The Land of Bobble Heads

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Flag of India  ,
Friday, September 16, 2005

Finally, an update on our India travels...

We arrived in India on the morning of September 12, after a marathon of travel from Johannesburg through Dubai and then onto the city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), in southern India. Chennai is not the most typical starting point for travels through India, but perfect for us, as Allison's brother Adam happened to be in Southern India for part of his summer break from graduate school. Adam was kind enough to collect us from the airport and take us to a hotel, saving us from having to deal with the challenge of entering a new culture and the corresponding mundane details of the cost of a taxi and what neighborhood to stay in. Our most immediate impressions of the city were the crazy high humidity (even mid-morning) and the traffic - vehicles, bicycles, people everywhere. South Africa and Namibia had been pretty tame travel destinations, and India is the opposite.

We spent about a day and a half in Chennai, being introduced to South Indian food (not the usual fare you find in Indian restaurants, which is from the usually from the north - unfortunate that more restaurants don't offer both...) and generally getting our bearings: the challenge of crossing the street; cows in the road eating cardboard; rickshaws flying by all over the place; women in saris on the backs of scooters; all sorts of stuff to watch out for on the sidewalk (that is, when there was a sidewalk)... It was crazy, but we were really excited to be there.

From Chennai, we moved a few hours south to the small city of Kanchipuram, home of the Indian silk industry. Adam had based himself there for most of his stay so he could do some research on silk trade economics and, together with his friend Beth (volunteering in a local theater school), was staying in a nice little place away from the center. They graciously let us stay with them while we were in Kanchipuram, where we had multiple adventures involving broken toilets and mysterious power outages. But, really, thanks Beth and Adam for letting us crash with you.

We led a pretty simple life in Kanchipuram, involving lots of eating and a crash course in Indian customs. For example, there is a totally different body language here (especially in South India, we have since realized). You tell a waiter what you want for lunch, and he kind of gives you a bored look and tips his head to both sides (sort of a "whatever" gesture back home). Our initial reaction was always that they must be out of what we'd ordered, but then remembered that the head bobble actually signifies "I've heard you." And then there is the lurking... Personal space is not a prevalent concept here. At least in the south, waiters would often stand right by our table and watch us eat, pointing out if we did something wrong (ate food in the wrong order, for example). And sometimes people would stand right behind us and watch as we typed an email. Hard to get used to! And then there is taking your shoes off before you go into certain shops. The only clue is if there are already shoes outside, but Allison managed to earn a stern talking to in the local language when she inadvertantly walked into a seamstress's shop with shoes on. Oops.

The two highlights of our stay in Kanchipuram involved the four of us making absolute spectacles of ourselves by visiting nearby villages where tourists hardly go. We visited the first village for an event related to the theater program at Beth's school. She had been teaching English to children of folk-dancers (who themselves were descendants of folk-dancers) and their parents were putting on a big show in one of the little villages near town. It was really amazing. They have a lengthy repetoire of plays that they have memorized, and do not know which they will perform until their arrival at the village the night of the performance. The plays are hours in length, and the show the night we visited did not start until around 10pm, so we only saw the first few hours. The play was performed in the language Tamil (which as a side-note, Adam is learning - it was incredibly fun to see the reaction of rickshaw drivers when he addressed them in their native language - practically NO westerners speak Tamil) so the two of us didn't understand more than what Adam had taught us. However, its style was sort of what you would imagine from medieval times - lots of elaborate gesturing and simple subject matter - so we managed to follow it pretty well. But the really memorable part was the reaction of the villagers when we showed up - they surrounded us and stared, whispering excitedly to one another. Finally an outgoing middle-aged woman stepped forward to address us, and the crowd practically went wild when Adam spoke back to her in Tamil. We were given seats of honor on a grass mat in front of the stage and a nice guy brought us some tea. A really fun night.

We had a similar experience a week or so later when Beth and Adam (and by default us) were invited to the house of a rickshaw driver (Thomas) with whom they had become friends. Yet again, we attracted a crowd and were given seats of honor on somebody's patio. We watched with awe and horror as Thomas proceeded to climb a 30-foot high palm tree, a machete in his teeth, and start cutting coconuts down. After he came down, we were given three or four coconuts each to drink their water and then eat their flesh. We felt guilty looking at nearby children's longing eyes, but Thomas and his buddies wouldn't let us stay no... It was really nice of them - great hospitality.

Speaking of hospitality, another day, we were invited to lunch at the house of a local tailor (again, thanks to Adam and Beth for making so many friends). It was also very fun - big homecooked South Indian lunch (big pile of rice, with various broths and then yogurt poured on top - and, of course, eaten with your right hand - no forks).

When Adam had to return to Chennai for a few days of business, we left Kanchipuram for our own side trip about a week after we arrived. We first traveled south and back to the coast to the city of Pondicherry, unique in India in having been colonized by the French. It only became part of India in the relatively recent past (40 years or so ago, if we remember correctly) and one part of town is very European. It was a nice couple of days, basically just walking around and taking in Indian life (albeit a slice of Indian life that isn't particularly representative of the country as a whole). Pondicherry attracts lots of tourists, domestic and international, and a family from the western part of South India asked us if they could have their picture taken with us - pretty funny!

From Pondicherry we traveled up the coast north to another temple town named Mahabalipuram. Another nice stop. The town is known for its rock sculpting, present and past, and it has some pretty incredible Hindu temples carved into bedrock throughout the village. Really elaborate bas reliefs of elephants on walls of granite and lots of larger than life bulls. We learned a little bit about Hindu mythology from our guide and made an obligatory stop or two at sculpture shops.

Following our side trip, we returned to Kanchipuram for a few days, and then the four of us all headed up to Delhi for Adam's and Beth's flights home. As you will see on the map, it's quite a haul up to Delhi, and we did it by train. It took about 38 hours, but it was a really nice trip. We had a four-person air-conditioned sleeper compartment to ourselves and passed the time playing a LOT of cards. That and taking turns jumping off the train during stops, buying food for the next few hours as fast as possible, and then chasing down the train as it slowly started up again.

We arrived in Delhi early on a Sunday morning and faced the notorious New Delhi train station. Even at the early hour, it lived up to its reputation. People everywhere, touts trying to hustle us to their taxis and, for the first time in eight months, somebody attempted to pick-pocket Jeff. "Attempted" being the important word. Both of us sensed the guy was up to no good when he sidled up to Jeff in the crowd. He got Jeff's zipper pocket open, but not the contents. So, we continued on to the taxi stand, where, in the end, we got hustled into one of the taxi touts cars, and, not surprisingly, got overcharged. So it goes.

We only stayed in Delhi a few days, seeing off Adam and Beth and then making arrangements for our next destination. We had hoped to see some historical landmarks, but our only full day there was Monday, during which everything cultural seems to be closed. Maybe next time...
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