Sunday, 26 July 2009

Trendy Pondy

Kirti Chandak, oil on canvas, 153 x 153 cm

Pondicherry is slowly fashioning itself into a hub of arts and culture in India. Yesterday, Kirsten got an invitation to the opening (vernissage, in French!) of a little art gallery in our neighborhood. The gallery showcases modern art from artists around India.

The art was incredible. There were several absurdist pieces that conveyed a sense of disturbance about the banality of poverty and suffering in this country. Other pieces were more uplifting. These were usually in a graphic design aesthetic. Nina, Kirsten and I liked one painting in particular. It was a sort of dreamscape that looked a little like a cartoon.

Around Pondicherry, there are other little bursts of creativity that are taking place. There is a boutique around the corner from my house called CreArt that showcases designers that create clothes and accessories. The store’s owner is also interested in sustainability and it community involvement. All the textiles are sourced from local merchants and are fairly traded.

One of the designers is a French young lady called Melissa, who is married to a Pondicherrian. She and her husband have created a line of clothing called Takla Makan, which is a reference to a desert along the Silk Route. Melissa was trained in Europe and India, and her garments contain a delicate mix of Chinese, Indian and European aesthetics. I have already bought a couple of her designs and I am looking forward to visiting her workshop over the next couple of weeks.

Staring at the Sun

This week, a solar eclipse was visible throughout the subcontinent. From here in Pondicherry, we only had a 64% eclipse, but man, were we excited about it! I have never actually seen an eclipse before, so I wasn’t sure what the fuss was all about.

But I was certainly looking forward to being on a beach with hundreds of my fellow Pondicherrians at 5.30 am.

It was a cloudy day, but the sun did peak out of the clouds long enough for us to see the moon creating a large, dark circle on the sun. They handed out funny little sunglasses so that we could stare directly at the sun, which of course meant that everybody wanted to stare directly at us, because we looked so ridiculous.

The next day, Noyal, my trusty watchman, gave me a copy of the papers, and behold, my classmates and I were in it! Apparently the local journalists were more intrigued by the silly looking foreigners than by the eclipse itself.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Visiting Scholars

Guess who showed up this weekend? Two colleagues from my department - Jennifer Clare and Luke Obrock. It's was just like we hadn't left Berkeley, except, as you can see from the picture, we are veritably dripping with sweat.

Transportation Options in India (or, How Not to Get Killed by a Nation of Suicidal Drivers)

It has become a daily experience for me
to see my life flash before my eyes.
Last week, I was very nearly run over by a bus not just once, but TWO times. There do not appear to be traffic laws in India: if they exist, I haven’t yet been able to decipher them. In a way, there seems to be Darwinian logic at work. The biggest vehicles on the road are the least likely to get completely annihilated by the juggernaut of traffic. Pedestrians, of course, are the most vulnerable.

When I first arrived, I thought that there was a kind of method in the madness. I thought that somehow, like many things here, everything sort of works despite the chaos.


Accidents happen all the time, and even then, the traffic just keeps going on around the scene of the disaster. Several times, I have found myself in the middle of the street in front of a moving motorcycle, and to my great shock, the driver had absolutely no intention of stopping. I just had to duck out at the last minute. Anyway, I think I have adapted to the system as best as possible, mostly by developing a very acute sense of self-preservation.

In any case, I have now come to agree with my father that I will probably kill myself if I go around in a bicycle. Really, when you cannot see the vehicles behind you and you are very vulnerable, it is very likely that you will get run over by a bus.

My new method of getting to school is this nifty little van called a shared auto, which is also bizarrely called a “tempo”. They appear to go along the same routes as the big buses, and they are also the same price, but they are really tiny minivans. In the states, they would only accommodate six to eight passengers, but this being India, they usually take twelve people, and during peak period they take about eighteen. My friend Kirsten and I walk to the tempo stop every morning together. We make an interesting pair on this little vehicle absolutely crammed to the brim with Indian folk.

