Wednesday evening, Scott and his colleague, Rod (also from Austin) met their team out for dinner. I entertained myself at the resort for dinner and then hid from the mosquitoes by watching Indian TV. The Bollywood music videos are fascinating! I am addicted to watching them, even though I cannot understand the language, the meanings are obvious. I love watching their facial expressions, hearing the music and looking at all their clothes. They definitely have the dance moves, but my sister-in-law, Connie could teach them a little something.
Thursday morning, I discovered the mosquitoes loved our game of hide and seek. They won. I lost. There was a huge mosquito bite on my eyelid. How could they find my eyelid, when I wear an eye mask to bed?
Scott went to the office. My driver, Venkatesh, and I took off to explore the city. There is so much dust and pollution in Chennai. Often I have had to cover my nose and mouth to breathe. We have been told you don’t have to wear sunscreen here, because the pollution is so bad. Regardless, I don’t take any chances and use both sunscreen and mosquito protection cream.
Venkatesh tells me, on our drive, that I am so fortunate to have a husband that lets me leave the house, talk to others and have wine. I laugh understanding how odd our culture is to him. So I asked him about his family and daily life. His English is pretty good at times and he is very smart. All his English is conversational English that he learned on his own. Venkatesh works for a man who owns the air-conditioned van. Every morning he wakes up at 5 a.m., has his coffee with cow’s milk (cows milk is only for breakfast), goes to the temple in his village to pray to his gods, then walks to catch a crowded, open aired bus, to the garage where the van is kept. He drives through the crazy traffic and arrives at the resort where he washes and cleans the van before picking me up at 8 a.m. And that is just his morning routine.
Venkatesh’s wife works in the home. She hand-washes all the clothes, hangs the clothes out to dry and then presses them neatly. Her other duties include getting up with the children at 5 a.m. so they can begin studying and quizzes them on their studies. The children are learning proper grammar in three different languages plus their regular studies of science, history, mathematics and gym. It’s too loud here to study during the day and night, so they must study in the early morning hours. Once the children (girl 12 and boy 8) are finished studying they dress in one of their three school uniforms and wait for the bus. While the children are away to school, Venkatesh’s wife works to clean the house and all the necessary things to prepare meals. Last night she served their family a crab dish with rice and vegetables. Venkatesh said it was quite tasty.
He takes me to visit the temples. There are some paved roads here and some dirt roads. The parking lots are dirt and there is random broken things, like glass, sharp metal objects and such in the parking lot. Venkatesh tells me to get out of the van and leave my shoes. I stay put, not knowing what I should do and being thankful for the tetanus injection I received last week, that left my arm sore for days. Venkatesh opens my door and repeats, get out and leave your shoes. I give him a hopeless look and asked, “How will I walk?” Venkatesh looks down and shakes his head no (which later I found out means yes) and returns to the driver seat to drive me closer to the door. He tells me we will wash my legs (he meant feet) later.
There are tons of shoes outside the temple. Everyone here wears sandals. We enter the temple and I am approached by a man asking for money to carry my camera. I handed him whatever he wanted, because this was all too good to miss. The carvings and colors of the temple were amazing. There were so many rituals and I hope I can remember them all. Before going into the temple you can purchase items like, flowers, beads, coconuts and such to lay before the statue gods. The coconut is one of the more interesting symbols to me. The outside fur of the coconut represents man’s skin/flesh. It is important to slam your coconut down into a pit to break it open. The coconut meat represents your heart and the coconut water is your sin. Breaking the coconut helps you to release any sins you may have committed.
There are appropriate places to photograph and inappropriate places to photograph in the temple. I quickly learn the difference and off we go. Venkatesh takes me to one of the god statues, where a man wearing only a garment around his waist is standing with several colored markings on his face. Venkatesh takes me to the front and center and I am unsure what is about to happen, if it is appropriate to speak or what I am supposed to do. Silly me, worrying about what would happen next. As with everything thus far, someone always steps in to command what I should do, eat, photograph and such. I am shoved to the front by a not so gentle woman. Venkatesh hands me a folded bill, where I am instructed to put it on the brass plate being held by man in front. In two point two seconds I have been marked with a red streak down my forehead by the man and handed some green grass like stuff. I am quickly scolded by everyone because I reached for the grass with my left hand, which is unclean in this culture. I learn later, its unclean because that is the hand you use to clean yourself in the bathroom. Unsure of what to do with the grass, I put it in my pocket. Later, I found out I was supposed to lay the grass before the statue of the elephant god – because duh – elephants like to eat grass, I am told.
