Notes from south India

Writing helps me think. These are my thoughts from our first day in south India.

“Have you ever been to Chennai?” I ask the heavy-set, relaxed looking woman behind me. She’s in jeans, dragging her backpack along beside her and clutches a US passport. “You look as though you know what’s happening here.”

“No. I’ve never been here.” She laughs. “I just go with the flow. I travel a lot for business.”

We’ve finally landed. After a couple hours in the Calgary airport, a nine-hour flight to Frankfurt, a quick change of planes, two movies, a sound sleep I’m transported, as if by magic, to Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, south India.

I should say I’m almost there. Before I’m admitted entry I have to get through this 150-metre line-up that is in gridlock – eight hundred other people, like me, standing still, waiting for Indian Immigration services to stamp their visas. But let’s be positive even if it is 2 AM. There are eight hundred opportunities for stories in this line-up and I’m curious. Why do people come to Chennai?

“What sort of work do you do?” I ask her.

“We have a manufacturing company in Chennai and a few customers in the area nearby.” She looks at me, sizing me up, I guess, to see if I might understand. “It’s bushings.” She says. “We manufacture bushings.”

“Oh bushings,” I say, impressed that I at least I know what bushings are. “Just got some new ones put in our car. They cost me a fortune. I didn’t know they were made in India.”

“Yes,” she says. “Customers are complaining that the price is too high. That’s why I’m here. To see if there’s anything I can do about it.”

For two thousand years merchants have been coming to the southern peninsula of India for business. The Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, and people from Central Asia came. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo sailed to India on his way home to Italy from China. He wrote that he was fascinated by the tremendous opportunities for trade and of the possibilities for adventure, like finding the place where St Thomas was martyred.

In many ways life hasn’t changed. Today many travellers who come to South India are here to trade. People who come from Europe and the Americas are engaged in automobile manufacturing and IT (outsourcing seems to be the buzz word.). I’m here for adventure/holiday, to explore the history, culture, and sunny beaches.

The British built our hotel in Chennai, the Connemarra, in 1854. Tidy sepia photographs, washed-out water colour paintings and a huge portrait of Lord Connemara standing beside the regal H.H. Nawar Mohammad Munawar Khan Banadur IV Prince of Arcot (1889-1903) line long, mahogany-clad hallways and tell the story of how, in 1653, not to be outdone in business by the Portuguese and Dutch, The British East India Company established Fort St George. Indian history along with the names is not tidy like the row of pictures on the wall of our hotel. The British eventually named Fort George Madras. In 1996 Madras was renamed Chennai, back to its old name before the British came.

Inside the old walls of Fort George is the home of the current legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu, a museum depicting the history of Fort George and beautiful St. Mary’s church. As I walk around the church, I can imagine the lives of promising young British officers, who came here over three hundred years ago for adventure and to advance their position in the military. Their gravestones pave the churchyard and mark their deaths caused by cholera, coup de soleil (hyperthermia) and bizarre accidents.

Way before the British, in the first century, the Apostle Thomas came to India. He too is entombed in Chennai. This afternoon while we visit dozens of little boys kick a soccer ball and make faces for our photos (no different from the little boys I know at home) in the immense courtyard of San Thome Cathedral and the little shrine where, we are told, the body and relics of St Thomas lay.

The annual Chennai Dance Festival is taking place this week at the Music Academy of Madras and the performers tonight are the best in the world. The dance, Bhartanatyam, one of the oldest traditional dance forms, is unique to Tamil Nadu and dates from the first century, the time of St Thomas. We can’t miss it so we purchase tickets for the finest seats in the T.T.Krishnamachari Auditorium for this auspicious event.

Auspicious: marked by lucky signs or good omens. Auspicious: another Indian buzzword.

Is it auspicious that we have arrived in Chennai today just in time for the last day of the festival?

Auspicious maybe.

But I feel conspicuous. As we are led to our seats in the centre of the fifth row, a sea of colourful silk saris surround me. I am in khaki multi-pocketed trousers and a t-shirt.

Thankfully, the lights dim, the theatre darkens and a thin ray of light shines down on a small colourful shrine on the stage. A flute, violin, tambour and a male voice musically begin to recount stories based in Hindu scriptures and mythology. A dancer, dressed in a billowing red and purple silk costume of pantaloons and wide ribbons of gold elegantly moves forward on stage from the darkness behind. The graceful movement of her limbs, and head and eye movements work with the musicians to portray stories that have been told in India for two thousand years.

