Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

April 2008


Faith & Religion and TravelTuesday, April 29th, 2008, (10:06 pm)

One of the things I find most fascinating about mankind is how different cultures across the world have come to recognize and celebrate spirituality. India is often the place many people go to in order to explore aspects of this, and as much as it might be a cliche, it does seem to be the case that India is somehow more attune or open to the unfathomable.

Tiruvannamalai main temple.

Visiting temples and shrines here makes me feel like I’m caught up in a conversation among poets. I stand there and nod at random intervals hoping that nobody will realise that I’m faking it, and that I’m no poet, I don’t read poetry, and that it just isn’t really my thing. I do spirituality like I do golf. I know there’s a method and that practice will bring improvement, but on the rare occasions I find myself on a golf course I just slug the crap out of the little white ball in the hope that it will land somewhere relatively near the green.

Tiruvannamalai main temple.

Standing at the foot of one of the ornately decorated temple towers, called gopurams, I look up at the structure that dates back some 1,200 years and marvel at the fact that this was built to glorify the Gods. It is, in effect, a spectacular monument to mankind’s relationship with that which we cannot control or fully understand, to a drive that has inspired us to build radically different monuments all over the world and throughout all of time.

I can’t tell you much about the temples and shrines pictured here. Instead I’m sharing these photographs with you more for the opportunity to once again look upon them and wonder how it is that they came to be. How something that inspires such beauty can at the same time unleash such unholy horror.

Another temple in Tiruvannamalai.

A shrine to Nandi on the road around Arunachala, the holy hill.

Another temple on the road around Arunachala, the holy hill.

The temple like roof of a public toilet and baths in Tiruvannamalai!

Yet another temple on the road around Arunachala, the holy hill.

The roof of just one of the many temples in Tiruvannamala.

Somewhere away from the politics and power struggles of the various religions of the world, there is a faith and connection in the hearts of many that is so moving and powerful that it has led the creation of some truly awe inspiring buildings, shrines, and art works.

If God is a creative power, then maybe when we’re not blinded by our differences, mankind’s truest reflection of God is in our ability to create.

TravelSunday, April 27th, 2008, (10:06 pm)

India is a very intense experience that can easily overwhelm you. Coming from the west I found myself once again looking around at the apparent chaos surrounding me and wondering how this country actually manages to get anything done. But here, far outside the safety of familiarity, it’s possible to find a sense of freedom and perhaps adventure which is both exhilarating and intoxicating. In the Hindi language the word for tomorrow and yesterday are the same, which is perhaps the best indication of how things are in this part of the world.

This trip to India has been entirely different to the first time I came to this part of the world back in 2004. I was prepared for the culture shock to some extent, but as Joelle says, it still takes a couple of days to get into the groove of India. Home luxuries like refrigerators, reliable electricity, wireless internet access, air conditioning, and plumed toilets were largely absent on this trip. However, the liberation from this years seemingly unending British winter was more than welcome. “You’ll never hear me complain about heat.” I told Joelle.

My first mistake was bringing so many white T shirts and light colored summer clothes. White things don’t stay white for long and it would seem I still have to perfect the technique of hand-washing things using buckets and the floor!

I should also mention that the Srinivasa wasn’t the only place I ate. Joelle and Laxman prepared many colorful and thoroughly enjoyable meals, some of which we ate in equally colorful company!

Joelle & Laxman

Arunachala, the holy hill.

On one afternoon while Joelle and Laxman were doing their daily walk around Arunachala, the “holy hill,” I borrowed the moped and decided to go exploring. A dirt track behind Laxman’s house that headed away from the mountain looked enticing to me. I figured that even without a map it would be impossible for me to get lost as I could always just head back in the direction of Arunachala at which point I would find the road that circles the mountain.

I found my way to a small road along which there were rows or palm trees. I kept stopping the moped not to take pictures as much as just soak up the fact that I was enjoying being off the map in India, or at least off my map, not that I actually had a map of course, but you get the point I’m sure.

As I sat there on the moped looking across the fields of palm trees and Papayas I knew that this would be one of those afternoons that would become solidified in my memory, minutes weren’t merely passing, they were being carved out of time itself.

A little way down the road I came upon a small village. The first house along the road was painted in bright colors and so I decided to stop a take a photograph, but no sooner had I taken the camera out of my pocket than a smiling man started walking across a nearby field calling out to me and waving. He approached me and quickly established that the colorful house was his. Neither of us spoke the others language so we engaged in one of those conversations where we both spoke in our native tongue while making exaggerated hand gestures and nodding.

