Sunday, January 12, 2014

What sort of traveler are you?

When anyone of us takes off to travel in another city or state or country, we may not think a lot about how we're traveling beyond the literal. Do we take a plane or train or drive? But whenever I'm in India, as I am right now, I am reminded of how different each of us enters a new world. We travel differently.

Right now I'm visiting my favorite part of India: Trivandrum, Kerala, where I used to live. I visit friends, explore areas of the city I don't know well, and meet other tourists as well as locals.

I'm staying in a hotel with a number of tourists, students learning about palliative care in India, and business men and women. This is a good variety of perspectives on the country. Among the tourists are individuals with a variety of goals. Some set off each morning to see the "sights," the topics and places that are supposed to draw people from other parts of India or the world. They go off to see the local museum, which holds a fine collection of South Indian bronze sculptures, or the art gallery, which has a well-cared for collection of paintings, or the zoo, which has a lot of animals and is in the process of upgrading their accommodations (better cages, etc.). I've seen all these places but even when I first came to Kerala, I wanted to see the neighborhoods, how people lived. 

It's easy to meet people here because the locals are quick to ask me where I'm from. Sometimes this is followed by the news that the questioner has a cousin in Alaska (the temperature never falls below 70 degrees here, so how the cousin picked Alaska is beyond me), or has been to New York, or something to get the conversation going. Sometimes I'm the one to start the conversation with a quick question about a child playing or a small temple nearby.

The highlight of my now annual trip is always the unexpected. Every evening for the first week or so I attend a concert of Carnatic music. These can be enormous fun if the performers work together and interact. Carnatic music involves a lot of play and response parts, and good performers play off and with each other with great enthusiasm and imagination.

On the lane leading to the concert area we pass the enclosure for the royal elephant. Darshini is 47 years old and a sweet girl. Another tourist, Bob, and his wife, Anne, have made friends with the mahout, who lets us feed the elephant. She loves carrots, apples, and cucumbers, and takes them gently from us. She lets us put the food into her mouth, and it disappears at once. I never hear a crunch, though she has teeth, so I don't know how she eats it. Her trunk is gently, and she welcomes a tender pat.

I suppose I could focus on the more typical sights. This week is the deepa festival, during which the great Shree Padmanabhaswami Temple will be lit up for several days. The display is magnificence, and i wanted to just stand in front of the gorgeous lighting and stare up at it, but I was with friends, it was late, and the crowd moved in and out of my view.

Seeing the temple lit up was a lovely experience, but being eye to eye with Darshini was a moving experience. She watched me while I fed her, looked me in the eye, and seemed to be memorizing my appearance. Getting that close to an elephant outside a zoo will be the high point of my trip this year.

What sort of traveler are you? What do you look for? What are you drawn to?

Note: This post was supposed to include three photographs, but I'm in India and can't seem to upload them. Maybe next time.

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