Thursday, February 3, 2011

More South Tour

I will get this done soon. I've started to realize that these entries of the South Tour are probably more for my sentimental benefit than your entertainment, but that actually just makes me want to write them more. It's very difficult to motivate myself, in the moment, to actually write something though - I'm constantly distracted by the things going on away from my computer, or occasionally other things on my computer, I will admit. It's hard to trim it down to size, too. Oh well. Where were we? Ah yes, Thekkady, land of elephaants, kung-fu, kathakali, spices, Ayurvedic massages, and American coffee. What a place.
He looks friendly.

Our next locale, Madurai, is a tad less exciting. Madurai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, is one of the oldest inhabited places in India - I believe it has been around for something like 2500 years. So yeah. I sit here proud of Northfield's defeat of Jesse James in the bygone days of the late 1800s and these guys have been around for two and a half milleniums. And according to Wikipedia, it was trading with Rome and Greece around 550 BCE. We did not see much of Madurai, which, in retrospect, disappoints me, considering all the history that seems to reside there. At the time, Madurai did not seem like anything special, the following tourist attraction exempted.

We were pretty much there for the Shree Meenakshi temple, which seems to be the bread and butter of Madurai's status as a very holy city. I think (and I may have this wrong) that Lord Shiva is said to have been married there, which kind of gives it the same importance as Bethlehem. Whatever legend says, the foundations of the building have been around for as long as Madurai has been, although the spectacular present building was built in about 1600, which is still super-old by American standards.

It's a sprawling complex, with many intricately carved towers connected by vast hallways. The exterior surfaces are astonishing - one one tower, there are innumerable, intricate carvings of Hindu deities. Our guide claimed that every Hindu god was represented on this tower. I find this hard to believe. There are 36 million of them, according to some sources. Guessing the number of Hindu gods in existence, even to an expert on the subject, seems rather like guessing the number of mosquitoes in Rice County in August. It fascinates me that this religion that has about a billion zealous devotees can be so deliriously inexact.

The interiors are also something else - we've got the Thousand Pillar Hall, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are tons and tons of statues and paintings and religious artifacts. There is even an elephant that they claim is Lord Ganesha (I feel like this would be kind of like grabbing a random carpenter and telling the whole world that he is Jesus). Nonetheless, it's pretty cool to have an elephant bless you. As I've mentioned before, elephants are really awesome.

So that's the Shree Meenakshi Temple, our only stop in our short Madurai stay. The pictures speak for themselves - this is an incredible structure. This may have been more descriptive than I initially intended, but this place was something else, and I wanted to do it justice. There's nothing else to say about Madurai, other than that our hotel was memorably awesome.
After that, we went to Kanyakumari, which is a touristy, seaside town in the Land's End part of India, the uttermost bottom of it, where the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean come together. It was another nice hotel, with meat and everything, and very close to the ocean. We got there about noon, and right outside of our hotel you can see an island temple and a gigantic island statue. We took a ferry to the both of them, and I like them both quite a bit. Nobody saw fit to inform us what the massive statue was supposed to be of, and when I asked our tour guide after the fact, she did not know. But they were pretty awesome.
Kanyakumari is a fun little town - it's got all sorts of markets and things, pandering to tourists, and it's also a good place for some solid South Indian food - masala dhosas, idli sambhar, both of which are delicious. It's a good place to sort of wander around. We enjoyed ourselves. Our second day there was spent strolling around the city and visiting various seaside attractions. We also visited a small museum which marks a place where Gandhi's ashes were held for a time after he was shot. These were not all of his ashes - those are all over the place - but just some of them, and I belive they were scattered into the oceans after a spell. It was a solid place to be.

I'll have to get this done soon - I'd better, the North Tour is coming up. I haven't talked much about my actual life lately, because there isn't anything spectacularly new to report, but I've been happy and healthy - I hang out with various Indians and other exchange students, I work on the language, I do yoga, I drink tea, I mess around with my 7-year-old host brother. It's fun. It's not super-eventful, but I'm slowly realizing just how valuable this year has been on a personal level. There's not much left, actually. When I get back from the North Tour there will be less than 3 months left. It's really hard to believe. Right now, this is a good place to be - things are going well, and if I ever get in a foul mood I know that home isn't very far off. At the same time, it's far out enough that I still feel like I have plenty of time left here.
My mission has changed a bit - I'm determined to get as close to the bottom of this dizzying, incomprehensible, dichotomous nation, and it's a fascinating excursion. I've also realized that I simply will have to come back here. There's simply no way to understand this country in just 10 months, and I am too interested in this to let it fall away. Also, I will miss people my friends and family. I'm only just starting to realize how much.
I will admit, I'm not looking forward to the post North Tour life here - the exchange students are going to start peeling off, and the Indians are going to have their end of year exams, which are pretty much a full-time occupation for a long time. Additionally, summer will start, and summer here is like, 115 degrees. Apparently nobody does anything. It's just too hot. I hope I can work around the weather and keep doing stuff with my last days.

Still, I'm a pretty content exchange student, and I have been for a long time, and I'm starting to realize how many things I will miss when I leave. It took some time, but life has gotten pretty good here. Stay tuned for the concluding part of South Tour, if you're interested.