I have noticed that the tempos mostly take women passengers.

The inside of the bus has designated seating areas – men sit on one side and women sit on the other. In the mornings, however, when the tempo is totally crowded, the tempo driver only takes women passengers. I am very grateful for this. In the morning, when we flag the tempo down, all the seats are usually taken. But the women will squeeze until they are basically sitting on top of each other, so that everyone can be seated for the ride. This would be a very awkward thing to do when surrounded by men. Somehow, small Indian women do not tend to violate my personal space boundaries.

It is really wonderful sharing the tempo with these women. Everybody is very smiley.

Sometimes, ladies are chatty, and will talk about what they got from the market that day and where they are going.

That is what I THINK they are talking about, anyway – it is possible that they are actually discussing the epistemic necessity of man’s existential dilemma; I don’t think I would really be able to tell the difference. The younger women tend to be more interested in our foreignness. Some stare shamelessly. Others ask direct questions: “Who are you, and why are you taking a shared auto?” On the other hand, the old ladies really can’t care less about us. The other day, a little old lady sat next to me with all her shopping piled up on her lap, which naturally spilled onto my lap. So, I had water spilling and vegetables falling on me. She just sat there, very apathetic to my presence.

Being on the tempo actually provides many opportunities for group interaction. Each person has to pay the driver three rupees. The driver therefore, has to organize all the money while he is driving (perhaps explaining why he is very likely to run you down). Sitting in the back, behind him, we sort of organize the money amongst ourselves. A woman will give me ten rupees to pay for herself and her daughter, and I will give her four rupees back from my own wallet. Then I will use the ten-rupee note to pay for the three of us. This is how Indians become good at math and then go on to become engineers. The whole system sort of works based on honesty, because the bus driver really can’t make sure that everybody pays. Nevertheless, people tend to be very dutiful in their payment.

Today, I was trying to get a tempo to get home, and somehow, I got the all-male one. I think the local boys school had just let out. I very politely went to sit on the ladies side, which some of the boys had been forced to occupy because there was just no space left on the men’s side. At that point, all the boys next to me went to sit on the laps of their friends in the men’s side of the bus, so that I could have the ladies row to myself. So, all the way home, the bus was very unevenly distributed, with me on one side and five hundred men on the other side.

For three rupees, that is pretty fantastic service, wouldn’t you say!

Life Alone

Coming to India has been an adventure in many ways. I have enjoyed the daily sights and sounds. It has been fascinating seeing how people live their lives here. But it has also been an experiment in living alone. In my entire twenty-six years, I have never once lived entirely by myself. As an incurable extrovert, it has always been more fun to be surrounded by people to talk to, laugh with, watch tv with, and sometimes, even stare into space with. I was a little anxious about this transition, especially since I was moving to a new town (nay, a new country!), but I realize now that I really had nothing to worry about.

I am relishing having my own space. After so many years of living in close quarters with other people – parents, roommates – it has been a really sweet experience having time with my own thoughts. I think, for those of us that are naturally extroverted, it is terrifying not to have another person to talk to or simply be with. My father always told me that it is important to make friends with oneself. But honestly, the idea of solitude always seemed very daunting – it felt too much like loneliness. In reality though, the world is full of people to interact with and, sometimes, a few hours away from other people can provide some solace.

Still, my extroverted personality has been very helpful in my efforts to settle into life here. I already know some really nice people here whose presence never fails to comfort me. One person is the security guard at my house. His name is Noyal. He is a really sweet person, who always has a kind word for me. We have gotten into a pattern of having little conversations every day. He can speak a smattering of English, but we mostly converse in what must seem like baby Tamil to him. I string together little sentences; he does his best to understand me and respond with equally simple sentences. He is the only person I feel comfortably practicing my language skills with, because he is very patient and never makes me feel like an idiot. Despite our language issues, we have covered a lot of ground. I know about his family and where his kids go to school and which team he favors in the Ashes cricket series. (Dad: Sorry, he is supporting Australia, not England.)

