Travel Stories

Chennai to Mamalahpurum

1. Chennai
         I don’t know what I expected when I chose Chennai as my point of entry into India, but my first impressions of the city are that it is way more and way less than whatever that was.  The smell of the city is omnipresent and intense: old urine, onions, car emissions, something cooking that smells tempting, something rotting that smells and is repulsive, a hint of flowers when there are none to be seen, incense, jasmine.  &;People sleep in the streets day and night.  It is very hot and very muggy.  And at the risk of making a gross overgeneralization, the people who are not sleeping in the streets seem very pushy and very aggressive, even by my New York standards.  More than just the necessary jostle to get through a crowd there appears to be a sense of wanting to get ahead, to gain an advantage, to be the first.  And it is not uncommon for me to be having a conversation with some shopkeeper or hotel receptionist when I am interrupted by someone else who simply wants to get in … now.  
         I did manage to arrive at the guesthouse I had hoped to stay in without a reservation around 11PM, notwithstanding the harrowing reality that the cab driver I rode with and his fellow Indian terrorist vehicle drivers all have absolutely no regard for the lane of the road they are driving in and I cannot even tell if they drive on the right side or on the left.  In fact I think it may change from street to street or as conditions dictate.  And when red lights that hold the vehicle terrorists back on occasion indicate by their digital countdown signal that there are less than twenty seconds left before the light changes to green the honking starts, and with about ten seconds left the entire lane of cars is moving forward through the remaining red light.  As for crossing the roadway as a pedestrian, although it is accomplished by me by attaching myself to any one of the Indian contortionists who do so with casual regularity, to me it seems like a feat of immense daring and perfect timing.
         The guesthouse is locked when I arrive there, but,  after much bell ringing, the door is opened by a sleepy old man and an even sleepier younger man.  They say everything is closed early because it is “election time,” although I’ve seen open teashops on my way into Chennai and later learn that the election itself is more than a month away.  My room at this inn, complete with cold shower, toilet without toilet paper, and terrace surrounded by prison bars, is in an olden Maharaja’s home.  After that it’s all down hill.  The sheets have burn holes in them and I can scratch my itchy back on their roughly textured weave.  The floor is concrete, cracked, dirty - no make that filthy - and has never met a rug or tile.  The soles of my feet are dirty – no make that filthy – within a second or two and I have to take them into the bed with me.   The walls are cracked, ancient, discolored, moldy, and covered with flaking plaster.  Electric wires are hanging everywhere, although there are no electric outlets.  Also no hot water, soap, towels, blankets, cabinets, or even wall hooks.  There is one old rusty metal folding chair.  All in all it feels a bit like a cell.  We are definitely talking upgrade.
In the morning I move about the Triplicate neighborhood streets among throngs of people, cars, trucks, rickshaws, horns, mufflers, whistles, and yelling.  Eye contact is rare, make that non-existent, notwithstanding that I look at people directly, and stick out as an obvious, tall, white, foreign guy.  The sight of green trees able to breathe and grow in the city comforts me.  The calling of crows with gray collars that make it look like they too are dirty also helps, although I ’m quite sure that what the kahkahs – which is Tamil for crow - are saying and asking me is, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?”  And, of course, the crow guides’ question is the absolutely right question, which I don’t really know the answer to (on a spiritual quest?  studying yoga?), because all I’ve found so far, at least to my eyes, is a dirty, highly polluted, teeming, and somewhat nondescript, gray city. Besides, what I really want to know first, even before I try to answer the crows, is can my diet for the next five weeks in India really consist of only bananas, cashew nuts, Kit Kat bars, and water? 
My favorite moments are when taxi drivers seeking to take me on as a fare as I walk aimlessly - the only obvious foreigner - through the streets ask me, “Where are you going?”  And I reply, “I have no idea.”   And I really don’t.   Over the course of four days in Chennai dozens of people ask me, what I am doing here, which I can’t answer, followed by the even more pointed and revealing question “Okay, but why did you choose Chennai?”  And for three days I tell all of them, I really don’t know.

