. The salesman goes to start again but the manager signals him to cut his losses. Or maybe it was his throat.

"Only 2 days in country, 5 more weeks," I say. "Buying later."

We browse our way unhindered back to the stairs and leave without further pestering.

Tourists 1, Salesmen 0.

Lunch with Les

Back at the New Woodlands, we go for late lunch/early dinner, another Thali for me and a couple of Samosa for Colin, who has not yet found his appetite. We are barely started when this fine pony-tailed Englishman strides in and asks, "Are you Scott?"

Immediately my finely-honed powers of deduction leap into action, and I stand up to greet Les, our yoga net-buddy from California. He joins us for lunch, and we quickly assume an "old-friends" relationship, with war-tales and laughter flowing freely. After Thali, Les making a much better effort to finish the plate than I do (yes folks, hard to imagine me leaving food, but it's true!), I have my first cup of Chai (tea) - WOW! What an experience! How can tea be so different, and yet it is! Smooth, milky, strong, burning hot and deliciously sweet (I have just talked myself into another glass), everything that a refreshing drink should be!

After lunch/dinner was finished, Colin went to try and catch up some lost sleep while Les and I checked out the schedule at The Music Academy nearby on TTK Road. As luck would have it a Bharatanatyam performance was starting in 45 minutes, so we wandered off to explore the neighbourhood.

Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram

We amble through the fury of Indian streetlife at a snail's pace, the usual cacophony of humans, animals and vehicles only being amplified by the fact that roadworks (digging a 20-foot trench along several miles of this road) have removed two-thirds of the road's width. An interesting quagmire develops as drivers try to make some progress in both directions without any traffic control whatsoever. Horns are sounded in warning, but road rage is absent, the drivers merely accepting their fate and taking whatever opportunity presents itself.

And then we turn right, into a calmer, quieter street. A minute later we stop outside an unassuming building. I look at it and wonder why we have stopped. Only then do I notice the large blue sign to the left of the gate, which somehow blended in to the neighbourhood for my first gaze. It reads, "Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram". After months of planning, we are finally there!

We walk into the yard, take off our sandals and slowly being to gaze about, tkaing in all we can. There are many people sitting on the porch, and inside I can spy an office set-up, with people working at desks. Before we reach the porch, however, there is Patanjali - well, a 5-foot black stone statue of him in Adisesa (snake) form, draped with a garland of bright yellow flowers. I nod gently to the teacher and head up the steps to the porch.

It is then that I spot Gill Lloyd, Director of the Association for Yoga Studies in the UK (formerly Viniyoga Britain), whom I had the pleasure to meet and briefly study with at last year's aYs Convention. We chat briefly - Gill is heading down the coast for a couple of weeks, but will be returning then with a group of students. It is so nice to meet a familiar (and friendly) face so far away from home.

We mill about the porch for a while, then enter the office and are greeted with wide smiles and taken to speak with the Director of Yoga Studies, Geetha Shankar. After a little administration I arrange a consultation with Kausthub Desikachar, then we bid farewell to Patanjali and leave.

As an aside, I have decided (as I sit here on 5th February typing up the events of 9 days ago) to leave most of the story of my yoga studies for a later time, another medium perhaps. I have found this interesting article by Helen Snow, a student on a previous course the same as mine. I have to say that she hits that nail spot-on as far as experiences of Chennai and KYM go. Read her excellent article and I will share my experiences of the course itself at a later time, concentrating on everything else that is going on and trying to provide some insights and information for the prospective India traveller.

Backstreets of Chennai

When we returned to the auto after the temple, we had to pay a man 5 Rs for parking. I think there are more parking attendants in India than there are cars! Every one of them has a whistle and blows it constantly as he guides the car, motorbike or auto through a seemingly impassable maze of vehicles and slides it into the smallest of spaces. If you want investment advice from me, I'd say buy a whistle factory in India, a top earner for sure. They love blowing their whistles, even (especially) when it's not necessary. If it just so happens to be 5am and you can wake up all the hotel guests (those who survived the Titanic Theme taxi you're guiding), all the better!

