Category Archives: Adventures of Travelling India

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.

From the Grime to the Sublime

We’ve not been blogging with as much frequency because we’ve been on the road without laptops and all the portable gizmos, so we’ve had to rely on internet cafes and the like for our communication needs.  Since even the lowliest rickshaw wallah seems to have the internet and phone at their fingertips in India these days, most of the internet and phone cafes have disappeared as suddenly as they flourished for a brief time.  Just another statement on the transience of existence?  In any case, Alex and I were blissfully unhooked from the entire world for a week.  Now that we are back in Chennai, we’ll try to make up for our absence with some additional photos and videos for your amusement.

We spent the last week visiting the holy city of Varanasi, cradle of Hindu civilization, situated on the banks of the Ganges River such that the waterfront faces the rising sun.  We took a room with a view onto this amazing place, where one is awakened by the chants of pilgrims from all around the world passing by under the window, the ringing of bells, the blowing of the conch shell, all in praise of Lord Shiva, to whom Varanasi is home.  “Ganga desh swaram, Shankaram…”  goes the song…”on the banks of the Ganges is Shiva’s home.”  The river is faced by giant walls, topped by temples, ashrams, tourist hotels, and even a grand mosque, with monkeys scampering across balconys and green wild parrots disturbing the tranquility, their wings flashing red as they shoot through the air, mingling with large flocks of pigeons and seagulls.  The other side of the river is devoid of structures, a desert leading off to some trees and villages in the distance, riverbed which will be under thirty of forty feet of water when the river swells during monsoon.

Our morning ritual is to sit on the ghats (the ancient stairs leading down to the river), drinking heavily sugared spiced tea while absorbing the sights and sounds of the daily awakening of this ancient and amazing city; we’ve come to know the same gentlemen who come daily to bathe in the holy river.  They stop by and chat with me in Hindi, amused that I would give the effort to learn the language of this place, ever ready to teach me new vocabulary.  It’s not so difficult, for their English is almost always much better than my Hindi, but they enjoy watching me struggle and are ever so helpful with a quick translation of what they just said.  Four years ago, to celebrate my 60th birthday, I swam across the Ganges to the other side and back with a young gentleman, Ollie from Australia.  Upon our return to the same ghat as our departure, the bathers gathered in a small crowd with a big round of applause and presented us with garlands of flowers.  When we drop a coin in the fingerless hand of the begging leper, we curiously feel a part of this place.  “There but for fortune…”  One always feels included in India, in particular in Varanasi, whether ecstatically happy with the music and colorful experience, or lying in a rotten bed, deathly ill, fighting off the ubiquitous mosquitoes.  Somewhere along the line, returning here time and again for 33 years, it has become a second home to us.

We have family in Varanasi, wonderful musicians who practice dynastic traditions of keeping the family music in the bloodline; 14th and 15th generation descendants of courtly musicians to the Maharajahs.  When we visit, the instruments come out and we play the music that they or their father so carefully taught me, then pick up the continuation of the musical education from where we last stopped, even if years have passed.  We are all on the same path in music and philosophy, though  great distance separates us for years.  When in Varanasi, I must play, for they must play, we play together, we play our strange fiddle music for them and they love it and dance and play rhythms on their mouth cavity or drums.  In music there is no caste, no difference of status–we all want peace and for everybody to be happy, at least for the moment.  They freely give of their music, because they know we can create a moment of bliss, somewhere far away.

But I fear for the future of this beautiful place.  When I first came here, a pedestrian couldn’t walk along the road at rush hour, the bicycle rickshaws were so tightly jammed against each other. The air was clean and fresh, blowing to the plains from the Himalayas.  I mused at the time that this place would become an environmental disaster if the population here should ever be able to afford cars.  That day has come; traffic chokes all the roads, the cycle rickshaw is diminishing in numbers quickly and a dense shroud of intense pollution blankets the whole place as cars and motorcycles reign supreme.  Not just pollution–end of life on earth magnitude pollution.  Everywhere, respiratory illness prevails; my friends have lost family members at an early age to it. Coughing and hacking have become part of the sounds of the city awakening on the ghats.  Within a week, Alex and I both came to feel quite ill with bad coughs and a burning sensation in the chest.  Smoke from burning trash and plastic swirls around the murals of Shiva and Buddha.   In the late afternoon, one can look directly at the sun and discern the sunspots with the naked eye.  If it is so appalling to touch our tongue to a soundpost or the foot of a violin bridge because our breath is considered impure, how can it be that such pollution and mountains of trash can be deposited upon the crown of the holiest of cities?  Varanasi is called the most ancient living city on earth–perhaps it will ironically end up demonstrating how our demise as a civilization may come.

My friend Om Baba always said:  “Holy man, dirty man, holy city dirty city.”  To this we must add “holy city, dirtiest city?”  At least the music and hearts of our friends here remain pure.  This I can take home without carrying all the pollution…