12 March, 2012

An American in …India!

Reminiscing seems very popular in the blogosphere these days. And then Bozo has me thinking about my days in India. I think a lot of Americans have a one-sided perception of this country, and it makes me a little sad.

A couple years ago the pastor at my church went on a short-term mission trip to India. When I had a chance to talk to him about the trip, I was immediately let down. I don’t blame him, but I have to assume the organizers in India made a point to take their American visitors to every run-down village they operated in, perhaps to emphasize the poverty and the need. I get it. Marketing’s a bitch. Either that or my pastor was so dialed into the need and poverty that he didn’t open his eyes to the GLORIOUS RICH HERITAGE and CULTURE that is India!

Even just driving between villages …did he not drive past any low-walled gardens with shrines and peacocks? We used to pass those all the time! Could be a dry-looking stretch of open highway and all of a sudden there’s this garden/shrine thing right by the road! And I don’t mean “low-walled” as in someone slapped a 2-foot picket fence around a 100-square-foot plot of land. The walls are some kind of stone, usually painted, and somewhat sculpted along the top: scallops and domes, stuff like that. I wish I’d taken pictures, but who knew? For me, it was just life. Really, we don’t take pictures of the stuff we always see, do we? We can’t know that decades later it might seem unique.

Yes, cows roam free in India, but they aren’t really in the way, and they aren’t like American cattle. It’s not like someone just opened the gate of a dairy farm. It’s hard to explain. Maybe I’ll tackle that subject some other time.

My school was in southern India, in the mountains. Home was in Sri Lanka, in the mountains. As the crow flies, the two places were maybe…400 miles apart? Something like that. But… BWAHaHAHAhahahaha! Getting there was something else.
Here you go: Doesn't look very far apart! 
Home was in the dark spot in the Island of Sri Lanka.
School was in India, probably parallel with the northern tip of Sri Lanka.
(map from wikipedia) 

First, we had a four-hour drive (approximately) down through the tea estates of Sri Lanka to the capital city of Colombo. These roads are narrow, with long stretches only one lane wide, and if you came upon another vehicle one of you had to back up until the road widened. The roads were also pot-holey. Motion sickness was fairly common, but not to be complained about. “Suck it up and deal” was the name of the game. We would make a stop around the half-way point and have a snack and soda, or buy pineapples or something. (Oh! The PINEAPPLES! But that’s another post.) Usually this drive was made the day before flying out, and we would stay with another missionary family overnight. That part was good fun, like a going away slumber party.

The flight was only about an hour or so. We’d fly from Colombo to (usually) Tiruchirupalli or (sometimes) Trivandrum – these city names will likely only mean anything to Bozo , who lives in the region. Either place had an airport unlike any I’ve seen since. First, there was no jetway, just a stairway to the tarmac. The luggage was hand-searched. The waiting area was un-air-conditioned, and crowded with people and luggage. …No-no. Crowded. Not like in line for the Phillies game. Crowded. Elbow-to-elbow people. Yeah, more like that… Look again at that map. Firmly ensconced within the tropics. Elbow-to-elbow, hot-and-sweaty people. With no A.C., ceiling fans were in plentiful supply. (funny the things you remember, isn't it?)

The school would schedule (or have the families schedule) students to arrive at one airport or another on the same day, and send down a bus. …not like the yellow school busses we have here, but not totally unlike. There was a huge luggage rack on top and a ladder down the back for ease of loading the luggage, and the bus was blue, and not air-conditioned, but the seats were similar, as were the windows. …I think it was shorter than the standard US busses. Yep, that's right. I rode “the short bus” to school. (but there was no other length.)

After everyone had arrived and the bus was loaded, off we’d go. The bus trip was about 4-5 hours, as I recall. We’d cross a vast plain before reaching the Eastern Ghats – the mountain range containing a town and small lake, both called Kodaikanal. The plains were hot and depending on the season, dry and yellow or green and lush. But the mountains…

I have never seen this any other place I’ve been. The mountain range rises abruptly out of the plain. No gradual about it. You’re driving a straight road on flat land, watching a mountain range come at you from the distance and suddenly you’re on switchback roads where each hairpin turn creates a new view that is distinctly higher than the last. ...again, wishing I'd taken pictures.

