The MV Explorer arrived in Chennai, India on Friday October 22nd. Chennai is on the southeast coast of India and is home to the 2nd largest seashore in the world! We got off the ship and realized that security was a huge hassle. They checked our passports 3 times before being able to exit the port and catch a taxi into town, and I guess the reason for this is the conflict between Pakistan and India. Supposedly they absolutely hate each other and tensions are currently high so port security was much tighter than usual. The first day, Stacy, Adam, and I caught what they call a rickshaw in India which is a 3-wheeled cart with a bench in the back that seats 3. The best description of it would be like a smart car without doors and only 3 wheels. There are normal taxis in India, but these vehicles are cheaper and much more common not to mention the cultural experience! We started by going to few shops that the rickshaw driver recommended, but we quickly realized they were far too expensive for our college student budget. We later found out that this was an entire system in which the rickshaw drivers earn a commission if they bring tourists to specific shops and the tourists look around for at least 15 minutes. For the rest of the week, rickshaw drivers would say ‘let me take you to this shop with India prices. Very cheap.’ And we would of course immediately say ‘NO! Take me to this temple or that market.’ Anyway, we asked him to take us to Pondy’s Bazaar which is supposed to be the most popular open market of handicrafts in Chennai. It was a very busy place selling hand bags, shoes, flowers strung together on ropes, Indian drums, jewelry boxes, among many, many other goods for cheap. After walking around the bazaar, we asked him to take us to Kappaleeshwara Temple: a Hindu temple dating back to the 8th century. As many of you may know, they have many different gods, some with animal faces and others human. Ganeesh is one of the most popular – the God of Prosperity and Good Luck with an elephant face. Along the way, the driver let Adam drive the rickshaw; unfortunately, it was a stick-shift so I didn’t drive because I didn’t want to do any damage. We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around and seeing the different parts of the city. India is a place of immense wealth and immense poverty because of the caste system. It is a country that harbors the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, faiths. It is a complex country and is one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited.
Later that night, Stace and I went out on a date to a restaurant called the Copper Chimney where we got some Indian chicken dishes and rice. They brought out this crispy flatbread for an appetizer which actually proved to be the spiciest food I ate on the entire trip in India. I had no idea as it just looked like a normal flatbread, but it was FLAMING HOT. On the way back to the ship we saw thousands of Indians on blankets sleeping everywhere from the beach to the sidewalk and in the parks. I had no idea what to make of this sight and I still remember the image vividly like it was just a minute ago.
4:00 A.M. RISE AND SHINE! We pre-booked a Semester at Sea trip to the Taj Mahal so we took a flight to Delhi, the capital of India. The airport was clean and relatively nice, and the airport was comfortable to say the least. I also learned that there is a big difference between ‘Tourist Prices’ and ‘Indian Prices’ as they charge the tourists often 4 or 5 times more for admission into museums, for flights, trains, and taxis. That afternoon we took our tour bus around to New Delhi (the British part of old) and Old Delhi (the markets and more Indian part of town) droving by places like the many embassies including the American Embassy, some of the different palaces, among some other things. We went to visit the house of a friend of Ghandi’s in which he spent the last 145 days of his life fasting, and then ultimately where he was killed by a man in a crowd waiting to hear him speak. We also went to see his memorial which is, more or less, a big open park with rolling greens and a small tribute in the middle with a flame in a lantern.
Most of the lunches and dinners we had along the way and at the hotels were buffet style with a collection of different Indian dishes. The cow is sacred in the Hindu faith and therefore in most of India so not only do they not eat beef, but you can also see cows pulling police ‘cars’ down the streets, we saw a stable of cows in the middle of Kappaleeshwara Temple, and just everywhere in general. A lot of the Indian food is extremely spicy, but if you’re careful (which I am) you can avoid the spicier stuff and stick with the milder food like rice, chicken kebabs, and the awesome vegetable ‘stir-fry like’ dishes they offer. That night we boarded a train to Agra – the city in which the Taj Mahal resides. We got in very late and didn’t get to the hotel that night until midnight so we pretty much went straight to bed awaiting a 5:00 A.M. wake-up call to see the Taj Mahal at sunset.
