Saturday, May 10, 2008

Confusion and Conundrums

Sunday, May 4

A mix-up in communication (no surprise here!) with our housekeeper, Mahalak-shmi--I had thought it was quite clear that Mahalak-shmi and her sister in law, Nadiya, were going to go shopping for chew-dees and/or saris with us on Sunday at 10 a.m. Apparently the message did not get across, so we went with "Plan B" on Sunday when Nadiya didn't appear.

We looked in our "Chennai Guidebook" and decided to visit Mamallapuram, which is about 40-minutes from Chennai. Our faithful driver, Mani, took us there. We were happy and chipper and sang a rousing rendition of "Down by the Bay," (a goofy camp song) on the way there, with the girls making up new verses as we drove.

As we neared our destination, Mani asked if we wanted a "gade." We pondered this for a minute, and he kept insisting that we might want a "gade." Finally, we figured out that he was offering us a "guide." Yes, we thought that would be helpful. After a brief call on his cell, suddenly, Mani pulled to a stop and there we were, with our guide standing by the car.

It was about noon, which is near the peak of the heat of the day. We started to wilt within minutes of leaving the air-conditioned car. Our guide took us to some incredible relief-carvings on the side of a rocky hill. Our guide, who spoke very heavily accented English, and would not stop his monologue for us to explain things to the girls or answer their questions or give them a water bottle or listen to the 14th "I'm hot!" complaint. . . thus we did not hear nor understand everything he said. However, he was quite useful and without him we probably would have missed many of the temples and carvings in this city, nor had any idea what we were looking at.

The city was apparently a hub of activity centuries ago, with traders arriving from as far away as China, Persia, Italy and Africa. These peoples' influence is seen all over in the art carved on the shrines and rock-cut cave temples all over the city, though Indians were the ones who did the actual carving, said our guide.

There was a really cool carving our guide showed us. At first glance, it looked like a carving of a mother cow with her baby. When the guide merely covered up a part of the carving with his hand, it looked exactly like a mother elephant and her baby.

The carvings depicted many Hindu gods and events in their many lives. It was interesting to note that our guide would point out one of the gods depicted in one form during one of his lives, and another form in another of his lives. Among the carvings we saw were Arjuna's Penance (which I think is the world's largest bas-relief), which is a very incredible long, long carving on the side of a big rocky hillside. The carving includes a natural cleft in the rock, which represents a river in the carving and includes carvings of mermaids (or perhaps fish-like Hindu gods?). Our girls wanted to play on the hillside, weren't in the least intersted in what the guide was saying, and only wanted to chase the baby goats climbing all over the rocks. The guide was not amused.

We also saw Krishna Manapam, which I think was the carving that was within a sort of 3-sided cave, and was carved in the 7th century (I told our hot, listless, tired girls to touch something on this carving, so that they could say later that they touched something that had been carved over a thousand years ago. (The girls were all so, so hot. It was probably ridiculous for us to be traipsing around in this weather in the middle of the day--I wouldn't be suprised if it was 110 degrees!).

Nearby, was a very huge round rock that seemed to be precariously balanced on the hillside. It was called Krishna's Butter Ball. Children were happily playing in its shade and sliding down the hillside in deep trails in the sand. Our girls wanted to join them, and so did Byron, but we thought we'd better remain following our guide (we assumed he was being paid by the hour) and sliding down the hillside was not within his monologue.

Around the Butter Ball, Dawn happened to look for 2 1/2 seconds at a postcard collection one of the nearby vendors was holding, and was duly rewarded for this terrible deed by having 3 vendors stuck to her like glue for most of the rest of the afternoon. I don't know how many times I've heard the line, "Madam, I poor student, in college. I carve this myself in my free time, please help me. I give it to you for good price. Very cheap." I heard it from several vendors probably 10 times in 10 minutes, and I didn't in the slightest bit even WANT the carving/magnet/gadgets they were holding.

I've noticed that the vendors and shopkeepers will keep a close watch on my eyes, and follow my eyes wherever they move, then pounce on anything that I glance at with more than a passive, disinterested glance, immediately hold it up in my face, saying, "You want, Madam? Very nice. Handmade. My grandfather teaching me this craft." I need some dark glasses.

Then we hopped into the car with our guide, sighing with relief in the air-conditioning (at one point I thought one or two of the vendors was going to jump in with us!). It took some serious pep-talking to get the kids to get back out of the car at the nearby next exhibit. It was the Panch Pandava Rathas, which was a group of five very large stone shrines, each carved from a single rock (I think). These five stones represented five brothers, and were quite different from each other. The sculptures all seemed to have been carved from the top down, as they were more elaborate at the top, and I think none of them were complete at the bottom, as the ruler who had commissioned their carving either died or was deposed from power by the time the sculptors got down to the bottom.

Another car ride to the Shore Temple, which was truly a temple by the shore. (I believe that there were originally 7 temples by the shore, but the sea slowly covered them up over the years, until only one was left. This one is protected by a rock wall. ) It was here that we discovered one of our girls' joys of the day--a lawn, and sprinklers! Upon noticing some Indian children taking advantage of running through the sprinklers, Dawn and Lily indulged ourselves for some welcome relief.

On to the temple, which if I understood the guide correctly, has four gods or goddesses carved into the stone in such a way that the sun is shining on at least one of the gods/godesses at all times during daylight hours. I thought that was kind of cool. Each of the god/godesses were at the top of a set of steps and behind iron bars. We would take off our shoes, wait our turn to climb the steps, and peer in between iron bars at a very old-looking stone carving. I think this temple is from the early 8th century.

