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Embedded Photos: 1.Tirumala Map, Andhra Pradesh 2.Pilgrim Queue, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 3.Venkateshvara Temple, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 4.Offerings, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 5.Boy with Toy, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 6.Family Photo, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 7.Hat Shopping, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 8.Hair Donation Building, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh 4.Janatha Hotel, Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh
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November 27. CHENNAI "Tirumala Pilgrimage" We were doing Tirumala in a day trip from Chennai.  By train it took three hours one-way so we had to get an early start but, fortunately, we had First Class A/C seats again.  This trainTirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India  was a bit more run down but it was a comfortable ride.  I slept much of the way.  Most of the people on the train were also heading to Tirumala via the town of Tirupathi.  When we arrived at Tirupathi station people poured off of the train and flooded the station.  It was still a bus ride up the mountain to Tirumala but we decided Tirupathi was a good place to get a late breakfast since we didn't know if there would be any meal options near the temple.  Not far from the station we found a neat looking little hotel with a crowded restaurant, always a good sign.  We were seated at the back and ordered up some really good appams and idlys with coffee.  

Heading back to the station we searched out the bus transport up to Tirumala but found the booth empty.  Some forms on how to make a pilgrimage to Tirumala were stacked on the counter.  It appeared that the buses were scheduled to leave with the arrival of the trains.  We'd missed our chance for the bus.  That wasn't mentioned in the guidebooks.  We went back to the middle of the station and looked for the pre-paid taxi booth we had seen when we got off the train. It was also closed but clearly listed the rates for a round-trip taxi up the  mountain.  We were on our own to negotiate a fare with the taxis in front of the station.  Naturally they tried to up the price but there were too many of them and soon one caved in to the set price.  It was the standard white Amabassor taxi cab with bouncy seats and the driver was a nice guy.  The road  up the mountain was well marked.  A toll gate at the bottom charged a small fee for each car but the road was well paved with separate roads for up and down Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India traffic.  The guidebook described a rather hair-raising bus trip but the newly paved road looked like a significant improvement.  We were heading up behind the main flow of traffic so there was no traffic.  

As we approached the top we started to see trails of bald and barefooted pilgrims wandering along the road.  Apparently there was a walking path that could be taken to the top, for the truly pious pilgrims.  Soon, small shops, cafes and even some lodgings came into view.  Unlike other hilltop temples we had be to this was a temple city, equipped with all of the conveniences for the visiting pilgrims.  The architecture was unremarkable, just modern built concrete slab construction, sturdy and practical.  Our driver parked the car in a large lot near the entrance to the darshan queue, easily identified by the stream of pilgrims kept in order by a metal barrier, not unlike the ones you see at an amusement park.  We look off our shoes and left them in the car, keeping our socks on.  Pretty much everyone was barefoot but it had rained recently so the wet pavement quickly made our socks squishy and floppy.  The driver gestured towards the ticket office so we scheduled a time to meet him at the end of the day and headed off.  

A wide pathway ran alongside the pilgrim queue and at the entrance there was a billboard with a large map of the Tirumala complex, much larger than we had expected. Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India But, after all, it was supposed to be the biggest pilgrimage destination in the world, out ranking Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem, in the number of pilgrims each year.  Such a large and steady flow of pilgrims necessitated that they there be an organized system for receiving darshan and a limit on the number that could go on any given day.  And, not surprisingly, there was a hierarchy to the system.  At the bottom level there was no charge to receive a token for darshan but the queue was long and could take most of the day.  Going up the ladder there were more expensive tokens for people who wanted an expedited visit, giving them a jump in the general queue.  All of the free tokens were gone for the day.  A screen at the ticket window showed how many of each darshan were still left to be had and, it appeared, even if we were willing to pay for the $25 token we couldn't have received darshan that day.  Someone directed upstairs where the more expensive darshans tokens were sold but that just confirmed what we already knew; it was sold out for the day.  We quickly realized that if we weren't going to enter the temple we didn't need to be sloshing around in our wet socky feet and rushed back to our taxi, hoping the driver was still around to let us get our shoes.   He saw us coming and understood from our gestures that no darshans were left in Tirumala for that day. But, before letting us put our shoes on he went back to the ticket office to confirm once again.  Still no tokensTirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India.  So, we peeled off our wet socks and put on our sandals.  Since we were already there we intended to check out the Tirumala area and make the most of our visit.

