Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Saturday Rated "R"

Like I've said before in many posts, and in many different ways, there are moments when I realise that the Universe has conspired to give me a lovely gift, with its trademark subtlety, probably rejoicing in the waves of thanks that I keep giving once I'm fully aware of the gift and it's meaning. The last Saturday was one of those gifts - a period of almost uninterrupted and very meaningful experiences, mostly because of my friend "R", who is a big part of that gift (if you've read more of my posts, I'll understand if you feel irritated at my preference for referring to people by the first letter of their first names - but just bear with me please... it's a quirk I'm fond of keeping).

I met R two weeks ago, in Pondicherry, where we both attended a training programme. In sharp contrast to everyone else, I found him to be intensity personified. Whether he's working, chatting, joking, cooking or even shopping for something - R has a quality that immediately sets him apart from everyone else. I suspect that it is sheer confidence in his voice and the disarming openness (sometimes even challenge) in his eyes that distinguishes him, as he strides through situations with a great sense of control, which coexists somehow, with a childlike curiosity and fondness for learning new things. Actually, come to think of it, that's not very surprising, is it? Oh well... that's a whole new post, all together!

While our other classmates left the previous night, R and I had to extend our stays in Pondicherry for some work. Being a complete stranger to this place, I wasn't really certain about what I'd be doing over the weekend. R, on the other hand, knew Pondicherry pretty well, from several trips in the past, and had a very clear idea of where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do. I was already very comfortable in R's company, having found in him a shared fondness for cooking and an unusually engaging conservationist. What felt particularly nice to me, however, was his spontaneous suggestion that I accompany him on one of his jaunts... I accepted and so began the most fun day I have had in Pondicherry.

I've you've read "Vroom!", one of my earlier posts, you'll understand the thrill I felt while sitting in the pillion seat of the "Activa" scooter that R rented for the weekend, with the world streaming away behind me as the little vehicle bore us towards Auroville, R's chosen destination for the day. R told me much later that he was squinting furiously the entire time he was driving, because he had to sunglasses... a good thing too, because I might have been considerably less thrilled, had I known of this earlier! :)

I had no idea what the day ahead and Auroville would hold for us - I had decided to let serendipity take charge of the day... That, and R's plan! I'm SO glad that I had no agenda, because he took me to some of the most interesting places I have visited in any town. Being a designer and artist by instinct, qualification and experience, R gravitates towards the best local craftsmen, wherever he goes. He finds out where they are through goodness knows what means and tracks them down to spend time with them, watching what they do and placing orders with them, for his home and loved ones. So over the course of the day, we had made stops at a bronze statue maker who used the ancient "lost wax method", a couple of cobblers that make footwear to order, a stone carving shop, a factory for handmade paper products, a potter, the famous Kalki boutique at the Visitors Center of Auroville's Ashram, a shop selling exquisite cane products from the Northeast and a charming little coffee shop that sold lovely ceramic cups in addition to great organic coffee and tea. Fortunately for us both, I'd carried my trusty knapsack which was soon filled to the brim with our shopping at these spots.

The highlight of all the shopping was the time spent picking out leather slippers that we had made at by a cobbler that R had discovered on an earlier trip. Utterly fascinated, I watched as the cobbler and his assistant engaged with R in an elaborate ritual of selecting leather of various shades and textures for the designs that R had in mind. The blueprints of some truly stunning designs emerged as I looked on; R chose rich browns, tempered with accents of dull gold, bright green and red laced with a hint of white - colors that I had never associated with footwear now came together in an impressive display of his elegant design sense. Far more arresting, however, was the sheer love with which he watched over the creation of the red and green slippers for his wife, supervising the measurements himself, making timely corrections whenever the cobblers seemed to be off track, and occasionally pausing to give me some tidbit about the process, but clearly focused the entire time, on what it would be like to go back home and give the gifts he'd made with such care . By the time we left, I too had also bought myself some slippers; great designs at a fantastic price thanks to R's bargaining (another surprise from his "bag of tricks"). Of course, he did lament a couple of times that my appearance was far too touristy (i.e. shades, cap and backpack) and prevented him from bargaining as much as he could otherwise. My response was only to remove my shades a little before we visited a vendor... I mean there is a limit to which a chap will go, right? :)

When we finally reached our guesthouse, I felt the way a little boy feels when he gets back from a day at the amusement park or zoo - tired and exhilarated all at once. I'd been given a guided tour of some of the most interesting art-forms I've seen in some time, by a most excellent guide, who was clearly in the flow of things. So what if I was so absorbed with the musical instruments at the Kalki boutique that we didn't make it in time for lunch at any other place than a wayside shack, which served the most peculiar veg chowmein at around 4 pm? Not even the love of food could come in my way that Saturday! And through it all, R never tired of cracking his trademark jokes, many of them at my expense, as he observed my child-in-a-candy-shop approach to the day! In an odd way, those jokes reminded me of a very valuable lesson - never to take myself too seriously because there's almost always a lighter side to things, often as valuable as the not-so-light.