The auto journey started taking us into more "interesting" neighbourhoods today, the backstreets we never saw sight of yesterday, and giving us a glimpse of the how the poorer half live. Try to imagine if someone took a whole farmer's market, mixed it with a few scrapyards, added in some street hawkers and then scattered the whole lot, animals roaming free of course, through a number of dusty dirty pot-holed narrow streets, where people are also doing their cooking, washing and cleaning. Just to add a bit of irony there are small shrines everywhere, with people (both here and in large temples) praying at every opportunity without fear of derision, or even notice, from anyone nearby. Their casual yet devotional attitude to worship is impressive, and perhaps explains their lack of unhappiness in the foul-smelling filthy conditions they inhabit.

Om Namah Shivayah!

I slept like a log and woke up totally BUZZing with excitement at the prospect of another day in Chennai. Colin, however, fared less well at the hands of mozzies and jetlag. Still, after yesterday's (wonderfully) busy day I was more than happy to take it a bit easier. We still arranged to meet with our auto driver Suresh (pronounced Syoo-reesh) at 9am for some sightseeing.

FIrst on my list was Kapaleeshwarar Temple, a magnificent Dravidian style Shaivite Temple in the Mylapore district of Chennai. Suresh told us to leave our sandals in the auto to prevent them being stolen, and off we went barefoot across the street to the temple, our first unguided truly Indian experience. We went through the Gopuram and were standing there reading a placque that tells us all about the temple.

Next thing, Suresh appeared with some ash for our foreheads and proceded to give us a guided tour (in his broken English, understandable and far better than my severely broken Tamil). He started by shooing off a man who tried to tell us photography was not allowed, when in fact it is only not allowed in the inner shrine (which is not a problem, as neither are non-Hindu's).

The first shrine ahead of the Gopuram is to Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva.

As we walked round in a clockwise direction (not sure if this is ritual, clockwise seems to be favoured in some Hindu tradition) there were a number of weddings (6 or 7) going on to the left, very noisy and colourful. It was at this point that we picked up 3 "muggers" - not the kind who rob you and threaten your life, but 3 young Tamil boys who were repeatedly saluting us with the Sacred Universal Mantra, "Hi!" as I tried to capture the vibrant colours of this place on my camcorder. I returned their greetings with a "Vannakam" (Tamil greeting, used here instead of the "Namaste" or "Namaskar" so prevalent throughout the rest of India) and also a "How do you do?", but their English was even more restricted than my Tamil and they ran off. It was not the last we saw of their brilliant white smiles for sure, but it was great to be the recipients of such positive attention.

The main shrine to Shiva is accessed by a door that faces the rear of the temple, which has a large golden pillar called a Flag, and also a Nandi Bull, which is the Guardian and Protector of Shiva.

Suresh then disappeared, and we figured that he had gone inside to pray. He appeared shortly after with two yellow flowers, and gave them to us, telling us to put them inside our packs. It didn't click at the time, but I now realise that he went inside to retrieve us a souvenir from the feet of the Shiva idol inside! And I'm not planning to ask either - ignorance is bliss, but just in case his actions have earned me some negative karma, a little invocation to Shiva never goes amiss!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Conned in Chennai

So next up was a "light" dinner at the Bhavani Vegetarian restaurant )next to Hotel Bhavani, 51 L.B. Road, Thiruvanmiyur (no website).

I started with Iddiappam or Idliappam, which are thin rice noodles, they came along with coconut milk which I poured over them. I had fancied a Masala Dosa or something similar, but Navin had taken to ordering for us, perhaps protecting me from myself after the finger-scorching at lunchtime. At first I was disappointed in his choice, looking at the bland white noodles and bland white milk. Then I tired it, and wow, it was absolutely delicious. It was more simple than bland, and I will definitely be having some again.

Next up was Curd Rice which again I wasn't looking forward to on the blandness scale. To be honest I didn't like this, another simple dish of, well, curd and rice, nothing more! All I could taste was the plain curd, though Navin told me almost all dishes come with Sambar and Chutney so you can always add in their taste and spiciness to the bland mix. Still, I think that was my last curd rice.

