Thursday, March 12, 2009

Incredible !ndia

The title of my blog is a phrase used to attract tourists to India and it is indeed incredible.  It is also a land of contrast: between wealth and poverty, beauty and degradation.  I had a wonderful time and it is definitely a country I would return to in the future. 

We got to the southeastern city of Chennai the morning of March 5.  Chennai is in the state of Tamil Nadu (Tamil is the native language) and is the fourth largest city in India.  It did not smell as bad as I was expecting (except when we were near a river) though the port area was incredibly polluted and there was this black soot all over everything, including me when we would walk back to the ship.  Some people were traveling to the Taj Mahal, and a few of my friends flew to Mumbai.  Jill and I were going to do various service projects the first three days and then explore Chennai for the last two days.

The first day we were going on a SAS trip called Dalit Work Project.  "Dalit" is a modern term for the "untouchable" cast in India, and is a term of empowerment for the group, though the majority of them remain poor.  We were going to the largest slum in Chennai and were going to some sort of small project for the afternoon.  When we got off the bus we were met by a few drummers in uniforms and then a bunch of school kids gave us each a few jasmine flower necklace.  We were literally paraded through their town to a school.  

There was a sort of welcoming ceremony and a few people sang and some kids did some traditional dances.  We learned that our task would be to paint the blackboards of 4 classrooms and to paint a bunch of the exterior and interior blue, which I was assigned to.  After about 2.5 hours of painting in unbelievable heat and with an Indian man watching us to make sure were doing it right and not taking breaks, we finally finished.  Then we got to play with all the kids for about an hour.  We signed a bunch of autographs, gave out a lot of stickers and we taught them to play duck duck goose.  I think half the town came out to watch us.  It is amazing how many people are everywhere in India and how quickly a crowd can materialize.  Here is a picture of our duck duck goose game (also not the progress in my hair growth):

The kids also loved having their picture taken and then to see it in our digital camera.  Many of the adults wanted their pictures taken too.  They would all swarm around you if you tried to take a picture, as below.  

We had a similar send off and headed back o the ship.  I just hung out on the ship that night because I was dirty and tired.

The next day Jill and I had the morning free before we left for our SAS trip called Child Labor in Rural India that afternoon.  We decided to go to Fort St. George which was nearby with a church and museum to look around.  To get out of the port, you have a very hot, dirty, polluted half mile walk.  As soon as you get out of the port you are swarmed by rickshaw drivers.  A rickeshaw is basically a tiny three-wheeled golf cart that zips in and out of traffic (good image that if you don't know what I'm talking about, and yes, at one point there were five us plus a driver in one).  Eventually we bargained our way there for 20 rupees (which is 40 cents, though it was really close, still incredibly cheap).  We just sort of wandered around and actually found a Tamil newspaper that had the ship on the front page.

We eventually made our way back after some miscommunication with our driver and packed for our overnight Child Labor in Rural India trip.  We took about a 2 hour bus ride to the city of Kanchipuram, which is known for its stilk industry.  We were basically getting a tour of an organization called RIDE (Rural India Development Education).  They work to fight child labor and get kids into school and also to empower poor people in villages to help the kids stay out of child labor.  The first day we got there, we went to one of the RIDE schools.  There was a classroom full of kids in uniforms that had been "rescued" from either the silk industry or the stone quarry.  Then there was another classroom of kids who had not yet been rescued and only came to the school occasionally in the afternoon.  they were in random clothes that didn't fit and were dirty and had no shoes.  It was pretty heartbreaking to think that they had been at work that morning carrying around small stones and breaking them up with a hammer.  Here is a picture of a few of the girls from the quarry enjoying some of the treats we brought:

We played around wiht all of them and gave out stickers, candy, and balloon animals.  They gave us a presentation of songs and dances and a lot of their school work, a good chunk of it in English.

Then we went back to the RIDE headquarters and had a delicious traditional Indian meal.  Every country we've been to so far has their own version of some fried dough concoction and they've all been excellent, including the sort of pancake things we had in India.  That night we slept in a very hot dormitory, but we were all thrilled to even had beds, which we had not been expecting.  

The next morning we were going to a village to get a tour.  When we got there, again we were greeted with flowers and stuff put on or foreheads, and a drumming and dancing performance.  We were the first foreigners they had seen, which was crazy to think about.  We basically got a tour of the village all day, being fed at different houses and taking tons of pictures and playing with all the kids along the way.  The ground was covered with rangoli, which is artwork sprinkled on the ground made out of rice flour and colored sands.  The women in southern India put small, white rangoli outside their door every morning and for special occasions they are bigger, with color and sometimes flowers and candles.  Evidently we were a special occasion because the streets were covered with beautiful rangoli: 

And then just because these two little sisters are so so cute:

Then we went back to RIDE for lunch.  Then went to a silk shop (government sponsored, so it doesn't use any child labor) where I bought a silk sari to make curtains or something in my bed next year.  Then we stopped at a Hindu temple on the way back, which Kanchipuram is also famous for.  Here is a picture of Jill and I in the temple: (note that we also hadn't showered in two days and had been sweating bullets about that whole time)

The remaining two days were spent wandering around Chennai and doing lots of shopping.  One day my friend Chrissy and I had an interesting adventure shopping when our rickshaw driver wouldn't really take us where we wanted to go.  It is very common for them to take you to a "great shop" that is actually an incredibly expensive goverment store, which they get moeny for if you stay in there long enough.  But I bought a lot of stuff for insanely low prices.  We left Chennai the evening of March 9.  

Yesterday we went through the Strait of Melaka, which as a lot of ocean traffic and also some pirates occasionally, but we didn't run into any problems.  We bunkered (took on fuel) in Singapore yesterday.  We get to Thailand tomorrow.  Jill, Ben, Conor, and I (same group from Spain and Morocco) are going to Bangkok the first day and then to Phuket for three days.  Phuket is an island province in the south and has beautiful beaches and lots of snorkling and other water stuff to do.  I'm really excited.  More later.  

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