Chennai Journal
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Dad has arrived safely in the U.S. and is settling into his new place. It was a grueling flight, with a long stopover in Frankfurt, and he didn't get much sleep until the Frankfurt - Detroit leg. But he seems to like his new place, and he is surrounded by older people and activities, which was difficult here. When Marty left him after the assessment and check-in, he was already absorbed in a game of bingo. I have spoken to him only once, but once he gets a phone in his room, we will be able to talk every day. Marty says he is more animated and talkative than he has been in a while--probably due to being surrounded by people. Dad is definitely a people person.

It is harder on those he left behind. The house seems quiet without him and Ganesh, and his room sadly empty. Leela now goes to her own little room after dinner, no longer needing to stay up to watch TV with Dad and walk him to his room for bed. She has a small T
V and cable, which she is enjoying, but the hole left by Dad is large. Ganesh has called a couple of times and he will also be able to speak to Dad when the phone is in. But we are not sure how long Dad will remember much about Ganesh or Leela, or how he knows them. (Without me there, he thinks Marty is a friend from high school.) He has never forgotten my name or that I am his daughter, but I fear that being away from him for a while might confuse him about me, too. Marty has taken over pictures similar to what we did when Marty left here.

This was a long weekend -- January 26 is Republic Day-- so Roberta and I to
ok a short trip to Madurai, a temple town located about an hour's flight south of Chennai. We really enjoyed the city. In addition to the fabulous Sri Meenakshi Temple, the city has a museum devoted to Mahatma Gandhi and a bustling tailoring industry. We toured the temple the day we arrived and again this morning. This morning it was jammed packed--today was an auspicious day for weddings and a number of happy couples and their guests thronged the temple. It costs 50 rupees to be married in the inner sanctum, where only Hindus are allowed.

The temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, a goddess consort of Lord Shiva, and the name according to our guide literally refers to the eye of the fish. The fish's eye never closes, and so the goddess never stops watching over her people. People from all over India come to pray at this temple. At one point, they may circle nine times around a shrine devoted to the planets--a thousand or more years before Galileo, Indian astrologers and astronomers knew that the sun and not the earth was the center of the solar system. There are many other points of devotion in the temple complex. It was fascinating to spend time there.

Near the north entrance of the temple are temple ruins that house a bustling market of vendors selling household items and textiles.
A long row of tailors whips up whatever you like---a copy of your favorite shirt, Indian or western style clothing--in a matter of hours. Roberta and I both succumbed and for only about $100 between the two of us, got some new threads.

We also enjoyed the Gandhi museum. Depicting the life of Gandhi in words and pictures, the museum contains the original loincloth that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated, as well as other memorabilia. It was in Madurai that he first donned the loincloth, Indian homespun, and he was never seen in anything else after that. The museum is free and popular with school groups---the charming youngsters below were waiting with us for the museum to reopen after lunch.

Thursday, January 25, 2007
Dad Departs

Today is a sad day at our house, which seems very empty without Dad. As I write this, he, Marty and Sara are on their way to Frankfurt and then to Detroit. Last night we had a little farewell, with Ganesh bringing his daughter and son-- who had visited frequently while he worked here-- to say goodbye to "Grandpa Joe." Leela broke down completely--she has been very devoted to Dad, sitting with him every night as he watched TV after Ganesh had gone home, and holding his hand to accompany him to bed. It was often difficult to get her to take time off, because she didn't want to leave him.

We have been explaining to Dad for several days about his return. A couple of days ago he finally understood that Leela and Ganesh were not going with him. He became quite upset, saying we were kicking him out of the house, but by yesterday, he had calmed down. I sent along the pictures you see here, along with some others,to remind him of his time here. It is at times like this that his dementia seems a blessing---within a few weeks or maybe even days, the whole experience will seem to him as if it were ages ago and blunt the inevitable sadness of leaving such wonderful caregivers and companions. And yet, with all his loss of memory, he has never once forgotten Leela's name--nor, I suspect, will he when he sees her picture. It seems that the things that touch his heart remain clear for him--which is a beautiful thing.

Ganesh already has another job lined up with his service, and will take a few days off before that starts. I am really grateful for Roberta being here (she plans to stay until May) as I would feel totally bereft in an empty house with only Leela, myself and Junior. Although I am returning to the U.S. for a week at the beginning of April, this is the longest I've been apart from Dad for several years, since he came to live with us before my mother died.

