Monday, September 20, 2010

Post: Sep. 20

This weekend was awesome.

On Saturday the faculty travelled into Chennai (in style, I might add, with plush seating and AC! No banana bus this time...). It was Steve's birthday. (Steve Jenkins is the bass faculty at SAM.) We had been invited to a lunch along with the semi-finalists from the Chennai Live Band Hunt competition at a 5 star hotel in the city. When we arrived it became apparent that we weren't eating in the hotel restaurant but rather the hotel club where a buffet was being prepared. While we waited for the buffet food to be served, Steve and I explored the hotel in hopes of finding coffee. We ended up sitting down in the restaurant for a cup, and my first Indian coffee was so worth the search. Indian coffee is almost like a cappuccino (foamy, milky coffee) but the taste is entirely unique to India. Really good coffee. Afterwards we went back to the club where some excellent briyani was waiting for us. Briyani is a delicious rice dish usually served on special occasions. It was the best briyani I'd had in India so far, and was spicy in a way that brought out the flavour without being too spicy.

After that function was over we headed over to the City Centre mall which had been recommended to us as being a comfortable, westernized mall. It was both strange and wonderful to smell that department store smell when we walked inside (and usually I can't stand department store smell!). We wandered around, found another coffee place that was kind of like a Second Cup inside a department store, and I had my first iced coffee over here. Not as good as home, but it was nice to have it all the same. The mall had about four or five levels, and at the top level we discovered a nice view over the city towards the harbour. There was a spire in the distance that I suspect was either Fort St. George or a train station. I took a few pictures but quite soon had a mall security guard come up and tell us "no photos". He was nice enough about it though, as it was pretty apparent we were tourists and he was just doing his job.

After the mall, we hit up Nilgiris on the way out of town, and then stopped for dinner at a beautiful Italian restaurant called Bella Ciao. It's right across from the beach and is also next door to Waterina, the place where we watched the lightning storm up on the rooftop restaurant (see my blog post from July 31). Anyway, this place was great. The excellent food was complimented with really unique decor and ambiance. We sat outdoors under the stars on the sprawling patio which stretched across a huge lawn space. The inside was basically a big old house converted into small rooms with little sitting nooks and tables set up just like anybody's dining room. I had a tasty mushroom ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese. All in all, a day of good food and good company.

On Sunday I went at last to Mahabalipuram, a touristy town about a half hour's drive away from Tapovan. I can't believe I waited so long to go there. Rhea and Tanisha, who are the daughters of one of the SAM employees, came with me and we had a great girls day out (especially refreshing because all the other days have been boys days!). We ate lunch at a place called Moonrakers, which is a total tourist/backpackers joint but with pretty good food. I had vegetarian briyani again.

Rhea and Tanisha at Moonrakers

Then we wandered around the streets, looking around in the shops. The main street we walked along was for the tourists so it was pretty clean and safe. One of my main objectives yesterday was to try bargaining for the first time. When bargaining, it's best if you don't display too much interest right away so I didn't buy anything at that point in the day. Instead we walked down our street which led right to the beach. It was a very hot and sunny day so the ocean breeze was very welcome. With the breeze came one of my favourite smells- the briny smell of the sea. The appearance of the beach was not what I would have expected before coming to India. I had pictured all the beaches here to be pristine and tropical with lots of sunbathers and swimmers. You kind of see that at beach resorts, but usually I've seen Indian beaches like this:

On our left, the beach stretched along pretty far with fishing boats and restaurants bordering the sand. Then, I turned my head to the right and, beyond the fishing boats and garbage-eating cows, I saw this:

