A Travellerspoint blog


India Wins ... Again

Chennai, India - February 12, 2008

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We learned that when things go awry in China, the catchphrase is “This is China;” when plans get thwarted in India, the phrase is “India wins again.” Upon leaving Indian territory and trying to process that portion of the trip, all I can say is that India won repeatedly, but I give myself points for good sportsmanship and not being a sore loser. The only time (that I know of) in which I earned some strikes against my global citizenship card was when B. and I took refuge from the great Chennai outdoors in a sari shop. The proprietor, as is customary, insisted on removing reams and reams of saris and other fabrics from the shelves, seemingly in hopes that by showing us his entire inventory we’d feel obligated not to leave him with a mess by taking lots of it off his hands. However, I wasn’t falling for it. I felt bad, but I had simply wanted to get out of what had felt like Dante’s Inferno outside. It was scorching hot and wet rag humid, but women must cover their shoulders and out of respect, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. I was also wearing jeans, which is probably the absolute worst thing to wear in such conditions but after two days of running around in Indian clothes that felt mentally uncomfortable, I was insistent about wearing my “real” clothes, no matter how physically uncomfortable that felt. B. was game, however, and she picked out several items. Bully for her. The shopkeeper turned towards me and swept his hand over the now totally covered counter – a riot of colors and textures, as if a unicorn had choked on a rainbow. He urged me to buy, saying, “You must! You must!” I politely replied, “No, thank you. They’re beautiful, but this,” making my own dramatic sweep of the hands, “is how I dress.” He wagged his finger, while uttering, “But you’re in India now,” at which I snapped back, “Yah, but I’m leaving.” Both he and B. looked at me as if I'd done something as uncouth as if I'd picked my nose and wiped it on sari. Taken aback by my reaction, B. pulled out a sheaf of rupees, and we reentered the fray outside of the shop. I hadn’t intended to be rude, but at that moment I had had it.

Ultimately, my experience of India was a masochistic one. I would go out and within minutes feel like I was drowning and fighting for my life, trying to get back to the shore. I would berate myself – how could I have done this to myself again. Then I would go limp, emotionally, and as soon as I stopped fighting, I’d feel encouraged. “Yes,” I’d tell myself, “I can do this.” But even that attitude would get sucked away by the heat and by nonstop assault on all the senses – my clothes sticking to my back and legs; the endless chatter of car horns; the barrage of colors and indescribable poverty adjacent to new development; a parade of odors both good and bad, every three feet; a cornucopia of flavors from sweet to fiery hot. No matter the circumstances, I would always end up feeling beaten down at the end. I’d slink back to the port and be so grateful to see the ship again, though at times when we’re it sea it feels like purgatory at best and prison at worst. I’d take several hours to recuperate in whatever ways were possible – sometimes lying down in my cabin, other times commiserating with other people who felt the same – and everybody who stayed in Chennai felt the same. Then after half a day or a day, I’d go out again, entirely optimistic, unbelieving that I would get my ass kicked again.

The day we left, I would say that more than 50 percent of the people on the ship were more than ready to leave. A typical banter was: “What’d you think of India?” followed by a hesitant pause and then, “I’m ready to leave.” Both parties would laugh, and someone would say, “yah, everybody’s saying that.” I honestly think almost everyone just wanted to get the hell out of there, but I have to admit that now that we’ve been at sea for a day, I miss it. I don’t miss Chennai – I don’t ever want to go there again. But I know that there were so many other places that I didn’t see, and I want to give them all a chance. I want them to give me a chance. I really wanted to go to the Kerala backwaters, and the folks who went there raved about it. I want to spend a week or a month at an ashram – there’s a famous one in Pondicherry that I visited, but the 20-minute tour was just a tease, as is this entire 4-month long trip. I only had time to eat in Mamalapurim, but there are rock carvings there that are supposed to be magnificent. Of course there is the Taj Mahal, which those who saw marveled about and yet the area around the Taj is supposedly even more destitute than the bad parts of Chennai. I want to see Ganges River and the places where they cremate the dead. I want to see all of it. Even in Chennai, I would like to visit the film studios like one of the groups did, so already I contradict myself. I would go back Chennai to see Chollywood.

