FIRST GLIMPSES OF INDIA
After seeing my luggage safely ensconced atop one of the two vans that would take us to the Suddhananda Ashram, I boarded and found a single seat by a window. There were 7 or 8 of us squeezed in and around baggage and other paraphernalia. The van was owned and driven by a Tiruvannamalai businessman who had provided this service before for Deva’s groups, so there was a sense of confidence that we were in good hands..
Since this was the first time we had really had any opportunity to be together, we chatted a little and shared nuts and dried fruits we had brought along as snacks.. Suddenly, I realized how tired I was, and since I couldn’t see much of anything anyway, I laid my head back and rested for a while.. I say “rested” euphemistically since the ride was hardly smooth.. We seemed to travel in fits and starts as the van would pick up speed and move at a good clip for a while then suddenly slow down to a crawl and inch along bumpily.. Peering out the front windshield I could see by the headlights that the road looked badly rutted, in fact, as though it weren’t a road at all. I later was told these were places that had washed out in monsoon rains and had not yet been repaired..
We rode along in this erratic fashion for over an hour, then the van slowed down and stopped alongside a brightly lit roadside concession stand.. I stumbled out of the van and looked around in an exhausted daze.. It looked like a scene out of a movie.. Garish lights illuminated a bare-bones open-air structure that housed rough-hewn counters and steaming metal vats filled with chai, which was scooped out and poured theatrically in a long brown waterfall from a ladle held up high by an Indian “barista” into individual metal cups sans handles.. Even in the pitch black of this early morning hour (sometime after 4 a.m.), the place was filled with people.. Those in the group who had been on this pilgrimage before marched right up to a wooden counter and ordered.. I carefully observed the protocol, then followed suit, ordering a single shot of chai and some packaged biscuits (cookies), which I paid for with rupees that Jill had loaned me.. The steaming hot chai, milky brown and slightly viscous, was a godsend.. I cupped the hot metal cup in my hand and inhaled the spicy fragrance before taking a welcome sip.. It was more intensely flavored than the chai I was accustomed to in the states and gave me an instant lift. The caffeine would begin to work its magic soon after we boarded the van, which was good timing since dawn was breaking and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Although it the sky was still bathed in the pink light of dawn, I was amazed at how many people were already out and about. A number of women were en route to a central water source, balancing metal jugs on their heads.. Cows, their bones showing through their hides, were tethered outside of shanties.. Skinnier dogs – all mid-sized, short-haired and looking like they came from the same mother -- sniffed about, obviously seeking some morsels of sustenance..
By now we are joined on the highway by trucks, buses, cars and motor-scooters carrying entire families, including infants.. Nobody seems to be obeying any formal rules of the road..
We passed through small villages, then finally as the sky turned blue, we reached the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai. Colorful stalls and more substantial concrete or stucco buildings lined the two-lane road, some filled with goods for sale others appeared to be living spaces.. In a several-block-long section, sadhus (holy men) with their wild unkempt hair and bright orange robes, sat or reclined on blankets on the concrete sidewalk apparently oblivious to the cacophony all around them..
Finally we turned into a gated driveway and pulled up a tree-lined dirt road, stopping in front of some brick buildings.. At long-last, after more than 30 hours of travel, I had arrived at my destination.!
Next: Settling In