“Americans Are So Strong”: Adventures in the Indian Ocean

This is Part 6 of the story of my trip to India in 2014. Go here if you want to start from the beginning.

2014-10-25
Saturday
Day 3 in India

After a deliciously magical night spent at Mango Hill with Mónica – one where we probably didn’t fall asleep until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning – we sleep in a little later than planned. Ajit is waiting for us when we get dressed and pack up our stuff and join him for breakfast in the resort’s open dining hall at 9:00. Aside from some cereals and croissants and other pastries, the buffet is full of Indian foods I’m not familiar with. I try all of them.

Breakfast at Mango Hill Resort Pondicherry
Breakfast at Mango Hill

It’s another beautiful sunny day, and already feels warmer than yesterday – probably around 90 degrees. We’re planning to meet some of Mónica’s friends to go surfing in Covalong, which is a couple hours drive back north toward Chennai. We’re running late, but nobody’s too worried about it. It’s vacation, after all, and vacation means not needing to worry about what time it is. Actually, not worrying about what time it is seems to be a trait common to India as well as Latin America. Maybe that’s part of why being with Mónica always feels like being on vacation, whether I happen to be working or not.

ECR

The drive up the East Coast Road to Covelong is every bit as entertaining as the drive was coming down here yesterday. We laugh at people running to leap onto moving buses that are already overflowing, as well as at all of the improbable things we see people carrying on motorcycles. When we pass a bike where the passenger sitting on the back is awkwardly holding a large television set, I decide to start keeping mental notes of all of the crazy things we see being transported by motorcycle. Here are some of the ones that I can remember:

  • A guy with his infant daughter asleep face-down on the gas tank between his knees, her arms and legs dangling.
  • Many instances of 4 or 5 people riding 1 motorcycle. (Mónica says she’s seen as many as 6 on a bike in Chennai.)
  • The passenger holding a television set.
  • A bundle of 10 foot long bamboo poles strapped behind the seat perpendicular to the direction of travel.
  • A bike passenger holding a PVC pipe that’s at least 20 feet long and 8 inches in diameter (thankfully not being held perpendicular to the road).
  • A bundle of steel rebar.
  • A fat 10 foot roll of carpeting, held sticking straight up in the air between driver and passenger.
  • A sheet of plywood. (I am not kidding.)
  • A car’s windshield.
  • A car’s entire muffler and exhaust assembly.
  • What appears to be a 40 gallon plastic drum full of water strapped behind the seat.
  • A guy carrying 6 full 25-liter water jugs tied to the sides and back of his bike.
  • A globe-shaped bundle of pots and pans so big that I’m not even sure I could fit it into my truck-bed.

We also see a rickshaw with a cow in the back seat at one point – its hog-tied legs sticking out the back window and its head hanging out the side with an expression of exasperated resignation. I wonder how much work it must have taken to pull that off.

Covelong

When we get to Covelong, we park on a dirt road next to a crumbling stone wall near the beach. I change into my swimming trunks, but decide to keep my sandals on to walk to where we’ll be surfing. This road is covered in broken glass and garbage. Some goats are picking through a truck-sized mound of trash next to us. We’ve brought a 25-liter jug of water to share with the other surfers, and I pack it on my shoulder for the long walk to the surf area.

On the beach, it’s sunny and hot enough that the sand almost burns our feet. Mónica comes here occasionally to take surfing lessons from Murthy’s Covelong Point Surfing School. A group of local teenagers helps run the small surfing school and rents out surfboards. Normally, Mónica would be here at 7:00 in the morning. It’s almost Noon now, and they tease her about being late. A couple of Mónica’s international friends from the city have been here for hours already.

Alton, Mónica, and Ajit at Covelong Point with Surfboard
Alton, Mónica, and Ajit at Covelong Point

I’ve only been surfing a couple of times before in the States, and I’m not very good at it yet. Still, I decline a lesson and instead just rent a board while Mónica starts warming up for her surfing lesson. One of the kids wants me to warm up, too, before I take the board out. He motions for me to run down the beach and back. I run down a ways and take off into the water for a short swim. I don’t think about it until afterwards, but this is my first time in the Indian ocean. The water is extremely warm, certainly warmer than all the times I’ve swum in the ocean off Florida, and a world away from the experience of swimming in the cold refreshing water of Maine.

Taking the board out, there are occasional waves about 4 feet high. I catch a good one early on, but it turns out to be my best ride of the day. I only manage to really surf a couple more in the next hour. The foam board is very light and I keep flipping it over or pushing the nose down too far trying to get on it. Surfing is hard, at least when you’re still learning, and I have a lot of respect for the people who can do it well.

