This is my first time in India, and I’ve spent our first days taking in my new surroundings. I was told by friends who have traveled here that I should expect to have all of my senses challenged, and now I understand why. Since I stepped off the airplane, I’ve felt, seen, smelled, tasted and heard like I’ve never before.
First, the heat. And humidity. By 9 o’clock every morning, I’ve sweated through my clothes at least once. Sukhi told me (tricked me?) that it’s somehow helpful to drink hot beverages in the heat, so I sit at breakfast pounding Nescafé as my body melts. We toured an ancient temple on the Sea of Bengal today, and I’m pretty sure I’m in the background of every Indian family’s selfie wiping off a sweat mustache. What Sukhi and I call “bucket baths” have become an evening ritual: fill up a bucket of water and dump it on your head. It helps for a cool minute before bed. But really I’ve enjoyed the heat. It slows me down and reminds me to drink lots of water (and Fanta).
Second, the colors. I can only describe for you the beauty of this city in a series of visuals. A woman in her hot pink sari perched on the back of a moped as it weaves through traffic. An elderly man kneeling barefoot at a statue of Ganesha, his head bowed in humility. A group of boys in the late afternoon light playing cricket in a field among cows and rubbish. A woman my age carefully constructing a pyramid of bananas to sell to passersby. There is so much to take in.
Third, the food. The German in me has fallen in love with this country’s vast bread collection: dosa, roti, chapati, puri, parotta, naan and more. It’s been fun and messy learning to eat with my hands though I’m sure very painful for locals to witness. An innocent bystander snapped a photo of me mid-bite yesterday. Sigh. I’m also still learning how to order off the menu at the hospital cafeteria. It’s always a very stressful experience: the line lengthens behind me as I attempt pronouncing what I think I want (though in reality I have no idea what anything is). Inevitably I get cut in line and then end up ordering what’s become my old standby, masal dosa, a crispy crepe filled with lentils, potato and curry leaves served with sambar. Delicious, but I need to be more bold.
Lastly, the honking. Driving in Chennai is like going to a symphony made up entirely of French horns. Cars, mopeds, auto rickshaws — they’re all honking, all of the time. I’ve been closely studying the rules of the road here (there are none) and have a running list of the various indications for honking. Honking can mean “move” or “don’t do that, that’s dangerous.” It can mean “hey, just so you know I’m behind you.” It can also mean “are you kidding me with this traffic?” And quite honestly, I think it can also just mean “what’s up, how are ya?” — my personal favorite.
All of this to say, I feel far from home but in the best of ways.