Chennai Journal
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Return to Down Under

We went back to Australia for R&R, this time to Sydney and the Great Barrier Reef. Sydney is a beautiful city with lots to do, and we enjoyed a trip to the Hunter Valley wine district which is located about an hour outside the city. We also flew to Cairns for a few days, where we saw the rain forest and went snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, about an hour's boat ride from Cairns.

This was absolutely the best
snorkeling I've done anywhere--including the Grand Caymans, which I thought was spectacular---crystal clear water, myriad varieties of coral and fish, and warm temperatures. It was a bit windy, but that didn't get in the way too much, other than causing virtually the entire Asian population on the catamaran to get seasick on the way to the reef. The boat staff was well prepared for this, and diligently carried bag after bag to the deck for disposal in a large garbage can apparently there just for that purpose.

The day trip to the rainforest was fascinating, and we had a great guide, who was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna as well as the history of the area. Below you can see a huge fiddlehead (not edible), and many of the fern varieties date from prehistoric times. Australia has eight of the world's ten most poisonous snakes, and most of these are in Queensland in this area--fortunately, we didn't encounter any of them. From the rainforest, we took a nearly 45 minute chairlift ride to Kuranda, a small touristy village filled with the obligatory didgeroos (Aboriginese music sticks) and other overpriced art. After lunch, we took the Kuranda scenic railway (see Marty above), which winds down through lovely forests and waterfalls, back to Cairns.

Back in Sydney, the highlight was a trip to the Hunter Valley--again with a very knowledgeable guide. I had done some reading about Hunter Valley wines, which represent only a small portion of those produced in Australia (most are in the South), and there are a more limited number of grapes which do well here due to the very hot Australian summer in this area. One of these is Semillon, a French variety which produces a very light, crisp table wine. A speciality of this region is also dessert wine made by allowing the grapes to shrink and develop a fungus called botrytis--I'm not a big fan of ice wines or botrytis, but these were quite good. The cellar we enjoyed most was Brokenwood--only a small percentage of their wines are exported (they are best known for their shiraz called Graveyard, which was not included in our tasting due to the price), and on the white side they had a delicious Viognier, with an interesting fruit/peppery overtone, that we picked up. Due in part to a cork shortage (and lack of quality) that has forced innovation in bottling, many of the best Australian wines are now screw top instead of corked--and we were educated in the proper way to remove a screw top (which is NOT from the top). All in all a fascinating journey, and we're now back in monsoon-soaked Chennai....

Sunday, October 15, 2006
Jerusalem of the East

I had a Friday night meeting in Delhi, so instead of returning on Saturday I took a quick trip to Varanasi, also known as Benares. To Hindus, Varanasi is the holiest of cities, and it is one of the oldest cities in the world ---dating back more than 5000 years. Many come here to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges, and the devout are cremated and their ashes committed to the river. At sunrise, to take a boat ride on the Ganges is to watch a tableau of the prayful life --people bathing, washing clothes, praying, and cremating their dead.
It is said that for a Hindu to die in Varanasi signfies an end to the need for rebirth. Throughout the city you see signs and pictures of Siva, one of the Hindu deities, as it is thought that Varanasi was founded by him. (Despite the large number of Hindu deities, Hinduism is, in fact, a monotheistic religion--the deities are merely the form that G-d takes).
You are not allowed to take photos at the burning ghats, in deference to the grieving, but you can get quite close to the scene. There were several cremations going on in the morning. Only men participate, and certain people--pregnant women among them---may not be cremated.

I stayed at the Rashmi Guest House
which is located right on the river. Getting to the guest house you walk through narrow streets filled with tiny shops, cattle, goats, and of course, tons of people. It is next door to the main location for the evening prayer, or aarti, which itself is quite an experience---took a boat to observe it from the river.
The ambience of the city did remind me of Jerusalem, in more ways than one---despite this being a predominantly Hindu city, it is not at all uncommon to see Hebrew signage. I didn't get a completely straight answer for why this is, but it appears that there a number of business ventures with Israelis. I talked to one young man, a Hindu fluent in Hebrew, who said that it has become popular to study Hebrew in Varanasi.

Saturday, October 07, 2006
Back in the States, I used to regularly give blood. Here, I can't do it because my blood pressure is elevated and that rules you out. I remember having to check a lot of boxes on the American Red Cross form about where I had been and if I had ever had a long list of diseases. One of them that stuck in my mind---because of the odd name---was chikungunya.

Chikungunya is carried by the Aedes (Greek for odious) mosquito, which also carries yellow fever and dengue fever, and is endemic to Africa and India. Mosquitoes usually come out at dusk, but this pesky little creature is a daytime mosquito. It becomes a transmitter of the virus by biting an infected individual, so chikungunya tends to occur in families. There has been an outbreak of chikungunya in Tamil Nadu over the past couple of months, and one of dengue fever in Delhi and several northern states. Although chikungunya is completely curable, it causes fever and pain in the joints that can linger for several weeks. Dengue is more dangerous. Both diseases are seasonal, and are associated with the monsoon season. There has been a lot of publicity in Tamil Nadu about ways to keep the mosquitoes at bay by making sure there is no standing water around. Our apartment complex is fogged regularly, so there aren't usually too many of them around. Apparently, Chennai has the highest consumption of mosquito repellent in the country, so people are taking no chances.

Chikungunya has become a political topic in Tamil Nadu, with the recently ousted Jayalithaa claiming that over 200 people have died. The new Chief Minister denies this and has demanded that she name them.

Sunday, October 01, 2006
Ayudha Pooja

This is the festive season in India, with a series of holidays culminating in Diwali, the festival of lights. I will miss Diwali for the second year in a row, as the string of holidays also provides an opportunity to take R&R---and we will be going to Australia again, this time to Sydney and Cairns (Great Barrier Reef).

Today is Ayudha Pooja, the ninth day of a festival called Navarathri (which means nine in Hindi). It is a day when tools, implements, and even cars and trucks are blessed with a ritual or pooja, and throughout the city you can see them decorated with garlands and coconut leaves.

At the plant, we had a ceremony on Friday. Representative tools were placed on a table in the canteen and everyone gathered for a ceremonial lamp lighting, a safety oath, and a moment of silence. Ayudha Pooja is a Hindu holiday, and since we have Christian and Muslim employees as well it requires some finessing to make this a non-sectarian occasion. A few years ago, someone decided that we would not have any company observance given the religious overtones, but this led to small fires being lit in front of machinery throughout the plant, so the decision was hastily withdrawn. Having the ceremony center around a commitment to safety in the workplace is not only in line with the theme of the holiday, but reinforces an already strong emphasis on maintaining an accident free environment.

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