We timed our visit to our friends in Chennai so we would celebrate Diwali with them. Diwali is an annual Hindu celebration of the victory of good over evil and is celebrated by sharing sweets between families and setting off fireworks. My friend Gopal warned me that the fireworks we normally see in California during the Fourth of July celebrations don’t come close to the quantity and quality that we would witness in India during Diwali. He was right! We witnessed chains of 10,000 fire crackers that took a full 60 seconds to complete (see video). Individuals fired off commercial grade fireworks from the street over the city. It is amazing, but Gopal insisted that very few roof fires start every year due to fireworks, even though we did witness several mis-fires where the sky rockets turned toward the ground and dove into the crowded neighborhoods. The mayhem continued throughout a couple of nights, and eventually I became accustomed to loud “BANGs”. Gopal and Mogil are wonderful hosts and we all really appreciated that they allowed us to celebrate the holiday with them and their family.
With Gopal’s fathers help, we hired a car and driver so we could get around during our stay in Chennai. Trying to drive myself would have put me and the family in clear and present danger. Gopal explained the driving philosophy in India is all about filling every available space. Lane lines on the road is a waste of paint. The shoulder of a road is fair game if the driver believes they can get a few meters further ahead. If there is room for a car to squeeze in – it does. Any other available space is filled by scooters – bicycles – cows – and finally pedestrians. I knew I was finally getting used to riding in this traffic when our driver swerved to avoid a few cows in the road and I didn’t even think to grab my camera to get a shot. To my eyes it was total mayhem.
Over our two weeks in India we spent about 40 hours in a car – and we never saw an accident in all the chaos. I think one of the reasons (besides the skill of the drivers) is that, in general, vehicles don’t move too fast and they usually drive with the engines in low RPM, using higher gears. So cars and scooters tend to move slowly, predictably, and without much engine noise. The pattern is more like walking through a crowded market, only on motorized vehicles.
In Chennai we took time to catch up on personal maintenance, and Patrick and I got a hair cut. A week later, during a Thanksgiving Skype session, my brothers asked what happened to my hair. I explained that it was not easy to explain what I wanted because the hair cutter didn’t speak much English. Lesson learned, when traveling bring a picture of what you want your hair to look like after it is cut because you can’t count on verbal communication and sign language. Anyway, Patrick and I both have hats.
We also restocked the antibiotics we used in Africa – they are sold inexpensively over the counter in India. We bought Alex a new suitcase and some art supplies. Suzanne and Alex had an adventure mailing a box of stuff home while Patrick and I were at the hair cutters. Suzanne thought she would be able to just stop at the UPS store, box up our stuff, pay the money, and leave. No chance. Finding a box in the store took 20 minutes – then they told Suzanne that the box would add significantly to the cost – so don’t use the box. Then they checked everything she wanted to ship and they found stuff we were prohibited to mail to the US (spices, teas, coins, etc). Then, since we were using a bag instead of a box, Suzanne took out the fragile stuff. Weigh the package and – OMG! – it will cost 10x more to mail the stuff than it cost to buy it! Take out the heaviest stuff. Then at the last-minute the UPS guy took our African oil painting, folded it in half and shoved it in the envelope and mailed it! Two weeks later my brother took the painting out of the envelope and laid it flat, we hope it will flatten by the time we get home so we can put it in a frame and it won’t have a crack down the middle. Anyway, just a different way of doing things than the UPS store in Danville.
Mogil made wonderful home-cooked Indian dishes for us while we stayed with them, and one night Suzanne asked if she could reciprocate by making dinner. Mogil told our driver where we could find a shop that sold American/European brands called “Fruits & Nuts”. Unfortunately, the shop didn’t carry enough things to make many full meals. Suzanne wanted to whip up her lasagna, a favorite around our house. They had the right noodles and sauce – but no ricotta cheese. Bummer. Without a plan B – we started looking at what the store had in stock that could be used to make a meal. We ended up with macaroni, canned cheese, butterfly noodles, and a jar of alfredo sauce. When Suzanne went to “cook” the meal later that night, we didn’t have a can opener to “open the cheese” and had to use a knife! (Suzanne admired that Mogil cooks with all fresh/non-canned food – and didn’t even have a can opener!) As far as our attempt at a meal….well, it is the thought that counts – right? We owe them a real dinner or two when they make it back to California.
We spent one day visiting Mogil’s family at a nearby town named Kanchipuram. Kanchipuram is famous for hand weaving high-end sari’s with real gold thread and the family has been a leading provider in the business for three generations. We got an opportunity to see some of the beautiful garments and then tour a home where the saris are woven. The weaver’s house is built around the loom. The entire contraption is hung from the rafters of the house and the weaver sits in a sunken area to give him room to power the loom with his hands and feet. The fabric pattern is punched on cards reminiscent of the old punch cards used to program computers in the 1970’s. The weaver showed us how he creates the cards from a photograph using an old PC, Photoshop software, and an automated card punch machine. The punch cards are used as input for the manual “CPU” in the rafters that controls the maze of colored threads for each weave. It is an amazingly manual process, taking between two and five weeks to weave one garment. Gopal mentioned that one of the common issues is that these extremely expensive garments are occasionally ruined when someone in the family spills tea on the fabric – it is one of the hazards of a “home industry” where the product is produced in the same room where the family lives.
One of the most notable sights around Chennai is the Mahabalipuram temples that are carved out of single large granite stones. According to our guide the monolythic temples were carved in the 7th century by the army when they were not fighting. My hypothesis is that temple building was a good way to keep a standing army out of mischief in between wars. Several portions of the temples were not completed because wars interrupted the work. Mahabalipuram makes for some great photo opportunities.
We also took a day to drive to a former French colony called Pondicherry where Alex was blessed by an elephant.
Near Pondicherry we spent a couple of hours at Auroville, an experimental community meant to be “a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.” Suzanne and I were impressed with the site. It was the cleanest and best maintained facility we visited during out time in India. The organization has big plans for the site (and the world) over the next hundred years.