First Day in India

This is part 4 of the story of my trip to India in 2014. Go here if you want to start from the beginning.

2014-10-23
Thursday

I finally arrived last night, and today is my first day in India. Mónica and I sleep in late and enjoy a lazy morning at her place. It’s raining pretty hard when we get up, and I step out onto one of her four balconies to see my first view of the city in the daylight. Of course you can’t look anywhere in Chennai without seeing crows.

I’ve brought homemade chocolate and sourdough from Maine that we have with some fruit for breakfast. Some of Mónica’s friends are eagerly asking if I’ve finally arrived. They want to see pictures. We’re not quite dressed yet (I’m allergic to wearing shirts indoors) so Mónica teasingly tells them, “We’re not visible.” and sends pictures of our bread and chocolate instead.

Bread and Chocolate
Bread and Chocolate

The plan today is to do a rickshaw tour of the city, then later join a dinner party hosted by one of Mónica’s friends and co-workers. We schedule the rickshaw for early in the afternoon and it’s still raining by the time the driver arrives, so I bring my hat and rain jacket.

Our driver is from Speed Trust. This seems like a cute name for a rickshaw service company, but I later learn that it’s actually a non-profit organization that helps very poor and mostly illiterate people, many of whom have lost their homes or farmland in rural areas to natural disasters or severe weather, by educating them and placing them in gainful occupations. SPEED stands for Slum People Education and Economic Development. Among other things, SPEED Trust helps women become rickshaw drivers, which is very uncommon here as almost all of the city’s rickshaw drivers are men. Mónica has asked for Adilaschmi, a driver she has had before on a similar tour. We’ll be visiting some of Chennai’s temples and religious sites.

SPEED Trust Rickshaw Tour Chennai
Mónica and Adilaschmi from an Earlier SPEED Trust Tour

We head north toward Mylapore on the East Coast Road in the open rickshaw. I can’t really see out while sitting up, so I have to hunker down to check out the view of the passing city. The traffic is absurd compared to anyplace I’ve been in the US. Buenos Aires is closer, but still doesn’t compare to here. There are generally no traffic lights or stop signs anywhere except for a couple of major highway intersections. Everything is a free-for-all. Motorcycles and rickshaws and bicycles dart around the cars and busses like a school of fish trying to race a school of bigger fish. Following distances are a little less than arms-length most of the time and indeed I often see motorcycle or rickshaw passengers hold out their arms to keep neighboring vehicles from bumping all the way into them. Many roads are unpaved or in terrible disrepair. There are rarely sidewalks, so pedestrians and vehicles compete for the same road space along the edges. We occasionally see cows or goats wandering around. As they cross the road, seemingly oblivious to the frantic traffic pressing against them, vehicles simply weave between and around them without missing a beat.

First-Rickshaw-Ride-with-Mónica
First Rickshaw Ride with Mónica

As we cross the Adyar River which runs through the city, the stench of sewage is almost overpowering. Apart from that, though, the city smells mostly of exhaust fumes and animals, constantly punctuated by delicious aromas of spices and curries coming from street vendors and tiny restaurant stalls where people are cooking in the open air practically right in the road. It’s a sensory smorgasboard.

Our first stop is the Sri Ramakrishna Mutt Temple. I’ve heard it referred to as the Pink Temple as well. Not necessarily a Hindu place of worship, this is more a non-denominational monastic order where people of all faiths come to meditate. The current building was built in 1917. Like most of the temples in Tamil Nadu, this is built in the Dravidian style of architecture. It also happens to be pink.

Chennai Sri Ramakrishna Mutt
In Front of Sri Ramakrishna Mutt

We have to take off our shoes to enter the building. When Mónica and I sit down on the floor mats together with the other meditators, an old man comes over and separates us. Men are on one side, women on the other. There are some places that even have separate entrances for men and women, and we probably end up violating this custom unknowingly at least once.