2.  Giri
My first full day in India is salvaged in large part when an engaging rickshaw driver named Giri introduces himself to me with small talk and a handshake, and then offers to be my guide.  “Lucky day for me, sir, lucky day for you.
Of course Giri is proposing that he show me forts, churches, high-end craft shops (which cut him a commission on anything they sell to folks he delivers), and temples, none of which interest me.  And when Giri asks where I would like to go I have to say, “I have no idea,” and I really don’t.
Fortunately there are practicalities.  I need cash.  I need to find a yoga studio, and an Internet cafe.  I need to change residences. I need to get to a bookstore.  I need some new reading glasses to replace the three dollar ones I bought in Myanmar, which have already broken.   I need to figure out what I’m going to “do” in Chennai while Chennai is doing me, and how long I’m staying in Chennai, or in any other place in India, before I rendezvous with Sam in Delhi in three weeks.  And for these purposes the travel gods could not have sent me a better guide than Giri, who laughs contagiously, lives with his wife (the only woman he has ever “known”) and two sons in the village he was born in an hour by train out of Chennai, and from where he commutes daily to his three wheel taxi rickshaw which he leaves in the evening with his mechanic brother-in-law who lives in Chennai, and who I have to and do meet of course. 
These errands take hours and hours as Giri drives me to and fro across the city, even squeezing in a few of the high-end craft shops that I really don’t want to go to where I resist skilled salesmen, offers of tea, and some truly remarkably beautiful (and expensive), museum level antique art pieces.  “You must bargain, sir,” instructs Giri. 
Every time we drive passed the US Consulate, which happens about four or five times as we speed around the city, Giri says, “There is your country, Sir.”  Every time we pass the Indian Tax Collection offices (next to the Consulate), Giri says, “Wery bad business, sir, wery bad.”  And as the day proceeds Giri becomes more and more comfortable advising me rather than deferring to me.  “Let us not go to the Internet now, Boss, vaste of time.”  “No, do not stay at that hotel, Sir, vhy vaste money?”  “Money flies, Sir.  Money comes.  Money goes.  You are wery good customer.  Giri unhappy if sir vaste his money.”  “Vhy take long train - bump, bump, bump – wery slow, wery dirty.  You fly, Sir.”  “No, Boss, no need go Bengalooru.  Must see Mamallapurm.  Stay overnight, then Puduchcheri.”   At one point, after one of any number of very near crashes we have with trucks, buses, cars, taxi rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows, another taxi driver pulls along side us and pointing at Giri says to me, “He is my brother.”  And I say to him, “He is my brother too.“  And Giri laughs.  And the other driver laughs.  And I laugh.  And after we drive away Giri says, “He is not really my brother, sir.”   
By late afternoon I’ve gotten cash, found an acceptable yoga studio, found a reasonably priced hotel within walking distance of the studio, gotten to a bookstore, taken my first yoga class in India, and made arrangements with Giri to chauffer me about the next day to see the beach, to consult with a travel agent, to continue our search for prescription eyeglasses and to at least partially answer the question “where are you going?” if not the subtler “why are you here.”

3.  Yoga in Chennai
         I select a yoga studio named 136.1.  On its website the studio describes 136.1 as the vibrational frequency at which the chant of Om is heard and at which the Earth vibrates.   A man who tells me his name is Norisur and who works at the yoga studio front desk introduces me to the studio.  It takes me about four tries at pronouncing his name before I understand he is saying, “Norris, sir.”
I take a hatha class with a handsome flexible man in his early forties (late thirties?) named Ramaman, mostly slow and simple sun salutations, with an immense amount of attention to relaxation, chanting, and pranayama.  Over the next few days I take a few classes with the young and beautiful Joshna, who promises to tell me about yoga in Pune and Rishikesh, and I attend a three day workshop at the studio with the very energetic, commanding, and loud voiced Swapna Gangadharan, a visiting teacher from Hyderabad, who lived and taught on the lower east side of New York for a couple of years, studied with and taught with Rodney Yee, and has returned to her home city of Hyderabad to open an organic market and yoga center.  Her classes are very fundamental but quite physically challenging in terms of the length of the holds, and I really enjoy sweating.  And although I don’t feel I have learned anything (the student is obviously not ready) I do periodically have an absolutely magical moment when I realize that I am actually in India in a yoga class.
No class I take has more than eight participants.  All other than me seem to be Indians and I am by far the oldest and most experienced (though hardly the strongest) student in each class.  The women are all slightly or more than slightly pudgy and do the classes in full dress or at least long pants and big blouses.  No woman other than the very young Joshna wears so much as a halter, and no woman wears shorts in yoga, or anywhere I’ve seen, even on Indian music TV.   I do learn in my yoga classes that the parts of the leg above the knee are known as the “ties,” that the parts below the knee are known as the “choughs,” and that we should try to relax them.  Wery good so far.   

