Friday, January 27, 2006

A Bike Full of Buddhas

Financial Secrets Revealed!
International Adventuress Tells All
Chennai & Chai Guys
Sipping my morning chai at the Titanic Tea Palace, I saw a flatbed bike (cycle equivalent of a flatbed truck; used for transporting goods here) zip by, laden with plaster statues of fat, happy Chinese Buddhas, painted day-glo colours and wrapped in plastic. The Buddhas' arms stretched overhead as though they, too, were trying to shake off sleep. Lots of trinket salesmen had adjusted their usual wares for the Kalachakra, selling various Buddha figures in addition to their Hindu repertoire. Now, the Dalai Lama's photo peers out at me, not from current headlines, but from a sheet of newspaper under a pile of oily vada, where it's being used to line the snack trays. I'm a big believer in tea-stall divination. Dalai Lama's photo used as snack wrapper = time to move along.

The usual cluster of stony-eyed, mustachioed guys stood around nursing their glasses of tea, transfixed by the Telugu movie on the corner screen. (In these movies, a beautiful, fair-skinned woman wearing lots of gold jewelery cowers before a fat, greasy, hunkering dufus of a man. God knows why). I always seem to be the only woman at these "tea palaces." By now, I am used to the stares. Also, I have never seen an Indian woman read a newspaper, though the men read them studiously. Why? (or rather, why not?)

A New Adventure & The Secrets of MoneyGram
Tonight, I am off to Chennai by the night train. Yesterday I got my reservation (absolutely mandatory in India, unless you want to kick and scream your way into third class and stand for 10 hours) at Vijayawada's spiffy, efficient computerized office. I have a top berth so I hope to get a good night's rest, in addition to a bit more privacy than the lower seats. Just me, piled up on my luggage, on a 6 foot blue vinyl ledge next to a noisy set of fans and a slightly open window so I can breath in the smoke from the train. Facilities down the hall!

Train travel, still the main mode of transportation in India, is always an adventure. Indian trains all seem about 40 years old (though they're certainly much younger - like the people, they age quickly due to overwork and a hard life). The cars are divided up into at least five classes. First class travel can be extremely expensive so I prefer Sleeper Class (SL) which is the equivalent of third class but with two sets of three-high bunk beds per cell; door not included. In theory with Sleeper Class, you are guaranteed a place to sit during the day without too many people sharing your area. Then at night, the seats turn into a flat area that you can sleep on. The setup is quite ingenious really; they have really maximized a minimal space and seem to have thought of everything (including little metal rungs to help you climb like a monkey to the top berth, hanging straps, night lights, foldup tea tables and so on). All these folding and unfolding compartments - it's the Swiss Army Train!

Part of the adventure is that you never know where on the long, long platform your designated car will stop. The AC cars can't be in the front every time, or perhaps the middle - no, that would be too easy. You must get there in time to scry where your car will land. This is vital in order to get on right car before the train takes off, and to avoid running up and down the platform with all your luggage. Usually the guy running the tea stall knows, but not always. The real man with the plan is the Station Master. He loves to be coy about this vital information, pretending to attend to all manner of things before answering your question (remember, you are standing there laden with baggage in a hot station. Or at least I am - never having learned to travel light).

Chennai was known as Madras on maps older than 10 years old - until the Tamil Nationalist parties decided they had to change the name from lovely, expansive Maa-draaaas to stingy, narrow-sounding Chin-nye. This was meant to show how independent they were from the British - never mind that Madraspattinam was the original, Tamil name of the place. Or maybe they just didn't want the world to think they all walk around wearing Madras Plaid. (There really is Madras plaid - some traditional saris still feature it.)

Chennai/Madras is the fourth largest city in India, and the largest in the South (bigger than the more famous Bangalore). It is located on the southeast coast in the state of Tamil Nadu. It has the longest continuous beach in India, Marina Beach. You would think this would mean the city is caressed with cool, ocean breezes. It doesn't. Somehow, Chennai manages to provide an ocean with no breeze and no refreshing sea scent - just the sticky salt air and humidity. To make it less even enjoyable, you can imagine Dec. 26 of 2004, when this beach was hit by the tsunami and dozens died.

Chennai is relatively cool this time of year - why, the highs are only about 34 Degrees Centigrade (in the low 90s) - and because you're in India, you don't get to wear shorts and a tank top. This is South Indian Winter. At night, it gets a wonderfully cool 70 degrees, and it will stay this way till February. Whoops, that's only five days. Somehow, the weather knows exactly when Feb. 1st rolls around and then, like clockwork, it begins getting hotter by the day, till May when it is absolutely unbearable. Finally in June, the monsoon rains begin, but by then everyone who is able to has departed for cooler climes.

If you keep the fans on high, the mosquitos won't bite - but you will wake up with a sore throat. If you keep the windows open, the mosquitos will fly in, but if you close them all, you will suffocate. If you burn the mosquito coils, they won't bite, but you will breathe in poison all night long. The malaria mosquitos only bite after dark, but the dengue mosquitos bite all day long. It's pretty much a win-win scenario for the mosquitos. After the Amaravati malaria outbreak, even the Dalai Lama said it was okay to kill them (well not in those words, but he admitted that they "are unbearable").