I hope my writings haven’t given India a bad rap; for, as our speaker Raghi cautioned us, we can’t judge India too harshly for the problems she has are shared by everyone everywhere. When I mentioned the homeless in San Francisco, it was nowhere near what I saw in India, but for sure it is everywhere – as is the chaos and constant struggle and the battles both won and lost. And for all the things that blew my mind in a negative way, there were pockets of … I don’t know what to call them. For instance, the ashram in Auoroville, founded by Sri Aurobindo, was an oasis in the even larger oasis of Pondicherry. It was so calm and peaceful there. Similarly, when our group visited the temple on Day 3 of our AFP, I genuinely felt … something. We weren’t allowed to enter, but I physically felt all my cells humming. I can’t explain how or why. N., I., and I had hired a driver to take us to Pondicherry and on the way back that night we passed a tree that was entirely engulfed in flames – a burning bush. Moments later, our driver stopped at a roadside eatery, where a man was cooking up something that smelled delicious in a wok over an open pit fire. Though it was Indian food, N. said that the style of cooking was very Chinese. When our driver had completed his business, we returned to the road, only to come to a dead standstill moments later. We couldn’t see what was going on, but it looked like there probably had been an accident further up the road. A mishmash of vehicles and gawkers on foot were chattering away, but of course the three of us were in the dark, literally and figuratively. I thought we’d be there for hours, but just as suddenly as we’d come to a halt, we were moving again. I never saw what had caused the pile up, but in the distance I saw what I thought was more fire … which, as we got closer, revealed itself to be lights – like Christmas lights – outside of a roadside temple. Fire, fire everywhere, punctuated by stars high up in the sky. Oasis. Moments like those were a precious find and helped to make good on India’s tourism slogan: Incredible India.

I think the act of driving (and being driven) provides the best metaphor for what I experienced. As I mentioned just getting into a vehicle and being carried somewhere felt like throwing caution to the wind, risking one’s life just the sake of changing locale. Maybe this is true everywhere, but there it felt like the reality of one’s frail connection to life was outlined in flashing neon brightness – a brightness that one fought to keep from being blackened by all the pollution.

Time and again I was reminded of the old Atari game, Frogger. When I mentioned it to T. one day, he laughed and said “Oh god, please don’t bring that up. I was horrible at it, and I don’t want to think about it now.” We were walking, and even in walking, every moment was a near catastrophe, but each disaster avoided became a triumph, and so, in India, I felt that every moment teetered and tottered on the midway point between calamity and crowning glory. We made it – across the street, across town, across India.

Of the many questions I had about this overgrown Tiger, as she is sometimes referred, many were unanswered. I don’t know if he will reply, but here’s what I wrote to B.S. Raghavan:

Dear Raggie,

I wanted to take a moment from our hectic schedule to thank you for so graciously welcoming and interacting with our students a few days ago. We are all agreed that our visit with you was the highlight of our academic program. Each of us was inspired by your wisdom and attitude towards life.

I was particularly thrilled by meeting you, having come across some of your writings when I was a graduate student myself some years ago. But in preparing the students for meeting you, I was warmly surprised to learn that you are a poet as well. While I’ve not had the opportunity to read any of your poetry, I felt a kindred spirit in that I also have published some poetry, though only in journals. As with our student Kandayce, spirituality is the basis of my creative connection to my surroundings. I believe that my highest writings of that nature occurred after my mother passed away a few years ago. I wanted to ask you more about your writing endeavors, and particularly your Hindu poetry, but I didn’t want to take time away from you and the students.

I had so many other questions, and I am hoping that I may ask them now. While I would appreciate your thoughts or comments on any of the following, I hope you will respond only if you find the questions genuinely stimulating.

My first question is about the role of skin color in India. During our meeting with you, the students asked about the caste system and the status of women, but the matter of gradations in skin pigmentation was not raised. I am curious as to whether darker toned individuals meet with any kind of differential treatment in your society than lighter skinned people do.

I was also curious about your thoughts on India’s relationship with Pakistan and India ’s general attitude towards Africa, whether the continent-at-large or any specific to any region. Coupled with that, I know that many Indians have settled in East Africa and in Durban , South Africa for generations, and I wonder how this is viewed in Mother India. Does India miss her Indians of the diaspora? Along the same lines, I saw a billboard in Chennai calling for investments in South Africa as an “emerging market.” Does India view herself as an emerging market of equal status, or does she regard herself at a different level of "elevation?"

Regardless of whether I hear from you or not, it was a great pleasure and honor to meet you. I cannot lie – I am as changed as the students were by our meeting.

