Another transcription from my pen & paper journal:
Well my henna is barely visible now, and it feels like forever since I was in India. I’m finally on a plane from Chicago to Orlando after a week between Amsterdam and Brussels. The past week has been such a contrast to the ten days in India – not better or worse, just completely different. I basically smashed two different vacations together into one. I still want to write about everything in India while it’s still fresh in my mind, but there is so much to write about and so much we experienced that (my) words don’t really do it justice.
Tuesday, the day after our Chennai tour, I was pretty much confused the whole day. Originally Ramji said that the ceremony in the morning was totally optional to attend. He said it would be over by 9:30am and that he would be wearing a really embarassing outfit. We were thinking of sleeping in, since there was another ceremony to attend at 6pm, but then his cousins told us we needed to be ready at 7am.
Even though that sounded early, we decided to go since this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness an entire Indian wedding. So, the plan was to have 9:30am to 6pm to explore or shop or whatever. We were ready early, but again waited on the cars a while, and finally arrived to the wedding hall at about 8:30.
I was expecting a formal ceremony with all the attendees sitting and watching, but when we arrived, there were only enough people to fill about 1/3 of the seats in the place. Ramji was seated on the stage and surrounded by four or five Hindi priests chanting and burning incense. Hardly anyone there was actually sitting and watching. Most people were standing around, chatting and drinking coffee. It was so strange. Our group sat front and center so we could get plenty of pics of Ramji. He and Archana didn’t look like they wanted to be there at all, and there was still lots more stage time for them to come.
After a few minutes, we were told to go downstairs and eat breakfast. One floor below, we found a dining hall with about 20 or 30 long tables set up. At each seat was a banana leaf, which turned out to be our plates for the next two days. We sat down, and an assembly line of food servers appeared immediately. They were like a finely tuned machine, and after about 2 or 3 minutes, I had a banana leaf full of food and was unsure of what any of it was, but was ready to indulge and absorb as much Indian culture (and food) as possible. The main part of the dish was always white rice with some sort of sauce. The best part was that we were supposed to eat with just our hands! They offered the Americans a fork and spoon, but we chose to pretend we were locals and decline the utensils.
We basically jut mixed everything on the plate (leaf) together and scooped it up with our fingers (right hand only!) It was so fun!
By the time we finished breakfast it was about 10am. We got to say hi to Ramji and point and laugh at his skirt (which he actually looked pretty sharp in). Then, it should have been expected, but instead of having some free time, we were told about 5 different plans for the day (shop until noon then come back for lunch; go to the Boat Club for lunch but come back at 1:45; shop, lunch, Boat Club, back at 4pm; shop, lunch, Boat Club, back at 6pm, etc.).
Finally, we ended up going to a live Hindu temple in downtown Chennai, which was really exciting to see, then walking around the surrounding streets. The outside was decorated with ornate depictions of Hindu gods, and it was really beautiful. (Side note: something we’ve noticed here is that all the gods are depicted with light colored skin. But Indians are not light. I wonder why this is, do they even realize it, was it something that came about during English colonization of the country or has lighter skin always been highly regarded in the culture? Anyways, I digress…) Inside there were different rooms with candles and shrines. The crowd was a mixture of people there to pray, and people like us - there to take in the sights.
We returned to the hall for another hands only meal, went back to the Boat Club to change clothes, then were back at the hall at 4:30pm. The girls needed to be there earlier because we were going to try out saris for the next day. BUT, we ended up not doing that until much later. Then the ceremony started at 7pm instead of 6pm. I’m not even sure what we did for 3 hours, but finally Ramji and Archana were walking through the hall and heading outside.
The next hour was AMAZING. Everyone followed them outside where a horse and carriage were waiting. There were two people in horse-like costumes on stilts doing some dances to loud drum beats and trumpeters. A procession started and went all around the block- straight into all the regular traffic, like it was no big deal. We were handed wooden sticks to bang together (since it wasn’t loud enough already I guess) and everybody danced around the block. And that was the official engagement ceremony. We had dinner in the hall again and then headed back to the Boat Club, exhausted from a long day. We went right to sleep, looking forward to the official wedding ceremony the next day.
