Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Chennai, India

India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all the extremes. India defies understanding, and for once, for me, that's okay. –Sarah MacDonald

Catching the sun rise over a distant foreign city, just beyond the ocean is one of the most magical things you can experience.

In India that is not possible.

The smog in the city of Chennai covers everything in the distance. It is accompanied by an unrecognizable and pungent smell and adds an odor of mystery to our breakfast. With a brief pause in casual conversation one could hear the distant sounds of auto rickshaws, taxis and trucks plowing through the streets. Beyond the docks were worn down buildings, oil and dirt covered streets and tired looking railroad cars. The local workers, with soot and dirt covering them from head to toe, looked up at the ship with curiosity and confusion. With a glass of orange juice in hand, we looked down at them, suggesting the same.

Although traveling in any foreign country is a challenge, the Indian culture alone presents its own. Bathrooms, even in malls and restaurants, are often squatter toilets with no toilet paper, offering just a water hose to clean oneself. The use of the “evil”, left-hand (my dominant one) in traditional Indian culture is considered rude.(I spent every meal literally sitting on my left hand pinning it down against my chair). Utensils are rarely used and instead Indian cuisine is better experienced with the bare hand.

In India you learn to be aggressive. Even the concept of waiting in lines in their culture is not all that much prevalent. Instead of realizing that the person in front of you should be served first, it is like whoever can elbow oneself to the front wins. The roads are the same story. Any driving law or regulation in India either does not exist or is not followed. The law of physical size is the hierarchy for travel. Trucks supreme over cars, then motorcycles, then rickshaws, then bicyclists and finally pedestrians. Changing lanes, as is every other task, more easily accomplished by honking the horn. The only thing that will stop traffic in India is the Hindu-sacred cow.

By now, you can probably picture me at an Indian restaurant waiting to use the bathroom with people cutting me in line as I try to regain consciousness from our taxi ride with my personal supply of toilet paper in my back pocket and a rice-covered right-hand as I attempt to reestablish blood flow in my left one, all the while it smells like cows. It’s true, mostly.

Nothing is simple in India for the American tourist. Walking into a restaurant we will be stared at. Walking through the city we will be tugged at by beggars. And by taking a taxi we will be taken advantage of. These are just some of the elements of challenge a typical day in India provides.

I find none of these challenges and characteristics negative. India is the most amazing and different country I will ever encounter. I would live in India in a heartbeat. It is repulsive and beautiful all at the same time. If you can’t embrace the madness then you probably shouldn’t travel in India, let alone go to Asia.

On the first day, after some customary and intense price negotiations with the drivers, we piled into the 3-wheel, open-air taxi called the rickshaw and experienced the roads for the very first time. We headed to an Indian restaurant and ordered by choosing wherever our finger first landed on the menu. We all somehow ended up with some sort of bread, rice and spicy dip which we later discovered is basically what all Indian food comes down to. It was our first hour in India, and just ordering and fitting in was the hardest things we’ve had to do. We were completely lost and overwhelmed in another world—and we loved it. Meanwhile, our rickshaw drivers waited outside the restaurant for us to finish so that they would have the privilege of taking us around more.

The thing about the rickshaw is that your chance of going where you actually want to go is very, very unlikely. It is custom for your rickshaw driver to ignore your requests and take you to his friends’ gift store, rug shop, silk shop, etc completely against your will. We had nothing planned for the day so it was a good opportunity to see the city. The shops all offer similar things and harassment to buy something is common. At the end of the day we headed back to the ship to leave for a Welcome Reception with some Indian college students. We ate some more Indian food and watched some of the traditional dance there.

The next morning I embarked on my homestay visit with an Indian family. Given that we were in the poorest country of our itinerary, I really did not know what to expect. Little did I know I would be staying in a home with two servants, two security guards, three drivers and a personal chef. My host parents were born in India, lived in California for 15 years, then came back to India. My host mom owns her own event planning company, and my host father owns a construction company. My host brother is 21 and my host sister is 23, and their grandmother lives with all of them. In addition to the regular home, the gated property boasts a home for the servants, an office building for my host mom her employees, and then the regular house. This would be my home for 3 days.