All the best,
Lorna Mpho Mabunda
Global Cultures and Social Change
Assistant Director, Learning Resource Center
The Scholar Ship

Within a couple of days he wrote back:

Dear Lorna:
I returned this morning from a week of engagements (mainly addressing coferences) in the deep south, and I was overjoyed at being greeted by your warm-hearted message.
All of you would noticed how happy I was in your midst. Believe me, I have rarely seen such a group of bright persons who are also so very friendly and intellectuously curious.
Now to your questions:
Yes, Lorna, people in India are conscious of skin complexion...generally fair complexion enjoys a high premium in choice of brides and bridegrooms, and predisposes employers also in the job market. I wish we were not so very skin conscious, but we are.
India's relationship with Pakistan is a complex web of contradictions. We were one country when the continent was partitioned and shared a lot of the cultural and civilisational heritage. Now the relationship has degenerated into a suffocating distrust, although we keep talking of confidence-building, people-to-people contact etc. I do not see any quick resolution of the issues between the two countries.
As regards, Africa, the countries there are not too prominent on the psyche of an average Indian...whether he is an average householder, academic, youth, business persons and so on. There is of course tremendous admiration for Mandela, but otherwise Africa generates neither positive nor negative vibes. But, of late, policy makers and academia are turning their attention to Africa and efforts are being made to build bridges and bring about a greater understanding.
India's diaspora is doing well wherever it is and contributing greatly to inflows of wealth. Thanks to modern communications and easy travel, there is close contact with members of the diaspora who nowadays visit India very often. So, we do not particularly miss them.
India has been ranked 4th among world economies after US, Japan and China on purchasing power parity terms, and is expected to overtake Japan by 2020. It is no longer an emerging market in that sense, and perhaps regards itself, as you say, at a different level of elevation.
Your very kind and affectionate words about the meeting have buoyed me up considerable. I hope to be hearing not only from you but many of the others as well who were on the Scholar Ship.


Please send a few poems of yours .. meanwhile, I shall also share some of mine with you.

My greetings to all the members of the group.

With all best wishes:

That Raggie responded at all made me very happy.

Meanwhile, as a last note on India, there were some who were moved in such a way by what they saw that they definitely want to come back. By and large those were the students who created their own service projects, for instance those who went down to Kerala to teach English at a local school or those we went back to the Mother Theresa orphanage to play with the children. They fell in love; I did not. But I appreciate having had the experience. There were some who felt that Chennai is not a port that TSS should return too. I think the bulk of those who expressed that opinion, were those who are more inclined towards the Club Med style of vacation. Though I was confronted with myself repeatedly, I feel like it’s just the sort of place that TSS should go to – although, it’d be nice to have more preparation, though some feel that a bracing plunge, such as we had, provides the best education.

I will add that not all of the dangers were imaginary or tame. Apparently there were some genuinely troublesome encounters with persons of authority and/or locals. I don’t want to go into detail in this venue but suffice it to say that an investigation by the U.S. Consulate is being urged by a staff member who is a Human Rights attorney. Some of the incidents were grievous in nature, including some attempts by port police to coerce bribery or actual incidents of confiscating personal goods like cameras that were never returned, and in at least one case, a student allegedly had a gun drawn on him or her and was allegedly pushed in front of a train after failing to produce what was wanted. I know of one faculty member who was also roughed up a little and nearly had some recently purchased DVDs confiscated from him. I didn’t have any encounters of that nature. There was the drunken escapade, in which I foolishly snapped a photo, but nothing really happened, and I never genuinely felt like I was in danger of any sort of irreversible repercussion. So again, I won’t say that India was “bad;” only that it wasn’t easy.

Next stop: Seychelles.

Posted by mpho3 04:04 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Sociology of Caste

Chennai, India - February 6-8, 2008

96 °F
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The next morning I awoke feeling fine. Upon awakening, I had no immediate recollection about anything that had happened the night before, and I didn’t have time to think about it because I had to co-lead the Global Culture and Social Change group’s Academic Field Program on "The Sociology of Caste." I had a glass of water, packed my leader bag (some forms and a super deluxe first aid kit), and then went into the bathroom. The first thing I noticed was my contacts, which were sitting directly on the bathroom counter, not in their cases. If you don’t wear contacts, you don’t know that this is bad. Really bad. That was the first sign to myself that I must have been really drunk the night before. Miraculously, I was able to revive my contacts, but I was lucky on that one.

I put on my korta and went down to breakfast feeling like a fool because I felt so uncomfortable in my Indian get up, but I got lots and lots of complements. Most of the students and faculty had bought some Indian wear since we’re all going to great lengths not to be offend our hosts. Then we loaded up the buses. Schaeffer, the other co-leader, asked if I had the attendance sheets, and I flashed to them sitting on the bed not in my bag. I lied and said yes. She asked if everyone was on the bus. I didn’t look behind me and simply said yes. I didn’t feel very good.

