Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beach Blues

On Monday afternoon, I was on a quest for peace and quiet. As it was a holiday, I had no work and thought it would be nice to spend part of the day relaxing at the beach. It's been a long time since I've written in my journal and I've been looking forward to improving my penmanship, the old-fashioned way. I've been realizing that I very rarely explore around town on my own. Whenever I embark anywhere solo, it seems I always manage to meet up with someone along the way. So finally, I thought, a day to myself to just relax.
While I'm still unsure of many of the buses in Chennai, I'm familiar with the route to the beach- just hop on 5E outside of campus and it takes you almost the whole way there. Alongside the streets just opposite Besant Nagar beach are vendors selling everything from beaded jewelry to coconut. I know I'm near the sand when I reach the fish market. From early morning till mid-day, people sell fresh fish by the kilo. I've never stopped to get any myself- I'm only so brave.
As soon as I hit the beach I took my flip-flops off, but didn't last long this way, as the sand was too hot. Going to the beach in the hottest part of the day would normally be a bad idea except that I always find the breeze by the ocean to be cooling enough. No matter the time of day, there's always people on the beach. It wasn't too crowded, though, and I made my way past couples huddled together in the sand and little kids splashing in the waves. I found a place to sit about 20 meters away from the water and pulled out my lunch.
This was my first bad idea. -I had recently made my first trip to a small grocery store just outside of IIT's campus. I managed to buy some self-proclaimed wheat bread, although I believe this was false advertising. The bread looks and tastes similar to all the other versions of bleached white Wonder Bread that's available here. I've been making myself peanut butter sandwiches, though, with peanut butter that I brought from home...delicious, let me tell you! Raw, unsalted, unprocessed, STRAIGHT UP peanut butter, not any of that Skippy crap.- Anyhow, I've digressed.
So yes, I pull out my peanut butter sandwich and begin to eat, minding my own business. Not shortly thereafter, a beggar woman approaches me, her hand reaching out to me and then towards her mouth. This gesture indicates that she's hungry and wants food, although she'd probably be more happy to have my money. I tear off half my sandwich and give it to her. She walks away and I think to myself "maybe picnics aren't such a good idea here."
My first interruption I let slide. I didn't need the whole sandwich anyways, right? So next thing I do is pick up my journal and start writing. I flip through the pages, filling them all with thoughts that I've needed to vent to someone or something for awhile. After about three pages of writing, I look up to notice a group of young Indian guys staring at me. I look back down and the paper to keep writing. These guys don't need any signal from me that I'm interested in chatting with them, they will approach me regardless. They come up, sit right down next to me and ask to take my picture. I say, "okay fellas, just this once." They all crowd around and proceed to take four pictures of me, each with a different one's cell phone. They thank me and walk away. At this point I kind of smile to myself thinking it's interesting how wherever I go, I'm perceived a different way. In the states, my presence is insignificant, nothing special. I have no mohawk and no obscene tattoos (although my nose ring tends to attract attention). In other parts of the world, though, my status is elevated to that of a celebrity. It's as though I was promoted somewhere along the thousand mile plane ride to being worthy of attention.
I didn't last more than 40 minutes on the beach. I was interrupted five different times by groups of guys wanting to talk or take my picture. Perhaps my social cues weren't strong enough. I started out friendly- I tend to assume that people are well intentioned and genuinely curious when they spot an out of place foreigner. But after a few such groups approached me, I finally got up and left.
Going to the beach alone was a huge mistake. It's just not the culture here for women to do things like that, and when they do, it does not go unnoticed. While most of the people that approached me seemed perfectly friendly, my patience only lasted so long. I had left for the beach excited to spend the day by myself, observing all the activity at the beach and writing it down. I left feeling frustrated, though, that I can't go anywhere without being stared at or awkwardly approached.
India is teaching me new things everyday, and whether or not I like it, I'm often told "that's just the way it is."

Monday, January 26, 2009

Some who wander are, in fact, lost!

