Although Christmas is just another business day for most of India, including Mumbai, you can’t miss the fact that it is Christmas season. Every major hotel is decorated for Christmas, including an elaborate artificial tree. In our hotel, even the elevator music plays a collection of the instrumental seasonal music you might hear in a US shopping center. On our Jet Airways flights to Madurai, the cabin background music was a collection of instrumental favorites like Jingle Bells and Dashing through the Snow. Humming these snow-themed tunes, it was somewhat jarring to step off the plane to a humid 80-degree evening in Madurai, city of temples.
We entered the sparkling new Madurai airport and were quickly surrounded by dozens of eager-looking middle-aged men, dressed sharply in their best white dhoti and pressed white shirts. What a welcoming party! But they were all looking past us, with great excitement and anticipation, held at bay by a dozen stern-looking local police officers. We made our way outside, encountering hundreds more men straining for a view of the VIP. There a row of fancy white cars awaited this man, whose photo we now saw plastered on posters and vehicles. Clearly a regional politician with many followers here in Madurai.
Now it was well after dark, and a light rain began to fall. We were glad to find the driver (pre-arranged by Aravind Eye Hospital) to take us to the guest house. The ride was a bit harrowing, on dark narrow roads; many pedestrians and bicyclists were barely visible, and oncoming traffic taking great liberties with the center line. I’m sure glad I wasn’t driving.
The guest house is a pleasant homey place, and cheerily tended by two women in pretty saris. The house has about 20 guest rooms, a nice common room, and a dining room where the ladies serve three home-cooked meals a day. The rooms are comfortable and air-conditioned; my only complaint was the road noise (problematic on the rooms at front) and a neighbor who likes to blare loud Bollywood classics starting before 6am.
The Aravind Eye Hospital is one block walk down the street. A short walk, but you must dodge the cows and goats that wander around the neighborhood, and cross the street (yikes!) bustling with autorickshaws and two-wheelers that seem unaware of the presence of pedestrians.
We spent our first morning visiting the Aravind Eye Hospital, their training center (LAICO), their research building, and the Aurolab manufacturing facility. The origin and history of this organization is fascinating and inspiring – I highly recommend watching the video Infinite Vision, which tells the story of Dr. V and his mission to eradicate needless blindness in the world. The Aravind system now conducts thousands of eye surgeries every month, with better outcomes results than in the developing world, and with their services completely free to those who cannot pay. (Indeed, its quality and its teaching are world-renowned: at the guest house we met a medical resident from Johns Hopkins University who was spending a month training on surgical technique here at Aravind.) I’ve posted a few photos on SmugMug, but my blog from my May 2009 visit has a wider variety.
Andy wasn’t feeling well so we took it easy in the afternoon. Pam and Mara and I went to tour the Gandhi Museum, a nice place with a well-presented history of European involvement in India and the independence movement, of Gandhi’s life, and of a small collection of Gandhi-related relics.
We dined at Sri Sabareesh, with excellent South-Indian food like dosa and idly. We rode in two autos (autorickshaws) there and back – gone are the days when all five of us could fit into one auto! It’s quite a wild ride; our driver moved fast, weaving in and out of traffic and honking at anything in his way. The streets are crowded, dirty, and rough – in many ways Madurai feels like an overgrown village that hasn’t managed its growth into a busy city.
Tomorrow we visit a new Aravind outpost – LiveWell rehabilitation facility – and the biggest and most amazing Hindu temple in south India.