Kumbakonam - Pondicherry

We have safely arrived at Fr. Antony's. The whole experience was a little scary, but we made it through. Our journey began Saturday night, when we checked out of the Ramada in Chennai and had a driver take us to the bus station for the trip that the man at the Ramada had arranged for us. We had our first nighttime Indian driving experience, which was shocking all over again, although by now I'm pretty desensitized to the craziness of it all.
We arrived at the bus station about 40 minutes early after losing our ticket once in the car, finding it, and then losing it again when exiting the car, determining that it could not be in the car, and then finally finding it in my bag amidst the chaotic atmosphere of the bus station.
The station was really more like a sort of strip mall, only with very small shops set more in stalls, each representing a different bus company and each set about 10 feet from where the buses came in, not leaving a lot of room for the people to gather and board. The buses would come and park in a spot near the company to which they belonged, and a sign would be placed on the front with a time of departure and what I assume was a destination written in Tamil, which was very little help to us. Our driver had set us up in front of a bus where we huddled around our luggage in the midst of the throng of Indians. A few different men with physical handicaps came by, each selling key chains or other sorts of trinkets. The station was pretty dirty, and the smell of human waste would at times be more or less potent.
While waiting for the bus, amidst the other scents in the air, one that seemed out of place was incense. We noticed that each of the drivers had sticks of incense burning in the front of the bus, and they performed some sort of ritual (I'm guessing for a safe drive) that involved moving the stick in circles in front of a picture hanging inside the bus at the top of the windshield. Then they exited the bus, and using some sort of berry or oily capsule or something, placed juice/oil on a low area in the middle of the windshield, then on the radiator, then on the license plate before casting aside whatever the thing used was. The ritual was interesting, but didn't really make me feel any safer.
When it appeared that the bus was boarding, we asked a man near us if we were supposed to just leave our bags to be stowed next to the bus and get on. He looked at our ticket, stepped back to the company's table, and talked with them for a minute. He came back and told us that the bus we wanted was actually one space down, so we went over to it. The same man was also stowing some bags, and a man from the bus came around to the side and had us bring our bags to the back so they could be put in the back, which opened for storage. We were eager to get our bags stored early, because the bags that didn't go inside the storage bins went on top of the bus, and although they probably secured them well, we didn't want to take chances.
After getting our bags in, we found our seats. They were actually quite comfortable and reclined (I don't mean like airplane recline--they really reclined). There turned out to be air conditioning, which was extremely welcome after standing outside in the heat and humidity.
After a few minutes the bus left. The driving was a little easier since we couldn't see what was going on (there were curtains over the windows and the driver's area was separated by a wall). The drive was mostly on a two lane highway, on which it seems that Indians are expected to pass each other in every circumstance except that in which a car is directly beside the car being passed. There was a mostly blocked window to the driver's area through which I observed a few passes that seemed to me to be close calls (one where an oncoming car had to swerve off the road and I thought we would surely collide), but I tried not to watch.
The drive took about 6 hours, and we arrived in Kumbakonam around 4am. We had been wondering how we would know when we got to Kumbakonam, and the man next to me who told me he would say when we arrived was now fast asleep. Steve noticed some sign as we entered the city, but the guy still woke up as one of the drivers came through saying something, part of which sounded something like "Kumbakonam." We got off the bus and our bags were unloaded. The Kumbakonam bus station was far more primitive than that of Chennai. There was a line of small shops under the cement ceiling of what I think was a larger building, although I never really looked. On a cement slab next to us, a man, woman, and child were sleeping on a mat. As I got out my cell phone to see if I was able to receive any signal to call Fr. Antony, a man came and stood next to us, not at all hiding the fact that he was trying to see what was going on with my phone's screen.
When I didn't get a signal, I asked the man if there was a phone. He didn't understand me at first, so I said "telephone," which he understood, and pointed over to a shop a little ways down. I asked if it took rupees, and he said yes, so Steve gave me a 10 rupee bill.
While Grace and Steve stayed with the bags, I went over to find the phone. I saw a booth next to a man who was selling little bits of jewelry. I entered it and dialed father's number. He picked up and I tried to explain exactly where we were. He told me to put on the man at the shop. I was unsure about this, but asked him if he would talk on the phone, which he did right away. He spent a minute or two talking to father, after which I again picked up the phone. Father said to wait right there and that he would come get us. I waited in line (I felt bad, there were two other people in line waiting while the vendor talked on the phone, but they didn't seem to think this was impolite) and asked how much I owed, and he said 6 rupees.
