India Travels (photos)

All Photos by Laura Jones 2011

Arrival in Madurai

“Wait on the platform for me, because there are a lot of stairs.  If I’m not there, go up the stairs, exit to platform 1 and wait by the ticket booth. If I’m not there, take a rickshaw to Madurai Residency; we’re in room 401 and 402.  The rickshaw shouldn’t cost more than 30 rupees.  Don’t worry though, I’ll find you.”

“Go up the stairs at platform one, or wait in the waiting room, or hang around the platform. Up the stairs is best. What ever I’ll find you.”

My suitcase felt heavy enough to pull me off the train. Putting old style heavy SLR digital, lenses, c-pap machine, more than a dozen books for my grandchildren all in the same suitcase was one of many after the fact travel lessons learned – spread the heaviness around. Anyway, exiting the train was a necessity.  I had to chance it and, with as tight a grip as I could manage, I thrust the suitcase downward trying not to drop it but searing my muscles.

The crowd is similar to the Toronto subway when people try to get on and off simultaneously. Many of the people greeting passengers are porters; I don’t know who is who. I see no space to add myself.

My arm dangles the suitcase and I don’t see a step to get down. As I lean over attempting to see a step, my suitcase lightens. Someone has helped.

Oh thank you. Thank you. I am rambling multiple thank yous into the air. Then, I notice the helper is Morgan, my son.

With relief, excitement, and happiness, I throw my arms around a very grinning Morgan as if I haven’t seen him in years instead of a few weeks.


Morgan’s perspective

When I had announced to my mother that I was taking a five-week trip to India with my wife and our three children, my mother replied by saying that she’d be joining us for the last two.  “That’s great,” was the only safe reply I could think of.

We had arranged our rendezvous in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.  My family and I went a day early to arrange a hotel and to see The Temple City of The Temple State of India.  The Meenakshi Temple was truly spectacular.  The highlight was being blessed by a temple elephant.  When you held out a coin, the elephant would bop you on the head with his trunk, and then pass the coin with his trunk to his handler.  For 10 rupees, the handler would let you take a picture with the elephant’s trunk draped over your head.  It shouldn’t have surprised me that the elephant’s trunk was extremely heavy; I mean, it is an elephant after all.

My mother’s train was coming in at 11:00 pm.  We had chosen a very nice hotel that was within walking distance of the train station.  After three weeks of staying in many different hotels in India, this one (which was the fanciest) cost about half of what most of the others had cost.  This made it painfully clear how much I had been consistently ripped off up until now.

I had sent an email earlier that had outlined a plan for meeting at the train station.  I thought it was a pretty good plan.  Lots of contingencies.  I arrived at eleven pm when her train was due.  I was told at information that the train from Trivandrum was due at 11:30 pm; at least this is what I understood.  There was a fair bit of confusion because they were convinced that I wanted to go to Trivandrum by train.  I knew Madurai was the end of the line, so I hoped that our differing views on my directional needs would result in the same train.

There are prerecorded announcements on the platform to let you know which train is arriving next and on which platform.  The trains are named by their point of origin (much like the New York, Washington DC, and London subways); this is only useful if you’ve ever heard of any of the cities of origin.  I had not, so I ran and met every train that arrived.  After every train I would run the length of the platform looking for a confused white woman with too many bags (something that I know I contributed to by asking her to bring a small library of reading material for my voracious children).  At around 11:45 pm, when the third train arrived, I positioned myself in the middle of the platform and scanned the cars as they went by.  The flash of white skin that gleamed from the doorway of the moving train car was unmistakable.  I ran along side the train as it slowed down and I waited by the door.  Sure enough, I saw her in the doorway struggling to get her two suitcases, two shoulder bags and a backpack off the train.  I reached a hand out to help, but she was so distracted by her baggage that I was unsure that she even knew it was me.  I was a little surprised with how unconcerned she was that a strange hand was taking her bag away and I could tell she didn’t know it was me by the way she thanked me so profusely.

