Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
I was really excited yet apprehensive about my visit to India. On the one hand, I was really excited to being coming to my home country on a ship (I think I'm the first in my family to do this!) so that was pretty cool but knowing that I would be seeing family, particularly my mother, was quite nerve-racking. I got up early so I could see us get into port. People on the ship had told me we would smell India before seeing anything…and it was totally true. I was surrounded and embraced by this strange yet familiar smell as soon as I got onto the seventh deck balcony area. I knew this smell all my life but never without a visual of everything that emits this strange concoutcion of burning trash, spices, air pollution andexotic flowers and fruits. It was a bit cloudy but I could see all these cargo ships and fishing boats around us. After about 20 minutes, we started to see the hazy harbor-scape of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu and an ancient relic of South Indian history, culture and religion.Having been to Chennai only once before (about 8 years ago) to go shopping for my sister's wedding, I really didn't know what to expect. This reminded me quite a bit of Takoradi; just lots of big cargo cranes, ships and industrial looking buildings…and lots of dirt. A few days earlier, it was kinda funny to see ship crew working hard to cover all the chairs, tables and other outdoor furniture…but once I saw the port, I understood why. It was impossible to not get dirt and dust everywhere due to the industrial nature of the port.
But as we got closer, I could see the beautiful Victorian architecture of Chennai Central train station, the Chennai High Court and other historic buildings that were just beyond the harbor. Once we docked, we had to help with immigration processing and I jetted to the gangway to make sure I could get to see my family who I knew were waiting outside the gate. I had asked my mom, sister, brother and nephew to come and they had travelled 8 hours from Bangalore by car to come spend several days with me and check out the ship as well. Since they have never been to the U.S., I thought this would be a great way for me to just give them a little sample of what my life is like but getting them on the ship. But we were limited to only immediate family so I didn't invite the many other folks that wanted to come….But it was also a way for me to maintain my sanity and not have to deal with family drama of everyone bombarding me when I only had a few days in Chennai! Anyways, I made my way on the shuttle to go the one kilometer to the port gate #7.There was quite a bit of chaos with the port security not fully prepared for the onslaught of 800 people to get off the ship. I tried to help by translating to get them started and got on my way.
I had already added all of them to the Ship's visitor list so I figured it would be easy to get them onto the ship….WRONG.Apperently we needed to get them port entry passes to get inside the port to visit our ship. No one on the ship was aware of this. As I approached the gate, I saw my nephew and his friend waving! I went over and told them to hold on so I could figure out this pass situation. The chief security guy kept asking for passes but couldn't tell me the process for getting them…and even worse said, I wouldn't be able to get on that day since it was a Sunday. :/After about 30 minutes of trying to explain that I don't have passes and that I need to get my family through….i gave up and decided to just go out of the gate and come back later. Since I was expecting to come back to the ship, I didn't bring anything except for my passport and me. But it was fine.
It was about 10:30 and they had been waiting for me at the port gate since 6am!!! We all said hello and got on our way to a restaurant because they still hadn't eaten anything because they wanted to make sure to be on time ( I had said we would dock at 8am…which we did but forgot to tell them that immigration might take a while).
We went to Sangeetha Restaurant and had the best brunch/lunch ever! It was spicy, flavorful and just the right amount of all around deliciousness. My mouth is watering as I write this! Anyways, after nice food and tea, we went off to Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram) about an hour south from Chennai. This is the site of several Hindu temples and shrines from the 3rd-4th centuries. They were just beautiful. I particularly liked the Shore Temple (since it's right on the shore), the only fully intact one that exists (there are remnants of several more in the water). It was cool to be walking in something that was 1600 years old! It was a super hot and humid day so we didn't linger anywhere too long but we also saw several other local ancient temples.Another favorite part was the five chariots (rathas) all carved out of one huge mountain. (this is where the elephant statue picture is from). So all theseare carved out of the SAME bedrock….just incredible!
We then got back on the road to check out the Astalakshmi Temple (the eight forms of goddess Lakshmi), close to Mylapore. Though I've seen many Astalakshmi temples before I've never seen a temple like this.Each of the 8 goddesses were situatedin the actual gopuram tower of the temple facing different directions. The small stairway up reminded me of going up the stairs at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.Since the temple is right on the beach, we hung out there for a bit and headed out to eat! We had chaats (Indian version of tapas) and had super delicious food. I ended up staying with family in the hotel room which was fun and different from our ship.
The next day, we started a bit late and went to check out the famous St. Thome Basilica. This is important b/c it is believed that St. Thomas (one of Jesus' apostles) came to India to spread Christianity and died here. This is only one of three such holy places (the others being: Santiago de Campostela in Spain and the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome). It was cool to be with my Hindu family in the church and the catacomb of St. Thomas.
We got some delicious food at Sangeetha Restaurant again. Then we got back to the port to see if we could get my family onto the ship. This took about 4 hrs!First we had to wait for "20 min" (=1.5hr) for the Port Agent for our ship to come help us, then we had to check lists and id's, go to the port office to get passes which "should just take a few minutes" (= 2 hrs), then we had to go to a different gate to get pictures for the passes (=20 minutes), then back to town to buy some sandals for one of the folks in our car who had an issue with his sandals…then we had to get port security to get cleared to get past the port to the MV Explorer. Once we were at this point, everything was awesome! The ship was great to get my brother a wheelchair and get us through ship security so I could show them around!
To say they loved the ship would be an understatement. They just fell in love with everything. It was so much fun to see their eyes glow as I showed them my cabin, the staff & faculty lounge (my mom kept mentioning every few minutes how much she loved the chairs in this lounge!), the pool and everything about our vessel. It was nice to share a little piece of my U.S. culture with my family back home in India. This was probably the highlight of my whole trip to India!