After paying him, I went back and stood with Grace and Steve. I was a little nervous, because we were a little bit down from the phone booth, and another bus came to where we were standing, so we had to move farther down away from the phone booth. I figured that if father came anywhere near there he would see us, so I hoped it would all work out.
After about 20 minutes, I saw him walking toward us, with the man from the shop next to him, pointing to us. We took our bags over to his car and set off toward the school.
The school is about 10 minutes from where the bus had dropped us off. It is a bit separated from the city, and to get to it you have to go down a few roads that appear to be through the jungle, although there were occasional huts along them. On one such road there was a gate that father got out and opened. The driver continued up to the entrance to the school, with father coming up behind us. Father took us up some stairs that were mostly like a ramp to allow for the children who could not walk to get up them, and then down a hall to our rooms. There were two rooms on the second floor and more on the third, so Grace and Steve stayed on the second floor and I went up to the third.
Pretty much as soon as father put on the light in my room bees began flocking to it. Within a minute there were probably twenty surrounding it, so he said that I could stay on one of the extra beds in a room downstairs. After a little more excitement with a GIANT cockroach-type beetle and a frog in the bathroom (which I actually thought was kind of cool), it was already about 6 and we decided to stay up to go to Mass at 7am. Father had originally told us just to sleep and that he would say a Mass that evening for us, but we figured we would just stay up.
To move one of the beds father brought along two boys, both about 14. I met them in the hallway, where they shook my hand and I introduced myself. When I asked for their names, I realized they couldn't speak. I ran and got a pen and paper out of my room and wrote down my name for them. They then proceeded to write down there own names (one of them began writing his name in Tamil, which has a beautiful script that is entirely indecipherable to someone not familiar with it. He quickly seemed to realize that I wouldn't be able to read it, though, and crossed it out, writing it in English.) They started pointing to letters in my name and making gestures, showing me how to sign them. I learned how to sign my name and then one of theirs before father told them to go to bed.
Since we had decided to stay up, we had a little time to look around the grounds in the growing sunlight. The school is a very interesting place, with palm trees growing everywhere. There are paths that lead into the fields and gardens, all lined with trees bearing coconuts, bananas, and other fruits.
The chapel is directly underneath the two rooms on the second floor, but spans a greater distance down. Father told us to wait to come to Mass until he had called the children, so we waited around outside. Soon, the lines of children began to come. Their quarters are across the main ouside area in front from ours. First the deaf girls came, then the deaf boys, followed by the physically handicapped boys. I didn't see the physically handicapped girls come in, so I think they must have come before we got downstairs. All of the children were so friendly and would wave and smile at us. They seemed extremely curious about us, and would look whenever they got the chance (although in Mass they seemed to control their attention more, which I was glad for). After the children filed in and took their places, the two boys whom I had met earlier came out and were signing by making fists with bent elbows and motioning their arms downward, which we understood them to mean "sit" as we saw the three chairs they had arranged for us (everyone else sat on the floor). Finally the teachers came in, filling in some spaces in the aisles between the children.
The Mass was said in Tamil, so we couldn't understand, although the individual parts and responses were identifiable. One teacher stood in front of the two rows of deaf children and signed the spoken parts of the Mass, which was interesting to see. After Mass father had us sit in front of the altar and introduced us. They gave us a sort of necklace made out of sandalwood, which has a distinct sweet smell. Father then asked us to come upstairs to have breakfast with him.
The room where we eat is on the second floor, down the hall from our rooms. A woman there prepared the food for us, which was all delicious. For breakfast we had idly (it's like a steamed rice cake) and coconut chutney, with some strange vegetable that was like sprouts, fresh jackfruit (which I had never tried but was awesome), and a few other things I can't remember. There was a really cute little boy eating with us who father told us was his brother's grandson, although father is just like a grandfather to him. After eating all of his food with his hands (which the Indians do anyway, but it seemed so much funnier since he was so small), he washed his hands and went out to ride his tricycle up and down the hall. Father opened his room up to us to rest in while he had the other rooms cleaned and de-bugged. Father is extremely obliging, and anyone who knows him will tell you that he will trip over himself to accommodate you in any way he can (trying to discourage him from helping you is generally futile). We must have gone to bed around 10am, and father came in and woke us up at 6pm for dinner. I have no idea how we were able to sleep so long. Father had come to get us for lunch, but was surprised to find us still asleep and didn't want to wake us.
