There is a difference between honking the horn in India versus honking the horn in the United States. In the US, one could argue honking is an offensive move – one that tells your opponent, “Get out of my way!” , or, “I’m coming through!” This was my mindset as I first witnessed the crazy traffic just moments getting off the ship in Chennai, India, where the cars might as well come with a permanently sounding horn. It would certainly save the abuse those buttons suffer from the millions of drivers on the road at any given second.
After several days of experiencing the traffic – the honking, the weaving, the cows all over the road, and the endless games of chicken - I realized that not everyone is in a rush to get anywhere. The honking serves a different purpose in India. It is a statement of affirmation. It says, “I’m here, so please don’t decided to take a sudden turn to your left.” I tells us, “I exist.”
I Honk, Therefore I Am.
Once you come to that simple realization, Indian traffic suddenly becomes much calmer that what first meets the eye. Yes, it is chaotic. Yes, it is statistically unsafe. But yes, there should be thousands more accidents than there actually are. I know we almost hit several incoming vehicles – it was just too close. But really, were we truly ever in any real danger?
We were given five days in India. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that isn’t nearly enough time. The 1 billionth citizen of the country was born sometime in the last ten years, and the country is as vast and rich and complex as most continents. But five days was a pretty good start.
We woke up with the usual early morning pre-port sunrise crew, and the first thing we noticed as we arrived Chennai was that the sky and the water were brown. And there was a bad smell; not terrible, but something we hadn’t noticed in any of the previous ports. I won’t lie – I almost couldn’t picture arriving without the sounds of sitars and the site of bazaars in the background, but it really didn’t happen that way. We arrived in a concrete cargo ship port, and our first view of the Indian subcontinent was of industry, as should be expected in one of India’s largest city.
There was no easing into India. Immediately out of the port were the hundreds of rickshaws, the thousands of beggars, and the millions of people. Make no mistake – there is no doubt that India has a billion people. The four cities that I visited – Chennai, Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi – always looked like the end of a great concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco. There are people all over the place. Except they won’t clear up and go home… there will always be people all over the place.
But nevermind that, we had business to take care of. Yas, Jason, and I (and possibly Chris) decided against doing the huge SAS trip in China and have been planning a side trip to the province of Sizchuan, where they have holy mountains and great chicken. We wanted to purchase the tickets online, but the government run Dragon Air didn’t allow for e-tickets, so we would have to go to a travel agency to get that taken care of. With the help of a rickshaw driver that would not leave us alone, we found a travel agency, only to find out that the tickets we wanted were sold out.
Never fear. We improvised. We asked for a map of China, and without knowing anything about anything, we randomly picked a city on the map, Kunming, and asked if they had tickets there. They had exactly three. And they were cheaper that tickets to Sizchuan. Without hesitation, and knowing nothing about Kunming, we made the reservation leaving from Hong Kong. Better yet, the employees at the travel agency were extremely generous and didn’t charge us anything for their time. I’ll let you know more about Kunming when we actually do some research on it. But we’re going, and I can’t wait.
We left the travel agency, and the rickshaw driver had been waiting for us the entire time. He would not leave us alone. So what did we do? We negotiated a price with him, of course, of 25 Rupees a person to take us out the whole day. He accepted, and we crammed into the rickshaw – three people in the back, me sharing a one-person seat with the driver, and the crazy tour of Chennai began.
It was a great day. We drove all over the city, seeing everywhere the poverty that is often isolated in the slums and the favelas and the townships in other countries in the world. We did a little shopping (the driver clearly was getting commission on a few of the expensive, crappy gift shops around town, but that ended as soon as we threatened not to pay), ate great South Indian food (Is that redundant? Iisn’t all South Indian food great?), and went to the huge-yet-sewer-smelling Marina Beach, which was heavily hit by last year’s tsunami and where everyone goes fully clothed and no one wears a swimsuit. It isn’t part of Indian culture.
Then again, what is? At this point, we were well aware of many Indian customs, such as the need to dress conservatively – all SAS guys wore pants and all SAS women wore sleeves and loose clothes (by the way, why do Indian women dress so beautifully, by our standards, yet men are the polar opposite?), the use of the right hand and the disapproval of public displays of affection between the sexes (though it is perfectly acceptable for two straight men to walk hand-in-hand down the street). We did notice that a lot of these customs were only followed by the older generation, and wondered if, with the influx of western culture into the country, if there is going to be a generational schism in India similar to what the US experienced in the 60s.
By the end of the day, our driver had a name, Baboo, and I got to drive the rickshaw while my passengers almost wet their pants. The day was almost over, we went back to the ship (but not before Baboo tripled the price of the ride), and we finagled our way into the welcome reception, hoping it would be as good as the one in Brazil. It was nice, with Indian dance and food, but not nearly as fun as Brazil. Not even close. But it had a great day, I’d already seen many things, some of them sad, some of them different, that I’d never seen before, but I was still waiting for that life-changing experience that people told me I would have in India.
I was sure it would happen at some point. But as I got ready for my 4am wake up call to catch my early-morning flight to Delhi, I was sure my chances of doing so were greatly diminished by having signed up, months ago, to one of the largest SAS trip: a crazy, four day tour of Delhi, Agra, and Varanasi with 69 people. I didn’t want other people being my limiting factor on this trip.
But alas, I had already paid. Most of us fell asleep immediately on the plane, hit Delhi, and got a connecting flight to Hinduism’s holiest city, Varanasi, on the shores of the Ganges river.
Varanasi was a lot different from Chennai. I’d been in India for 24 hours and I could already notice big differences between the north and south of the country, which further emphasized the importance of not assuming that any single experience is representative of all of India.
Varanasi is also important as the birthplace of Buddhism, where Buddha gave his first sermon (on enlightment) in Sarnath. We visited a museum of Buddhist history in India, where I learned that Hindus, with their big and complex belief system, can easily claim Buddhism to be a branch of Hinduism, with Buddha being the ninth reincarnation of Vishnu. Interesting, interesting stuff. Sarnath is in ruins because of the many Muslim invasions that India endured over the years (I’ll come back to the tense relationship between the Hindus and Muslims that has grown in the last few years and is the greatest threat to world peace since both majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan are sitting on nuclear arsenals).
This was my introduction to Buddhism, since we haven’t hit it on the ship yet, but it served as a great buildup to the rest of Asia, which I’m most excited about on this trip.
Alright, sorry for the blabbing. You might notice there are not pictures up yet. Things have gotten busy… plus no one can stop talking about India, which is a pretty time-consuming activity. I’m going to sleep for a little bit, then I’ll continue with the rest of the trip. Looks like these will be long entries.
All four engines are running right now – the ship is crossing the Bay of Bengal at 28 knots per hour. You should see the wake behind the ship. We hit the Yangoon river at high tide in the morning on the way to Yangoon. Of course I’m watching the sunrise, again. I think Myanmar is the country I’ve been most excited about visiting this voyage.
Back in a few.