And so, quite by chance and pretty much unasked for, I was treated to a day of endless discovery and amazement that I will remember for many years to come. It was one of those days that makes you feel happy to be alive and drawing breath in this world, because you share it with some wonderful people. There's so much to learn and so many to learn from... and truth be told, all you have to do is ask....

God bless!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Roughin' It Out with S

The following post was inspired by a recent trip to Mahabalipuram, with my friend and colleague, S, who is currently with me in Pondicherry, for a training programme...

On first sight, my friend S (not to be confused with the 'S' I wrote about in the lunchtime post) comes across as the picture of composure - very slim, very calm, bright-eyed and sharp featured. She speaks in clear, measured sentences that constantly hint at a clever and observant mind.

If you know S for even a couple of weeks, you will figure out that she is quite the traveller, with an incurable wanderlust that drives her to discover and visit quaint places around any city that she happens to be in, the moment there is any free time at all. With the internet as her faithful ally, she scours the map for such destinations and figures out meticulous plans for reaching them - ask her some nitty gritties and she'll either know them or convince you that they are unimportant. Lots of people I know have been drawn to her infectious spirit for travelling and have gone along with her for all kinds of treks, picnics etc. around the Mumbai area. I haven't been on a picnic/trek with them yet, but just this morning, I had an "S-Uninterrupted" experience, that I'd like to share with you - as yet another example of the indefatigable human spirit (quite literally, might I add - the girl just doesn't get tired!).

So, if you know me, you know that I'm fond of comfort (and clearly not ashamed to admit it!). I like the "good life" and try to get the best that I can possibly get within my means. When it comes to travel, this usually implies air-conditioned transport arrangements (I don't do very well when it's hot and I'm perspiring with no sign of it stopping), accommodation in any place that has super-clean sleeping and bathing arrangements, proximity to great eating options (if the food is really good, I don't mind spending the extra buck at all). If I'm on the road, I'd always pick an air-conditioned car, where I can relax in the backseat and stare dreamily out of the car, watching the trees, lakes, pedestrians zip by... I'm sure you get the picture by now!

Well, S, is apparently the exact opposite - being inclined to find the most rugged options for travel that are humanly possible - and seeming to be of the opinion that if you've roughed it out enough, it doesn't matter what food option comes your way... it WILL taste good (and by George, she's right, as I discovered today)!.

So this morning, as per S's plan, I half climbed-half fell out of bed at 5:45 am, panic mounting with every second, as I realised we had only 15 minutes before our car left (it was air-conditioned - a small mercy, because someone else was travelling in our chosen direction and we hitched a ride with them). Somehow, bathed and shaved, I made it down to the hotel lobby in time and we left - me sitting in the front seat, bleary-eyed and disoriented, S chatting merrily with the other passengers sitting at the back, until drowsiness and the steady drone of our speending car had her and the others fast asleep too.

About a 100km later, we entered our destination, Mahabalipuram, the driver winding us through small, overcrowded streets towards the sea, where the Shore Temple waited for us. I was dimly aware of some large rock carvings as we drove, but by the time I was fully awake, we had reached the main entrance of the Shore Temple compound... and I had noticed the Sterling Resort hoarding on the way. At least our breakfast spot was fixed!

The only thing I didn't like about the Shore Temple was the fact that it is not an 'active' temple any longer. No chanting to match the cadence of the magnificent sea that rumbles just a stone's throw away; no flowers adorming the temple walls or the massive Shivalingam... just a silent testimonial to the glory that marked the reign of the Pallavas... and the occasional punctuation of clicks coming from S's camera. She's quite a photographer, preferring objects and scenery over people - most unlike me; I like capturing places and objects in the context of humans around them (well, mostly!).

Having spent some time wandering around the weathered remains of the Shore Temple, we decided to have breakfast at the Sterling property. The apparent lack of other safe eating options (probably because it was too early for them to have opened shop) sent us hurrying there - stomachs a-grumble with the need for a hearty breakfast. The resort turned out to be quite charming - we ate in a restaurant that was once a British campaign site, filled with labeled artifacts of that time - odd things like a vegetable boiler, an earthenware cooking pot etc. each with a card bearing its history and significance. Omelettes, fresh juice, warm toast with butter melting into it came to us, as we cooled off in a spacious veranda, staring out into the dense tree cover that shrouds the resort. I can tell you, that it was with a tinge of regret that I tucked away the last bit of my omelette, savouring the taste of the mushroom bits that nestled in its folds. S, by this time, was already planning where we'd go next(!). It was time for the beach...

