Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dispatches from Chennai

It's 5:00pm August 15 in Grand Rapids and 2:30am in Chennai India. I have just arrived for a week of meetings. I was met by our Asia/Oceania regional director of IAPCHE who made sure I was settled in my hotel room. Then I found that I could use my old iPhone and get wi-fi at the hotel so that's good as I needed to do some things via Internet before my three hours of sleep.
My first impressions of Chennai are a sense of the familiar. Reminds me of Dar Es Salaam, Mombasa, and Dakar--the warm humid coastal weather as well as the many cars and motorbikes and people late at night. Even the layout of the city reminds me of many cities in East Africa (see picture above). The taxi that got us to the hotel reminded me of the experience of driving in Nairobi, always blowing the horn, driving at high speeds between cars and motorbikes, and trying to avoid stray dogs in the middle of the city. In other words I am quite at home here. Given the long history of Indians in Kenya and much of East Africa, I found myself quite attuned to the cuisine--mostly rice, some type of flat bread (chapati, roti, paratha, or nan), curries, and sweet desserts made from rice. What was familiar and yet a little different was the constant blaring of horns from motorbikes and vehicles. As I asked around I was told that drivers are actually expected to blow their horn as a way to signal that they were passing or cutting across the road to go to the next lane. In fact this is expectation is written on some trucks as I discovered (see picture on the left). I also noticed that a lot men have moustaches and women have long hair. But the highlight of my trip has to be the hospitality and formality of the people I interacted with. This is very much the kind of cultural practice I am used to--where you address someone with their last name and use their professional title, standing when speaking to someone, and even standing when someone of higher social status enters the room. From Chennai I flew to Goa, a city that was a Portuguese settlement for many years and still shows some of the cultural influences in its architecture as well as names of streets and buildings. Goa is also a tourist destination and many items are expensive and every other vehicle I saw was for tours. Nonetheless it was in this space that we spent four days with College principals from Christian institutions in India talking about leadership issues in the 21st century. Fascinating time and place. I am definitely hoping to get back to India and for a longer period so that I can visit many states and see more areas of the country.

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