Tonight, I went to dinner alone at a little restaurant close to my house called Vedantha. I was the only person eating there, and the owner, Gautam, kept me company. He sat at the cash register and I sat at the table and we had a nice conversation about life and Pondicherry and Indian culture. I’ve never really been shy about talking to new people, but I have been surprised by how quickly strangers feel like friends in India. At the end of our conversation Gautam told me to call him if ever anything went wrong with me because, “I know all the cops in town.”

I can add him to the list of people (Ranganathan, taxi driver, Ravi, the manager of the Hotel du Parc, etc.) who have also given me their cell phone numbers and have offered to help me out if there is ever a problem. I guess the lesson is that it is never really possible to be alone when the world is full of friends.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Brownies and Diet Coke

It's been a great first week on the whole.

Yesterday was my only really rough day. Our class went into a village to see a festival at the local temple. This was my first real experience going to a temple. While my grandmother was Hindu, I hardly ever spent any time at Hindu functions growing up. My father became a Christian when he was 13, and his enlightened family was very respectful of his personal decision. So, yesterday was a big day for me.

The temple we visited belonged to a fertility Goddess - this is the beginning of the sowing season in the rural countryside, so yesterday, the temple filled with people who wanted to ask for blessings. When we were there, there were mostly women and children, as this goddess has a special place for the weaker members of society.

We arrived right at the beginning of the festival. We saw a couple of musicians playing drums. It was loud and intense.

Then the temple grounds began to fill up with many, many women bringing food in large containers on their head to give as offerings to the goddess.

Then things got really crazy. In the middle of these crowds, suddenly women started getting possessed by various lesser gods. A woman would begin to scream, and uncontrollably run towards the deity. Then when she was at a particular distance from the idol, she would begin moving backwards and forwards, as if she wanted to get closer to the goddess, but was getting repelled. Several women became possessed over the course of the hour - they each had slightly
different characteristics, in their movements and actions. The priest would shout at them, "Who are you? Who are you?" and eventually each would speak in the voice of the respective god. Women who were possessed by male gods would speak in deep voices. One woman was being possessed by the snake god, and she started writhing on the ground in a really bizarre and unnatural fashion. Eventually, the priest shoved a lemon in her mouth - this lemon is meant to stand for a sacrifice and serves to appease the god.

Needless to say, this was terrifying to me. Besides the strangeness and loudness of it all, I was overwhelmed by the energy in that place - I
found my head poundig, and I was sweating.

Later in the evening, the ceremony would continue, with men getting into a trance and then poking large sharp metal poles into their bodies in a show of devotion. I decided not to attend that, because I have seen this kind of a thing from a distance in Singapore, and I really didn't think I could bear any more of this.

I stayed at the back of the crowds, with the old ladies and the little children. It was actually rather nice back there. I got to make friends with these little ones, and they were very friendly, and completely unbothered by the things that were taking place before our eyes.

After the temple visit, we went into the village, and were invited into a traditional village
house. That made the entire trip worth it to me. These people live so simply - they are agricultural folk and work very hard. But they are always so happy.
I don't think they are putting on a show for us, visitors. I think that it is cultural here to have a positive attitude towards life and to accept life's hardships. We were treated to fresh coconuts - which, I am told, some people eat as an entire meal, sometimes the only meal of the day.

When I got back to Pondicherry that evening, I was exhausted and had a terrible headache. So, took myself out for the evening. I went over to the Alliance Francaise for tea (nutella crepe and lemonade) and then after taking some rest, I went for some pasta. It really helped make everything better. At the moment, I am sitting at a nice wireless cafe, enjoying my brownie and diet coke. I think tomorrow I'll be ready to get over this little spat of homesickness.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Hot Rain and Other Incongruities

I've been having trouble finding an internet terminal, so I'm afraid I am going to upload several days worth of posts at once.

