Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mustaches, Unibrows and Bobble Heads

There was quite a cultural shock when we hit the tarmac in Chennai, India. First, the heat, then all the Indians staring at us white people. There are just so many cultural differences between us that it took everyone awhile to adapt.
On arrival, we were greeted by the 1.22 billion people of India. All the women were wearing their saris and the men sported their bushy, large mustaches. I saw a teenager with a unibrow that would put James Davis’ to shame and a 12 year old with a full mustache. I actually envied the mustache as some of the members on our team decided to grow one for the week. It also seemed to keep the sweat out of their mouth in the hot monsoon season days. But no matter what anyone on the team did, whether it was grow the stache or wear the clothes, we were constantly being stared at and fingers were always pointed at our bus. People would stop us just to get a picture with them wherever we went.
Everyone pampered us with extreme hospitability as the caste system showed itself wherever we went. There was someone at every door ready to open it for us. There was someone at every buffet table asking what we wanted on our plates. There was even a job for the guy giving us water bottles on the bus. Jobs are generously handed out to family members and relatives no matter how small and insignificant. However, the caste system often determined your occupation. Our doorman would never have been able to eat dinner with us and our luggage carriers would culturally not allowed to join us on our daily excursions like our guide for the week, Sundari. She was obviously Brahman as she would often order people around and get us very nice accommodations wherever we went. She was extremely helpful though when some of us got sick or needed something in particular.

The infrastructure in India is just aweful, which does not complement their quickly growing economy very well. Five star hotels and billion dollar corporations were built right up against the slums. The streets were full of motorcycles, rickshaws, big trucks,  buses full of people and the occasional donkey wagon or cow in the middle of the road. They were all honking their horns as well to let other drivers know where they were on the wild streets. Our rickshaw ride of 40 people through the city was quite an experience, sometimes a near death experience on several occasions. Don't even get me started on crossing these crazy roads with a group of 40 people. Somehow we all survived India though.
There was one distinct thing that everyone in India did which really made us laugh at first. When talking to an Indian, they will mostly nod their head sideways and sometimes in a figure eight to show acknowledgement. They honestly looked like bobble heads whenever they performed this odd behavior. To an American, it would seem like some kind of attitude in response to the one who is talking, almost like rolling the eyes. I often wanted to hold their head still while trying to talk to them since it was very distracting.
The food was also very different. The curry was manageable for us, but it was definitely adapted for our American taste buds at the hotel where we ate. Each different dish was colorful and unique, yet it still tasted good with the other dishes. Mixing things on your plate made things taste better and nothing ever clashed at all. Generally there was naan bread that you used with your right hand to scoop up the rice and sauces as well. For desert they usually had sugar balls. They looked like little munchkin donuts that were floating in hot sugar water. But with vanilla ice cream, these little donut balls were incredible. 
We spent the majority of our stay in Chennai, India, for classes at the National Management School. It was about an hour drive there in the morning, if we didn't get stuck in traffic or if the bus was working that day. We had class all day, stopping for tea in the mid morning and mid afternoon, then got back to our hotel to study just before dinner. After that dreadful class, we headed out to New Dehli and stayed at a nicer hotel to enjoy the sites and sit back until our next class.
Throughout the week we saw the camels and elephants and monkeys, straight from Aladdin. We also made it to several old monuments and mausoleums including the Taj Mahal. I had gotten sick the night before we were supposed to take the 6 hours drive all the way to the Taj. Thankfully, I broke my fever and got a good nights sleep and felt well enough to face the day. The Taj was just incredible… The entire facility there was completely symmetrical all except for one thing inside, the tomb of the king. The Taj was originally built for just the queen and her tomb was placed in the center of the Taj Mahal. Later on, the king died and they stuck his tomb just adjacent to hers, ruining the symmetry. It was extremely hot at every monument we explored while all the Indians were anxious to get our pictures and the street vendors were shoving their way to sell us their trinkets.  

Overall, India was a neat experience. However, I don’t feel the need to ever return. Between the heat and the sickness and just my body reacting differently to the entire culture, it wasn’t very enjoyable. But, those that enjoyed the curry and change of scenery say that it was their favorite place!