Today is our first day off in this magnificent country and the lovely team of programmers graciously gave up their Saturday to show us some local sights and spend the day with us. The day didn't have the best start, as before they even got to picking us up, they had a puncture and were over an hour late, with us clueless as to when they might arrive. However, that wasn't going to spoil our trip and I must say that I have had a thoroughly incredible day, with an array of differing sights, smells and sounds. So I thought maybe the easiest way to sum up and process my thoughts on today would be to go through sense by sense, here goes:
- Mamallapuram, an archaeological sight of ancient temples and sculptures - those that aren't already submerged below the sea that is. These are incredible works of art, many are huge structures carved out of a single piece of stone, with up to 50+ images of different figures/characters/gods. I struggled to know how to correctly respond to seeing these though. On the one hand I want to be respectful and I am genuinely in the culture and history. Yet on the other hand I believe it is completely futile to worship gods carved by human hands, more so than that I believe it massively offends and upsets my Lord, the one true and living God (although I understand that's controversial to say).
- My life flash before my eyes! I'm still yet to get used to the roads and traffic here. Drivers don't really use lanes, if there is a gap wide enough (or nearly wide enough) to get through, then that's good enough, often with nail-biting, gasp-inducing moments. Also, at any moment, anything could appear in the road; maybe a car pulling out, a tuk tuk, a pedestrian (crossing roads here normally is impossible, so you just have to step out and make a stop sign with your hand and hope!), or maybe even a cow or goat (or 6!) I had the fortunate position of sitting in the middle, in my head I named this 'the death seat' as it had no seat belt, but easiest access to fly through the windscreen - which fortunately didn't happen today, just.
- Our driver laugh. I'd been concerned during the week that this man who'd been driving us each day, to work or dinner or shopping, might just feel like our servant and that we're not grateful to him, especially in those time where he has had to wait in the car rather than join us.. As his English is limited and he has tended to be wearing a grumpy face, communication has not flowed freely. However, today he joined us at Mamallapuram, and we began to share in facial expressions and occasional English words. He also had lunch at the same hotel as us (although I felt really uncomfortable when I realised that he had come back from parking and was sat at a separate table). Then, best of all, our last stop of the day was a boat ride on Muttukadu, which would not in a million years pass a Health and Safety inspection, and probably wasn't the preference of one of our water-shy team. But these two factors meant that our driver roared with laughter (as did the rest of us) and it felt like a real team-bonding moment!
- Begging. Up until now, within the city of Chennai, although it may not look like our Western idea of developed, I don't think we've seen the kind of poverty I was expecting. I haven't seen anyone begging, people are dressed smartly, everyone seems to be employed in some kind of activity - though I'm aware many will be much less lucrative than others. But literally the second we stepped out of the car today at the first site, we were approached for money. Sometimes they were selling things, sometimes purely begging. Again, I don't know what the right response to this is. My default British response is just to say no, shake my head and move on. Perhaps this is sensible/streetwise, perhaps this is mean/lacking compassion, perhaps both. But I want to engage in life here with both my head and my heart, and I think I'm still working out how to do that.
- Cardamon, sandalwood, jasmine and a million other delicious spices! Whenever we get out of the lift in the hotel, or wander down a corridor, or walk outside with street food being sold, or enter a restaurant, we are hit by blends of fragrances that somehow always go together incredibly. Everywhere you go is a feast and a symphony for the nose!
- Poverty. It's an aroma exactly as I remember smelling during my time in Malawi. It's kind of a mix of sweat, urine, animals and heat. Yet it is not unbearable to breathe in, which may be a reflection of our terrible human capacity to tolerate poverty and social injustice. This is a challenge, but at the same time it increases my affections for these people.
- Rain. Can you believe it? Nearly 5000 miles from Wales and still not catching rays! Fortunately it was just showers and not the day-long downpours that were predicted. They were also well-timed to happen mainly while we were inside or driving. Rain here isn't like rain I'm used to though as well, it doesn't make you feel any colder! It also doesn't really clear the air, the air has been 'thick' or 'close' our whole time here, it's kind of like being in the bathroom straight after a hot shower.
- The Bay of Bengal! I've seen it every day from my hotel window but today was the first time we actually had chance to dip our toes in. Clare and myself and Vikram (one of our programming team) all stood on the water's edge, as the high tide, wind and big waves made it dangerous to venture any further in. Vikram's assessment of the water was 'cold', but I can tell you as someone who loves to swim in the sea in the UK, this was nowhere near cold! Somehow, standing in a 'new sea' makes me so excited too! It just highlights how far away I am, yet still connected to home. It's kind of like bumping into a much cherished and respected friend who I've already experienced so much with and grown to know so well.
- Real Coconut. This was a really special moment, just after visiting the first site, we all stopped and had a coconut. First they chop the top of and you drink the water through a straw, and when that's all gone you hand it back, then they cut it open and you can eat the white flesh inside. I'm not sure what exactly it tasted like, certainly not like dried coconut or coconut milk that I'm used to, and though I didn't instantly love it, I think I could grow to. I also enjoyed this moment because the programmers bought one for each of us, but also one for the local guy who was guiding us around, with broken but enthusiastic English. This just epitomises the Indian hospitality, it wasn't necessarily grand but it was incredibly gracious.
- Some random sweet thing that I don't remember the name of! Before I came, I knew that I would enjoy all the savoury food because of the flavours and spices, but I am a massive sweet tooth and I don't think I'd ever seen let alone tasted a genuine Indian dessert/cake/sweet. It turns out, with a little explanation of what to try and what to expect, these are also delicious. Today's treat was ball shaped, kind of beige inside but dark chocolate-coloured outside, and it was the texture of marzipan but the taste of a doughnut. There were differing opinions of whether it was made from wheat or rice or milk so I don't really know on that count, but I can tell you that it was very enjoyable and far superior to any of the Western desserts that were on offer.
Hope that's given you a sense, literally, of life here.
As always, all thoughts appreciated.