Budget slow travel micro stories from ‘Mahabs’

An underwater city, and a tsunami tragedy. A happy shoe repairman, and curious villagers. Inside a local home, and random acts of kindness. Artists with leprosy, and an 85th birthday.

All memories from Mahabs — a fond nickname for Mahabilapuram, aka Mamallapuram, on the Bay of Bengal in southern India. I’ve turned some of my memories into micro travel stories.

Micro stories from ‘Mahabs’

Tsunami tales

The drawback of water from the Christmas Day Tsunami in 2004 briefly revealed an underwater city before the sea swallowed it up again. Scientists and divers later explored the structures and found they are part of an ancient port town from about 300 BC.

Today the waves hit the tops of old port stone buildings half a kilometer from the famous Shore Temple, built much later around the 7th century. The Shore Temple is one of three areas around the town that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site.

That tsunami destroyed all of the homes in coastal Mahabs. Yet only one person died — a boy. That boy’s family lived across the street from where we stayed in an Airbnb unit mere steps away from the beach. Our second story porch gave an easy view to the hut on the roof of a building where the parents of that dead boy live today.

Shoe repair & meeting local people

Almost every town in India (and all developing nations) has a shoe repairman. In Mahabs, it’s Mittu. He once worked at the port in Chennai and met many foreigners – including Americans. He has a tattoo on his arm by an American sailor. As he showed it to me, Mittu said he let sailor practice on his arm.

Mittu can speak seven languages, though not all fluently. His English is good enough to attempt basic philosophical discussions on world affairs. Mittu always has time to talk, even while working. He is always smiling, and he always offers chai.

I met a couple of Mittu’s other customers – George and Elizabeth. They invited me to their home in a village named Paiyanur nine kilometers northwest of Mahabs. I went one evening when everyone was finished with their work day. I took Mom Diane (husband Theo’s mother)

Inside a local home

Visiting the Suresh family in Paiyanur was one time when Google Translate and a local SIM card really saved me because the family’s English ability varied from sparse to none. My knowledge of the local language Tamil is nil. I brought a small cake to their home, with ‘Friends’ written in Tamil.

George works as an auto-rickshaw driver sunrise to sunset. He rents the vehicle he hopes to one day own. Elizabeth works in a factory making metal water bottles every day except Sunday, when the family is active with their Christian church in their village. Their oldest daughter is a nurse in the nearby mega city of Chennai – a big success for the family.

They are proud of their ancestral home, and they are saving up for home improvements. As Christians, they have faith God will help them achieve their goals.

This lovely family served us chai on their best silver platter, and they all found a place in my heart.

Random acts of kindness

Mahabilapuram is the kind of place that’s small enough that I ran into George several times during his work day as he drove around Mahabs and I was jogging or walking. The surrounding villages are much smaller, and not usually visited by travelers like me. So of course I went!

Mom-and-pop convenience stands are the only stores around. Hindu shrines appear on every corner despite sparse population. Foreigners like me draw unbelieving stares.

I took a shared auto rickshaw from one of these fishing villages back into Mahabs. I paid for the fares of my unsuspecting — and clearly surprised — fellow riders. I also did a few other random acts of kindness, which we Earth Vagabonds are known to do.

I’m grateful I could share my merits with fellow travelers in this life as our paths converged in Mahabs.

‘From Pain to Paint’

We budget slow travelers were in Mahabs long enough to see the moon change phases, the major local holiday Masi Magam come and go, and a new art gallery open.

The artists are people who’ve suffered from leprosy. Some have lasting issues and lost limbs. Selling their art is how they earn dignified income.

Leprosy is a curable, bacterial disease that is contagious only if you breathe air in the same closed quarters with someone infectious for a long, long time. Afflicted people are often shunned by families and communities.

It was a privilege to attend the gallery opening, to meet some artists and the Austrian man behind the idea of program ‘From Pain to Paint’. The program teaches people affected by leprosy to paint. It’s run through a special school for the artists not from Mahabs. The gallery is right in the heart of Mahabs.

If you like the art and you want to do a random act of kindness, order works online or make a donation to the school. Information is on the school’s website.

Mom Diane’s 85th birthday in Mahabs

The days of our lives in Mahabs melted together into memories that will help define our year. Another good memory: the day we celebrated the start of Mom Diane’s 85th year on Earth in Mahabilapuram.

She and I had an adventure: an exploration outing in yet another small village a few kilometers inland from the coast. Kadambadi is a place where air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines are too luxurious for the locals to even imagine in their modest homes.

Curious villagers smiled and returned our greetings; street dogs barked at us strangers incessantly when we turned down each small street. One chivalrous boy seven or eight years old tried to look threatening at a couple of barking dogs to help ease our way down a dirt road. His grandmother asked for money to feed him. We made a small donation.

Then it was an afternoon Scrabble game for us and rookie Theo (who nearly won!) as we hid from the sun, followed by Catholic mass for mom. We all enjoyed a memorable homemade birthday dinner and cake at a breezy rooftop, sea view table at Eli’s Kitchen.

Lucky and blessed, grateful for it all.

Thanks for reading, “Budget slow travel micro stories from ‘Mahabs’.”

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