I must give credit to my friend Jens' creativity for this title. As the title suggests, I experienced such a feeling of being lost this weekend. With it being a three-day weekend (Happy Republic Day today, India!), some friends and I decided to make a trip down to Pondicherry. "Pondy" as it is commonly referred to, is a popular tourist destination located south of Chennai, and is famous for its French colonial legacy. Being a former French colony, it was settled in the 18th century as a colonial enclave. Today, much of the French culture can still be seen through architecture as well as the cuisine. Many people frequent Pondy to study yoga or meditation at one of the many ashrams. I've been meaning to check out the Pondy scene since I arrived in Chennai, so a 3-day weekend seemed like a great chance to do so.
Myself and four friends (two French, one Belgian, one Norwegian) hopped on board the public bus at 8 AM in hopes that we would beat the afternoon crowds. Check! We had no problem getting a seat on the bus, so I predicted this was a good sign for the 4 1/2 hour journey south. Aside from the dirt and grime collected along the way, cruising along the infamous ECR (East Coast Road) was enjoyable. We passed several villages and largely undeveloped areas. It was a welcome change of scenery to Chennai, and I took some pictures of the tapioca and coconut trees along the way.
We arrived in Pondy shortly after noon, and immediately hopped on board a local bus to head to the beach. Everyone on the bus seemed thoroughly confused and intruiged about why in the world we had chosen to take a bus. I got lucky, scored a seat, and was partnered next to a mother and beautiful 3-month old baby girl. Poor thing was sick with a fever and crying so I tried to entertain her with a bird-whistle that I had stored in my backpack (*thanks goes to the intoxicated but generous man on Pongal who gave me this plastic whistle as a "holiday gift" - I knew it would come in handy!) It's actually quite hard to miss a bus stop if you plan correctly. So long as each and every person on the bus knows where you're going, chances are somebody's going to give you a heads up when your stop approaches. This strategy worked as we made it off the bus and walked 1 km to the beach. The heat was brutal (felt even hotter than Chennai) and all I wanted to do was swim! The beach was lovely, cleaner that any of the beaches I've seen so far here. Unforunately, though, no bathing suits allowed for me. Guys were strewn along the beach, laughing and enjoying themselves in the hot sunshine in their bathing suits. But you won't find a single girl in a suit. Not a one-piece, not even one of those full-coverage suits from the 70's. The culture here is really conservative when it comes to things like this (I guess it was wishful thinking bringing my bikini!)
Anyhow, the accommodation we looked for on the beach was booked. Too bad, because the place looked awesome. Run by a woman from the Ukraine, it comprises of eight or so independent thatch-hut bungalows. -- So first try, no luck. This would not have been so disappointing were it not for the fact that we proceeded to try about 20 or so other places and were met with similar misfortune. Booked! Full! Booked! No rooms. By 6:00, this was turning out to be some pretty bad news.
Every accommodation at every type of budget was booked. Should we have known better? Absolutely. I heard from multiple sources that Pondy would be a very popular destination because of the holiday weekend. I knew this, and I went against my gut instinct which said "book first, then go!" Ahh- you'd think I had never traveled before.
We contemplated sleeping on the beach. "You'll be robbed," locals told us.
We thought of staying up all night and looking for a place the next morning. My backpack and eyelids were too heavy for such a plan, though.
While I knew turning back would signify a forefeit, I did so anyways. After 8 hours of walking the streets in search for a place to stay, Jens and myself decided to turn back, and catch a bus back to Chennai.
What a waste of a day! All in all, I spent roughly 9 hours on a bus traveling and only 8 hours in Pondy, the vast majority of which were not spent enjoying the sights but rather desperately trying to avoid homelessness.
Particular highlights of the day included:

Stepping foot onto a lovely beach.
Squishing 6 people, driver included, into a small auto-rickshaw. (Hey, we're on a budget!)
Passing by French bakeries (although I never had time to go in one!)
Taking pictures of some colorful French-styled historical buildings.

