The commuter train was a blast. It wasnt entirely clear to us which train we had to catch at the station on the first night in Chennai. As we were asking for assistance and trying to find an open space on the train that we thought was correct, it began to pull away. Patti hopped into the open ladies car and Dean, after some maneuvering, found a foothold on the packed men's car. Dean's foothold was literal -- his body and full backpack were hanging out of the train with his toes on the edge of the car and his hands holding on to the center post of the open doorway. Meanwhile, Patti sat comfortably in the ladies car conversing with the Indian women who befriended her. After about an hour and a few close calls with posts that wizzed by, Dean finally made it into the car and had his own limited discussions with his male compatriots.
The first night train to Mysore was eventless. In the morning light we found ourselves traveling through the beautiful countryside of south-central India with its tiered rice patties lined with palm trees. Absolutely spectacular! The photo of Patti on the postcard is from this point in the trip.
Our return to Chennai wasn't quite so eventless. In the town of Mettupalayam the group of 15 we were traveling with (students, faculty and staff) hopped on our sleeper train as it was pulling out of the station. We soon learned that we were not on the correct train. The conductor was playing hard ball and wanted a "tip" of 10,000 rupies ($200) to help us solve this problem. Mark, our photographer friend, negotiated down to 8,000 rupies ($160) -- a bargain, so he thought. Then Patti joined to conversation. Hearing the arrangements that were made, she burst into action. "That's unacceptable." "That's more than what we paid for the original tickets, and besides, we don't have that kind of money." Startled by the unexpected resistance from this woman, the conductor quickly back-peddled. "Well, how much do you have?" Without batting an eye, Patti returns with, "50 rupies a person," (750 rupies total, or $15). The conductor quickly accepted realizing he might lose out on any extra cash if he tried to continue.
But the story doesn't end there. After pocketing the cash, the conductor informed us that we were on the wrong train. Working with Mark, the conductor (who had had enough of Patti) suggested that for some more "tips" he could arrange it so we could stay on this train. Well, to make a long story a little shorter, we didn't pay this guy any more money, got off at the next station, and waited 2 1/2 hours on the hot, humid, mosquito-infested platform for the next train to Chennai, which turned out to be the train we were supposed to be on in the first place. What an adventure.
So where were we going to and coming from for all this train travel? Through a photography school in the mountain town of Ooty (Udhagamandalam) west/southwest of Chennai, Mark had arranged a trip filled with photographic opportunities. But let's start from the beginning.
Patti had an FDP (faculty directed practica) in the afternoon on the first day. While Dean ran some errands in the city, Patti and a group of 35 students went on a service project sponsored by a local NGO, the Dalit Liberation Education Trust. Dalit is the PC term for "untouchables," the poorest of the poor in India. As soon as the ship was cleared (through customs and immigration), we headed out into the heat and humidity and bright mid-day sun. After a short 20-minute ride through one of the busiest, most chaotic cities we had ever seen, we arrived at the community to a singing throng of school children, a marching band, and sari-clad ladies with garlands of white flowers to give to each of us. The students (and Patti) were totally overwhelmed and awed by the experience. Subsequently, the marching band led us on a quick tour of the community, while school kids ran up to practice their English phrases - "what is your name?" and "where are you from?" were very popular. People poured out of their modest homes to gawk at us and students snapped pictures of the people, the cows, the mud, the children, the cows, the bicycles, and all the amazing colors. We smelled curries and jasmine coming from kitchens along the way. Later, we participated in a welcome ceremony, where dignitaries (including Patti!) sat at the front of the platform and said their welcomes, thank yous, and the like. The students witnessed the whole thing but Patti ended up talking to the deputy mayor most of the time (since she was sitting next to him and he was asking lots of questions). After the formalities were over, the students whitewashed and painted the school, played soccer with the kids, and hauled water to mix cement. The best part of the story is the fact that the whole event was covered in both major daily newspapers in Chennai - complete with quotes from "Dr. Patricia Delaney" and pictures of the students!
Meanwhile, Dean was on an adventure of his own at the Chennai Central Rail Station and the Post Office. At the former, he wandered around for a long time before finally purchasing a ticket for the wrong train (and returning it). At the latter, he marvelled at the four-step process of sending a package (filling out the form with one person, paying another person, getting the stamps from a third person, and watching a fourth person glue them on and then postmark them by practically crushing the packages!).
That evening we caught the commuter train out of Chennai (in the gender-specific cars) and ended up in the town of Arakanom. Backpacks in hand, we headed out to find an "auto rickshaw" (sort of like a go-cart with a covered top ) to head to dinner. After a great dinner in a small restaurant (labeled veg and non-veg a/c - and recommended by some of Patti's lady friends from the train), we headed back to the train station to look for Mark, Louise and the group of students for the evening train to Mysore. They had started their photographic safari earlier that day with a visit to Kanchipuram, a silk town near Chennai. We later learned that we were waiting on opposite sides of the same platform - and almost missed each other. In fact, Patti ended up buying additional tickets (at $4 each), just in case. Once on the train, we settled in for the overnight journey to Mysore.
In Mysore, we visited a Hindu temple, ate great food, wandered through the grounds of the Mysore palace, and were swarmed by hawkers selling inexpensive wooden flutes.