All around this temple were carvings of bulls, which I believe the people have been discovering somewhat recently (in the past 50 years?) (due to global warming?) in the nearby waters of the Bay of Bengal. Whenever they find another ancient carving, they put it around this temple. (I could have completely misunderstood the guide on this point, but that's what I got from bits and pieces of his monologue here). It was at the Shore Temple that we first encountered people who were taking pictures of us with their cell phones. That was a first. I had been surruiptiously videotaping people walking by in their beautiful saris, and wondered if I should just whip out my camera and blantantly take their picture like they were taking ours!

Then, Indians started approaching us and asking to take our picture. Actually, what I think they wanted was pictures of our girls. We'd pose, walk a few feet, and then have another request. It was unbelievable how many people wanted our picture. (I could kick myself for not working up the nerve to ask a mother if I could take a picture of her two adorable dressed-alike toddler daughters! I think the heat affected my head. . . .)

Completely wilted by this point, we weakly thanked our guide and paid him, then decided to do some shopping (the first time we had Byron along in one of our shopping endeavors). First, we returned to the Krishna Mandapam and had our little lunch of biscuits and water on a bench near a 7th century carving. At last our girls could watch the baby goats, and Byron went climbing with the girls up the hillside, where he said every 10 feet or so people asked if they could take pictures of our girls.

After lunch, we shopped a bit, and found it interesting that whenever we entered a shop from the street, the shop-owner would rush inside and switch on lights and fans. They were definitely not going to waste their electricity on themselves as they waited for customers!

Byron is better at bargaining than the rest of us. Dawn is actually terrible at it, probably because upon asking "how many rupees?" and hearing the answer, her immediate response is to struggle to pull her "cheat sheet" out of her bag to calculate how much the rupees- to- dollars exchange is, while the shop-keeper is convinced he's already made a sale and she's actually reaching for her wallet. If they think you're already reaching for your wallet, it's nearly impossible to bargain after that.

We finally returned to the car, hotter than we've ever been, exhausted, and almost sick from the heat. No singing on the way home this time. Only soft moaning! However, that all changed when we were about halfway home and Heidi started screaming uncontrollably. She was sobbing that she had a stomachace, and I remembered that part of Lily's sickness over the weekend had included a sudden, horrible stomachache. Thankfully, I'd packed some chewable Ibuprofen, and popped one into her mouth mid-scream. No amount of consoling helped, until about 20 minutes later it all suddenly stopped and Heidi sat whimpering on my lap. I think our driver was ready to resign.

Upon our arrival at home, we were so blessed to find that Sahjee had fixed a lovely supper of fried rice for us and left it in the fridge. We also found that all of us had to some degree gotten a sunburn. Could hardly move that evening from complete exhaustion.

Monday, May 5 "Return to Spencer Plaza to exchange Erin's ill-fitting chew-dee"

I know I said I didn't want to return to that sprawling, overwhelming Spencer Plaza, but Erin's "chudy-da" (which is what our housekeeper, cook and driver all seem to call salwaars) we bought last week is too small, and she needs to exchange it. We found the store in the mall, (which I was not at all sure we'd be able to do), and they very nicely exchanged it for another one. Meanwhile, Lily was looking at saris. I asked if she'd like to try one one, and she did, and boy, did it look fantastic on her. This got Lily excited about buying an Indian outfit, so after trying on a couple of different chudy-das, she selected the sari. I had the clerk give me a lesson in how to put the sari on her, and we were off.

I had noticed Heidi getting more and more quiet (very unusual for Heidi), and listless, and happened to feel her forehead in the midst of Lily trying on clothes. It was terribly hot, and I realized that she probably had the fever that Lily had had on Friday. Sigh. This time I didn't have any meds on me.

After purchasing the sari, we headed for a bookstore, intent on buying a better India guidebook. I have the Frommer's guidebook, but wanted to check out the Lonely Planet guidebook. (While Frommer's is easy to read, Lonely Planet lists budget hotels, which is something that Frommer's isn't good at.) I knew we'd need more information on budget accomodations for our upcoming trip to the Taj Mahal, so we now have two India guidebooks that are as thick as dictionaries which I haul around with me, now, or wish I had with me when I forget them at home.

Erin, who is disappointed that she isn't learning how to speak Tamil, noticed a little "Learn Tamil in 30 days" paperback which cost just a few rupees. We'll see if it helps us communicate a bit better with our friends. The only problem is, we usually can't find the book when we're trying to get a concept across.

Heidi's condition was deterioriating, so we ended our Spencer Plaza experience (which was much, much better the second time, as we weren't wandering aimlessly around "just looking," which made us easy prey for the agressive shopkeepers. This time we had two goals in mind (return a chudy-da at a certain store, and find a bookstore). Perhaps it was the determined look we had as we headed for these stores, but shopkeepers for other stores generally left us alone.

One thing that surprised me, but was very lovely, is how the shopkeepers in the mall helped us when we got lost. We got lost looking for the bookstore, and then again trying to find the front door of the mall. What can I say? I am a Nesmith (most Nesmiths are born with NO sense of direction). When we got lost and would wander past a shop, the shopkeeper would naturally notice us and start his, "Oh madam, come into my shop! You want carpet? I give you good price!" spiel. But when I would ask, "Where is Landmark Bookstore?" he would immeidately stop in mid-sentence, and do his very best to be helpful. I immensely appreciated this.