India is a conglomeration of formerly independent kingdoms, so you can think of India as a group of countries like North America. You can imagine Kashmir as Canada (snowy mountains), northern India is the USA, with Calcutta as New York (unliveable, but with brilliant cultural and intellectual life), Delhi as Washington, DC (big dirty crime-ridden capitol, also a self-contained city-state), Mumbai (Bombay)as Los Angeles (tropical, liberal city where everyone is obsessed with their looks and making it in show business) and finally, Tamil Nadu as Mexico with Chennai as Mexico City. It's slow and relatively peaceful... except for the traffic jams. Or perhaps Chennai resembles Atlanta, Georgia - formerly a quaint capital of the traditional south, now expanding too quickly; struggling to maintain its customs and gentility while becoming the sprawling regional hub. Jasmine flowers, handloom saris and cows, wandering in and out of the construction sites for new modern tower blocks. Like Atlanta, many locals are still churchgoing folks (or in this case, temple-going).

I've never been to Goa, but I think Goa is San Francisco.

Street Kids of Madras
One of my goals in Chennai is to visit with
the street kids who live on Triplicane High Road - not far from the world famous Marina Beach which was hit by the Tsunami last year.

It has been a while since I have seen these street kids so I will bring you reports on what has happened to them in the last three years. The kids range from innocent and timid to completely corrupted, hopeless rascals. My two favourites are Nagamma and Prabhu. Nagamma is a classic heartbreaker, a sweet, shy, quiet girl who refuses all offers to leave her abusive, alcoholic family. Prabhu, I understand, has done the best of the bunch, earning enough money on his bookbinding job to pay for his own vacation recently. He went on the religious pilgrimage to the famous Swami Ayyappa temple, Sabarimala, Kerala. Vela used to be a cunning, if charming, young tomboy. Now she's probably a hardened criminal. Mumtaz, the beauty of the bunch, has now married her neighborhood sweetheart Haniffa and had a baby boy. You can see all their photos

Visiting the kids usually means a few days of navigating their competing stories and the stories of neighborhood onlookers ("no, she has not been going to school"; "yes madam, I am daily going to school"). I don't really know exactly how old any of the kids are, because they don't know themselves.

Money Talks
Some of you have asked how I survive in India. Fortunately in India, the food, lodging and transportation costs are extremely low by western standards. I can live for about $200 to $300 a month as long as I do not buy anything expensive such as a camera or the laptop computer - which I deperately need.

Fortunately, my patient family and friends have provided some help, and other people have sent me money for selected projects. One American, who has been sponsoring street kids for over 5 years in Chennai, will be contributing a little money for me
to document what has happened to his kids now that they are growing up.

If you want to help me in any of my projects or adventures, you can
quickly and easily send me money via
MoneyGram. (MoneyGram is like
Western Union but without the huge expense.) Sending money to me in India costs only $10 - for any amount - and I can pick it up in just 24 hours.

To send money to me, go to any
MoneyGram agent (such as Albertson's
Supermarkets or Long's Drugs in the USA - see
a full list of worldwide agents here) and give them the following information:

Location: India
First Name: Carolyn Kay (Yes. That is my real
Last Name: Martin
Amount to be Sent: $200, etc.

When you are finished, they will give you an eight digit Reference numberwhich you must email to me along with the following information:

Location: India
First Name: Carolyn Kay
Last Name: Martin
Reference Number xxxxxxxx
(Also write the numbers out to prevent errors.)
Dollar Amount Sent: $xxx.xx US
Date Send: MM/DD/YYYY
Sender's Location: City, State, Country

By the way, my email is

Every bit helps! Especially here, where rent can be as low as $50 a month (outside of big cities, where it's more) and basic meals cost an average of $2 each. It is money via MoneyGrams which keeps me going.

For instance, tonight's train ticket was 540Rs (about $12.00). Breakfast was 65rs (less than $2). Every time I burn a CD of digital photos, it's about 50Rs ($1.25) and I do this several times a week. New CD carrying cases were 100Rs for two. I spent 500Rs at the supermarket getting Ayurvedic toothpaste, a toothbrush, hair conditioner, Spirulina vitamins, batteries, cashew nuts, and new cotton underwear (three pairs for 129Rs). One of my biggest expenses is the Internet - at minimum, $1.00 a day or $30 a month, more if I want to get creative and upload photos.

It is these donations or loans which make these adventures possible. Mystery solved!

So now you know the secret of glamourous, independent international travel and adventure - generous donations from friends, family, admirers and supporters. I live from month to month - sometimes week to week - on these dispatches. It's not for everyone, but it keeps me typing.

This message has been brought to you by the Committee to Keep Sirensongs Overseas, where she is both educational and entertaining - because back in America, she's just plain annoying, and a possible national security risk.


kiran kumar Chava said...

What is Hyderabad then?

miriam said...

Ahh, I love your analogy - Goa is definitely San Fran. Do you think Bangalore would be Chicago? Nah, too clean - perhaps I am jaded but I might put it as Minneapolis. Probably more like Denver or something though. I have never been to Hyberabad though so I can't answer Kiran's question. I suppose this analogy has to stop somewhere anyhow.

Damn though, I sure miss those Indian trains - especially the Sleeper class. Some of my favorite times where sitting there watching the landscape roll by. As for the mosquitoes, how is the electricity thing? In my experience the plug in thing-a-majigs always worked best (all night long!) with the least smell.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Oh come on, don't either of you want to send me money??

Kiran, I am not sure about Hyde. Maybe something like Chicago. I though Bangalore would be someplace in southern Calif., Silicon Valley.

Shinu Mathew said...

Hey Caroline,
We indians are really peeping toms! Or how could someone directly ask you "How do you finance your travels?". Anyway, I advice you to avoid such comments and don't answer them. Asnwering or provoking them will increase their curiosity.

The Committee to Keep you overseas was funny! And one more thing. Do you anytime soon go to kerala? if you do, please let me know