Chennai Sight Seeing
I had about thirty minutes total of internet over the next week of the trip, so I started writing in my journal (gasp! - pen and paper!) So, here’s the transcription because I’m sure all my friends have been on the edges of their seats waiting for this.
Monday morning started bright and early with another Indian breakfast and omelette, and we were off for a tour of Chennai. The tour was supposed to start at 9am, but the bus didn’t arrive until 10, so we had plenty of time to drink some delicious Indian coffee while we waited.
We didn’t actually see a lot of the city, but drove about 45 minutes outside of the city to our first stop, a beach resort. The resort was made up of little villas, and a private beach, which was key because the beach was clean (unlike most of what we’ve seen of India so far). It was a gorgeous day, and we ended up being there for almost two hours, instead of the planned 30 minutes. This was mostly because just as we were about to leave, one of our tour-mates, Two, decided it would be a good idea to get a beer. He is a family friend and part of Archana’s party, and he lives somewhere in north India. He kind of decided that he was in charge of tour at that point, and was pretty obnoxious the rest of the day. He kept yelling out at the tour guide to tell us about certain things he thought we should hear, even though I’m pretty sure the guide had the important points covered. The high (or low, really) point came when he actually went to the front of the bus, took the microphone from her, and started trying to give a lesson on Indian culture. I’m sure there will be lots more entertainment from him over the next few days.
Next it was on to the town of Mamallapuram where we saw a park with some ancient stone sculptures. The best part of that stop was when Kathleen, Dima, Rachel and I split off from the group and hiked up to a point that was higher up. We got a nice view of the town, the ocean, and we saw monkeys! We got back to the entrance just in time to see the bus pulling away without us.
Fortunately, the night before, Ramji had given me an Indian cell phone to use and told me to get the phone number of David, another of Archana’s friends who had a working phone. Good thinking, Ramji! I called David and he said they’d just gotten on the bus. We thought they had been waiting for us for half an hour and decided to go look for us somewhere else, but they hadn’t even noticed we were gone. Thanks, guys!
Our next stop was the Radisson hotel for lunch. There was a whole buffet set up, so we just sat down and ate right away. The Radisson was a very luxurious, high end hotel. We saw lots of western businessmen and tourists. There was a group of Scandinavians that had competing Norway and Sweden flags out, which was funny. After we ate, we walked around the (gigantic) pool, took some fun pictures and drank coffee until it was time to go. It almost didn’t feel right to be hanging out at such a nice place, after witnessing the surrounding areas and how dirty/poor they were. It was nice to get some A/C, but we felt a little bit guilty about not spending our money at a small local restaurant.
After lunch, it was on to another park that used to be an ancient temple. It was really interesting and hard to believe that at one point, the entire park was one huge stone that had been sculpted into the temple. There were lots of Shiva and Ganesha and other Hindu god images. It was really a neat park, and made for some great photo opps.
Our last stop was another temple that was right on the coast. It was gorgeous, and the sun was starting to set, so the weather was perfect. We explored some, took lots more photos, then returned to the bus to go back to the Boat Club. By the time we got back, it was 8pm. Ramji and his cousins met us and ate dinner with us. It was great having them there because I still don’t know what anything on the menu is, but everything they ordered for us was delicious. It was also nice to be able to hang out with Ramji. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, and I don’t think we’ll get much quality time over the next two days.
Tomorrow is another early day with some ceremonial rituals in the morning and the “ushering of the groom” ceremony in the evening. Ramji assured us that he would be embarrassing himself, so we’re really looking forward to it!
This post is mainly for my mom to let her know we’re alive and well. Today we drove for 12 hours and did a few hours of sight seeing. We were in Delhi last night, but left 4am this morning to drive six hours to Jaipur. Jaipur was incredible, but the ride there and afterwards were pretty uncomfortable. At least there were no medical emergencies, although Kathleen’s water bottle leaked all over her stuff and for the morning ride we had to endure arctic temperatures. We are dying laughing right now, but only out of delirium.