Fortunately the drive to the University of Madras – one of the nation’s three oldest - was very short – about 15 minutes. I planned to head to the back, but Shaeffer grabbed me and pulled me to the front row with the rest of the faculty. As we sat down, my head began to throb, and I instinctively reached for my sunglasses. In the same moment, our Executive Officer, who was seated as one of the speakers on the stage, smiled at me, and I thought better of donning the glasses. We had an introductory welcome by some important person from the university. However, two hours of pomp and circumstance was one hour longer than expected. Two hours was also long enough for me to through every hangover symptom known to humankind. My stomach started doing flip flops, the room spun, I had stars before my eyes, I drooled on myself at one point, my legs started twitching spontaneously. It was bad. I think I had alcohol poisoning. I literally thought I was gonna die. I couldn’t breathe, and I felt so sick. I had menstrual cramps to boot, and though I had the medical kit, I didn’t want to throw anything more at my stomach or liver. I didn’t know whether to walk out and get some air but I was in the front row and the Academic Dean and the Executive Officer were up there. It was hellish. Then I looked up at thought I saw the midget standing in the corner of the room, holding a glass of The Royal Challenge… finally, I didn’t want to die without telling someone, so I leaned down to A., who was on my left, and I whispered, “I’m dying.” She whispered back, “Why?” And I said, “Ask N.” I wanted to pin my death at the lecture on somebody. A. chuckled and said, “Yah, I know already. I saw her this morning, and she doesn’t feel too good either. Musta been quite a night.” I looked back at N. who was two rows back, and she did have a touch of green to her.

The thing that saved me was that after the long speeches, they served us chai. I didn’t think I could drink it, but a few sips cured everything at once! Everything except the fog, which didn’t lift until well into the next day, but all the physical symptoms dissipated, including my cramps.

This was good because during the second part of our day, the groups went off on their own itineraries. Our group went to a place called DakshinaChitra, which is center devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of South India through the arts. The 10-acre complex is comprised of several heritage homes that have been relocated to the site, allowing crafts from each region of South India – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andrah Pradesh and Karnataka - to be housed contextually. So, for example, visitors can walk through an edifice that is typical of the traditional homes built in Tamil Nadu (which is where Chennai is) and look at the type of crafts that are produced there in that setting. Local crafts people are assisted in earning a livelihood giving workshops and selling their wares there. Women are particularly encouraged to participate in the foundation’s programming. Some our group made pottery, and some got henna tattoos.

On Day 2 of our AFP, we traveled to Entre Kerala, which is one of Chennai’s first ecohotels. The place was gorgeous, and there we had a lovely informal roundtable and chat with B. S. Raghavan, a retired Hindi scholar, poet and bureaucrat. During his long career in the India Administrative Service, he served along the likes of Indira Gandhi and Nerhu, among others. At various times, he has been India’s delegate to GATT, UNCTAD, the UN’s Economic and Social Council. He was Chairman of the UN Committee of World Food Security, and he’s revered as big supporter of women’s rights.

What impressed me most about him is that I would have guess him to be in his 60s where as he’s 81. I have never seen such a young octogenarian. He greeted the kids as if they were long lost friends, and we had a very lively, discussion about the history of the caste system, about the challenges of the 21st century, and the importance of this generation in stepping in as leaders. He was very excited about this meeting with young people, a quarter of his age, and they were equally charmed by him.

After an incredibly scrumptious meal – with the best chapatti I’ve had since my mom’s and Aunt Eliza’s – we went to St. Thomas’s Basilica, which is one of the three churches in the world built on the resting place of an apostle. Afterward we went to the orphanage at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charities. What can I say about it except that it was intense. The streets alone are intense, especially given that our ship is berthed in an area that is filled with so-called “untouchables.” One doesn’t have to look far or hard to see people lying in the streets, children shitting in the road, goats and animals drinking from the same filth that the people are drinking from – just hardcore poverty. I think I can only be relatively unaffected by it – which is not to say that it doesn’t affect me at all – because of things I’ve seen in Detroit and San Francisco and on trips to Africa over the years. But I’ve never been this up close to it and I’ve never seen this kind of poverty as pervasive. It is a harsh and bitter reality. That’s all I want to say about it, except that M.’s mention of that image he saw in the 1960s entitled “Overpopulation,” wasn’t so far off the mark.

