Smiles in the Slums

March 13, 2009



            India was a wonderful place that stimulated the mind and senses (especially smells). The boat rumors about being able to smell India a day before we landed were not true, but I was woken up by a suffocating stench. It was nauseating until you got used to it. The only place I’ve ever been that reeked as badly was the landfill. Pollution was so bad it was visible as thick smog outside my window.


            I geared up in my money belt, heavy duty shoes, and crappiest clothes to take on whatever awaited me outside. The port entrance was a ten minute walk away from our ship, so a horde of Indian taxis gathered to transport us. When I say Indian taxis, I am talking about human powered chariots. They were essentially a wagon attached to a man on a bicycle. Four or five of these men circled around us vying for our attention. I tried to select the one who looked healthiest. This task was not easy; it was like picking the tallest person in a group of midgets. My choice had legs like arms and arms like twigs. It was ironic this feeble of a person was pedaling me around.


My experience in other countries served me well in dealing with the taxis. I knew to agree upon a price before hopping in and to expect scams. He actually tried to demand 1500 Rupees ($25) for this short ride. After some work, we ended up agreeing on $2 total. As has happened many times around the globe, he tried to trick us. He said the price was 2$ per person rather than total. I gave him the agreed upon price and turned my back to him shouting for more.


After being transported outside the gate, another crowd of taxis waited to take us the rest of the way. The drivers were in a frenzy fighting for us. I felt like fish food as people tore at me from all directions. I found out later that there had been an article in the newspaper about our ship coming. Rickshaws were the only transportation available. Rickshaws look like a three wheeled golf cart painted like a taxi. They weren’t exactly up to American safety standards with no doors or seatbelts to protect us. Why couldn’t there be any normal taxis here?







Chillin with my rickshaw driver

Chillin with my rickshaw driver


Driving here was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Chennai has four times as many people as Atlanta in a quarter of the area. Personal space is nonexistent, especially on the roads. Even more terrifyingly, there are no stoplights or stop signs! Just imagine trying to drive in a city like New York without any traffic control. Lanes are not even used as a general guideline. Four or five vehicles cram into a two lane space.



The congested roads in Chennai

The congested roads in Chennai


 In India, traffic is regulated through horn honking rather than stoplights. Horn honking has a completely different connotation. You honk every time you pass a vehicle, every time you go into an intersection, and every time you go around a blind corner. Instead of meaning “I’m pissed, what are you thinking?!” like it does in the US, it is a friendly “be careful, I’m here.” The constant symphony of horns made the roads seem even more chaotic.


 One funny thing about rickshaws is that they won’t take you where you want to go for at least an hour. Our driver, Giri, took us to a few of his friend’s shops before he would take us anywhere else. I didn’t get too upset because I had no where to be and wanted to explore the city anyways. Hilariously, we ran into many other Semester at Sea students whose drivers also took them there unwillingly. The rickshaw drivers constantly tried to scam us. They would lie about shops being closed, act like they got lost, or change the agreed upon price. I guess you get what you pay for. It cost only ten dollars for six hours of him driving us through Chennai.


The next day I woke up early in anticipation for my Rotarian homestay. I was nervous about which type of family I would get. Fortunately they ended up being amazing. They were a young couple with a three year old boy and five year old girl. Even though they spoke Tamil as their first language, I could understand their English.


My host family owned their own accounting business and were quite wealthy, especially by Indian standards. Their apartment was about the size of a typical American home, which is a mansion in the minute space available here. They were so hospitable and went far beyond what was required of them.


My first experience with my surrogate family was a typical Indian lunch. Eating in India was very different from the states. First of all, it was pure vegetarian. Every meal had rice in it along with multiple spicy sauces. I am lucky I love spicy things because everything was hot, even breakfast. Another staple food is naan, which is like a crunchy tortilla. My host mom, Janani, was a great cook and always went out of her way to make us delicious foods.


The most different part was that they ate with their hands. They used no silverware, except for serving. At first I felt awkward. As an American, it is very unnatural to have sauce dripping from your hands. I had to continually fight the urge to use my napkin. By a few days later, I was scooping big saucy piles of rice without hesitation.


An Indian Breakfast

An Indian Breakfast

The dad, T.M.Vernakeesh, was equally as considerate. On our first day together, he showed me around town. The most interesting place I visited was the local university. Their facilities paled in comparison with American standards. It was interesting to see what kids my age were doing.


