First Day After India

As we were told, and as I realized, India is a land of contrasts. Alongside some amazing sights of art and architecture and the skillfully crafted silks I witnessed the extreme poverty and chaos as well. I saw the masses of people, I saw the serenity of rural villages, I saw a lot of dirt, I saw the beauty of it all.

On Day One I went to a Dalit (untouchable) village in Chennai to do a work project. Getting off of the bus we were surrounded by women with flower necklaces for us and a band was playing happily. As we made our way down the main street to our work site we noticed that we were the main attraction in a parade through the village. The band and police escort was leading us on through the crowds of smiling children and curious adults. Let me tell you, I have never seen children smile so wide in my life. We were led to a tent where there was a welcome reception for us where a number of local politicians gave speeches for the press about our upcoming work. Our main tasks included painting a classroom, hallway, and outside wall of the local school as well as transport a few piles of dirt and gravel that the school will use for a water collection system and other purposes that weren’t made too clear. We found out that our visit was somewhat of a publicity stunt but the general consensus of our group was that we didn’t care as long as the work was being done for these people. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do as much as we would’ve hoped but we were grateful for the chance to do what we could. It was a wonderful introduction to India and we saw how such beauty can be found in the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor.

Day Two was spent at Kancheepuram and Mamallapuram’s temples. On one level, at this point of the voyage, a temple is a temple. I’ve just seen so many. But, these were distinct and special experiences as well. The style of architecture and the intricacies of the stone carvings were unlike much of what I’ve seen before over the past month and a half. These were also “living temples” where munks, nuns and devotees would be seen wandering the grounds and down the corridors in more numbers than the tourists that came through. We, once again, were spotted as being “rich” Americans and were targetted by the locals trying to sell us things and beggers asking for money who wouldn’t step aside even after we said “NO.” The poverty really gets to you sometimes and it’s hard to know what to do.

Day Three was a day of rest, or so I thought. I had no trips planned for the day and thought I’d explore Chennai. The moment I stepped out onto the main street the group I was with and I were mobbed by auto-rikshaw drivers trying to convince us to ride with them. They would follow you down the street and never take no for an answer. When you finally picked one to take you where you wanted to go they would try to take you to places you didn’t want to go that were on the way that they would get commissions from for taking you there. When you finally reached your destination, they would wait for you to take you somewhere else – and try to charge you for them waiting. I think we did pretty well in dealing with them and only paying what we agreed before hand, which was always the higher price for foreigners but fair. It is certainly an adventure and it is very easy to lose your cool at times, like when we got a flat tire. It just takes some patience, practice, and a firm stance on what you want them to do. It’s all part of the experience.

Day Four I went to a rural farm. The man who runs it is slowly starting to turn it into a resort farm so we got to just relax for awhile on hammocks or comfortable chairs on the shady lawn. We then took a bull-drawn cart ride through the village and played with some school children. Upon our return to the farm, an employee of our host shimmied up a coconut tree so we could have a refreshing treat. His parents then prepared a ton of Indian snacks for us, and they were wonderful. It was an amazingly relaxing time that balanced out the stressful day before.

Day Five was like my other free day. Some friends and I went into town to do some last bits of shopping for friends and family, and, of course, for ourselves. I picked up a couple of nice things for relatively cheap prices and my friend Kim bought a really nice sari – a traditional Indian outfit. We were only out for a few hours but we had a good time. After dinner, my friend Samantha and I won our 6th consecutive Skip-Bo game making us undefeated. It’s become a new favorite thing for my friends and I to do while we’re too tired to do much else – like study.

Well, that’s about it from India. I’ve got 2 midterms tomorrow, 1 the next day, a journal entry, paper and an oral midterm on Saturday and only one day in the middle of the week to rest for a little bit. Neptune Day – the day we cross the equator – is on Tuesday and I decided that I will not be shaving my head in celebration. Though, I have heard many of our floating community will be. And those who will are not only of the men in our group. Though it is a celbration day, I will be in the library doing research for my art history paper. But, as of Kenya at the end of this coming week, I’ll be able to take a deep breath and relax for awhile until finals come a-knockin’. Good luck all of you who are in the midterm mode and I hope you are all enjoying the beautiful colors of autumn that I am greatly missing right now.

Until after Kenya…

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