This was brought home again when we visited the Kapaleeswarar Temple, which is consecrated to Lord Shiva and is exemplary of Dravidian architecture. Unfortunately, once we got there, we discovered that non-Hindus are not allowed inside. That was fine with me, to be quite frank. India has exhausted me – all of us really. There was simply no way any of us could be prepared for this, and it’s a rude awakening after Thailand, where the living was easy, at least for tourists. Here, we are brought down several notches, and though most of us try to keep on a brave, happy face it’s damn difficult! However, this is the reality of many, many people, and I don’t think it’s right to shy away from it, so I’m going to venture out again tonight. And though I threatened to travel alone, this isn’t the place to do it. Not by a long shot. We can’t even cross the streets because we’re so out of sync with the rhythm of the place. And it’s not “India,” as I keep writing, because some people have been to other places and made it back to the ship already, and the one’s who left on Day One and returned to Chennai are just as shocked by it all as those of us who’ve been here. I might try to escape for a bit – head down to Pondicherry which is about two and half hours from here, or maybe Mamalapurim which is even closer. I can’t handle Chennai. There’ve I’ve said it – and I’m not alone.

Posted by mpho3 04:53 Archived in India Comments (0)

Midget Whisky

sunny 94 °F
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As I was saying, before I so rudely interrupted myself… a tiny person ushered us into a doorway, above which a sign read “Chennai Cultural Center.” For me, those words mean absolutely nothing and by that point I had no idea what to expect. It could have been a wax museum or a organ donor clinic, and I would have been equally nonplussed because the day had been that exhausting and strange. I just thank god I decided not to take the $200 malaria pills I brought with me because supposedly they make you hallucinate, and I wouldn’t have been able to handle Chennai on psychedelics.

Back to the story… so the tiny person stays at the door, but D., N. and I tromp up the stairs in that order, meaning that I wind up being the last to behold … a large, dark room full of men. Young men, slightly older men, skinny men, less skinny men – but all of one gender. I also noticed two very large signs that said “Silence Please.” And it was. Very silent. With everyone staring at us. Two women - one Chinese and one African - and a White guy. We sort of stuck out. They stared at us, and we averted our eyes towards the floor. This lasted for about two minutes, then D. said, “Well?” And I said, “Okay, let’s do this.” Since the place was packed, there was only one table that had room for three people, and it was in the center of the room. So we made our way to that spot, with all eyes upon us. We sat down. As soon as we had parked our asses, it was like someone hit a switch. Everyone resumed talking and carousing as they had been before, and nobody paid us any attention from that point onward. The waiter brought us a menu and a drink list. Women aren’t supposed to drink in India and don't really frequent bars, but we ordered a round of beers – “regular” or Kingfisher for Nancy and “strong” or Haywards 5000 for me and D.

Then we sat and debriefed on the events of the day. I think we were each overwhelmed by different things, but we agreed that it had been an adventure. We’d had two rounds and were still patting ourselves on the back when the lights were flashed on and off to signal last round. The waiter returned and took one more drink order from us, and we had time enough just to drink about half a bottle a piece – these were 32 ounce bottles – before the lights came up for good. The place cleared out slowly. I went to use the bathroom. When I returned D. and N. were engaged in conversation with the trio of men with whom we had shared a table. It turned out one of them, Jay, is the owner of the “Chennai Cultural Center.” When I got back to the table he told me I look like Condoleeza Rice. I thought he meant N., who looks more like Condi than I do, even though she’s Asian. Anyway, I took it good naturedly and allowed him to buy Condi and friends another round. Along with new beers came shot after shot after shot of The Royal Challenge, a "premium" Indian whiskey. He went further and order heaping plates of appetizers, so sat and chatted with our new Indian friends for another hour or two. There did come a point where I told Nancy not to let me drink any more, but alas it was too late. I got the hiccups, which is very unbecoming for a senior stateman. The noisy erruptions seemed to signal an end to the night.

They asked how we were getting back to the ship, and we told them about our day with the cabbies. They decided to drive us themselves and told us we should call the police when we got back to the ship. I realized later that we were a car load of drunken soldiers and that none of us should have been in that vehicle, but that wasn’t on my mind at the time because my mind was gone, burned away by a days worth of noise and air pollution, exotic sights and odors, and utter utter chaos. And the whiskey probably had something to do with it too.

D. sat in the front w/ the driver, and N. and I sat in the back with Jay. Now apparently J. kept groping N. most unceremoniously and N. apparently told me over and over that she was getting molested but I was so drunk that I kept laughing and trying to take pictures of me and J. hanging out of the car windows. I say try because my camera is no longer working properly. (It might actually be the memory card). Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We careened around for not too long, and then cruised up to the Port of Chennai where we had to comport ourselves more seriously. By this time, N. kept muttering that she hated me, and I kept repeating, “You can’t hate me [insert her full name]” and cackling manically. D. was grinning from ear to ear. N. just looked pissed. We were like Larry, Mo and Curly + Indians.

