"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra 2011 : Before the trip

Some things never change.

Packing for an early morning flight from Dallas to Newark to Delhi, the duffel bag from Kohl's broke at 4 in the morning. Anish had to rush out to the only store open at that time - Sam's Club. I transferred my things, and put my $30 duffel bag and my daughter's $300 duffel bag into two gigantic suitcases that have proven their reliability by traveling to India seven times so far. On the way back, we would have these two suitcases to fill with our shopping and books for the Mission's camp in Chicago.

Karan picked us up from the airport, and we had an hour to chat as we drove to NOIDA, and we soon discovered what a small world it truly is. He had just been bungy jumping at Hrishikesh, the first such site in India. He had jumped 200 feet, the same as my first jump. And when we got talking about work, we had plenty in common there as well. I had been a bit sceptical about wasting his time on a Friday evening but in retrospect, it is a good thing that we got the opportunity for a one-on-one.

Seema had cooked an awesome dinner, pulav-raita that I had asked for, the little god's favortie sabzi - palak paneer, and many other things that filled up the table.

She took me up on my challenge on staying awake the whole night. We chatted, ate, chatted, drank chai, chatted, and went for a walk at 3 in the morning still chatting away, startling some street dogs from sleep, a couple of whom followed us around for quite a while. She massaged my aching, swollen feet from the 14-hour flight from Newark. We have known one another for just over a year but it has always felt like we are old friends. And at 6 in the morning, she made aloo parantha with chai - one of our mutually favorite foods, and we could not have more than one each. We had a breakfast to eat at the NOIDA ashram.
At the NOIDA ashram, I finally got to see the statue of Hanuman that I had only seen in pictures so far. Of course, I had to take my own picture.

Hanumanji at NOIDA Chinmaya Mission

We had very delicious plate idlis at the NOIDA ashram - something I had seen for the first time. Swamiji prepared the idlis with chatni, fed us lovingly and packed us some for the trip.

I had thought that being with Swami Chidarupananda-ji would be a great opportunity for seeking answers and clarifications on doubts. But when I met him, it felt like a homecoming. I did not need to ask anything, he did not talk about spirituality. His love and warmth were overwhelming. Though I was meeting him personally for the first time, it felt like I had known him forever. We did not have to make conversation, I could sit in a comfortable silence with him, something that usually comes in some relationships after years and years of familiarity. We did talk about the yummy food, the unbearable heat in Delhi and Ashverya's reluctance to come to the yatra - pilgrimage. He told Ashverya that the deities in the temple were carved in stone, and if nobody came to say hello to them, they are quite bored sitting in the temple by themselves for centuries, nor can they move and go elsewhere, so we must go and say hello to them. Then he whispered a secret message in Ashverya's ear, that was not to be shared with me, that tickled my little god quite a bit. 

There is a beautiful shivalingam under a tree in the NOIDA ashram. The perfect way to start the day would be to meditate here. The only reason we do not have a similiar place of worship in our backyard in Dallas is that I am not sure I would be able to perform the daily ritualistic worship. 

And inside the ashram, is a statue of the young Krishna, and framed pictures on the wall depicting the guru parampara - guru tradition, at the Chinmaya Mission.

We left our large suitcases at the ashram. Swamiji had called a cab to take us to the airport for our afternoon flight to Chennai. We left the ashram by 11 in the morning, to catch our first domestic flight in India. 

International travel does not scare me as much as the travel within India, I am never quite sure if I have enough paperwork or signatures or tags or whatever the trend is with security on that day. While I was bouncing around with the stress, life was good. I knew once I was in the plane, the disappointment and sadness would hit me. So be it. Shiva's will...  

On the flight to Chennai, we got our first taste of domestic travel in India on this trip - the business of having the tags on each bag, and getting a security stamp - a lot of process to burden passengers with, hopefully it has some impact on security. Standing at the gate to board the bus to the plane, we suddenly met Paramji who was also on the flight to Chennai, along with her sister and a sister-in-law. 

It is easy to get a cab at the Chennai airport because there is a pre-paid cab stall within the terminal. I was chewing on the risk of being in a cab with a driver who did not speak Hindi and only broken English, in a city that I knew nothing about and could not read the road signs, when the driver stopped the car. Another man got in, next to the driver. What the ... ??????!??????? I am old enough where the Billa-Ranga crime case from Delhi is fresh in my memory as if it happened yesterday. I rolled down my window, and thank god, it did roll down. I asked the cabbie - who is this? He looked at me and said something in Tamil, I had had enough. I opened the door of the car while the cab was moving in traffic, and told the driver to stop the car. He looked back, and said something in Tamil, probably to close the door, in Tamil. I asked Ashverya to also open her door, but she hesitated. Her facial expression was - let us not create a scene, mom. Being cool is the most important thing to a teenager. I told the driver again - stop the car. He realized I was going to keep the door open, and stopped the car. I told him, I want to leave and take another cab. And he asked his friend to leave, and told me "friend, village". Whatever. I think it was his friend from the village who was probably trying to get a ride home in the evening, but traveling alone in an unknown city with an unknown language with a young daughter requires super-awareness of risk. The man could walk home. Ashverya had the facial expression that she could not believe how weird I was.

We did eventually reach the Courtyard Mariott. All all along the way, I tried to memorize the landmarks since I could neither read signs nor understand the spoken language. My little god was also looking around, and told me she was quite happy that short skirts were prevalent in Chennai, unlike in Ahmedabad that we visit every year. I looked out to see what I had missed and saw the men in their folded lungi - wrap-around garment. I don't know if it is the heat, but men in the south have a hilarious habit of folding their ankle-length lungi up to become knee-length. I assured my happy child this was not applicable to young girls,only men wore the "short skirts". Once in the hotel room, I told Ashverya about the crime of the millenium by Billa and Ranga, and told her to be aware at all times about where she was and who she was with.

The hotel room beat all our expectations. Unlike the functional look and feel of a Marriott Courtyard in the US, the Mariott Courtyard in Chennai was a luxury hotel. The restaurant had served a lavish dinner buffet. We realized just how lavish it was when we saw how much it cost. Lesson learned - check for exhorbitant rates, don't just sit down to eat because you are hungry. The fancier Marriott Courtyard in India also has fancier rates than in the US.

I asked the hotel for the phone number of a cab service for the next morning. The person at the desk actively discouraged me - apparently you could never be quite sure if the cab came on time, and suggested we should use the hotel transport to the airport. Despite being a group transport vehicle, the hotel shuttle was three times as expensive. I decided to risk it with the cab. I called the cab service, and asked them to send a cab to the hotel by 6.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

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