Friday, December 18, 2009

Chennai, India

During all of our preport briefings, I don't think I heard a single positive portrayal of India. Everyone made it out to be stressful, crazy, dirty, and unpleasant. And it was all of those things, but it was also full of really cool culture.

Our port was Chennai, formerly known as Madras, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in India (well behind Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta), in the state of Tamil Nadu. Southern India is evidently more culturally conservative than northern India. The people in the region speak Tamil (not Hindi) and do pretty well with English; it's mandatory in school, but evidently that curriculum is primarily focused on written English instead of spoken.

Chennai is hot. It's a humid, sweating heat, too, not the pleasant exotic dry heat of Morocco or Ghana.

The streets are lined with trash, covered in dust, and full of cars, bikes, and auto-rickshaws. The rickshaws were our primary method of transportation when getting around Chennai on our own. They're rectangular, three-wheeled, driven with handlebars instead of a steering wheel, and with an underpowered, puttering engine. The drivers are famous for ripping off tourists and locals alike. They'd ask for ridiculous fares (though still pretty cheap compared to American taxi rates), and they had a whole repertoire of tricks to get their way. They'd try to get you sitting in their taxi before agreeing on a fare (giving them the upper hand), or they'd stop at a gas station and ask you to pay for it, or they'd pull over on the side of the highway and try to convince you to go to a shop of their friend's, or you'd ask for 50 rupees and they'd nod and say "OK, OK, two hundred" as if they were agreeing. It was something of a fun game to try to get around for a good price.

Day 1:

Colin and I were both signed up for two trips: the city tour and a "welcome reception" with students from local universities. But we had a few hours to kill before those started, so we decided to walk out of the port (about a 15 minute walk, with rickshaws hassling you the whole way) and see what was to be seen. The port gate was manned by some guards with huge automatic rifles who demanded to see our shore passes every time we went through. Once outside we stopped at an ATM and walked with a big group of S@S students who were looking for a nearby market. We got our first taste of Chennai traffic and child beggars. The group got lost, and after they decided to get rickshaws into the deep city, Colin and I paid a dollar to get rushed back to the port in full retreat.

Our rickshaw driver was a guy name Rama. Before we went back, he pulled out a big pile of letters, pictures, and printed emails; they were all testimonials from previous years of Semester at Sea students about how awesome and friendly he was. I was a bit incredulous, but he had an awful lot of documentation, and he *was* very friendly and inexpensive, so maybe it was legit.

The city tour was somewhat interesting (we stopped at two old churches and a large Hindu temple), but it turned into a partial shopping trip as well. Our bus stopped at two higher-end stores selling handicrafts, jewelry, saris, and other clothes. We could watch them making the products as well. This was the real, quality shopping, but I was more interested in the cheap stuff to be found later on, so I mostly abstained.

I got a bit sick to my stomach while walking around one of the church gardens. I needed to find a bathroom, but our guide just asked me to wait until the next stop. So I walked around in obvious discomfort until a helpful lady who didn't speak any English pulled out a key and opened up a hidden door to the secret holy bathroom in the back of the garden. I was extraordinarily grateful, and I was lucky that I had been warned previously to bring my own toilet paper. Also, I carried along a pack of Pepto-Bismol for the rest of the port. It seemed unfair that the only food that got me sick in Chennai was the stuff served for lunch on the ship that first day.

The welcome reception later that night was a lot of fun. We entered past some musicians and all got a bit of sandalwood paste on our foreheads; I discovered in the mirror later that night that mine had been placed off-center, so I had been looking silly all evening. After walking in, I was quickly paired with a young guy named Arun. He was a friend of the organizer of the event, and not a student. In fact, he was working as a Technical Support Engineer and a trainer of others. Essentially, he worked in a call center doing technical support for users of RealNetwork's Rhapsody music player.

