Happenstance

Someone once told me there is no such thing as a coincidence; that things in life happen for a reason.  Two months ago I started a blog entry entitled “happenstance” that I never finished writing.  It had to do with a series of serendipitous things that my friend Paula and I experienced during our stay in London, Florence, and Rome.  But today, something very odd happened that I couldn’t just think of as happenstance or coincidence.  It made me think of the blog I never finished but more importantly, I came away thinking of fate and destiny.  But let me start from the beginning.

Sumathi and Bijina

I was supposed to spend four days in Mysore as I slowly make my way towards Chennai.  But because I was having such a wonderful time in Wayanad I extended my stay at the ayurvedic retreat by another day.  But even with the extra time, the last few days seemed to fly by very quickly.  I did my best to stop my mind from racing ahead and appreciate everything I came to love there.  I tried to take longer breaths, soak in the radiance of the morning sun, listen for the kids laughing in the rice paddies, and feel the warm oil trickling down my knees during the treatment sessions.  At night I reached up to see if I could touch the brightest star that seemed just inches away in the clear dark sky.  I took my last morning walk through the rice fields and went about saying goodbye to everyone.  I didn’t write anything about the other guests I met there but they made my experience so much richer and so much more than I expected.  I don’t think I could have put together a nicer group of people from around the world to spend time with.  I hope that they will be in my life for many years to come.  My lovely therapist ladies Sumathi and Bijina, to whom I promised a return visit, hugged me goodbye and I was very touched by their kind gesture.  After my last bowl of “oats, milk, and honey,” I waved quietly to the two gentle Nepalese boys (thank you Bikash and Aasman) and left Kerala.

I woke up this morning to a cacophony of urban noises I know I will hear everyday going forward.  A new day, a new state (Karnataka), and I found myself alone on the road again.  Undaunted I started my day with a morning yoga practice in the room and took in a hearty breakfast of masala dosa before setting out to explore the famed Mysore Palace.

Sometimes I think having no expectations leads to happier results.  More than once I have been “under-whelmed” with national monuments, must-see places, and not-to-be-missed experiences.  So even though my guidebooks said this was THE palace to see, I was skeptical.  And as suspected, the exteriors of the Wodeyar maharaja’s palace left me feeling lukewarm.  Painted yellow and white, with red and copper colored domes I thought it looked strange and gaudy, and didn’t know what I was going to see inside at all.  I really didn’t have high hopes when I paid the foreigner entrance fee of 200 rupees (versus 20 rupees for Indians), deposited 5 more rupees to lock up my camera (no photos inside!), parted with my shoes, went through a metal detector, and put my bag through an X-ray machine.  By the time I surrendered my passport (but they waved the 2,000 rupee deposit fee) to get an audio guide, I began to wonder if it was worth all this trouble.

Oh, but it was.

Maybe my low expectations helped.  But what awaits you inside is something so spectacular that when I was finished walking through the whole palace, I fought against the tide of Indian tourists and doubled back.  I simply had to see parts of it again.  The original palace was burned down in 1897 and rebuilt over the next15 years.  It was designed by a British architect named Henry Irwin and the particular style in which the palace is designed is called Indo-Saracenic (or perhaps it can also be called “colonial”).  Every square inch of the palace was decorated with something interesting.  I saw square Hindu columns, Mughal arches, Victorian stain glass windows, and Islamic inspired bulbous domes.  Carved teakwood ceilings, ivory inlay doors, etched glass, panels of painted murals, and mosaic floors.  It was mind-boggling.  I cannot recommend it strongly enough.  Make sure to go at 10AM when they open and get inside to have a look right away.  I walked the grounds first and by the time I went inside, there were a lot more people.  You can always collect your camera when you’re finished and take photos of the exterior later.  And I thought the audio guide was excellent.

