Chennai Journal
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Thoughts on India
As 2008 begins and I've returned to the U.S., this will be the last post of Chennai Journal. I'm starting a new blog, called Transitions, where I'll record the adjustment back to the U.S., retirement or whatever this phase turns out to be, and other random thoughts including my experience of Vipassana.

So how to sum up three years in India? Someone wrote to me that I must have never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would end up there, and he was right. What an opportunity, a challenge, and an incredible experience. I do feel that I made the most of it--traveling all over the country and to other parts of Asia as well, and have no regrets on that score. My staff gave an overwhelming farewell to me, and I have lots of fond memories of my work experience and the people there--some of whom I know will remain in touch for life.

Someone once said of Japan that all countries are unique, Japan is just more unique than others. I think that can be said of India as well. It is a very intense place, and not one you can be indifferent about. There were things I grew weary of---a mundane one is the use of cilantro in almost every dish --and it will be a while before I venture into an Indian restaurant. I won't miss the commute to work--as fascinating as the varied tableau of cows, trucks, men peeing on the side of the road, and overstuffed buses and rickshaws often was, it was very tiring at the end of the day to know that I faced an hour and a half or more ride home--even though I wasn't driving. And I won't miss how difficult it was to get even simple things understood and done, or just the difficulty of getting around, and being dependent on a driver, or the stark poverty in places and begging. Or being separated from my family for a good part of the time I was there.

But India has left its mark on me. The culture and the spirituality fascinated me. I loved the temples, the sound of the daily rituals (sometimes I still hear the bells from next door in my sleep), the varied sights, sounds, and smells, the intense drive and eagerness of people--the sheer level of energy. These will stay with me for a long time to come. I'm very glad to be home---but I wouldn't have missed the experience for the world.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet...
It's been about a week since I returned to the U.S. It's cold in Michigan---snow on the ground that has now melted with a rainfall a few days ago, but still very cold here especially compared to Chennai. The air shipment was delivered on Friday with everything intact. I've checked in with a number of friends, started getting the house in order in anticipation of the sea shipment in a month or so, and we are going on a circle tour of the eastern U.S.--will be in New Hampshire for New Year's, and then travel south to Orlando to go to Disney World and Universal Studios, maybe catching Graceland on the way back up north. I've already been signed up for a Torah reading with our shul when I get back, and then head out to Vipassana for 10 days at the Dhamma Torana.

At first, my dad, who has just turned 90, did not know me. Yesterday and today he did. Sometimes he reacts when I use a phrase from childhood ("I'll give you a potch in tuchis," or "take a lot, take two...." ) , and some days he even knows my name--but often there is a blank look in his eyes, nobody home. He doesn't walk now, and hasn't for a few months---my dad, who never took a car when he could walk or take his bicycle, and was a fixture around town, his tie flapping over one shoulder as he rode my old grade school bike--abandoned for a multi-speed model when I was in college--to the family store. I am glad I got him home from India when I did, since he would never have made it now. He is in a comfortable place in a small nursing home about 3 miles from our house. I visit nearly every day, but it depresses me to stay too long.

I've had a lot of thoughts about India, but mostly right now it feels very far away, and my attention is focused on family and settling back into the U.S. I rejoined the Ashtanga yoga class I'd enjoyed before I left--ironically, I did almost no yoga in India. In a few days, I'll jot down some thoughts--what I liked, what I didn't like, what I learned. And figure out what the next journal will be about.....
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Last Day in Chennai
Well, so much for the end of the monsoon....today was a blustery, rainy day with nearly constant downpours--it has never really stopped, just let up a few times---and impossible to do much of anything but pack. So I wasn't able to even take a "farewell swim" in the pool.

Now I'm in the final hours, and will have dinner with Jon and Lindy in a little while, then load up and head to the airport. I'll post when I arrive back in the good old US of A. From what I hear weather there is not much better--Marty and Sara will come to the airport with my winter coat, hat and boots. Bringing my multi-colored gloves from Darjeeling (that one's for you, Prince Roy--someday you will get there!) with me....

Thursday, December 13, 2007
Last Days in Chennai

The sea shipment has been loaded and locked, and sent to customs and then to the Port of Chennai. The ship was to have sailed yesterday for Columbo, where the container will be loaded on to a larger ocean vessel that sails around the Horn of Africa and straight to New York. There, it clears customs and is transferred to a truck to Detroit. Supposedly, all this takes a month--I'll believe that when I see it.

In the meantime, I decided against any more travel the last weekend I'm here. I'm happily settled at the residential quarters of the Madras Club, which are really quite lovely--my room overlooks the walking trail and the Adyar River. Just plan to have a quiet time and enjoy the atmosphere and the pool for the last few days. The monsoon, which never really came--we only had a few days of rain--has ended, and the December weather is great. All that will end when I reach Detroit, where it's freezing rain.