Later on in the day, we went to the beach with the whole family. I went horseback riding along the shore with the little their daughter Ananya and then went for a swim in the ocean. There I met some kids my age and had a lengthy conversation with them about the differences between our countries.


Ananya got scared

Ananya got scared

One thing I must mention is the head wobble. In India, they have a strange gesture where you wobble your head to indicate agreement or to show you’re listening to someone. They use it like we use a head nod in conversation. To do it you stare straight forward and tilt your head towards one shoulder and then the other. It’s like your trying to touch your ear to your shoulder. All of us students found it hilarious to do. My friends and I tried to use the wobble in conversations, but looked so awkward doing it we would only get laughs from locals.


            That night, we had a dinner to gather all the Rotarian members and homestay students. The Rotarian club is basically the rich and prominent people in the area. They spoke in glowing terms about our presence and were so proud to have us choose to stay in Chennai with them. They called us on stage and gave us a present and a necklace. After dinner, they had us pose for an extraordinarily long time as they took picture after picture. This photo shoot was just the beginning of me feeling like a celebrity in India.

One of the many pictures they took

One of the many pictures they took



To introduce us to Indian culture we saw a traditional dance and then ate a big meal. It was great fun conversing at length with locals. There are far more similarities with the youth in each country than I could have imagined. I got along with these guys quite well. I love how Indians are so open to talking with random people.


            The next day the rotary club set up a big tour for all the participants. We left our families and set off to see the local Hindu temples. The beautiful temples were carved over 1400 years ago from solid slabs of stone. Many of the different gods I learned about from my host family and classes were visible in the stone monuments. Hinduism is an intriguing religion and I like many of its principles, especially meditation. Don’t worry about me converting though. I could never be a vegetarian.

At the Mahabahapurim Monuments

At the Mahabahapurim Monuments


College-aged Indian students led our tour which I loved because they better understood my interests. I had many talks with local people and made a few friends while exploring the monument. Indians have to be the friendliest people in the world. When I walked down the street, people would wave at me and smile. Contrary to our pre-port information, I felt very safe here.


For our final stop of the day, we went to a reptile farm. The animals were exotic and we saw trainers playing with poisonous cobras. There were hundreds of crocodiles, including the largest one in captivity in India. It was 16 ft long and weighed about 1300 lbs. Despite all these cool animals, the best experience of my day happened when I got separated from my group. There were about 50 uniformed school age kids around the cage fascinated by the giant croc. I jokingly acted like I was going to throw one of these school boys to the croc and then introduced myself.


Apparently this was just the opening all the kids were waiting for. I quickly turned a more exciting zoo exhibit as they all surrounded me yelling questions and wanting to shake my hand. I was helpless in the middle of this mob of kids. I shook hand after hand as they shouted out their names to me. There were about fifty of them. Their teacher saw this from the other side of the zoo and came sprinting over while blowing a whistle wildly. The kids disregarded him until he began whipping them with his whistle string. It was pretty intense!


That night I went out on the town with a few new Indians friends and my host dad. The nightlife in India is actually pretty good, much better than expected. The Indians continued to impress me with their hospitality and bought my drinks for the night. Everyone in the bars was Americanized and wealthy. They knew more about our pop culture than I did and many had been to America. I made several friends while randomly wandering and greatly enjoyed my night. The dad, another semester at sea student and I stayed up late into the night drinking vodka and discussing differences between India and America.


For my last day with my family, I requested a trip to the slums. My experience was an eye opener. The people lived in primitive huts next to rivers of trash. The stick shanties were smaller than tents I have used while camping. Trash-eating goats appeared to be the only method of waste removal. It was like these people lived in an American dump. I could barely breathe because the air was so thick with smells rotting eggs and human feces. Seeing families living in these conditions made my heart ache.


A woman trying to sell us fish as we walked in

A woman trying to sell us fish as we walked in

From the moment I walked in, I was again hounded by children. My host dad said many of them have probably not seen a white person besides on TV. About 15 formed a cloud around me which hovered there for my entire tour. I felt like I was a celebrity being escorted through the area. Word must have spread of our presence because new kids were scurrying out of their huts. All of them wanted to shake my hand. I probably shook 30 hands in my time walking through. When I pulled out my camera kids would leap to pose in the picture.