4.  Food

            I choose not to live only on bananas, Kit Kat bars, and water and branch out, beginning with coffee and samosas at a high end coffee shop in the building my yoga studio is in, and a veggie burger at a fast food restaurant in the same building … all quite pale.  Next morning I have hot coffee made with tap water at a local outdoor vendor’s - who insists I sit down in his open air shop to drink the coffee - and puts me at a table with another man who doesn’t look me in the eye for the entire ten minutes we are seated alone together, not once.  I observe the water drawn from the tap and the unrefrigerated milk steaming before I drink the coffee.  The man across from me is served some kind of mashed potato and lentils with a red sauce and a white sauce on a piece of waxed paper on a tray without dishes, utensils, or napkins.  The man’s hands are filthy.  He eats his meal with his fingers, pinching some of the potato mix between his fingers, dipping it into the sauces well passed his first finger joint and then shoveling the food into his mouth.  He drinks water directly from a bottle of tap water left on the table for customers to share.   After eating his meal he rinses his hands at the nearby sink and wipes them on his already filthy pants.  My coffee is good.
         I return to my twenty-dollar hotel where a complimentary breakfast, which is also quite good, is served me on a tray delivered to my room.  I particularly like what I think is a masala dhosa, but I have no idea what I am eating and return to bananas, cashews, and Kit Kat bars in the evening.  Next day, at my clean (okay, cleaner) new forty dollar hotel where I have two rooms to spread out in I eat the hotel’s buffet breakfast, which is actually fabulous: a couple of dishes that look like mashed potatoes but have truly awesome and adventurous spicing, pancakes with something very tasty in them, a fried donut that may have chunks of ginger in it, fresh peeled fruit (don’t ask me how prepared or vashed), and hot coffee with milk already mixed in that the buffet staff will not let me pour myself but pour for me in the very stylized Indian manner of raising the pitcher as high above the cup as possible and then pouring the coffee into the cup moving the pitcher deftly up and down (so that the coffee cools on the way down?) while the coffee twists in a downward spiral into the cup.  There are utensils.  Some people use them.  Other folks eat with their hands.  Some of the wait staff walks around barefooted.  The food is so good I have to force myself away from the buffet to awoid feeling stuffed.  In time I trust I will return to using “v”s instead of “w”s, but I find the Indian accent very “quaint” and cute, among not much else that is cute, although I am practicing bobbing my head from side to side, which I’ve mostly stopped thinking means “no” and am conwinced is wery good for keeping neck vertebrae loose and awoiding real anger in the endless play of speed, aggression, and disregard that seem to me to characterize so many street level interactions.  (Even on music videos on TV I see young men depicted slapping women, pulling women around, and fighting with one another.)   By the end of day three, when I eat in the Palm Grove Hotel’s restaurant, which I am told is one of the finest veggie restaurants in Chennai, I order dhosas and naans delivered to me by barefooted wait staff, and which I eat, after I wash and hopefully have sanitized my hands, with my fingers, dipping them into the sauces like the Indians do.

