Kodaikanal: a city in the mountains of south India. The backdrop for rich tourism, farmers turned weekend vendors, and dancing mists. Our visit here makes me realize just how crazy life can be. Our drive up the green winding road from Madurai to Kodaikanal takes three hours, with dozens of near-misses and one tiny fender bender. But we arrive to the solar observatory at the top in one piece and soon settle in to a century-old facility. The walls are thick and fire places compliment every room; British colonialism collides with modern India and decade-old American electronics.
The next morning we eat breakfast with the observatory’s head honcho, a tall, slightly balding man who has tended the observatory for over 30 years and specializes in solar activity. His stories of our sun’s structure and behavior fascinate me; tales of warping magnetic fields and celestial storms seem more fodder for science fiction than phenomena we’ve studied for over a century. After we finish our dosa and omelets, we begin our walking tour. A shorter man from the observatory joins us along with our liaison from the IIA. The grounds are filled with trees and gardens, and the occasional cow. Our hosts explain how the campus often wins local gardening awards and that the IIA takes great pride in its grounds. Talking with these men gives me a sense of timeless stewardship, as they are the current caretakers of these invaluable scientific assets and historical facilities.
My curiosity grows with each telescope and instrument we see. Behind each tool are powerful discoveries, innovative engineering, and in many cases the indomitable spirit of adventure – surely required to carry delicate mirrors and precision parts to some of the highest points on the planet. I marvel as our host demonstrates the spring-loaded shutter that allowed scientists over a century ago to take a snapshot of the sun.
After the tour, a short drive to town with our guide from the IIA and one of our observatory hosts reveals much about the Indian culture and the tight knit world of astronomy. We stopped our car to say hello to a colleague, blocking the traffic flow of seemingly angry tourists. Instead of going around us while honking (the standard procedure), they honked and then asked for directions. Our companion from the observatory seemed to know quite a few people; he gave us free chocolate at a local market and introduced me to a state representative who happened to be in the area. It was unreal to have a powerful man, surrounded by political groupies and photographers stop and shake hands with me with words of welcome to his state. Individuals are so friendly, but people so callous.
I say that because, later in the day, I found myself to be the engine of a sinking paddle boat. The man at the lakeside dock begrudgingly produced a towel to dry the seats, but said the boat was safe. We begin pedaling, and I quickly find two things: 1) my feet are too big for the paddle crank, and 2) the boat has a leak. Who sends anyone out on a lake with a leaky boat? We paid nearly $2 for this! Brandon and I pedal with all our might as Meredith and the IIA guide lean to counteract the resulting lilt, and we manage to return to shore before taking on too much water. All we got were dirty looks from the man at the lakeside dock.
Wandering about the town after that encounter, a strange and subtle euphoria settles over me. I am visiting a wonderful town in the mountains with fresh air and amazing scenery. The country I’m from boasts some of the best standards of living, and for the most part I don’t have to worry about tap water that will make me sick, or random diseases, or failing infrastructure. I’ve been given a great head start in life, and I’m one of the lucky few on this planet whose only responsibility is to lead a life worth living. Daily survival is assumed, illness an inconvenience, and I get weekends off. Most of the world doesn’t have these things. I am lucky.
What does a life worth living look like? Slowly I’m learning what that may be, but the answer is different for everyone. For me, it will have the qualities of our observatory host who ran public outreach for the locals and gave us chocolate, a bit of the passion that drives people to search beyond the obvious and become immersed in a worthy cause, and a lot of luck.
+1 for Mike