So begins another chapter...
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, the generic name for the Khmer temples around Siem Reap, Cambodia, is one of the truly great sites of the world, and I am glad we were able to go there before it becomes completely commercial. Already scores of hotels have gone up in Siem Reap and more are on the drawing boards in this otherwise sleepy little town that saw its main historical site occupied by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.

There are many, many temples you can visit while you are there, and for all but the most avid, you can easily get burned out. To avoid this, Roberta, Marty and I took a leisurely pace of a couple a day, with ample breaks for tea, naps, shopping, and meals. Also, we took a cruise on the nearby lake, where we were able to peek into the daily lives of the families that live in houseboats along the water.

The main event is Angkor Wat itself, which is best seen either at dawn or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky. Below you can see people climbing the extremely narrow and treacherous steps to one of the towers.

Despite the hype, Angkor Wat itself was not my favorite. That honor goes to either Angkor Thom (pictured at the top), or Banteay Kdei, the first temple we saw. Angkor Thom has absolutely fantastic bas reliefs, depicting both the historic and mundane events of the era---from women picking lice out of each other's hair to grand battles. At Banteay Kdei, Marty had a decidely "deja vu" experience which was very eerie. He had a strong feeling in a couple of places that he had been there before, even though this was his first visit to Cambodia (at least in this lifetime). You can see him in one of the places that felt familiar, clearly awestruck.

Cambodia is still a poor country, though it has invested far more in tourism than the main spots in India. The airport is very modern and clean, financed heavily by the visa fees of $20 per person and the exorbitant exit tax of $25 USD.

Thousands of land mines still remain in Cambodia, and the large number of survivors do their best to make a living through various means. At several of the temples, amputees have organized into small music groups, and take donations. Outside restaurants in the city, mobile booksellers ply everything from histories of the area and Cambodia to cheap copies ($4-5 USD) of Lonely Planet guides. And everywhere are the children. The young fellow at the right--who could not be more than 3 years old --was hawking postcards at Banteay Kdei.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Dad's Return
Marty, Roberta and Sara arrived on Wednesday morning. Marty and Sara will go back to the U.S. on January 25, and Roberta will stay with me until mid April teaching at the Asian College of Journalism. When Marty and Sara go back, Dad will go with them. He has been slowing down in the last few months and we want to get him back to the U.S. while it is still manageable for him to travel. He will enter an assisted living place near where Marty and Sara are staying. This is a difficult decision, as he has quite a pleasant life here and filled with caring people in Ganesh and Leela, who have looked after him as if he were family. (More on this later). But it is time.

Marty, Roberta and I are traveling at the moment to Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we have taken in the sights including the fabulous temples and ruins of Angkor Wat. More on this when we return to India in a few days.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
Wildflower Hall
Before coming back to adventures in Rajasthan, I'll make a brief detour back to the Himalayas, this time on the western side of the country.

This week I went up to Chandigarh, the capital of Haryana and Punjab states, to meet with one of
our dealers, and so gave Shimla another try on the weekend (I got rained out the last time). This time the weather cooperated beautifully---it was crisp and cold with great visibility all weekend. I stayed at Wildflower Hall, a luxury hotel that was once the estate of Lord Kitchener, a British general who served as the head of the Indian army in the early 1900s, after leading British forces during the Boer War.

The picture at the top is the view from my hotel room. The hotel was deserted after the long holiday, and I didn't see more than a handful of other guests. Wildflower Hall is a bit of a drive from
the main action in Shimla--probably a half hour or so---but it is surrounded by beautiful woods and there are plenty of walking trails. I tried out one of the shorter ones, and was glad I didn't attempt a longer one---the altitude (about 8500 ft here) quickly tires you out if you're not used to it. Wildflower Hall has all the amenities--a fitness center, pool, steam room, and spa---along with great food. And---something I just haven't been able to get anywhere here---a decent martini! But it's the scenery that is really front and center.

During my trip to Darjeeling, one of the Australians I met had also traveled to Kashmir and highly recommended a book with the provocative title, Jesus lived in India. The premise is that Jesus had come to India during the so-called "lost years" and then returned here--to what is now Kashmir--after having survived the crucifixion. (It is fairly widely accepted that Thomas, one of the disciples, did come to India and that he is buried near Madras).
Funnily enough, although I haven't seen the book in Chennai--it was written a number of years ago, so isn't widely available -- the Wildflower Hall bookstore had a copy. I finished it on the plane-- it is very well researched and makes fascinating reading--if totally destroying Christian theology in the process. In addition to detailed analysis of the crucifixion and its aftermath, the author contends that many of Jesus' actual teachings (as opposed to the later doctrines created by Paul) are derived from Buddhism, which he studied in India during the "lost years".

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