We returned to the ticket booth, walking past the long line of pilgrims, waiting for their turn at darshan.  Heading in and out of the complex were bald people of all ages.  Next to the ticket office was a small shop selling images of the altar inside the temple, dedicated to Vishnu.  We bought a couple of DVDs to take home.  If we couldn't see the altar ourselves at least we would have photos.  Next to the shop was a small post office but unfortunately they didn't have any postcards or stationary for sale so we could send something home.  Since it was Thanksgiving weekend back home it struck us funny that our weekend was being spent with Indian pilgrims, not pilgrims and Indians.  Just beyond the post office the pilgrim queue turned and went down some stairs and disappeared into a large building, supposedly a waiting room area.  We followed the stairs outside and came to the main temple complex.  From the waiting room area an overhead walkway carried the pilgrims over to the a line that wrapped around the side of the main temple, the Venkateshvara Temple.  This entire part of the queue was enclosed in caged walls, presumably to prevent people from cutting in line but it made the long wait look even more daunting.  Once you were in there, there was no turning back!  I had to wonder what people did if they had to go to the bathroom.  Large signsTirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India posted at the entrance were quite clear about the no spitting, littering, urinating or defecating on temple grounds.  There must have been some toilets somewhere along the queue but it was awfully slow moving.  

We left the pilgrim queue and walked out to a spacious courtyard in front of the temple.  Just like the rest of the complex, the temple was rather functional looking.  In fact the whole place had a look similar to that of a 1970's American college campus.  But what the place lacked in architectural highlights it made up for with its steady hum of activity and the elevated spirits of the pilgrim community.  We didn't encounter another foreign tourist during our whole day at Tirumala.  That was a rare experience.  People noticed us but we didn't attract much attention. They had more important things on their minds, leaving us to just wander around and explore the temple.  Across the large courtyard from the temple entrance a set of stairs led up the hill to a row of little shops.  At the top of the stairs an enclosed area with burning receptacles was busy with pilgrims making offerings and praying to the temple.  The nearby shops sold the typical assortment of temple paraphernalia, everything from toys for the kids to large disco deities.   We shopped for a blinking rendition of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance, to whom another nearby temple was supposed to be dedicated.  But, the majority of what was for sale related to Vishnu, in his Tirumala incarnation.  

At one point we were stopped by a large Indian family who were eager for us to take a photo of their little boy and his new toy.  He was adorable but I had to get a photo of the group as well, with the smiling bald face of the grandmother.  For the most part Indians were quite good about having their photos taken but I generally kept a low profile with my camera when we were around religious sites.  The shopping area opened up to a large portico where people were sprawled out napping, chatting, or eating.  Off of the portico was an entrance to the "Place of Surrendering Human Hair to Lord Venkateshvaraswami".  Part of the pilgrimage experience was to donate one's hair to Lord Vishnu.  A couple of flights up we saw a two men emerging from the building with their freshly shaven heads, rubbing their bald scalps and chuckling.   Rob had his video camera out and zoomed in on the men, waiving at them.  They hammed it up a bit and waived back, gesturing for Rob to come in and get his head shaved.  Rob politely Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India declined but I thought it might have been a good opportunity for a fresh buzz.  He hadn't had one since Cape Town!          

We had plenty of time to explore the temple area, checking out shops, bumping into the same family a couple of more times, watching a man pour steaming coffee from above his head into a small cup, stopping to chat with the Hari Krishna people, and having a couple of coffees in a place called the Janatha Hotel (people have asked me if my name has Indian origins).  Nobody hassled us the entire time, except for an odd young man who just followed us from a distance and watched what we did until Rob asked him what he wanted.  He seemed more curious than anything.  Even with all of the people at Tirumala it maintained a very subdued and easy atmosphere.  After we had retraced our steps a couple of times we decided that it was time to go and wandered back to our taxi.  He raced us down the mountain and back to the train station.  