The temple was at the top of the Chamundi Hill and is a pilgrimage site for Hindus from all over India. We arrived just before opening time in the afternoon and saw dozens of families lining up to go inside. They were, of course, joined by the inevitable cows (some of which were trying to eat the offerings to the gods) and monkeys (some of which were doing naughty things on the statues). We noticed lots of small children with shaven heads, evidence of a promise fulfilled by the deity and a thank you shaving by the family. Inside, people were making offerings of coconut milk and flowers for the god. On the way down the hillside, we visited the Nandi -- a 15 foot statue of Shiva's bull carved out of solid rock in 1659.
That evening, we walked over to the Mysore Palace, a huge Indo-Saracenic structure which was the seat of the maharajas of Mysore. Just as we walked up to the awesome structure, the 97,000 electric light bulbs that illuminate it on Sunday evenings came on! It was really magical - we took some photos of the nestled doorways and the crescent moon rising over the archways, dodged the hawkers selling flutes and postcards at the gate, and wandered towards the main palace. It felt like a small-town fair, with families walking, kids eating cotton candy (literally), women strolling hand-in-hand with other women, and people picnicking on the lawn. To top it all off, there was a military band playing John Phillip Souza marches on the palace grounds.
The next morning, on our way to the mountain town of Ooty, the photographic safari stopped at Mysore's open-air market. What produce they had! The sun was just coming up and the light was perfect for the photographers -- amateurs, students, and professionals alike.
After this quick stop at the market, the photographic safari climbed 8,000 feet to the town of Ooty in a small bus. The drive was spectacular, passing through two national parks along the way. Due to recent forest fires and a vandal (Veerappan) who has achieved Robin Hood status in the area, we were not allowed to leave the main road. However, we did manage to see two different monkey species, Indian deer, and a working elephant in the camp in Mudulamai Park. The mountain range, the Nilgiris ("Blue Mountains") are part of the Western Ghats - one of the biological "hot spots" that National Geographic did a story on earlier this year (January 2002). We also had to stop to let the bus engine cool off before making the final ascent to the hill station of Ooty. It was amazing to see (and feel) the change in climate as we climbed. After a quick lunch at the YWCA (our hotel) in Ooty, we headed out in jeeps for the afternoon photographic events - a Hindu fire-walking festival and a tea plantation.
The Hindu festival, which took place in one of the little villages surrounding Ooty, only happens once a year. A total of nine volunteers agree to prepare for one month (by fasting and meditating) and then walk across the hot coals at the height of the ceremony. The coals were placed in front of an elaborate temple and hundreds of people were sitting on the hillside to watch. We were ushered into "front row" seats (on the ground) and many of us were invited to participate in the dancing that took place before the main event. Although Patti felt a little uncomfortable with this arrangement, people seemed genuinely interested in talking to all of us and some indicated that they felt it was an honor to have foreign guests at the ceremony. As soon as each individual walked across the coals, people rushed to touch them (and their feet), and be blessed by them. After the ceremony, people streamed out of the temple area to eat and celebrate the festival with their families at home.
Then we piled back into the jeeps to head to the next photographic opportunity - tea pickers in the afternoon light. This stop was even more problematic, since the overseer yelled at the women to move closer to the road so that the pictures would be better! We also observed the sorting and weighing process and got some good pictures that Patti used in class to illustrate unfair working conditions and poverty. The women (and it is mostly women, because their "better workers") make an average of 100 rupees a day (US$2), if they can pick 100 kilos of tea.
Very early the next morning (5:30) we visited the village of the indigenous Toda people of this region. Following our Toda guide we hiked into the rolling hills of this mountainous region about 1.5 miles to her family's village. The photographic opportunities again were spectacular -- morning light was just reaching the 6 buildings of the village as we strolled up and woke all those at home. The village had both traditional mud and grass huts, as well as more modern cinderblock houses -- the contrast between the old and new dwelling was striking. While all the photographers did what they so best (get into the faces of everyone and everything), Patti has a great time interviewing our guide, her father and mother, and her extended family in the village. Patti even held a 10-day old baby that hadn't yet been named -- by the time you read this story, the baby girl will have held the naming ceremony. The landscape and people reminded us of the native Indians of our American West.
After a very quick tour through the photography school, a crazy bus ride, a picturesque train ride on a narrow guage "tourist train" through the mountains, a hair-raising bus descent of almost 7000 feet, and quick dinner in a "permit room" (bar - holdover from the days of prohibition), we had our train adventure that we described earlier! We finally arrived back at the ship around 10 am and had the last day in Chennai to run errands, do some shopping, and have enough interactions with enterprising auto-rickshaw drivers to have a few stories to tell.
We stumbled across a sari tailor, where both Dean and Patti had cotton clothing made (we need SOMETHING for the upcoming Ambassador's Ball on the ship). Later, we ran by a trinket store (where we saw half the S@S contingent) and finally to a wonderful craft center called FabIndia (with home-spun Indian textiles). It was a struggle to fit all of our purchases back into one of these auto rickshaws as we made our way through the hurly burly chaos of Chennai to get to the ship. We even saw a few students snapping pictures of us as we got out of the "auto" and went through the checkpoint, crossed the train track, and walked through the dock area to the ship. We ventured out once more in the afternoon, to pick up our tailored clothing. This driver was with us all afternoon and he started to get worried that we were going to miss the ship when we asked him to stop for dinner at 6 p.m. Following our usual pattern, we had one last FABULOUS South Indian meal at a place called Ashoka Restaurant (all veg) and raced back to the ship about 20 minutes before on-ship time.