Contrary India


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Asia » India
November 11th 2018
Published: December 7th 2018
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This has been our first full day in south India. Sri Lanka, even in Colombo with its terrible traffic, is not as loud, not as crowded, not as full of garbage as it is here in Chennai. This city used to be called Madras, a name the British originally bestowed on this bustling city, but years ago starting in 1947 when India achieved its independence, the country began changing the British names for their cities to Tamil. Thus Bombay became Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata, Benares became Varanasi, Tanjore became Thanjavur, and Madras became Chennai. Many other cities changed their names too, but these are some of the most well known. This morning a new friend and I walked a bit through Chennai's crowded streets, but it was hard to talk with all the horns beeping, plus carefully avoiding traffic barrelling at us as well as watching where we were stepping over cracked and broken sidewalks, if there were even any at all. It turned out to be a very short, not very pleasant walk.

Our group ate lunch at the Writer's Cafe, advertised as the oldest bookstore in all of India. Food is prepared by burn victims employed by the restaurant to help these unfortunates get back on their financial feet. The burn victims don't serve meals as most prefer to be away from the public eye, but I saw one young woman whose face had been badly burned helping at the checkout register while I was buying a book. It is a difficult balancing act weighing not staring at someone with its opposite of not looking at her at all, which, I think, would probably be the worse choice, seemingly pretending she wasn't even there. We walk a difficult tightrope in trying to be compassionate and kind.

But another story arose from that encounter, when I tried to buy that book from the shop. Four and a half years ago I travelled to Rajasthan, my first trip to India. Somehow I ended up leaving the country with quite a lot of Indian rupees. I didn't trade them in because since I had gotten a ten-year visa I knew I would return. So for this trip I brought my saved rupees, happily thinking I wouldn't need to exchange more money for this part of the trip. The book I bought today cost 175 rupees, so only having one 100 rupee bill, I gave the girls a 500 rupee note. They looked at it carefully, turning it over and over, finally calling a supervisor over. Our young program director, Pon Dennis, also came over, and both he and the supervisor told me my 500 rupee bill was worthless. Two years ago, in 2016, the government had made new 500 and 1000 bills and discontinued the old notes. Obviously I had not been aware of this, not being in the country at that time. Dennis lent me 200 rupees to buy my book, but all I could think of was how many other old 500 rupee bills I had back in my room's safe. When I got back to the hotel I checked all my rupees; there were four 100s which were still acceptable, equalling less than about six dollars, but eighteen old 500 rupee bills were in my possession, all worthless now. At today's rate that meant I lost approximately $126, in one fell swoop. Plus, since I now had basically no money, I needed to use an ATM machine, something that always makes me nervous as I fear my card will be eaten by the machine. So two years ago I gave a rather expensive gift, totally unknowingly, to Mother India. This was neither a pleasant surprise nor intended.

But from that low point the day improved tremendously. Heading off to Marina Beach, the longest natural urban beach in the country (as well as one filled with litter and garbage), we were invited in to see one woman's apartment in the complexes built after the 2004 tsunami; we also met her mother plus a neighbor who was curious to see us strange white people, and got a glimpse of local life in a desperately poor and damaged corner of the world. And yet the people were happy to have shelter from the rain, and a place to live. Then we walked the beach. No one chose to go barefoot as the lovely, silky sand was full of litter and broken glass shards, but we met young boys playing cricket, an under age 19 football (soccer) team, families who came to play together, and tons of people out to enjoy their Sunday evening. Unlike Americans and Europeans, Indians do not go to the ocean to swim. Their pleasure comes from being on the beach, playing and eating with family and friends. No one was in the water swimming, although I saw two young women in their colorful saris wading up to their knees in the waves. Police on horseback monitor activities on the beach; there are temporary amusement rides set up for young children, and venders sell corn cooked over a charcoal brazier. Dennis bought some ears for us to taste; flavored with chili, salt, and lime the fresh corn was surprisingly delicious!

As night came on the new moon was rising in the sky, the temperature was perfect, the mood of the group benign. People were everywhere, enjoying a lovely evening at the beach, but it didn't feel crowded or rushed or anything other than comfortable and happy. This is India at its worst and its best. As always, I feel lucky to be here, to witness and experience this ancient culture, amidst the poverty and litter, and beauty as well.

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