Flies are everywhere. Multicolored artificial and organic waste piles are lumped haphazardly in nooks and fields and street corners, strewn about to decompose and rot in the hot afternoon sun. They blend into an amalgam of stench on every empty lot, sidewalk gutter, and minor roadside. The mornings are bearable, temperature- and odor-wise, as the humid air hands at a “cool” 85 degrees. But the journeys home after my worksite visits to the company factory in Thiruvottiyur, along the coastal Suryanarayana road, are horrendous. The city has baked in 98 degree heat all day, and the rubbish heaps act similar to dad’s composting towers by the garage at home. The dwellings along the roadside, in the thin strip of land between the road and the ocean, are make-shift and consist of sod of palm tree leaves. These were the 5,000 that died in India during the 2004 tsunami- the poorest live on the coastlines, the fishmongers and dockworkers, in stark contrast to America, where the richest have the shoreline mansions.
The putrid smell of a country, confused between its’ status as a developed/developing nation, smacks the face after an air-conditioned day at the office chair and in meeting rooms with union leaders and HR managers. The exhaust fumes of giant company-commissioned buses, badly outdated, sagging and overburdened (one of the most prime and popular spots is outside the bus, where at least you get some air circulation) city buses, daredevil mercenary auto-rickshaws, construction and agricultural pick-up trucks, and personal cars all hang in the air, fusing with the stench of the refuse of the second most populous country in the world’s fourth most populous city. Rickshaws and buses lack A/C, so all windows are slung open to let the sweltering combustion byproduct-laden air slug you in the face. Just as I followed the example of stiletto-burdened office women in NYC, shedding their heels on the subway in favor of their concealed flip-flops, I have adopted a similarly popular health-conscious rush-hour practice seen employed here by many- a moistened kerchief, tied around the mouth. Does it work? Is their fuel even unleaded yet? Do I have super-carcinogenic radioactive X-Men lungs by now? (and if I do, what are my awesome superpowers? When does Marvel release MY movie?) I don’t know, but it seems to work, and that’s all that matters, right?
What is all this, you ask? The same guy that unpacks months after returning from travels, cleans his room monthly at best, considered showering optional in wintertime, and has beard-growing competitions with his college friends, is now concerned with cleanliness and hygiene? When the ride from your work in your business clothes leaves you smelling like you just pole vaulted into the city dumpster, that’s when.
When observing the filth these city-dwellers put up with (trash cans, perhaps? city-run trash collection run more than once a day? a system of fines, enforced by police?!? ANYTHING?) I have to constantly remind myself of my introductory anthropology class at UCSC- different cultures simply place different values on different things and should be viewed as "equal" unless violative of "universal human rights." The crime rate here is quite low (less than 15% of that of NYC’s, from what I just researched) and the students I have seen and spoken with in various random situations seem to not only be extraordinarily passionate about learning but a hell of a lot smarter than I. I suppose filthy cities can be considered a by-product of this sort of excellence.
I also continue to be astonished at people keeping up appearances. All socio-economic classes of citizens seem to be dressed to the nines, despite the heat and the poverty of those on the lower rungs of the ladder. I have glimpsed less than ten people wearing “western clothes” (jeans, shorts, t shirts, tank tops, muscle tees, etc) during my three weeks here in Chennai. The men, always with collared shirts (tucked in of course!), dress pants, and dress shoes. Women in spotless, explosively colored sarees, matching accoutrements, nose, arm, finger, belly, and foot jewelry, and garlands of jasmine flowers, tied together in a string, streaming from their ponytails. My mind wanders to those black and white photographs of early 20th century American working class citizens, when every man seemed to have a vest, coat, slacks, and newsboy (or bowler) hat, hair slicked back with pomade, pipe in mouth, rockin’ the walrus mustache. I guess the idea then, as now, is buy one or two great outfits… and keep wearing them, daily (the smell, of course, is another story)!