I had only been away from home for three weeks so it wasn’t that I had been missing her, but I’ve never been so happy to see her.  There is always something thrilling about meeting someone at the train, so that was a little bit of what made it so wonderful.  It was funny because I was in a country that was so foreign, but standing with my Mom, which is so familiar, made me feel like I was home again.



New Adventures

Destination India

Memories of Celo, North Carolina

Both Celo, North Carolina and Mitraniketan in Kerala, India are intentional communities, planned on similar values – emphasis on education, meaningful work, non-violence, cooperation, simplicity, and environmental stewardship.  Celo was founded in 1937 and Mitraniketan in 1956. Today, both communities are thriving.

After getting to know Arthur Morgan who was one of Celo’s founders, K. Viswanathan, felt inspired to form Mitraniketan. The two men had initially met at a Quaker annual conference in New Jersey.  (A conference that I attended with my mother and then again with my own children. This year the conference is in Iowa and we may go with my grandchildren.)

Celo, North Carolina, USA

(past adventure)

As a young teenager, in the early 1960’s, I lived in Celo, attending work camp and then the Arthur Morgan School.  At that time, the school felt like a year-long work camp. It didn’t come close to any stereotype of a boarding school. In some senses it was closer to the concept of group homes , but  a voluntary experience and happier than the impression that group homes bring to mind.

There weren’t more than 40 families in the entire community.

As one of the community’s goals was to be self-supporting, work was essential to its existence. Work was also part of the philosophy of developing responsible citizens who lived in a manner that was in keeping with a non-exploitative, non-consumer,  racially tolerant lifestyle.

Work done by 12 – 15 year olds during the summer camp and during the school year was not make-do work but essential work – growing vegetables, caring for the chickens, donkeys, goats, preparing meals, baking bread, cleaning, doing laundry, chopping wood, firing up  the wood burning stove and making repairs. We also cleared brush, turned the chicken coop into a schoolhouse, dug a well, fought a forest fire, and repaired a bridge.

We did have classes in French and Algebra, but much of the studies included learning through experience. The boys put up telephone poles and created a phone system for local use which consisted of old wooden crank telephones. It worked and they got a science credit.

Two or three students shared a room in a “family setting”.  There were 16 students in the school – mostly boarders. We lived simply . Our home had no central heating,  no TV, no radios. Even though I didn’t see a newspaper for months at a time, I didn’t feel isolated from the outside world.

For instance, I was particularly aware and interested in India. Letters (or maybe it was a newsletter) were read to us about Mitraniketan.  We knew that it was an interest of Arthur Morgan. K. Viswanathan was a name that I still remember.

It has been nearly fifty years since I was a student in Celo Community and became interested in Mitraniketan.  I’m about to learn more as I am going to visit Mitraniketan.

Mitraniketan, Kerala, India

(present adventure)

As I mentioned, at Celo, I learned of  the Mitraniketan project.  It had been going for less than ten years.  Today, it is a thriving community of 500.

My son, Morgan, visited Mitraniketan about 15 years ago with Canada World Youth. When he saw Arthur Morgan’s picture on the wall (in the company of pictures of Mother Teresa and Gandhi) he told Viswanathan that he was named after the Morgan family. Viswanathan gave Morgan a pamphlet about Mitraniketan that describes the community and its services. Being both packrats and info junkies, we still have the pamphlet.

Morgan is currently visiting India with his wife, Lidia, and their three children – Zenon, Lukie, and Zoriana.  A recent email from Morgan about traveling in India said   “It has been a tremendous adventure.  Actually,  every meal is an adventure.  Every time we cross the street, it’s an adventure.”

I will join them but my first stop is Mitraniketan.  I am particularly interested in learning more about its education programs and about the training services for women.

If we can co-ordinate the timing, Morgan and his family may be able to also go to Mitraniketan. As the time for my departure nears, I realize that I wish both my sons were a part of this adventure. However, Bennett is studying and money is limited.

The significance of this adventure is beyond the words that I have used. Maybe my progress messages will capture the importance of this journey. Being my age – a grandmother, a mother, an educator, an activist, a Quaker, a writer, a photographer – so many roles yet such limitations – I can only try and try and keep trying to communicate my hope, my joy, my inspirations.

I’m ready for the adventure.