At sunset, the Taj was astonishing, almost life-changing. While the sun doesn’t rise or set directly behind the building, the way in which the sun hits the marble is still marvelous. The structure was built by the Moguls (who I believe were Muslim) and it was built by a man who dedicated the marvel to his wife who had passed on a few years prior. It is perfectly symmetrical, and has no religious significance whatsoever. The story is that this Muslim had promised his wife he would try to build something as beautiful as she was, but then she died giving birth to their 14th child. A few years after her death, remembering his promise, he erected what is now 1 of the 7 wonders of the world. In the morning, it is more of a white/silverish color. Because he intended the place to be holy, he built a mosque on the left and a matching structure on the right which has no purpose but to help maintain symmetry.
We spent some of the day visiting another fort, but no one could get over the Taj Mahal, and we returned to see it again at sunset. This time the marble shimmered with a more gold color and was just as dazzling as it had been in the morning. I can’t wait to post some pictures so stay tuned.
That evening we took another late-night train back to Delhi. The trains were pretty dirty, the seats were ripped up, and it smelled terrible, and that was the 1st class train! I could not even imagine what the second class trained looked like. Speaking of which, there are 2 separate bus lines in India: one that is air conditioned which costs more and one that is not. There are symbols of the caste system everywhere, and visiting the country only confirmed by belief that the system needs to be abolished for the country to make any serious progress in the world.
Another aspect of the Indian culture that we found interesting was the idea of arranged marriages. Our rickshaw driver was talking about how his mother and the mother of a girl had met and decided to marry their children, a matter in which the children have virtually no choice. Our driver and his wife met 6 months before they were married, and he now has a 3 month old child. He says she doesn’t clean and his mom is a much better cook than his wife … tell me something I don’t know buddy!
We spent that last 2 days back in Chennai picking up a few Christmas gifts, and once again I had no luck with the Patrick and Dad, none whatsoever. The girls are easy; there is stuff everywhere that just jumps out at me, but I haven’t found a single thing for Dad or Patrick. The girls are done now though so hopefully I’ll have better luck in ‘Nam, China, and Japan.
The last thing I wanted to tell everyone about are the theaters. On the last night in Chennai, Stacy and I grabbed an early dinner (nothing special: Chicken Steaks at a hotel restaurant) and ran to the theater to catch a 7:30. The tickets were $3, popcorn was a $1 and so was the soda. 2 tickets to Despicable Me please They had some Bollywood films (movies from Bombay) but they were in Hindu, and a few American movies like Wall Street 2 and Eat, Pray, Love, but of course Stacy wants to see the one cartoon movie they’re offering! We sat down in these leather recliners and it was the most comfortable theater I’ve ever been in. We were comfortably sitting when halfway through the previews an Indian gentleman approached, “ummm I think you guys are in my seats…” Me: “oh ummm I’m sorry. We’ll move.” Yeah right! Assigned seats!?!? Thank God the movie was in English too. So the movie gets going and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has not already seen it. All of the sudden – click, black screen, lights come up. Thinking the projector has cut out the both of us moan a little bit. We look around and one girl has grabbed her backpack and stepping down the steps. I figured she had decided it wasn’t worth it to wait. Then a bunch of people get up and start heading down the stairs. It was a 10 minute intermission! People were going to the bathroom, going to refill their sodas/popcorns, or whatever. The final crazy aspect to an Indian movie theater: do not expect to watch the movie in quiet! Phones were ringing the entire time AND the gentleman next to Stacy didn’t have a care in the world when he decided to answer it and carry on a 10 minute conversation with his friend while his wife and 8 year-old boy continued to watch.
All in all, Indian culture is very different from our own and actually very different from any in existence today. Our professor informed us that it is one of the most ‘primary’ cultures in the world in that for thousands of years that have been quite successful keeping outside culture out and retaining their own native traditions for these many, many years.
I hope this has been a suitable snap-shot for everyone. There are a million things I could write about, but you’re probably bored already so the rest will have to wait for face-to-face storytelling.
I hope all is well back in Minnesota and the winds die down. Stay warm.