Clearly, the beach was the highlight of the day, a 5 minute walk from the restaurant, uninhabited and dotted with colorful seashells, caressed unceasingly by a brilliant blue sea that mirrored and equally vibrant sky. Speechlessness is not something that comes easily to me, but this time, I was truly and honestly overcome... S had also fallen silent (apparently the sea has that effect on her) sitting down happily on the warm sand, staring out into the blue. Before I knew it, I'd taken off my shoes and walked far enough into the water to feel the incoming waves lap over my feet and threaten to pull the sand out from under them - a game that I kept on for quite a while - revelling in the play of sun, sand, sea and wind that swirled all around me, as I closed my eyes and turned my face heavenward. Long moments passed as I experienced the cleansing that nature offered me - a reminder of the delights that I need to provide for the Child in me - delights that cannot be found in any store or book. When it was time to leave, I found that I didn't want to budge from the spot...there was much more I wanted from it, but not nearly enough time to spend there. Oh well... I reasoned with myself that I would return to this place or one very much like it, at another time and place of my choosing and stay there as long as I like. By this time, S had already got phase of our adventure sorted out...

With a couple of bottles of Oxyrich, a 7Up for S and an Appy Fizz for me, we started clambering about the undulating land that bears the famous rock carvings of Mahabalipuram - enormous depictions of famous mythological events, some more silent shrines, the famous "butter ball" etc.etc. - warding off some pushy salesmen who wanted us to buy either postcards, stone carvings or a guided tour. I had to decline the 'tempting' offer based on what I overheard these chaps telling the wide-eyed Europeans that dotted the landscape in little groups. There is a limit to which I will let myself be led!

The noonday sun blazed happily in it's place, when we decided to head back to Pondy. Now came the most interesting part - a much reiterated and long drawn debate, where S strove to convince me of the merits of travelling in a State Transport bus, oblivious to my obvious affinity towards air conditioned volvos or taxis or even an auto rickshaw. "You have to see the locals!" she claimed "Experience the real journey!" she exhorted ... What could I say - the sun left me lightheaded; I succumbed despite my best efforts to uphold the spirit of comfortable travel and air-conditioning!

An endless walk, trying to locate the elusive bus stand, took us through markets with hole-in-the-wall restaurants sporting names like "The Ritz". Heat and dust rose in waves and every passerby that we asked for directions told us the bus stop was just "five minutes" away... I wanted to ask them to try saying forty five, when I finally reached there. The bus that supposedly comes every 20 minutes came only about 30 minutes later. Till it arrived, the ever-bright S pulled out the charming "shun" game from her impressive collection of SOS entertainment methods - basically this is coming up with as many words that end in "tion", as you can, the game going on until someone is out of words or repeats a previously stated word. I won (and that's that, S!).

Finally, the bus came; a reddish monster that hurtled down the highway and came to a heaving, clanking, honking stop near us, barely pausing long enough to gobble up the few mortals that were brave enough to enter it. The driver was kind enough to give me a moment to secure my footing before he took off; S managed to find a pole which she could hold on to somewhere in the middle of the bus - I got a seat right on the bus engine, thanks to the driver, who told me I could sit there. Thus started the 100km ride back to Pondy - S eventually got a seat when someone got off at an earlier stop. I was content to remain on the engine, as I figured it was actually quite a great place to cool off - lovely breeze pouring in from everywhere, knocking away the odour of perspiration (and goodness knows what else) and partially muting the bus driver's primitive horn that blared at an astonishing 14 instances per minute, daring any pedestrian, two wheeler, car and probably even the occasional disembodied spirit to get in the way of our bus! The bus paused for a bio break, only once, during which S made the bright observation that the ONE good thing about sweating so much, is that you don't need to go to a public restroom! :)

At around lunchtime, we came back to our hotel, much fatigued, but with a sense that we'd done quite a bit for a random Friday morning! You know, as much as it may sound like I would have liked to do things differently, when I look back now, I don't think I would have tried it any other way. There was an element of spontaneity to the day, a quality of simple enjoyment that I felt even through the heat, sweat and thirst. Back in my hotel room, as I let the shower wash away all the grime of the morning (and rejoiced in the air-conditioning!) I knew that I'd had a very special day - and a boatload of fun too, thanks to S and her relentless enthusiasm, which most definitely rubs off on anyone by the end of the day - or even halfway through it. Next time, though, we're trying things MY way! :)