He invited me to step inside his home which was painted dark blue, sparsely furnished, and surprisingly cool on this scorching afternoon. He showed me his kitchen and seemed especially proud of his TV. He then led me outside to the steps onto his roof where he reached up and grabbed the branch of the overhanging tree taking some kind of fruit from it. Speaking Tamil enthusiastically and gave me a few of the tiny fruits and indicated that I should eat them. “Ah, we eat these?” I asked. He stepped back and wobbled his head some more while smiling broadly. I looked at them and thought to myself that I simply had to eat this whatever it was, to refuse would be a little rude.

“You’re not trying to kill me are you?” I asked, feeling a little like someone on a travel documentary. “Are you vegetarian?” I continued. “I only ask because I’m concerned you might be a white meat kind of guy.” I joked as if for the benefit of an imaginary camera crew. He then stepped forward and took the tiny fruit from my hand and broke it open with his hand, then ate one and again motioned to me to eat. With that I smiled and said “Gesundheit” as I ate whatever that was he gave me. He seemed pleased and said something which I hoped was “I’m so glad you enjoyed that” rather than “Ha, you fool, now you’re going to die!”

In truth I wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. In my experience people in the rural villages are always happy to see tourists who have dared stray from the guide book. Smiling man was now waving and shouting at the entire village from his roof top while pointing at me and getting more of those strange nutty fruit things to eat. I might be here for a while, I thought to myself as other villagers started to arrive and talk to me in Tamil.

I stayed with the smiling man and his friends for a while, before eventually shaking everyones hand and saying goodbye as I made my way to the moped. A number of them were talking to me at once, perhaps under the notion that more than one person speaking might somehow make them more understandable to me. I smiled politely and then began to rev the bike, signaling my imminent departure.

At that point one of the men pointed back in the direction I had come from. “This road is a dead end?” I asked, in English, which, of course, they couldn’t understand. “I should turn around then?” Much nodding and wobbling of heads was happening, so in the belief that the villagers were helpfully telling me the road went nowhere, I turned the moped around at which point of the men got on the back and pointed forward while saying something which sounded like “Kalabala jalafalkarootala mallapagaboolika.”

I assumed he was just hitching a ride so I took off, but as we neared a dirt track and he tapped me on the shoulder indicating that I should take the track, which I did. Well, it was a hot day and if I could help a guy out by giving him a ride why not right?

At a small house the man jumped off the bike and motioned for me to park. I parked the moped and followed him to his back yard. He said something while smiling and pointing at the trees then he rummaged around a few pots in his yard and produced a large knife. Maybe in any other situation such a large knife in the hands of a stranger might make me somewhat nervous, but this man seemed to happy to be a knife wielding killer. He walked toward me smiling and still pointing at the tree while talking. Then he tied the knife to a long stick and cut down a coconut, open it, poured the milk into a cup and gave it to me to drink. As I drank it he cut down a small bunch of bananas and a large papaya fruit which he then presented to me as a gift, such generosity to strangers would be almost unheard of in the west. He introduced me to his son and we talked as best we could for a few more minutes before I got back on the moped and continued my ride.

I rode through several other villages, stopping to take pictures here and there, but generally just enjoying the beautiful hot sunny weather and being free as a bird.

As I rode through little villages made up of mud huts and rudimentary one room concrete homes, people would wave at me and shout out “Hi!” or “Hello!” then laugh when I returned the greeting. Children stopped me and often insisted that I take a picture, excitedly shouting “photo, photo!” They would pose in stiff upright stances with their hands by their sides like little soldiers standing to attention, then the moment the photograph was taken they would hurriedly crowd around me to see themselves on the screen of the camera.

A little way down the road I came upon a small village with a fairly imposing church. In such an overtly Hindu area seeing a church was extremely unusual, especially considering the fact there are some 52 holy sites around Arunachala. So I stopped for a moment just to look at it from the roadside.

A villager then approached me and said “Helping?” which I took to be an offer of help, so I asked him if the church was a Christian church “Yes,” He said “Catholic church.” With that he turned around and shouted at a child who scurried away as if to get someone. He then indicated that I could take a closer look, so I parked the bike and walked up to the square building that looked bland when compared to the many ornate Hindu temples in the area.

At that point the child who had run to get someone emerged with a lady who had a very large key with which she opened the church. She smiled at me and pointed at the door saying something in Tamil. Children then came over joined by other villagers and before I knew it I was having a guided tour (in smiling Tamil) of this one room Roman Catholic church (called St. Joseph’s) accompanied by delighted children who laughed at every word I said. After a while I bid the villagers farewell, got back on the moped and took to the road once again.