N., who had had the least to drink, and who had been sobered up by her experience with Mr. Hands in the backseat, had earlier in the day had the presence of mind to photograph the license plate numbers of our cabbies. So we told the entire story to the Port Authority police just as our cabbies came running up to the security checkpoint yelling and screaming that we were crooks and thieves because we hadn’t paid them. And the madness began again. The cabbies were jumping up and down, additional guards came out of the booth and circled us all, D. and N. and our Indian pals were shaking their fists in the air, and I was laughing. I could not stop laughing. I wanted to take picture of it all, and I knew I shouldn’t but it was hysterical. Of all the things I’ve wanted to photograph on this trip, that was the moment, because it was so unabashedly comical. In all my life, I could never have imagined being in the midst of such a ridiculous scene. So even though I was drunk I devised a devious little plan that ultimately failed, but I am still proud of myself for it. I crept back a bit and then pretended that I was rummaging in my bag for something. Then I snapped the photo – which didn’t need a flash because the security point is extremely well lit. But the flash went off anyway, and boy did that piss that guards off. Wow. I thought I was gonna get hustled off to a work camp, but I played dumb. Like really dumb. I kept reiterating that it was an accident, that it went off while I was looking for my ID card in my bag. After a couple minutes they let me go because the other situation was still ongoing. Finally we offered them 1000 rupees total, and that we deemed fair by the Port Authorities. We promised to call Jay and company later in the week, and then we boarded the ship.

Inside, N. repeated that she hated me, and I do remember saying, “Don’t hate me, [full name], because you’re the only person on the ship that I like, and if you’re gone, there’s nobody left. I know it must be a burden for you, but you're strong.” She laughed, and then I apologized for letting her get molested, then I saw box of latex gloves on the table. I picked one up and started trying to slip it onto the banister. I think that’s when she realized how drunk I was, which makes sense since I drank all of her shots except for the first one – so about five – plus the four or five beers. She told me to go to bed.

And thus ends the saga of the midget, who plays only a cameo in this tale, but it was an important cameo because it continues to make things interesting.

Posted by mpho3 03:48 Archived in India Comments (0)

Cabbie Criminality

Chennai, India - February 5, 2008

sunny 92 °F
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Greetings and Namaste from this crazy place called India! I've travelled some, even before this voyage, but I have to say that I feel ill-prepared for this country. If China was cold and austere and Thailand was steamy and over-ripe, India is ... colorful madness.

I should caution that when I make these broad, sweeping generalizations, I’m speaking only about the pinprick of a time and place that I am encountering. For me to summarize an entire country’s culture and history in a word or two on the basis of having spent less than a week in one little spot is ludicrous, but I can only share what I am able to observe.

What I have observed about India – and specifically Chennai (which was Madras until 1997) thus far is that it is way more intense than Shanghai or Bangkok, though it’s much smaller. Chennai is in Southern India, which I understand is very different from Northern India – as different as northern and southern California or Michigan’s upper and lower peninsula are from each other. The thing that has struck me the most though is that Chennai is supposed to be a bit of a sleepy town, whereas my experience is that it’s more crowded and buzzy than any of the places we’ve been. It’s a working class city that is expanding and it’s a very cosmopolitan place, but it’s really, really busy.

The first day off the ship was the first time in years that I've truly been shocked by a new environment. I had to concentrate on not letting my eyes pop out of my head and to keep my jaw closed. I ended up spending Day 1 with two people from the ship, and we spent the day working to stay one-step ahead of our cab drivers who were hell bent on scamming us and have it down to a science. It was work, pure work, to keep from getting taken to the cleaners. When all was said and done, the night ended with a midget, a worrisome mosquito bite, WAY too many whisky shots, and the police. It was truly insane.

The craziness began the night before we’d even arrived. Our pre-port security wound up being three hours of fear-mongering. By the end of the community-wide meeting we were all convinced that if we don't get malaria, we'll die of dengue fever or chikengugya disease or that we foreign ladies will be raped, robbed and pillaged. We were told that unlike the previous port, the ship will be heavily guarded 24/7, and our bags will be inspected upon re-entry to make sure that nobody has brought any food aboard. Though most of us take these things with a grain of salt, everyone was clearly affected by the heavy handedness of the warnings.

The next morning, before immigration had cleared us all, I asked M., a faculty member, what he and his wife were planning for the week, and he said that he wasn't going to get off the ship at all. I cracked up. He said that after that meeting, all he could think of was a painting he'd seen in the 1960s called "Overpopulation," that had images of mutant and mutilated babies and bodies crawling all over the place begging for food and water. He added that he grew up in the 'hood, and he doesn't need to revisit any of that. I laughed so hard that I was crying, and I told him he's ridiculous. Unbeknownst to me, my experiences later in the day would make his fears less silly sounding.