After about a gazillion pictures, we left the ship and went to go do some shopping! We went to T-Nagar, one of the busy shopping districts. After quite a bit of shopping, we went to Saravana Bhavan for one of the most delicious meals I've ever had. I had an unlimited plate of food for 150 rupees (less than 3 dollars!). J
We started off early (6am) to go check out two of the big temples in town, the Kapileeshwara and Parthasarathy Temples. Both were gorgeous. At the first, I got to pet some baby calves and even saw a tiny one that was only 3 days old!!!! Soo freakin cute! And I got a little kiss from one of the baby cows. At the Parthasarathy temple, I loved the image of Krishna as the charioteer for Arjuna during the war in Kulakshetra. It was a beautiful statue and the temple was quite impressive in its architecture. We also The third temple we visited was a local Jain temple which was very different and also beautiful. Jain temples are mostly made of marble and have a north Indian influence so they look and feel different than the south Indian temples. One of the things I love about Jainism is their strict adherence to the philosophy of Ahimsa, non-violence. During services, the priests wear face masks so as not to kill any microorganisms in the air. I think that's pretty cool!
We did some last minute shopping back in T Nagar and then headed back to the ship to say good bye to the fam. It was sad to see them leave but I was also excited to have the first chance in my life to explore India w/out my family. For the rest of the day, I just napped, reflected on the last few days and chilled out. I did end up taking a riksha with Anne, Al, Alissa, & John Fields to Marina Beach. We just wanted to walk so walked down and checked out all the little shops on the beach and put our feet in the water. John even was brave enough to try some local fish. He was crying from the spices but said it was delicious.
After taking the morning off to do some journaling, I went with Wei Man and Faith on a little adventure. We got an Autoriksha driver to take us to Kalakshetra, a world-renowned school of Indian dance & music. This is where my teacher Paulomi Pandit studied and I remember doing a report on the founder Rukmini Devi Arundale in high school so I was excited. Unfortunately, they were in the middle of exams so we couldn't walk around but we did see some beautiful dancing in the different dance studios along the street. Then we went off to the Cholamandalam Art Village. This is a collective of contemporary Indian artists that has been at the cutting edge of Indian art for over twenty years!The art was beautiful so I'm glad I got to see this but I didn't get a feel for the community at all. Then we went off to the VGP Golden Beach Resort to check out this massive adventure park (like an Indian version of Disneyland) which is famous for all the movies that was filmed here in the golden age of South Indian film. I could see that 20 years ago it was probably really beautiful and lush…but it was clear that it was not well-attended to and things were starting to crumble. Also there were only like 5 other families in this huuuuuuge park. We were there on a week day so not sure it's different on weekends or evenings since I saw that most families go to the beach in the evening time when it's cooler outside. We ended the night with a delicious dinner at the Saravana Bhavan in Georgetown, close to the port.
SHOPPING was the word of the day on day 5. We started off at Spencer Market and was amazed to see how many of these shops were ready for SAS! Many of them had signs that read, "Special Discount MV Explorer" and things like that. It was somewhat overwhelming but fun. Then Alissa & I split off from the group to go to lunch with our friend Jayanthi's mom. This was soo much fun! We found our way on a riksha to the house and her mom just welcomed us with open arms and served a delicious meal of small onion sambar, rice, rasam, potato curry, vermicelli pudding and freshmade papad. It was just delicious and nice to have some homemade food! I had a great conversation with her about Jayanthi and enjoyed seeing baby pictures of one of my bffs. J Then we went of to do some more shopping. Our riksha guy, Shekar, would take us to all these high-end stores just because he would get commission or little gifts (like tshirts or bookbags for his children) simply for bringing us there. So we went into about 3-4 stores and it was amazing to see how much people would pay for the same thing I was buying at the other markets for a fraction of the price. Alissa and I started having to make up stories of why we couldn't buy anything today and how we would be back if they just gave us a business card. It was quite a fun game to play. J By this point we had added Debbie & Anne to our riksha and we wanted some food. So we went to Woodlands Brindavan which was this elegant restaurant close to the port. I had a masala dosa (lentil crepe with potatoes & spices) which was just incredible. We finally got back to the ship after about 13 hours of being around the city and I had some dessert from the food my sister had given me (homemade gulab jamun and murukus!!!!!) and I called it a night. J
On my last day in Chennai, I went on an SAS trip organized by Religious Studies Professor John Copenhaver to the University of Madras to talk about Gandhi's Legacy of Nonviolence. Dr. Koteshwara Prasad, a renowned historian and non-violence educator had brought together a group of 6 people to talk about Gandhi's legacy and also the different religious perspectives on non-violence. We were supposed to have some inter-faith dialogue about religious perspectives on non-violence but ran short on time so just had some informal conversations with some of the students. I chatted with three men who were getting degrees in Christian Studies and planning to become leaders in their particular community. Before speaking to them, I had assumed they were Hindu which was a really interesting observationbut speaking to them it was fun to just learn about how they had come to pursue a life of service to Christ. We also had this delicious lunch from Adyar Ananda Bhavan of traditional south Indian food. Since we were just across the street from the beach, I signed off the trip and went to do some last minute shopping before heading back to the ship. When I got back to the ship, I learned about the massive earthquake in Japan was just blown away by the images on TV. We got access to Aljazeera so were able to learn about what was going on there and other parts of the world as well. It's just devastating to see all this suffering and the destructive nature of water….the same water that we are sailing on.