Incredible India.

I know now that being able to attend that performance our first evening in Chennai was auspicious – a stroke of luck. It helped me understand the great temples and culture of Southern India I’m visiting this week – the shore temple and famous stone carvings at Mahaballipurnam; the 9th century Natraja Temple, where the patron deity, Shiva, Lord of the Dance, details in granite carvings the 108 steps (is this where yoga started?) of the Bhartanatyam dance; the Airavateshvars Shiva temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument; and, Brahadaeswar another Shiva temple and also a UNESCO monument.

Coming eventually:  Coriander, cardomen, tamarind and maybe a guest post.


Salaam Alaikum. Peace to you

I wrote the first version of  “Salaam Alaikum” in September 2001.  The story won an award for non-fiction at the 2010 Surrey International Writers Conference contest and helped  to increase support for Women for Women Afghanistan (see .)  I’m posting “Salaam” here today to pay tribute to special people and experiences from the past and welcome the new year with promises to share some new travel stories soon. 

Salaam Alaikum. Peace to You

I can still smell the streets of Kabul. I breathe in the tang of dung smouldering under charred cook pots and the stench of fresh wet mud applied to new buildings as I sit here at my desk trying to make sense of the experience.

Beside me is a small blue suitcase covered in dust. Inside, maps that mark the route we took are faded and crisp. Rubber bands, around stacks of pamphlets and the letters I wrote my mother, are disintegrating. I pull out one of the tourist brochures and read, “Afghanistan is a land of sunshine with an extremely healthy climate… its famous and historic sites and its amazing local colour provide fascination and thrilling experience for every traveller.” It was an exaggeration, propaganda perhaps, but mostly true. The Afghanistan we knew then was beautiful and thrilling to discover. People were full of hope, believing that they were on the cusp of a healthy future. In 1965 it was a good place for us to stay while India and Pakistan sorted out their border dispute and reopened the frontier so my husband and I could continue our travels along the Silk Road.

* * *

Everything I see around me is brown. Gravel streets are lined with murky ditches and adobe houses hide behind mud walls. Children are covered in dirt, pus seeping from their infected kohl rimmed eyes, noses streaming with thick mucus.

Brown – a colour that is inconsistently dark. I even feel brown with worries and fears rolling around inside my head.

We live and work in a new suburb of Kabul near the university. In spite of the gloom I feel, our street is filled with cheerful activity and slowly it is drawing me into a new life. There are people are everywhere. Gangs of children run between packs of dogs, goats and chickens that graze through the garbage. Older youth walk by on their way to the campus. Most of the young women carrying armloads of heavy textbooks are dressed like I am, in modest skirts and short-sleeved blouses. Other women are covered, their mysterious blue and mauve burkas silently swirling around as they stroll along. Men wear long shirts and baggy trousers and some wear turbans. They walk hand in hand, drive in little vans, and ride bicycles. Everyone is carrying something, doing something, going somewhere. Afghanistan is a busy place.

Protected from the chaos and excitement of the street by a wall, our house has a small courtyard inside with stairs at one end leading to a flat roof. I love the roof. From here I immerse myself in the lives of our Afghan neighbours. I look down into their courtyards and watch meals being prepared, children being disciplined, and grandparents being cared for. Today a threadbare rug in the centre of the yard was rolled up, taken away, and replaced with a massive, traditional red and black Afghan carpet. In a hive of activity a feast is spread out and, from my perch, I watch an uncharacteristically sombre group of people gather.

It is a funeral. My neighbours are celebrating the life of a loved grandparent who passed away early today.

Like most frosty October mornings, the sun shines and the sky is the colour of lapis lazuli. Children, little bundles of rags vying for attention, try to teach me their language and I do my best to teach them mine. They mimic me in a rapid jumble of words without meaning. “Hello. My name is _________. What is your name?”

Minding the younger children are two older girls, about ten. The tiny face veil sewed into their new blue burkas constantly slips out of place. Undaunted by being blinded, tripping and falling, the girls deftly yank the fronts of their troublesome burkas back over their heads to their shoulders so they can see and continue playing, Batman style.  I’m in awe of their bright confident demeanours and resourcefulness.