One other event that set the tone for this entre into India: the locals had a welcoming ceremony for us, which was most unexpected. We were greeted by women in colorful saris and kortas, men banging drums and playing other indigenous instruments, and we were bestowed with garlands and bindis (the dot on the forehead). Sounds lovely and visually and aurally, it was. The olefactory aspect of this was a bit of a challenge though. It smelled like we were in the middle of a garbage dump and flies were everywhere. However, as far as you could look in any direction, we were surrounded not by garbage but by rows and rows and rows of brand new Hyundai cars all around us. The juxtaposition was hard to comprehend and that became the main feeling with which to contend the rest of the day and night.

N. and I had decided to beat the crowd and head into the city in order to buy some local garb at a place that had been suggested by our Academic Dean since women are expected to adhere to certain dress requirements. We quickly worked out an arrangement with the most aggressive of a clump of taxi drivers. He took us to a man-powered tuk tuk. The new guy rode the two of us through slowly but surely out of the port area, where we caught our first glimpses of genuine poverty such as I've never seen, even in Africa. I’m not saying it’s not there – it’s just that I’ve never seen it. A railway runs through the port and there were truck loads of rice being unloaded. Now and then a bag would rip open and people would amble over and try to pick up the loose grains like lazy birds who had just discovered a scattering of bird seed.

I started to get antsy almost immediately because I, in true American style, just wanted to get to our destination as quickly as possible and being pedaled at snails pass wasn’t gonna cut it. But then we stopped, and the man w/ whom we'd originally negotiated appeared beside us with a motorized tuk tuk. Yay!, I thought, but if only I had know what was to come. We reached a checkpoint where we had to sign out and also show a sort of local pass that we'd all been given and told to carry with us 24/7. The port is very heavily guarded, in fact much more so than in Shanghai or Laem Chabang.

At the checkpoint, N. and I ran into D. The three of us decided to combine as one party, though we were driven in our separate conveyances. Our first stop was to buy some Indian garb so as to be presentable the next day at our AFPs. I found a beautiful sari ensemble but N. tried it on first and it took half an hour for them to teach her how to wear it. When it was my turn, I said forget it and bought a korta instead, which is basically a pullover dress that you can wear over pants.

Next stop, a roadside pharmacy for mosquito repellent since none of us are taking our million dollar malaria pills (a story in itself). Next stop, the bank for ATM cash withdrawls. This was when I began to realize that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. As we attempted to navigate the machine, a crowd gathered outside the ATM doors, with D's driver at the fore, nose pressed against the glass. I shoved my money deep in my pocket, and we waded back to our cabs. We asked the drivers to take us to a particular market that we'd been told about, and they told us that that market was closed. We asked about the second one on our list and were told that the place isn't a market, but they have a friend who owns a place... which is a typical scam. We insisted on being taken to the first place on the list, but they drove us to a market we'd been warned about, aptly called The Thieves' Market. We were definitely making it hard for them to cheat us, but it quickly became wearying. By this time they’d been driving us around for about three hours, including waiting for us at the first shop. We decided to have them take us to the Marina Beach, the second longest urban beach in the world after Long Beach, California, and then dismiss them from there.

It turns out they had a plan too, which was to separate us. We set off towards the beach but D's driver suddenly made a U-turn, and our driver pretended that he couldn't keep up. We insisted he turn around and finally he did, but as we drove in the opposite direction, we passed D. and his driver who were pulled over. We got our driver to stop and insisted he take us back to D. and then we started over. Once we got going they tried again. Though D's driver was leading, we got to the beach first. At that point we started to feel pretty f*cked, like totally at the mercy of these guys. I tried to pay them but they wouldn't accept the money and kept insisting that they were ours for the entire day. We honestly didn't know what to do, so I suggested we just walk on the beach and walk away. N., didn’t like that idea. She wanted our driver to call D.’s driver. He told us he didn’t have the guys number but we knew it was a lie because they’d been on the phone together earlier.