Arun asked me what my plans were. After I told him that I had nothing scheduled for the next evening (about three minutes into the conversation), he offered to show me around. I accepted, of course. After about an hour, Arun had to leave to go to work, since it was the start of business hours in the good ol' USA. Apparently he only sleeps in the late mornings and early afternoons.

They served a lot of food that I had never seen before (rice cakes, two sauces for the cakes, "indian doughnut", cashew-based snacks, and a dough ball drenched in a sweet syrup for dessert). I tried everything, and some of it wasn't bad. There were a few Indian girls painting henna on people's hands in the corner. Nobody told me that this was something primarily for girls (mostly as a pre-marriage thing). I got a small design on my wrist, where I could cover it with my watch in case I didn't like it, but it turned out pretty well.

About half of the reception was spent watching a Bharatanatyam dance. Bharatanatyam is a style originating in Tamil Nadu involving highly scripted dances by heavily decorated women. It's a narrative dance, telling stories from Hindu texts as live musicians play and sing the stories in song. They showed some of the basics of how it worked and the basic movements and then performed a few stories. It was pretty mesmerizing once they got into it.

Once I got back to the ship, I blew my nose and got black dirt. That remains the most disconcerting experience of my S@S experience. The air quality is something less than fantastic.

Day 2:

A longtime friend of Semester at Sea in Chennai organized a "100th Voyage Celebration", and S@S encouraged all the students to go on this free trip, so that's how I spent my morning. They served us tea and biscuits (both surprisingly good) and then put us into an auditorium of Ethiraj Women's College along with a bunch of students.

The event was divided into two parts. The first half was a bunch of dance exhibitions for our benefit. These ranged from highly traditional to modern pop. The performers were students of the college or a nearby public primary school. There was also a performance by a four-woman a capella group, who sang a medley of Tamil songs as well as Billie Jean. That was interesting.

Then, in a total surprise move, the MC invited us American students to do a performance for them. We spent about a minute looking amongst ourselves in confusion. Luckily, we had Terrence with us. Terrence Smith is the most likeable showboat you've ever met, and a damn good dancer. He's a mini-celebrity on the ship. He plugged his iPod into the sound system, played a repetitive dance tune, marched up on stage alone and started doing the cha-cha slide with way too much exuberance. It worked splendidly, and soon a bunch of other students (American and Indian) ran up and joined in. A smashing success.

The second part of the event was a series of speeches by dignitaries, including a Member of Parliament and the Mayor of Chennai. It was a seminar on Youth Leadership and Education Through Travel. Nobody listened to the speeches, not even the other dignitaries (they talked amongst themselves).

I went back to the ship and killed time until Colin arrived and it was time for us to meet up with Arun. We met at the port gate to find that Arun had brought along two friends (I never understood their names), one of whom brought the car. They were all very friendly. Arun had taken leave off work to hang out with us, which was truly gracious. They took us to a beach first; it was incredibly wide and I think I heard that it was the second-largest beach in the world. Apparently, it was hit incredibly hard by the 2004 tsunami and hundreds of bodies were buried under the beach. That didn't stop a ton of people from spending their evening there.

Our next stop was City Centre, the biggest and most modern shopping complex in Chennai and a favorite hangout of Arun & Friends. Traffic and parking were a problem, but luckily the friend who was driving the car was the son of a soon-to-be Member of Parliament, so traffic laws were not a concern and the supposedly full car park magically opened up for us after a short conversation with the gate guard.

Once inside, we stopped at Landmark, an everything store, and bought some Indian music. Later, Arun and friends bought Colin and I each a hot dog laden with weird sauces, a weird fusion of American and Indian cuisine. Arun himself (a vegetarian) bought a small cup of corn masala, which was spicy and the most delicious thing I had eaten in weeks. I think I've become a fan of anything masala, actually. Then they took us to a little cafe that they liked to frequent and bought us several more Indian dishes that I can't recall the names of. They were all vegetarian dishes and all surprisingly good, though not the sort of thing I'd go out of my way to get.