When we were done with Spencer Plaza, we found Mani (our driver) sound asleep in the car, and weren't sure what to do. A helpful parking attendant saw our predicament, and came over to see what the problem was. He then got right in Mani's face and yelled something while shaking him. I guess that's one way to take care of the problem!

Home to take care of Heidi, who just felt rotten the rest of the day. We're running seriously low on our children's ibuprofen!!

Lily wanted to try on her sari, and was so excited when she had it on that she went hunting down a houskeeper in the building. We found Mahalakshmi, who was so delighted to see Lily in a sari. She came and adjusted the sari, and I took a picture. Then Mahalakshmi showed us another way that Lily could wear the sari, and I took a picture. Then she showed us another way she could wear it, and another way. At one point we needed a safety pin, and Mahalakshmi magically produced one from somewhere in her sari (and I had thought these things didn't have pockets!).

We are sad to say that we think our other beloved housekeeper, Odyssey, is no longer working in this position. We've had three different stories about Odyssey's week-long absence from our lives. Mahalakshmi tells us that Odyseey has a fever. Chandra-shake-uh told us that Odyssey went on a long trip and won't be back for awhile. Sahjee, who is Odyssey's supervisor, told me that Odyssey was not following all the rules of her job, and thus she could not come back. Whatever the reason, we miss her. She is a friend, and always made us smile.

In case Odyssey is sick, I had the girls make her get-well cards. They asked me how to spell Odyseey's name, and they carefully wrote, "Odyssey" on their cards. I tried to give the cards to Chandra Shake-uh to take to Odyssey (since they live in the same apartment complex), but when he saw the name, "Odyseey" on the cards, he started laughing so hard he couldn't talk. He said, "Odyssey? That name of bookstore! No name of auntie! Har, har, har!" I asked him what Odyseey's name was, then, and he said something that sounded like "Wood-eh-see." Hmmm. One wonders why Odyssey never corrected us. Anyhow, Chandra Shake-uh was so amused he forgot to take the cards, and we still have them almost a week later. Heidi hadn't made one, because she didn't feel good, so I keep meaning to have her make one, but can't find a piece of paper, the crayons, and Heidi in a mood to make a card all at the same time.

Another housekeeper is helping Mahalakshmi now, and this lady is pleasant enough, but she's not really friendly (she's the maid who would sometimes turn up while Mahalakshmi and Odyssey were working, and watch them work). Sigh. We miss our Odyssey, or whatever her name is.

On Tuesday, I told Sahjee of my quest to find some Indian dolls. (I have had two quests since arriving in India--to watch an Indian dance, and to purchase authentic sari-dressed Indian dolls that are not Barbies. So far, I have had NO success in either of these!). Sahjee looked surprised, but said he knew where some dolls were being sold, and would tell the driver where to take us. Then Chandra Shake-uh happened to come upon us. Sahjee muttered something to Chandra-Shake-uh, and Chandra Shake-uh laughed, and said to me, "You find many, many sleeping at my house!' Then Chandra-Shake-uh said, "You want to take home, to America?" I said, "of course," and more laughter.

After some more confused discussion between Sahjee, Chandra Shake-uh, and me, we finally discovered that Sahjee thought I wanted a DOG, and was going to have our driver take us to a kennel! Oh, my, we laughed and laughed and laughed at that one. Byron finally had to find a picture of an Indian doll on the computer and show it to Sahjee so he'd know what we were talking about. Chandra Shake-uh said he knew where we could find such a doll, and told our driver where to take us--back to T.Nagar shopping area, but to a different store, called "New Saravana."

Byron showed the picture of the Indian doll to Mani (our driver) who then knew what we wanted. Mani took us to the huge department store and told the doorman what we wanted, but the message didn't get communicated to the clerk who became our personal shopper. (I had a feeling I should have asked Mani to come with us). Mani took one look at the store and said, "I come back in two hours." I said, "No, Mani, I'm just looking for dolls. Make it one and a half hours." (Turns out Mani knew what he was talking about).

This store, I think, was having either a huge clearance sale, a huge re-opening sale, or some huge sale. I have never in my life been crammed into an elevator (literally, there were people pushing to get more and more people in the elevator) to where I couldn't see my children's faces, but I knew they were right beside me. Erin talked to me in a muffled voice behind a woman's sleeve when I asked if she was okay.

Our clerk, Selvi, stayed with us through our whole venture in this store. She started off taking us to 6th floor, where we were to find "dolls." We were shown dolls that could crawl, dolls that could talk, dolls with red hair and blonde hair and pink hair. Each of these dolls was, surprisingly, very caucasian-looking. None of the dolls had dark eyes, hair or skin. I was perplexed. You can ask for "Indian doll in sari" here, and get everything shown to you BUT an Indian-looking doll.

