Tamil Nadu

This Travel Thing is Hard But Good: Day 54

Karate kids

The chaos has fully set in. Lauryn Hill and her soulful ballads mark my release from a hectic two days of studying, exams, and all that shipboard hooplah. It really is a shame that we spend such a ghastly sum of money for an incredible school experience, and the most distracting element of the trip is the school part.

It has been nearly a month since the hazy view of Chennai rose from the horizon, and just as the stale smell dissipated from the ship, so did India's potential for immediate digestion into my cultural bell. The speed in which I had to work, rest, and prepare for the next new experience caused me to sweep its colorful memory under the rug, and because of this fatal gesture, my mind has slipped into the Semester at Sea shock state (also known as SASS).

Days at sea lack their former luster, new countries leave me confused, and beads of sweat explode out of my pores at the mere mention of a paper due date. I firmly stand on the opinion that this voyage of discovery cannot be experienced with open eyes unless one gets the opportunity to chew on every memory, every instance of fun and hardship, every incredible sight.

I have yet to review the hundreds of pictures I took aimlessly from Malaysia or Vietnam, and it only occurred to me, while wandering through a cave in Ha Long Bay, that I should stop clicking and start looking. It is a true tragedy when someone receives such an opportunity [to travel and encounter millions of different people, most who would never get this chance] and does not realize its potential to shock the eyes, shatter past views, and construct new truths that open the eyes even wider.

Nice glasses at the temple

Nice glasses at the temple

As if the first day of my homestay didn't evoke intense emotions concerning the lives of these people and my own in comparison, the trip consisted of an entirely new itinerary to challenge and amaze us.

The morning was fresh and dripping with tea and street noise, and no amount of sleep deprivation could keep four American girls from waving at pedestrians and recalling Disney musical favorites on the bumpy drive. A temple complex appeared at the merging of three rivers, and I surrendered the idea that I could capture every unbelievable sight that walked in front of my lens. Instead, I settled with four or five certain portfolio entries as every corner offered me an incredible view into the lives of the colorful Hindis. I mimicked every motion of our guide in her veneration for the idols; however, I conveniently slid out of the way when elephant blessings provided a nice snot slick to all who offered their heads.

Now that we had tackled Hinduism, the textile industry needed to be covered if we were going to command India by midnight. Speedy, smiley weavers with impeccable skill magnetized us to the cashier with rugs, throws, and placemats in hand, but not until I spent the majority of the time watching rows of thin cotton accumulate on ancient looms. The street life whirled around us as we piled into the motor coaches with our wrapped winnings in tow, but we spun the dust upward to squeeze in another school before lunchtime.

After months of constant smiles, I experienced a surge of sensations that led to confusion and, eventually, tears when the next visit included a student body struggling with the crippling effects of polio. Our welcome came in the most traditional manner, and once adorned with the appropriate jasmine garnishes, the children began to impress us with their dedication to prayer, their grace in traditional dances, and discipline in the art of karate. My state of confusion arose after the first recitations resonated throughout the room, and I observed the tightly squeezed eyes and unwavering voices of one hundred souls. I encountered the same situation the day before, but the presence of physical disabilities led me to see them in a new light. This enraged me.

Karate kids

Karate kids

I couldn't understand why I felt sad for children who seemed more excited and happy than others and tried to view them with the same eyes. Regardless of my mindset, these children were incredible and vivacious, and after we exhibited our high caliber skills with the hokey pokey, the school's lead dancer took interest in me from my stellar performance. I wish I could have retained all the Tamil they taught me.

After lunch and a table top nap at our last school, we witnessed yet another beautiful dance number, and at its conclusion, all the Western ladies approached the stage for a shot at traditional Hindi dance. Every sight I could ever hope to witness was a part of our eventful two day itinerary, and I left exhausted, dirty, and content on a night train back to Chennai.

As we floated away from the jellyfish infested waters of the harbor, my wallet was lighter, my new goods littered my bed, and my mind felt forever altered by this country I will probably never see again.

How would you have reacted at that school? Tell me your impressions of India in a comment below!

Leaving the Dirt Behind: Day 52

India in our wake

India in our wake

Of all the times I have celebrated the grand holiday of April Fool's, never have I been in such a vulnerable location, where the Captain and his crew have incredible potential for scaring the living daylights out of us. Doctor Matt claimed to quarantine two students for leprosy, Dean Ron (the voice) mentioned a nearby cyclone, and I have a feeling the sly Captain Jeremy will cut all power to the ship suddenly without explanation, just for giggles. He draws on his eyebrows; he's capable of any slimy deed. It's all fun and games until someone contracts the plague, falls overboard, and dies in a tropical storm. The hallways are continuously regaining their fresh smell after the stench of Chennai and its rancid waters. Every student has a designated pile of "India clothing" in their rooms that they dare not mix with regular dirty laundry. True, the big city pollution left a permanent memory in all our noses, but as India disappeared in our wake, it was not our olfactory abuse that dominated conversations but the diverse array of wild experiences and wonderful people that we met in those five short days.

Alexis and I brought some much needed excitement to the anti-climactic harbor sunrise of Chennai by wearing turbans and striking Yoga poses on the top deck. The Indian bureaucracy and their ridiculous immigration rules gave us many good hours of sleep before we could clear the ship, which was immediately followed by some rickshaw fun.