We’re spending the night in Agra and going to the Taj Mahal tomorrow!
I’m getting kicked off the internet now because the guy at the front desk at our hotel made a mistake then pretended it was our fault. Bye!
Sunday, our first official day in India, we were awoken by the phone ringing at 8:30am. It was the front desk asking if we wanted breakfast. Kathleen answered and in a half-asleep stupor said, “no thanks.” About half an hour later, we realized we did want breakfast, so we walked down the hall to the desk to ask about getting some.
The breakfast comes from the restaurant downstairs, and they deliver to the room. The guys at the desk don’t speak much English, but said something about an omelette and coffee, and we said, “yes please.” The next words we understood were “Indian breakfast,” and we just nodded and said, “oh, ok.” Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door and a delivery of 2 omelettes, a thermos full of coffee and 2 trays with soup, bread and rice. The latter was the Indian breakfast. We tried it all and liked it, so we ended up eating 2 breakfasts, I guess.
At about 10am, we heard Ramji in the hall. He was organizing a shopping trip, but they were leaving at 11am, and we had to be back and ready for the Mehendi ceremony at 2pm. We decided to forego shopping and just hang out since we’d had such an exhausting day and long night on Saturday.
One thing we’ve quickly learned about Indian culture is that time means absolutely nothing. It’s worse than any “island time” or any Latin American country I’ve visited. As Ramji was leaving, the “be ready” time suddenly changed from 2pm to 3pm. Then when we were ready at 3pm, our rides didn’t show up until 4pm. Then we went to Ramji’s family’s house (which was so fun to see! but not at all in the plans) before going to the Mehendi party.
Anyways, after breakfast we met up with Diego, Kara, Dima and Rachel. Diego and Dima are friends from UF Tennis Club. Kara and Kathleen were roommates at UF, but now she and Diego are dating. Rachel is Dima’s girlfriend from Denver. (Whitney, another tennis club friend is here too, but went shopping).
The wedding guests from the States are staying at 2 country clubs next door to each other. We’re at the Boat Club and Archana’s guests are at the Alumni Club. The Alumni club has some red clay tennis courts, so we borrowed Ramji’s racquets and decided to play. The club was preparing for a match later in the day, though, so the court was closed. Instead we found a ping-pong table and played that for a while, but it just made us want to play tennis more.
We did some exploring and found a gym, but right after we walked in, somebody came and told us we couldn’t be there. We showed him a card saying we were Ramji’s guests, but he just said “Boat Club - no. Please come.” And made us follow him back to the front desk. Then he got on the phone for a while and we had no idea what was going on. I don’t know why he didn’t just tell us to leave. Luckily, Ramji showed up while we were detained and explained the situation. We thought we could go back and forth between the two clubs since we are all in the same party, but that was wrong. Only the people staying at the Alumni Club could use the Alumni Club facilities. Since we couldn’t use the gym, we decided to eat instead.
We went back to the Boat Club for lunch, and ordered a huge amount of food for us all to share. We had a ton of food, and it was all delicious, and the bill came out to about $30 for the six of us, including 2 pitchers of beer. We love the Boat Club!
Finally, it was time for Mehendi. Traditionally, this is a party for just the women. They get henna drawn on their hands and play traditional music and dance. There were a few male family members there, but it was mostly women until later in the evening when Ramji and the rest of the boys joined. All of the women were so friendly to us foreigners, especially Archana’s mom and aunt, and Ramji’s sister. There were lines for the henna, but they pushed us to the front to make sure we got it done quickly. The henna is so cool! I love it. It felt really nice when they’re drawing it on - kind of soothing and relaxing. Each woman has her own style, but for the most part the designs and symbols are similar. It’s an art form that’s passed down from mothers to daughters.
