On my first day in India I was walking through an outdoor vegetable market. The streets were narrow and full of people, cars, rickshaws (three-wheeled oversized moped type vehicles used as taxis), motorcycles, and even the occasional cow or human-drawn cart. It was dirty—dust and cow dung everywhere, flies covering the fruits on display, piles of rubble, deteriorating concrete buildings without windows or doors, fraying posters covering any flat surface—but I couldn’t help but think it was beautiful! There were fruits and vegetables of every color—green, yellow, purple—laid out on tarps or cloths or spilling out of carts. The women wore brightly colored saris covered in intricate designs and accented by gold jewelry. Even the rickshaws and trucks were all bright yellow with unique designs and phrases painted on each one, like “save rain water,” “drive slow,” and “avoid AIDs.” The market was loud, full of honking horns, the constant din of conversation, motorcycles roaring by, and the occasional snippet of music fighting its way through the noise of the street. Through all of this chaos I suddenly smelled coffee. I looked around and, sure enough, about a block away, there was a tiny hole-in-the-wall (quite literally) shop with a couple of men holding the famed Madras filter coffee standing outside. I walked over and asked for a coffee and paid just 5 rupees—10 cents—for a cup. Madras filter coffee is just coffee and steamed milk with lots of sugar and some foam on top, just like a latte, but somehow buying it from a tiny shop in an Indian market makes it taste better. The man I bought the coffee from didn’t speak any English and seemed a little shocked to see me there—I don’t think many tourists come by his shop—but his coffee was the best I had in India. And believe me, that is a tough call to make. When I was asking around to find out what coffee I should get in India, everyone told me to just get tea. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them! Of course I did get tea too, but India has some wonderful coffee. Another great coffee I had was at a coffee shop called Mocha. Their menu listed coffees from all around the world accompanied by a description of each roast. There were two Indian coffees available, and I ordered the Monsoon Malabar. It gets its name because long ago the coffee beans would be exposed to trade winds during transport to Europe, giving the coffee a distinctive flavor. Today the coffee beans are laid out during monsoon season to be exposed to trade winds in a process called “monsooning.” But enough about coffee.
I spent most of my first day in India at the Mylapore Food Market, but not until after my three hour long rickshaw ride. The rickshaws in India do not work exactly like a taxi should. Most of the drivers have deals with all the shopkeepers that allow them to receive a commission if they bring customers to their shops, so instead of taking you right to your destination, rickshaw drivers will stop at a number of these shops first. After a couple of friends and I negotiated for a ride to Spencer’s, a local mall, our rickshaw driver informed us that Spencer’s would not open for another two hours—which we later found out was not true—and that he would be happy to show us around Chennai for a while for no extra charge until the mall opened. Of course, we agreed and were taken from one overpriced shop to another for the next three hours. We never did get to Spencer’s and were charged extra at the end. It was frustrating, but I soon learned how to avoid that situation. So, a word of advice; if you ever find yourself in India catching a ride on a rickshaw, do not let the driver tell you your destination is closed and be sure to specify that you want to be taken straight to your destination with no stops. Once they know you won’t play their game, they usually won’t try to pull any tricks. Anyway, that night a few friends and I went out to dinner and, after noticing the theater across the street, decided to see a movie as well. One tour guide I had told me that 500 movies are made per year in Chennai alone! The film industry is huge. The movie we saw was all in Tamil (the local language along with Hindi and English) and was a very strange combination of action and comedy. It was really cool to see how easy it was to follow the storyline despite the language barrier, though.