It would have been helpful to know a little Tamil, because when we said "street market," I guess we actually said "the most expensive market in Chennai." Five costly shops later, we realized our driver received commission for dropping us off at these Nordstrom-esque locations. Anger slowly began to devour our little group, but arriving at a tasty Indian restaurant quickly made us forgiving people again. It was at our first lunch that we noticed the head bobble, the Indian way of saying yes, O.K., it's all good, whatever you want, etc.

Can you spot the American?

Can you spot the American?

More shopping lead to extreme exhaustion, which we decided to medicate with a nighttime visit to a chic coffee bar called Mocha. It is here that I will warn you of an ancient Indian proverb: I wear capri pants; therefore, I contract malaria. My leg was a succulent network of bloody tributaries to those silent killers.

The next day, two Lindsays, a Meg, and a Sarah were graced with the company of a well-mannered, good-hearted rickshaw driver, who became our practical guide to the city and told us to pay only if we were truly satisfied. That night, after buying out the textile industry, we popped sleeping pills and rode the night train to Erode.

Up until this port, any countryside we have seen could have resembled an American landscape, but India's farmland was nothing like the corn-filled plains of Northern Indiana. Our home stay was in an upper-middle class house juxtaposed with a school that resonated with praying children. Welcome leis and bindis gave us our first cultural bite, but it wasn't until we found ourselves in a line of chairs facing a sea of young faces that we felt a wave of difference between our two lifestyles.

Praying school child

Praying school child

They proceeded to pray for the prosperity of the world and meditate as a school, while the foreign onlookers discreetly took pictures. The children were respectful in every sense of the word, and it was refreshing, a treatment we didn't deserve. Later, when the teachers left them to their own devices, mayhem restored in their little bodies, and dust was flying up from their pattering feet.

We saw weavers, sugar cane farmers, and carpenters, all before the lunch hour, where the tables were sprinkled with a vast array of savory foods and no silverware. It was an odd experience to which we quickly grew accustomed.

After a mid-day siesta, our group departed for the local markets, and never have I felt more like a celebrity, or an outcast, as I did in the fruit market, where eyes constantly followed our every move as though we were a new species or life form. Apparently, white people don't hit up the rural Indian food markets often. I found no interest in shopping for discount sarees when I could sit on the street corner and watch this exotic world go by, where bulls lead carts of grains down the street and half the shoppers lacked foot apparel.

Dinner at the home of our hostess exceeded expectations yet again; however, it was the Hindi lesson and henna/Western gift exchange later in the evening that satisfied our cultural cravings. One day in the little city of Gobi felt like many, and we could have left on the train that morning with ear-to-ear smiles, but a whole new day still awaited.

To Be Continued...

Any questions about traveling through Chennai and rural India? Comment below!

Thinking of Indy in India: Day 50

Colors of India

Colors of India

My transformation began with the first step off the gangway. The equatorial sun toughened my already sun-kissed skin, pollution darkened my nostrils, mosquitoes feasted on my leg, and the stench of the city penetrated deep into the fibers of my clothing. Any Westerner would experience this discomfort with a visit to Chennai, but this is not the transformation I am talking about Now I sit under a canopy with yellow spices under my fingernails, jasmine in my hair, red and yellow pigment on my forehead, seasoned air in my lungs, dirt covering my bare feet, and the sound of a thousand school children resonating in my ears. These sensations are by choice and this decorative lifestyle I once found tacky is gaining my appeal.

I shot one hundred and fifty photographs, and the best ones were those that the school children took when I let them push the shutter. Vivacious curiosity captured even through the numbing effect of the flash. This moment is beyond storybook…it's time travel. Instead of bringing popular inventions and artistic prints like Marco Polo, I can only offer my worldly stories and a deck of IU playing cards. A coconut just crashed to the hard dirt ground, splashing its milk onto nearby flowers…THAT moment was storybook.

Smiles from old man gardener make me comfortable, but his eventual hover over my writing does not…ok, he just left.

I'll never be further away from home as I am now (unless I follow Sally Ride's footsteps into space), and it just shows that physical proximity has nothing to do with proximity in the mind. Home is a constant thought, here, in the land of colorful gods and caste systems. I can only imagine that when I return, India will come back to me in vivid memories

How will I change when I go back to my SUV, my air-conditioned dream home, my wasteful lifestyle? Will I be a snob with a knowing smirk and exclusive adventures that no one wants to hear? Will I drop every modern convenience and result to an ascetic life?

Never mind my literary fluff because I know what will result from these priceless journeys…a mind that give me confidence to test and question. The old gardener just asked if I ate lunch with my hands…yes…and it was good. Earlier today, I followed a band of drummers, adorning a welcome lei and a bindi, and with the turn of a corner, one thousand girls and boys came into view, sitting "Indian style" facing 10 empty chairs. Ten Americans stood in disbelief before taking a seat of honor. I could imagine multiple SAS people who would laugh at the situation or find it ridiculous, but as these children sat meditating and praying in unison for the prosperity of the world, I found great pleasure being in their company and not the shipboard community.

These children are many and fill this country with humor as vibrant as their sarees. It could be wonderful to fill your days with smells of wet soil or the sweeter sound of classroom recitations in unison, like the old gardener (who just offered me a handful of freshly picked berries). I can always have that option later in life, but for now I will search for this feeling deep in the bowels of overstuffed and under-cultured Indy, where at least I can enjoy my own family instead of the idea of others. I'll take it as a sign that I just ate the last offering of flowers from the gardener.

Just putting my thoughts into words...what do you think? Do you ever have similar musings?