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Fear and Loathing in Madurai


A recap of our weekend trip to Madurai to see the ophthalmological facilities, as well as the Meenakshi Amman Temple.

The detail is absolutely stunning

Quite a lot has happened since I last checked in and, due to the amount of pictures contained in this post, it’s taken a long time to upload! The other reason is I have to go through and check medical terms that predictive text has gone, “What I really think Tim was trying to say was _______…”.
Anyway, I’ve recently rediscovered an old hobby that I can intersperse between writing this blog and going on 5km treks to buy toothpaste: Faceswap! I did this a couple of years ago when I was kicking back on a holiday and I figured, now that I have a moustache, I should try to fully immerse myself into Indian culture. Here are some of the better results:

I’m sure there will be plenty more of these over the coming months/years and I’ll add them when they happen.
Now, as I mentioned last time, our plan was to spend Friday-Sunday in Madurai, a city of approximately one million people, famed for its historic temples. There is also a campus of Aravind Eye Hospital there, as well as a factory that makes cheap surgical lenses and other ophthalmological equipment. We thought this was what we were going to see, but we ended up getting more. A whole lot more.

Our journey began at Aravind Eye Hospital, Pondicherry. I had to take an auto out there, but fortunately, we had arranged for a different driver from last time. This guy was really nice. We went and had lunch with some other doctors, most of whom would be taking the 330km, six-hour minibus ride through some of the craziest traffic I have ever witnessed and I’ve seen some wild traffic in my travels! Not crazy through sheer amount, but crazy by way of driving behaviour.

No so much road 'rules', more road 'suggestions'.

Not so much road ‘rules’, more road ‘suggestions’.

I mentioned in one of my very first posts about the driving here. At first I just didn’t get it, but now I think I am starting to understand. There is no way I could justify the ‘road etiquette’ here, but the least I can do is attempt to explain it:

  • In the past, I’ve mentioned how all vehicles seem to honk their horns for absolutely no apparent reason. It appears there are several reasons why they honk at traffic in the same lane, oncoming traffic and pedestrians; the first is just to let them know they are coming, even if they aren’t in the way, just as an act of courtesy. Imagine going for a walk and knocking on each door you pass, just to tell whoever answers that you are going for a walk. At least, that’s how it seems. Another reason is to ask permission to overtake. After honking, quite often the vehicle in front will move over to the side a little, stick a hand out the window and wave you past.
  • When overtaking, vehicles will honk at oncoming vehicles as if the overtaking motorist has right of way, a way of saying, “I’m on your side of the road and can’t get back on to mine, so you better find a way to get out of my way”. But obviously intended to be done in a friendly way, as is the way of everything here.
  • A lot vehicles don’t even slow down at intersections or sharp corners, they just put their hand on the horn as if to say, “Look out,  everyone, I’m coming through”. Obviously, this is a chaotic approach to things when EVERYBODY is doing it.
  • Everyone drives in the centre of the road until someone honks at them.
  • If it is night, the horn is accompanied by flashing of the high beams in all of the above situations.
  • I should rephrase the above line; Motorists drive with their high beams constantly on, that one I can not explain, so they are essentially flashing their low beams.
  • If you are driving/riding and nature calls, just pull over and take a leak. Seriously, it’s fine. Everyone does it.

Have a scroll through these pictures to see some of the other unique sights we witnessed on Indian roads over the weekend, both in towns and on the highway:

At the beginning of our trip, we traveled for about two hours before we stopped for what we thought was just a drink and a snack. In reality, we had arrived at another hospital, the Ulundurpet Vision Centre. The Vision Centre were expecting us, but Anna and Dr. Jap were unaware of this visit or how welcome they would be made to feel. We were shown around the premises and were able to see some different techniques in action, one of which was telemedicine, where a specially trained nurse uses a special attachment on the slit lamp to send images of the patient’s eye from a remote hospital to a doctor at the main hospital.

The sign that awaited us on arrival. Anna and Dr. Jap had no idea this was happening.

The sign that awaited us on arrival. Anna and Dr. Jap had no idea this was happening.

IMG_1158

Working at the Vision Centre.

Anna outside the hospital.

Anna outside the hospital.

Soon, it was time for us to leave. Although we had been on the road for about two hours, due to half of our traveling being spent dodging cattle, goats, stray dogs, monkeys, bad drivers and the like on narrow, unpaved roads through small towns, we were barely 100km from our starting point. We still had almost four agonising hours of this trip to go. The minibus wasn’t bad, it had air-conditioning, but when you get to my size, long road trips can cause a lot of back pain. All I could think about was a nice, hot shower and lying down on a comfortable bed.