For a finale, and what a finale it was, we had Chennai's answer to a Knickerbocker Glory! Ice cream, pineapple, papaya, green jelly (lime-flavoured, and tasted like undiluted jelly pieces) and more of the sweet noodles. With a sweet tooth like mine, this was a sure hit from the start.

It was at this time that we were conned for the first time in India!

Before sitting down, because Navin had paid for everything all day, I instisted that we pay for this meal and he agreed. As I was exploring the ice-cream delight, the bill arrived and I gestured for Navin to pass it to me, but he brushed me off saying he would pass it when I had finished. On finishing I asked him to pass it, and he told me I was too late, he had slipped the bill under the table and paid the waiter as I ate, distracted by an ice-cream sucker-punch.

There ended our day with Navin and friends, and what a wonderful time we had. Ireally cannot think them enough for their awesome hospitality. They made our first experience of India so effortless, pleasurable, positive - protecting us from the "ravages" of everything from overcharging auto drivers to our own spice-driven eating impulses. They are gentlemen one and all, and true friends!

Eating Goats' Hair at Elliott's Beach

After a rest, we went out to Elliott's Beach, scene of some of the destruction of the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (see about half way down this page). Suresh took us there in his auto and we met up with Navin and two of his friends this time.

The beach was very busy with hundreds of people swarming about, even though the sun was going down by the time we arrived. This seemed to deter no-one. We strolled down to the sea in a comfortably warm breeze as the sun finally slid away, and a burning red moon crawled out from the horizon. We were sitting just behind the white sort of archway building to the left of centre beach as shown in the first link above. The comforting crash of the surf was punctuated by the chatter of all the people lining the beach at the water's edge, the ring-ring-ringing of a food vendor's bell and the duck-like squeaks of a woman selling balloons as she twisted them into various shapes.

Overhead, the stars were blinking on, with Orion lying down, his head to our left (North) in Savasana. The power of the surf was intense, as it ripped and tumbled in a fury only twenty feet away, relinquishing its power to trickle up the shore , almost to our feet. Sometimes it was too "almost" as a few of the stronger waves sent Colin and I scuttling backwards, desperate not to get our feet wet. For anyone visiting this beach, please do not even consider a swim as the rip has claimed a few lives here.

I then succumbed to the vendor's bell-ringing and tasted the white pseudo-candy floss served in a cone of newspaper. It was very sweet and milky, with a wheat-cereal aftertaste, but the fibrous texture and greyish colouring sent definite "You are Eating Goats' Hair!" messages to my brain, so it was happily passed around.

As the blood moon began to climb higher and drain back to its normal anaemia, we strolled back to our auto. Sitting at the promenade for a short while, Colin took a sudden nosebleed - I am not sure if he was spooked when I later pointed out that it was only seconds after we had ignored a crippled beggar.

With a groan (of the "belly still full" variety), we then found out it was time to eat again. Those of you who know me will know that this means some serious eating was afoot!


After getting my room changed at NW, a nice newly modernised one on the 4th floor, we went off to what Navin described as an exhibition of handicrafts. It just so happned this exhibition was held at Valluvar Kottam, monument to the celebrated Tamil writer/philosopher Thiruvalluvar. About 2000 years ago he wrote a treatise on living and ethics called the Thirukkural, and all of its 3300 verses are inscribed on stone in the gallery section of this monument. It is interesting rather than stunning, but was an excellent setting for the craft fair.

The craft fair consisted of hand-made goods from around India - from fabrics and paintings to bronze and stone statues of all sizes. Some were pretty cool, I especially liked the stone and bronze statues of Hindu Gods, but it is too early to think about buying anything right now. Unfortunately the exhibition ends next week, but I am sure that there will be plenty of other opportunities to buy such items.

Fiery Fingers

Next on the schedule was lunch, and my first Chettinad Thali Experience at Kaarikudi. The Thali is the definitive Indian meal, being a selection of small dishes (the dishes themselves being called called Thali) eaten from a banana leaf or large silver plate, along with rice. It's an all-you-can-eat meal deal, and when you finish the rice or the dishes the waiters just bring you more. Not a bad deal for about 50p to 75p!