My friend Mick Singh once told me the hardest thing about going to India is getting there. At the time I didn’t really understand what he meant. Now I do.

TravelFriday, April 25th, 2008, (4:06 pm)

Thanks God for Pepsi! I know I am supposed to be immersing myself in this Indian cultural experience, but really, thank God for ice cold Pepsi!

Roadside shop in Tiruvannamalai.

It’s as hot as hell here in India, and when the water you carry around with you in a bottle heats up to a temprature that might make for a nice cup of tea, I have to tell you that a cold Pepsi is just bliss, seriously BLISS!!

I lasted a good few days eating South Indian food and drinking water (or water with a little fresh squeezed lemon) and hot milky sugar saturated tea, but my western taste buds were yearning for something familiar, something refreshing.

After having a bottle of ice cold Pepsi over dinner one night, I was so happy that on the way back home I stopped at one of the many roadside shops to get a big 2 litre bottle of cold Pepsi which I drank that night as we watched the moon rise over Arunachala.

Just for the taste of it

TravelThursday, April 24th, 2008, (3:41 pm)

If you ever find yourself on the wild and crazy streets of Tiruvannamalai in Southern India maybe you’ll be looking for somewhere to eat. Allow me then to give you a restaurant recommendation and point you in the direction of Srinivasa.

I’m not much of a food person which may mean either I am blessed or cursed. In the case of Srinivasa restaurant I’m not sure which of those categories I would fall into. Set behind the makeshift roadside food preparation area where the smell of the burning stove mingles with the smell of the traffic that frighteningly passes by only inches away, this small eatery is a terrifyingly dirty little hut that has all the charm of Thai prison combined with the ambiance of a bus stop.

Laxman and Joelle are regulars here, they assure me that the food, which is served on banana leaves, is entirely safe and among the best that Tiruvannamalai has to offer. This might ordinarily be reassuring had a a very large rat not just walked across the floor just inches away from my feet. “It’s a rabbit.” Laxman tells me with a wry smile as he catches the alarm on my face.

Sri Nivasa restaurant in Tiruvannamalai.

Dosa, a kind of Indian pancake, is served with a bucket of something hot and mildly curry flavored and accompanied by water in what look like prison issue metal cups. Like everywhere else there are no knives and forks, you wash your hands as you walk in then eat whatever is served with your right hand. For the budget conscious visitor this place is hard to beat as a meal for three including hot drinks will cost you no more than for 35 Rupees, which is less than one (US) dollar!

As we sit there eating and making conversation while I struggle to eat my meal with one hand, a man sat at the table across from us falls backward off his stool and lies unconscious on the floor. With no great haste the proprietor and a couple of others pick up the man and hold him in a more upright position on the floor. The other patrons look on for a few moments, before getting back to their meals. It turns out that the man who collapsed works there making the tea and coffee, and as soon as he regains consciousness he returns to work.

Srinivasa restaurant in Tiruvannamalai.

I would like to tell you that the poor state of the building, the tables and stools is all forgiven once you taste the fine south Indian cuisine on offer. Unfortunately though, I can’t. The food here is functional and somewhat boring, and I’m not known for being at all fussy about food. But if you fancy eating in a small room with soot lining the collapsing walls while rats run freely and staff collapse around you, the Srinivasa roadside eatery in Tiruvannamalai is very much the place for you. Enjoy!

[Video] Take a look inside Srinivasa
Tiruvannamalai
Dosa
Laxman’s Flickr photo’s

TravelWednesday, April 23rd, 2008, (3:13 pm)

So, I’m in India! It was something of a last minute thing. My friend Joelle is currently living for a little while in Tamil Nadu and she invited me to go stay with her and her friend Laxman, a Dutch national who spends most of his time in India. So, here I am!

India

IndiaSo far my experience here in India has been very different to my last trip here. Joelle and Laxman life an ‘off-the-grid’ existence outside of a town called Tiruvannamalai which lies at the foot of a so-called holy mountain that seems to be home to tons of temples and spiritual gurus. Everywhere you go there are pictures of a guru called Ramana. He’s dead now, but evidently he was something of a big shot in the world of guruness (is that even a word?).

It’s hot here and, of course, there is no air conditioning. I’m sleeping in the house of one of Laxman’s neighbors in a bedroom which has large windows with no glass. There is a working light-bulb and even a shower in an outside shower-room. Cooking is done using a solar cooker or a gas stove, and water is pumped to the house and Laxman’s house is powered by a large battery which is charged via a solar panel. It might not be everyones cup of tea, but what it lacks in amenities is more than made up for by the hospitality of my hosts.