Well, this store ended up not having what we wanted, but I saw some housewares, and remembered a friend who had requested that we buy some toy tiffin boxes for her two little girls adopted from India. (I was to learn that tiffin boxes are the most clever little lunchpail you ever saw. You can buy them two bowls or three bowls high, and they all stack on top of each other (without squishing the food in the bowls) and clip together with a handle for carrying your lunchbox.) The clerk seemed surprised that we wanted Indian schoolchildren's lunchboxes, but showed us a HUGE selection. We couldn't find toy ones, but bought the smallest ones that we could find. Then, of course, Erin and Lily said they wanted an Indian lunchbox, so we emerged with a regular sized lunchbox for each of our girls. (Since then, when we have our peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, the girls happily make their sandwiches, pack them in their Indian lunchpails, and then run around the dining room table 15 times, pretending they're walking to school. Then they unpack their lunch and pretend to be Indian children eating from a "tiffin box.")

By the way, I have never seen so many people all together in one space in my life (with the possible exception of Christmas Eve in Mexico City when I was thirteen years old, and was in such a crowd that when I tripped, I didn't fall down, but was carried along in the mass of people). There were so many people in this store, that we had to wait to move and take turns going around corners in the aisles. I really wanted to lift up my camera and just take a picture of the sea of heads, but figured we Burkes were enough of an oddity and were turning enough heads in this store that I probably shouldn't attract even MORE attention. Heidi was having her cheeks pinched every millisecond, and I am thinking that I need to buy some kind of face-guard for her when we go out in public. Poor child.

Then, Selvi (our clerk) asked if we wanted "the ballroom" before we left. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what she was talking about, but she was so insistent I said, "Okay." She took us to another floor in the crowded-beyond-belief-elevator, and we emerged to find that she wanted to give each of the girls a balloon. However, it took 15 minutes to walk to the area of the store to get the balloon (getting through the crowd with a stroller was a feat), and then we waited about 15 minutes longer for a balloon for each girl. Okay, we have the balloons. Let's leave.

I started following Selvi, who had Erin and Lily with her, out of the store (I was pushing Heidi in the stroller). I made the dastardly deed of stopping for 1 minute to look more closely at a very pretty Indian dress that I thought might fit Lily, and suddenlyI had lost sight of Selvi, Erin, and Lily. I dashed off down the aisle, but couldn't see a blonde head nor a brunette head anywhere. Just a sea of dark Indian heads. I tried not to panic, but for 20 minutes I wandered around, looking for my older girls and praying that they were okay.

Suddenly, I spotted them, and dashed off to find that Selvi had them looking at chudy-das! Erin was exclaiming over some pretty ones, and Lily had found some she liked. I hadn't planned on shopping for clothes, but when I looked at the price, I decided we were shopping for clothes (about 1/2 the price of the chudy-das we bought for Erin at the other T.Nagar store, and at Spencer Plaza).

I noticed that it was just about time for Mani to pick us up, and I asked the clerk if I could use a phone to call Mani. She procured a cell phone, and handed it to me. Figuring that she could communicate with Mani better than I could, I told her to tell him that we needed more time to shop, and gave her his cell number. Then the shopping began.

Erin has been wanting several chudy-das, as she finds them comfortable and pretty and says she wants to wear them all the time. Lily wanted one, and Heidi's been asking for an Indian outfit. We started with Erin. Selvi got a male clerk to help her, and this is how it worked: They'd bring chudy-da after chudy-da and hold it up in front of Erin, asking if she liked it. If she did, it went in the "I like it" pile. If not, it disappeared. Erin, on the other hand, dashed off to look on the rack herself, and it was rather chaotic pulling her attention from the rack to look at what was being held in front of her. Erin, it turns out, did much better selecting her own chudy-das from the rack. I told her she could choose three to take home.

Then began the arduous task of trying on clothes over the clothes you have on. We've discovered it's much easier to try Indian clothes on over western clothes. Today, Erin was wearing a chudy-da, and boy, it was almost impossible to get one chudy-da over the other.

Then Lily said, "I want a chudy!" So, we selected a few for her. She tried them on, and we discovered there's a technique to getting these chudys on and off. In order to get one on, you have to "dive into" it--holding your hands above your head and getting your hands in the armholes before you pull it over your head. Getting it off is even more of a challenge (there are not zippers or buttons--it's a pullover with no "give" in the material). For a moment I thought Lily was permanantly stuck in a chudy until Selvi noticed our plight and with a few swift moves had the chudy off Lily before you blink.

And Heidi of course wanted to get in on the act. The clerk tried one on Heidi, and it fit perfectly (the tunic portion of the chudy). The clerk then just selected a couple more chudys for Heidi in the same size, but in different brands. When we got home, we found they are really too big. (The question is--do we save them for when she grows, or do we return to exchange them?)

When we had the girls all squared away and happy with their chudy-da selections, Selvi turned to Dawn, "Madam, try any chudys?" Well! I thought I should have at least one, and why not purchase it here where they were cheaper than I'd seen anywhere else.

Another ride on the sardine-elevator. Suddenly Selvi had the help of 4 more clerks, and they were pulling out chudys and displaying them in front of me faster than I could think. I finally told them that I like hot pink, and perhaps black. I think within seconds there were 15 pink and/or black chudys in front of me. I pointed out a few I liked, and they just kept coming. (I really would have preferred to just browse through the racks, but it seemed that isn't the way things work here.) Erin browsed through the racks and found a nice pink cotton one that in retrospect I should have considered. I ended up with three chudys, but they're all a polyester/cotton mix, which makes them almost unbearable to wear in this heat.