When I decide it’s time to pack it in, I walk up the beach to see Mónica and all the surfing school guys trying to do handstands. I’m way better at this than surfing, so I start showing off with handstands, handstand presses, one-handed cartwheels, and back tucks. One of the older kids does some flips with me. His form makes me question whether he’s ever tried this before, but he still manages to nail the back tuck a couple times.

Surf instructors at Covelong Point
Mónica with the surf instructors.

We’re all laughing and having a good time. A couple of the youngest boys, maybe no more than 12 or 13, ask me how old I am. I tell them that I’m 35 and they act really impressed, pointing at my arms and clasping my shoulders and saying, “Very nice. Nice physique.” I’m not sure, but I think I hear some of them having similar exchanges with Mónica as well. Mónica wants the guys to take our picture, and we decide to pose in back-to-back head/handstands. Luckily, the guy snapping the photos catches all the action.

Covelong Point Handstand Progression 0 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 1 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 2 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 3 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 4 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 5 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 6 Covelong Point Handstand Progression 7

After we’re done goofing off, we have to look for Ajit, who I think has gone to find a nap in the shade or something. This takes a good bit of wandering around. I’m still packing the 53 pound water jug that we didn’t need on my shoulder. While we stop to rinse off with the hose outside the surfing school’s building, a little kid comes up to me with a giant grin on his face. He’s wearing my size 13 sandals that I forgot on the beach, looking appropriately ridiculous and exclaiming about how big my feet are.

Mahabalipuram

When we catch up to Ajit, we hop into the car still wearing our swimwear and head towards Mahabalipuram to meet some other friends for lunch. Mahabalipuram (I hear some people call it “Mahabs” or “The Mahabs” for short.) is an ancient seaport city that still boasts a number of temples, statues, and other rock-carved monuments from about the 7th century. We’re looking for a restaurant on the beach, and on the way we pass an endless number of shops selling incredible stone carvings. If you ever wanted your own life-sized granite or soap-stone or marble statue of a Buddha or a Hindu deity, this is the place to get it. The detail in these crafts is beyond impressive. I wonder if it would be possible to witness the creation of one of these items by the sculptor, or if they might take special requests. Not that I would ever be able to transport such a thing from here if I had it, of course.

The streets here are very narrow. We find a place to park that’s a little out of the way and have to change clothes next to the car while passers-by stare at us unabashedly and stray dogs relieve themselves while rummaging through a huge pile of discarded coconut shells. Walking to the restaurant causes vendors from the many shops and stands to swarm us with invitations to check out whatever they’re selling. We try to be polite but keep moving.

Street vendors in Fisherman's Colony, Mahabalipuram
All the streets in the Fisherman’s Colony area are filled with vendors.
Dried fish for sale in Fisherman's Colony, Mahabalipuram
I hope these are supposed to be dried fish that they’re selling.

The restaurant where we meet everyone for lunch is called Santana, located at the end of Othavadi Street in the Fisherman’s Colony area. At the entrance, you can pick out the fresh fish you’d like to have them prepare for you. Someone in our group asks for one of the big ones for the whole table to share. We also eat some of the most gigantic prawns I’ve ever seen while enjoying views of the beach and the Shore Temple. (One of the many ancient monuments in Mahabalipuram, the Shore Temple is a five-story granite structure built on a raised stone platform. It’s one of the oldest temples in South India.) And obviously, there are cows wandering all over the beach amongst the colorful fishing boats.

Fresh fish display at Santana Restaurant, Mahabalipuram
The fresh fish selection at Santana.
Prawns at Santana Restaurant, Mahabalipuram
They serve their prawns huge, with lots of masala spices, and with all of their appendages still attached.
Whole fish at Santana Restaurant, Mahabalipuram
Our fish, again masala style.
Santana Restaurant view of Mahabalipuram Beach
The view north from our restaurant table.
View of Shore Temple from Santana Restaurant, Mahabalipuram
To the south, you can see the Shore Temple from our table.
Cows on the beach at Mahabalipuram
Cows on the beach. Are they strays? I don’t even know.

After much socializing over our late lunch, one of the Indian guys in our group returns from outside and says he’s found some fishermen who will take us out for a ride on their boat. Sure. Why not. We go back to the car to change again.

Fishermen at Mahabalipuram
Fishermen getting their boat ready for our cruise.

I’m not sure exactly how big this boat is, but with the three fisherman plus the nine people in our group, it feels pretty crowded on board. We head straight out from shore for a while, bouncing around in the choppy waves and getting increasingly soaked as we go. The fishermen instruct us to sit low and hold on while the three of them stand up in the bow or by the rudder with hands clasped behind their backs like they’re just hanging out on the sidewalk watching the cars go by.

Riding in a fishing boat, Mahabalipuram
What a beautiful day for a ride in a fishing boat!

