June 10, 2000
School's out! Yippee! That's great for Indian school children, but not so great for the Odyssey World Trekkers. For one thing, we won't be able to visit any more classrooms. But, more importantly, summer means that families are beginning to travel on vacation and all the trains are completely booked!
I was on the waiting list for the 32-hour long train ride from Mumbai (Bombay) in northwestern India to Chennai (Madras) in the southeast along the coast of the Bay of Bengal. There was no way I was going to get a seat, so I was frantically asking around for help. I did not want to stay in Mumbai!
"Come with me!" a kind man said, holding the hand of a young girl. "We have 11 people and four are children so we can just squeeze you in!" I climbed aboard, settled in next to a group of kids, and we were off. Mani and his extended family saved me from being stuck in Mumbai.
As the train picked up speed, we made ourselves comfortable and I began to chat with Mani's family. Early on, I learned that his family is Tamil, and proud of it! Though they live in Mumbai right now, the family originally comes from the state of Tamil Nadu, where Chennai is the capital city. Now that school is out, Mani, his brother and sister, and all of their spouses and children are traveling together back to Tamil Nadu to visit the rest of the extended family.
The Tamil people have their own language (also called Tamil) and a culture which is very old. Tamils' skin is noticeably darker than most Indians and Tamils consider themselves to be the REAL Indians. When the Aryan people invaded India about 3000 years ago, they mixed in and started families with the local tribes. When this happened, the Tamils moved south, never mixing with the Aryans. These pre-Aryan cultures are known as Dravidians and Tamil is a language and culture descended directly from the Dravidians.
Just when I was beginning to feel a hunger pang for lunch, Mani's sister Roseline pulled ready-made packages of homemade Southern Indian food out of a bag under her seat. Each serving was wrapped up in a piece of banana leaf - now that is truly disposable, biodegradable packaging! Before the Aryans, and later the Muslims, came to India, the entire subcontinent was vegetarian. Typical southern food is 100% vegetarian and the homemade dishes are the BEST! I sat with 12-year-old Sebastian and his 9-year-old sister Benadicta eating rice paddies, called iddlies, with spicy coconut chutney. Based on their names, I suspected that Mani's family was, like most Tamil families, Christian and not Hindu. Sebastian, Benadicta and I munched our delicious lunch as we watched the slums of Mumbai slowly disappear behind us.
During a 32-hour train ride, we had a lot of time to chat. I learned a few words in the Tamil language. (For example, varnakum means "Hello.") Because the Tamil people are so proud, I've heard that they prefer not to speak India's national language, Hindi, and that they fought against it during the time of India's independence. Of course, Benadicta and Sebastian go to an English language school where they live in Mumbai so they speak Tamil (their mother tongue), English, and Hindi, the national language. I knew only one language when I was their age!
Tamils are so proud of their own culture that Chennai has a huge film industry, producing hundreds of Tamil movies a year, (more than Bollywood!). That's a lot of films for only one state! I wonder if any of the films are translated to one of the 16 other main languages in India.
The hours on the train continued to roll by and Arul, Mani's wife, painted an intricate design onto my hand with henna, a semi-permanent dye made of the leaves of a henna plant. Henna tattoos are a tradition all over the Middle East and here in India. I have admired these tattoos on others during my travels but this is the first one I have ever had! After Arul had finished her design, I carefully climbed into the top of the three bunk beds that folded out from the wall and curled up for some sleep. The next morning, I washed off the henna and discovered a beautiful orange tattoo and fingernail "polish" that will last for at least a month! It's beautiful!
When we reached Chennai, I was sad to say good-bye to Mani's family, but so happy to get off of that train. At first glance, the city of Chennai seemed a lot like most of India's large cities: crowded, chaotic and HOT. Don't tell the proud Tamils that I said so!
Outside the train station I encountered many familiar sights: big British colonial buildings, wallahs (salespeople) hawking everything from chaisaris. The rickshaw drivers competed for my attention, and as I studied these men, I noticed something I had not seen before. They were wearing plaid mini-skirts! Ok, well, not exactly miniskirts, but large pieces of cloth, folded and wrapped around their waists like a sarong. The skirts are called lungis and men wear them at all different lengths. In this heat, many men wear them really short. I chose one of the rickshaw drivers and as this skinny, dark man steered me and my backpack into the wild traffic I thought, "Ah! Now I understand why cotton plaid fabric is called 'Madras!'" I wonder if golfers know that their madras pants originated as mini-skirts for men?
Even with a map, I had no idea where I was headed. All the signs were written in Tamil, a language that looks to me more like artistic doodling than a language. Isn't it crazy!
My first stop is in the heart of Chennai, where it all began, at Fort St. George. What?! After all that talk about Tamil pride, it's a bit strange to realize that the capital city of Tamil Nadu started as a British Fort. I sat down, drank a cold, sweet limewater from a sweet-lime-water-wallah, and then headed in to find out all the details. Check out my next dispatch for the whole story!
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