Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Off to the Tropics

Saturday, July 19 How refreshing it is to see coconut trees as we exit the airport in Chennai, capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. It appears much like Hyderabad – far more modern, cleaner, and a more organized infrastructure than Delhi or Kolkata. Its six million people still stun you. Much like Hyderabad this town is a driving force behind India’s new technology and software industries. Once unpacked we grabbed a couple rickshaws to head to the beach. It was not what we had imagined. After a long walk trudging through rust colored sand we found ourselves among the masses there enjoying their seashore – in regular street clothes. Only a few young boys were in the water. Of course, we had to kick off our shoes to step into the Indian Ocean. A long row of vendors sold a little bit of everything. We were the sight for those there.

The evening included a demonstration of native Tamil Nadu dancing with past Fulbright scholars in attendance. The dancing was impressive. The movement and facial expressions convey exaggerated emotions - truly an art form. The influence of religion is apparent in all forms of expression in India. The origins are in temple dancing but is now taught and performed across India as part of their nationalist movement. India is such a young country (1947) with a rich heritage.

Sunday at the Basilica, the beach and a temple in Chennai

Sunday, July 20 Mass in English a St. Thomas Basilica will be a highlight of the trip. The Basilica is built over the Tomb of St. Thomas. Chennai has a large Christian population. It is one of three basilicas in the world that sit at the site of an apostle’s tomb. We felt so fortunate to have stumbled upon an English mass as six services are held. The primary language here in South India is Tamil so a Hindi phrasebook won’t get you far. English is still the official government language.

The auto rickshaw took us next to Marina Beach where over 200 people were killed in the 2004 tsunami. We were drawn to a section where the fishermen pull their boats ashore to empty their nets while their wives’ take the catch to the adjoining market to display and sell. This part of India lies within the steamy Tropic of Cancer. It feels very much like Florida. The sand is a rusty color with the strange absence of sea gulls. The families live in one room hovels that sit across the street from their make shift display of prawns and fish. These pitiful hovels are stacked atop one another in a close knit community. We ambled through their village – building trust with a personal introduction and friendly conversation. A colleague brought postcards of his home state with an introductory message on a label adhered to the back. It was a great ice-breaker that opened the door for photos to be comfortably taken. They loved to view themselves in the photos afterwards. Attempts to draw the globe in the sand to show where we live relative to India bewildered them. The poverty was extreme yet they were among the fortunate with a livelihood to feed the family.

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