We came to have dinner, which included rice, chicken and lamb curries, and a strange type of fruit whose name father couldn't remember. He said it was related to coconuts and grew on similar trees, but it was a strange fruit with a hard, solid rind (not like a regular fruit's) and a very juicy interior with an almost jello-ey or citrus-like (except it wasn't divided into a bunch of cells) texture.
After dinner we moved back into the two rooms. Father had gotten the air conditioner to work for us, so we put all the beds in one room and all our things in the other (the rooms are connected on the inside, so we could get between them easily). The AC didn't keep things super cool, but it was a nice change and at least decreased the humidity a little.
I think we all woke up pretty early (shouldn't have slept so much yesterday). It was fun to get to see all of the kids coming into Mass and then filing out afterwards. When I was leaving, two little girls wanted to shake my hand, and after that the rest of them, and then some of the boys, and then the rest of them, so I think I have now been formally introduced to at least all the resident children. They really like having their picture taken, especially when I showed them that they can see the picture on the back of my camera (when I played movies back for them they thought it was hilarious). They signed to me by bunching their fingers together at their mouths and then pointed off toward the room where we had eaten before, adding "eat" to my list of signs, which now includes "thank you," "what," (which is signed, father told me, by a held up fist with the thumb across the side, but he said I'll also be understood if I just wave my arms frantically and look puzzled) and "hi," which is just a wave (I don't know that this one is official, but it works). Breakfast was very good today again with some things we had yesterday and some new curry. Father didn't have anything special for us to do, so we took a walk around the paths and trails and looked at some of the fields. Father said that tomorrow he is going to take us to a nearby town where a reception will be held for his friend, who is becoming a bishop. We were going to leave right after breakfast, but some government inspectors are coming to look at the school (today was the first day of the school year), so he needs to be here for that. Now the plan is to leave after lunch, and he said it's an interesting place to see.
Today Fr. Antony took us to a town called Pondicherry where he was going for the reception of his friend, who was made a bishop. We had originally planned to leave early in the morning, but we had to wait because some government inspectors were coming to look at the school and father had to be here for that. They didn't end up coming until later, so we left around 3.
The drive was very hot in father's un-air conditioned car. By the time we got there it was evening and we all felt disgusting. Father got us to a hotel near the Cathedral, where he was staying. The lobby of the hotel seemed pretty nice, so I was surprised to see their cards listing it as a 3 star hotel. Turns out that their assessment is rather an exaggeration. Stepping onto the small and dilapidated elevator, we immediately realized that this hotel was not all quite as nice as the lobby. We stepped off onto our floor, which smelled and had piles of dust and garbage that no one had yet picked up. Our room was still being swept out, so we were able to see all the things that had formerly been on the floor, which still felt dirty. We had gotten a triple-occupancy room, which was one room with a bathroom and a giant, three-person bed. The bed was not terribly soft, and we later discovered that it was made with two sets of double sheets, so the person sleeping in the middle, which turned out to be Steve, had to have part of each sheet covering each half of his body. We did get to watch some TV, though, but only about 4 channels were actually English, so our choices were limited to Charmed, a Rod Stewart concert, some movie about a man who wanted to become a woman, and something about depression on the Discovery Channel. ;
The room service at this hotel, keeping with the apparent trend in India, was really cheap, so we ordered that for dinner. We got some tandoori chicken, a regular and a stuffed naan, a nasty fruit cup with sugar sprinkled all over, and a chocolate milk shake, all for about 140 rupees, which is about $3.40. We went to bed pretty early, all snuggling into our three-person bed (we didn't snuggle, though).
06.08.05 Pictures We had the day today to explore Pondicherry until noon, when we would be driving back to Kumbakonam. We first went to breakfast at the hotel, which was complimentary, but less than impressive. There was a little pastry shop down at the ground level that we had been curious about also, but it wasn't too great either.
Pondicherry is a lot nicer than Chennai, and we wandered around a lot and found lots of interesting shops. There were lots of street vendors, too, and I wanted to get something just for the authentic eating experience, but I couldn't bring myself to trust that their stands were up to health code. The town was a lot of fun, though, and we got in some good shopping. After that, we went back to our ghetto hotel where Fr. Antony's driver picked us up and took us to have lunch with father's friend, the new bishop.