And hmm, I'd say that's about it. The day was a bust, and I've learned my lesson. On busy holiday weekends, do not try to "drop in" at a very popular tourist destination without ANY clue what to do upon arrival. Sounds obvious enough, right? Riiight.
I forgot to mention that it was only Jens and I who turned back. The French-speaking trio hopped on a bus to "somewhere" about the same time we got on a bus to Chennai. Their plan was more ambitious (and I admit, sounded quite fun). They could not face heading back to Chennai- the weekend was meant to be full of fun and adventure. They were going to hop on any random bus they could find and enjoy the unknown journey. Last I heard they were on a bus to a hill station somewhere up North.
:)

Friday, January 23, 2009

around town

Subway written in Tamil! Very cool.

These people are all waiting for a bus (probably 5c, in which case they will need to wait all day and maybe night)

Feeding popcorn to a hungry deer at the snake park (note the giant crocodile made of plaster behind me)

Carvings at Mahabalipuram

This guy is making fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. Yum!

This woman's fruit and veggie masalas are quite good.

Sabu videotaping a carver.

Grandfather and grandson in their family's art shop.

Indian baywatch!

Fresh coconut is one of my favorite things in the world. After you drink the water inside the seller will cut it in half so you can scoop out the coconut meat.

Selling small treasures.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Good, the bad, and the ugly

It's been a week of trying out different roles. It's almost as if these past few weeks here in India have been rehearsals gearing up for one ultimate performance. I feel like as every day passes I attend a new dress rehearsal- going through the costume and makeup change while someone back stage changes the set. As each day passes I find myself discovering new parts of Chennai, both in terms of new places to visit as well as the people I'm meeting. Three weeks into Chennai and I am just now becoming acquainted with yet another face of this urban life. The face that doesn't mingle (or perhaps go near) the public transport system- the face that won't be seen eating dosa off the street. The new territory which I have been recently exposed to is that of the "posh." The clean-cut, Western toilet, marble floors, imported liquor, wine n' dine kind of Chennai. My introduction to such a lifestyle occurred the other night when I attended my first ever "Chennai expat meetup."
The meetup for Chennai expats is a monthly event organized by a couple different online groups. The purpose is simple: to provide a common space and time for expats (other foreigners living abroad) to gather, mingle, and socialize. The chosen location for the event was at the Courtyard Marriott. Not quite sure if this is a 5 star hotel here in Chennai but if it's not, it's damn close. The place is polished-looking and quite lavish. The majority of the evening turned out to be a networking success- I met a good deal of interesting people from all over the world. As always with these kinds of things, I'm perpetually curious as to what brings THEM here. Me, I understand- for the time being, this is what I do, so I don't find it remotely strange to fine myself located in a South Indian city. But as far as every other foreigner goes... (the mathematics professor from Barcelona, hostess from Moscow, or the religious studies student from Norway)- I want to learn THEIR story. :)
So yes, my exposure to such 5-star hangouts will be few and far between, as they come with quite a hefty price. While the following probably doesn't deserve to be categorized as a "life lesson," I did learn one particularly valuable piece of information that night.
- Whatever you do, do not drink imported liquor. -
I suppose I was feeling all homely as I chatted it up with other foreigners that I thought it harmless to sip on some Jack Daniels. While it was indeed tasty and refreshing, my choice of imported booze was considered a luxury item, and taxed hard at 58%!! A rookie mistake. Next time, I'll opt for the local.

Before I head out, I wanted to mention a couple things that are commonplace here in India, but have struck me as peculiar. So here goes, a brief list of random things I've observed to be odd/frustrating/interesting/hilarious/etc

1. Hindi movies: saw my first one in the theater last night. Cracked up out loud at the eerie and suspenseful music that doesn't actually lead to anything eerie or suspenseful
2. Hindi movies part II: Fantastic music and dance scenes that are far from being seamlessly introduced into the movie (think James Bond with an abrupt cut during an action scene, only to show a clip from Annie...not quite so random, but you get the idea)
3. Cell phones: No matter the business meeting, the church service, the wedding proposal- cell phones will ring, and they will be answered.
4. Cell phones part II: On another note, registering a cell phone in India has been the single most frustrating experience since I've been here. I bought my phone on campus, but since then the service has been partially shut off so as to only allow incoming calls (I can't make phone calls or send texts). Every time I try to get it fixed, I'm told I need yet another piece of documentation proving that I am, indeed, living and working here. I've met with the guy five times and each time I go and bring him what he asks for, he surprises me with a new request. Ahh!!
5. The absence of black coffee/tea: In regards my inquiring about this, an equally confused man responded, "What would coffee be without milk and sugar?"