India

India

Despite having been to India before it’s still something of a culture shock to come here. The roads are packed with mopeds, cows, buses, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, trucks, and the occasional car. Anything with a horn is invariably sounding it and attempting to overtake someone else in a maneuver that would have them arrested and banned from driving back if they tried the same thing back in the UK. Beside the road are food stands, shacks, temples, and shops and the closer you get the the city the crazier it all gets.

This is no glossy brochure tourist trip, it’s India like India is. The meals we’ve eaten in what I will only loosely call restaurants, have all been served on banana leaves in smoke filled rooms that I wouldn’t be happy to keep my bike in back home, but this is adventure territory and I’m up for that.

India

About Tiruvannamalai
May first trip to India (Part 1)
My first trip to India (Part 2)
[Map] Where in the world is Tiruvannamalai

Photography and TravelWednesday, April 16th, 2008, (8:21 pm)

My friend Phil and his wife, Kerry-anne, move to New Zealand next month so at the weekend, as both Phil and I were free, the two of us headed into Wales for what I suspect will be the last time he’ll see that country for a very long time. It was a fun day out, a “roof down day” in my MG, and a good opportunity to just kick back and have some fun. I took the camera along so you can share in at least a little of what we saw. (The pictures with a magnifying glass in the top right can be enlarged by clicking the picture.)

Saturday mornings are about getting up late so neither of us were in any hurry. At about 10:30 Philly called me to tell me he’d just got up, so I too hauled my lazy butt out of bed and got ready. We had agreed to meet up and take care of the most important thing before we embarked on our day trip… breakfast! The best place for a couple of ‘blokes’ to get a good English breakfast is the Shamrock Cafe. £4 will get you a plate with 2 fried eggs, beans, sausage and bacon with toast on the side and a cup of tea. The last time we were here together it was the morning of his wedding.

With breakfast (or brunch, or lunch as it pretty much was!) out of the way we headed down toward Owswestry, turning off the road toward Weston Rhyn to take a more interesting looking back road, a “wiggle road” as I’ve come to call them. The sun was shining and the roof was down, perfect!

Wales

The plan was we had no plan. It was a ‘seat-of-the-pants tour.’ We were just seeing where the road took us while at the same time watching some distant rain clouds. On the road that runs along the invisible line that separates England from Wales we made the first of what was many stops to get out of the car and just take in a view.

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

We decided to head to the now nearby Lake Vrynwy, (Welsh: Llyn Efyrnwy – pronounced [E]vurn-wee-). I’ve been there many times before, but Phil hadn’t so it seemed like as good a place as anywhere to get out for a stroll. Unfortunately the notoriously unpredictable British weather had other ideas and the rain clouds moved in just as we pulled up to park beside the lake. Undaunted though, we still got out and walked along the dam so as to enjoy a “cigar moment.” (Honey flavored I believe!)

Wales

The rain didn’t last long and oddly enough it seemed to bring out the colors of the moss covered trees and ground by the lake. We would drive a little way, see something and stop to get out and take a closer look, then drive a little further and see something else that made us stop again.

Wales

Wales

Wales

Traveling west from from Lake Vyrnwy we had to go over the foothills in Snowdonia national park. As we climbed the steep roads I began having fun driving through the puddles of meltwater, though I misjudged one puddle and because the roof was down both Phil and I got an unexpected shower, Phil especially as the puddle was on his side of the car.

There was still a little snow around so Phil decided this was a great opportunity to make a snowman! There wasn’t much snow, so this snowman was only a little guy, and a bit creepy looking to. I tried giving him hair, but even at his tender age he lost it very quickly (though he still had more hair than Phil!) After making the snowman we decided to run him over, so we placed him in the middle of the road then flattened him. We’re guys, that kind of thing is hard-wired into our brains!

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

Trying to chase the blue sky that hadn’t been extinguished by closing rain clouds we took the road to Carnarvon Castle. The brunch/lunch had word off by now and we were hungry so the plan was to get something to eat in Carnarvon and maybe watch the sunset on the Isle of Anglesey. However, after turning off the main roads to follow yet more ‘wiggle roads’ the clouds that we had thought we might beat enveloped the sky above us. But it didn’t matter, we had enjoyed a great day, and it wasn’t yet raining so the roof was still down.

If this place were home
As summer fades (Part 1)
The Llyn Peninsula
Wales
Driving the open road

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