June 29, 2014: Welcome to India
Whoever says that India is a diferent ball game is completely right. Dealing with constant crowds, unreasonable bureacracy, and the unbelievable poverty is certainly overwhelming. However, the people here are wonderful and the madness makes every task, no matter how small, an adventure.
I flew into Chennai, the “Captial of the South” in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is a city of about 9 million people. The plane flight was actually a great representation of my India experience so far. I sat next to a very nice man with the worst breath in the world. We started talking about India and he eventually invited me to stay with his family for a few days. He gave me his phone number and told me to call him every day. As the beverage cart came around, he asked for 3 beers and downed them in about 10 minutes. He then passed out for the rest of the flight and couldn’t be woken up. The flight attendant and I tried to shake him to put his seat in the upright position, but he couldn’t be roused- too drunk. When the plane landed, his head thrashed forward and hit the seat in front with a huge thud. Still he didn’t wake up (I eventually held him in place, but he probably will have some sort of head trauma). After landing, I had to fill out the landing card and then after claiming my bags, they asked me to fill out the customs form. It certainly would have been easier if they handed out the forms on the plane like in every other country.
Since it was almost midnight, I went to the prepaid taxi booth who put me in contact with a driver who I then had to negotiate with (so much for prepaid). A lot of shady stuff happened but I ended up getting the taxi ride to my hotel. I had to pay an arm and a leg ($15) for the taxi ride that should have cost the advertized prepaid price of $6. The guy refused to bargain with me and the taxi dispatcher wouldn’t call another cab. Right before we left, another man jumped in the cab with me and started talking to the driver. He went along for the ride and helped direct the taxi driver to the hotel. After arriving, the other man asked for a tip, which I refused. I’m going to try my best to avoid taxi cabs at all costs here.
After checking into the hotel, I once again got scammed. After pre-paying for an air-conditioned room, the room I was given only had a fan. Luckily from this experience I learned that I can tolerate non-AC rooms, which is going to save me a lot of money in the future. But so far I’m 0/2.
June 30, 2014: Around Chennai
The next morning, I first called the US consulate to register my trip before heading out to see the town. The suburban railway station was only a 5-minute walk. The station was only mildly busy at 10:30 AM but when the train arrived, it was overflowing with people. Men were hanging onto the side of the train. The only reaction I could conjure was “Fuuuuuuuuuuck”.
I would have this same reaction about a dozen more times today. The funny thing was that the train was not actually THAT crowded inside. There were empty spaces- people must really like fresh air.
I went to the Chennai Beach station and walked around George Town, which is predominately Muslim. There, people were selling mostly women’s fabrics. While the main streets were decently paved, the back streets/alleys were full of potholes, random dirt spots, giant puddles full of rancid water, and trash. All the Indian men in their sandals walked through this diseased ground and probably picked up horrible water-bourne diseases and worms. “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck”.
Every sidewalk was a makeshift market where dozens of men and women would sell rotting fruit or useless goods such as coloring books. Nothing they were selling had any use to anybody and with all the competition, they certainly weren’t going to sell very much at all. These people weren’t beggars but they might as well have been..
I got lunch in the George Town neighborhood at a local chain restaurant called Hotel Saravana Bhavan (all the restaurants are called hotels). It’s actually a Chennai-based chain with 2 branches in the San Francisco Bay Area. For just $3, I got an 18-course vegetarian meal! It was a feast. Since, I was most likely the first foreigner they’ve seen in a while, the entire restaurant/kitchen staff of 12 watched me eat. We made a little small talk, but they mainly just watched me in silence.
A lot of places are “anything goes” but India takes this to a new level. I saw thousands of homeless, people in outfits that ranged from the standard collared shirt/jeans to traditional dhotis to absolutely nothing. I walked through a public bus stop where about 20 men were pissing on the open ground as hundreds walked by. Nothing was “pointed away” and they were dangerously close to the old ladies selling the worthless goods. The whole city kind of smelled like urine, so this must be kind of a normal thing, especially given the huge homeless population. On my 5 minute walk to the train station, I would see between 5-10 people sleeping on the disgusting ground. There’s also a huge number of disabled people who will walk around asking for money. Many of these people are horribly disfigured- lot of blind people. One lady had a grapefruit sized tumor on her neck. Basically, anything could happen in India, for better or for worse.
I eventually walked over to Fort St. George, the historic British fort which was the first building in Madras (renamed Chennai in 1996). It since became the location of the State Capitol building of Tamil Nadu. Security was intense- at least 30 police officers guarded the entrance and I had to fill out (another) form to get into the fort grounds. The fort itself had an awesome museum describing the history of Chennai as well as the oldest church in India.
As I was leaving the fort, I tried to catch a rickshaw to the tourism office so I could plan out my next few days. However, the rickshaw driver told me he would give me a city tour for just 50 rupees (85 cents). The catch was that I had to go to a few shops at the end of the tour. Knowing that this was some sort of a scam, I took him up on the offer.
True to his word, he took me to 3 sites in Chennai: Marina Beach, the tomb of St. Thomas the apostle, and a church form 1519. Then he took me to 3 shops. For each shop he took me to, he received 100 rupees and he didn’t care if I bought anything. The shops all sold the same things: statues of Hindu gods, tshirts, and clothes at American prices. While I had no intention of buying, it was interesting to see all the items. After the shops, he took me to the train station.
Now I stood face to face with one of the busiest train stations in all of India. After a bit of wandering through the crowds and asking around, I discovered a place for foreign tourists to book train tickets and that some seats on sold out trains had space reserved for foreign tourists. How awesome! The officer was great and I booked a train ticket to Tirumala, the most visited religious site in the world for hopefully a meaningful spiritual journey. I had to fill out 3 long forms but overall the experience was fine. We then had tea. We talked about marriage and the preferred age to marry. She was shocked that both my parents were in their 30’s when they got married, although she did agree that men should be at least 25 to get married. She said that men under the age of 25 have their heads in the gutter. I told her that I was too restless to get married or have a girlfriend. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to go on this trip if I was in a committed relationship. The lady agreed and said it’s best not to tie oneself down with commitments unless absolutely necessary.
She then suggested I go to a place called Mambalam, so I went. It turned out to be a crazy shopping street full of multi-story clothing stores. The array of sari fabrics and flannel shirts was dizzying. So were the crowds- a few thousand people in one narrow alleyway. After an hour or so, I went back to the hotel for dinner and then bed. I saw a hell of a lot in my first 24 hours in India. Only 29 days to go.