I also got a few t-shirts, and in the midst of the t-shirt displaying from 2 clerks, Mani suddenly was standing beside me. I couldn't figure out how on earth he found me in this huge, multi-level department store twenty times more crowded than Walmart the day after Thanksgiving. I was vaguely aware that almost everyone on the floor we were on seemed to have noticed us and found us interesting to look at, but it is rather disconcerting to know that you're enough of an oddity that you can easily be found by your driver.

I guess Mani wondered when were were leaving the store, and he came searching for us. He ended up helping to push the stroller and carry the chudys. Then the adventure at the cash register. I spent 'way more than I had thought (partly because, as soon as you say, "Yes, I want that," a clerk carries away your selection and presumably takes it to the cash register. Wherever it goes, you don't see it again until you're standing at the register ready to pay for your purchases). I don't have a good mind for numbers anyhow, much less when I'm desperately trying to convert rupees to dollars in my head, and trying to keep track of how much I've said, "Yes" to, so was rather dismayed at the total price, and wondered if it was too late to say, "Wait! I need to go through all this piece by piece, and put a few things back!"

Anyhow, Selvi then said she wanted to take a picture with us, and somehow a camera appeared in the hands of a security guard who CLEARED ALL THE OTHER CUSTOMERS out of the front of the store in this wildly busy place (!) just so we could have a picture with Selvi. He took a couple of shots, then allowed the customers to return to their milling around. But, Selvi looked at the pictures (it must've been a digital camera), wasn't satisfied, and AGAIN, all shoppers were cleared away so we could have another picture with her! My! Then Selvi brought us all some orange soda-pop, which our girls aren't used to drinking so the fizziness made them jump, shiver and wrinkle their noses. When we turned to finally leave the store, I had visions of what it's like to be a victim of the paparazzi.

Every clerk on the main floor was lined up at the door to wave goodbye (the female clerks were all wearing matching white and orange saris, and looked something like chorus girls all waving and smiling in sync), the doors were held for us, and people were gathering to see what the ruckus was all about. The ruckus was merely the Burkes trying to get the stroller and two large shopping bags (stuffed with chudys) out the door.

Apparently that was enough of a draw for people to stop shopping and come watch. Selvi and several of her clerk friends accompanied us with a flourish out the door, and people just stared, and kept coming closer to stare.

Normally I don't mind attention, but this was ridiculous. The car wasn't even a safe haven, as people gathered around to get a last glimpse through the car window at us. Phew!

Home to gather our senses and try on chudys. We discovered that the chudys we bought at this store don't seem to be as high quality as the more expensive ones we bought. For example, there is no elastic in the pants of these chudys--there is an opening all around the waistband for you to insert a rope, or string, or possibly elastic, but no rope is provided. (Without a waistband, these pants would still be roomy on Dawn when she was 9 months pregnant, so you can imagine the struggle we're all having trying to get our pants to stay up.) We've also found the chudys generally are made sleeveless, but the sleeves are included if you want to have them attached. (I've never, ever seen a chudy being worn sleeveless here.) At the more expensive stores, tailors can immediately sew the sleeves on for you. At this summer-sale store, the sleeves are sewn onto the back of the chudy's tunic and you have to find someone to attach them as sleeves (assuming you can't do that yourself.)

Well, here we are with chudys that we are using clothespins to hold the pants up. And we're walking around with sleeves attached to our backs. Oh for a seamstress!

Wednesday (stay home and spend no rupees)

Homeschooling today. Math is not fun when you've been shopping for the past couple of days. Especially when it helps Mommy figure out how much she spent at the store yesterday! But all three girls dressed up in chudys today, and how pretty they looked. The housekeepers and cooks were enchanted. They really do seem to like it when we wear Indian clothes.

In the afternoon, I had Mani take me to an alternative travel agency (Byron wants a second opinion after the high prices we were quoted from the first travel agency for our trip up to the Taj Mahal). We have been phoning and emailing several travel agencies, but aren't getting responses from them (or else we do get hold of a person, but it's too hard to understand what they're saying. I've found it's much, much easier to understand the Indians when you can see them face to face. The phone is nearly impossible unless you're talking to someone who is fluent, and who doesn't have a heavy Indian accent.)

We visited a travel agency recommended by the Lonely Planet India guidebook, and my, was it dreadful! If Mani hadn't come in with me, I'd probably still be waiting for help. The travel agents were all on phones when I arrived, and no one even glanced up. I sat all the kids down in chairs, and stood waiting for someone to look at me. I got cursory glances, but no one even offered, "I'll be with you in a minute!" After 5 minutes of being completely ignored, Mani said something in a sharp voice, and an agent snapped, "What do you want?" When I told him I was interested in talking about a trip to the Taj Mahal via train, he said, "We do only flights here, no trains." And summarily dismissed me. Well!

Okay, I've visited 3 travel agencies, and we've emailed and called several others, and it turns it that finding a travel agency in Chennai that will help you book train, hotel, driver, and flight without trying to sell you a "package tour" is truly a rarity.

Being on a budget, and traveling with kids, means that we need to customize our tour to fit our situation.

Finally, on Friday, we found such a travel agency. Byron found it, actually, and we are all impressed with him. It's quite near our house! This is the Burke plan--we're taking a 2nd class train from Chennai to Agra (Agra is the city where Taj Mahal is) which leaves Chennai at 10 p.m. Monday and arrives in Agra at 3:45 a.m. (!) on Wednesday.

