Seventh Update -- South India

Trip Start Jun 12, 2007
Trip End Aug 07, 2007

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

   South India has been quite a whirlwind. I leave tonight for Bhubaneswar, a city close to Kolkata, a 28-hour train ride north; I have a feeling it will be quite different from the areas I've been to so far.

   First, a brief itinerary: I spent a couple days in Chennai, seeing the city and sorting out my film problem. From Chennai I made two consecutive long day trips; one to Pondicherry, and the other to Mallabalapuram, both towns south of Chennai. I left Chennai on Sunday night, taking an overnight sleeper car to Bangalore, Karnataka. I spent Monday in Bangalore -- about 24 hours -- and then took a bus to Sravanabelagola, a small town about 3.5 hours further west. I spent another 24 hours there, then came back to Bangalore, where I leave from tonight.

   So there's been a lot of traveling the past week. But I think it's been worth it. It was hard to do at first -- I think I was unlucky. Bus rides can vary tremendously! The first bus rides, to and from Pondicherry, were noisy, crowded, and hot. The drivers were very, very liberal in their use of the horn, which seemed to be located inside the bus; for the 3.5 hour ride there were people standing in the aisle the whole way; and I chose a seat on the sunny side of the bus and could not find a spot to hide my burning arm. Other rides, like today's, have been quiet and uncrowded.

   Culturally I have been constantly challenged. The other day I complimented someone on his English -- only to realize that he might have been speaking it all of his life. Communication is a big problem for me here, as I can hardly understand the thick accent that many English speakers have. Hearing someone speak clear English was so helpful that I quickly blurted that compliment out, only to realize it might have been insulting or demeaning.
   Bargaining here has been difficult too. Often I am forced to take autorickshaws (three-wheeled vehicles with weak motorcycle engines) because distances are too big. However, being a foreigner and all, I often feel like I'm getting ripped off when trying to agree to a price -- they don't use meters here. Going to the next driver only sometimes helps. Also, we can even agree to a price, but when we arrive it turns out the driver doesn't have any change, forcing me to overpay. When I use prepaid booths, a place where you get a receipt before you leave, has caused problems if the driver gets lost or feels that the receipt is not adequate. Ugh. But then I realize that paying an extra Rs10 is only 25 cents... and I get over it.
   Sravanabelagola is home to a large statue (said to be the largest monolithic statue in the world) that is located on one of two surrounding hills. When I began to climb the hill, I was greeted by some people who were pointing at something -- touts, I thought, smiled, and continued. But then they started yelling... I was supposed to take my shoes off and hadn't even realized it. Shoot. But it was quite fun to climb a large hill without shoes -- my feet took a happy beating.
   Often I am unsure about what to think about the women here. Many times I feel sorry and personally uncomfortable for those wearing burkas, because I feel that it is constraining them... but apparently that's not always the case (look at the first photograph). Also, I have heard that making simple eye contact is a come-on, so I avoided that for a while -- but the women in Sravanabelagola were more than happy to look and smile when I did the same. Also, the majority of beggars here are women. I have heard that sometimes widows venture to the cities when their husbands die, because they feel like they should suffer until they die? I am not sure, but I am upset nevertheless.

   Other things: my last full day in Chennai was wonderful. I was able to get my film developed, and it turned out perfectly fine! Later in the day, I decided to visit a film production studio. Chennai is second only to Mumbai (Bollywood) in Indian movie output, although most are in Tamil, the local language. Luckily one of the studios is open to visitors, so I took my first local bus ride there, which was quite an experience in itself. I ended up seeing a TV show in production -- one where two large groups of people are holding an arguement! So incredibly Indian. After getting back from the studio, and taking a nap to the sounds of the mosque-chants, I took a walk to the beach.
   Chennai's Marina Beach is the second-longest continuous beach in the world -- it's huge. When I went at sunset, the waterfront was crowded with people as far as I could see. Just off the waterfront were carousels (powered by buried diesel engines) and many food stalls. The sky was grey from the setting sun, oddly setting landward instead of seaward. It was awesome. I eventually rolled up my pants and waded into the Bay of Bengal, which was surprisingly warm. Others were being more adventurous: check out the burka-sporting women who waded in up past their knees (I think!). After it got dark, I took a walk back filled with many productive flash pics. It was a good day.

There's more information included in some of the pictures -- I encourage you to take a look.
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