When we arrived in Madurai, we stopped at a great restaurant overlooking the city. The food was excellent, but the only thing on my mind was that shower to relieve the pain in my lower back. Any type of movement hurt, sitting was the most uncomfortable position to be in, but never fear, soon I’d be in our bedroom for the weekend.

The Rubik's Shower: Figure out the combination knob turns to get running water! Fun for all the family!

The Rubik’s Shower: Figure out the combination of knob turns to get running water! Fun for all the family!

Prior to leaving for this trip, I asked a certain doctor to whom I am married, but who shall remain nameless, what our accommodation would be like. Her answer: “It’s supposed to be nice”. Now, I have no problem with roughing it, I enjoy camping, etc., but staying in accommodation one would describe as “basic” is so much easier if I’m prepared for it. All I wanted was a hot shower and to lie down, but there were two problems:

  1. Hot water for our shower only operated twice a day; 6:00-8:00am and 6:00-8:00pm. We had arrived at 9:30pm. In fact, it was difficult to get water out of the shower, due to the fact that it had four knobs, not including the two attached to the water heater! One knob was easily eliminated, so I just had to work out the combination of the other three that would give me running water.
  2. The room had two single beds. I have been too tall to fit in a  single bed since I was about 12 years old. The bed didn’t have an actual foot on it, but it had a bit of wood that sat flush with the mattress. We have a king-size bed back in Singapore and my feet still stick out. This one resulted in my shins or calves flexing over the corner. Not comfortable at all.
My bed is the one on the far-right

My bed is the one on the far-right

I tried every combination in the shower in the faint hope that I might get some hot water, but it wasn’t to be. Anna is a clean-freak, so, to save having an argument, I sucked it up and had a cold shower. When I was done, Anna had a shower and while she was doing so, I moved my mattress onto the floor. She came out of the bathroom and told me that there was, in fact, hot water, I just didn’t “wait long enough”.
Strange.  I waited long enough to come to the conclusion that there wasn’t any hot water,  plus the time it took to have a cold shower. She then said, “You didn’t need to have a shower, anyway, we’re sleeping in different beds.”, yet she still can’t understand why I was in a bad mood that night. I got onto my mattress on the floor, tried to sleep, but couldn’t. I was too pissed off and everything hurt. Plus, Madurai is a dry state, so I couldn’t numb the pain with beer.

I finally fell asleep at maybe 3:00am. At 6:00am, Anna woke me to tell me some extremely exciting and important news (I can’t make it public now, but will in a few weeks when it is all 100% confirmed and, no, she isn’t pregnant, it’s work related) and it took me about an hour to get back to sleep again on my nice little bit of floor. Anna and Dr. Jap had a hospital tour at 9:30 that morning, which they left for, followed by a visit to the lab where they make the surgical lenses.


My plan was to sleep in, but the place we were staying at, however, felt the need to repeatedly call the room to make sure I wasn’t going. I guess I just wasn’t meant to sleep and our accommodation in Pondicherry doesn’t have a TV, so why not veg out for the afternoon in front of the tube? Which brings me to:

Indian TV and Movies

This was actually on TV.

This was actually on TV, I took a photo of the screen!

Television shows and movies in many different countries tend to have a recurring theme, for example:

  • In Korean dramas, someone gets dumped, they end up standing in the rain, crying, but things all work out in the end – they either get back together, they find someone better, or their childhood crush tells them that they were their crush all along, too. Simple.
  • Many Australian dramas, historically, are usually set in establishments that provide a service, i.e.. hospitals, surf clubs, schools, etc., in small country towns, however, the next town over is usually bigger, better and has all the sundries, but the viewer never gets taken there. Examples: The Flying Doctors was based in Cooper’s Crossing, but they always had to travel to Broken Hill if they needed anything. Home and Away is based in Summer Bay, but all of the real action seems to be in Yabbie Creek. A Country Practice was based in Wandin Valley, but when a patient was in really bad way, they got taken to Burrigan. Hell, even the gang in Neighbours sometime venture out to West Waratah, Eden Hills, and Anson’s Corner.