5.  Day Three
           Being in a comfortable hotel, after a couple of days of night and early morning yoga classes, and a lot of running around in between classes, I choose to just chill out this day, other than attend yoga classes, of course, and to walk around a slum which gives totally new meaning to the word slum, and where the collection of houses is called a hutment.  I also spend a couple of hours in an Internet locale (I just can’t call a long dirty overcrowded wery hot and stuffy closet with a row of computers a café), and some time reading a very basic Hinduism for beginners book I’ve bought.  I also make another of my multiple visits to travel agents armed with my big, now annotated by me, India map that I spread out on their desks trying to figure out where, how, and even more to the point, why I am going wherever it is I am going next between Chennai and my rendezvous with Sam in Delhi, over 2,000 kilometers away, in three weeks.   The travel gods and goddesses have not revealed their plan yet, although I know the guides are still smiling when I discover that my travel pouch, which I’ve left under the mattress in the last hotel before I checked out at noon with credit cards, some money, and Miles’ ashes is still there when I return late that night hoping to fetch it.  I am also slowly desensitizing myself (a practice begun in SE Asia) while walking in the streets, from thinking every horn that blows nearby must be directed at me.  And I’ve actually had two, count them, two, Indian women smile back at me when I smiled at them.  And one woman actually said thank you when I held a door open for her, a practice I’m also trying to break myself of, since people who hold open doors in India are clearly either paid underlings or deranged.  In this regard, in for me what was a very funny moment, on my second day cruising around with Giri we stopped at the beach near where a tsunami hit about three years ago and took out most of the government built (and not rebuilt) fisherman’s housing.   (No, Giri, I do not want to see temples.  No, not churches either Giri.  No, not high end shops, not government offices, not museums.  Just show me India please, where people live.  Let’s go to a market, a grocery store, a pharmacy searching for hand sanitizer.)   Anyhow, after I get out of the rickshaw to buy a bottle of water from a vendor on the beach … (No, Giri, I do not want to sit here while you fetch the water for me, I want to get it myself.  Yes, Giri, you can come to protect me from the dangers I will face dealing with a skinny one hundred and ten year old destitute Indian woman selling water to put rice on her table and clearly intending to exploit me if you want … or you just sit here in the rickshaw.)  When we get back with the bottle of water, which Giri checks to make sure the cap has not been loosened, Giri gets into the rickshaw and I squat down outside the rickshaw drinking the water and casually chatting w Giri about something – where to go next, or the drying of fish on sand – when Giri anxiously asks me to please get inside the rickshaw because it makes him uncomfortable to be seen with me squatting outside his rig looking up to him.  “Fuck it, Giri,” I say, “who cares?”   “No, no, please Mr. Bruce, it is not right for you to be there.  Please, more better you sit in rickshaw.”

6.  Yotam

            After yoga on Saturday night I’m talking with one of the men in the class when it dawns on me that he is not Indian, and as I pursue my conversation with him he tells me that he is an Israeli born music producer who has been living in Chennai for eight years.  When I querying him about my further travel in India, Yotam has some very definite opinions, ideas, and experiences he wants to share with me and invites me to come over to his music and video recording, mixing, and production studio later in the evening.  And while I don’t know it at that moment, when I get to Yotam’s studio and spend some time with him I form the definite opinion that Yotam is as good an answer as any to the question of why I came to Chennai and that the travel guides have spoken to me through him. 
         Yotam arrived in Chennai eight years ago after accepting a three-month gig as a sound engineer because his wife wanted out for a while from living in the desert in Israel.  At the time Yotam had one daughter under aged two.  He and his wife now have three daughters, and the three month gig in Chennai turned into a creative and more or less successful business that has kept him in Chennai for the past eight years, although he now commutes to Israel every two weeks - and spends about half his time there - since his wife and daughters returned to live in Israel last year.  At his Chennai studio Yotam has designed and built a top quality video production room and a great sound studio, which has all of the high-end sound mixing and video editing equipment someone putting out top of the line music would need.  His specific interests are in recording and promoting traditional village musicians, and in producing innovative music, most akin to modern jazz.  He has recently spent weeks in Kerala state in India recording villagers using traditional Indian village instruments that he thinks is cutting edge.  National Geographic has purchased two of Yotam’s video music recordings.  He has developed great music contacts throughout India as a producer and sound engineer, and has just recorded the renowned and revered classical India singer Soubaj Mudgal doing a modern duet with an African-American singer poet from Philadelphia, which he plays for me.  Soubaj’s voice is just stunning and she dwarfs the woman singing opposite her, though I love the sound and think the recording is great.  At the studio, Yotam has also built a kitchen and guest sleeping quarters where visiting artists and musicians can stay while being recorded. Yotam’s beautiful and revealing website is  Take a peak.