You know how the pyramids just come up out of nothing? Yeah, more sharply than that, though. And with hairpin turns.

I’m sure there’s a specific elevation range where the ecology changes, but come on, I was in Jr. High, what did I know? All I can say is pretty soon we were cooling off; then pulling out jackets or cardigans. Again with the pot-holes, but I somehow remember the roads being a little wider than the tea estate roads of Sri Lanka. Who knows – I was a kid.

The monkeys, though! That’s a noise that just becomes ambient noise once you’re used to it. Like the ocean now that I live near the shore…it’s just there. If the bus stopped for a break, we found out the hard way: don’t sit too close to the trees or you’ll get a monkey in your hair!

...I’m cutting myself off there. I could go on and on, and probably will, but I’m getting a little long-winded. Maybe the next time it will be about the dorm, or hiking, or sunrise Easter service looking out over the plains, or the riots in town when trouble broke out in neighboring Sri Lanka between different ethnic groups. Yeah, probably that.

In other news: Something To celebrate!
I’m so sorry I forgot to mention the Friday was Holi – a Hindu festival also known as the “festival of colors”. Part of the celebration includes throwing scented flowers or perfumes on each other, and there’s a bonfire at night. Sweet.
It’s Commonwealth Day in Australia today, so go out and get some Fosters Lager to toast our Aussie friends!


  1. Hey, this brought tears to my eyes lol... just to hear what I know so well - described by another person with such appreciation! How wonderful.

    Some things made me laugh - especially your description of the airports! I haven't been to Trivandrum (Now Thiruvananthapuram)airport for a while - but I hear it's been really spiffed up.

    The last time I was there - maybe ten years ago - it was exactly as you describe. I had a wonderful time because I was travelling with my grandmother on Singapore Airlines. Her eyesight isn't very good - and even though she can walk perfectly fine - my dad asked her to travel wheelchair assist. My grandmother is a very proper sort of person; always careful about appearances and other people's feelings.

    So there she was sitting in her wheelchair at the gate - and when it came time to board, the airline staff pushed her towards the door. At that time the airport was still without a jetway - so there were just these fairly steep stairs leading down to the tarmac.

    The obvious thing at this point would have been for her to get out of the wheelchair and walk down the stairs since she was perfectly able - but she was worried to offend the airline staff (I don't quite understand... don't ask!) - so the only option was to carry her, in the wheelchair, down the steps.

    It took about five big guys, in their nice neat uniforms, to precariously balance and carry her down the steps! What a sight!!! I was so embarrassed lol... but being the sweet people that they are - there was absolutely no complaint on their side... it was all perfectly acceptable.

    They then pushed her across the tarmac and to the steps of the plane. I was groaning inside because the plane steps are so narrow and I couldn't figure out how on earth they were going to make it up the steps.

    My grandmother must have had a bit of a fright going down the first set of steps (it was really quite dangerous). Anyway, whatever the reason, she pulled me down so that she could whisper in my ear, "Do you think they'll be offended if I just walk up these steps?"... It was all I could do to keep a straight face and tell her that I was sure they wouldn't mind at all lol

    Those poor guys! Their nice white button down shirts were soaked with sweat! And they had such a concerned look on their faces as they contemplated the upward climb to the plane... so when she told them that she would walk - you could just hear the shouts of joy going off in their minds!

    It was really sweet though, their actions were so generous and uncomplaining. I just wish there had been a real need so that there was some justification for it!

    About the hills - A year or two ago I went for a little vacation to the. It wasn't Kodaikanal this time - but a tea estate near Valparai. The old British villa that we stayed in over looked the plains that you describe.... so beautiful! At night we could see the lights of Coimbatore twinkling in the distance.

    I actually have something I wrote about that trip - but it has erotica worked into it so isn't really appropriate for my present blog. Maybe I can cut out the erotica so that I can share the description of the place with you. I'm sure you would be able to relate.

    I had better stop here. It's just so fun to read your post!

