December miscellany from Tiruvannamalai

by measuringcoastlines
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Arunachala from Adi Annamalai

Dreaming of a what Christmas?

All of December, I kept being confused by friends’ posts on Facebooks showing off their Xmas trees and talking about holiday plans, and inside I kept reacting with “already?!” There have been zero cues here for anything that sets off any kind of holiday spirit for me. For starters, it’s been pleasant and warm here, around 25-28 C most days, lows around 17-19 at night. Nobody’s decorating for anything – at least not for anything I understand: for the last week I’ve noticed most houses have decorated their front entrances not only with the usual chalk rangoli or kolam drawings, but also a small lump of cow shit with a flower on top. I have no idea what that’s about.

Kolam, with cow shit and local dog.

The only outward signs of Christmas were at the more Western grocery store in the neighbourhood, which had a sad little shelf with some plum cake and cookies available. On Christmas Eve we went to the Aakash Inn, which has a terrific weekend buffet (delicious and safe all-you-can-eat buffet for about $5). I thought they’d make some kind of amusing attempt to replicate a Christmas dinner, especially since they advertised a special holiday buffet for $6. But the only difference, for that extra $1, seemed to be that they also offered fruitcake.

On Christmas Day we found ourselves enjoying a “VIP status” dinner at the Hotel Ashreya a little ways outside town, because one of our friends had met the owner. We arrived to find a private table for four set up in the garden. So that was pretty sweet, and had an air of decadence since the menu actually included meat (gasp) and alcohol (double gasp). Still, it was standard Indian fare.

Dilprasand, a Tamil treat

Dilprasand, a Tamil treat

So mostly we ignored the holiday, apart from some calls to family and friends back home. And that was fine; I can’t say I was pining for Christmas, without all the cues of snow and whatnot. I finally got a break from all my crazy work intensity, and Matthew and I took some time to explore the other side of the mountain, the village of Adi Annamalai and the ancient temple there.

But we did buy a bunch of dilprasand pastries to give to our friends here, since they were the Christmassiest thing I could think of – they’re stuffed with grated coconut and candied fruit and have a bit of a fruitcake feel to them. The clerks at the bakery were baffled by our request for a dozen individually-wrapped dilprasand – but then as we were leaving, a Tamil man next to me saw the stack and exclaimed happily, “Cake, cake, Christmas cake!” So he figured it out, as did our very surprised friends.

I got wheels

Ten megaton bicycle

Ten megaton bicycle

I bought a used bicycle. It is a tank, a heavy-duty behemoth of a creature that can handle the huge potholes and unexpected rocks of the roads here. I would never, ever ride a bike like this in Vancouver because it takes immense effort to push it up anything resembling a hill. And I would never, ever ride my Vancouver bike here because it would get shredded in minutes. This bike is awesome for bumbling through the back streets, which are so winding that to get to some of my favourite lunch spots I have to zigzag back and forth. I did have to wrap the seat in duct tape to stop it pinching my butt sharply between the saddle and the the shocks when I put my leg down, but that’s dealt with now. And there are stretches of the main road where I will only walk it because the buses zooming by are far too intimidating. On quiet streets though, it’s pretty sweet.

Landlord relations

We have just acquired a sofa. This is a bit of an accomplishment. Most of the time in Tiru apartments are unfurnished and you pay a chunk extra per month for furniture. Couches aren’t standard in a country where most people grow up sitting comfortably on the floor. So when we took this place, it was pretty spartan. We asked for beds, a desk and chair, a fridge, and a sofa, and the landlady agreed and set a price. Everything showed up except the sofa (well, the desk and chair weren’t really adequate for my work needs, so we ended up getting something ourselves, but she did at least provide it). She said it would be very difficult to get a sofa during Deepam festival, and gave us a couple of dining chairs to tide us over in the meantime. And that was the last we heard about it for almost a month.

Matthew reminded her then and asked when the sofa would be arriving, at which point she apologized and said that she had tried to get a sofa but couldn’t. Matthew pressed her on it, since she had definitely said she’d get a sofa, and she got very defensive and said she’d never promised she could get one, she’d only said she’d try. And that she’d given us the chairs (I’m sorry, ma’am, but two stiff upright dining chairs do not equal a sofa). He said, “Well, if you can’t get the sofa, we should get money back,” since in India you pay your full rent up front, not monthly, and thus obviously she’d received enough money for a sofa. She got huffy about it and kept saying she hadn’t promised, and that she did try, and eventually she said if we wanted to leave she would refund us the rest of our rent.

No no no c’mon. We just want a simple comfy couch. Cane or wicker or whatever would be fine. We’re not asking for the Taj Mahal here.

We like our building quite a bit, and the landlady has been mostly very nice and helpful, so up until now we’ve recommended the place to a few other folks who have also moved in. Then we started having conversations with them about their time here, and finding out problematic things. Such as: when one friend arrived with her luggage, the landlady told her, “Another person has just offered me 500 rupees more per month for the room. What do you say to that?” at which our enraged friend said, “Then they can have it,” and walked away and the landlady had to rush after her and apologize and ask her to stay. All of us also learned that the landlady conveniently forgot to mention the extra charge for the gas canister until after we’d moved in. All these things that add up.

So Matthew had a chat with the fellow at the travel shop who referred us to this building in the first place, and told him what was going on, and basically said to let her know that word gets around; we’ve been recommending this place to friends so far but we’re really on the edge of warning people. We can see that she’s a decent human being, but it seems like someone’s been giving her some bad advice on how to squeeze money out of her tenants, and we are not okay with that. The travel fellow said he’d have a word with her, but there wasn’t a lot he could do. Another two weeks or so passed, and we gave up on the whole thing; we got a little roll-out mattress that we can flop down on in the living room so at least there’s one comfortable place to be.

Then whaddya know? This arrived today:

It's a Christmas miracle!

It’s a Christmas miracle!

Merry belated Christmas!

The sofa is velvety and pleasant, and has the added bonus of reducing the echo chamber effect of our plain concrete walls. Plus, it reduces the growing resentment we had about our landlady. Hopefully she’s learned that if she wants quality, long-term tenants – and I believe she does – then up-front honesty will get her further than manipulation.

That’s it for this year

This past year has been one of the most tumultuous and life-changing phases that I’ve yet experienced, and it only makes sense that I start the next year here at Arunachala. Every day here seems to unfold into something new; sometimes it’s a frustrating challenge, sometimes it’s a startlingly opening moment of awareness. The days are so full of potential that I sometimes feel I’m busier than I am back home, and yet there’s more of a sense of flow to it all. I feel like I haven’t even touched on much of this here yet. There’s enough to say just writing about the actions and experiences that happen, let alone what underlies them.

I don’t know what I’m doing for New Year’s Eve yet, but I look forward to finding out.

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