Published: September 22nd 2011September 20th 2011
During my time in northern India other travellers told me that the north and south are so different. Really, every state in India is different. They all have their own language, their own governing bodies, their own ethnic culture. This makes travel within India, even for native Indians, particularly challenging (of course it's also what makes this diverse country so fascinating!) Can you imagine if all the states in the US used a different language?? And yes, overall the north and south are also very different. It can be likened to the various regions in the US, where there are certainly different cultures between the north, south, east and west. In India, the north is known to be "real India", which from my experience means more crowded and dirtier. I found the south to be greener and more modern. Yet while the south was different and less frenetic than the north, I still knew at every turn, without a doubt, that I was in India! The country has a unique distinction that can be felt in all states and regions, rural and urban. It's something in the smell in the air, the food, the music, the animals in the street, the
Couldn't resist the O-H-I-O
The locals were definately staring
intense crowds, the religion...you just KNOW you are in India.
I went to Chennai for the first week of the OSU College of Social Work study abroad session. The last two weeks were held in Bangalore. I arrived in Chennai late at night, and after a long drive through the city I arrived at the YWCA, located near the Egmore train station, which would be home for the next week. I admit it was really nice to set down my bag and not have to move for an entire week! Two other students also arrived a day early, so together we explored our new neighborhood. There were lots of standard sari shops, jewelery stores selling gold bangles, and food stalls dishing up curries and steaming chai tea. The buildings were taller and more modern, and while the honking and hollering-at-Westerners was still present, it felt a little less intense.
The social work group consisted of 11 students, 8 undergrad and 3 grad students. Our professor, fondly known as "Dr. B", is a native Indian and has led this trip for 7 years. She was a fantastic leader for this trip. The twinkle in her eye usually meant we were
in for an adventure...and that first adventure came in the form of a massage.
I am a big fan of massage. When I travelled through SE Asia last year I was ecstatic to find so many relaxing massages so cheap!! When you're sleeping on crappy homestay beds your back just melts on that massage table. So needless to say, when our study abroad itinerary listed "massage" on the first day, I was pumped! This is my kind of class schedule! It said "ayurvedic massage"...sounds so exotic!
For those of you who have never had a massage, the routine is mostly the same everywhere...walk into a nice, clean, warm, low-lit room with a cushioned table in the middle. The masseuse steps out of the room as you disrobe and crawl under the soft sheets. The masseuse returns, turns on some gentle music, and begin sublime relaxation. Sounds lovely, right?
Now I will describe my ayurvedic massage. I was led down a dim hallway into a room that can best be compared to a morgue. Dim, chilly, stark lighting...tiled walls and floor...a metal table in the corner...and a huge wooden table set in the middle, without any sort of padding or sheet,
looking more torture device than massage table. Two women came with me into the room, shut the door, and instructed me to disrobe. There was no privacy, no modesty. I was handed what can only be described as a thin paper thong loin cloth, and was then sat on a perilously tiny stool in just my new undergarment and a very perplexed look on my face. Hot oil was drizzled on my head and vigorously rubbed into my hair as I clasped the sides of the stool, terrified of tumbling over. Next I was led to the bed, this huge wooden monstrosity....where I laid down without any padding or cover. But I quickly realized why I was on a bare wooden bed. My entire body was drizzled with oil, as if I was a Thanksgiving turkey, and these two women engaged in a synchronized fury of motion that sent my slick body careening all over this giant wooden bed. Was all quite an experience!... Not exactly the relaxing massage I had in mind. The van ride back to the Y with the other students was peppered with looks of confusion, embarassment, and occasional bursts of "What the hell WAS that??!!"
Our days in Chennai were mostly spent at the Madras School of Social Work listening to lectures on a variety of topics including religion, astrology, the caste system, gays and transgender issues in India, and poverty. We also took a couple field trips, one to an addiction treatment center and another to a gypsy village. The gypsy village was particularly good, this is a community of people who live nomadically, moving whenever work and money dries up. A local organization has taken initiative to encourage the gypsies to make a more permanent residence. The organization has set up an area where the gypsy families can stay in small shacks. There is also a tiny schoolhouse for all the children. The shacks are very bare, dirt floors and tarps covering the roofs...but TV's illuminate the room, a gift from the government to each family in the Tamil Nadu state used to garner more votes. The men and women crouch in front of their shacks, some cooking, some putting together handicrafts, some sorting piles of junk and dirt. The gypsy children rushed at us as we stepped out of our van, they are seasoned beggars and recognized us a potential money
source right away. Per Dr. B's suggestion we came armed with candy, pencils, and small toys as opposed to money. The chocolate candy was the village favorite. The persistant begging never really subsided, but eventually the children and their parents stared less and interacted more. I followed a few kids into their schoolhouse, a one-room cement building without any chairs or tables, and they proudly yelled out their numbers, body parts, and a few letters. These small children, most covered in dirt and tattered clothing, were really a highlight of my time in Chennai.
During our time off we explored more of the city. One day we visited the beaches, Marina Beach and Elliots Beach are the most popular. They are huge but unfortunately very littered. There are horses for riding but their skinny frames were too frail to even consider. There were a few boys playing in the water, but the waves were rough and the water temperature was cold. Women do not wear bathing suits in India...Goa on the west coast is really the only bathing suit friendly area in India for women...so most people were just standing on the sand, fully clothed, looking at the water. There
Honoring the Hindu temples
They put bindis on our foreheads
are lots of food stands and some dilapidated playground equipment strewn along the beach. We also went to St. Thomas Cathedral where we saw Thomas the disciple's tomb. Of course there was some shopping, Spencer Plaza is a huge mall in the center of Chennai. The Hindu temples were another highlight, particularly one on the outskirts of Chennai in Kanchi that we visited at dusk. According to Dr. B it was a particularly auspicious time to visit the temple (Indians LOVE that word 'auspicious'...I heard it so often). There were lots of people there, and it was illuminated by candles and low lights. Men were playing flutes and drums in a rhythm that slowly crescendoed into a loud, pulsing, electrifying beat. I'm not sure what the rituals we witnessed were for, the Hindu religion is filled with what seems to be a never-ending array of gods and the rituals that are devoted to them...but it is very powerful to watch. The dim lighting and intense music really made for an awesome temple visit that evening! There are so many temples in India and visiting so many can become repetitive, but this visit really left an impression.
During our afternoon in
Kanchi we got the opportunity to visit a traditional rural home. Dr. B had arranged for a student tour guide from the area and he brought us to his parent's home. They live in a tiny one-room concrete house surrounded by their rice and vegetable fields. The house is new, built within the last decade. It is very basic with a concrete floor and no beds, only rugs to lay on the ground. They were a devout Hindu family and we witnessed his mom performing several rituals done as welcoming and blessings for our group. This included a colorful mosaic drawn in a chalk-like substance on the front landing of her house, and another one drawn on the threshold leading inside her house. We went to the side of their house where she served us traditional snacks under their fruit trees...including the most delcious fresh mango I have every eaten! The house was isolated from other homes, and far from any main villages. In fact, when our bus dropped us off he seemed to just stop in the middle of a dirt road. Our tour guide led us along a narrow dirt path, through a small patch of trees, where
on the other side we saw the house. This isolation offered a truly quiet and natural setting, a rarity in crowded India. It was a great experience to spend time with this family at their home.
At the end of our week in Chennai, we boarded the train to Bangalore. That first class train felt incredibly luxurious and indulgent compared to our train rides in the north on 2nd class! More on Bangalore to come...
There are more photos below