Blindsided

Dear readers, we have been unable to blog for close to 10 days now, and with good reason. It’s a good tale and will probably be slightly long. I hope you don’t mind my prolonged ramblings in the telling of it.

December 2 was the day we presented the certificates of completion to our four course participants, all of whom learned our exacting tasks in the highest professional manner. They worked tirelessly in the morning to finish up their projects in time for lunch, then celebrated their graduation with tea and dividing up the precious tools which had been donated in the USA for the benefit of the Violin Wise program.

Our stay here has been characterized primarily by rainfall, and on this morning the rain was particularly ferocious, due to two cyclones which struck the area in rapid succession. The rainfall in November 2015 has been 10 times the normal monsoon rainfall which we experienced in 2013, and on the day of our closing ceremony the individual raindrops felt like tea cup sized water balloons bombarding our bodies, drenching us in a matter of seconds. The roads were already flooding, with water up to the bottom of the chassis of the car. The students arrived late, drenched to the skin, and we provided them with a couple of dry rock and roll t-shirts left over as gifts from my interview on the Chennai Live radio station. After the ceremony, we all parted ways quickly, as the rain was pouring in earnest.

Alex and I were resting afterward in the hotel, lamenting that the rainfall would probably restrict our freedom of movement during our upcoming travel time. Little did we know…

As I turned away from the window where we had been observing the increasing water levels in the intersection below, I was stricken with a sudden loss of vision in my left eye. Nearly totally blind, the TV looked like a smudge of dim light, no detail to be seen, blocked by murky color and floaters which resembled seaweed surging back and forth in a muddy tidal pool. After waiting several hours to see if this condition would pass, not wanting to cause undue concern to our friends, we decided I should call Krishnan for advice. In the meantime, the unrelenting rain had caused such flooding throughout the city that most ambulance services were not venturing out into the storm and normal auto traffic was unwise at best. He and his wife sprang into immediate action, calling all their connections into play, and after considerable cajoling and begging, managed to arrange for a special government ambulance to pick me up and deliver me to the emergency room at Sankara Netralaya eye clinic, one of the very finest in the country.

After hurriedly packing some belongings, we discovered that the ambulance would not come to the doorway of the hotel, the rising floodwaters being already too deep. Instead, they had parked on an overpass above the intersection and were waiting for us, 60 feet above the torrent. In the trepidation of the moment, Alex and I were prepared to wade through the water, but the hotel staff wouldn’t hear of it and they commandeered a very brave driver to transport us the 300 meters to the overpass. When we entered the floodwaters, I was shocked to see how deep the water had become, often submerging the front of the van and lapping at the base of the windshield. Those were the longest 300 meters of my life, witnessed by an elderly gentleman who laughed insanely from his porch at the sight of us plowing through the storm. I will forever be convinced that cars for the Indian market are mysteriously designed to function underwater.

The interior of the ambulance was sparse; a couple of benches and a litter to carry the injured. The young paramedic was dressed in blue jeans and t-shirt, and regaled us with tales of the emergencies of that day; a heart attack due to flood-related stress; a young man of 20 who was cavorting on his bicycle when hit by a car and pinned under water; a poisoning due to stretching the evening’s alcohol supply with liquid bleach. He also worked part-time as an extra and voice-over artist in the movies. My attention was diverted from my newly blind eye by fighting off motion sickness due to the stifling tropical humid air in the vehicle and the violent jolts from the rain-damaged roads. The young paramedic excitedly proclaimed: “Sir, you are my first American.” I proclaimed, with considerably less enthusiasm, “you are my first ambulance ride, and in a flood in India, no less!”

Nearly midnight, the emergency room was deserted, no one able to make it through the storm, and Alex and I were immediately ushered into an office for the most thorough and grueling examination I’ve ever experienced, by the kindest doctors imaginable. At some point I heard Alex gasp and writhe uncomfortably in her chair. “I do teeth, vomit, diarrhea; gross-no problem OK, but Dude… I don’t do eyes!” I inquired with her if she’d like me to hold her hand to help her make it through the ordeal. Meanwhile, in true Indian fashion, we were offered to take a break for tea at midnight.

It was determined that I had suffered a hemorrhage in the retina and the vitreous was clouded by the blood. Nothing horribly serious, but the source could not be located. Since the storm had so completely flooded the city and no cars were available, it was decided that we be admitted to the hospital and were given a room for the night, and that I would confer with the senior doctor the next day for more tests. After a stop at the dilation station, Dr. Ekta Rishi, a truly saintly and calming doctor, decided that no medicines were indicated and I needed rest more than anything. Would I like to remain admitted to the hospital or return to the hotel? Longing for the familiarity of tropically clammy sheets and non-drying towels in my room, I chose the hotel.

The hospital kindly arranged to have us transported by a sturdy jeep-like vehicle and intrepid driver back to the hotel safely, but the waters had deepened alarmingly in the entire neighborhood. A crowd of concerned hotel guests were mobbing the reception desk, desperately seeking the quickest way out of town. As for Alex and me, we retired to our rooms, exhausted from the adventure and grateful for the fact that the hotel had an emergency generator so we could check the news of the storm and maybe take in a kung fu movie on the violence channel. In the meantime, the authorities had shut off power to 70% of Chennai, India’s fourth largest metropolis, in order to avoid electrocutions among the populace, who were wading through the floodwaters in hopes of connecting with family and flooded businesses. Before retiring to bed, I stared in wonder from my eighth floor window over the city, shrouded in darkness, all traffic vanished, deathly silent.