There are different types of Thali, and the Chettinad (adjective for Chennai) one is very spicy - remember, this city used to be called Madras and was the birthplace of the Madras curry. With Navin and his friend as guides I decided to join in with the finger food, and off we went. The Sambar I noticed immediately was much hotter than that I had eaten with my Idli's that morning, and I quickly learned the first lesson - the Curd is used to cool down the dish to suit your own 'parameters'. The dishes are mixed together with the fingers of the right hand (sit on that left hand, it is used for something else), then picked up with the fingers and shoved by the thumb into your mouth. That, at least, is the theory - try this some time when no-one is watching, it is much more difficult than it looks.

Especially when it is scorchingly chilli-tastic! Before discovering the cooling qualities of Curd I had done the full damage already - the fiery agony shocked me, not only in its intensity, but the fact that this was not my mouth, throat or GI tract that were burning. It was my fingers!

The discomfort lasted an incredibly long time, but Navin assured me that most places don't serve food so hot as this. The delight at the end came from the 'dessert' dish (one comes with every Thali) - cloudy like lemonade, Navin would not detail its contents but told me to just drink it. And I did, to my delight - it was like sweet rice noodles in a runny sugar sauce, and was the perfect end to an "interesting' cullinary experience.

Another point learned here was that Navin and friend did not lick their fingers when finished as I had done, but took their rice-coated digits to the washroom to be cleaned.

To Give, or Not To Give...

The presence, and absence of beggars in India is something that is worthy of note. To be honest, I had expected much more of them, and we probably have much more in store than this, but our first encounter happened outside Landmark on the first day we arrived. As we walked to the auto a woman and her child came over and trapped us as we sat in the auto waiting for the driver to start and pull away. They both stood there, knowing that we were held captive for a few uncomfortable minutes, fingers of the right hand pinched together and moving up and down to the mouth in an eating motion.

This wasn't the worst, but it was still uncomfortable. Compassion is no stranger to me, but neither is reason, and the act of handing money to a beggar of any sort achieves nothing in the grand scale of things. It confirms their concept of westerners as being good targets, thereby making other tourists' stays less comfortable, and does not do anything to alleviate the poverty, disease and ignorance that allow this situation to arrive. Now everyone must make the choice that suits them when it comes to beggars, and having been there I can tell you it is a difficult choice - try saying no to a girl whose face is scarred with leprosy after walking out of a shop in which you have just spent enough to feed her for several months!

But these beggars, many scarred or maimed in some way, or simply old, are often professionals, and controlled within a hierarchical "beggar's guild" to whom they must pay a percentage of their "donations". Stories abound of children deliberately maimed by parents in order to increase their earning potential, or passed from one beggar to another to add that child leverage on the guilt factor.

It is not an easy choice, but the futility of such short-term gestures is overwhelming to me - you achieve nothing positive other than assuaging the ego for a short while from the raging guilt that says that things like this shouldn't happen in "modern civilisation". Better, in my opinion, to donate your money to an established charity that focuses on education and medium/long-term projects to improve the lifes and remove the root causes of poverty. My opinion.

So, I guess you want some tips for dealing with these beggars. I have had some success, and found the trick is to completely ignore them. And I mean no completely - no acknowledging them, no trying to get away, just keep doing what you are doing as if they are there - no interaction whatsoever. It can be very difficult, but this is the way that most Indians act in the presence of everyone else anyway, so practice the "Quantum Perception" (apparently I didn't invent this concept ;-) that Indians have mastered in everyday situations before "going live" with beggars.

If that becomes impossible, a strong "waving away" gesture and saying, "No!" in their local language may do the trick. The secret is to be confident in this dismissal, something which I seem to have mastered by the number of times they turn and walk away from me. If you hesitate for one second they will keep at it again and again. Even so, do not expect them to leave, or to stop pestering you. Do not expect anything except all that India throws in your path, some of which is not so nice. And keep walking.