And while Yotam is without question a very hard working, broadly traveling, singularly talented producer/engineer, he has two additional passions - aside from his work and family.  They are surfing and Auroville.  And it is in regard to these passions that Yotam wants to guide me.  Especially inasmuch as both are on my way to what I had originally projected as my next stop, Puduchcheri, where I now know I would again have had to answer the question why had I decided to visit the equivalent of Bakersfield, California, on my tour of India, rather than going to the equivalent of Big Sur.  So first the surfing. 

Although born in the Sinai, and in love with the desert, Yotam also loves to surf, has done so in many of the highlight surfing spots around the globe, and has even brought his big board to Chennai.  Doesn’t everybody?  I mean, when you think of India don’t you right away think of surfing?  So here is Yotam, son of the desert, in Chennai on the Indian Ocean with his big board looking for places to surf.  And the place that most appeals to him - because of the wave action he has observed there - is a beach and cove in the small over 2,000 year old fishing village of Kovalam, just south of Chennai on the Bay of Bengal, in the Indian Ocean. 

On Yotam’s third surfing visit to Kovalam, along with some Aussie friends and fellow surfers, where they regularly draw a crowd, Yotam is approached by a slight Indian man in his late twenties named Multhiy Megavan, a village fisherman, whose father was a fisherman, and whose father’s father was a fisherman, who asks Yotam if he can use Yotam’s board to try to surf, something no one in the history of the village of Kovalam, at least as far as Multhiy and his friends are aware, has ever done, or seen done, until a few weeks earlier when Yotam arrived and surfed there. Yotam, of course, says yes, and Multhiy Megavan, tenth generation small village Indian fisherman, gets on Yotam’s big board, rides as if he has been surfing for years, and falls instantly and madly in love with surfing and the surfer’s unique relationship with the sea.  I watch the short video Yotam is finishing about Multhiy and Multhiy’s evolution, and, at Yotam’s suggestion, I visit Multhiy of an afternoon in Kovalam on my way to Puduchcheri.

7. Multhiy

The village of Kovalam is as prototypical a fishing village as you will find in any travelogue or ethnographic study about southern Indian fishing villages.&nbsp; Fish and fishing nets are drying in the hot afternoon sun, the air is filled with the smell of dead fish and decaying garbage, ancient log dories are being painted and tarred, the red sand is hot beneath your feet, naked children and their fully dressed mothers are wading in the surf, plastic waste litters the beach, there is one church, one mosque, a number of newer and older temples, a town hall, an older school, and dogs laying in the sun like Indian dogs everywhere, apparently of the universally held Indian dog view, that laying in tire tracks in the middle and at the edge of frequently traveled roadways is the preferred place to sleep. Kovalam has served as the site of Tamil fishing activities from at least the time ships and sailors of the Roman Empire explored and colonized the southwestern shores of the&nbsp;<span id="1637e363-0f60-4983-8d9a-1be98731a79e" ginger_software_uiphraseguid="1319351f-31ba-4cb5-a040-abd25d80e27c" class="GINGER_SOFTWARE_mark">India</span> coast.   And as far as Multhiy knows his ancestors have always lived there and always fished. 

When I arrive in Kovalam Multhiy comes down to the beach to meet me on his motorcycle and takes me back to his house on it.  Everyone in Kovalam knows Multhiy, and Multhiy knows everyone in Kovalam.  First we stop at his mother-in-law’s house, which is closer to the beach than Multhiy’s house, and is where he stores the six surfboards he uses and is now responsible for.  He describes each board to me, the one that is Yotam’s board, the one that was broken and he has been trying to repair, the small one for smaller people that doesn’t track as well.  He tells me to be careful of my head as we pass into every room, and as I stand up in every room.  He remarks that Yotam and I are the same size and compares us to his size.  We get back on the motorcycle and drive through lanes between houses not wide enough for an ox cart.  We arrive at Multhiy’s relatively new stucco home where his very young, very beautiful, and very irritable wife is cooking lunch for us, fish, of course, and yelling at the children.  A TV set is on.  Cricket, of course.  There is running water in their home but no tables and no chairs.  We eat seated on the floor.  No one washes their hands before eating, and everyone eats with their fingers except me who has been provided with a spoon.  And I don’t quite eat, although I do nibble, while the kids literally grab handfuls of rice and stuff it in their mouths without the grace of the better mannered finger pinch and shovel method.  Everyone washes his or her hands after eating.  Multhiy tells me his story, how his father left the village when Multhiy was young, how he feels sad at times for reasons he doesn’t understand, how surfing delights him, how he has become the surfing “coach” for numbers of young men in Kovalam who also love to surf and how much that means to him, how he wants to start a surfing school, and a surfboard making shop, and cannot wait to teach his young son to surf.  And all the while I am treated as Multhiy’s honored guest, and I feel honored.  After all, I’m a friend of Yotam’s, someone who may in some way be able to help Multhiy realize his dreams, a simple fisherman who out of the clear blue sea has had a video made of him and of his love for surfing, which has changed his life.