Oh, and who knew that I'd come to India and learn to...salsa? That's right. A very kind Mexican man taught me the steps last weekend.

Hopefully I'll remember some more of these observations later, as they happen on a daily basis. But as I always have to remind myself, for everything that I find "weird," I'm sure I'm found to be that much "weirder!"

Cheers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama!

I wish I was in the states to celebrate Obama's inauguration. It feels so strange to be outside of the country for such a historic moment in the history of the United States. While it's quite amazing to feel that people all over the world are supporting Obama (this morning the hostel warden said to me "Hello, Obama!), it doesn't feel as momentous of an occasion as it would were I in the states. Every time I look at pictures of people celebrating for him I tear up. Really! I was so skeptical of the whole election when the candidates first started running. The idea of hope seemed overplayed and I felt annoyed at politics in general. I must say I've become a believer in hope, though, and am so much more exited (as opposed to ashamed) to say I'm an American.
I don't really have anything else to say, except that I'm going to do my best to watch the speech live tomorrow morning through the internet.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Me

Feeding the goats.

Horses at the beach.

I like this one. It depicts nicely the kinds of things I try to photograph, as well as the strange looks I get in return.

This monkey made some note-worthy attempts towards opening the Pepsi bottle. When the other monkey came near him, though, he vanished into the tree with his prized goods.
video

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mahabalipuram

This family wanted their photo taken

Too bad he was wiping his eyes

Rock climbing

Hello

Temple

Happy Pongal!

Too bad it's blurry, but hopefully you get the idea of this beauty.

Bus arms.

Hands-down, the cutest part of the bus ride :)

Yesterday marked the beginning of Pongal, a harvest festival celebrated throughout Southern India. Pongal is a three day festival that originated around 200 bc. The first day's celebrations are dedicated to Lord Indra, the storm god. The second day is dedicated to Lord Surya, the sun god, and the final day is dedicated to animals (in particular, cattle). Most businesses close for the first day of Pongal, so as such, I had work off yesterday. I had originally planned on spending the day visiting Tirupati, a famous temple complex a couple hours north of Chennai. Intimidated by the idea of unbearable crowds, though, I decided to head 60 km south from Chennai to Mahabalipuram.
The bus ride alone was an adventure in and of itself. I've quickly learned that waiting in a single-file line is not only overrated, but is a completely useless strategy to getting a seat on the bus. The motto seems to be "may the quickest, most agile, and most aggressive man win." I repeated this in my head as I climbed aboard the bus, pushing and being pushed by hoards of eager Indians, excited for their south-bound holiday excursion. Myself, along with 50 or so other people, were simply too late. All the seats were filled and the aisle of the bus was nearly packed as well. For the first 20 or so minutes of the journey I stood elbow to elbow between an old woman and my friend, Sabu. As luck would have it, though, I spotted an open "seat" just ahead of me. I spotted the gleaming yellow seat and made a mad dash for it. Finally! I situated myself comfortably on something that looked like a 30 lb. sack of potatoes. The bag of groceries proved to be quite a makeshift chair in the middle of the aisle.
After about two hours of travel (and getting to know my oh-so-close bus companions), I arrived in Mahabalipuram. The place, well known by locals and tourists alike, is famous for its 20 km stretch of beach and famous historical carvings. The entire afternoon was spent exploring caves, carvings, and temples. Most of the carvings date back to 700 AD, some even older. The beach was quite nice- much cleaner than any of the beaches in Chennai. I sampled my new-favorite snack from several different vendors- pineapple with masala! Basically, there are several fruit stalls that serve raw, cut-up fruit and vegetables (pineapple, mango, cucumber) that are sprinkled with a spicy, salty concoction. It's quite basic but delicious nonetheless!
I must admit it was quite nice to spend a day outside of the city center. I didn't realize how much I needed a break from the "urban thralls" of the city until I escaped from it all.
Enjoy the pictures!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Snaps and Shots

What can I say? I'm a sucker for the bike.