    Oh, and by the way, I completely understand your disappointment on how India is viewed by most people. In fact, Time magazine put out an article about South India, that was so full of generalizations it really bothered me. I ended up sending them a letter about it which they published.

    The thing about India is that it's so incredibly diverse - and there are people from all walks of life. So if you want the little villages with cows and snakes - "no problem"... but then there are also all the high-end hotels, clubs and businesses... It would take forever to describe it all!

    Obviously, I enjoyed your post lol

    1. Ohmigoodness! Glad you enjoyed the post!

      And the diversity is another thing most people don't even think about. There may be umpteen Indian restaurants in an area, but most are north-Indian or even Indian/Pakistani. The south-India ones - where I can get a good paper dosai! - are what I look for.

    2. I have a small fantasy of opening a South Indian restaurant in the States. I would love to bring the real South Indian home flavours for more people to try.

    3. Oh please do! But wait until I settle somewhere, and come open by me! ...or, you know, vice versa.

    4. You know, in both Texas and California you can buy tubs of the dosai batter. I hear it's pretty good for dosai and ok for idilis. Also, my mom (in Austin) recently bought a pack of frozen masala dosai... and as crazy as that sounds she said it was really pretty good (and she knows food)... wonder if you can find this stuff all over the States?

    5. I would never trust myself to cook it. Although I have made curry before.

  2. I have always wanted to see India. We never traveled (really traveled) when I was younger. It is now, as an adult, that I am planning to see the world. I moved my family to Puerto Rico for a while, but that is still the furthest away I have been.

    I want to see everything.

    1. I'm really glad we did it when I was young. The difference is that my world view was formed by the international community. When the tsunami happened off Indonesia that rocked Sri Lanka and India, I was a wreck. It was at that point that I realized that to Mom and Dad, Sri Lanka was never home - it was just where they lived at the time.

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  4. Whoops...deleted my own comment. Ha!

    My fiance has worked for the same Indian family for the last five years. Over that time they have become like family to us. They always say they want to send us to India for our honeymoon. I would love to see it. The culture, the colors, the generosity of spirit that I have heard and read about. I do get a little worried about my health. I have very little to no immune system and my body does not handle the heat well at all. But I'm hoping I will be able to tough it out long enough to experience such a fascinating country. Thanks for keeping that spark of interest hot with such a beautiful description.

    1. Get all your shots and immunizations, pay attention if someone says "don't drink the water" (and remember ice is water, too) and as for the heat, northern India is still hot, but not as. You could go to the Taj Mahal (which I've not seen) and get some awesome darjeeling tea in the foothills of the Himalaya!

      If you can, GO!

    2. I totally agree - India is huge - just choose the right place and the right time of year. The hill stations are beautiful and always cool.

  5. I LOVE to travel. Love it. Love to hear stories about it too! India isn't on my top ten, but you truly make it sound appealing. Sounds like you had a wonderful experience!

    1. It was just life, to me. The hardest question to answer is "what's it like?"because I have no relate-able frame of reference.

      I have some other more interesting stories that will come out sooner or later.

  6. Not sure if my stomach could handle the food or if my body could handle the heat/humidity. :P

    1. I LOVE the food. There's a good indian restaurant here that's on my to do list before I move.

      And it's cool in the mountains, but the body adapts to the climate if you stay long enough.

  7. On behalf of all Australians, I would like to mention that Australians don't drink fosters. It is rarely served here, mostly for tourists.

    Please don't judge us on that beer. We have better ones I promise.

    But Cheers! Here's to public holidays!

    1. Thanks for clarifying. I know Germany doesn't export their best beer, so sort of assumed. Actually I found a nice Australian Shiraz I like, so that works better for me anyway.

      Hope you had fun!

  8. We definitely have a different perspective on the world and the "ties that bind" most people to one space. Unfortunately, I never felt like I fit in the US or International community. I was international just long enough for the insight but not long enough for the immersive experience.



I enjoy a good debate. Feel free to shake things up. Tell me I'm wrong. Ask me why I have such a weird opinion. ...or, just laugh and tell how this relates to you and your life.