We had to wait for almost an hour for the first side to dry before we could get the second one done, but there was lots of conversation and tea to keep us busy. All the Indian women were wearing gorgeous saris, so just looking around the room and taking in the scenery kept me occupied.
Once the men showed up, the night got interesting. There were some musicians on stage and an MC running the show. It started out with some Indian karaoke (and I’ll point out that there was no alcohol involved whatsoever), then Ramji’s sister and a few other girls performed some Bollywood type dancing. I’m not sure how the next event was set up, but Kara and Diego ended up on stage singing karaoke. They sang “Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing and made Ramji and Archana get up so they could sing to them. It was hilarious, but the Indian crowd didn’t seem very into it. They were ready to get on with the next event.
The MC handed everyone a sheet of paper with the names of Indian movies on it. The game was like BINGO, except he would sing part of a song, everyone would yell out which movie the song was from, and if that movie was listed on your card you marked it off. To win you had to get 5 in a row. It cracked me up that everyone knew exactly what movie the little snippet of each song he sang came from. They like their Bollywood here.
The game got old pretty quickly, but went on forever. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I was relieved when they announced that dinner was ready. There was a bit of confusion because some people (men) were telling us we had to wash off the henna before we could go upstairs (where the drinks were), but then the women started yelling and saying we couldn’t get it wet yet because it wouldn’t stay dark on our skin. When it’s painted on, the substance hardens into a crust, and eventually you scrape it off. So then we had all these women trying to help scrape our hands. It was really overwhelming and I finally just said I didn’t want a drink and didn’t want to go upstairs. Then a few minutes later, it was all of a sudden totally fine for us to go up there with the henna still on. I was really confused, but by that point, we all needed a glass of wine, so we went up. It was a really pretty room with a hindu shrine in the corner, so I’m glad I went up and saw it. We ate dinner a little while later, then headed back to the Boat Club.
Sad news - I think I left my camera in the car. Ramji knows the drivers and we’re using the same ones all week, so he called to ask if they found it, but they said they hadn’t. I’m 95% sure that’s where I left it because I took a video on the ride home, but I kind of doubt I’ll ever see it again.
Today was a sight-seeing bus tour of Chennai and the surroundings. I used my phone camera, which isn’t bad actually. And I saw some really really sad looking poor people, which made a lost camera and a few stressful hours traveling seem pretty trivial.
Well, it’s 2am and we are getting up at 7am….gonna be another long day tomorrow.
Hello from Chennai, India!
I’m here at the Madras Boat Club where, a country club that Ramji’s parents belong to, and our home in Chennai for the next three nights. Getting here was such an adventure that I feel like I have to share.
Thursday, February 17th my wonderful mother (who is taking care of my dog while I’m gone for three weeks) drove me to the Orlando Airport. There, I met up with Kathleen, my friend from college and travel buddy. We hadn’t seen each other in over two years, but when we met up, it felt like no time had passed at all. We boarded our first flight and made it to JFK, where our long adventure started.
We spent most of our NY layover at an airport restaurant eating and having a few drinks. When we got to the gate, we met Ricky, a friend of Archana’s (the bride) and our travel compadre for the next (spoiler alert) almost 48 hours. We boarded the flight, left on time, and were seemingly on our way.
About an hour and a half into the flight, an announcement came on over the PA asking if there were any doctors on board because medical assistance was needed. There was indeed a doctor, and a nurse, on the flight, so they got up to help the passenger. The guy was a few rows ahead of me, but I couldn’t really tell what was wrong with him. I think he kept going in and out of consciousness. A few minutes later, they tell us we need to stop to get the passenger to a hospital. Half an hour later, we were landing in snowy St. John, Newfoundland.
They made it sound like it would be a quick dropoff, but we ended up sitting there for almost FOUR HOURS. We had a three hour layover in Brussels, so at first I wasn’t worried, but every half hour that went by, hope for making our flight dwindled. I really don’t know why we were there for so long. It had to do with customs stuff, finding the passenger’s luggage, refueling, other paperwork, etc. Then another passenger decided she was sick, so they had to attend to her, take all the luggage off the plane a second time to find hers, and get her paperwork done. And just sitting there on the plane for so long without getting much information or updates was frustrating to say the least.