It's been lovely here. Today, it started raining as classes ended, so my instructor, my classmate and I came back in the rain. We took the bus, and the rain came pouring through the window. But rain is never unpleasant here - it is refreshing and cleansing. It takes the edge off the heat.

Every time I find myself in a developing country like this one, I am always troubled by the economic discrepancies that I experience. People always write about the gap between the rich and the poor - and intellectually I get what is going on - but it never really helps me make sense of daily life here. My rent here is absurdly expensive, by local standards. I knew that when I moved in, but I figured that it is a lovely place and, more importantly, it is safe and provides a comfortable place to work. But now, I find myself thinking about how expensive other things are, as well - things like laundry and transportation.

I'd planned on taking auto-rickshaws everywhere. An average journey costs about sixty cents (30 rupees), which seemed affordable to me. My laundry costs several dollars a week to send to a dhobi or a laundryman. But after spending a few days here, I see that these are also expensive luxuries by local standards (several hundred rupees a week). A meal at a nice restaurant costs about 30 rupees. By that count, an entire lunch costs as much as have two pairs of trousers laundered. It really makes no sense.

So, I've started washing my clothes in my room by hand and I've asked the security guard at my house to find me a used bicycle to buy, which will cost about twenty dollars. I'm not sure exactly what is motivating this change in lifestyle. Clearly the money isn't the issue- I had budgeted for these expenses. And it is incongruous to cut back on these little expenses when they are miniscule compared to my rent. Still, I feel bad spending so much when even middle class people live so simply here.

In any case, these new adjustments have brought their own share of fun. I have enjoyed going into the shops to buy soap and other necessities. Everything is sold in tiny little packets here - the size of free samples in the states. The thing is, people function on a micro-economy here - it seems like the majority of the population lives from hand to mouth. People can't invest in a big tin of detergent, so they buy small 8 rupee packets (16 cents). I've been able to practice my Tamil a little by talking to the shop assistants. Today, the shop assistant must have been about twelve. He was very busily and seriously organizing all the little items on the shelves so that they were in immaculate rows. Our transaction went very smoothly and I must say that the young chap was extremely professional about the whole thing. I just hope that this is his after-school job and not his fulltime occupation.

In other news, I have started a tiffin trend at my school. Today, Kirsten, my German classmate, and Sato, my Japanese classmate, went to my tiffin store to get the same model as mine. It turns out that the tiffin system is great when you don't have a kitchen at home. The tiffin shopkeeper is now very fond of me, because I have brought him business. When I walk home from school, his entire family stands and waves me goodbye, even in the rain. I love this country.

Confusion is my Middle Name

We were talking about names in class today and I mentioned that my middle name is Rani, which means queen in both Sanskrit and Tamil. My father's name in Raja which means king. My paternal grandmother picked my middle name; I think she was going for some sort of symmetry in the family. In any case, both Raja and Rani are common names in India.

I figured that my name would seem odd and foreign in India. However, my instructor tells me that Elizabeth is a very common name now, and that he knows several other women whose names are ALSO Elizabeth Rani. How odd. Here I was thinking that I had a weird mix of English and Tamil in my name (and by extension, in my life!), when it turns out that this entire country is equally confused about its identity.

In my course - a six week spoken Tamil program - my classmates come from all over the world. There is Christina (Italian), Nina (Swiss), Kerstin (German), Serge (Reunion Islands) and Sato (Japanese). We have been going out together for lunch and it has been interesting seeing how the little neighbourhood responds to our presence.

The schoolhouse is not in a fancy part of town - it is not generally where tourists hang out. People are very impressed with our efforts to learn the language. They don't get upset when we mess up, even when we don't attach the appropriate terms of respect to our sentence structures (there is a pretty rigid set of honorific tenses in Tamil). But people are always a bit puzzled by me. My classmates are all white, and there is one Japanese girl. So everybody asks me, "Are you Indian?" I'm never sure what to say. I am, but I am not.