First Auto Ride

After breakfast Navin found an auto-rickshaw driver, Suresh, who was to prove a great boon to us. And off we went to Spencer's Plaza to buy the things we needed for the trip.

Of course, today was Republic Day holiday, which is not one that has great celebrations of any sort. However it did mean that the traffic was different than usual - quieter at some times, busier at others.

And what traffic it is, viewd from your first ever auto ride! It appears to be nothing short of madness, as cars, auto's and bicycles pull out in front of each other without warning, stop, start, turn, drive in the wrong direction, all seemingly without care, concern or any method. They drive so close to each other, the auto drivers seem to know the exact dimensions of their vehicles to the millimetre, and utilise every space to its full potential. "If you see a gap, posses it!" seems to be the rule of the day. U-turns are spectacular affairs, more fun than even the best white-knuckle rollercoaster ride as the auto spins round in front of a crushing cavalry charge of oncoming trucks, cars and motorcycles.

This charge has no effect on the auto driver as the pitiful put-put of his two-stroke engine drags you fully into their path with no hope accelerating to escape. Just as death is certain, the charge draws level and the auto reaches the same speed, is absorbed into its rightful place at the head of the charge, then is carefully engulfed and passed by the faster vehicles.

And so we arrived at Spencer's Plaza without harm, only to find that Republic Day affects more than the traffic. Many of the shops in this very Westernised mall are closed, mostly the kind we were looking for. I needed sunglasses (to shield my poor Scottish eyes from that big bright yellow thing, not sure what it is ;-) and a watch to replace the one that broke at Heathrow (a sign perhaps?). The mall was much more than a shopping venue though, more of a community centre as it was filled with many people doing not very much shopping, chatting and socialising throughout. Once more it is very reminiscent of Saudi Arabia, like a larger and slightly more modern version of the (now burnt-down) Shula Mall in Al Khobar, so I felt slightly at home.

One of these modern stores is Landmark, sort of a department store with books, cd's, watches, mobile phones, pretty much some of everything. Navin wouldn't let me spend 20 pounds on a watch, saying we could get one much cheaper. The bookstore there is amazing - rows and rows of books on yoga and other spiritual systems, all at the bargain price of about 250 Rs (3 pounds). I found the book I am currently reading, which cost about 11 pounds, for that same price. I predict a large purchase here at the end of my trip :-)

A quick Mirinda (brand of Orange soda, also found in Saudi) at the food courtrevealed a dissapointingly Westernised face to Chennai culture. Pizza Hut sat alongside several other variants of Western fast food stores, offering anything from Chinese food to the delights of Indian fast food at Tandoori Express. Navin told me the food was expensive, but at 80 Rs a meal who can complain? More surprising was the extent of non-vegetarian foods in this supposed bastion of vegetarianism. Navin and friend will both eat meat, though not in the same vast quantities as we Westerners, and their diet seems to be mainly veg with the vaguest hint of flesh. Still, with the arrival of chicken wings a la "KFC" how long can they hold out against 10-piece-bucket-for-one-syndrome?

Colin and I were still stuffed from breakfast, but Navin was clearly hungry, so we left Spencer's to find somewhere good for lunch.

Breakfast with Navin

We had arranged to meet Navin at 9am so off we went, and sure enough he turned up (along with his friend) exactly on time. Time for our first breakfast adventure!

Colin was still not eating much, but managed a bowl of cornflakes. I had idli's, (flat rice dumplings) which came with sambar and onion chutney. Also had some curd (natural yoghurt) on the advice of my good friend Donny, to help me prepare my stomach for local bacteria. Idli's were a strange experience on many different levels - eating with your hands (which requires motor neuron skills long forgotten), coping with spicy food at breakfast time (could get used to that one), and a small portion of seemingly bland food that is deceptively filling.

The first couple of mouthfuls were uninteresting, but then it became very enjoyable, bound to become a breakfast staple.

Hmmm, all this talk of food is making me hungry! Off to eat, more later.

