This is my first post about my travels in India. My sister Debbie has been here with her family since September, and I’m joining them for three weeks of their six month stay. All photographs are straight out of the camera… Editing will happen back at home.
December 28: Arrived in Madurai! Deb was there to meet me, with a hired car and a driver named Hakeem. We quickly bypassed the traffic of the city and headed out for the 3 hour drive to Kodaikanal which has been their home base since September. Driving here is an interesting system of honking to let the other car (or motorcycle or pedestrians) know you’re coming up behind or beside them, or passing. The honking is pretty much constant; the driver seems to always have one hand on the horn. While it feels a little hairy with cars constantly moving out into oncoming traffic, no one is moving at very high speed so it all seems to work.
We stopped on the way for lunch and to walk through the market in Batlagunda. This was a series of stalls and vendors sitting by the side of the road, their wares piled around them. I had wondered how my camera would be received… It turns out that everyone wanted me to take their picture!
For lunch Debbie ordered us two “Meals” which were served of a large plate a little like an oversized bento box. (Later I would learn that these meals are more typically served on a placemat sized piece of banana leaf, without the box.) The large compartment is lined with a piece of banana leaf onto which the waiter scoops rice. Four little compartments are filled with a variety of vegetable side dishes such as potato chunks, okra (completely unlike the mushy version I’ve had before), cabbage, etc. and the waiter comes around to refill everything and to pour sanbar onto the rice. You eat with the fingers of your right hand, balling up the rice with the sauces and condiments, and use your thumb to push the food into your mouth so you don’t actually put your fingers in your mouth. Cost: 75 rupees each, less than $1.50.
Debbie’s home in Kodaikanal is a 150 year old stone house perched on the side of the hill, overlooking a valley that was shrouded by clouds and mist most of the time I was there. Reminiscent of an old house in the English countryside, it features thick walls and rustic amenities–a tiny, typical indian kitchen, no heat other than a badly designed fire place, finicky plumbing, and apparently like all indian homes, frequent power outages. Outside the front door bulbul birds sing constantly, a few scrawny feral dogs spend most of their time perched in a spot with a view, and gaurs, huge (and potentially dangerous) bison, visit occasionally. Unfortunately I never got to see one!
The house is actually two adjoining homes. Their neighbors, a family from Toronto (of all places, just a 3 hour drive from Debbie’s home on Wolfe island) were away on vacation and invited me to stay in their home so I was literally right next door.
A hill town in the Western Ghats, Kodaikanal is a place for vacationing Indians to get away from the heat. Attractions include a man-made lake with row boat rides, horseback rides, and bicycles all available for a few rupees. The climate is cool enough for a sweater at night, and there are no mosquitos.
My two days in Kodaikanal would be the family’s last, and we visited many of the places they had discovered over their four months there, starting with the Sunday market.
We walked through Debbie’s favorite neighborhood, essentially one steep street. Children, whom she first met when sketching one day, and some of whom she knew by name, came out to greet us. Debbie wondered if we might run into Pushpa, an older woman who had befriended her on another sketching outing. Sure enough, just a few minutes into Pushpa’s neighborhood, an old woman came walking toward us, with outstretched arms and a wide smile. (We later learned that her son had seen us walking and went home to call his mother to let her know!) she invited us into her daughter’s home for tea. In fact, Debbie and family once spent the better part of a day being taken around to each of Pushpa’s children’s homes (most of her six adult children live in the neighborhood, the same one she herself grew up in.)
Besides the Sunday market, there are a small produce market and a meat market. And just outside, a vendor selling the most delicious samosas I’ve ever tasted, fresh out of the fryer and only pennies apiece. Just one of the advantages of traveling with a hungry teenage boy who has spent the last four months finding the best food in town!
The shops are tiny, many no bigger than a large closet. The tiny, cluttered courier office we went to so Debbie could ship some of her artwork home featured a small desk, a table large enough to hold a postal scale, and piles of packages everywhere.
And there are people everywhere, at all hours, cows and dogs wandering the streets, and even monkeys.
At a tiny shop taken up almost entirely by a desktop computer and a printer, Debbie printed some 4x6s of photos she’d taken, and drawings she’d made, of a few children in her favorite Kodaikanal neighborhood. We went to that street in hopes that the kids would be out. I think the houses are so tiny that the kids are pretty much always outside… Many of the women can be seen out on their doorsteps or on balconies and rooftops too.
As we got to the top of the street the girl Deb had first met came up to greet us, and within seconds a group of children were admiring the pictures. I quickly found myself photographing children, the older ones asking and posing themselves, the younger ones being pushed in front of me by proud and eager mothers. Like everyone I’ve met, they loved having their p ictures taken. I think perhaps it makes them feel important and valued, something they probably don’t get a lot of. Seeing themselves in Debbie’s pictures must have been validating for the kids, and hopefully inspirational as well, especially for the one girl who was so taken with Debbie while she sketched.
On one of several strolls on Coaker’s Walk, a paved mountainside path with a spectacular view, Deb, Laura and I had Shanti (the cousin of one acquaintance, the friend of another) paint our hands with henna. We speculate that at 50 to 100 rupees per person, she earns what is in this village quite a good living.
We most often walked downhill to the main part of town, but we also went the other way to a beautiful waterfall and riverside trail. One more chance to see monkeys. They are a little more attractive in the trees than sitting on dumpsters and by the roadside.
Next: on to Madurai