  I was surprised to see that the people living in these conditions appeared so friendly and happy. The kids were as bursting with enthusiasm to talk to me. They seemed to be proud of their huts and showed me inside one. Inside there was a chair, a few blankets on the floor, and some pictures. I don’t think much else could have fit.


In the slums I expected a dangerous sickly area, not the hospitality and friendliness I was shown. I did not feel unsafe while walking through. In fact, my host dad brought his three year old son along. On my way out a family even offered me dinner! How can they offer me food when they are so poor? I should be the one giving it out. The smiles in the slums represent the essence of India. I could not help but love this country.


A few of the kids I met

A few of the kids I met

I left the slums with mixed feelings. On one hand the conditions were so grim; the worst I have witnessed anywhere in the world. Still, the people did not act downtrodden or depressed as I anticipated. A few people begged me for money and would probably rob me if given the opportunity. Nowhere, especially the slums, is perfect. Despite the apparent bleakness of their situation, the people here did not seem any less happy than in the US.


I had a sad goodbye dinner with my family after my trip to the slums. Then I took them on a tour of our ship. Their awe of our facilities again made me realize how lucky I am to be in this position, sailing around the world. This homestay is the best experience I have had so far on Semester at Sea. I couldn’t be more grateful to my host family.


On my final day, I did a field trip called “Socioeconomic Problems in India.” Our trip visited to the poorest areas of a nearby town. There we met with disabled students and woman’s rights groups. Once again, I expected the worst when I went to see how disabled kids live in the slums.


 Pleasantly, my experience was similar to the slums in Chennai. These kids had problems like Down’s Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy but still seemed quite happy. They did a dance for us and showed us the crafts they were learning to make. The organization working with them, MCDS, is doing an incredible job. I actually ended up buying some crafts from the kids. You should have seen how excited my boy got when I chose his piece. It brought a smile to both our faces.


My new buddy at the disabled clinic

My new buddy at the disabled clinic

I cannot tell you how much I loved India. The hospitable and caring people struck me more than anything else. I am glad I did not go to see the Taj Mahal as most students did. I have seen so many tourist sites already. I’m learning quickly that the most captivating things each country has to offer are the local people and culture.


 From talking with many locals in each country, my eyes have been opened to the prominent role America holds in the world. People worldwide follow our presidential election closer than most Americans do. All the Indians were talking about our economy. They need America to do well in order to prosper. What we do affects the globe more than I ever imagined. Our TV shows, toys, restaurants, clothes, music, and movies are everywhere. Even though Caucasians are nonexistent here, the street side billboards and advertisements have American models on them.


Our TV shows, music and movies form our international stereotype more than anything else. The world learns about our culture through dubbed over shows like “Saved by the Bell.” I feel so ignorant having so many questions and misguided beliefs about each country because they already know so much about us. They know our thanksgiving, geography, accent, and slang. The main misperception they have is assuming we all live like the movie stars they see on TV. In more than one country, I’ve had people ask me if we act like those throwing temper tantrums on the shows “My Super 16 Birthday” or “Bridezilla.” 


 The world thinks we are all rich and spoiled. Although we don’t all act like the spoiled brats on MTV shows, when I look around places like this I realize how privlidged we are. We do not have political corruption, diseases in our water, nor trash in our streets. We have honest police and driving restrictions to keep us safe. We never think twice about having roofs over our heads or shoes on our feet. These are things I have taken for granted.


It was only by luck I was born a world away from here. The average child born in America uses 20 times as many resources as one born in India. These mentally handicapped and impoverished families were on the unlucky side of fate. Still, they walk around with a smile on their face. How can I complain about anything ever again?


Smiles in the Slums



4 Responses to “Smiles in the Slums”

  1. dad said

    Loved it!

  2. Emily said

    Wow. I am soo jealous. Your trip is a once in a lifetime experience. Mom and dad better let me do something like this too!! Only i dont think id be able to handle the smells haha

  3. Marcia said

    Quite an eye opener is n’t it? The eastern culture is quite differnt than ours-looks like you are really having a blast. I am really interested in what your experiences will be farther east.
    Goodluck – Aunt Marcia

  4. Uncle Mark said

    This one I really enjoyed. The folks told me that India was the one country that I would like to hear about from you, and they were right.

    India is one country I would really like to visit. The morale of your visit there is the old proverb: From the one to whom much is given much will be expected.

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