On my first day, myself and my homestay roommate Justin talked to Nalini (our host mom) as we got to know each other a bit over lunch which was prepared and served by the chef. Then, we went with the grandmother to a Hindu temple to meet another host family where they showed us around and taught us a bit about Hinduism. The Hindus we saw were entirely engaged in their Gods, completely peaceful and tranced by the power of Shiva. The temple was dark and candles flickered among the statues. It is a powerful religion and one that, as an outsider, I found more inviting than intimidating.

Next, Justin and I met my host brother Anish for a drink and some food. We then went with him to a hotel where a reception for all the host families was taking place. Altogether, there were about 35 SASers taking part in the homestay program. They had so much praise for their interactions from past voyages and were excited for our next few days together. They offered us a buffet of more Indian food and a short performance by some dancers. That night, Anish took my homestay roommate and I out to a bar with his friends. His friends, also from wealthy families, were custom to Americans as most of them could afford to go to school in the states. Nonetheless, there were periods of interesting cultural exchange and we had a lot of fun.

The next day all of the SAS homestay participants, minus the families, went to Mammallapuram which is an archaeological area of Hindu temples. From there we had a traditional Indian lunch, and then went to a crocodile farm. The whole trip was very characteristic of India’s culture of unpredictability. Our bus randomly stopped every once in a while, and no one ever knew why. We were never told where we were actually going; there was really no plan. But in India you realize that nothing ever makes sense. You just had to go with the flow.

That night, the family invited me to get their new car blessed, something that is common for Hindus. We took the car to the temple and offered coconuts and bananas to Ganesha, the son of Shiva. The car was adorned with flowers, chants were said, and the grandmother prayed. I just kind of stood there, in my bare feet, smiling. We walked around the temple, and then blessed ourselves by putting ash and a red dot in between our eyes above our nose, like you often see many Hindus with. It was nice to partake in the ceremony, and another way in which my host family really brought me into their family.

The next day, the driver take me to meet up with friends so I could spend the day exploring Chennai. We took the autorickshaw around, did some shopping, had some interaction with some locals then headed back to the ship. I was excited to hang out with Anish one more time, but this time it was my turn to share with him my friends. He picked us up at the port, we went out to a local place, and his driver brought us back to the ship at night.

The next and last day of India was one of the most memorable. Bob, Sara and I found a really nice rickshaw driver named Sham to take us around the city. Sham spoke English well and knew a lot about Chennai. He took us around to see a few churches and a temple, and then went to the beach where he let us drive his rickshaw (the same beach that was devastated by the tsunami a few years ago). I saw some people in a parking lot playing cricket and I hopped out and twenty people crowded around me excited to see a white boy taking interest in their sport. Sham took us to Snake and Deer Park, a zoo that was completely rundown and inadequate for the animals living there.

What was great about Sham was that he was honest. Whereas other rickshaw drivers will hold you hostage to take you to local shops, Sham told us like it was. He explained that each time he brings tourists to a store they credit him and he earns money for his family. We already knew from earlier conversation that Sham lives in a house made of coconut leaves, so we were more than happy to poke around in a few stores for him.

We all sailed away from India with stories and a certain level of culture shock. I think at some point we all saw things that wore us down; beggars, people dying on the streets, babies with leprosy, and children digging through the trash were all things we encountered on a daily basis in India.

At our post port Open-Mic Night, I shared my story with the shipboard community. Many came across poverty, I acknowledged. The only difference is, I was one of the few that witnessed it through the window of my family’s car. Culture doesn’t have to be found in the disorder of the city streets. It is everywhere. I found a family, got to know them, and discovered their lives. Sometimes American tourists are drawn to poverty as a way of discovering a culture. I argued that by living with the rich, I didn’t shield myself from India. Instead, I found India in a different place and through a different lens. Everything is an experience.

3 days rest, and onward to Malaysia…

PS- Thanks for the birthday wishes today. I decided to celebrate it in both the Eastern U.S. time zone and the Malaysian time zone, which gave me 37 hours total of celebration. I also had a cake. Two. And it was all while crossing the Bay of Bengal.

No comments: