Saturday, 28 December 2013

From Kenya To Kodai ( Via Pune, Chennai And Madurai... )

I have been getting a large number of mails from the Head Office in Mumbai pertaining to the next conference for the Speech and Drama program whose franchise I hold in Pune, my hometown. This time it is going to be held in a tiger sanctuary next month and sadly I will miss it as I will be in India only by next June. But those mails reminded me that so many things have happened since I attended the last conference in June in the beautiful hill station of Kodaikanal in the state of Tamil Nadu in Southern India , that I never got around to writing about it.
The first step, after I was invited for the Kodai conference and was told it was compulsory to attend, was mentally preparing myself to spend three nights and four days away from my children who I would have to leave with my parents since my husband would still be in Nairobi at that  time. Linda Goodman's typical Capricorn mother that I am, staying away from my kids even for a couple of days is a huge challenge for me and I am continuously haunted by questions like  'Have they brushed their teeth and have they had their milk?!' Little wonder then that she says and I quote ' If you have a Capricorn mother you do not have to worry for the rest of your life..'
The next step was figuring out tickets which I bought on line in Nairobi and thus discovered that I would be travelling from Pune to Kodai via Chennai and Madurai. I had forayed into Tamil Nadu more than two decades earlier just after my tenth standard board exams to visit my Aunt and Uncle who were based at the Army Staff College at Wellington (yes, the colonial touch still reigns and we still have towns named after Brit Lords!) near yet another famous hill station, Ooty. But I had not visited any of these cities whose glimpses I would be able to catch now. An added bonus was that I would be staying at the very same hotel 'The Carlton', where my husband had stayed many years ago for one of his conferences. He had said then that we should visit this place together and since then we have been all over the world but have never visited Kodai. It seemed I was destined to visit it by myself !
My Dad dropped me off at Pune airport and I, as usual, popped into the airport book shop to arm myself with a good book. After all what's the point of spending so much time travelling if you do not use it to read? Soon we were winging our way to Chennai and all our Tamil friends came to mind. Chennai is one of India's safest metros and I have read about the pure silk saree clad, top to toe gold laden 'atthais' (Aunties), fragrant jasmine flowers in their hair, who move confidently around town and  have no fear that their jewellery will be snatched by bike riding thieves, just the way women could move around in Pune a mere twenty years ago...
I only got an aerial view of Chennai and of course there was a brief halt at the airport as I changed planes to head to Madurai but I liked what I saw and someday I would love to visit this city. The next aircraft was much smaller and sadly the airline served no food. Used as I am to good Indian vegetarian meals on all our international flights, it hurt to buy food but it could not be helped and I bought a packet of tortilla chips at an exhorbitant cost!
Finally I landed at Madurai where my colleague received me at the airport and we began the last leg of my journey to Kodai which was still a three hour drive away. Clean air was a welcome relief after my poor polluted Pune and swaying palms were easy on the eye. Driving on winding roads, through small villages, climbing up into the hills, with a GPS navigator by our side, there was no way we could lose our way and sure enough we soon reached Kodai, ready to participate in the conference. Our meals were included in our package and we bonded with fellow franchisees from all parts of India including Manipur, over Dosas and Sambar, Idlis and Vadas ( that is typical and very popular South Indian cuisine for the uninitiated!) rounded off with ice cream at every meal! Every one else loved the cool Kodai weather but since I live in Nairobi, another hill station, all year round, it was the norm rather than the exception for me!
Chocolates, supposedly hand made, tea, fresh from the surrounding hills, medicinal oils and spices were on my shopping list as Kodai is famous for all these and my suitcase was full to bursting point by the time we were ready to leave. I also won a rolling trophy at the conference on an all India level and that, alone, made my trip worthwhile! The cuddly 'Bear Trophy' was also added to my 'threatening to burst at the seams' long suffering suitcase!
 We drove back to Madurai very early in the morning and I was blessed to witness a beautiful, golden sunrise, a sight I would have otherwise surely missed, as getting up early tops the list of things I hate! Since our flights were in the evening I was invited to my Master Franchisee's sister's house for the day. After dropping another colleague who had an early morning flight, to the airport, we headed straight there. And, thus, I had the fortune of meeting some of the most generous people I have ever met in my life!
 What is it about small towns that somehow manage to produce people who actually care about others? We, from the big cities are so busy with our own lives, that we rarely have a minute to spare for anything or any one that does not directly concern us. The saddest part is that things were so different even in a mini metro like Pune just a handful of years ago.. My host's father actually made it a point to go up to his aged mother and tell her he was leaving for office and he also increased the volume of the television set so that she could clearly hear the religious discourse that was on. Most people I know seem to have forgotten these minor courtesies and look upon their parents as a burden they cannot wait to get rid off.
My hosts ensured that I got to visit the famous Meenakshi Temple of Madurai that has visitors from all over the world! They personally dropped me close to the temple, where their friend who owned a huge garments shop right in the temple premise, fixed up a guide for me and then they told me they would pick me up and take me home for lunch! I would have been content to study the marvellous architecture alone ( my M.Phil thesis dealt with temple architecture!) and would have worshipped from afar but thanks to these people whom I had met for the very first time I was able to go right  up to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. I was mildly surprised to find that only Hindus were allowed inside the temple...Since I had not expected to enter the temple, I had dressed comfortably for travel in a pair of knee length capris and so I was stopped by the lady security guard and told in no uncertain terms that I was violating the dress code of the temple! Oops! I assured her I would not make the same mistake twice, begged her to let me enter and she finally relented!
My mother's birthday was coming up soon and I was determined to gift her some gold from the South. The kind shop owner sent one of his sales ladies to guide me to a reputed jewellery store. The same lady accompanied me to an ATM machine to withdraw cash for my purchase, without a word of complaint, when my credit card refused to work due to network issues. Yes, small towns have their share of problems! And then I had to practically force a tip in her hand. There was no expectation nor was there any sign of the greed  in her eyes that one normally sees in our metros.
A delicious home cooked lunch followed by juicy mangoes and a short rest later, it was time to leave for the airport. I thanked my hostess, who despite having had a baby just a fortnight earlier, had taken great pains to ensure that I was comfortable during the course of the day. I invited them to Pune and I hoped I would be able to reciprocate at least a fraction of the hospitality I had experienced that day!
Hitherto my only experience of Madurai had been through A.K Ramanujan's poem that I had studied in school. 'In Madurai, city of temples and poets who sang of cities and temples....'. Well they should have sung about the amazing people who live here too! I would not have been blown off my feet by all the kindness shown to me then!
It was only fitting that my trip to India that had begun with a journey to Chennai should end with watching a movie just a day before we came back to Kenya, whose name begins with Chennai....I am still recovering from that particular experience and am in no hurry to repeat it...
                                           Carved Shikhar of the Meenakshi Temple, Madurai
                                                  The room with a view at the Carlton, Kodai
                                                          The lovely lake and stately trees.

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