Sri Ramakrishna Mutt Meditation Hall
Coming out of the Meditation Hall
Chennai Sri Ramakrishna Mutt Courtyard
The Courtyard in front of Sri Ramakrishna Mutt

Next up is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple. This is a much more traditional Hindu temple of the god Shiva. The original temple was built in the 7th century, with the current buildings constructed in the 1500s. This is a larger complex with several different shrines, halls, and buildings, including the 40m (131 feet) tall gopuram at the east entrance. This gateway tower was built in 1906. Wandering around barefoot in the stone courtyard, it’s raining harder and many Hindu worshipers are lined up to touch and make offerings to some of the shrines. Statues and carvings everywhere are adorned with spices, colored powders, or flowers.

Chennai Kapaleeshwarar Temple Courtyard
Barefoot in the Kapaleeshwarar Temple Courtyard
Chennai Kapaleeshwarar Temple East Gopuram
The East Gopuram (Gate Tower) at Kapaleeshwarar Temple

At one point while ambling through the complex, a small old man with a deep and seemingly permanent smile motions us into one of the old stone structures. Ducking under the low ceiling, we see several cows tied up and munching on hay. The old man is encouraging us to pet them. He doesn’t say anything; only gestures. OK, I’ve seen cows before, but there is something cute about the scene, which feels distinctly Indian. He then gives each of us a necklace of flowers. As we turn to go on our way, he follows us for a bit, holding out his hand, wobbling his head, and gesturing for us to give him money. I’m not carrying anything, but Mónica finally gives him some coins. He’s obviously expecting more, but we move on. Having not heard him speak a word the whole time, I wonder if he’s deliberately observing a vow of silence. I also don’t know if they are his cows or if he has anything to do with them at all other than pointing them out to tourists in exchange for a handout. This sort of thing happens a lot.

There’s a market area right outside the temple. It’s a mix of food stalls and various crafts. With the rain and the lack of drainage in the streets here, we’re walking barefoot through a lot of standing water with animals and garbage everywhere. Though I’m really enjoying the India experience so far and the people are wonderfully friendly, I can’t deny that it is extremely dirty by Western standards. Just walking around like this is probably risky in terms of exposing my immune system to new challenges and I again wonder how I will hold up for this trip.

After Kapaleeshwarar, Adilaschmi takes us to the Saint Thomas Basilica. On the way, I notice how indifferent the locals seem to be to the rain. No one is wearing rain jackets or carrying an umbrella, and most of the traffic on the road is motorcycles, so people are just getting soaked without worrying about it. The rainy season is actually the coolest time of the year (it’s about 84 degrees Fahrenheit today), so I’m told that people really enjoy the rain here.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Saint Thomas is one of only three churches in the world that are built on the tomb of one of Jesus’ Apostles. I had no idea that any of the Apostles traveled this far in the world, but apparently Saint Thomas is revered for bringing Christianity to India around 52 AD. It’s easy to think of things from so far back in history as being almost of a different world, so it’s strange to suddenly feel so close to events and people so ancient.

We enter the underground cathedral to see the tomb. Like all the non-Christian places of worship in Chennai, we remove our shoes here, too. There are kneeling benches rather than pews, and a few locals are inside praying. We kneel in silence for a while before going to the main basilica. Saint Thomas is the patron saint of architects, builders, and construction workers, and is said to have built the original church on this site himself. The current basilica is an impressive gothic structure built by the British in 1893, with a height of 155 feet at the main spire. There is a service going on inside that sounds like it’s being delivered in the local language of Tamil. We mostly admire it from the entrance before moving on.

Next, we head up to Marina Beach. This is one of the popular attractions of Chennai, and I’ve seen some sources say it’s the second longest urban beach in the world, though I have no idea if this is true. There are heavy crowds here despite the rain, but no one swims due to the strong currents. Also, the beach is covered in trash, and someone has managed to turn all of the seagulls I would normally expect to find at the beach into crows. The crows are everywhere, but there’s no other bird to be seen. There are lots of food vendors (this may have something to do with the crows) and we grab some yummy sliced green mango to munch on.

Chennai Marina Beach Crows
Crows. Lots of Crows.
Alton Mónica Marina Beach Chennai
Happy Couple on the Beach

We walk along the beach to a memorial for a local politician, and suddenly I’m a celebrity. I’ve noticed people staring and pointing and giggling at me all day, but now they’re rushing up to us to ask to have their picture taken with Mónica and me. We end up having our picture taken hundreds of times. It’s like they’ve never seen a white person before. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen another white person since leaving the airport, so maybe it’s not that much of a stretch. Then again, it could also be the hat.