We hadn't really eaten anything at Tirumala so we stopped again at the same restaurant for a snack.  Leaving the restaurant we ran into the first group of foreigners we'd seen that day.  They were hard to miss, especially with one wearing a brightly colored sari.  They had been studying at a nearby ashram and were just in town for the day, not to make the Tirumala pilgrimage.  We chatted for a few minutes and told them about our experience.  They were in a very mellow state of mind but when a boy came over to beg they leapt into their purses and wallets and showered him with money.  The kid walked away with probably a week's salary in local terms. It was, we thought, perhaps a bit too generous.  While their heartsTirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India were in the right place our experience had shown that tourists going overboard is what brings on the persistent hassles that plague many places.  We had come to believe that there are better and more constructive ways to help people by supporting well-run local organizations who know better who to help and how best to help them.   Of course those organizations are not always available but if people feel strongly that they want to give to beggars they should give an amount that is consistent with local giving and spread it around a bit more.  In a couple of minutes this one kid had won the lottery and I am sure there were many other people as needy as him only a few feet away.  

By the time we caught our train back to Chennai it was starting to feel like a really long day.  The return three-hour trip felt much longer than our morning train.  And, to make things better, a family took our seats, sort of ordering us to take the seats they had been allocated, which were dirty.  Instead we moved up to some empty seats at the front of the train but that wasn't much better.  A few rows up a young woman was struggling with three kids, which is difficult anywhere in the world.  We watched as the little boy repeatedly got whacked in the head with the compartment door that swung inwards.  Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh, IndiaHe'd cry, his mother would console him, and then he was back playing in the aisle in front of the door until he got hit again.  But, my sympathy really waned when I watched the same kid squat on the floor of the train car and take a pee in the aisle.  The mother just threw a piece of newspaper over it and left it there.  Then when we stopped at a station and people were entering from the end of the car I could swear that I saw a rodent fly across the floor.  It moved fast, much too fast to be something rolling, and went directly to the back of the car, under the seats.  We were good and ready for that train to reach Chennai.  Even in the evening the station was jumping with people and their stacks of belongings.  The people just parked themselves on different parts of the platform, waiting and sometimes sleeping. Their cargo ranged from boxes and bags to coffins, all comingled on the platform together.  We rushed through the station and wasted no time in grabbing a tuk tuk and heading straight for Don Pepe's.            

November 28. CHENNAI On our last day in Chennai we didn't have much energy left for sightseeing and the weather was bad so we spent the day in our hotel room.  Our train left in the evening for Ernakulum so we had to pay a half day rate to stay in our room.  It was worth it to have a place to relax and the room service was pretty good.  We never slept that well on overnight train rides so catching up on some rest seemed like a good idea.  After the overnight train we only had one night in Ernakulum before leaving on an overnight boat to Lakshadweep.  

Our seats hadn't been assigned on our train ticket so we got to the station early to make sure we were happy with what we were allocated.  We'd asked for a two person compartment in the first class non-A/C car, the same class we had traveled on to Madurai.  The woman who booked our tickets put in the request for us and it came through.  We felt lucky until we saw the compartment.  It was significantly worse than we had expected.  It was a filthy compartment and had seen much abuse. The vinyl beds were black with dirt and the small metalTirumala, Andhra Pradesh, India table attached to the corner was bent and rusted.  It was one of those moments when all of the frustrations from months of travel came welling up inside me in a single burst of rage.  It wasn't the worst place we'd ever been but every once in a while something becomes that last straw on the donkey's back and you hit full tilt.  I let out a yell and kicked the wall of the compartment which just got lost in the noise from the station.  I just couldn't stand the thought of spending an entire night in that disgusting cell of a compartment but felt totally defeated by the inevitability.  This qualified as "first class" travel in India.   

Rob improved the situation by going out and buying some sheets and inflatable pillows from a vendor on the platform.  The sheets covered the grimy beds and the pillows made sleeping much more comfortable but whenever I rolled over in the night I was careful to keep my sheet in tact so I didn't wake to find my face smashed against the grimy vinyl bed.   

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