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Riding with Siddhartha

Chennai -> Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu
4/2/08:

I was ecstatic to be moving on from Chennai. We hopped onto the train only a block away to take us to the bus station. Looking out the window of the train on the short trip, I saw areas that did not look as horrid as the area in which we stayed. Given Alex’s desire to keep the average daily expense as low as possible, this means staying in the low rent district in scrubbier backpacker zones sometimes. Thus, we are closer to the more impoverished areas of the city. Generally speaking in metropolitan cities, there is an inverse relationship to an establishment’s number of stars to the number of slums in the adjacent area.

Yes, perhaps I could have explored the city more by train. Walking around Chennai is like trying to cover New York City on foot without using the subway after the apocalypse. However walking in NYC is much easier given the sidewalks rarely are in such a state of disrepair. While each city has roughly 8 million people taking to the streets via foot, bike, car or taxi/rickshaw, NYC lacks cows to contribute to added congestion.

Although there are plenty of other sections in Chennai with fun things to do, any of these activities would have required me to convince Alex to do something that was not his idea. Right now, it is taking 100% of my energy to stay calm in the face of Alex’s many quickly shifting moods and to avoid unnecessary arguments.

Even riding on a bus takes time here. The first part of our 4 hour ride was just trying to get out of the Chennai sprawl. I continued reading the novel Siddhartha. This was not a story about The Buddha, although he makes a few appearances in the book, but a man with a similar background. Rich kid who gives up everything to become a beggar and search for the meaning of life. Siddhartha is the combination of 2 Sanskrit words meaning achieved (siddha) what is searched for (artha). Like the main character, I sold most of my possessions, left a lucrative job, family and friends to come on this journey. It was not my intention to become a beggar but due to Alex’s resolute desire to keep our daily average expenditures around $10, I feel like we are living like paupers. Hopefully at the end of this journey I will not be singing the U2 song I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

By the time I finished the book, we were finally out of Chennai city limits and surrounded by stunning scenery once again. It amuses me for some reason when looking out into an area I would expect would be desolate, you find a random person or 2. Given the population, it is rare to travel more than 500 meters someone popping out of the woodwork. Water buffalos seemed to outnumber humans since this region was devoted to farming and rice paddies. I saw a water buffalo swimming or bathing in a water tank usually used for cleaning laundry or bodies. We passed a few small industrial areas including a Pepsi bottling facility. Once we got closer to our destination, the road was covered with a canopy of trees like those in southern Georgia.

Alex was delighted upon reaching Tiruvannamalai to check into the cheapest room yet for only 150Rs followed by an excellent meal for 10Rs. The waiter was worried about my ability to eat spicy food insisting I tasted a sample it in his presence. Once satisfied I would not die, he brought me more food.

Tiruvannamalai is another temple town that attracts millions of pilgrims a year. Arunachaleshwarar temple is devoted to the element of fire and to the gods Shiva and Parvati his wife (although they both go by a different alias for reasons I am not even going to try to explain). It has 4 gopuras with the Eastern being the tallest at 66 meters slightly shorter than the main tower we saw in Trichy. Exhausted from the journey here, we were postponing exploration of the temple grounds until tomorrow.

Instead, Alex & I walked alongside the wall surrounding the Arunachaleshwarar Temple. Like Madurai, the town is built around the sprawling 25 acre temple grounds. Outside the walls there were tons of beggars and sadhus. In Sanskrit Sadhu means holy man. These men are renounce lay life to pursue a spiritual life much like The Buddha and the protagonist in the book I just finished. Alex & I had seen a few in our travels but not the overwhelming number inhabiting the city. The best way I could distinguish between a beggar and a sadhu was the latter had long dreads and was mostly naked with only a loin cloth to cover private areas. The men looked also like they had been doused with a bottle of baby powder with red and yellow markings on face, arms and chest.

Rather than taking the main road, we took an alternate route back to our hotel. It was like being in Vietnam, walking along a quiet alleyway. A few people who seemed to be very distrusting of outsiders gave us looks like: “What the hell are you doing here?” The majority of the others were super friendly. Adults and kids “Halloh-ed” us eager to shake our hands. Two boys carrying a batch of sugar cane dropped the bundle to run over to shake Alex’s hand.

Generally within a few hours, I get a sense if I like a town, city or village. I knew immediately didn’t want to stay in Chennai for more than a day. Here, the vibe was mellow and people were friendly. Alex & I were both in agreement. We will stay tomorrow and perhaps tack on another day.

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