In the distance was a vision of ancient India, hovering on the horizon. What a contrast! We started walking towards the temple, wishfully thinking there would be an entrance off the beach or some sort of shortcut. Wrong. The fenced-in temple area was on an outcrop of land and rock that jutted out and interrupted the beach on either side of it. We ended up having to walk about half an hour along the rocks and paths that lay between the temple and the sea. It was a good hike, albeit a sweaty one. It would have been faster and easier to go back up through the town, but I'll never forget the memory of climbing over those rocks (with flip flops on) to get to the sand on the other side of the temple while leering men loitering on the rocks heckled us. (I'm glad I didn't know what they were saying.) Anyway, we made it to the beach on the other side of the rocks where the real party was happening. There were crowds of people strolling amidst the ice cream sellers, carnival games, a man running around on a horse offering rides, people selling trinkets (very insistently), and, past that, some stalls selling cheap souvenirs and toys. After navigating through all of this we finally found the entrance to the temple area.

A view of the beach facing north from the top of the rocks.

But at the entrance there was even more chaos. This was where the tour buses dropped off their passengers and where the pushy souvenir/trinket sellers are ready and waiting. They do not take "no" for an answer! We wove our way over to the ticket booth. For Rhea and Tanisha, who are Indian citizens, it cost 10 rupees to get in. For foreigners, it cost 250 rupees. It's not that bad though. To put it into perspective, 10 rupees is about 25 cents Canadian, and 250 rupees is maybe $5 or $6. (And the ticket sellers know this all too well.) Once we were inside the temple area, it was much calmer- no souvenir sellers in there! The sights became more and more incredible as we neared the temple. The Shore Temple is spectacular enough on its own. It's carved right out of the bedrock and was built around the 7th century.

Mahabalipuram was once a major seaport in ancient times, before its name was Mahabalipuram. While standing in front of that temple with the ocean waves crashing behind you and the smell of the sea in the air you could imagine for a moment what it was like once. The really cool thing about the Shore Temple is that for centuries there were legends of seven other sister temples that also used to stand along on the shore and that had since been swallowed by the sea. However, there was never any archaelogical proof of their existence. Fishermen would tell stories of seeing ruins under the water, but other than words spoken over the centuries, no one knew for sure if those temples were simply legend. Then the 2004 tsunami sucked back the sea and revealed some of the structures before devastating the coastline. (The waters came right up to the East Coast Road that we travel on all the time.) The thought of those temples submerged like some sort of Atlantis beneath the waves crashing not too far away from where we stood under the shadow of the Shore Temple... that was the coolest part.

Then reality snapped back into place.

Suddenly, as we sat looking up at the temple, we were swarmed by about 50 schoolchildren. It was the strangest thing. They were there with their teacher (on a Sunday?) and they all wanted to introduce themselves to me and shake my hand. They were maybe ten or eleven years old. We were just sitting there, overwhelmed, as they stood crowding us in. A few of them started kissing my hand after they shook it, which was stranger still and made me feel really uncomfortable. They were really sweet but I just didn't understand what the big thing was about shaking my hand! After a few minutes, Rhea, Tanisha and I made the move, "Let's get out of here...", but I must have shook hands with every single one of them. As we walked away, we couldn't fathom what had just happened!

By then we were pretty much done for the day but I wanted to go back to one of the shops that we had visited after lunch. As we looked for our driver in the tourist parking lot we saw some people selling necklaces and bangles spread out on a cloth on the sidewalk. Apparently it's okay to buy things from people selling on the sidewalk, but not the trinket sellers that follow people around harassing them to buy. I could see those people gathering around us like birds of prey as we looked at the necklaces, but I was too caught up in the moment when I achieved my first bargain! They said 70 rupees, I said 50, and then they agreed to my utmost surprise and delight! So I bought two. Then we went back to that shop I wanted to check out again, decided that they weren't selling the greatest quality stuff for the price they were asking, walked into another place a few stores down and got a great deal (mostly thanks to Rhea's excellent bargaining skills) on some gifts. It was exhilarating. Happy, hot and exhausted, we left Mahabalipuram... until the next visit. I missed seeing Arjuna's Penance, which apparently is an amazing relief carving out of stonework, so I'm sure the shopkeepers will get another visit soon.

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