8 Mamalahpurum

            Mamalahpurum is a seaside village in Tamil Nadu, the most southeastern Indian state, and a Hindu religious site of some significance, with stone temples and sculptures that pre-date Angkor.   And although the temples are small, worn, and not well preserved, they draw very big crowds of Indian people to them.  Abutting the temple sites is a public beach where the crowds also flow.  The path to the public beach is lined with trinket and souvenir shops and food vendors.  On the beach are small hand operated children’s rides, saddled horses to be photographed on or ridden on the beach while being led around by their handlers, and more food vendors selling everything from watermelon slices and coconuts for coconut juice, to freshly fried fish.  Air pressured BB guns with real pellets are available for firing at displays of balloons attached to 4x8 sheets of plywood that people wander behind obliviously and I cannot fathom how no one appears to be injured among the all the balloon popping and balloon missing shots.  The beach is crowded.  The water is warm.  The horses are sometimes led in a run down the beach, through the masses of people and vendors.  There is a festive air about the place.  Some adult men even have their shirts off, although all of the women are fully dressed on the beach whether in the sea or not.  

            Some of the street vendor food looks and smells delicious to me, especially the deeply friend bananas and deeply fried peppers that I studiously watch a vendor dredge in some sort of sticky deep tangerine-colored fritter batter, that she has first literally squeezed in her hands and through her fingers, to mix the batter and assure its ongoing consistency after a day in the sun, before dredging the banana and pepper through it, and then sliding the coated fruits into the oil.  And here, overcoming all the cautions I’ve read about Indian street food, I decide to go for it.  It was cooked for a long time, right?  The oil was boiling.  No virus or bacterium could live through that heat, right?  And when the food comes out from the hot oil the vendor uses a ladle to put it onto a tray; that’s good.  And before the vendor can even touch the freshly cooked food I have previously selected to wrap it in old newspaper - the famous grease absorbing newsprint method - I grab my one banana and one pepper with my recently sanitized hands, assuring the food has not been touched by the vendor after coming out of the oil. The banana and the pepper are hot throughout when I eat them.  And in addition to the food looking really good and smelling good, which is why I was tempted by it in the first place, the spicy fritter batter tastes great, and the fresh pepper is marvelously spicy and deliciously peppery, and days later I’ve lived to write about it.

9. Yoga in Mamalahpurum

            The town of Mamalapurum has a sizable foreign tourist and guesthouse scene, mostly Europeans drawn to Mamalapurum by its beach.   Throughout this section of town are signs and shops advertizing massage, Ayurvedic healing, and yoga.  Most signs list the times for the yoga classes, although in an excess of caution I go into two of the studios to see what they look like and to confirm with a human being that there will in fact be a class the next morning.  In both places I’m assured there will be class, but when I arrive at one and then the other, a rooftop yoga venue where I find two Indian men just waking up, there are no yoga classes, and when I say to one of the men on the rooftop, “Yoga, seven A.M?” he wags his finger at me and says, “Never once.”   But I am determined to do yoga this morning and return to my room, put my mats on the floor, and begin.

One of the reasons I like to take yoga classes from yoga instructors is that I don’t have to think about what to do, I just follow their voices, listen passively to their instructions, do what they say to do, and try to focus on my breathing.  This is in contrast to most times that I do yoga on my own, when I am often distracted by my need to move myself consciously through my practice and cannot surrender my active thinking mind.  But this day for some reason my mind has turned off and each pose just flows into the next until I realize I am in sivasana, a crow is calling, and more than an hour and a half has passed.  I like that, that I have the space to be that person. 

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