Hello! I’m back from a lengthy hiatus in posting while I roamed Europe. I’ll now continue with the trip where I left off, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Like most cities in India, Madurai is extremely hot and crowded, with an inredible array of noises and smells in the street. Everyone is in the street all the time. People are selling things everywhere and there is a ton of traffic. Here’s a normal street.

Sitting down on a curb to enjoy some tea, which is absolutely delicious and costs next to nothing (and is served boiling hot even though it’s 110 degrees outside), a sadhu came up to talk to us. We had some preconceptions about sadhus, that they were wise and learned, devoutly spiritual and very interesting people with lots to say. As it turned out all the ones we met were glorified beggars that most people completely avoid. Sometimes they would beg more vociferously than most other poor people. This one showed Kristof the images of gods on his bracelet for a minute and then insisted on receiving money for the service he had just provided, then questioned Kristof’s and my sexuality before chuckling and hobbling off. Based on this and a few other encounters with them they mostly lost their charm.

Wacky ascetics aside, Madurai is an impressive city in the south, a major center of Hindu pilgrimage full of temples and spiritual life. The biggest temple in Madurai is considered one of the holiest Hindu temples in the country, called the Meenakshi. Here are a few pictures of it.

the front gate:

from a neighboring rooftop:

the central pool, called the Porthamarai Kulam:

night time inside serious time:

In the middle of the temple there was a holy elephant giving blessings for an honest ten rupees (25 cents).The three of us lined up for our blessings. It was a magical experience!!!

Outside I saw what my temple guide (150 rupees for 45 minutes) described as a death ceremony that a Brahmin priest was presiding over for a family who had lost an elder. He was reciting verses and making food offerings to the gods.

Next to the temple we bumped into a friendly tailor who stopped to chat with us for a couple minutes. Eventually he came up with the great idea of making clothes for us. We followed him back to his shop and spent some time finding fabrics that we wanted and haggling over prices. I came away with a shirt and two pairs of pants, and the others did the same. In return for one of the pairs of pants, which had already been made and were a sample that I liked enough to buy, I paid him with extra foreign coins that I had been collecting and didn’t want to carry around. He said they were for his children’s school teacher to share with her classes so they could learn more about other countries and their currencies. He was a really nice guy and made clothes I am happy to wear.

A friend of his, a man from Kashmir, owns a crafts shop nearby so we checked it out. He also ended up being a really nice guy and brought us to the rooftop for tea and a nice view of the temple. We talked for over two hours about Indian culture, religion and politics. This was something I really liked about India compared to other countries we visited so far. Yes these guys were interested in selling us things, but they came off as genuinely interested in who we were and where we were from. In previous countries we were always targeted as being moneybag tourists and everything was always about the sale. There was far more cultural exchange in the encounters we had in India. Near the temple in Trichy Kristof sat for an hour with a shopkeeper drinking tea and talking about American culture. The guy never made any attempt to sell him anything, he just wanted to hear Kristof’s story and listen to what he had to say about the US. I found this very refreshing each time it happened.

I bought this statue from his shop, which tragically broke (the top ring part) on the way home and for some reason I threw out the shipping insurance. I’ll have to figure out how to graft it back together.

It was too heavy to carry around with me throughout India so I shipped it back. In India they sew the packaging on, like this:

We found a restaurant that we particularly enjoyed and visited it several times, trying something new each time. Sean was the first to order a combination plate called thali and was very pleased with what he was served.

We mostly stayed in a guesthouse or on trains in Tamil Nadu but we did spent one day and night in the home of Couchsurfer Raj. Raj runs an IT company in Madurai with about fifteen employees who work from inside his massive four story home in a quiet neighborhood. From the street you would never know how big or nice the house is. Our room was on the fourth floor overlooking several other neighborhoods behind it. His family was very generous and interesting and we talked for a while about his business and about Indian politics, which he said is extremely corrupt at all levels. He is the secretary of the local rotary club and they had recently installed public bathrooms with running water in several shanty towns. His wife was a very good cook too and kept offering us food until we were bursting. It was a great experience to say the least.