My forefathers immigrated from Tamil Nadu to Southeast Asia. So I suppose I am ethnically Tamil, at least on my father's side. But I am also from Malaya. And considering that I spent my childhood in Paris, Jakarta and Singapore, I can't say that I fit into any one cultural identity with ease. I don't generally think about who I am on a daily basis. So when confronted with the question, point blank, I am always stumped.

Nobody really cares that much about my ethnicity here. After the initial introductions, they are very kind to me. In fact, I have found that people have been instinctively protective of me, considering me part of the "us" category rather than the "them" category. They think of me in familial terms - like I am a daughter or a sister - someone to look out for.

Although I rarely think about this, I suppose being here is a culmination of years of searching for a sense of who I am. I have settled in America because that is a place where everybody is a transplant in some way and where people from all over the world fit into the larger structure of American life.

However the consequence of assimilating into the West is that I hardly ever have to think about where I came from - I never have to confront the fact that many people worked very hard and made many terrible sacrifices to give me the opportunities that I have. My great grandfather, who spent his life doing backbreaking labor in the Malayan rubber plantations, had me in mind when he made the perilous journey across the Indian Ocean. He wanted to give his family an opportunity to make something of their lives. The academic work that I do is an attempt to honor these sacrifices, by paying homage to the culture that they had to leave behind. It is also my chance to find the parts of myself that were lost over the years, as my forefathers tried to forget the past so that they could concentrate on the future.

Alone with my Tiffin Carrier and Mechanical Pencil

My parents left several days ago. I actually really appreciated having them here, particularly my father, because I realize that single women are actually rather vulnerable in this country. The social structure here just doesn't provide many acceptable spaces for women to live alone. To speak in feminist terms, women here do not have an identity unless they are attached to a man, whether it is their father or husband. Women alone do not have an obvious place within the community. When you walk around town, the only women who are alone are destitute or involved in an unsavory profession. Things are changing now, especially in larger cities like Chennai and Mumbai but, by and large, this sort of patriarchal mentality persists.

As I went around trying to find a place to live and shops to get food from, it was nice that my father was there. I was an intelligible entity within the community. Even after he left, people were aware that my father was in the picture and would come to my defense if necessary. While I feel very fortunate that my dad could come here, I am also a little bothered by how uncomfortable it is, sometimes, to be a woman in places like this. In America and Europe I take it for granted that I can have a life on my own, without a man, and not be considered a blight on the community.

On the whole, however, I am enjoying life here. Today was my second day in my program, which is held in a primary school building. During my lunch break, I went to the neighboring shops to get provisions. I finally got a tiffin carrier, which, for those of you that haven't seen one, is a little metallic food holder. I confess that this is a life long dream of mine. I have wanted one of these adorable food containers ever since I saw one as a child. All over India, "tiffin wallahs" fill these little containers up with rice and curries, with each food item on a separate level so that the rice doesn't get soggy. The idea is for working people to be able to have a nice cooked meal at work or at home after work. There aren't many places to eat where I live, so my plan is to buy food from the downtown area after school and bring it home for dinner.

During lunchtime, I also needed to get refills for my trusty mechanical pencil. I found a stationery shop and got the supplies I needed. But when I arrived back in the classroom, I discovered that I had left my pencil at the shop. I was upset because I have grown very attached to this pencil over the past three years and was worried that I may have lost it for good. (Those of you that know me well will attest to my inane emotional attachments to a variety of inanimate objects. Amy can attest to the night that I took my brand new shiny silver colander to bed with me for safekeeping. But I digress...) I ran back out to try to get my pencil before the afternoon classes started again. It turned out that I didn't need to because when I got down the stairs of my school building, there was a guy patiently waiting with my pencil. The shopkeeper had sent someone out to deliver my pencil to me. I am constantly surprised by people's thoughtfulness here, even over things as simple as pencils.