Chennai Marina Beach Celebrity
One of Many Celebrity Group Photos on the Beach

As it gets later in the evening, Mónica suggests we check out a sari shop. Adilaschmi takes us to a Saravana store. This is an 8 story department store packed with people. Everywhere we go inside, at least two giggling and staring female workers follow us around and help us look at things. I pick out a couple of kurtas. The friendly helpers don’t allow me to do anything myself. They literally take items out of my hands to open, unfold, refold, and repack them. They even insist on carrying my two shirts down the several flights of stairs for me to the checkout counter. Here, the absurdities of the excess of labor supply in India are on full display. The helpers hand my items to a girl behind the counter, who reads the prices to the girl next to her, who punches them into a computer. A third girl takes my credit card and swipes it. Then a fourth girl takes the receipt that prints out and hands it to me to sign. I give it back to a fifth girl, who makes a copy, stamps the copies, hands one back to me and puts the other in a book. Meanwhile another couple of ladies are bagging my items for me. These are handed back to the original helpers, who carry the nearly 8 ounce plastic bag out to the waiting rickshaw for me instead of letting me do it myself. I’m not sure how many times it would take for this ritual to go from being amusing to exasperating.

Saravana Store Chennai
In the Saravana Department Store

It’s now time to head over to Priya’s house for dinner. Mónica wants to pick up some cashews and sweets on the way, so we stop at a place that looks promising. There are sweets shops everywhere in this city. In this one, as we inspect the decorative and carefully crafted candies in the glass case, a row of 10 short Indian men in blue uniforms with blue caps and the same mustaches are all staring at us waiting to help. Only their heads stick up above the height of the display case. When Mónica asks a question, we can’t help but laugh as the line of smiling heads suddenly starts wobbling in unison. The spontaneous choreography of the ridiculously excessive number of indistinguishable workers trying to help us is so comical and absurd that I wish I had a video of it.

Dinner Time

Priya works at the school where Mónica teaches and has cooked a variety of vegetarian Indian dishes for dinner. Other friends and coworkers from the school are there, and one of the funny coincidences is that besides Mónica and me, there are three other people there from Maine. Crazy. Most people have finished eating by now, so I sit down and happily start chowing down. There’s some kind of paneer curry, something with chickpeas, and I don’t even know what else. It’s all delicious. As I go for seconds and thirds, one of the local guests, Sunitha, asks how long I’ve been in India. I tell her it’s my first day and she seems impressed, wanting to know where I learned to eat such spicy food. I laugh. I didn’t really discover spicy food or curry until after I was in college, but since then I’ve been a complete convert. Upon seeing me enjoy the food so much, Priya offers to come over sometime next week and show me how to cook some things. This sounds like a fantastic idea.

Priya Dinner Party Hanging Out
Hanging Out at Priya’s for Dinner
Priya Dinner Party Group Photo
Dinner Party Group Photo

After dinner, Mónica and I join Shauna and Salman in going to an InterNations social event at the Regency Towers Hotel. It’s a regular gathering of expats in Chennai and we meet some people from all over the world who have ended up in India for a time, usually through their jobs.

Everybody seems to know Mónica here. It’s a pretty noisy bar, though, so we don’t stay long. Shauna and Salman want to check out some Salsa dancing in another hotel nearby. Sure enough, when we get there, a handful of Indian couples are dancing Salsa in a small club. Salman is a local Salsa instructor, and he and Shauna put on a good show.

InterNations-Bike-and-Barrel
Me, Mónica, Shauna, and Salman at InterNations

I’m seriously tired at this point and wearing sandals, so I decline to join in. I barely know what I’m doing with Salsa anyway. Tango, though . . . now that would be another story. There’s a chance we may be able to find some Tango a couple hours south of Chennai tomorrow. There’s supposed to be a Milonga going on, but it’s in a place Mónica’s never been to before and it may be hard to find. Another adventure to look forward to. Sitting in this five star hotel listening to Salsa music after walking barefoot in the rain through temples and markets of India, I’m already struck by the diversity of cultural experiences I’ve had in just one day. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow has in store for us.

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