I have gained a little perspective, I believe, of what it feels like to be a distinct minority or outsider, for perhaps the first time in my life. Maybe just scratching the surface… but more so than any time in America . Not even my various travels to foreign countries, especially to Tunisia, compare. Tunisia, another bargaining-oriented (end-product) economy, where I was taken advantage of right and left… was just due to the fact I was a tourist. I mean racial minority. My height and color (due to either genetics or malnutrition, which I can definitely see occurring here, the Tamils are very short, as are their neighboring Keralans, and their skin is darker than most African-Americans I know. My pasty whiteness and sequoia-ic stature does not aid in blending in) are the reasons for the reactions I observe… any place I venture outside of my home or office, I find I am stared at, unblinkingly, with wide eyes; photographed by loitering teens; or giggled at/danced around/climbed upon by preschool children. The latter being the only one I’m cool with. The former two really start to grate on me after a while. To quote dear foolhardy "SPF 6" Mike, after his self-inflicted billionth-degree sunburns in Hawaii and the ensuing stares from passersby, “I'm starting to feel like a freak!"
I saw a white woman at the beach today, a large white man (bedecked in shorts, sneakers, Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, the whole ensemble), and my housemate, the other American, a few times… other than those and a few others in a city of 8 million, it’s almost accurate to say I am the only white guy in Chennai. It is similarly interesting to note that, while I read and hear of India ’s immense racial diversity, such diversity certainly does not exist so in my city, or at least the routes and locations I have been frequenting. I have not seen a single person with any eastern/southeastern Asian features, not a single sub-saharan African (black), and hardly any northern African/southwestern Asian (arabic) – like faces. It is certainly almost exclusively a Dravidian city.
But on a positive note! The friendliness of people here takes one aback, and, coming from a few years in NYC, it is easy to view other’s actions through the skeptical lens before relaxing and framing other’s actions in a different light. It seems at first as if everyone is trying to scam you. However, I have experienced ulterior-motiveless conversations time and time again, on the bus, on the beach, at grocery stores, at work. Conversations that would normally end with “can I have your number,” “buy this for $____,” or “let me show you this tourist site” actually just end as strangely abruptly as they began, usually consisting of their inquiries as to my origination, my reasons for being here, and how I like Indian food (ironically, actually, it usually does involve me being asked for my number, seemingly in contrast to my previous example- but here, its like asking someone’s name. It’s a matter of course, and not at all as scheisty as a first-time-meeting’s “can I get your digits” in the USA ). For example, a group of five teenage boys were being rowdy and seemed to be heckling me on the bus, laughing uproariously, poking my shoulder, exclaiming one-word English keywords they seemed to have picked up from commercials. In NYC, that was my key to A: change subway cars, or B: punch their lights out. However, it turned out they were simply excited to meet an American, were going swimming at the pool, and wanted me to accompany them, after I smoked a cigarette with them (because cigarettes and Americans smoking them are the epitome of awesomeness). I think they may have doubted my nationality claims when I declined the latter, but the point was they just wanted to hang out after school. I have constantly reminded myself of this when in other situations- peoples’ approach to meeting you, and wanting to meet you in general (there have been many other randoms on buses and beaches) is quite different. I am constantly asked about my salary in America, where my wife/fiancee is (by 24, most every is married by arranged marriage- 25 at the latest), how old I am, etc. as introductory questions, questions usually reserved for a few conversations in to a relationship in America, or perhaps never asked at all. It reminds me of my other living experience abroad, when we lived in New Zealand and I was asked routinely and without fail one or more of the following upon meeting new classmates: “do you bring a gun to school/have a metal detector at school?” “do you know any Hollywood stars?” or “are you from California / New York?”
