Less Good Than Good (Madurai)

I’m having an acute sense of humor failure.  In a traveler this is a serious problem.  Like gangrene in a wound you want to cut that shit out before it festers and you lose a limb.   Lose your sense of humor and you’re in dangerous territory of losing it all, the very reason you’re on the road in the first place.  Lose your sense of humor and every new place you go, every new thing you see, every new person you meet is just another instrument in a continuing torture that is being “away”.

Away from what exactly, who knows… maybe your mom, maybe your friends, maybe your bed.  Maybe your favorite bar or cafe or hideout.  Maybe wherever you think you’d be most likely to find your smile.  Because traveling without it isn’t much fun for anyone.  Not for you and certainly not the people that have to deal with your whining pouting grumbling why-am-i-here attitude.  On the contrary traveling with your smile (and the sense of humor that inevitably holds its hand) allows you to giggle at the hiccups and the hardships.  It turns negotiations (“How much?  That’s far too expensive!”) into banter (“Go on… just a little less.  Let’s have some tea and talk it over.”)  And moreover it is met time and time and time again, from babies and the parents holding them, from schoolkids in crisp uniforms and street kids dressed in dust, from people selling, serving, passing or staring, with a smile returned.  In Cambodia an engulfing mob of saleskids selling trinkets and trifles became a giggling game of ring around the rosie after a couple of quips and a grin.  I don’t know who said it first (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me) but a smile is where strangers can become friends.  Or at least passing acquaintances.

So clearly my current condition is not to be taken lightly.  I feel like a snarling dog on the leash of my conscience which is biting back the torrent of abuse I’m about ready to unleash on someone, anyone, in range; the candidate most squarely in the line of fire being Gail owing to her currently unfortunate continual proximity.  And Gail is in no way responsible for my state of mind.  Gail didn’t make the temperature rise 20 (million) degrees as we descended from the cool misty fairy tale mountains of Munnar.  She’s not the city planner who envisioned Madurai as an Asian replica of the Eastern bloc,  a soulless dustbowl of cement and power lines.  She didn’t feed the woman sat behind me on the bus whatever she spent three hours dry heaving back up.  She didn’t request that the bus driver blare his music at top volume through the tinniest sound system ever manufactured.  She didn’t design the bus seat with the leg amputating handrail neither our hotel room with its innovation of combination walk in urinal / shower / sauna nor is she the person who’s failed to clean it for the last sixty or so years, who however in a highly generous move did leave their hair on our sheets and urinal cakes in the sink *and* on our dresser (thanks so much for that wherever you are).  She didn’t plan the bus routes so that we arrived far too late to have the energy to do anything about it.

Having had this chat with myself I take a deep breath (which I try to hold for the entirety of my forcibly brief shower in our sauna / urinal / bathroom – extra urinal cakes included), spread my sleeping bag liner over the questionable linen on my bed, close my eyes and try to forget where I am in the hopes that my sense of humor is just tired and will awaken reinvigorated in the morning.  This prognosis is aided by a brief and mutual conclusion that the first order on business on rising will be securing a train ticket getting us the f *out* of this shithole tomorow evening.

True to our plan by breakfast the next day we are in possession of two tourist quota sleeper class tickets on the evening train to Ponducherry.  I’m still a little shaky – the scorn of the man serving when I try to get food *before* paying at the busy self-service restaurant where we’re trying to eat actually brings tears to my eyes.  Gail takes one look at my face and sends me on the comparably simple errand of collecting the chai, which I accept with weepy gratitude from the comparably charming counter-person.  I’ve drained half my cup when Gail appears with our ghee rostis, the delicious butter fried crispy crepe thin lentil pancakes cleverly served here in a conical tipi around the fresh coconut chutney and soupy curried vegetables.  Don’t knock it, this is possibly one of my favorite breakfasts of all time.

By the time we get to the temple, the main tourist attraction in Madurai, I’m feeling fortified if not nimble.  And the temple is incredible (among the greatest in India apparently), huge and (most interesting to me) an active place of worship teeming with bowing devotees, holy men and wedding parties seeking blessing from the gods.  The tourists filling out the throng aren’t allowed entry to the temple’s inner sanctum but it’s more than enough to wonder at ornately carved and painted ceilings, columns, alter and gopurams, watch the idols dance in the glow of miniature oil lamps and breathe in the perfume of incense while marveling at the amazing saris, henna and jewels of the new brides.
Thus enchanted, I’m reasonably prepared when we head out to get our shoes (left with an overly helpful shopkeeper) and the obligatory sales pitch awaiting us.  I’m expecting the attempt to entice and to be polite but firm in my refusal.  I didn’t however expect the shopkeepers to be quite so friendly or charming.  Or for them to have quite such a beautiful selection of reasonably priced jewelery.  With the post buyers glow of two new pairs of earrings I sally forth onto the street and have a quick catch up with Sonya, the eager smiling mother of four who gave us bindis and flowers for our hair (“gifts! Gifts! No money!”) on entering the temple.  She is even sweeter now, exclaiming at the lost bindi and replacing it gently.  Her husband makes anklets (“only 100 rupees!”) which seems more than fair, however I decline a cloth purse made by her daughter which she tries to press on me for free.  We send our regards to her children and head off to find lunch.

Fresh lime soda, brinjal bhurta, naan and chocolate and pistachio ice cream with fresh coconut and chocolate sauce in a deliciously air conditioned hotel restaurant for about 5 bucks each.  Our waiter is like an attentive uncle commanding an army of slightly less competent cousins.  There’s a slight miscommunication with dessert but hey, a second bowl of ice cream never hurt anyone.   The hotel reception help us figure out the hours and the best way to the Gandhi museum and in no time we’re fed, bindi’d and flowered and climbing into a rickshaw.  “The Gandhi museum?  Yes yes.  He’s my grandfather!”

After which we head back to our room to shower and pack before we make our leisurely way to the station to catch our train.  There’s a fresh breeze blowing through our rickshaw and the driver is teaching us Tamil.  The city looks vibrant and alive in the evening light.  The street vendors are appearing with their dazzling selections of fresh fruit and roasted corn on the cob.  Maybe I’ll buy some jackfruit for the journey.  There’s a small part of me that’s almost sad to be leaving.  Until I open the door to our sauna / urinal / shower.  But this time the disgusting state of it plus the knowledge that this is the last time I’ll have to walk in makes my mouth twitch.  Gail looks up from packing, “What are you grinning at?”


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