So, we missed our Brussels connection. When we arrived, American Airlines had already rescheduled us for another flight, but it wasn’t going to be until the next day, and we wouldn’t arrive in Chennai until 1am. But we had a party to get to that night! So, we talked to a ticketing agent (who was kind of smug and annoyed that he had to help us) and asked if there was any way we could get there sooner. He reluctantly found a route that would get us there by 6pm Saturday night: Brussels – Milan – New Delhi – Chennai. We REALLY wanted to be there for the first night of the wedding festivities, so we took it.
We made it to Milan where we had another 5 hour layover. Kathleen and I were able to find a little corner where we somehow got free wifi and didn’t have to pay the 10 euros the airport charged to get on to their network. I sent a few e-mails, one of which was a rant to Steph, since she and I shared another travel debacle that ended up with us stranded outside Milan back in 2005 (seriously, don’t ever travel with me). She was empathetic, but basically said (in a nice way) “Get over yourself! You’re going to India!” Sooo true.
Onto the next flight. We were on Jet Airways from Milan to New Delhi. The plane was really nice, and the service was excellent. I watched Defintely, Maybe – dumb movie, but good for passing time on a plane. Next, I was enjoying a classic season 1 episode of 30 Rock, when out of nowhere, the whole row I was sitting in started shaking. Turns out a man behind us was choking and was slamming the seat.
Yep, ANOTHER medical emergency. Ricky is a pathologist and was the only person to get up when the “medical assistance needed” announcement came over the PA. This time, the situation was more serious. The guy was vomiting all over himself and couldn’t breathe. The flight attendants dragged him out of his seat and out of sight to the back of the plane. I really thought he was going to die. My heart felt like it was beating outside of my chest. Then I started to feel nauseous. Then (I’m ashamed to admit) I started to worry we’d have to land again, and we would NEVER get to India. But thankfully, it turned out that he was alive and well. Ricky realized it was a stroke when the man was unable to move the left side of his body. After a while his movement came back, and he eventually returned to his original seat. I resumed my 30 Rock episode.
Finally, we landed in New Delhi. I struggled to remember what time or even what day it was at that point. I think it was Saturday morning India time. We had about 2 or 3 hours before our next flight. Going through customs was a joke, but going through security was more of a pain than in the US. Especially for Kathleen – one of the security guards dumped out her entire carry-on bag and sifted through every piece of makeup she had with her to find a tiny pair of scissors and confiscate them. After that, I think there were 3 more checkpoints to make sure our carry-ons had been inspected at security. At least we didn’t have to take our shoes off.
We didn’t realize when we booked our flight, but after New Delhi there was a stop in Hyderabad. Luckily, our plane continued on to Chennai so we didn’t have to deplane, but there was yet another security tag check. I slept pretty much the whole 2 hour flight from Hyderabad to Chennai, which was nice because I’d probably slept maybe 4 or 5 hours total before that.
At 5:30pm Indian time, we arrived in Chennai! A friend of Ramji’s dad was waiting to pick us up and transport us to the Madras Boat Club. We saw the rest of our friends who are here for the wedding, then had about an hour for the two of us to shower and get ready for the cocktail party.
We took two vans to the party, which was at a friend’s house with a huge courtyard. There was a DJ playing 80’s songs then more modern hip-hop songs, a horrible bartender who was just making drinks up as he went along (I stuck to beer and wine to instead of opting for the various neon blue drinks he was concocting), delicious Indian food, and meeting Ramji’s and Archana’s entire families. It was awesome! Kathleen and I were troopers and danced the night away with Ramji and the other guests. We finally got back to our room at about 2am. We were so tired, we fell asleep with the lights on.
Such an adventure! So excited to see what the rest of the trip brings! So thankful to be alive and in India and experiencing new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and to be a part of Ramji’s wedding!