This is not same signature

Tuesday 25th January 2005

I started off this trip with such good news - that Colin had decided to come along also. Not only pleased that I have a travelling companion, but because I feel that he has made a really good decision for himself, and that so much lies in store for him. It is an honour to be sharing this adventure with such a good friend!

The flight was long but uneventful. Watched 3 movies (Collateral is excellent, Garden State is good, Cellular was dreadful) to pass the time -- too tired to read, too uncomfortable to sleep. Colin suffered a lot at first and I was worried about how it was affecting him, but thankfully the closer we got to India the better he became. By the time we arrived, apart from the problems of tiredness, he seemed a-okay.

Lines at Immigration were long, and of course we found our way to the middle. By skill and cunning and no special effort of our own we then managed to manouevre our way to the back of the lines - but no matter, the spirit of India had pervaded us and we were in good spirits. Especially more so when we arrived at baggage to find everyone still waiting. Perhaps India is trying to tell us already, "Slow down! Slow down!"

Backpack recovered, and on to the arduous process of changing traveller's cheques for cash. The man there made us both sign our TC's a second times because, "This is not same signature." After enlightening him with the fact that my signature is never the same two times in a row, I signed and he accepted the second (still different) signature. If only retailers in the UK were as diligent!

One big learning point here - 100 Pound (no pound sign on this keyboard) traveller cheques are a bad idea. At current exchange rates this amounts to 8000 Rs which is at least 80 notes! Most things around here cost less than 50 and they don't like changing big notes, so better get 20 and 50 Pound TC's. I could hardly close my wallet as it wouldn't bend with all those notes, but ditched a lot next day by paying for my hotel in advance. I took 1000 with me, but doubt I'll even use half!

Oh, before I forget I had heard there are no mosquito's in Chennai now and been advised from several people not to take meds. I checked this out and discovered that Chennai accoutns for 75% of Malaria cases in Tamil Nadu. With a total of 29,000 cases in 2003 I decided not to take the risk and am taking Malarone. This proved a good move as we'd seen our first mozzie before leaving the baggage hall. They are everywhere, 'though not in any numbers. One bite from the wrong moz and you've got Malaria, so I think a little medication is a good idea. I was reminded to make this post by a little flying insect who just bit my leg (before swiftly dying) as I typed the last sentence.

Then, it was time for the real India!!!

Not a shocking experience at all, really quite easy. We weren't mobbed by taxi touts or anyone, just strolled over to one of the two pre-pay tax counters before leaving the arrivals area proper and booked a taxi to NW for 270 Rs. We used the booth on the left, simply because the man there caught my attention first.

Another man then took my bag and led us past the waiting crowds and out to our taxi. This whole process from landing reminded me very much of visiting my dad in Saudi Arabia (at the old Dhahran airport). The airport layout is so similar, and the high kerbs painted in black and white combined with the gentle heat (was about 2am by then) to jog a few good memories.

Overcharging is a big traveller worry, as you'll see in any traveller forum online. But I am so thankful that it was at this point that fear of overcharging and being "conned" left me. Staring at the big wad of notes in my wallet, I plucked out a 10 Rs note and tipped the man who carried my bag out to the taxi - he looked quite surprised at being tipped. Strange to think thatyou can make someone happy by giving them 12p! It is quite liberating to make that decision, not to o fret over every last Rupee as if it is a small fortune. Not that I am not cautious, or won't haggle, I just don't see the point in bleeding from the ears just to save myself 12p.

The taxi ride was interesting but uneventful, traffic was quiet at that time. Style of houses and layout is again similar to KSA, but I must say we got a taste of the wilder nature of driving here. Still, the roads were quiet and we were soon at NW, which looked quite impressive as we turned in. We got our rooms quickly, Colin getting a modernised one which was much nicer. After resolving to get moved to a newer room in the morning (bathroom was quite poor) I settled about 3am to a disturbed sleep.

Everyone tells you the noise is constant here, but I didn't know exactly what that meant. Now I do!

