It was hard to get to sleep last night. It's almost Diwali, which seems to be as big a deal here as Christmas is to us. People are madly shopping and stringing colored lights, severely straining the electrical grid which limps along in the best of times. But what kept us up was the fireworks, some rattling the glass in our windows. If Charles hadn't kept us well informed, we would have thought a war was beginning.
Charles was rather cagey about what we would be doing on our drive today. I suspect that he knows lots of possibilities and waits to see what looks best. He's on his cell phone periodically checking ahead, but some things we do just feel spontaneous.
Cashew trees grow readily here and we stopped to get some freshly roasted. A family at the side of the road had turned this into a business. First the nuts were seared over an open fire and then the daughter cracked the shells open by hitting them with a rock. Mom shook the nuts to separate the whole ones from the pieces and dad weighed and packaged them. Yummy for us, but a hot way to make a living.
Then we stopped at a tile factory. Each tile was handmade by pouring dyes into a mold which had been placed over concrete squares. The tiles were covered with glass plates and soaked in water for a week. Then they were dried in the sun and the glass peeled off. The ladies carried a few at a time on their heads to a man who peeled the glass off. The whole process takes about two weeks and each tile cost $1. They were working on a 2,000 tile order from Germany, matching a custom design. We would have loved to order some, too.
Long before Buddhism and Hinduism came to India, people were animists, worshipping plants, animals, rocks, planets, etc. The untouchable caste continued to do so, since they were excluded from mainstream religious activities. We stopped at Ayyala, a unique animist temple, at the end of a small road where people still follow the old ways. As we walked toward the center of the compound, we passed rows of terra cotta horses, some in much better repair than others. Worshippers donate these figures to the gods. At the end of the path, smaller statues and items symbolizing all manner of things one might wish for were piled up. Some looked like they had been laying there for a long time. Kind of a spooky place.
A few more miles down the road, a formerly untouchable group of women had secured some micro loans and began a batik business. Their extra income helped their families to have toilets and make other improvements to their living conditions. As they unfurled one colorful batik piece after another, we all pulled out our wallets and began to shop. Although we have no wall space left for the wall hanging I bought, the $4 I paid was well spent. The Indian government is trying to integrate these untouchable poor into modern society and they get many goods and services for free. These ladies were clearly striving for more.
We had the most fun of all after we arrived in Madurai and Charles secured auto rickshaws and instructed them to take us downtown where everyone was Diwali shopping. The rickshaws are motorcycles with passenger cabs over them. As we merged with motorcycles, bicycles, buses, trucks, pedestrians and cows, it was the best amusement park ride we've ever taken. The horns blared non stop and we bobbed and weaved, sometimes so close to the motorcycles next to us, I could have shaken their hands. At one point a blind man tapping his white cane appeared in the teeming traffic. It seemed miraculous that no one touched anyone. To drive here you need to be able to see 360º and have the reflexes of a cat. We stopped for a drink of hot almond milk at an outdoor stand. The purveyor put on quite a show pouring the mile from one container to another, holding one pot over his head and the other behind his back. It made me think of the shows some bartenders put on to attract our attention and business.