The City.




Marina Beach



Dinner is almost ready...




Stumbling upon a North Indian wedding. My motivation was to take pictures, but I was invited to do much more...








Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Home Sweet Home..or something like it

Hey everyone-

So as usual, I don't really know who's following this blog but if you are, leave feedback!
I wish I had time to write on this thing more regularly. So much has happened in the last six days, it's difficult to sporadically remember stories to share about my life here. I've been exploring as much as I can, both alone, as well as with the new friends I've made almost daily since being here. To be honest, I felt the majority of people were a bit cold when I arrived. I went out of my way flash big, toothy grins in others' directions and received nothing in return. Such a response caught me off guard; I'm used to being in Bali where (almost) everyone will return a smile and hello. Somehow, though, things are beginning to change. Maybe people can read my growing comfort within the city, or can pick up on my increasing familiarity with Chennai, but what I first interpreted as hostility has given way to friendliness.
I've been riding around on the buses- something that had previously been forecasted to me as a downright bad idea. Although depictions of hot, smelly crowds didn't come across as an appealing means of commute, I've given it a shot. I've come to accept the fact that one has to sacrifice comfort, privacy, and space for a cheap price. At only 4 rupees per ride, the public bus system is hard to beat!
One of my favorite things about the city is that everyone minds their own business. I can't say I much mind small-town New England's everybody knows everything about everyone vibe. Sure, Chennanites probably have their own gossip circles, but no one seems to mind me walking down the street or purchasing fruit from the street vendor. Not to say that I don't get weird looks, (I get plenty, ESPECIALLY when I'm witnessed running down the street to catch the bus) but I'm a coming and going of sights just like anyone else.
I've got to say that things are going really well for me right now. Admittedly, I had a couple "panic attacks" when I first arrived. Being charged twice at the hotel, not knowing where to find a mattress for my dorm room were just a couple such scenarios. But I'm loving the ups and downs of being here. There are power outages, restaurants without bathroom, and plenty of non-English speakers: all of these things can make life for an American difficult here. But with these trivial frustrations come loads of things to appreciate, if not downright envy. Yesterday I drove by a small temple, situated on a busy street corner. The temple was fenced off, and surrounded by an ancient-looking banyan tree. Such an odd sight to see a tree so large, so historic in presence, right smack dab in the middle of an otherwise fully developed part of town. Odd, but beautiful none the less.
The food here is delicious. And I eat every last bit of it with my right hand (no matter the sauce or liquid consistency, the right hand tackles it all!). Tamil is a beautiful language which I hope to conquer even some small part of. So far, I've got my basic greetings down. Hinduism is always present in various forms, be it temples, offerings, or ancient Ramayana art.
So far so good here, and I must say that for now, Chennai is where it's at.
:)

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Varnakam!