There are loads of beautiful paintings. People are walking into the temple from the street. They lay face down on the ground and begin their worshipping. Some of the paintings are on the ground and some on the ceilings. There are seven distinct paintings on the ceiling which I learn represent the seven chakras. There is also the smell of something delicious being cooked. This is free food being made to serve to the homeless people at the temple.
We climb to the top floor of the temple. It overlooks the ocean and you can see miles away. I am in awe by the view and enjoy visualizing what this area must have looked like years ago. I feel so peaceful, as I begin my journey down the narrow steps of the temple. A lady pokes me sternly in the chest/shoulder area. I smile real big and say thank you to her scowling face, believing she must have squashed a big mosquito on my chest. As I walk away, I look down to remove any mosquito splatter left on my skin. I realize the lady wasn’t poking a mosquito, she was pointing out my bra strap was showing. Ouch.
Next we go to visit the cows that are being kept in a barn like structure beside the temple. Venkatesh thinks I would really get a kick of seeing the cows, because every time we are driving on the highway surrounded by cows I am amazed to see cows out roaming the streets. I tell Vekatesh this is how we normally see cows, in barns and fields eating grass. He finds this quite confusing and downright silly because the cows here are smart and know how to get home. Later I find out this is true. The cows do eventually migrate home.
Finally we go to pit of water, surrounded by concrete steps leading down to the water. Venkatesh is visiting with a man who has brought food to feed the fish in the water pit. They want to show me the size of the fish, which of course, they tell me to, “Take a picture.” I do. Then Venkatesh felt like the man wasn’t feeding the fish enough of the food and told him to throw it all in the water. The man did just that. Bag and all. I gasped dreading the thought of a poor fish being trapped in the plastic food bag and of course more trash being left behind. They both looked at me, like I was silly and said, “Don’t worry. You can’t eat these fish.”
Venkatesh takes me to several more temples until I tell him I am hungry and would like to eat at a nice air-conditioned restaurant. He delivers me to a place and tells me he will be waiting for me outside. Everyone in the restaurant is happy to see me. It takes five people to decide where I will sit and of course, they choose a place where everyone can see me. I can only guess this is the best seat in the house. Word has spread that a white American lady is here, so while I am reading the menu the kitchen help come out one at a time to look at me. I catch them by surprise when they find out, I can speak. I say hello and how are you and such phrases. Some of them understand these words and some just smile real big. I feel like they were trying to match the smile on my face. I select a couple of dishes and discuss them with the waiter. He discourages me from those choices due to my intolerance of lots of spice and I agree to whatever he has said. My plate is again a banana leaf. I am surprised this hasn’t caught on in the U.S. because this would save us a lot of dish washing. I also request a spoon, as everyone here eats with their fingers. I will tell you, after giving it a shot, it doesn’t work for me. It can best be related to eating with chop sticks for the first time. After four different choices of rice, with several colored gravies, button mushrooms covered in red spice, a banana and a leaf filled with goodies for good digestion and breath and I am stuff beyond belief. But then there is more, because they haven’t shown me their other wonderful dishes. Two hours later and I finally convince them I cannot eat any more.
Vinkatesh is excited to hear my stories about lunch. He laughs and laughs at everything I tell him about my experience and asks lots of questions. The most important question is, “Madam, how much you pay for lunch?” It was about five U.S. dollars and he is satisfied because that is much cheaper than the resort. I laugh and tell him, “Yes and much tastier.”
It’s Friday morning and I have discovered the mosquitos made a meal out of my right arm. Lucky for them, I am a deep sleeper. I make a mental note to hunt for mosquitoes tonight before going to bed. At breakfast, I learn Scott, Rod and myself have been invited to “liquid supports” tonight with some of the Global Operations team. I am excited because I know this must mean a happy hour. Vinkatesh picks me up at the resort at 8 a.m. again. I request he take me shopping, but not to the markets but in air-conditioned stores. He agrees and off we go.