The next day I took a Semester at Sea tour to the towns of Kancheepuram and Mamallapuram to visit various Hindu temples. Most of the temples in the state of Tamil Nadu—the state of India that Chennai is located in—are dedicated to the god Shiva, the god of destruction. Every temple I visited was a Shiva temple. The temples are beautiful and consist, roughly, of an outer wall surrounding a courtyard with a smaller enclosed temple in the middle of the courtyard. Every single surface was intricately carved into scenes depicting stories from Shiva’s life. There were also many statues of cows or bulls because each Hindu god has an animal that is called their vehicle of transportation, or their vahana. Shiva’s vahana is Nandi, the bull. In Mamallapuram we were near the coast visiting a temple but I don’t remember what it was called or who it was for because a class of Indian schoolchildren was on a field trip there. As we walked up to the site they swarmed us, shaking our hands, asking our names, asking for pictures, just crawling over one another to get in pictures, crawling on us... I loved it! They were so happy to see us and I think we were equally happy if not more happy to see them. I know I was supposed to be there to learn about Hindu temples, but I think meeting the kids was the most valuable thing I took away from that trip.
The next day was the day I discovered Mocha and got that Monsoon Malabar. I spent the rest of the day around Chennai, shopping and seeing the city.
I left Chennai again on the fourth day for another Semester at Sea organized trip to see rural India. Our trip started at a small town about two hours outside of Chennai. It was a lot less crowded and a lot cleaner than Chennai. Cows, goats, and even monkeys roam freely along the streets! We stopped at a rice paddy and it was kind of surreal for me. Looking across the fields, rural India doesn’t look much different from the South Dakota countryside. We went into an even smaller town where the people get around on bicycles or carts drawn by cows. I saw just one motorcycle while I was there. The village was so clean and bright with houses painted bright green, yellow, and orange. We were given an indoor tour of a typical home there. It consisted of one main room, a bedroom, a room for worship and prayer, and an outdoor kitchen. We watched a woman make a rangoli (designs traced with rice flour each morning in front of houses) before riding a cow-drawn cart around the town to the coconut groves. There we were given coconut milk to sip on while watching a coconut harvester climb a coconut tree—with nothing but his bare hands! We got back on our carts and waved goodbye before heading off to our next destination—the Dakshina Chitra Heritage Village. This place is dedicated to providing a picture of how cultures differ in Southern India. They have houses from each southern state and offer demonstrations of pottery making, silk weaving, henna tattoos, and even parrots reading tarot cards!
My last day was spent at the Sri Sayee Vivekananda Vidyalaya Matriculation Higher Secondary School, a school housing 694 students of all ages. When we first got there we were greeted by the school band and were given roses. Then the students had their morning assembly. It was amazing! All 700 students sang their national anthem together and recited various prayers. They also had a reading of the day’s current events including a story about Barack Obama. After the assembly we were split into pairs and sent into classrooms. I am not really that good with kids and was not prepared to entertain a whole class of third graders—but it soon became clear that that was exactly what I was supposed to do! I was a little bit terrified but ended up teaching the kids how to play hokey pokey. Then they wanted to learn a dance, so I taught them some line dances! Now a bunch of Indian schoolchildren are doing the electric slide. I was shown some games, yoga, and karate in return before being dragged off to another classroom by a mob of children. They sang their national anthem for me so I had to reciprocate, of course. I asked them to show me one of their games, and they started teaching me how to play their version of Duck Duck Goose! It was cool to see the same games I grew up on being played on the other side of the world. Before we left the students put on a show for us of traditional dances and karate. I was so amazed by their talent! The visit to this school was probably the best experience I had in India.
If you asked me, like so many people have, “how was India?” I would have absolutely no answer for you. I won’t lie to you—I found it very frustrating at times, and I am kind of ashamed of that. It felt like no one wanted to talk to me unless there was a chance they could get some money from me. The rickshaw drivers pulled every trick in the book to earn a buck and salesmen on the street would follow you for blocks, completely ignoring any polite refusals. I am ashamed because I know why these people are that way. The poverty in India is… terrible. The townships in South Africa are in better condition than the whole city of Chennai. It’s hard to write about because I don’t know how to process all I saw, I don’t know how to describe it, and I definitely don’t know what I can do that would improve it. Before we reached India our executive dean Les MaCabe said, “You don’t happen to India—India happens to you.” I believe that to be true in my case, but I guess I still am unsure exactly how India has affected me. All I know is that it has.