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.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Post: Sep. 10

On Tuesday morning I travelled into Chennai for the second day in a row to judge a battle of the bands competition held by a local radio station, Chennai 104.8FM. They wanted a reality T.V. kind of vibe. It was me, the sponsor company's C.E.O. and a radio d.j. doing the judging. It was pretty fun. The bands were mostly rock, pop and metal. I actually despise reality T.V. and completely disagree with those judges who tell people condescendingly they're better off sticking with their day job. As a judge I had to be blunt sometimes but tried as much as possible to give all the bands constructive criticism from a music educator's standpoint. It was tricky though. There was one band comprised of some fifteen year old school students whom I had to ask to stop playing to tune their guitar, which they tried to do but not very successfully. But whether or not they played well or were nervous or made mistakes or didn't win, it was a great opportunity for performance practice. Competitions are an excellent way to deal with performance hiccups. You will never come away empty handed from any kind of performance practice as, at the end of the day, you've won yourself another growing experience.

A butterfly hanging out on my doorstep yesterday...

I had a lovely experience with a frog last night. There are two sets of sliding doors in my room and for a while they've been inhabited by two rather large frogs. Two nights ago one of them came out to say hello. This was the first time either of them had come out of their hiding places. I called the manager and he sent two houseboys (who were totally laughing at me) to extract said frog and put him back in his natural environment. One of them took my garbage pail and caught the frog inside it. As he carried it out, the frog perched himself regally on the edge of the pail as if he was on parade. The minute he passed the threshold of my door he made an enormous jump to freedom. So, one down, one still ribbiting away in the other windowsill. Last night, I came back to my room after dinner to find Frog Number Two on the wall right by the door. I felt ridiculous calling for a frog extraction two nights in a row, so I took a deep breath (mind over matter!), grabbed my pail and tried to catch him against the wall. He moved so quickly all I could do was shriek like a little girl (and the door was open for everyone to hear) as he dramatically leaped over my head and landed on the chair about two metres away. From there, he quickly leaped onto the curtain and waddled his way down and back behind it. He's still hiding back in the windowsill as I type. Frog = 1, Me = 0. (But points for bravery?)

Right now I'm reading a really great book called "The Inscrutable Americans" by Anurag Mathur. It was recommended to me by one of the students here (thanks, Anand!). The story follows a 21 year old man from a small village in India as he travels to America to study chemical engineering at a college for one year. It's quite a humourous book but has some serious parts as well. Everything about the cultural differences the protaganist observes and experiences is bang on the mark. The main character is completely endearing. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone interested in seeing the cultural differences between America and India demonstrated by a very well-written story.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Post: Sep. 8- Picture Book

A picture says a thousand words. Here are some glimpses into life at Tapovan and around:

I think this is some sort of parrot. This tree was only a couple metres away from our dining table at lunch two days ago.

This cow was hanging around our dining area last week. She wasn't shy of us as we came quite close. The cows run loose all over the place at Tapovan and on the roadsides, fields, and cities.

A tree-lined avenue at Tapovan.

An aptly-named fizzy apple juice drink, not to be confused with the non-fizzy Appy Classic.

This is my favourite road sign I've seen so far. Note the phrasing: avoid OVER speeding.

More soon!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Post: Sep. 5

When I was three years old, I told my dad I wanted to be a rock star when I grew up. My musical journey has taken a different direction since then (with no regrets). However, I was able to live out that childhood dream in Pondicherry on Saturday night. The SAM faculty performed at a rock/pop/metal festival called Jipmer Spandan, which was held at a medical college campus. It was an a steamy outdoor gig under bright stage lights. We played one of my all-time favourite songs, Hyperballad by Bjork, and, as I mentioned in my last post, songs by Radiohead, The Killers, and Stevie Wonder (all who also happen to be some of my favourite artists). We snuck in a Kenny Wheeler tune and some fusion tunes as well. The guys sounded great and it was really fun to perform with them again. The awesome students from SAM crowded up at the front of the stage and cheered us on. What a cool experience.

The bus that drove us all into Pondicherry was not so glamourous. There were at least four times when I thought to myself, "This is it. This is how we're going out!". Our chariot was a rickety banana bus that looked like it had been around for a few decades at least. The gears made a lovely, high-pitched grinding/squealing sound every time our driver changed gears. I doubt the brakes were that great either. Oh, and no AC to boot! It was a long, bumpy ride to Pondicherry. Usually the drive is about an hour and fifteen minutes. It took at least two hours to get there yesterday. On the way back to Tapovan we had a slightly more modern-looking bus with the same driver. We had a few more narrow misses. I've found the best way to cope with the terror-fraught travel here is to completely space out and try to avoid looking ahead. But sometimes it's hard NOT to look!

On a more somber note, tomorrow is Randy's funeral in Chennai. Afterwards I'll probably be staying overnight in Chennai as we're lined up to do some adjudicating of a rock competition over Monday and Tuesday and my slot is Tuesday morning. I don't know what to do tomorrow afternoon and evening in Chennai. I'll probably be on my own with a driver. Any suggestions?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Post: Sep. 4

It has been a strange and difficult week. Classes have recommenced but it's awfully quiet, especially around our villa. Randy's funeral is Monday morning. Last Sunday Steve, David and I drove into Pondicherry and had a beautiful dinner at Sat Sanga in Randy's honour. We then raised a glass to him at the Promenade Hotel. Randy would have been happy that we ate and drank well.

Steve and David at Sat Sanga....

Sat Sanga's unique decor.

On our journey we discovered another magical store called Nilgiris. It's a supermarket that takes down Nuts and Spices a few notches. I was able to buy some snacks, toiletries and a few other items for less than $20. In Canada the purchase would have been twice as much. I even found my shampoo brand! We were all walking around with "perma-grins" for a good while after coming out of that place. Our driver was great. He took us there the scenic way and we passed through several small villages throughout the Tamil Nadu countryside before joining the main road to Pondicherry. It was a beautifully sunny day.

A typical road view while driving through the Tamil Nadu countryside.

Today we're going back to Pondicherry to play a gig at a rock festival. It's been fun rehearsing with the other faculty for this show. We've all been indulging our love of pop/rock music. We're doing tunes by Stevie Wonder, Radiohead, The Killers, and Bjork, plus we're throwing in a few high-energy fusion and contemporary jazz tunes. Hopefully we'll have some time to hang out in town before the gig.

This teaching week has been busy but fun. The students have been working on "disciplined improvisation". They've been focussing on improvising within the song form and also working out what kind of ideas to use while improvising. Again, this a great learning experience for both students and faculty. It's cool how much you can learn by explaining and demonstrating these kind of concepts.

It's hard to believe that we've been here for almost six weeks now. I hope to do more sight-seeing on the weekends. Apparently Mahabalipuram is an amazing place with ancient temples carved out of rock and it's only half an hour away. I also would like to make a trip to Ooty, which is about 7 hours away by train. Pondicherry is a great place to visit on the weekends as well. So much to do, and suddenly so little time...