We stay in Agra for a couple of days, then we will return to Chennai by plane. The only problem is that no planes go directly from Agra to Chennai--they all stop in Delhi on their way. And the flight from Agra to Delhi was just a little jaunt, but rather costly. So, we are going to have a driver take us from Agra to Delhi on Friday morning, and we will tour Delhi just a little bit, and then catch a plane back to Chennai.

Byron is calling this our "planes, trains, and automobiles" trip.

We are looking in the Lonely Planet India guidebook for "budget hotels" in Agra, but it does make one pause when the travel agency this guidebook recommended in Chennai was so dreadfully rude and unhelpful.

If anyone reading this blog has been to Agra, and stayed in or knows of a decent budget hotel there, please advise as soon as possible!

Mani took me to two more stores in attempts to find Indian dolls. At one hole-in-the-wall shop, I was surprised to find a storekeeper who was quite fluent in English, who gave me the same surprised look when I said I wanted an Indian doll in a sari. He pulled out the dime-a-dozen Barbie doll dressed in a sari, and seemed quite shocked that I actually wanted a dark-skinned, dark-eyed, doll with dark hair, that actually looked Indian, rather than a blonde Barbie sporting a sari.

He insisted that Odyssey (the bookstore within walking distance of our apartment) had Indian dolls. Mani was surprised that I would have missed such a thing, since he knows we've been to that bookstore several times. He then took us back. Erin, Lily and Heidi helped me scour that store, and finally in the bottom level, where they have toys, we found some very expensive Barbies that weren't blonde and looked more Indian-like that anything I have yet seen. However, a.) they were Barbies, which is an AMERICAN doll, and b.) they were expensive ($75 for the one dressed like an Indian bride).

I tried to explain Barbies to Mani later, so he could understand that is what I DON'T want. I keep getting a blank look from him. Barbies are ALL OVER India.

I'm on my quest, though. Mani said he has a couple more stores to take me to where I might find Indian dolls. And Chandra Shake-uh has invited us twice to go on a bus ride (he says the bus costs only 3 rupees to ride) to the beach, where he goes to a temple. He said that there are shops near that temple on the beach that sell dolls. Twice, I thought we had made arrangements to meet Chandra-shake-uh at 6:30 and accompany him on the busride to his temple and the doll shops. Twice, he has not shown up. Obviously something is being lost in the communication here.

Perhaps we'll find dolls when we got up north, to Agra?

Friday, Erin came down with a fever, and Heidi's fever returned. We just can't seem to get our kids healthy. Sahjee did something very nice, though, when I told him that the girls were sick with fevers again. He went to the phone, called up his pastor, and asked the pastor to pray for us. He handed the phone to me, and the most delightful man spoke to me in very understandable English and asked if he could pray for our children. He then offered the most passionate, lovely prayer asking God to give our children health; it almost made me cry. This pastor said he'd like to come visit us, so we might meet him soon.

Byron surprised me on Friday with a nice bouquet of five pink rosebuds--one for each Burke, for an early Mother's Day present.

Saturday, May 10

All Burke females dressed in chudy-das for church. Arrived at church to find that they still remember us, even though we had to miss last week because of sick kids.

Byron thought he might be giving the 5 minute "feature talk," as he was asked to do it this week, but was asked two weeks ago. Perhaps they thought, "those irresponsible Burkes! You give them a job to do, and they skip church!" because someone else got up to do the nature talk, and no one asked Dawn to lead out in the children's Sabbath School program today. Of course, neither Byron nor Dawn mentioned anything either (!).

Church got out early, with no complaints from anyone. They announced from the front that perhaps we should start services earlier in the day, to avoid the awful heat. The church people are really quite nice. It's just hard to be friendly when you're so, so hot that you feel as if you're suffocating.

We spent the afternoon touring the memorials to St. Thomas, one of Jesus' disciples who was a missionary to India from 52 A.D. to 72 A.D. Thomas was martyred in Chennai on a hilltop now called St. Thomas' Mount, and buried across town where there is now a beautiful church called St. Thome Basilica. I didn't know that three of Jesus' disciples have churches built over their tombs. They include James, who is buried in Spain, Peter, who is buried in the famous St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and Thomas who lived right here in Chennai.

Sunday, May 11

Byron's co-worker V.J. arrived to take us to a Hindu temple (I've been so wanting to go to one, but didn't know if non-Hindus are allowed, and didn't want to behave inappropriately). He took us to one that I think is older than the typical Hinda temple in town.

There were actually several temples within a courtyard. We left our shoes at the entrance to the courtyard, and then burned our bare feet on the cement--dashing to where we could stand in the shade. V.J. explained that traditionally, Hindu temples were carved from stone, which made them cool inside even on the hottest days. Several of the temples here were stone, but some were made of cement. The temples are basically a big, open room for people to gather and pray, or interact briefly with a priest, I believe. I asked V.J. if i could go into one, and he went with me, while the girls and Byron stood outside.

A priest clad in only a wrap-around white skirt and a necklace was there. The priest also had long hair which was tied up in a bun on top of his head. He was standing at the bottom of a set of about 5-6 stairs, and gestured for me to follow him. I did, but after getting to the third stair, he suddenly shouted for me to stop, at the same time as V.J. grabbed my arm for me to stop, and V.J. said I needed to go back down to the 2nd stair.

The priest picked up a gold-colored platter with a gold vase in the middle of it, and then, waving the platter/vase in front of a colorful and flower-decorated Hindu god or goddess figure that was set back in a small room from the main open area, he sang a sort of chant. He waved the platter and chanted for a full minute or two, then brought the platter over to me.