Saturday, December 08, 2007
Attack of the Killer Salespeople
Yesterday I wanted to buy Leela a watch, so went to the Citi Centre which is a new shopping center opened a couple of years ago. Headed to Landmark, the bookstore, where I had seen displays of watches before. What an experience--it felt like being at a night market where every vendor is hanging on you to get you to buy from their stall.

Landmark does not have an large selection of watches--three or four display carousels, one for each brand, which was fine with me because I tend to get overwhelmed when I have too many choices. A tall young man was first to ask me if I needed help, so I described what I was looking for and he started to open one of the carousels and show me watches. Within less than 30 seconds, a young woman was crowding in under his armpit to show me a watch from another carousel, interrupting both of us. They started having a conversation in Tamil and I could tell he was telling her to bugger off, but she persisted. Finally, I asked her to please step aside--that I didn't want to look at her watches. She did.

This was not the end. The young man showed me a couple of watches that looked like possibilities. But, to my left was a third carousel, and I wanted to see the watches in that one, too. Lurking in the background was another young man. As soon as I pointed to the carousel, he appeared at my left elbow, ready to pounce. The young woman was still standing by on the right, crowding next to the salesperson who was helping me. "Wait, wait, wait," I said, "I don't need three people to show me watches. Please, let this guy {gesturing to the tall young man} help me." The other guy, to my left, said, "No madam, each one is separate." Then I got it--in this less than 10 or 12 foot space with only three carousels of watches, there were at least three salespeople, one for each (I say at least because I think there may have been a fourth display, and that person must have been either absent that day or off having a tea break).

Tired from all the packing and feeling hemmed in all sides, I threw up my hands and said, "I give up---I'll go somewhere else." And leaving them open mouthed and dismayed, I walked out. I went nearby to Lifestyle. They had a similar set up with brand-dedicated displays, but it was a lot more civilized and the salespeople weren't cannabilizing each other. In about 10 minutes, I found and bought a watch.

In other news, Junior arrived safely in Detroit. Marty and Sara are as full of joy to see her as Leela has been sorrowful to say goodbye. I guess that is change and moving in a nutshell--both sad and happy all mixed up at the same time.

Thursday, December 06, 2007
Packing Update
The movers finished about 70% of the packing--seven or eight men arrived at 9:30 a.m. and some of them immediately started in with tape, corrugated cardboard, and boxes even before the orientation on what goes where. They had two tea breaks--courtesy of Leela--a short lunch, and by 6:00 p.m. the lion's share had been done. They will be back tomorrow. Had my last meal at the apartment and have moved over to the Madras Club, where I have an oldish but very comfortable and spacious room overlooking the running track and the Adyar River.

In the meantime, here is the progress on Miss Junior, who arrived in Frankfurt this morning and has a layover in the airport kennel until Friday a.m. Germany time:

Tuesday, December 04, 2007
Waiting for it all to happen
I haven't been in this place for a while. The place I mean is moving and change. It was tough when Marty left and when Dad left earlier this year, but I guess I was last there in this order of magnitude three years ago when we came to India. The last two weeks before a big change are the toughest. Because lots of stuff is happening, but I haven't actually left yet. In many ways, I just want to have it over and done with. Junior seems ready too--last night I found her curled up in her container, which I put out for her to get used to--as if placidly waiting to board.

Today I came home and Leela made a normal dinner, but I realized that yesterday was really the last normal day since tomorrow night the movers will come and get Junior, and we start to pack on Thursday. So tonight is the last night we'll all be together, Leela, Junior and me. Junior stays a day in Frankfurt in the little "zoo" they have in the airport, and then on to Detroit--cold and snowy. But, it will be a relief to know that she has arrived home. I thought about taking her with me on the plane when I go, but given all the paperwork and protocol I'm glad I started earlier---and this way, she's in a larger container, and will have some time to stop and get food, water, and cleaned up, and not be underfoot and scared with the packers here. Sara is so excited about her arrival, and has been planning all of Junior's accessories ---litter box, water feeder, toys--for weeks now. Junior--the world traveler. From now she will likely live out a comparatively dull life! The good thing is that she learned to travel at an early age--she came here at 10 months old-- and rides compliantly and calmly in a car--which J.D. never did. Speaking of J.D., her remains lie beneath the balcony of this apartment---I just haven't brought myself to pay a last visit yet there before I leave.

I am ready to go home. But, of course I have mixed feelings. For one thing, Leela and Junior have bonded---she bounds up from the bed when Leela gets up at 5 a.m., and when Leela returns from her day off, Junior is at the door to welcome her. That will be the first degree of separation. Then, when I leave the house and say good bye myself, that will be the next degree, because Leela is like family (she has another job, beginning in January, nearby, and I will stay in touch with her new family, Facebook friends). And then to all of the staff at work, and friends, goodbye again. It's been a tough three years in many ways, but also very intense and rewarding.

In all of this, the secondary consideration for me has been leaving work. Officially I'm retiring, though in reality I'm taking a few months off, and then looking for something else to do. It doesn't feel as intense to me as leaving India. But maybe the human brain can only handle one big change at a time, so my mind is doing this thing sequentially....we'll see.

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