Once we’re out in open water, they cut the motor and everybody starts jumping into the Indian Ocean for a little swim. I wasn’t expecting this, and I’m not wearing my trunks, but I eventually jump in, too. It’s a beautiful day, and the water is so warm.

Swimming in Indian Ocean, Mahabalipuram

Once everyone is sufficiently worn out, we start climbing back into the boat. This is a lot harder than it looks, basically involving a full muscle-up from the water up onto a slick wet unstable platform. Everyone is getting a hand from the fisherman, but it’s still a lot of work. Swimming totally wears me out and I don’t feel like waiting for my turn, so I decide to show off by casually hoisting myself up onto the deck without assistance like it’s no big deal. The fishermen grin at me and one of them says, “Wow, Americans are so strong.” Mónica and I have a good laugh at this. I’m not sure if anyone else in our group has ever been to America (the other non-Indian girls with us are from France and Holland), but if I’m going to be given the role of spreading incorrect stereotypes about Americans, I might as well have fun with it.

Once we’re all in, the fishermen point to what appears to be a reef of rocks just below the surface of the water near where we were swimming and explain that we’re above an ancient submerged temple. According to some historical accounts, the Shore Temple that we can see on the coast directly across from us was once part of a group of monuments known as the Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram. For most of recorded history, none of these but the Shore Temple had left any trace and could be confirmed, so it was questioned whether the other six pagodas ever actually existed.

Then the Tsunami happened in 2004.

Just before the Tsunami hit, the ocean waters here pulled back about half a kilometer from shore, carrying away centuries of sediment and exposing other structures to witnesses in the village. Since then, a number of submerged temples have been rediscovered and studied by archaeologists. Temples more than 1400 years old that moments ago, we were just swimming around, oblivious. Here we are, out having a good time like a bunch of school kids on vacation, but this is India, and here the far reaches of history sit right in your daily life, an intimate and ever-present connection to the countless people who have been here before.

View of Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram from sea.
Close-up of the Shore Temple from where we were swimming.

There’s still some joking and teasing going around about the strong American in the boat. I’m being encouraged to show off some more. I manage a decent handstand in the middle of the constantly bobbing boat, but that’s not enough. I end up doing a backflip back into the water for another swim, and the guy who seems to be the lead fisherman decides to join in the fun. We all swim for a while longer before riding back to shore, where all of us strapping young men help the fishermen drag the surprisingly heavy boat up the sand to park it above the high tide line.

Backflip from fishing boat, Mahabalipuram
My backflip dive from the fishing boat.
fisherman-handstand-flip-from-boat
The lead fisherman’s handstand flip from the edge of the boat.
Mahabalipuram Beach Group Photo
The happy expedition crew, minus the fisherman and photographer.

Parting ways with new friends, Mónica and Ajit and I head back to the car to change clothes yet again and start to head home. On the way, Mónica asks if we can stop to see another set of ruins – the Pancha Rathas of Mahabalipuram. This collection of monuments built in the 600s AD, along with the other monuments in the area, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We park and meander through dozens of vendor stalls to find the entrance to the park. There’s a bit of a mix-up when we get to the gate, though, since we were supposed to buy tickets from some guys at a booth way back closer to where we parked. It’s almost 18:00 in the evening now and the ticket booth has already closed. Why the ticket booth closes before the actual park does, I have no idea. There are still plenty of people in the park though, so we start haggling with the guards at the gate. They say they’ll let us in for 300 rupees each. Normal ticket price is about 50 rupees I think. We end up paying 500 for Mónica and me together and they let Ajit in for free. I think I’ve just paid my first official bribe in India. (500 rupees is about $8 US.)

The structures and statues here are impressive, not just for their age and detailed designs, but because they’re all carved out of the existing pink granite bedrock of the site rather than having been constructed. Everything is one piece of rock . . . the same rock. Despite the historical significance, though, and status as a World Heritage Site, kids and other people here are climbing all over everything like it’s just some old playground. I guess a singular piece of rock, no matter how intricately carved, is pretty good at withstanding the test of time. I wonder how impressive it must have been before the centuries of erosion softened all its edges.

Mahabalipuram Bhima Ratha
Me posing in front of the Bhima Ratha.
Mahabalipuram Dharmaraja Ratha
Ajit pointing out features of the Dharmaraja Ratha.
Mahabalipuram Pancha Rathas Elephant
Just chilling with a 1400 year-old granite elephant.
Mahabalipuram Bhima Ratha Columns
Checking out the columns on the back side of the Bhima Ratha.

It feels like it’s already been a long full weekend when we get back to Chennai and say goodbye to Ajit, but it’s only Saturday. We have one more day of vacation before Mónica goes back to work on Monday, and I’m eager to see where the next adventure takes us.

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