Landing in India was an experience to remember, especially since this trip was not only my first trip to India, but also the first time I rode on a plane.
Exiting the airport would have been much more interesting if I had not been received by Niranjan due to the throng of taxi drivers and autovallahs bugging foreigners at the airport exit trying everything they could to push the obvious out-of-towners and foreigners into their vehicles. On the other hand, there we knew we had a vehicle to ride home in, yet unable to locate it as each and every white Ambassador taxi looked the same. Luckily, after a few minutes of searching he remembered the number plate so we were able to find our taxi. After loading the luggage, we began the ride home through the numerous pedestrians, bikes, cars, cycles, trucks, taxis, rickshaws, bullock carts, cows, and human-powered carts that already populated the early morning roads.
Arriving ‘home,’ Amma, Niranjan's mother, made us chai. During this time, I noticed two things. The first was that he had four brothers, who were sleeping on the floor in the next room. Secondly, I saw a servant maid who had come to wash the ground outside. She apparently comes to do this every morning to wash off the previous day's kolum and draw a new kolum (rangoli) design, which is like a doormat.
For my first breakfast in India, I ate idli and chutney sitting on the floor, with my hands. After finishing food, my excitement of exploring of my new surroundings took the better of me, and we went out for a walk around Tambaram.
Well, I guess Tambaram doesn’t see many foreigners (as in non-Indian looking people) as I got a lot of stares, and especially due to the fact I was usually dressed in Indian attire (sari) and bindi.
After returning home from the walk, I decided to catch up on sleep during the day. In the evening Amma decided to take me shopping. We went to her favorite shop, LNC. There I purchased saris and other Indian dresses. While trying on dresses, the female shop attendants came in the dressing rooms to help me fit the clothes properly. Amma was there to help me find the best fabrics, styles and also barter with the shopkeeper. Though they knew English, they were not accustomed to my accent. I spent what was considered a lot of money in one trip, and they had given me these really nice reusable shopping bags with their shop’s logo on them. Amma actually had a bunch of these bags back at the house which she regularly uses when she goes to the market to put produce and other items in so she doesn’t collect a lot of plastic bags.
On the second day I again experienced traffic on Chennai streets. The traffic is so disorganized and chaotic. Vehicles of all kind pack themselves on the road, almost at times, touching each other. At some intersections when cyclists or motorcyclists stop, they can literally be seen leaning against the bus or pushing themselves off the sides of the busses to get the running start. Many can also be seen wearing bandanas or masks over their nose and mouth to prevent from breathing in the pollution coming out of exhausts. This also helps prevent breathing in black smoke from road-side bonfires. Between Tambaram and Chennai city many can be seen burning garbage as there is no formal garbage removal system. The fires let out toxic and nauseating fumes for miles. When driving through this area more men are seen with face masks and women are seen holding handkerchiefs or their sari pallus to their faces.
Today we made it all the way into the city to the U.S. consulate. Here people apparently wait in line overnight and sleep on the street to get visas to come to USA. In the vicinity of the consulate is Anna Flyover, a bridge that overlooks the consulate. On this bridge was a policeman sitting with a rifle. I was told that because U.S. recently bombed Iraq, security was everywhere to prevent mass demonstration and chaos. Apparently when U.S. does something people in India don’t like, some come to areas around the consulate to hold demonstrations. Sometimes the demonstrations can become dangerous.
On the third morning, I again woke up about 5:30am to the sound of prayers being played over loud speakers at a temple two blocks away. Amma told me that though temples do this everyday, that the music played in December was much more special because December is considered a holy month. After the music died down, and we had our tea, we again went on an early morning walk. I noticed on this early morning walk that many people had scarecrows hanging on their houses. I did not know there were scarecrows in India. I was told that the scarecrows were put up to ward of bad spirits from coming into the house.
Today we hired a car and went to the University of Madras. In India, renting a car is generally cheap (in dollar exchange rate, of course!) and a safe thing to do. When we got inside, I noticed we did not have to drive. I was told that most car rentals in India by default come with the driver. I thought, good, one less thing to worry about.
I really liked the University of Madras campus. There were antiquated old-English style buildings, and across from Marina Beach. Also nearby to this place was Domino’s pizza. Though they advertise deliver in 30 minutes or free. I wonder how they can guarantee that in this traffic! Besides Dominoes, a few other American businesses I saw were American Express and Citibank.
Wandering around in Chennai is difficult. It is so hot. One can not always get water bottles at every shop. Public bathrooms are even harder to find. I really wanted a water bottle. I looked across the street, which was divided by a fence, but I wanted that water bottle. On one occasion, we were able to get in the car and drive over to get the water bottle. On the other, we took the subway. When I was told we were taking the subway to get the water bottle, I asked, “Why should we take the subway when we have a car?” I was thinking of subway as an underground train, not simply and underground passageway, which is what the subway was in this part of Chennai. We were able to cross under the street, avoid the traffic, get the water bottle and come back unscathed! Taking the subway was a much better than even thinking of crossing that road.
End of part 1 of 2. Read part 2.
My 1999 India photos at flckr.com.
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Updated December 2008.
Photo slide show of 1998 India trip to Chennai, Pondicherry (Puducherry), Thirupati, Mumbai (Bombay) and Elephanta Island!