20 minutes had gone by, and I was feeling really edgy. I was just about to insist they take us back to the ship, when D.’s tuk tuk arrived. We asked him what had happened and he said that the guy must have taken the long way. Now mind you, we weren’t paying by the meter. They wouldn’t offer a rate either – they just kept telling us to pay them what we thought was fair in the end. The three of us consulted together and decided it was best to terminate our little relationship and start with fresh drivers. At that moment, a pedaled tuk tuk came into view with two of our friends from the ship. One was M., an IRC, and Ramon, a crew member. Everybody loves Ramon. We were pleased as punch to see him, but I noticed that M. looked sad beyond belief. I asked what was going on and Ramon revealed that it was his last day. His contract with Royal Caribbean was up, and he was going to go back home to Honduras the next day to be with his wife and four month old baby daughter whom he hasn’t even met yet. This put a bittersweetness on the rest of the day because truly he’s everyone’s favorite guy. I broke the spell by saying that there are no goodbyes, only hellos and then the six of us walked out to the water. The beach wasn’t empty but it wasn’t very busy either. We watched some fisherman sorting through their catch and watched the water, which seemed very different from the waters from which we’d come. I noticed that the beach itself – the sand area – was pretty dirty – more refuse than one would expect but it’s also right in the city. Because everyone was feeling somber, we decided to go get a drink.

The three drivers talked among themselves and then decided to take us to a nearby place. We worried about the fact that two of the vehicles were motorized and one wasn’t, but the drivers actually went slow enough that the guy carrying Ramon and M. could keep up. It was rather amusing except for the fact that the traffic is nuts and there were moments when I thought that any one of the three tuk tusk would get creamed. It’s like imagine all the motorized bikes, trucks, and tuk tuks of Bangkok and Shanghai and then add cows. Hey, there’s a cow laying in them middle of the street. No problem, just swerve around it even if you’re swerving into oncoming traffic. And the pedestrians? They’re just as mad. Seriously, it was unreal, but we made it to this bar in one collective piece.

Inside, it was dead except for us. We ladies had some rum and mango juice concoction and the men had Kingfisher Lager, which I remember my dad drinking in Tanzania, and which I drank throughout my summer in Paris. After that, Ramon and M. had to go back to work. D., N., and I decided to go find food. This is where things got bad with the cabbies. D. had read in a guidebook that the Mylapore District has several good restaurants. He didn’t have a specific one in mind but tossed out the idea of having them take us to the district and then we could walk around and find a restaurant on our own. When we explained what we wanted to the drivers, they tried to get us to eat at the place we’d had drinks. When we insisted on going to Mylapore, they told us it was very far away – too far. D. pulled out a map and asked where we where on the map. Mylapore wasn’t very far at all.

They relinquished and drove us all of five to seven minutes and then pulled up to a restaurant that looked like a drive in burger place except it was Indian food. They insisted that we eat there – obviously they’re getting kick backs for taking us to certain places – but we refused. That’s when I noticed a street sign that said “Mylapore” on it with an arrow point. They hadn’t even taken us to right the district. At that point were finally fed up enough that we decided to part ways with them. We rapidly decided amongst ourselves to pay them 500 rupees per cab (which we later found out was too much). When we tried to pay them they did the same as before – pushing the money away and telling us that they would stay with us all night and take us back. D. was getting really angry though he was maintaining his cool. The more angry he got though, the wilder their antics became. They told us that by law we couldn’t go another cab driver … they told us only they know the ports … they told us that they would get in trouble because at the checkpoint they keep track of who goes with whom and by law they have to bring us back… then when it became apparent that we really weren’t going to continue with them, they began demanding 1,500 rupees from each of us. By this time, a crowd of locals had gathered around us and were trying to negotiate for us – clearly on our side but not helping matters. It started to become a small mob scene, so D. finally said either you take the money we’re offering you or we walk and you get nothing. The crowd didn’t like that but they didn’t prevent us from walking. I don’t know if the drivers were merely trying to save face, but they shouted that they would wait for us in front of the restaurant.

On our own at last, we walked and walked and walked. By now it had gone from dusk to full on night, and we were hungry. We walked down narrow streets. Nobody paid us much attention but I was uncomfortable because of what had happened. We were in some sort of mixed use neighborhood, which seems to be typical of Chennai; there didn’t appear to be a business area or a residential area – it was mixed. We stopped at a small streetside stand and bought samosas and gulab jamun and we kept walking until we realized it was a bit futile. We ended up eating at a Indian fast food restaurant afterall! I was bummed by that, but it was decent.

Afterward D. had written down the address of a movie theatre that plays locally made films with English subtitles. Chennai has a film studio industry, Chollywood, that’s second in size to Bollywood, We found a new driver who agreed to carry all three of us – the other two drivers had told us that men and women can’t ride in the same cab. We got to theatre around 8:30 but the next round of films wasn’t showing until 10:45. I was ready to call it quits at that point, but I wanted to be a good sport so I agreed to walk about for a while longer.

We stumbled down a few blocks and that’s when we saw the midget in a fez standing in a doorway. We looked up and saw a sign that said “Chennai Cultural Centre.” The midget waved us in.

Posted by mpho3 09:12 Archived in India Comments (0)

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