Lunch was at the bishop's brother's house, who lives in Canada most of the year. He was very in to photography, and he showed us a lot of cool pictures he has taken. The bishop is a very nice and intelligent man, and father seems firm in his belief that his friend will be the greatest bishop in the world.
After eating we stopped by the Cathedral again to pick up father's things and then began the long drive back to Kumbakonam. At night I discovered the joys of doing laundry by hand, which I had never done before, but was sort of fun. I prefer a machine, though, and I think I needed fabric softener or something, because my clothes dried a little stiff.
We awoke this morning to amazingly loud and obnoxious music. We had no idea where it was coming from, but upon going downstairs we discovered some big speakers that had been set up outside the chapel. I went up to the roof above father's room to check on my clothes, which were not quite dry, and to watch the sun rise. The music stayed on for about 20 minutes and then vanished as unexpectedly as it had started. I still haven't figured out what it was all about.
Since the very first night we were here and I met the two children helping Fr. Antony, they tried to tell me about a game involving some sort of club and ball that they play at 4:00. We went out at 4 today to see what it was all about, and it turned out to be cricket. The boys play it in an open field over by the dormitories, and they were happy to get us in on it. Pitching in cricket is very different, since you have this crazy wind-up and then you chuck the ball overhand, aiming for it to bounce before the batter (there's probably a different name for this in cricket, but I don't know). For those who haven't seen a cricket bat, it's more like a paddle, with one flatter but rounded side that you use to hit. I wasn't very good at the pitching (my aim needs work), but I did get one good hit. I felt really bad at one part, though, because I started running to my left to catch a ball, but there was a little kid right next to me I didn't see, so we ended up falling over. I tried my best to keep myself from falling on him, and it seemed like his side was hurt a little, but he said he was okay. Some kids were over by the side and they had a giant palm branch that they were braiding they fronds on. Grace was doing this with them, and every time she did one right they would all clap and congratulate her. It started looking like it would rain, so we closed up the game and started moving to the edge of the field. The kids all wanted to shake our hands, and they taught me some of their handshakes, which were pretty cool.
The rain never really started, but the little kids kept pushing me inside and didn't seem to understand me trying to tell them that if it started raining I wanted to be out in it. I was really hot  from playing cricket (but mostly from throwing kids around, which the throngs of children seemed to enjoy but never wanted me to stop), so I met Steve and Grace back upstairs. Cricket was really fun, though. We didn't get into anything like base running (I don't even know if cricket has bases), but pitching and hitting is fun enough.
We didn't do a lot today... went on a walk, saw some ants, played some more cricket (although it was mainly just catch today). There's some pretty lame pictures, though.
Today father took us to see the shrine of Our Lady of Good Health. It is in a nearby town and the drive took about an hour, which seemed like nothing after the drives to and from Pondicherry.
There was one big church with a few smaller chapels on it, and then the shrine itself down a long path that had the stations of the cross on one side and the mysteries of the rosary on the other. The path was basically a sidewalk on either side of a long stretch of sand that some people would crawl down or make their way down on their knees. At the end of the path there was a small chapel depicting Mary and Jesus appearing to a little boy selling milk.
There was also a street that led down to the sea. Father warned us not to go into the water because there are poisonous fish in it. The street was lined with shops, some of which had interesting things. The others mostly had the same stuff, but everything was very inexpensive.
We went to an English Mass at 10:00 said by Fr. Antony. After that we wandered around a little more and then drove home. We took a sort of roundabout route back to the school and stopped by another school run by a some friends of father.