Hooded crows apparently don't sleep here, caw-cawing through the night, and lucky us they are nesting in the trees just outside our rooms. Even better, below us is a courtyard that seems to be used as an unofficial taxi rank! Even better, strange electrical beepings drift through the ether all night, and it wasn't until morning that we worked out they were the reverse warning sounds of the Ambassador taxi's. I cracked up laughing at one "lewd awakening" - the sounds of Lambada (the Forbidden Dance,you know!) beeping into my skull to warn me of a reversing taxi two floors below. Things being washed and swept, doors being slammed, then the obligatory chorus of men hawking every drop of mucus from their respiratory tracts joined in harmony to the comforting melody of the whirring fan overhead.

A disturbed sleep, but strangely I was neither tired nor bothered. As the excitement of the coming day hit my body I jumped out of bed to see what was awaiting me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Heaving on a jet plane

Well, this installment finds me in the lounge at Heathrow Airport (with free everything - lucky I'm a man of restraint!). And the good news is Colin is with me! Up since 4.45am, not that much sleep was had, so very tired. Here's hoping for an easy flight :-)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

One Sleep 'til Santa

Well, everyone kept asking me this week, "Are you getting excited about your trip yet?"

The answer was usually, "no," which surprised a lot of people. I've just had too much on my mind, too many things to do, to be distracted by excitement.

This morning was different. From the minute I woke up there was a nervous feeling in my stomach, and it felt kinda like Christmas Eve. So yes, I am now "officially" excited about my (seriously) pending trip.

Still, it's not all plain sailing. First I have to say goodbye to my two girls (daughter and fiancee), which won't be easy.

Then there is the problem that arose last week - my friend and travelling companion Colin has come down with a really bad case of the 'flu. Of course our tickets are non-transferable and non-refundable, and he hadn't arranged travel insurance - which limits his option to two - go, or don't go. I am hoping he will be well enough to go, but only he will be able to judge if he's well enough to fly.

As I speak it is 29 degrees (centigrade) in Chennai - which is about 29 degrees hotter than here in Scotland!!! Kinda the reverse of the experiences I've had going for sunbeds (to top up my skin's resistance to the topical sun, and also reduce the blinding glare off my milky-white skin for the sake of the good people of India) - one minute lovely and hot, next I'm out in the gale force winds and hailstones that OMN has been throwing our way of late.

So, prolly my last post from Scotland, better go pack my bags (if you think I'm joking, you obviously don't know me ;-)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

New Features

Okay, some of you may have noticed the Tagboard to the left. That lets you leave me messages every time you visit. Even if it's just to say Hi and let me know you've been checking out the blog it will be appreciated.

Also I have set up a photo gallery so that I can upload photographs in India. Once I get back to the UK and my own PC I will upload the Photo's straight onto the Blog, but for now use this link to see what I'm talking about.

Hard to think that a week right now I'll be sitting with Colin, Navin and Les in Chennai having a lovely big veggie thali for dinner.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Countdown is Commencing...

Well, less than a week to go and running about like a headless chicken, trying to get everything I need done for take-off next Monday (24th). I fly down to Luton Aiport then and meet up with Colin, staying with him overnight before an early morning direct flight with BA. Then it's an arrival in the wee sma' hours at Chennai airport, taxi to the New Woodlands Hotel, and (probably) time for a sleep.

This may prove difficult though (i.e. sleep) as it'll still be only late evening to our bodies, perhaps the early start and a few beverages might smooth the path of Hypnos (and maybe Morpheus too). Still, we need that sleep as the 26th January is Republic Day holiday and Navin is coming to escort us round Chennai, buying the things we are cheaper buying than bringing, and seeing a few sights and celebrations into the bargain.

Some of you may recall that the nurse reckoned my Malarone would cost £66 or thereabouts, which was expensive in itself. Seems that nursey was wrong and it's costing me £116! Youch, hurt more than the inocculations!!! Still, what cost my health?!

Okay, now I think last year I promised you a whole load of links and advice on a range of topics, but only got halfway through before life distracted me. Not enough time to do them individually, but here's a few tips and hints I've dug up on my way.