I saw that a candle was burning deep down in the vase, and the priest was trying to get me to do something with my hands. Completely baffled, I turned to V.J. who explained that I was to cup my hands over the flame, then place my cupped hands on my face. Then the priest took some ashes from the platter and put a pinch in my still-cupped hands. V.J. explained I was to put some ashes on my forehead, which was a sort of blessing.

Then the priest tore a section of jasmine flowers from a string hanging near the god/goddess, and placed the flowers in my hands, and grinned. That was the end of the ceremoy. V.J. put some rupees on the platter, and suddenly I noticed that there were a few rupee coins on the platter.

I stepped down the two steps to the main level, and noticed that there was a peacock carving behind me. V.J. explained that the Hindu gods and godesses each had a corresponding animal that represented or belonged to them. To my right was a small opening with a smaller god/goddess sitting inside it, and a cow carving was in front of that. I saw a teenage girl go cup the cow's head in her hands and put her face down near its head for a minute, then she arose and started giggling with her friends.

This was one of the only temples I've seen that didn't have very, very colorful carvings and pictures all over every section of its surface. V.J. said that the colorful temples are somewhat new, and that traditionally the Hindu temples (at least in South India) were stone-colored, and sometimes painted with red and white stripes.

He explained that the decorations carved into each temple tell a story. I think it would be so interesting to sit and listen to these stories sometime!

When I returned to my girls, they told me to get that white stuff off my forehead. We walked around the courtyard, and V.J. pointed out that the trees that were planted all around the edges all had a purpose--one tree in particular, called the "Neem" tree, is considered medicinal for breathing and lung maladies. The tree puts out carbon dioxide in the evening and night, but in the morning it puts out oxygen, and Indians like to stand under a Neem tree in the morning and take deep breaths. V.J. said you must not sleep under a tree all night, as the gases it puts out during the night aren't good for breathing. Who knew?

V.J. also pointed out that North India and South India are so different that they're almost like two different countries. I pointed to an absolutely beautiful sari on a woman at the temple, and exclaimed, "That's the most beautiful sari I've ever seen! Is she bride or something?" V.J. replied, "No, that's a typical North Indian sari."

He could probably talk all day, I think, about the differences between North and South India. There does seem to be a rivalary between the two. For example, the people in Tami Nadu, , (Chennai is a city in the state of Tamil Nadu, I think), speak Tamil, and speaking Hindu is discouraged, even though that's India's national language. I also gather that Indians are more traditional in their dress here, as someone told me that we'd be lucky to see many saris when we came to India, but we've found that's practically all the women wear here in Chennai. Perhaps it's different in cities up north?

The chudy-da (which is the pants and long tunic with a scarf that is an alternative outfit to the sari) that women also wear here, actually came to India from the Middle East, said V.J. The Middle East heavily influenced North India, but South India wasn't influenced by other country's customs. Through the years, customs that are strong in North India will start to trickle down to South India, but I get the feeling that South India is much more traditional than the North.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention this. In church yesterday, the girls and I attended a "youth" Sabbath School lesson, which ended up being a very interesting study about Hosea and Gomer's marriage and its correlation to how much God loves His people. The teacher was discussing marriage, and asked me (I was the only married person in the room full of teenagers), "What is the purpose of marriage? Why did you get married?" I replied, "I fell in love."

The teacher paused, and said, "Well, alright. That could be a reason. But here in India we often have arranged marriages, and so what is the real reason for marriage?" I was baffled. She finally said, "Companionship," and went on with the lesson. I was still stuck on the "arranged marriage" concept.

I asked V.J. about arranged marriage today, and he said it's quite prevalent here, but not in the way we might think. He said young men are often very busy in their careers, and they spend a lot of time working and don't have time to look for a wife. That's where the parents come in. They find a suitable spouse for their son, and introduce them. (V.J. said that Indians have NOT had the tradition that you meet your spouse for the first time on your wedding day, nor that you have to marry your parents' first selection. He said that's a Muslim tradition.) He said it's more like the parents are helping you find someone, and if you don't like one potential-spouse, they'll find you another one until you're happy. Byron and I deduced from V.J.'s description that it's not exactly "arranged marriages," but rather, "arranged meetings."

Another thing: We have noticed what look like white chalk drawings drawn on the sidewalk in front of shops and houses. We asked V.J. about this, and he said that traditionally, it was not chalk, but ground-up rice flour. Women (I think) draw the swirly-circle designs in the mornings before breakfast as a good-luck charm, but also it served as kindness to small animals, such as ants and sparrows, who would eat the rice-flour.

He said that now, some people opt for making these designs with some type of chemical powder, which V.J. didn't seem to think was quite fair to the birds and ants.

He also mentioned that it is a tradition for Indians to feed the birds before they eat breakfast themselves. He said his parents set out a plate of food for the crows every morning before they will eat a morsel of breakfast. (This might explain the prevalence of crows EVERYWHERE in Chennai, and the main source of our laundry challenges!)

V.J. is very environmentally conscious, as I think many Indians (including our housekeepers are). For example, he said that it's common to use banana leaves as plates, and then you can throw your "plate" away and it will not harm the environment, as a paper or plastic plate would. Eager to try the banana-leaf plate myself, I asked where one could find banana leaves--do you just go pick them off a tree? He laughed and said that would be stealing if you didn't own the tree, but that the banana leaves are easily bought at markets. I asked if they were sold at Spencer's Grocery Store, and he said no, you would find them easily enough in a roadside stand, though. I think we need to eat off banana leaf plates at least once before we leave. Now for the challange of conveying this to Sahjee.

