I’m packing for India. This is very unusual for me, as I usually wait until the last possible minute to pack for any trip I take. It has something to do, I think, about jinxing the trip somehow by being too anxious and having to undo everything should something goes wrong at the last-minute. Hubby’s the same way. We’re both shifting our last-minute attitudes this time. We’ll see if there are any repercussions, and I don’t expect there to be. Since the weather can vary by 30 or more degrees from the north where we begin our trip (Delhi) to the south where we end up (Chennai), I got out our summer things, and they’re all ready to go. I have loads of room left so it looks as if everything will fit. When we went to Peru in 2009, we packed both our wardrobes for three weeks in one large suitcase and a backpack each, planning to “travel light.” We were so industrious, planning to wash things out at the hotel each evening. What we failed to account for was how short a time we were at some of those hotels and how much more time it takes clothes to dry hanging helter skelter in a hotel bathroom than it does in a home clothes dryer. Eventually we wore things so many times without washing, our jeans were practically able to walk by themselves. This time I’m going prepared.
In my last “looking back India 1980” posts, we were still on the first-class sleeper car from Delhi to Madras having just resumed journey from Nagpur where Hubby’s sister and family had brought goodies from home to share with us at the train station.
The breakfast omelet I mentioned in the previous post, indeed food, deserves a little more elaboration than I gave it at the time due to length. I mentioned that the girls and I were very much missing western style food, so were elated to learn that we could have eggs for breakfast. No bacon or sausage, but eggs! What we didn’t know is that even eggs would be served up Indian fashion, which means the omelet is egg, of course, but typical train omelets are eggs beaten with chopped onion and green chilis and a bit of salt. This is then fried on a pan. Sometimes it’s spread between two sandwich style bread pieces that are denser than, say, Wonder bread from the U.S., and pan toasted with a little butter. For myself, this was still a big hit because I can eat hot spicy food. For the girls, young as they were and the youngest finding even ketchup too spicy, it was another eating challenge. I think they picked the chilis out and ignored the onion. A vegetarian meal for lunch or dinner, which we chose to eat because we’d been told eating meat can be a little iffy and to avoid traveler’s diarrhea, it was best to have all meals without meat (which I found on subsequent trips to be good advice) was cooked white rice, an Indian bread such as Chapati, Poori or Parata, a dish of Dal (a stew made of split peas, curd (plain yogurt) and a bit of Indian pickle (mango or other veggies packed in a spicy brine).
The remainder of the day’s travel was fairly uneventful with nothing to do but sit around and watch India’s train-window movie-like-scenes change from crowded platforms with crushes of people crowding everywhere to peaceful rural settings with miles and miles of land with villages in between. I’d always imagined a Hindu temple as a grand building shaped roughly like the Taj Mahal, and there are many such absolutely stunning temples all over India including Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal which Hubby and I had the pleasure of exploring during a later visit. It is from the Pallava empire, which ruled much of south India between the 4th and 9th centuries AD, so it’s quite incredible that this much of it remains, or did at least when we were there.
But staring out the train window I kept seeing smaller looking, miniature-sized temples and shrines along the tracks or along pathways and forests in rural areas. I learned that yes, India is known for its great temple complexes, but each great temple had simple beginnings as a small shrine or a rural folk people. Long before people from other cultures came to visit, and long before royal patronage enabled the construction of huge, stylized temple structures, particular river sites, springs, caves, trees and rocks were believed by local people to be the dwelling place of a variety of earth spirits, so they made their own small temples there. No less powerful than their illustrious counterparts, these shrines are used for worship for auspicious occasions–when people start something new, make a wish, have a birth in the family or need to ask for protection. They come to the shrines to say their prayers and leave offerings of flower garlands or incense, thus keeping the spirit of the god or goddess alive and themselves in their good graces.
The next morning, though I can’t remember the specific times and my notes don’t say, it must have been around mid-morning when we arrived at Chennai Central. Not to confuse, but Chennai was known as Madras in 1980, but in 1995 the name was officially changed to Chennai, the reasoning being that Chennai was the traditional name and Madras was one derived by the British. In 1980 the Chennai Central then would have been Madras Central. Madras is a city on the east coast of southern India along the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Imagine living close enough to the beaches that you could play there after school and still get home in time for dinner and homework. In Florida where I grew up, in the north-central part of the state, an approximate three-hour drive could take you to either the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, but you had to invest at least a whole day to to the trip.
A city so close to a beach is going to host a tropical climate, so we arrived hot and sweaty despite the so-called air-conditioned sleeper coach. Add to that the grime and soot from the trains! We were a pretty tacky bunch, but lucky for us, since I didn’t want to meet my mother-in-law looking the way I did, the railway station had a showering facility. I don’t think before or since I’ve needed or enjoyed a shower more. I took the girls with me, and Hubby took off for the men’s shower area, and we planned to meet at a particular area in the main station. When the three of us arrived there feeling refreshed and human again, I was surprised that Hubby wasn’t there, since you would have assumed three females would take thrice as long as one male. So we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Which wasn’t a problem at first because there was so much to see. After awhile, when no Hubby showed up, I began to feel a little nervous, so I started playing little mind games with myself. What if . . .
What if he didn’t show up at all? What did I really know about this man? We’d been married 11 years by that time, so my reasoning went something like twelve years ago you didn’t even know that man existed and now here you are in a strange country where it’s hard to understand even the English spoken here, they talk so fast, you have no money. What in the world are you going to do if he just never shows up? How would I possibly get myself and two young girls under the age of ten back home to the old U.S. of A. again?! And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a “coolie” pushing large carts with luggage and stuff who kept watching me. I’d turn my head away to avoid his gaze, but each time he pushed by he seemed to leer at me with a bigger grin. I kept trying to avoid him and praying Hubby would turn up soon.
Suddenly, the man gestured more insistently so I could hardly avoid looking toward him. As I did, he pointed to his neck and passed by while I was trying to figure it out. What did he mean? I stood there staring after him. He was wearing a white loincloth wrapped around his hips and thighs, with one end brought between his legs and tucked into his waist, making him look like he was wearing baggy knee-length trousers. On his head was wrapped another white cloth. I decided to keep my eye on him this time, as he looked a little less threatening, and on his next trip through with another load I looked directly at him. Again he pointed to his neck. There was a gold cross hanging there. Instinctively I reached up to touch the small cross I was wearing, and it suddenly it dawned on me what he’d been trying to say.
He was Christian. He must have seen how frightened and alone I felt, and he was trying to tell me in his own way that Christ was with me because he presumed I was Christian too. The real reason I was wearing that gold cross was because it was given to me at a bon voyage lunch by two of my best friends as a good luck token for the trip. While I was wearing the necklace as an accessory, he was wearing it to show he was a believer in Christ. Up ’til then I’d assumed there were two major religious groups in India, Hindu and Muslim. But his message took. I began to calm down and finally, there was Hubby hurrying toward us. As usual he had a perfectly good explanation why he was so late getting there. But as they say in the fairy tales, all’s well that ends well, which I’ll do here because I see how long this post is getting. I’ll try hard to get back sometime tomorrow and tell you about the mother-in-law visit and hope it isn’t anti-climatic after all this build-up. It isn’t intentional.