The next morning we learned that the basement of the hotel had flooded in heavy rains during the night, knocking out the generator, and with it all refrigeration, air conditioning, elevators, and lighting. In order to avoid dam burst, water had been released from several lakes around the town, adding to the severity of our situation. We were effectively marooned in one of the worst areas of Chennai’s most serious flooding in 100 years. The general manager gathered the hotel guests together and informed us that for next 48 to 72 hours, we would need to ration food and water. Please, no showers, no flushing toilets. Cars could not escape our situation and the guests were quiet, amiable, and orderly, but nonetheless anxious to find a way out of the city. We could not brave the floodwaters and wade around town, as the current had concocted a virulent cocktail of sewage, trash, and rainwater. The last time we ventured out during a minor flood, I immediately contracted a fever and suspicious looking itchy spots on my upper body.

Alex and I decided to take the fiddles downstairs and play for everybody–a true captive audience! Our efforts were exceedingly well received, and Venkat, the general manager thanked us profusely for helping keep the crowd happy and diverted from their woes, giving us carte blanche to play anywhere, anytime we wished. Wealthy businessmen proclaimed to us that they needed to stop their incessant chasing of wealth, that the situation had taught them to live life more completely. Smiles all around, many were the compliments we received in the next few days. I can safely say that Alex and I are now world famous in the lobby of our hotel!

As the rains subsided, most of the hotel guests were able to slowly make their way by car to Bangalore and catch flights to their destinations, leaving Alex and me like the last ghosts to inhabit the deserted hotel, along with a skeleton crew of staff. We dined alone in the once bustling dining hall, the once varied menu reduced to basic meals, nonetheless sumptuous, a tribute to the fine chefs in this place. We all became like family, locked away from the world, all efforts at outside communication useless, honing our skills in the inscrutable Tamil language.

At some point the hotel was able to bring in a bus with a mobile generator, and after five days of groping our way up the stairs in darkness and leaving our rooms open for lack of electronic locks, light was restored in the lobby. The meat stocks in the submerged basement began their inexorable process of mortification, the stench intertwining with the diesel fumes from the generator, creating a dance of putrefaction and breathlessness all the way up the staircase and permeating the lobby and halls of the hotel. Some respite could be found in the room, but the air was stifling with no air conditioning, and opening the windows invited swarms of mosquitoes to invade.

In the meantime the waters have receded and we have been able to make some very welcome forays around the devastated city. The death toll is now above 450 and the damage is unbelievable, Chennai’s citizenry now left to face a strong wave of diseases–cholera, typhoid, malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya. We are fortunate to be able to bathe in deet-based mosquito repellent and the mere name of that last disease compels me to do so frequently.

Tomorrow we will be able to depart, as the airport is no longer under water and is slowly returning to normal, but our hearts go out to all who will remain here, their stories countless and largely untold, their suffering immense. Alex and I will return, for our work here is important and our family here will greet us with open arms. In the meantime, Chennai, we wish you a very speedy recovery!

Oh, and by the way, my eyesight, which was to take up to a month of rest to recover, has now returned to normal.

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12 thoughts on “Blindsided

  1. sue

    Next year you’ll be rewarded with perfect weather. And can’t wait to hear your tales from this year. Glad you’re both safe.

    Reply
  2. Rafael Maldonado Jr

    Wow Jim and Alex what a story & what a great wordsmith Jim you are. I was there with you every moment. So grateful that you’re can see again and you’ll be home safe. Ocean waters been 66, 67F.

    Rafael’s iPhone

    >

    Reply
  3. Ken Keppeler

    Happy you and Alex made it home. We’ll see you in about a week in SB.
    Cheers from sunny New Mexico,
    Ken and Jeanie

    Reply
  4. kevin carr

    James
    You are a superb a neutered with a discerning eye and a calm, entrancing style of narrating you exquisite and soulful adventures. Safe travels my friend
    Kevin

    Reply
  5. James Wimmer

    Monsieur Kevin,

    Thank you for all your very kind comments. Your auto correct did leave me wondering if I had undergone some procedure unbeknownst to me while everything else was happening. Thanks for your correction–you had me a bit worried…

    Jim

    Reply
  6. Tasha S

    Thank you for such a moving account. I’m glad you’re home safe and don’t have strange red spots on your lower half! 🙂 All the best!

    Reply
  7. Peter white

    Jim I Think that such adventures are the essence of life. Thoreau wrote about seeking the Lal that life had to offer from the best to the worst. Seems to me you and Alex got the best and the worst all at once. Great, vivid. And concrete writing that is great non fiction prose. If you make violins as well as you write, you are a master. Keep at this project. I teach violin making on the app called periscope and I have been invited to Bolivia. Some day we ought to spend a few hours on info about violin making. I am a devotee, somewhat obsessed , seeking both Bhudda and control at the same time. Oh well keep,on keepin on. Pete

    Reply
    1. James Wimmer

      Hi Pete,

      Even when it throws the worst at us, it gives us the very best of tales. Alex has been after me to wax nostalgic and write more about my past experiences in India, some of which are downright surreal. Thanks to you, maestro, and to many others who have been so encouraging regarding my writing. I assure you, I’ve always been a violin maker as well as a picaresque fiddler first. Writing came after much prodding from Alex and Peggy.

      Some day I hope indeed to meet with you over that promised gelatinous feast of hide glue! Perhaps in the workshop in Bolivia!

      all the best,

      Jim

      Reply

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