August 13, 2010

CHENNAI, INDIA — For the next three weeks, my daughter and I will be traveling around southern Indian with New York friends who have gone “back home” to visit with family. As you can imagine, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to see this country through the eyes of people who really love it. And so far, it’s been so exciting!

A neighborhood temple in Chennai

On Wednesday, we took a flight out of Newark International. Door-to-door — between the 16-hour flight to Mumbai, a four-hour layover plus delays and endless security checks — it took us 26 hours to reach our destination in Chennai. Now that we’re here, I’m feeling very comfy in the three-bedroom, marble-floored apartment of our friends’ favorite auntie.

I can’t even begin to explain how marvelously different it is to stay in her home rather in a hotel room. Yesterday, our friends took us shopping in the local market, where my daughter and I snapped up $1 silver earrings and $3 cotton-print skirts. I’ll also be going back for more of those bath-sized, cotton towels that are like giant dish cloths. They’re thin, quick drying and absorbent — no more fluffy Turkish towels for me!

The auntie spends a lot of time in the kitchen creating the most delicious dishes. As her new sous chef, I am fascinated by everything…her spice grinder, the two-burner table-top gas stove, all her stainless steel pots and plates. This morning for breakfast, we made dosas — fluffy, rice-based crepes, accompanied by a rich, potato stew. By the time I go home, I hope to have the hang of utensil-free eating, using just the fingers of my right hand. Forget about forks and chopsticks!

The view from our balcony in Chennai

Everywhere I turn here, I am hit by colliding worlds.

The auntie and her husband are successful business folks who have air conditioners in every bedroom.

A servant comes in the morning and evening to wash the dishes and hang out our laundry.

From their terrace, I can see and hear the mad, horn-honking Chennai traffic. Beyond the apartment building’s front door, barefoot construction workers — some of whom are just boys — haul concrete debris. There are also stray dogs, trash piles, choking auto fumes and women in the most colorful, sparkling saris.

So much to taste and feel and take in.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.