Good morning India.
I'm finally here! After nearly 30 hours of traveling, I've arrived, safe and sound, in India. The flights here were relatively uneventful, no major turbulence or otherwise excitement. My 7 hour layover in Abu Dhabi airport went by relatively quickly, considering I spent the whole time with Reenal, a girl I met on the flight in who was heading to Bombay to visit family over the holidays.
At around 8:00 pm Tuesday night, I arrived in Chennai. Thankfully, all of my luggage arrived as well! Managed to exchange money (at a disappointingly poor rate, 42 rupees to 1 US dollar), and hop in a pre-paid taxi to my hotel. The taxi ride lasted a good 45 minutes, and cost me just under six bucks.
I felt excited the first night I got here, but also completely overwhelmed. Once I arrived at the hotel, it turned out they didn't have a copy of my reservation! I had to beg, plead, and speak with the manager before I could finally secure a room. What a relief it was to just unload all of my things in the room and wind down!
After getting a good night's sleep the first night, I was ready as ever to explore, and enjoy my first full day in India. Technically, yesterday was New Years eve, but that didn't mean a whole lot to people around here. While I did hear the occasional "happy new year" directed at me, the day certainly wasn't about champagne and Times Square.
I wandered aimlessly around the streets in Egmore yesterday, the part of the city where I'm currently staying. The city's exciting because there are people everywhere, drinking coffee out of tiny mugs on street corners, or shoveling gravel off the road, working in the hot sun. Many Indian men relieve themselves wherever they please- yesterday I learned that most people prefer to walk on the streets, rather than on the sidewalks, for this very reason! The kids here are absolutely adorable, some of the little schoolgirls have perfectly combed braids and matching outfits.
I went with my new friend Chris (an American whose parents and family is originally from Tamil Nadu) for lunch, and had my first ever (hilarious) Indian lunch experience! We went to a very popular chain restaurant right around the corner from my hotel. I forget the name now, but it's known for its South Indian vegetarian cuisine at really affordable prices. I had no idea what to order, so I just decided to go for the "limited special" which seemed to have a little of everything in it. A huge bowl of white rice came first, followed by a large silver tray containing a colorful variety of sauces. I was instructed by Chris and the waiter how exactly to go about eating it all. While I won't go into too much further detail, I'll just say it was a hilarious endeavor. Not only did Chris and I have a good laugh about it, but the rest of the restaurant did as well! I suppose there's nothing more humorous to an Indian than watching a foreigner's pathetic attempt at eating an Indian thali for the very first time...with their hands! (Everybody eats with their right hand- things get quite messy but it's fun!)
After lunch, Chris and I drove to Spencer Plaza, a popular shopping destination. The drive was exhilarating and a bit terrifying- day one in India and I already found myself on the back of a motorcycle! Spencer Plaza was basically an Indian version of an indoor shopping mall; a 4-story building selling everything from cell phones, to rugs, to salwar kameez (traditional Indian clothing). I was in the market to get some salwar, as I've been told it's the most appropriate and respectable way to dress. After a couple hours and some somewhat successful bargaining, I left Spencer's with two new tops. Total price: $8.
Chris dropped me back off at my hotel and I rested up before doing some afternoon exploring. Around 4:00, I met up with Arun, whom I've chosen to nickname "the smartest, most street savvy, aspiring engineer around." Arun has been very helpful to me thus far; he knows the city backwards and forwards and has mapped the whole place out! We visited the flea market, where he sold some of his "junk" for 60 rupees. You know what they say: one man's trash is another man's treasure.
We traveled by food, train, and bus, all over the city. I photographed some historical buildings and monuments, while Arun told me about the British colonial legacy in Chennai. I, rather hesitantly, tried some fresh sugarcane juice from a vendor on the side of the road. While it didn't appear to be the most sanitary of juice stops, I took my chances and went for it, as Arun swears by the stuff. Turns out it was delicious, and I haven't gotten sick from it yet! (Knock on wood.) Our final stop of the day was at the Marina Beach, supposedly the longest beach in the world! It's a pretty incredible place, filthy, but lively and full of different characters and action. No one really swims there because the current is too strong, but there's plenty of vendors, kite-flyers, and kids to entertain everyone.
I reached my hotel around 7:00 last night, after a full day of walking and exploring. I was exhausted, and my feet covered in blisters! I guess that's a good sign that I had quite a productive New Years eve. :)
My night concluded with a trip to the fruit-sellers on the corner of the street to buy some pomegranate. Munched down on fresh fruit and hit the hay (I didn't even make it to midnight to pat myself on the back for surviving the new year).
So far, so good!
Moving into the dorms today at IIT's campus- will try to post pics up tonight!