Which brings me to what I observed in a stereotypical Indian TV show or Bollywood film. I had over 100 channels and, admittedly, I did watch the cricket in the morning and Con Air in the middle of the afternoon (How does Nicholas Cage always think of the perfect thing to say?), but I spent the rest of that day channel-surfing: The results:

  • Most stories start with someone losing something, in most of the modern stories it’s a phone. Someone picks it up and now will stop at nothing to return it.
  • If a guy is trying to return something to a girl, he is usually good-looking and instantly falls in love with her.
  • The girl will play extremely hard to get. If she eventually starts to like him, her friends will drag her away from him, despite her knowing what she wants.
  • The guy’s friends will do anything to help him get laid by the girl. Anything.
  • Usually, there is a nerdier, uglier guy who also likes the girl and keeps getting between her and the new man. A common theme was her parents wanting her to marry the nerd, but she doesn’t want to.
  • Singing and dancing can break out ANYWHERE, ANYTIME! One movie I saw had a fight scene that evolved into the two dudes dancing with each other!
  • The handsome guy returns the object, the nerd gets cock-blocked, everyone sings and dances and the nerd just disappears. The women in these films always go for looks
  • Her parents accept the handsome guy, no arranged marriage with the nerd.

These guidelines seem to apply, regardless of how old the show/film is. Here are some other pictures I took of stuff on TV:

Other interesting notes about Indian TV:

  • At any given time, four channels were showing cricket, even if there wasn’t a live game on at the time.
  • If someone in the programme is smoking or drinking, watermarks of health warnings appear on the screen, e.g. “Smoking Causes Cancer” and “Alcohol is Dangerous to your Health”.
  • Approximately 50% of all TV advertising is for mobile phones, internet, or related products.
  • Another 20% is car related.
  • A rather sizeable percentage of all TV advertising contains Shah Rukh Khan

Saturday Night:
Saturday night we went to what was described by the aforementioned nameless doctor to whom I am married as being “Just an outdoors dinner thing”. It was held at Dr. V‘s memorial centre and featured musical performances, something I would have felt more comfortable attending in more than just a t-shirt. The centre, itself, is a beautiful building which acts kind of like a conservatory and a museum, with a large meditation room, as well, just like the hospitals. I have a video of one of the performances, but, for some reason, I am currently unable to load it. I will continue to try, though.


As mentioned earlier, Madurai is a dry state, no alcohol at all, plus we were going to see the temples at 7:30am, so we caught an early night after the dinner. We truly are becoming an old couple, our earliest nights of this trip were Friday and Saturday, our earliest morning was Sunday!
Sunday:

Me with my little pachyderm buddy.

Me with my little pachyderm buddy.

For me, this is the reason we came. No, not to wake up at 7:00am on a Sunday, but to visit the Meenakshi Amman Temple:

Meenakshi Amman Temple (also called: Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, Tiru-aalavaai and Meenakshi Amman Kovil) is a historic Hindu temple located on the southern bank of the Vaigai River in the temple city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India. It is dedicated to Parvati, known as Meenakshi, and her consort, Shiva, here named Sundareswarar. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2,500-year-old city of Madurai and is a significant symbol for the Tamil people, mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature though the present structure was built between 1623 and 1655 CE. It houses 14 gopurams (gateway towers), ranging from 45–50m in height. The tallest is the southern tower, 51.9 metres (170 ft) high, and two golden sculptured vimanas, the shrines over the garbhagrihas (sanctums) of the main deities. The temple attracts 15,000 visitors a day, around 25,000 on Fridays, and receives an annual revenue of sixty millionINR. There are an estimated 33,000 sculptures in the temple. It was on the list of top 30 nominees for the “New Seven Wonders of the World”. The temple is the most prominent landmark and most visited tourist attraction in the city. The annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival, celebrated during April and May, attracts 1 million visitors.

We had a great time in there, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and definitely worth the pain and cold showers. I’m so glad it didn’t rain on the day we went, because you have to take your shoes off inside and it is extremely dusty. It costs about US$1.00 to enter and slighty less extra for a pass to take photos, which is checked extremely regularly. A lot of areas are off-limits to non-Hindus and foreigners, but what we got to see was still amazing. I took a lot of photos, but will post the cream of the crop:

After our morning in the temple, we grabbed a late breakfast before we proceeded with the agonising, energy-sapping bus ride home. Upon our arrival we went out for dinner, had a few beers, a hot shower and got into our comfortable, raised bed for a great night’s sleep.

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About Dr. Tan's Travels (102 Articles)
My name's Tim. I'm a freelance writer and former ESL teacher from Melbourne, Australia, who taught in Daejeon, Korea for six months in 2007 and, until February 2015, had taught in Singapore for seven years. My wife, Anna, is an ophthalmologist. Between March 2015 and July 2016 we spent a month in Pondicherry, India, three months in Bonn, Germany, and 12 months in New York before returning to Singapore, all for training and work placements for her. The reason I wanted to keep this blog is because I suffer from epilepsy and have a terrible memory, therefore this would be a great way to help me remember our travels. I will do my best to keep it updated and even continue writing now that we're back in Singapore, but there is one problem; I have a pretty severe phobia of anything medical.

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