Back to the boys on the bus, going swimming at a pool. We had just stopped off at the last stop, Chennai beach. That puzzled me. You go to the beach to swim in a pool? Isn't that like driving to the mall and taking the escalator to hit the 24-Hour Fitness gym’s cardio machines? One thing that came to my mind as I neared the shoreline and observed a human barrier, five- or six-thick for almost an unbroken mile, with only enough waders (no swimmers at all) to count on one hand, was perhaps the collective memory of the 2004 tsunami was still raw in their minds, and the damage it caused to all’s lives. But upon closer observation, I determined another deterrent - which certainly worked for me, and was likely also the pool-going boys’ reason - the water is as filthy as the city’s streams (or, more aptly named, sludge conduits) and streetsides. And as with the male hand-holding paradox I observed weeks ago, I wondered as to the origination of another societal norm: men were on the beach, wading in the water completely clothed, but those in the pool were shirtless and even had barely-there Euro-Speedoes. Am I missing something!? And on that “public decency" note, why does a culture that is so concerned with covering skin (in addition to the shorts-less-ness of the city, I am observing more and more burqas, only inches of a facial rectangle of skin visible, from the Muslim population here) seem to have no qualms with men of all societal statures, poor AND rich, urinating on roadsides within plain view of both sexes and all ages, without even bothering to seek the privacy of a fence corner or shrubbery? I see this everywhere, daily. It may have something to do with a shared understand of nature’s rule, “when you gotta go, you gotta go.” Or perhaps the general cleanliness of the city: dumpster-like. Or, perhaps, the public restroom and highway rest stop situations are similar to the city’s garbage disposal machinations- ranging from sporadic to non-existent. Whatever it is, these roadside stoppings may be spurred on by the fact that so far I have counted three obligatory tea-times at work: breakfast, 10:00 a.m., and 3:00 p.m, without fail.
The somewhat negative subjects of most of these writings are surely due to my mood after a week where I managed to lose my guide to India, my digital camera (with irreplaceable images of various Hawaiian isles, Portland, NYC, Bombay, Delhi and Chennai), and my wallet, all in a small time-frame. But there are surely delights and pleasures to enjoy as well, as with any unfamiliar distant place. I took the day off mid-week to try to contact last-seen-ats and post rewards for these lost items (stated reason to the boss) and to explore the fun side of Chennai (negated to mention to the boss). I watched a delightful and predictably hokey movie at a super-duper-mega-plex for the equivalent of $2, and observed many interesting things. They still use 15-minute intermissions; talking on the cell phone during a movie is semi-permissible (and NO one puts their phones on silent); they have “deluxe seating” (large fold down seats for couples), and online ticket buying almost mandatorily implemented- movies sell out one day in advance, ALL movies, and weekend showings are all bought up by the preceding TUESDAY. I got a ticket to the only thing left, obviously.
Then, as many engineering and mechanics find the best way to understand the machination of a device is to deconstruct and then rebuild it, I like to get lost and then find my way around new places. So as I exited the cinema, leisurely walked around for a while, took the first bus I found, heading to what I calculated to be "east", which is the best I can do in a place like this, and got off at the beach of the Bay of Bengal. I walked around the shops and stalls for a while ($1.75 Chinese rip-off Lacoste polos, heyoooo… Vinny, how many do you and Austen need… they are just your guys’ size- “extra-metro”) and went to the end of a jetty to watch a tropical storm sunset. I then decided to have some automotive fun: instead of taking the usual rickshaw ($2-3 for a 45 minute ride across town… but the certain loser of a traffic deathmatch between it and any other possible vehicle… especially the following-) I took a bus. 10 cents is the fare. Packed like a sardine can, and with routes, stops and frequencies known only to locals (online information is never updated, I am told), they are quite the experience. I learned the following: a 25 minute ride home can take 100 minutes, if you try hard enough (or listen to every individuals’ opinions on how to get somewhere fastest); lanes are meaningless in India (buses opt for two lanes at once, more comfortable, I suppose- and don’t signal their entry/exit to/from them); you don’t have to pay for bus fare at rush hour (the bus is so packed with bodies, the fare collector cannot penetrate the sweaty, stinking jungle of human flesh); everyone has a different way to get to one fixed location (but is that any different than any NYC subway strap-hanger you’ve ever asked? “Take the W to the 5, then the M60.” “No no no, the N is express. Then take the 4.”); and lastly, Keanu Reeves’ “Speed” has made a lasting impression on bus drivers here: in “Speed,” you may recall the devious Dennis Hopper fixes a bus to explode if its speed drops below 50 mph... similarly, bus stops are not stopped at here, but merely “gestured towards” by pulling in halfway, and given a “rolling hesitation” as the deceleration portion is reserved for those departing the bus, and the acceleration for those boarding. During the “slow down” portion, chivalrous norms are forgotten as boy is pitted against grandma, businessman against businesswoman, mother against little girl (hardly different than NYC, on second thought- the memory of attempting to leave a subway car at rush hour whilst others take the meaning of rush hour literally and bum-rush you- reminds me of playing “red rover” at recess). Boarding is similar, but with a few twists- boarding blurs distinctions between “handrail” and “torso” as you can (and must, if you don’t want to wait another half hour!) grab on to either/or in your mad dash, but as the bus gets faster and faster, suddenly you see humanity prevail and hands reach out to grab the runners and hold them fast as they get a firm stance on the stairs.
