Off to Madurai, visit to Aravind Eye Hospital

Christmas at the Trident
Christmas at the Trident

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.

Common room at Aravind Guest House
Common room at Aravind Guest House

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.

A woman at the free-service patient center, waiting checkup after surgery.
A woman at the free-service patient center, waiting checkup after surgery.

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.

Paneer Masala Dosa at Sri Sabareesh
Paneer Masala Dosa at Sri Sabareesh

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.

Christmas in Mumbai

Merry Christmas!  We’re used to spending Christmas away from home – we always celebrate Christmas with family in South Carolina.  [Well, every year except when we were living in Bangalore; there, we celebrated with my parents in our IISc apartment.] But this year was the first time we’ve ever been in a hotel for Christmas, and the first time our kids have had Christmas away from the rest of the family. Furthermore, we had already exchanged gifts back home in NH. So, Christmas Day was necessarily muted.

Amazingly, Santa Claus found the kids anyway! Each had a stocking by their bed, each with gifts, chocolates, and rupees for souvenirs.  We chatted with my parents via FaceTime – it was still Christmas Eve for them. Then, by request from the kids, we had a restful day – no sightseeing or shopping for us.  I went out for a walk, and photographed the many cricket matches underway at the Oval Maidan. We played card games and worked on puzzles. We went for a swim in the pool. (How often do we get to swim outdoors on Christmas day!?) We walked down the street to watch The Hobbit in 3D.  We dressed up and went next door for Christmas dinner at Ziya in the Oberoi hotel. [I’ve traveled all over India, eaten in Indian restaurants in major cities in the US and UK, and I think it’s safe to say that dinner was the most fabulous Indian food I’ve ever had. And, I think, our most expensive family dinner ever.]

Now we’re off to Madurai, in southern India, for a visit to its historic temples and inspirational Aravind Eye Hospital.

Tea at the Taj

On Christmas Eve we attended High Tea at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, on the waterfront in South Mumbai. Built in 1903, even before the adjacent Gateway of India, the Taj is the original home and flagship hotel of the Taj group, which now has luxury hotels around the world. We were joined by our friend Kirti, recent Dartmouth grad and Mumbai resident, for this lovely meal. It was worthwhile visiting for tea just to explore the grandness of its lobby and interior architecture, though as non-guests we were able to visit only a portion of the hotel. We passed a display of photos highlighting famous visitors to the Taj, over the century, including queens and rock stars and cricket players, and most recently, Barack Obama.  In the display is a guestbook open to the page on which Obama signed a note. I have a few photos in my Mumbai album.

High Tea at the Taj Palace Hotel, with Kirti

High Tea is served late every afternoon, in the informal and peaceful Sea Lounge overlooking the harbor. While a pianist played Christmas tunes, we explored the buffet and its delicious range of savory and sweet snacks. The waiter brought petit fours, scones, tiny sandwiches, and other tea-time standards. My favorite were the flights of chaat… my favorite was the sev puri but I loved the bhel puri and liked the dahi puri. The kids were entranced by the chocolate fountain, quite literally a chocolate fondue waterfall in which they could dip fruit sticks. And, of course, each of us received a pot of tea selected from over a dozen varieties. Magnificent!

We arrived just before sunset, allowing a fine opportunity for a family photo in front of the Gateway of India.

Sunset at the Gateway of India

The top tourist attraction in town, this arch was built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George and Queen Mary. Hundreds of other people were visiting, all passing through metal detectors and bag checks before being allowed into the plaza. The arch and its plaza are beautiful, though marred by the ugly police fences strung around the perimeter.  The security is necessary, given the 2008 attacks; I just hope a more permanent (and more attractive and effective) perimeter fence is in the works.

Visiting the Gateway, the Taj hotel, CST station, and staying at the Trident, it’s impossible to forget the sad November day in 2008 when Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai. Known since as 26/11, these attacks began as my parents landed in Delhi for their tour of India, and while we were living in Bangalore. A terrible tragedy with 164 killed and over 300 injured, this incident shook India deeply. I wrote about it in my blog a few days afterward.  Four years later, Indo-Pakistani relations are still strained. Indeed, as I write today, Christmas Day, the Pakistani cricket team is visiting India for the first time since 26/11, playing the Indian cricket team at a match in Bangalore. Let’s hope this is the beginning of an ongoing peaceful relationship.