That was it for the evening's activities; Chennai goes to sleep at 11PM. Arun told me to go to Amsterdam if I wanted a party (although he claimed to enjoy the occasional "long conversation with Jack Daniels"). We talked a lot in the car, which was probably my favorite part of the evening. We asked for crazy stories from his work; he told us that a guy called in earlier that day with a routine question and the interesting supplementary detail that he had a brain tumor and two months left to live and lived only for music. Arun gave the guy $10 of credit for more songs.

Colin had two interesting exchanges with the group. At one point, he was carrying his empty cup of soda, waiting to find a place to throw it out before Arun grabbed it out of his hand and tossed it onto the street, commenting "Welcome to India, buddy!" Later, Arun's son-of-MP friend asked Colin what he thought of the Indian ladies:
Colin: Very pretty, actually. Why? What do you think of the girls here?
Arun's friend: Cute. Sexy.
Colin: Ah. And what do the girls think of you guys?
Arun: They think we're ATMs.

At the end of the evening, they refused to let us pay them back for the food or gas. I can't help but be grateful for their hospitality.

Day 3:

Dartmouth's own Marissa, good friend and S@S alumnus, had met a guy named Krishnan during her voyage last year. I was put into contact with him and was eventually invited to be taken to see Mammallapuram (a town outside Chennai that's full of history) with some other S@S students. So I caught a taxi in the morning to meet with the group outside a small nearby stadium.

It turned out that Krishnan was actually *Mr.* Krishnan, a pleasant man with a loud combover, who hosted S@S students for the homestay trips. This day, he was leading all of the homestay students on their trip, so I essentially got a free day trip with a bunch of S@S friends, complete with breakfast, lunch, and a comfortable bus with soft, reclining seats.

We visited a series of monuments and temples. They were interesting, but not very. I was more enjoying the conversations with Krishnan's daughter about the education system in India; she's now working unhappily as a programmer, but she's happy that it pays the bills. At the end of the day, I got a rickshaw back to the ship. Krishnan was extremely apologetic that he hadn't been able to spend more time with me personally, even though he had been checking up on me all day to make sure that I was happy and comfortable. An incredibly nice guy.

Day 4:

The day was dominated by a Rural India trip. We visited two villages. In the first, we briefly walked around and saw the sights: the village well (with people bathing and cleaning clothes), cows, chickens, a monkey, a temple, and several stalls selling food and cheap colorful plastic toys.

At the second village we got to go inside two homes. In the back of one, a group of guys were cooking lunch for 200 people (in a village of about 1500). We were driven around in some carts pulled by oxen. The first stop was a rice field a short distance away. After showing us how to plant rice, we were invited to try it out ourselves, so I rolled up my jeans, stepped into the shin-high mud, and started sowing. It was a classic Semester at Sea experience. Also, it means that I'm at risk for schistosomiasis, a fun little parasitic disease (easily treatable) with some unique symptoms (see The second stop was a field of coconut trees, where a guy showed us how to climb a tree and let a few S@S kids try to climb as well (to the horror and anxiety of our faculty trip leader).

On the way home we stopped at a "crocodile bank" and snake park. Essentially it was a zoo for crocs, with a few snakes in cages off to the sides. The crocs were separated by species. Some enclosures were filled to the brim with crocodiles, all of them pressed together and climbing over each other to get in and out of the water. I'm pretty sure they're not that cuddly in the wild. PETA would have a fit. The guides threw a few pieces of meat into the enclosures so that we could watch them feed. The pride of the park was Jaws III, a 16-foot saltwater crocodile. 16 feet is biiiiiig.

The last stop of the trip was the Dakshina Chitra, an "architectural heritage museum". Essentially, they transplanted about twenty houses that are representative of historical South India into a small area and filled them with exhibits. It's a bit like Colonial Williamsburg. They also had some of the ubiquitous handicraft stalls and gave us ample time to shop.