I took my time revisiting the parts of the palace I very much enjoyed and I was heading outside with a big smile when out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone I thought I recognized.  I turned the corner to return my audio guide and I came face to face with the couple I met two weeks ago in Fort Cochin, Kerala.  The day I arrived in Fort Cochin I was looking all over town for fish curry and found it at a small restaurant across the street from an old church (see my post on Fort Cochin here).  It was late in the afternoon and the only other people at the restaurant were a couple sitting at the next table.  If I saw them just that one time, I don’t know that I would have remembered them.  But the next day when I took the ferry over from Fort Cochin to Ernakulum, the same couple happened to get on board and they sat next to me.  We got to talking and I told them about the ashram where I spent some time.  I was on my way to find some contact lens solution and they were headed to the train station.  We wished each other safe travels and parted.  What are the chances that two weeks later in a different state you run into that same couple again?  We stopped to chat and I found out that Bart and Ann from Belgium had in fact gone down to Trivandrum and checked out the Sivananda ashram from my talking to them about it on the ferry (on a side note, it was too crowded with the teacher training program going on that they left quickly).

This time we made proper introductions and exchanged our information.  Bart joked that if we ran into each other again, he’d buy me a drink.  They had hired a car for their four days in Mysore and I was going to do it on my own.  So they left to join their driver and I walked out of the palace in search of a place to have lunch.  My guidebook recommended a vegetarian restaurant called Om Shanti located in Hotel Siddartha.  On my map, it didn’t look too far from the palace so I decided to see the city on foot and make my way over to the restaurant.  I marked off one landmark at a time and I was doing well.  According to my book, this restaurant has been around for over 25 years and is a local favorite so when I asked for additional directions most people seemed to confirm that I was going in the right direction.  That is, until I began to wilt under the boiling midday sun and made a wrong loop around a street.  I was certain I was just one or two streets off but when I saw that I was coming back towards the palace, I knew it was time to hail a rickshaw.  Less than 5 minutes later, I was in front of Om Shanti.  I walked in to find the restaurant packed with local residents.  When I looked to the manager and the waiters for some help, the manager waved me inside and said “just sit anywhere.”  But where?  Every table was taken.  But I ventured in a bit to look around but thought to myself, “do I ask some kind looking Indian gentlemen if I can sit with them?  Should I stand by the door and wait for someone to leave?”

Well, I didn’t have to make that decision because as I took three more steps into the restaurant and I saw Bart and Ann.  All three of us were a bit surprised and incredulous at our meeting again, and they generously asked me to sit with them.  We laughed and discussed whether seeing each other four times in two different cities, over two weeks apart could be considered a coincidence.  Or was the universe telling us something?  Had I kept my original plans to come to Mysore two days ago, I would have gone to the palace yesterday and missed them.  If I didn’t enjoy my tour of the Mysore palace so much I would have gone to lunch earlier.  If Bart and Ann stayed at the ashram one or two extra days or if they never went to the ashram at all, I wouldn’t have seen them again.  Had I kept walking instead of taking the rickshaw, Bart and Ann would have finished their meals and left by the time I got to the restaurant.  Really, what are the chances?

They were already finished with their lunch so we chatted while I ate my yummy “southern vegetarian thali meal.”  I learned more about their plans to travel in Asia; their stay in India is coming to an end and they are headed to Bangkok next.  In their early fifties and retired, they sold their house and their business, and left their four grown daughters behind in Belgium.  They are now traveling around the world together indefinitely.  They know they’re flying to Bangkok from Mumbai in a few days but they haven’t decided where to go after that.  A couple completely after my own heart.  They’ve traveled extensively throughout the years and they want to continue to see what’s out there.  Ann has even trek the Himalayas and they will make their way to Cambodia eventually, so we are going to swap our guides.  My guide from Siem Reap for her guide in Ladakh.

We were having such a great time sharing travel stories and I really enjoyed their company.  While I was finishing my lunch Bart asked if I’d like to come with them for the rest of the afternoon.  They weren’t yet sure where they were going but there was room enough for one more person in the car.  I had thought about going to Chamundi Hill and the rickshaw driver who brought me to the restaurant was waiting for my reply outside.  By the way, in Mysore they will all just wait for you.  I paid him for bringing me to the restaurant and told him I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after lunch.  He insisted on waiting.  Every rickshaw driver I met did the same.  I think it might work best to find a rickshaw driver you like on your first day and just pay a day rate for him to take you around anywhere you want to go.  He’ll be at your hotel when you get up in the morning and just wait.