We take a break for a few days and drive up into the Hindu Kush Mountains, toward Bamiyan. Once a thriving centre for Buddhist art and culture, it is famous for its 1500 year old standing Buddahs, the largest in the world. While we’re in the area we’ll visit Band-e-Amir, a group of deep azure lakes hidden at 3000 metres elevation in the desolate central range. Driving north from Kabul on a sleek new Russian-built highway through the Salang Pass we turn west after a couple of hours. New asphalt morphs into wretched track. The flat tire is inevitable. We tell ourselves we’re lucky it’s only one so far and pull into a field to repair it.

Two small girls in colourful rag dresses come to watch, crouching down onto their haunches. Their eyes shine with curiosity and smiling politely they clasp their hands to their chests and bow their heads. “Salaam alaikum,” peace to you, they say. “Salaam alaikum,” I reply, and our friendship begins.

Eventually their parents join us and stand by ready to help. “Milmastia,” hospitality, I am learning, is the sacred duty of tribesmen toward guests in their rugged and unforgiving terrain.

With the tire fixed and our hearts warmed we drive on through the mountains and eventually a lush, green valley framed by snow-capped Hindu Kush Mountains comes into view. By the river a gravel road, neatly lined with poplar trees, directs us through orchards laden with nuts and fruit, to a cluster of family compounds. This is Bamiyan.

We set up camp on a hill overlooking giant sandstone Buddahs and ancient monasteries carved into cliffs across the valley. A group of elegant looking men, dressed in multi-coloured, wool cloaks and furry karakul hats, comes over to say hello and asks us to join them for tea at their table nearby. Together we watch the sun setting, casting its warm glow on the marvels of history we’re all here to see.

Traveling back to Kabul, the new road is jammed. Trucks grind along ahead of us, brightly painted with scenes of the magnificent mountains, fields, and lakes we visited. Piled on top are sacks of grain and dozens of tribesmen embraced by bandoliers, bullets and massive rifles. They are celebrating Jeshin holy days. Laughing and waving they aim their rifles at us. They’re playing, urging us to join them in the fun. We laugh, although somewhat tentatively, and return their waves. We’re all celebrating the holiday.

We stop at Kabul market, crammed with merchants, shoppers, and onlookers crowding into little kiosks and stores. I can buy anything I want here. Today we need to pay for a present we bought for ourselves last week. We missed a digit in the confusing math that transformed our Canadian dollars to Afghanis. The carpet would cost ten times more than we calculated.

“Take it,” the shopkeeper had said, “bring me the money when you can.”

This time we hand him a great wad of Afghanis and he stashes it in his pocket, without counting.

“Tashekur.” Thank you.

We shake hands and move on. Later we’re surprised to meet our carpet shopkeeper in another store. He takes the wad of Afghanis we gave him from his pocket and buys a transistor radio. I understand then that the world is becoming more accessible and soon the Afghanistan we know will change.

*  *  *

Snow is falling softly outside my window as I write and a thick cloud settles on Grotto Mountain. I want to remember Afghanistan the way it was, full of hope. The haunting image in today’s paper is a ghostlike figure, a woman wandering through an Afghanistan I do not know – houses in rubble, streets dominated by violence – a joyless place.

“Families Find Homes Wherever They Can” reads the headline.

The fields are laced with landmines; there are no fruit or nut trees. The rivers are mere trickles.

The giant Buddahs in Bamiyan were blown up.

Then the terrorists attacked again. In New York and Washington.


I don’t know why my mother kept the stacks of letters I sent. Did she know I would need them someday, to help me remember how beautiful it was?

I can’t throw out our old Afghan rug that’s worn to shreds.  Repeated patterns in it connect with one another, although each unit has its own special characteristic. It reminds me of people. Although we’re all different we have common qualities that connect us.

The little girls who watched us change the flat tire are in my thoughts a lot these days. They should be grown women now and I’d like to talk with them again. Are they still making friends with strangers and saying peace to you?  Their curious eyes and lively smiles in the black and white photo hanging in our living room keep me hoping that someday our story about Afghanistan will have a happier ending.

What are your thoughts?  Peace to you.