After returning to the ship, Colin, myself, and a friend named Brad took a rickshaw to City Centre again with the hopes of catching a Tamil movie (Chennai's film industry, called Kollywood, is one of the largest). Unfortunately, all shows were sold out. So we got food at the Arabian Hut Charcoal Grill, I bought my own cup of corn masala, we stopped at Landmark and bought some PC games for cheap, and we picked up some food from a grocery store for the ship.

Day 5:

I had two short trips on our last day in port. The first was entitled Socioeconomic Problems in Chennai. We went to the headquarters of MCDS, an Indian Christian charity that operated several programs in the nearby slums, including a mobile hospital and programs for women and mentally handicapped children. We got to speak for a while to the founder of the Chennai chapter of the group and he explained what the charity did. Someone asked him if they did any evangelizing; he said that they chose not to, since they would rather direct their efforts towards making "good Muslims and good Hindus rather than bad Christians". He said that since we were American, he knew that we were all Christian, but that religion was not an end focus of their work.

We then visited three of their programs-in-action. The first was a microfinance program for women. The women were put into "self-help groups", each of which could pool their resources and get a small low-interest bank loan. After this was paid back, they were eligible for a larger loan that enabled many of them to open businesses like sari shops and beauty salons. Evidently, some women were now making more than their husbands. The local economy has improved with the program, and along with this improvement came a liquor shop, which the women (when prompted) identified as the biggest social problem they were facing.

We then walked through a slum market (full of women shredding fish on iron saws and lots and lots of flies enjoying the mess) to a small center for mentally handicapped children. Actually, it was for children who were mentally challenged *and* had other disabilities as well. Some of them weren't really children, either. Not physically, anyway, but that's not how MCDS classified them. One of the girls there had won a medal at the Special Olympics, of which she was incredibly proud. The center's goals were to teach them all basic life skills (dressing, eating, etc) and some basic occupational skills. They do what they can to provide some stable future for the children there; we were told that the old alternative was to be hidden away inside by the family.

The last stop was a "transit school" for children who had failed or dropped out of school and were found doing illegal child labor. The idea was that they would attend the transit school (funded by the Tamil Nadu government) for a year and then re-enter public school at their age-appropriate grade. Getting kids who had been used to making money every day to go to school regularly is apparently a difficult task.

I arrived back in time to be the first on the bus for my next trip, Visit to a Cross-Cultural Enterprise. It was run for the students of a business class, but it sounded like a visit to a call center, and I wanted to see it. The professor saw me and politely explained that he had requested his students to come in slacks and collared shirts, and that I might be the only one in jeans and T-shirt, and that I might be more comfortable changing clothes. So I ran to my room, found that I had not, in fact, packed slacks, and ended up in the absurd combination of baggy, frayed, rice-paddy-stained jeans and a white dress shirt. When I got back, the professor had a wry smile and told me "You're not the only one." I got on the bus and found that almost everyone was in jeans or shorts and T-shirts. Grr.

Our destination was Perot Systems, founded by Ross himself. It now makes several billion dollars a year, has several thousand associates (the plurality located in their Chennai headquarters), and works with several American companies (mostly in health care). They do some software development and some "business process solutions" involving taking customer calls and working them through the health care system. We got a long, slick presentation by some impressively smooth-talking professionals in a comfortable boardroom with free Diet Coke. A bit of a change from the morning's activities. They told us about their hiring and training processes (apparently they get 50 applications for every position, and they weed people out based primarily on English fluency and computer proficiency).

The coolest part of the afternoon was seeing the pronunciation training. They were practicing their short 'i' sounds ("This is in the gym"). We didn't get a chance to see the call center in action since the time zones don't work out. They also served us an exquisite lunch before we had to run off to catch the ship before it left.

Next stop is Vietnam, where I'll be spending most of my time on a three-day trip to Ha Noi and Mai Chau Village. More updates then.

No comments:

Post a Comment