The drive from Mysore, through Bangalore, to Puttaparthi took about six hours, but that included two stops. The SUV was comfortable, with room for 6. We were five, including the driver (who has died parts of his hair and beard orange, quite handsome) and Dr. Vijaya, the medical director of PHRII, who wanted to come to see the Sai Baba at darshan. We picked her up at her home and were invited inside. This was my first time in an Indian home. She lives there with her husband, also a doctor, her two sons and their wives, and one grandchild, an adorable one-year old girl. This is the Indian custom: when sons marry they bring their wives to live with his parents. One of the sons had an arranged marriage, the other married for love - but only after obtaining parental approval. Dr. Vijaya is open to her sons living separately, but that has not happened. The home did not look very spacious. It was constructed of concrete and not attractive, although there was a lush garden in front. (The monsoon this year was plentiful, so there is lots of green.) The furnishing in the reception room where we were was decidedly non-western. There was a wooden couch and chairs, not really comfy. The main furnishing was display cases with family pictures and personal mementos from trips, awards, etc. You could tell the whole story of this family were you to be talked through these display cases. We were of course served sweet tea and cookies. They give Rhoda a bead necklace that is supposed to deflect heat from the body, and later a moonstone ring. They even gave me a little silver ring with a purple stone. They were in all ways incredibly warm and hospitable.
The highways we were on were excellent - totally unlike what we experienced in the north five years ago. In many areas they were two way, with two lanes in each direction separated by a median. The only delay was in Bangalore. There is no highway bypass so we are tangled up in city traffic for some time. At each stop light (yes, Bangalore has stop lights, which are rare in Mysore) beggars would approach our vehicle, sometimes selling something, sometimes just thrusting their small child at the window. Once a little girl did a hand stand and then a double somersault with a little boy before asking for money.
We took a morning break at a western type cafe where I was able to get coffee without sugar. Usually the tea and coffee comes with whole milk and sugar already in it, which I don't like. They also had sandwiches, something that is increasingly attractive to me, except for the ubiquitous white bread. At this site one can chose between an Indian and western toilet. The Indian toilet is a stand astride the hole sort of thing, hard to get used to.
We ate lunch at an outdoor place with cows browsing in front. Rhoda and John had been here many times. We again had different types of dosas, set, raga, and paper I think, with condiments and chutneys. Dosas are a good choice almost any time. They come in incredible numbers of varieties made of different types of grain and in different shapes and sizes.
I had a chance to read some of the local newspaper. There was an article about the plight of Indian widows, including a 9 year old who had no memory of ever meeting her "husband" yet had been living in poverty on the fringes of society for decades because she was technically a widow. This reminded me of the trilogy of films we saw, Earth, Water and Fire as I recall. One involved this very problem. The paper is full of stories about corruption and scams. So it's well known, yet persists.
We arrived in Puttaparthi around 4 pm. I got installed in my hotel, the Sai Towers. It is fine, but lacks the amenities of the Urban Oasis in Mysore, a true gem. For instance, the wifi supposedly exists, but you have to have a technician set it up for you, whereas it was hassle free in Mysore. (I'm writing this from a wonderful western type cafe called the Hanaman Hillside Cafe, which features free Wifi that works well.) The English language TV stations are unavailable at the hotel, again unlike in Mysore. They claim they can adjust the programming to bring in these stations, but I have asked twice already and it just doesn't seem to be happening. Jeremy and Anna may appreciate my frustration. On the other hand, the breakfast has greater variety, although the variety is mostly dosas with various veggie accompaniments. I had fresh fruit and corn flakes. I've discovered that ordering black coffee with a side of milk is the way to get what I want. There is a nice, quiet shop in the hotel where I bought a silver and "emerald" ring for $22.
Puttapatri is all about the Sai Baba and his ashram. Pictures of the Sai Baba are omnipresent, and I mean omni. It would probably be close to impossible to take a picture here without some image of him being in it. There is the town outside the ashram and the inside of the ashram. Rhoda and John are staying inside, I'm outside. The outside consists of a few streets lined with little shops. There is no Starbucks, don't even think about it. Restaurants are often on the 2d or 3d floors of nondescript buildings. We ate dinner, for instance, in the German Bakery, which is staffed by fetching male Nepalese refugees. There is a Nepalese shop next door with felted wool hats and other products, and tonkas. The food was great. I was able to have lightly sauteed vegetables with hummus and dense German bread, totally satisfying. I had dinner with John, and a nice conversation, as Rhoda was still working on getting Dr. Vijaya into darshan and a room for overnight. They showed up at the restaurant at about 8:30, but since the ashram gates close at 9 pm, they weren't able to eat. After dinner they all went back to the ashram and I walked around the town. The weather is again perfection, even in the evening. There are many pilgrims here, in particular a group of men wearing black and gold outfits, and many women wearing red saris. There are some serious hippies, many of them Russians. The atmosphere is mellow and non-threatening. While there are beggars on the walk ways in front of the shops, the town itself seems relatively prosperous, probably because of all the pilgrims coming through. The shopkeepers are as "inviting" as you'd expect, very much like in Morocco. There are many westerners, but few of them are obviously American. More often they are German or eastern European. There are also Italians and South Americans. I have already made friends with two chatty women from Vancouver, former telephone company employees, who are not devotees of the Sai Baba but nevertheless come here often to hang out, meditate, take treatments and, apparently, be happy. One was formerly an Olympic kayaker. Both have shoulder injuries. They are staying in my hotel. Deborah