Sadly, I have witnessed death here as well in addition to all the stink, heat, poverty and chaos. (strangely, only human death- the stray Brahmin cows that amble about wherever they please, chewing on piles of trash on highway shoulders, the ambling goats, and the dingo-like dogs that scratch their flea-bitten ears on every street corner seem perky and healthy as can be- no animal deaths observed yet). My first day here, I walked along the arterial Poonamallee High Road during rush hour (a slower-moving, dirtier I-5 at 7:00 p.m…. with foot traffic) shouldering my way through the masses and toeing my way around trash piles and accidental (or purposeful? I still don’t get this city) cesspools. I came upon an old man, ragged and thin, laying on the sidewalk, as the feet of the city rushed around, over, past him. I had witnessed a few dozen similar sights already; they generally look either near-death or nirvana attaining, as their eyes do not meet your gaze even if they are physically pointed at you, they are oblivious to objects brushing their faces, and they sit cross legged on the ground or asleep with a slab of concrete as a pillow. This particular man was precariously close to the edge of the sidewalk, but as always, everyone made adjustments as such, as streams of swarming ants around a newly fallen stone. I passed, found a restaurant, and returned hours later, passing that same spot. The man was being pulled out of the filthy gutter by an old woman; he had slipped down into the roadway (the traffic here also acts as ants do, using every permeable path, autos and motorcyclists slip between other cars and buses, 2 to a lane- so even the road’s shoulder is unsafe) and was being pulled up to the sidewalk. His head, having been run over, was bleeding from the temple and crown, his eyes now closed and chest still. The flow of foot traffic stopped, but only for seconds, in order to get a glance at the scene; then everyone continued their journeys home at the same frenzied pace, after the woman dragged him away to a fence, away from the sidewalk.
My second experience was in Mahabalipuram last weekend, just after losing my wallet (which made the situation quite darkly ironic: the subject of this story, a beggar who approached me, actually had more money on her at the time than I did). But first, some background. I was advised by many people that if one wishes to donate any amount of money to aid the poor in India , one does NOT give to beggars. Aid foundations are where you must donate. The reasons are twofold: one, similar to America , they likely will use it simply fuel the engine of their own destruction, drugs or alcohol. Funding aid organizations gives them places to stay or means of empowerment. Two, if you give anything, they will then dog you for MILES for more, having located a source of money. We found this to be true, as my traveling companion (the American living next to me) gave this particular poor woman with a baby swaddled against her modest saree some small amount of rupees. But she kept following, speaking in the same raspy, quiet voice likely the only word she’d ever heard in English: “Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.” She followed us wherever we went. My companion started getting extremely frustrated, venting at her (in English; a lot of good that’ll do) and explaining heatedly to her that he has no more money, stop, please leave us alone… etc. I tell him my previously stated two reasons to not give money to them directly (which probably annoyed him more as it was already too late- I’m good at that sort of advice) and do certainly not give again, as that would be akin to adoption. The entire time she stubbornly trailed us, the baby in her arms had a strange expression on its face, and a strange squint in its closed eyes. It was a very loud and hot area with many flies, not a place conducive for babies to rest, and I felt bad that she didn’t have him off in some crib somewhere. We finally succeeded in convincing her to leave us be, and as we reached our destination and climbed into the storefront, I gave a hesitant glance back at her to see where she was going- just long enough to see her baby’s head gruesomely slump forward, almost out of her grasp, as she quickly identified the next tourist to ply for alms. Propping the baby back up, so as to look alive again, she plodded after them, palms outstretched, muttering “Hello. Hello. Hello.”