Our first day in India. We have been given to believe that India is like no other place. The mooring isn't much to look at. I found out later that they put fresh asphalt down on the dock to make it nicer for our arrival. Unfortunately it then rained (something it doesn't do at this time of the year. The monsoons are later and earlier.) and what we got was a half inch or so of really black muck! They also had to move two large cranes before we could leave the ship. Apparently the bureaucrat who ordered the asphalt for us didn't talk to the one in charge of the cranes! Something strangely familiar about that.
We eventually got on a bus for our Discover Chennai excursion. First stop was the Hindu Temple. On the way we passed through some very very sad looking slums. Lots of filth, makeshift hovels that make the bad parts of Juarez, Mexico look like posh accommodations. Even some tentlike structures on the beach near the fishing boats pulled ashore. There is also evidence of reconstruction and new building mixed in so it is a mixed bag. We visit the temple. This is in the middle of town and apparently more of a community center as well as a place of worship. There are people just sitting around a common area talking and our guide, Liberty, tells us that food is brought here and distributed to those in need.
Overall the day was an amazing sensory overload. There are things we saw that caused some to be totally repulsed. And yet, in the midst of that you see the population moving about in clean clothes and looking quite nice. The bright colors of the sarees worn by many of the women are like flowers blooming in a trash heap. The expressions of the people do not reflect the poverty which is apparent. I'm told that some people live on $1 US per week. I don't think I want a complete description of how they accomplish this. In all I'm a little distressed by the poverty and filth but I'm also amazed at how well people seem to do in the midst of such circumstances and the resiliency of the human spirit. I understand that things are improving and that the middle class is expanding. Also, I hear that the caste system which used to keep the poorest from moving into better jobs and incomes is breaking down.
I'm not sure I'm looking forward to Mumbai (Bombay in the past) on Sunday and Monday. I hear the city is even worse than Chennai. On the other hand, on the second day I'm flying to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and a few other things. I understand from Daphne, who lived in India for 10 years I believe, that Chennai and Mumbai are not typical of what she saw on her missionary work. Travelling like we are means we just get a snapshot of one part of a country. Hopefully I'll see more cheerful pictures on the west side of the country.
Meanwhile back at the Temple. This is one of those times when if you want to enter a place of worship you must be dressed appropriately. In this case that means upper arms and legs covered and no shoes. I did hesitate just a bit on taking off my shoes for this. Then I decided that I didn't come halfway around the world to be a wuss. So off came the shoes. I decided to leave my socks on - some protection right? Well, they might have been if it hadn't rained. As it was, by the time I had finished walking around the temple my socks had become black on the bottom and wet on top due to the cotton wicking the water up and over the sides of my feet. Might have been better if I had taken off the socks and used them to wipe my feet afterward. Live and learn. I decided to take the socks off before putting my shoes back on. I know lots of people wear shoes without socks but I'm not in that habit. I learned long ago that my feet and shoes would start to smell very quickly if I didn't wear cotton socks. I had to replace a couple pairs of shoes before I wised up. That's right, live and learn. I was able to take video and photographs inside the temple but not in what they call the inner sanctum. In fact only Hindus were allowed in there.
On leaving the temple we had to wait about a half hour. We happened to be visiting right before a holy day. Our bus was in a narrow street and they were constructing a canopy for the street right in front of the bus. We were trapped until they put it up and then we were able to drive under it to go to our next stop, the St. Thomas Cathedral. The Indians have a different sense of the importance of time.
I found it quite satisfying in a "poetic justice" kind of way that there is some doubt about Doubting Thomas in India. That's right, St. Thomas's Cathedral is built to honor the Apostle Thomas who was apparently killed here. There is no doubt that Thomas came to India and preached here to convert people to Christianity around 50 AD. He was apparently killed for his trouble after about 20 years. On the cathedral grounds is his tomb. Pope John Paul II visited the site and so did I. This is the first time I've had to take my shoes off to visit a catholic tomb. But hey, he is a saint and was an apostle so what the heck. Besides, my feet were already broken in at the temple. Seriously, the tomb is a very nice place and there were a number of visitors in prayer. It was humbling to be in the presence of at the very least a piece of bone belonging to Thomas in a land which is so Hindu. 85% of Indians are Hindu. Thomas had some chutzpah to come here. I guess that's what faith does to you.
After St. Thomas' we went to the Government Museum where we visited the Bronze Hall. This is an exhibit of many pieces from centuries ago which depict the various Hindu gods. There are so many gods in the Hindu religion that eac person picks one or a few to pray to for help and I don't think it is possible to know all the gods. Our guide said there were 3.5 million gods. I'm not sure if that was a joke but there are certainly quite a few. To make things more difficult, the gods (at list Shiva) take many forms and each has a different name. I was looking at and photographing many of them until the guide told us that most of them were Shiva. The key is to look in two of the four hands of the figure. Shiva has a hatchetlike thing in her right hand (one of them) and an antelope in a left. Well, now it's so clear! Someday I'll read about it and try to fathom the intricacies of the Hindu faith. Meanwhile I decided to just take Liberty's word for it.
We travelled through some more of the city on the way back to the ship. We had a brief stop at the beach to take pictures and drove by the area where the fresh, and I do mean fresh, fish were being sold. The only thing that would have made them fresher would be to get it right off the boat. They had set up little tables on the side of the road along the beach.
In a peculiar switch the Indian immigration department required us to show our passports and clear them before our ship could leave port! Most countries want to see who is coming in not who is leaving. Then, to add peculiarity to strangeness they decided they didn't need to see our passports after all. We just had to hand them our landing passes. My guess is that when they saw what our ship's security was like that they realized they didn't need to check our passports after all. Our ship has issued us photo id cards (which double as our room keys) which also have bar codes on them. Every time we come or go they scan our bar codes and check our pictures (they pop up on the computer screen when the scan the cards).
After dinner the show was an Irish comedienne named Geraldine Doyle. She was good enough to provide some laughs.