St. Philomena's Cathedral, Mysore

Bart and Ann’s driver, who also waited outside, had no problem taking me as an extra passenger and I was happy to be spending the afternoon with this fun couple from Belgium.   First we drove north to see a gothic style church called St. Philomena’s Cathedral.  This particular church was built around 1935 and it appeared so western that you couldn’t believe that this was in India.  If it weren’t for the ladies in bright colored saris walking barefoot and praying in the church, you would have thought we were somewhere in Europe.

We then drove out of the city to visit the fort town of Srirangapatnam which used to be the capital of southern India during the 18th century.  This is where Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan ruled, and fought against the British.  We went to see Tipu Sultan’s summer palace (called Daria Daulat Bagh, now a museum), as well as where the royal family’s remains are housed (Gumbaz).  Inside the fort town itself there is a temple (Sri Ranganathaswamy temple) and the actual location where Tipu Sultan’s body was found after he was killed in 1897.  I quite enjoyed the summer palace; the grounds were not very impressive but the actual palace and the murals were wonderful.  At Gumbaz’s gardens leading up to Tipu Sultan’s tomb, a crowd of young Indian tourists surrounded us and wanted to take our photos.  So I took some photos of them taking photos of me.  This happens almost everyday so I’m getting used to it but I think of some Indian kid going home to show his family a photo of me…  well, I think that’s just silly.  I’m sure when I get to bigger cities it will stop but in Wayanad, there were people who just stopped, stared for a few minutes, and took out their mobile phone to either snap photos or sometimes video tape me.

Ann and Bart, world travelers

Taking photos of foreign tourists continued when we went to the Brindavan gardens.  Now here, I have to say I was sadly disappointed and let down by my Frommer’s Guide.  It gave this place two stars (the Mysore Palace received three stars) but if I had written the guidebook I would have left out this garden entirely.  The garden sits on one side of a dam that provides water for the farming fields nearby.  And utilizing the available water they have a few fountains, streams, and each night they have a light show synched to Indian songs.  I was happy to walk the grounds, stretch my legs, and occasionally get my photo taken by Indian tourists but it wasn’t really worth two stars.  Then again, it’s hard to compare anything to the water and light show in Vegas (or Disneyland for that matter).  I think our driver was a bit surprised that we wanted to leave before the show started- perhaps a bit disappointed since he didn’t get to see the show…

I had such an unexpectedly fun filled day that I was happy to join Bart and Ann for dinner when they asked me.  And as it was getting a bit late, rather than going out to find a restaurant they graciously came over to my hotel to dine with me.  We sat outside on the lawn and found ourselves stringing together as many topics as there were stars out this evening.  I think we could have talked all night and we did until the lights around the hotel dimmed, and it was time to say goodbye.  We said “until next time” since seeing how we were meant to meet, we would certainly see each other again.  Somewhere.   It’s fate.

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3 Responses to Happenstance

  1. george says:

    Chris…you talk about happenstance..Sally and I find it all the time on our travels…last time in India, we were in Chettinad (marvellous place) ..there were 4 double rooms were we stayed and there were 3 French couples..we all had a hilarious dinner together…4 days later we ran into them in Cochin and had lunch….Sally and I then had lunch with one of the couples a year later in Paris…we find tourists are on a route and we often run into the same people…like old friends!! Never know who you will meet in Chennai!!

  2. asami says:

    I love serendipity, and your story reminded me of my random reunion in SE Asia. I met a very cool couple in Hanoi at the beginning of my Vietnam trip, and randomly ran into Philippe in Luang Prabang, Laos about a month later. He wanted to surprise Natalie by bringing me to the restaurant where she was awaiting his return from the hotel, where he had gone back to fetch his forgotten camera. Had he not forgotten his camera, he wouldn’t have run into me… and we hung out with a big group of cool CouchSurfing people for the next week or so. I too believe that fate has a strange way of bringing us together. I keep in touch with both Philippe and Natalie via Facebook, and I know I have some trusty local guides should I visit western Australia!

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