Scott had told Vinkatesh how important it is to him that I have a good time, stay safe and am able to take lots of pictures. Vinkatesh is a man of solid honor and trust. Vinkatesh follows the pattern to how Scott handled me in the outdoor markets – carrying my purse, camera bag and occasionally handing me wipes to clean my hands. It makes me laugh that he is so happy to handle all my things, especially since Scott doesn’t carry my purse. Vinkatesh and I create a system of how we will bargain today with the store owners. He believes I should buy a silk scarf because that’s what ladies wear to cover their hidden mysteries. Is it just me or do they realize how hot it is in India and wearing scarves just makes it hotter? Plus hidden mysteries – my foot. There are so many statues everywhere displaying the hidden mysteries of a women, so it’s really not to mysterious. So fine, I look at scarves. They are 120 US dollars. Vinkatesh gives me the super secret hand signal of 5. I go back and forth with the store owners and settle on 60 US dollar. I am very excited to talk about our first bargaining act together when we get in the van and announce what a great bargain we got today on the scarf. Vinkatesh says, “Madam. I said 5. That means fifty dollars. No more. You paid 10 more.” I nodded in agreement that I paid way too much but didn’t have the heart to say – time is wasting, I want to do more shopping!
We shopped all morning going to several different stores. We arrived at a jewelry shop in time for “tea time.” We all sat without speaking enjoying our delicious midmorning drink. It was filled with so many spicy scents and I hoped it wouldn’t upset my system because it was too good to put down. After tea time we got down to business, selecting more pieces for my souvenir collection. After I gathered all the choice pieces and a price was agreed upon we returned to the van. Again, the price awarded wasn’t the one Vinkatesh would have chosen. This time he laughs at me. The last shop we go to wouldn’t allow drivers inside the store. Vinkatesh held his ground and told the store owners I couldn’t go in without him. Score Vinkatesh. We looked around and left. It irritated me that Vinkatesh wasn’t welcomed, which alarmed me they wouldn’t have given me a good price.
I got ready for Vinkatesh to drive me to meet Scott and his colleagues from the Chennai PayPal office out for “liquid supports”. As usual, there were lots of close calls in traffic and once we were hit by kids driving a motorcycle with an outstretched 2×4 piece of wood. Unfortunately, any damages are the responsibility of Vinkatesh. Venkatesh, got us there safely and I only squealed a couple of times – once yelling, “Holy cow!” Which I immediate felt bad and asked if this was taking their god’s name in vain. Venkatesh assured me it was fine.
I learned from Venkatesh that PayPal/eBay is a very good company to work for in Chennai. PayPal has many air-conditioned buses with internet support and the employees are given rides to and from work. This is a huge benefit, as traffic is so unruly and the open aired buses are very crowded, often with people hanging out the doors, sometimes windows. There are other means of transportation such as the “auto” which is a drivable, open aired rickshaw. I have seen up to 12 people riding in this 4-5 person ride. Venkatesh tells me that isn’t legal and they could be fined five dollars if caught.
Our dinner was a buffet style meal, with lots of fresh vegetables, fruit and of course loads of spicy Indian foods. The spices in the air at the restaurant irritated my allergies, but once I ate the spicy food I had no problems breathing and I definitely couldn’t feel the sides of my tongue. We enjoyed tasting several of the dishes and of course the wonderful company. I talked to everyone at the table, except one particular individual at the end of the table named Jagmond. He wore a turban and I wanted to learn more about him. I asked him to come sit by me so I could learn more about him. He was fascinating to me and had tons of knowledge to share. We talked about his culture, traditions, family and spirituality. I had no idea he wasn’t allowed to cut his hair nor beard. Daily he must roll his hair into a bun and tie up his beard neatly. He recommended a book for me to read and later gave Scott some great studies that we have in common by a guy named Mike Tooley. I am excited to read them.
On the ride home, Venkatesh told Mr. Scott, “Sir, madam likes a lot of shopping.” We all rolled laughing. We begin talking about him and his wife and their shopping. We learned that sometimes after a long day of driving, Venkatesh wants to go home and rest – but his wife wants to go someplace. He said, “Madam, different cultures, same wives – nag. nag. nag.” Again, we all rolled laughing!
Due to power outages and software complications, I will be posting images at a later date.