Other ways I've noticed the Indians being environmentally conscious is that they turn off a light as soon as they leave a room, and turn off air conditioners and ceiling fans when they leave a room. If they're testing the temperature of the water in the shower, they will catch the water that is coming out of the faucet (that they won't be using in their shower) in a bucket, for later use as mop water.

I have to admit that in an American point of view, it's highly annoying to return, hot as anything, from a jaunt out in the heat of the day to an apartment where all the air-conditioners have been turned off by the housekeepers or cooks, and you have to fumble around loooking for the remote to turn on the air conditioner. (All the air conditioners are controlled by remote controls, which is just one more thing to lose track of. . . .).

Oh, I found out what those sewing machines and men sitting with the sewing machines are on the sidewalks for. You take a piece of clothing that needs to be repaired to them, and they do it on the spot. One of the pair of pants of Erin's chudy-das was coming apart at the seams, so we gave it to Sahjee and asked where we could have it fixed. He said he'd take care of it. A few minutes later, the girls and Byron went for a walk and passed the sewing machine man nearest our house. The noticed Sahjee and Mani standing there near the sewing machine, and the man was repairing Erin's pants! I didn't get a picture of it, and thus am considering tearing a hole in some clothing just for an excuse to go up and watch this tailor work.

I am not sure that he is the same tailor we'd ask for help in sewing sleeves into our chudy-das. I need to explore this further, as I want to get the sleeves sewn in before we leave. I asked Sahjee where we could get our sleeves sewn, and he looked confused. That's why I don't know if the sidewalk tailors handle bigger sewing jobs than simple repairs.

We are now half-way done with our India venture. It has been wonderful, but we are looking forward to getting back to many things at home. The girls want to eat apples and apples and apples when we get home, as apples are $1.25 apiece here, and thus we limit the girls on how on many they can eat. I have tried pointing out that they can have all the bananas, mangoes and pineapple they want, but they want apples (they must've been raised in Kansas!).

We are also missing our beds, carpeted floors, driving ourselves around, improved laundry facilities (although the novelty of having the girls enjoying helping me with the laundry here by hanging the wet clothes up on the clothesline hasn't gotten old for me yet!), our family, our church family and friends, picking up a phone and calling family members and friends, and COMMUNICATING easily are all among our top desires. Also, getting back to a schedule where Byron can go to work in the morning and come back home in time for supper is something we all desperately want to get back to. Having Daddy arrive home at 8:30 p.m., eat supper, and then return to his laptop to work until 11 p.m. is getting really old, really fast.

In other news, I have been lavished with love this mother's day. Erin made an incredible doll out of paper and glue, which looks exactly like the Indian dolls that I'm looking for. The doll is wearing a sari, has a lovely long black braid, and is seated, holding a lotus flower on her lap. Why is it that my 9-yr old daughter can completely understand what I'm looking for, but I can't get any Indians to understand? (Unless, Indian dolls do not exist in Chennai?) Lily made a cute Indian doll out of a paper-towel tube, so here are two Indian dolls made by American artists!

All three girls made lovely cards, including Heidi, who made a sweet little card featuring a self-portrait. Byron made a crown that says, "Queen Mommy" that I wore during breakfast, much to Chandra-shake-uh's and Sahjee's amusement. We also got a nice phone call from Byron's parents. Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers who are reading this!

One more thing I keep meaning to mention--the Indian head wobble. Yes, they wobble their heads. I first noticed Mahalakshmi doing it, and thought, "That's cute. Wonder what she's doing?" Then I noticed Sahjee, and then people on the street, and people at church, all doing this head wobble. It's sort of a cross between nodding "yes" and shaking your head "no," but your head is actually going in all directions. I asked V.J. what it meant, and he didn't understand at first until Byron and I demonstrated to him. Then, he said, "It just means, 'I'm listening.'"

Hmmm. It seems to convey a stronger message than a mere, "I'm listening," at least when we get the head wobbles. It seems to say, "I hear that you're talking. I may or may not understand what you're saying, so I'll just keep nodding until you're done talking." It's very confusing, actually, because it almost feels as if they're nodding, "yes, yes, I understand." It also seems to say, "Are you really sure? I would like to know more information." But I could be wrong. Language barriers are really barriers sometimes!

Perhaps because of their head-bobbing, we've also found that Indians don't seem to understand what nodding "yes," and shaking your head "no," means. Sahjee will ask one of the kids if she wants more toast, for example, and when she nods back, he looks totally confused. He also looks confused when she says, "Sure." I've been striving to teach the girls to say, "Yes, please," but that's a work in progress.

The theme of this post could be the communication confusions. We are enjoying the visit but it does seem like every other day we found we've assumed we've made some arrangement only to find that it was not as clear as we thought.


Debbie said...

Happy Mother's day Dawn!

Someone's going to have to make a book out of what you write and call it the "Adventures of the Nes-Burkes"!!!

Hope you have a safe and fun adventure on your plane/train/automobile adventure!


Anonymous said...

We love reading about your adventures. Hope the kids stay healthy! We are praying for you.

Georgia Nesmiths