Saturday, February 20, 2010

Week 11: India - La Vida Loca!

Train Stations and Transport

As some of you have read in the past, we have referenced the trains
as the Super Fast ( their description) Cockroach (our addition) Express.
They are often running late (but not as late as the planes and buses). When I wondered about whether or not a train had been canceled, our friend, Stany replied: Oh, no! Trains are never canceled. They just come tomorrow. I am told that some people spend their whole lives in the train station without ever riding on the train. During Sabarimala, the annual pilgrimage for the Hindus, blanket-covered sleeping bodies were everywhere-outside the station, inside the station, and on the train platform. In India, they typically have large water fountains on the platform and there people bathe, brush their teeth, do their laundry. Sorta like the Indian version of camping in Oregon.

Other vehicular oddities are certain trucks and buses, which are brightly
decorated with images of saints/ deities and other artistic symbols. (They
often name their vehicles after saints/ deities). The closest thing that parallels the image in the US are the trailers used to transport circus or carnival events.


A house is being built next to us and thought that this might give some idea about the typical Keralan ambience. Guess what? No backhoe -just three guys with shovels digging the hole for the foundation. It looks like they put cement blocks with mortar for the foundation, and then adobe for the rest. Most homes here are covered in pastel colored stucco and topped with terracotta tile roofs. (There are some instances of neon green, orange, pink, or purple stucco, but the artistic sense here is impressive.) There the similarities end. No tract homes here. Plenty of variety- lots of patios, porches, balconies, terraces, breeze ways, porticoes, cupolas, bay windows, arched windows and doorways, etc... (Of course, there is the one-room, flat roof home that poor people have, but many Keralans enjoy a higher standard of living.)But no fireplaces except the sun. The tile work here is amazing. Even our humble apartment has tile flooring throughout and the kitchen counters are black,(flecked with white)granite. I would trade them for what I have in Oregon.

The places of worship are often beautifully done-the best buildings in the area. Hindu temples, especially the older ones are somewhat pyramid in shape, multileveled, with a flattened top. Encircling each level are brightly-colored carved figures of deities, animals, etc... that encompass sometimes, a hundred or more levels. The mosques and Christian churches are not as ornate but definitely impressive with high steeples and minarets that grace the skies. Christian churches are often white on the outside with lots of pictures/statues of saints (glass encased), gold gilded carving, and brightly colored veils hiding sections of the altar when formal worship is not taking place. The care in which places of worship are built and maintained evidence the high importance of religion in the culture. Also, there are shrines to saints and deities. Usually, they are phallic-shaped three story structures that have a glass encased image and an area where 2-3 people can kneel. So small, but tall!

In contrast, most places of business are either shacks or a version of garage. (They have a door which reminds me of our garage door and comes down when the place is closed. Windows are rare.) They are usually not that well-maintained. You usually ask for what you want in the front of the store and the shop keeper will get it for you. It is quite efficient if you and the shopkeeper are conversant in the same language. We should have learned Malayalam!


What is most colorful in India is the women! Saris and churidars of every
description and color-silks, cottons, gauzes, rayons, synthetics. Keralan females generally have incredibly thick, long and black hair which adds to the drama. The Muslims are usually more subdued in public, usually wearing a black coat and a large triangular scarf (white or black) which covers hair and the neck. At home, I am told they dress similarly to the other women. In the north of India, there is more variation. Muslim women would have more colorful head scarves, but often would have only their eyes showing. One women in Gujarat (Muslim) had a colorful short, gauze head scarf with only her eyes visible, but readily visible was her tight jeans! What really amazed me was to see women of every religion, riding motorcycles, saris and scarves blowing in the wind. Another Muslim woman, covered, except for the eyes, was driving a motorcycle with her boyfriend (husband?) on the back! Another study in contrast is to consider the typically filthy public toilets (a hole in the ground) and women who (with clothing that virtually touches the ground) are able to emerge from such places without stain or even a wet or dingy hemline.

Wild Life

In Kerala, I can hear the birds, but see few of them because of failing eyesight and the dense foliage. (I did see some green parrots in Ahmadabad, as well as white terns travelling on the train). Subsequently, they will be identified as chirpers, howlers, tweeters, cooers, whistlers, and screamers . Some of you may have seen our photos of domesticated elephants that often trudge down our main road as pack animals. I was disappointed that there were no monkeys in Pala. During the War Resisters Conference in Ahmadabad (a city of few million people), we were conversing during our outdoor breakfast when mid sentence, I blurt out: Monkey!! There, about ten feet before us was a large 4ft monkey. Not in the jungle of Pala, but in the urban area of Ahmadabad. There were whole families of monkeys. It started to make sense why there were locks on every door at the university. Monkeys are agile and have opposable thumbs. Shaman said one night they were making such a racket that no one in his dorm could sleep that night. Another city surprise was the camel. Like elephants, they haul cargo, and sometimes are hitched up to a wagon. It is amazing that they are able to cope with the formidable urban traffic!

Finally, the wild life that is most precious to me are the many butterflies-not just the small white survivors, we see in the States but yellow and orange monarch types, white with blue or other bright colors, yellow with orange speckles, black or dark blue, with iridescent markings. On occasion, they have wing spans of over 6 inches. When I remarked to Stany about how it was so wonderful to see butterflies again, he sadly shook his head. In the past there had been many more and the larger variety is now more rare. What a shame that development comes at such a price! They are one variety of big bug that I miss seeing in the US.

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