Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Travel Diaries – I’m the tourist attraction!

NOC_010_Travel diary India

It wasn’t even seven o’clock when Bruno and I arrived in the village of Mahabalipuram (Bruno, being Bruno, had to be dragged out of bed by phone at 5:25, after confirming to our hostess ten times, at 11 the night before, that yes, he was sure we wanted to be picked up at 5:30 to get to the archaeological site before the other tourists!). The road was curiously similar to my old acquaintance for the Região dos Lagos, in Rio de Janeiro: that hustle and bustle of stores jammed together, women waking up and going out to sweep the sidewalk to start the day, people from one side to the other… plus, of course, the obligatory stop to let the sacred cows cross the road.

The sudden jump in population density signaled that we had arrived in the region of the archaeological site. Not only that, but the predominant color: red and shades of saffron, in honor of the goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva, two of the deities worshipped at the site (according to our guide, there are some 30 million gods in the Indian pantheon. “How do you have names for all of them?” I joked with Bruno. “Parvati da Costa, Parvati Oliveira, Parvati da Silva… is that it?”).

Our guide, of course, was a local well versed in the history of the site who called himself our escort and translator as soon as he saw us get out of the car. We paid 1200 rupees entrance fee, like good foreigners (I think it’s great, they charge tourists tourist prices, yes!), and he asked us for 1500 to accompany us to the five main monuments. That wasn’t even 20 dollars. We didn’t even haggle. Yes, I know, it’s part of the experience to haggle, but it seems immoral to me to bargain for two dollars less. On the other hand, I keep telling Bruno: we can’t inflate the local economy, we have to know what a fair price is first…

Balu, the guide, explained to us that Maha Bali Puram means Great Sacrifices in this City. Indira Gandhi tried to soften the reality of the name (as the main temple does indeed still have the pedestal where heads were cut off) and change it to Mamallapuram (resilient city, I think), but the locals didn’t buy the idea.

It was early and the sun hadn’t yet risen (that’s what the past tense is for, folks: the past of the past!), but I thought my photos were beautiful anyway. More than the sun high in the sky, it’s the moments of day-night transition that remind us that everything changes, and that we should be grateful to have lived another day of questions and discoveries. In my case, I thought it was great that the temple was guarded by… cows! Dozens of them!

We went around the temple, the sun rose (the Earth turned…) and the Indian pilgrims began to appear, all dressed in shades of red. I continued to focus on the details of the buildings, enjoying photographing the minutiae, in my Aspie way, Bruno and Balu well ahead, when my brain turned back to the outside and I noticed young ladies in red saris walking past me. I smiled at one, at another, they smiled back, started chatting animatedly amongst themselves… and the next thing I knew, one of them was running back to me saying Photo? Photo?

At first I wondered if it was a request for ME to take their photo – 25 years ago, on my first visit to India, ALL the local children and adults came running to pose when they saw the camera. But no: what they eagerly wanted was to pose for a photo… WITH ME!

I thought it would be great to become a tourist attraction. Obviously, I wasn’t the target of their desire to appear on television, or to be a neuroscience nerd, book author or TED speaker: the reason for my celebrity was the fact that I “stuck out like a sore thumb”, that is, I was the unmistakable foreigner, sour white, taller than all the local women, dressed in the wrong color, but still in the local kurta (the tunic), palazzo (the pants) and dupata (the shawl), in respect and appreciation of the culture, and therefore – even more smiling – signaling that I was approachable.

Bruno saw us from afar and came running back to be in the picture too. It’s not every day that we become a tourist attraction!

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