Merry Christmas and a best wishes for a peaceful New Year.

South Mumbai

I’ve posted photos from our first three days in Mumbai. Sunday was a quiet day so we took a walk around South Mumbai.  Heading north from our hotel we walked past the Oval Maidan – a large park with at least a dozen concurrent cricket matches underway – snapped photos of the High Court and Mumbai University buildings, and down MG Road to the Prince of Wales Museum.  This part of the city is full of grand Victorian-era buildings that blend European, Islamic, and Hindu architecture.  Pam shopped at another FabIndia outlet, and we stopped to look at many street-side vendors.  CST, the central railway station, formerly known as Victoria Terminal, is a grand site to see.  Over 3 million passengers pass through daily.

Mara, John, and Andy awaiting lunch at Mahesh Lunch Home.

Perhaps a highlight of the day was our lunch at Mahesh Lunch Home, one of the most famous seafood restaurants in the city.  Located incongruously on a dirty and dingy back street, the restaurant is sharply decorated in a modern style.  We were seated next to the fish tank, and enjoyed delicacies like prawn gassi and tandoori crab.


Finally!  Three and a half years after our family left India – we spent a year living in Bangalore back in 2008-09 – we returned to India and our first stop is Mumbai. Although I have visited India four times since then, this is the first time that Pam and the kids have been able to make the trip.  I think it’s really important to cement those old memories of life in Bangalore, and travels in India, with another visit now that they are older.  We’ll be in Bangalore next week, but for now, we finally get to see the sprawling city of Mumbai.

Bayside view
A view from Nariman point to the north with the bayshore sweeping to the left. Trident hotel is at upper right.

We visited Mumbai ever so briefly back in January 2009, but I only saw IIT and the others saw nothing but the airport.  This time, we are fortunate to be able to visit two local friends – Varsha, who is a CS professor at IIT Bombay, and Kirti, who recently graduated from the Dartmouth MEM program and who was our FFP student last year.

We arrived at the Trident hotel around 2am yesterday, after a 25-hour journey from home. We slept a few hours and awoke to find out just how spectacular a location we have selected.  We are located right on the edge of the bay, along the famous Marine Drive promenade, with a spectacular view across the bay.  Unfortunately, the view is hampered by persistent smog, this time of year.

We spent our first day wandering the streets in the area.  For a weekday, I was surprised at how few people and how little traffic there is in South Bombay!  I’m used to the chaos of Bangalore streets but here they are wider, less congested, and better organized. We found a movie theater two blocks from our hotel, and decided to watch Life of Pi (in 3D) later in the afternoon.  (See it! great movie.)

Today we hired a driver and went up to the northern suburbs for breakfast with the family of Varsha and Jitendre, two colleagues from my days as a grad student at Duke. They took us over to IIT Bombay, which is in the midst of a four-day arts festival and competition.  We enjoyed the display of sculptures, watched contestants in the classical dance competition, and watched some of the Bollywood dance competition.  fun!

We then went to visit Kirti and her family for a home-cooked lunch. Wow, what a treat! chicken curry and fried fish, out of this world.

On the way back we shopped at FabIndia, stopped to see the Haji Ali Durgah and to eat some wonderful fruit creams – that is, chopped fruits covered with a cold sweet cream sauce, a bit like half-melted ice cream.

Today was a long day – we were out for 11 hours, and we’re too stuffed to go out for dinner. We flipped on the TV to watch the England vs. India cricket match, happening live at the stadium just a few blocks down the street.

So much for the tedious chronological summary.  Impressions so far?  It seems a wonderful city with great people and a deep history.  South Bombay is full of grand buildings from the Victorian era. The infrastructure, though clearly not keeping up with the booming population, has done so far better than Bangalore and thus the traffic moves along and things seem to work smoothly.  I look forward to exploring more tomorrow.