Wow, its very hard to start this journal entry. India was a whirlwind. Every minute was a total adventure. It was good, bad, scary, beautiful and just about every adjective in between. I have never in my life seen such awesome colors and splendor, but I have also never seen such dirt, poverty or trash. So, as always, lets start at the beginning.
Our first day started off with a bang. Keeping in mind that we had to be back on the ship at 1:30 for our semester at sea sponsored Taj Mahal trip, we (Brittany, Becca, Nathan and I) set out to explore Chennai. We had been warned numerous times that it would be dirty and very overwhelming. I dont think I exactly understood what they meant by dirty (since I was picturing the factory districts in New Jersey), until we arrived. Although I had ideas, since the crew literally covered the ship in cardboard so we wouldnt drag the dirt back onto it.
From the ship we walk a mile to get out of the port. The road was a mix of cement and sludge and the few cars and motorcycles that were on it seem ready to hit us if we stumble off the 12 inch wide side walk. Always an adventure, we walk single file while getting honked at. We brace ourselves as we step out of the port entrance. In pre-port we were told that the most common means of transport in Chennai are Auto-Rickshaws. Google it. Seriously. They look like that. Hundreds (literally, there are just SO many people everywhere in this city) swarm us trying to get us into their Autos. We make the decision that we will wait until we get to the street because Indian Auto Drivers have a bad rep of trying to rip people off and we figure that the ones who target the port are the worst (we were right). As we walk through another swarm of individuals with their various forms of transport (barefoot, with moped, with taxi, with cane) it hits me that we are India! Finally, we flag down an auto driver and agree on a price, 100 rupees (2 dollars, which by United States standards is cheap, but a local would probably pay less than half of that) to drive us to Parrys Corner.
We had been told in pre-port that Parrys Corner had a good array of shopping and since we would be on organized tour for the next three days we wanted to make sure we could all secure some trinkets ;). The four of us pile into the green and white three wheel vehicle and literally melt into each other (its probably 100 degrees and humid out) as we wheel in and out of traffic (India has more of a lets say give and take way of driving rather than the lanes we have). We marvel at the sights around us, from the families lying on dirty blankets sleeping on the beach to beautiful women in sparkling saris riding side saddle on mopeds, while trying not to think about the bus which just flew an inch next to us.
The driver pulls into a lone, albeit nice looking, shop, right off a busy interception. Although it is apparent that it was not Parrys corner, we decide to go along with it (he obviously gets commission for people shopping there) and walk in. They have god statues of all sizes and saris in every color, but we quickly figure out just how overpriced the store is and try to get our auto driver to take us to Parrys, he acts aloof and we decide to just walk. We figure that there must be more stores or that we must indeed be close to our intended destination.
We are wrong, and after a long walk (complete with a stop for water which we vehemently assessed to ensure that it contained its original seal) we decide to try our luck once more, this time to go to a different shopping street (Mount Street). After haggling, we decide on a price and are off once more, weaving in and out of traffic, clutching each other, while simultaneously taking pictures to document the experience.
After 10 or so minutes we are dropped off on the correct street. We proceed to the first shop we see and are instantly satisfied. It is air-conditioned (a plus for me ) and carries a wide range of product. I ask Nathan to help me pick out a Sari for Purim, while Becca and Brittany explore bed covers and wall hangings. I finally settle on a gorgeous blue and pink one (its 7 feet of fabric!) and two pashminas for Ilana and me. After some hardy bargaining, I pay and we join Brittany and Becca to assist in their decisions.
The store attendants are more than happy to aid and drape out literally hundreds of choices for our viewing pleasure. They offer us some yummy Chai (which we accept, figuring since it was boiled it couldnt make us sick). Brittany finally decides on her wares, but explains to the shop owner that she still needs to find a ruby ring for her boyfriends mom. He quickly quips that he can drive us to his other store by the port.
We conduct a short meeting between the four of us wherein we decide he is legit (his store was VERY nice) and that the incentive for him is clear (a big purchase). We follow him out of the store, past the rickshaw touts and into his white compact van. I quickly realize that he is just as aggressive as any of the auto drivers. At one point he even drove into a man (his elbow) and kept driving, citing the man as in the wrong.
All of our worries disappear as we slip through the gate of the port, realizing he has clearance that the auto drivers dont and that he truly is legit. He drives us to his shop which is literally adjacent from the ship. Looking at my watch, I realize that we are cutting the time a little close so Nathan and I head back to the ship, while Becca and Brittany choose a ring. We remark at how amazed we are by the city, its contrasts are truly unreal. It was a wonderful morning, full of adventure, which managed to all work out!
Upon returning to the ship, I grab a quick bite to eat with my friend Carolyn (spaghetti!) in the cafeteria. While washing my hands I realize the true magnitude of the dirt of the city. The brown water runs off my fingers as the water works to try to cleanse me. I put the finishing touches on my packing before Brittany returns and we head to the Union to get on our trip.
At 2 oclock we get onto the bus, me on the window and Brittany on the aisle. It is not air-conditioned, so I open up the window only to get sputtered every so often by dirt, some of which land directly in my eyes. As I gaze out the window I see families huddled in shack-tents on the beach, large buildings, and small tenant houses.
We arrive at the airport after an hour or so. As we march into the building, little children tug at our clothes asking for money. In pre-port we were told not to give to the beggers because it can be almost like organized crime and that we should instead donate to legit charities. I felt like they were tugging at my heart as they motioned towards their mouth indicating that they would use the money for food. I try to look ahead as others, including my friend Wyn (hes from Rhode Island!), get nearly accosted with people asking to shine their shoes.
The front door provides sanctity as we check in and go through the medal detectors. In India, there are separate lines for men and women and women get patted down behind a partition while men are patted down in public. Brittany buys a spicy diet coke, while I purchase a plain water trying not to tempt my stomach. The bus transports us to an upscale plane. I get a window seat complete with TV! The TV had everything from Disney songs to Bollywood movies which kept me entertained the whole ride while Brittany and Justin played Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (a British version, which made it oddly difficult).
After three hours we arrive in Delhi and board a much nicer bus to our hotel, the Astok. We are greeted by an older man playing music and a young boy dancing (with the oddest facial expressions I have ever seen) as well as Sari adorned women with flower necklaces and red ochre to put on our foreheads. We take pictures galore and then go to drop off our bags. The hotel is very nice and we even get to watch a little bit of the news before heading back down for dinner. I enjoy the Nan and Masala Chicken, a big relief since I was nervous about the food selection. We head back upstairs to make it an early night in preparation for a long day of touring.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
India Day 1