Five Things I (Already) Love About Pondicherry

1) Jasmine flowers. Every morning, ladies will sit at street intersections stringing together jasmine flowers, which they will sell to women to put in their hair. These flowers smell absolutely wonderful and look so pretty. I have been buying them daily, and it always feels like a luxury. It is also nice to be able to help to support these ladies, who are often poor or widowed.
2) Tea time. Everywhere you go, at every street corner, you will find a tea wallah with his tea shop. The tea leaves are boiled in milk, rather than water, which gives the beverage a delicious creaminess. The tea comes in a miniscule cup, in a miniscule little bowl-like saucer. The idea is that you pour the boiling hot tea back and forth between the cup and saucer, in order to cool it. When we tried to do it, we inevitably made a mess, spilling tea everywhere!
3) Our tailor. While there are now stores that sell ready made clothing, many people still go to a tailor to have their clothes made. We've found a lovely little tailor's shop by my new house. The tailor's name is Fazullula, which sounds Persian or Arabic. Anyway, when my mom was in town she brought all her clothes to him to be adjusted. I've had several pairs of linen pants made. It is just so hot here, I find myself changing outfits several times a day. Fazullula's shop is pretty fantastic. Note the deer heads on the back wall. Pretty swanky.
4) The cell phone culture. I finally got a SIM card for my mother's Paleolithic Nokia phone. It took us several trips to get the whole thing sorted out. They needed a copy of my passport, my driver's license, a letter from the hotel saying that I was indeed a guest, a photograph and a range of other ridiculous bureaucratic bits of information. You'd imagine that all this business would take place in an actual shop. Nope. The cell phone guy runs his business out of a stand at the market. Since I've set my phone up, I've felt totally plugged into life here. Almost everybody has a cell phone and they use it for all sorts of things. My tailor now has my number and will call when the clothes are made. I can call my auto-rickshaw guy, because he too is contactable by phone.
5) Ranganathan, taxi driver extraordinaire. In order to get from Chennai to Pondicherry, we took a taxi. It is a three-hour journey. We found this really great guy who takes people around in his taxi. His car is this teensy weensy little Tata Indica, but it was no problem, because he just strapped all our luggage to the top of the car with a little bit of string.

Pottering Around Pondy

We have been in Pondicherry for two days now. We booked a hotel that asserts its own Francophilia through its name, Hotel du Parc. The hotel is really lovely. It used to be the French governor's mansions and has been converted into a hotel with several colonial-style rooms. It was a really charming place to spend a couple of days. The staff was exceedingly helpful and friendly. Everybody we've met in South India has been really very warm.

Pondicherry is an interesting place, unlike any other town I have visited in India. The entire city is constructed according to an organized grid plan, no doubt the influence of the French and their obsession with urban planning. The city is divided into the White Town, facing the ocean, and the Black Town, which is further away from the coast. The White town was where the French colonials used to live. The streets are lined with large European style buildings in bright yellows and blues. They have names like Rue Romain Rolland and Rue Suffren. The Black Town is where the "natives" used to live and is much humbler. My instinct, at this point, is to launch into a diatribe about the oppression of colonial racism, but I will refrain from doing so, because you have probably heard me blabbering on about this in person and would no doubt get bored.

My goal during my first weekend here was to find accommodations for my six-week stay. My family and I had an opportunity to explore the city as I embarked on this hunt. There is a whole range of places to stay here, from the super deluxe hotels to very rudimentary guesthouses. The places I had short listed before I arrived turned out to be a little unsafe for a single woman living by herself. But eventually, I found a little gem of a place called the Dumas Guest House.
Jackie Blanc runs it. Her great grandfather used to be the mayor of Pondicherry. Jackie grew up in the large colonial house overflowing with art and historical artifacts. After spending her 20s and 30s in France with her French father, she decided to come back to Pondicherry when her mother passed away leaving her this massive house. She tore down all the maid's quarters and converted them into seven lovely guest villlas. So here I am now, in a large room with fantastic air conditioning as well as two fans. (It's going to get downright frigid in here, if I don't watch out!) Jackie inherited tons of beautiful antique wood furniture, so each room is outfitted with large armoires, desks and vanity tables.

