Throughout the voyage returning passengers have told us of the struggle that is India. That the port is dirty, the city is dirty, the officials make our visit difficult, shop owners jack up prices and cab drivers try to scam us. My supervisor the dean of students used the phrase “Prepare to have your senses assaulted.” I did hear some positives as well. One of my favorite shipmates, Tonya has traveled to India a fair amount and her husband is Indian. She told us about the great food, the kind people and the beauty that India has to offer. I tried my best to have an open mind.
In the days leading up to our arrival the staff was debriefed on the situation of the port: singing in and out every time we left the port gates, nearly 150 Indian officials boarding the ship and eating, sleeping, living, working from the ship for our 5 day stay, armed guards at the base of the gangway, face-to-face verification of all passengers and crew members by Indian customs before our departure…the list seemed to go on and on. Again, I tried my best to have an open mind.
The morning of our arrival we went out for sunrise we had a slightly larger group than normal to send off Tonya, she would be leaving us to visit her family in Northern India and then head back home to NYC. The pollution in the air made it difficult to see the sun for a while but suddenly over the layer of smog and soot the sun began to appear and our first day in India began.
The LLC team took to our stations, passing out shore passes, customs forms and a copy of passports. Students were eager to begin their adventures, going to the Taj Mahal, 3 day Yoga workshops, visiting Dalit villages and more but to be honest I was not so excited. My lungs were already feeling the smoke and dirt in the air and my eyes were burning slightly. I was trying my best to put on a happy face for our students.
A group of us were heading to do some shopping so we got in a taxi just off the gangway and made our way to the port gates. We began to see groups of students walking back to the ship and we were curious as to what was going on. The story that follows could have developed into an international security and safety situation. For the continued safety of all involved I will wait to share the story until we are safety planted back on US soil. (OK its not THAT crazy, but we were a bit sketchy so you’ll have to wait for the full story) Driving away we were thankful that everything turned ok and acknowledged that it could have been a bad situation.
Sounding like a broken record, the traffic in Chennai was crazy. Rickshaws were everywhere and could often be seen driving on the wrong side of the road. The sidewalks were covered with merchants, trash and dogs so for the most part people had to walk in the street. Approaching round-abouts was like a test of courage and faith just hoping that the direction we were going would work out and that the people coming towards us would make way. I very quickly decided that I never wanted to drive in India. It occurred to me that I have not driven a car in about 70 days and wouldn’t for another 45.
We got out of the taxi and walked to a hotel to ask for directions. The big name hotels are like a strange oasis among the squalor. Behind high walls the dirt, traffic, and smell of India disappear. Inside the hotel was like stepping into a different world. The female staff dressed in beautiful saris, the men in suits welcomed us. We had initially only intended to ask for directions but decided to stay for lunch and it was well worth it. We were the first ones in the restaurant and the waiter pretty much ordered for us; chicken, duck, shrimp, all kinds of spices and chutney and of course plenty of bread. AB and I asked for some not so spicy options and he was wonderful bringing us plain white rice and yogurt to calm down any of the food that was a bit much for us. We spent nearly two hours enjoying conversation and the amazing food before venturing back out into the bustling city to do some shopping.
We went to one large store where the ladies shopped for a few saris and I fell asleep standing up waiting for them. Feeling refreshed, I continued with the group as we walked about a mile to an outdoor market area. There were plenty of shops and opportunities to get gifts and anything ‘India’. As our supervisor had prepared us for, it was a bit of a sensory overload. The different smells, different languages being shouted around us, total visual over stimulation with all the fabrics, jewelry, food, people, and traffic got old after a while and I chose to head back to the ship for a free dinner and to pack for my trip to the Taj leaving the next day.
I took a rickshaw by myself and hoped for the best. The driver was very kind and pointed out things along the way, the cricket stadium, the shopping malls and the University of Madras. We maneuvered between other rickshaws, buses, trucks, and cars with ease on his part and total fear on my part. At times we were so close to other rickshaws I felt as though the passengers next to me were actually sharing the same rickshaw. Having been told that sometimes the drivers will not take you where you want and then make you pay more to actually get to your location I was a bit nervous until I saw the port gates. I signed back in with the port agents and walked about a half-mile back the quiet comfort of the ship.