I just came back from dinner, and I am perhaps the most stuffed I have ever been in my life. I'm not full. Full is where I was about a half hour ago when I thought I was finished and was about to get up and leave the table. I was finishing my water when Meri, one of the ladies who usually cooks for me, offered me some of the greens that were in a bowl on the table. For about the entire time I've been here, Meri would bring me out whatever she was making, which was usually dosai, and I would tell her when I'd had enough. The problem was that it seemed she usually didn't understand when I would tell her not to bring any more, since she knows barely any English. I didn't want to be offensive, though, so I started out with stuff like "that's enough, thank you" (that was before I realized she didn't know much English), and grew to things like "No more," which, accompanied by gestures of my hands waving back and forth, I figured would be enough to break the language barrier. I was wrong, or so I thought, because every night it seemed she would bring out dosai until she was ready to stop, regardless of the point at which I gave my regular "No more, please." This reached it's culmination last night, when I sat down at the table and saw a plate with about 12 dosai stacked up on it. "Oh well," I thought, and began to eat them. It was when I had almost finished them that Meri started bringing out the dosai that she had begun making in back. I decided to be a little more insistent this time, since it didn't really seem plausible that she expected me to eat 15 dosai in one sitting (I think it's common to eat maybe 3 or 4), so I not only said "that's enough," but also added "no more dosai, please." She gave her Indian style nod, which involves rocking the head from side to side about an axis coming out of the nose, and went back again. No sooner had she walked back than I heard the sizzle of dosai batter hitting a hot pan. When she brought this new one out, I was more adamant, telling her as politely as possible, but without room for confusion, that I didn't need any more dosai. She again nodded, went back, and began cooking another dosai. As she carried this one out to my plate, I looked up and noticed a smile on her face. My initial suspicions about her bringing out dosai until she wanted to stop were correct, but my assumption that she did this because she didn't understand my declining more dosai were incorrect. She seemed to find this very funny, though, especially at one point when I, having seen the thermos they usually put tea in sitting on the table, asked for sugar, and she brought it to me, assuming it was for the dosai, which I realized when I asked if there was tea in the thermos, and the other woman told me it was only hot water for father's throat. As long as I can brighten her day, I suppose. I used to use jam on all the excess dosai I was given in order to have some non-substantial method to pack them away (the regular dosai have a rather sour taste, not so good for eating alone), but I used up all the jam and didn't want to ask father to get more, since I probably wouldn't finish it before I left anyway. I guess she just thought I was going to start using sugar as my jam substitute.
Anyway, that was last night. Tonight, as I said, I had eaten my fill and was getting ready to leave the table, when Meri, who seems to live to fill up my plate, held up a bowl of some green vegetable with some other things and offered me some. Realizing that my answer was entirely irrelevant, and preferring to be polite ("Indian polite" is not "yes, please" and "no, thank you;" if you are offered food, the answer is always "yes, and more"), I said sure, so she piled a few heaping spoonfuls onto my plate. She then picked up another dish of greens, asked some questions for the sake of rhetoric and then piled some of it on my plate as well. I set down to dig in to my new half-plate of food, realizing on the first taste that I hadn't particularly liked either of the items when I'd had them at lunch. So, I got to set in on my job of over-filling an already full stomach with food, every bite of which had to be choked down. I felt bad and tried to appreciate it as it would probably not be hard to find severe poverty without traveling far, but I just couldn't do it. I thought I was going to lose it right there and throw up all over the table, but I thought that would be even worse than turning down food. Meri spent most of the time behind the divider that separates the eating area from the cooking area, so I didn't have to worry about hiding my grimacing faces and could take bites with whatever timing I preferred, drinking lots of water in between (I didn't want to fill up my stomach even more, but the water seemed to make me feel better). The worst part was when she came up to clean the counter next to me, so I had to look like I was enjoying it (or at least look like it wasn't torture, which was equally difficult) and eat at a normal pace. In the end, I didn't even get through it all, but I made a valiant effort. I ate most of the food on my plate, and perhaps the small remainder will discourage Meri from serving me so much in the future.
It was my last Saturday at the schools, so I decided to take lots of pictures. The children were in class for the first half of the day, but I guess since it was Saturday mostly dancing was going on. We did some gardening after that. Lots of pictures!
Today was father's birthday. Some girls from the teacher training school did a dance for father after Mass and gave him oranges (but they looked like limes). After that we did more gardening, then studying, and then the kids get to watch TV on Sunday evenings, which they get very excited for.
I had a fun last night at the school. All the kids wanted to say goodbye and kept saying they'd cry when I left. They would ask me if I would cry when I left, but I told them if they did I probably would too.
After all the boys were put to bed, the main entrance patrol came up to help me pack. Luckily for us, the power went out just as we entered my room, as it usually does a little after 9. Most nights it comes back on after a few seconds, though, but this time it did not. We made some progress packing by digital camera light, and then roamed around in the dark. The power didn't end up coming back until the middle of the night, at which point I was rudely awoken by the lights, which had remained flipped "on." Oh well.