On the compound, there is a rooftop lounge area for her guests to relax in the evenings and get to know one another over a cup of tea. All in all, the perfect place to spend six weeks (or perhaps longer, if I really fall in love with Pondy...). This place caters primarily to French long stay guests and so everybody here speaks French. It's great fun for me, because the last time I was completely immersed in a Francophone environment was when I was a child growing up in Paris.

Today I moved all my stuff into the room then the family went out for a goodbye dinner. My parents are leaving for Brussels tomorrow. We went to a restaurant called Satsanga, where they have a remarkably diverse menu of French, Italian and Indian food. I had a Spaghetti Bolongnaise, while the old fogies had Coq au Vin. It really doesn't get more European than this. The food was so scrumptious that we didn't even have room left for a banana split, which is our classic Segran celebratory dessert. (The perfect dessert, really: One scoop for each of us. Mom likes the banana, I like the ice-cream, Dad likes the nuts they sprinkle on top.)

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Segrans Have Landed

The Segran family safely arrived in India on Thursday. I am about to spend six weeks in Pondicherry doing an intensive spoken Tamil program. This class is really just an excuse to spend a good chunk of time writing my dissertation in India. Also, the French Institute of Pondicherry is a very helpful resource to Tamil scholars, especially those of us that work in the classical period. So I am looking forward to doing some research there. What is my entire family doing here with me? Well, there are multiple explanations floating about. Sometimes, the story is that Raja Segran needed a nice little break from work, and thought, why not go to Pondicherry? (And what a coincidence that his daughter HAPPENS to be there!) Others recount that Elizabeth Segran is the only 26 year old in the world whose parents are coming to settle her down for her summer program. (I actually heard my father tell his colleague, "I am just depositing my daughter in Pondicherry, and will be back for the meeting." His colleague wanted to know, "Have you remembered to buy her a lunchbox and a pencil case?") Whatever story you choose to believe, we are here now, and rather sweaty and sticky at that, because it is swelteringly hot this time of the summer.

We flew from London to Mumbai, then from Mumbai to Chennai, on the best airline in the world, Jet Airways. (I swear we're not biased...) We had a four hour layover in Mumbai, so my dad's colleague took us out for lunch at the Orchid Hotel, where THE EATING BEGAN!!! For our first meal in India, we all had what is called a Thali, which is a meal served on a banana leaf, with rice in the middle, surrounded by various vegetable and meat dishes. When it is served, it looks sort of like a colorful necklace, which is what Thali means. Thalis are necklaces that Indian women wear - they are often given by a husband to a wife during the marriage ceremony, sort of the way we exchange rings in the Western tradition. Anyway, all this to say that we were very excited about the culinary adventures we were about to embark on.

After our meal, we flew from Mumbai to Chennai. The city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), has a very different feel from Mumbai. It is the locus of activity in South India and is the capital of Tamil Nadu. People speak Tamil, rather than Hindi which is spoken in the north. South Indians tend to be of darker complexion, and therefore, flying from North to South really feels like entering into a different country altogether. Chennai is much less hectic and feels slightly more organized. The roads are just as dusty and also filled with cows taking strolls, but there are fewer potholes on the streets which makes for safer and easier driving.

There also appears to be less poverty in Chennai, which is a welcome relief after spending so much time in Mumbai. It can get emotionally exhausting to be confronted with so much suffering everywhere on the streets on Mumbai. While the streets of Chennai do not appear wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, there are fewer people begging, fewer disabled orphans and virtually no slums. The streets are filled with people who appear to be gainfully employed.

After a long day of travelling, we spent the Thursday night in Chennai at a hotel called the Lemon Tree, which is a quirky and fun little place. We ate all our meals at the hotel, and thoroughly enjoyed our fill on South Indian foods. This meant a lot of interesting pancake-like dishes called Thosai, and little fried savory doughnuts called Vadai.

Friday morning, we began our journey to Pondicherry. I'll write more about our stay there shortly.