Friday December 18th
After much soul searching, I have come to the conclusion that it is actually Friday. This enlightened decision was aided and abetted by the arrival of today’s Friday Chennai Times that mysteriously appeared under our hotel room door as we awoke around 7 o’clock to greet the new day. Jet lag is a concept that I have learned to refuse to recognize. As I write this it is 3:35 PM Indian time and that is exactly what it feels like in my body.
“>As first light appeared, the view from our window was a total ‘Welcome to India’. The hotel that we are staying in is undergoing a full scale expansion. Judging from the state of half completed materials outside our window, we couldn’t tell if the project had been halted yesterday or 6 months ago. However, within the hour, there were workers on the scaffolding – barefoot, unburdened by power tools, apparently underage and seemingly clueless as to what to do. Despite my perceptions, there was an indeterminable order to what they were doing and before our eyes over the remainder of the day, the exterior level grew by half a floor.
“>Just beyond the raw concrete and exposed rusting re-bar stood a seemingly new structure. Pristine, neat in design, paint, structure and repair – an oddity. Outside the main entrance of that building stood a cow. Suddenly this cow became the photographic study of Mrs. Karsch, who seems determined to photograph every cow in India from every angle possible.
“>Leaving the hotel room and entering the hallway for a much needed breakfast, I had to convince Lori that the photo that she wanted to take of the squatting Mexican at the far end of the corridor was in fact not a Mexican, but was, in actuality, an electric floor polisher that was more or less permanently stored at the end of the hall. Her vision has obviously been clouded by cow. Not to worry, I’m getting used to it.
>Breakfast consisted of spicy chicken sausages, idlis, which are like rice dumplings, and dosas, which are lentil pancakes, both staple breakfast foods of the region. They were served with a savoury cocoanut chutney and a salsa like sauce called sambaba or something like that. Tea and coffee were served with the regular compliment of evaporated milk.
>Realizing that the converter that I had purchased three of prior to leaving Montreal was great for two pronged plugs but severely lacking when it comes to three pronged devices which, for all intents and purposes represent virtually 100% of today’s electronica, rendering them virtually useless. Getting a more adaptable adaptor was high on the day’s priority list. So was the rumoured cheap cell phone.
After spending 10 minutes talking with the girl at the reception desk who was unable to a) show us where the hotel was situated on a local map, and b) incapable of pointing us in the direction of the phone store situated 90 seconds’ walk from the hotel’s front door, we opted to engage the doorman who, in a matter of minutes had hooked us up with a driver ready to take us on our missions as well as a brief tour of the local sights. We were on our merry way.
While he resembled any other Tamil in the neighbourhood, the driver’s name was Joseph ‘Joe’ Fernandez. I questioned myself as to whether we were in India or the Dominican Republic, particularly after I saw the Jesus icon light up on his cell phone as “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” blared out as his ring tone. Turns out that Joe was a great intro to Chennai. He was a devout Christian and was only too happy to take us to St. Thome – the highest point in Chennai that had a series of chapels at the top. It was a fair hike up the mountain in pretty hot and humid circumstance. The road replete with beggars at each station designed to replicate the 13 stations of the cross, as originally seen in Jerusalem and subsequently viewed by Lori and I two summers ago in Firenze. Now here’s another one in India. They’ll franchise anything these days.
>The top of the mountain housed several small chapels containing relics and the like of the guy who brought Christianity to the sub-continent and had set up residence in Chennai. He was known as ‘Doubting Thomas’. Finally, a Saint that I could relate to. To enter the chapel, it was necessary to remove ones shoes – yet another example of the mixed metaphor making up the mish mashed juxtaposition of Hindu and Catholic beliefs in this extremely pious country. Odd- the less health and wealth that a country is blessed with, the harder the citizens cling to faith. Were it I, I’d take a page from Doubting Thomas’ book and advise God that when he stops doling out leprosy and decides to knock off the starving babies routine, I’d be prepared to consider spending more time on my knees in much the same fashion that those pious souls all around me on the mountain top, praying to coffins, icons, and cheap buyable relics were. On the way down I handed the equivalent of $5 to the first beggar women I had encountered on the way up. The money came from Mike, an orthodox Jew in my office who insists that I offer up the cash to the first beggar I see whenever I travel. I figure that doing a mitzvah in a highly Roman Catholic/Hindu environment might help to even the score a little bit.
After a few false starts, the cell phone saga came to a happy ending. After first enduring a closed store, the second one had a phone available but no overseas plan, and the third with faulty equipment, Joe led us to a small stall-like enterprise that provided me with a new cell for $30. There was no readily available SIM card, so Joe lent me one of his. I then filled up the account with 200 rupees, or $4.50, which would be enough to buy me a month’s worth of talk time overseas. While buying the plan I had the opportunity to study the local phone rate. A non-long distance call was charged at the rate of 1 paisac per minute. There are 100 of those things in one rupee, which in itself is worth all of one fiftieth of a cent. Effectively phone time in India cost 1 one hundredth of a cent per minute. Rogers, eat your heart out. Since the vendor’s credit card machine was down (welcome to India), I had to pay cash, which left me a little light in the wallet. India is the land of ATMs. Unfortunately, many don’t work or respond to my card. It took me 3 swings at the plate to find a working machine, but fortunately I had Joe Fernandez batting cleanup and all was accomplished successfully.
Following our visit to the Mount, Joe’s next stop on our day tour was at a school for hearing and speech impaired children. The facility was a combination dormitory, classroom and kitchen facility, laid out over 7 acres, serving the needs of over 200 underprivileged handicapped children between the ages of 3 and 21. The entire cost of the creation, operation and tuition was paid by a fund that had been set up by a famous Indian actor who did a Reagan like mid-stream career transformation and entered politics, becoming a successful minister of some department or other during his tenure and probably scored better in his second job than he did in his first. He and his wife, who was also a Bollywood star, were childless and this was their amazing legacy. Statues of this marvellous humanitarian graced the grounds, all larger than life, covered in gold leaf and featuring the actor in his ubiquitous pose – flashing the peace sign and wearing sun glasses.
“>Lori and I were given a full tour of the compound and met the head administrator who proudly showed off the citations and trophies that the school and its children had garnered over the years. We were then taken through the classrooms, which were in full session. Lori instantly ingratiated herself to the children by snapping their pictures and, through the magic of digital photography, showing the results to the ever-smiling faces surrounding her.
>We both realized that we were getting an appetizer of what was the raison d’etre for us being in India and we unspokenly shared the special moment knowing that we were going to be doing the ‘right thing’ very soon and would be feeling the reward of righteousness for its own sake.