Money Makes ze Vurld Go Round

Since the demise of the dollar and its general instability of late I am taking over £ Sterling Traveller Cheques, a small amount of Sterling cash. I will also be taking an ATM bank card and a credit card for emergencies. I know that some people now just take bank cards and use ATM's or their credit cards, but they charge in excess of 5% for each transaction and I get my TC's free so I'll not be doing so.

If you want to keep an eye on exchange rates try

Come Fly With Me

I ended up booking my flight through the Royal Bank of Scotland Royalties Gold program. You have to have a bank account with them and pay a monthly fee towards the Royalties Gold program, which gives you a load of benefits. I saved about £60 on the lowest fare I could find elsewhere for the flight I wanted (BA direct to Chennai). Worth checking out if you live in the UK - they do free annual travel insurance for the account holder and family too, so I save another £50 or so there.

Apart from that, the best flights I could find were by searching Kelkoo flights. I compared these prices to those from the likes of Trailfinders and they were much cheaper.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Okay, given the vast distances across India, planes are a good option for many internal trips, particularly if you don't have much time on your holiday. Air India and other internal air lines do air passes, but they didn't seem too good value to me unless your idea of "seeing India" is spending a day or less in every city with an airport.

Apparently (and don't quote me on this) it can be quite possible in India just to turn up at the airport and buy a flight ticket for an internal there and then and not be fleeced for doing so.

However, the same cannot be said for trains. Many trains are fully booked well in advance, so book them as early as possible. You can get online information on Indian Trains, or can make a credit card booking online. You can either then uplift tickets from their office in Delhi or have them posted to somewhere (in India) for your arrival. (PS the booking website has 'office hours', so try to check it out in Indian time).

Buses are commonly used too, but depending where you are may be noisy, overcroded, smelly and dangerous. On the plus side they're cheap. 'Nuff said.

Cars, mopeds and bicycles - take your chances!

Fetch Me Some Immodium - FAST!

Okay, a few hints on eating and drinking.

Always drink bottled water, and be sure to check that the cap is still sealed when it arrives (some people refill water bottles to make a quick Rupee). Don't be afraid to send it back if it's not. Water seems to be the main point of entry for stomach bugs, so also be careful in drinks with ice or dishes such as ice-cream.

When choosing somewhere to eat, the key words are fresh and hot. Choose somewhere you can see the food being cooked to make sure it's fresh, and make sure it comes to you hot (even ask for it to be extra hot, as Indians eat food cooler than we do, presumably as they eat with their hands). Also pick somewhere popular/busy, as then the food has no time to be sitting aorund gathering bacteria.

Another hint is to keep your hands/fingers clean, especially under those nails. So taking hygienic wipes, a nailbrush and anti-bacterial soap may pay off in terms of a vomit (or worse!) free holiday.

A final (untested) hint from a long-time India traveller friend was to eat some of the local yoghurt, known as curd over there, on arrival. Apparently the 'good' bacteria helps your stomach adjust.

Bend Me, Twist Me, Any Way You Want Me

Well, there's more yoga in India than you can shake a stick at. So here, without comment or endorsement, are a few links for your perusal:

Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, Tamil Nadu
Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, Mysore, Karnataka
Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Pune, Maharashtra
Vivekanada Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, nr Bangalaore, Karnataka
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres (Various Locations)
A load of different yoga courses and ashrams in Rishikesh can be found here
Purple Valley Yoga Centre, Anjuna Beach, Goa
Mysore Mandala Yogashala, Mysore, Karnataka
Atmavikasa Center Of Yogic Sciences, Mysore, Karnataka
Shri Yoga Shiksana Kendra, Mysore, Karnataka

Well, that's a few of the more popular places with westerners, if anyone has others please email me at or simply leave comments below.

A final comment before I'm off, you can all keep track of how wonderful the weather is in Chennai with the weather box I've put at the bottom of the page. As I sit here with a snowstorm raging outside I am sure it will be of great comfort to my Scottish friends ot know at least I am lovely and warm, soaking up the rays by the pool as I cool off with a mango lassi (PS that's an Indian yoghurt drink, not a 'lassie' as we know it in Scotland!!!).

Off now for other things, will try to post before I leave, if not the next one will be from Chennai!!!