May 22, 2012

Surprise Temple

Played my favourite game this morning - chose a destination on the other side of a strange town (Chennai), took one look at the map to get oriented then folded it into my pocket and started meandering that direction. Chose small streets, back alleys, another small doorstep to perch on with a 25 cent breakfast plate. Then on some random street, idly wondering with no attachment if i was still on track, there suddenly was the temple looming up above the world just down the street. I'd walked straight into it. Made it feel like a secret treasure, like i was the only explorer who had ever found it. Made me want to claim it for the queen. If I do the half-day guided bus tour on Friday we'll actually come back, but with a driver on an air-conditioned coach it will lose all of its Indiana Jones charm (though it will still be magnificent.)

Along the way I saw so many people just going about their daily lives - the stuff of life that we hide behind long driveways and curtained windows in Canada. Men in their diaper-like traditional thong-cloths, big bellies and droopy chests unnoticed as they squat on rock piles to brush their teeth or inhale cleansing water up their noses. The usual naked kids being bathed. A women brushing her long beautiful tangled hair on a second-story balcony. One balcony over another half-naked man with 5 ritual strips of white chalk-paint/smudge on his forehead, both nipples, belly-button, and elbow creases. A mother pumping water into bright coloured plastic jugs while her daughter holds down the top pump mechanism, which she had carried from home. Women heating up morning tea and foods in big metal cauldrons in the front entry hallways of their buildings. One older woman calling me over to watch as she bottle-feeds a baby monkey.

There's just no shame in being human here, no running away from any sign of mortality like in our Western culture.

Another thing I'm appreciating is the lack of overwhelming attention I receive. There are curious looks, amused looks, "there's something you don't see everyday" looks. But the world doesn't end when I walk by - even conversations don't end. When I hear people laughing it's usually because they've said something funny to each other, not because a white alien just walked by. Rather than being offered to go to the front of the line, I had to jostle for position like everyone else at the museum. Unlike Africa, where no matter how long I live there I'm still a curio, an amusing animal at the zoo who's even more amusing after learning clever tricks like speaking Swahili or eating local food with my right hand. Here I'm another human being - a foreigner sometimes meriting extra attention, but still a fellow human being. After 4 days I still don't know the Tamil word for White Man - it took me about 4 minutes in Zaire to learn "Mundelli Mundelli Mundelli."

Which brings me to my third and final anthropological observation of the day. In yesterday's post the word "condescending" jumped off my fingertips as I typed, and I wondered about it later. There can be times when my over-friendly, over-inquisitive greetings are just as dehumanizing as the African experience I just described above. "Hello funny little brown man, wearing a funny diaper on your little motorcycle..." I don't greet people in my own community with an amused curiosity, so why should I do it here? I should and hopefully do greet people at home with a genuine warmth and openness to hearing and sharing their journey (or atleast a 2-second snapshot of it), and I should bring that to my interactions with people here too. They're not museum pieces set in place for me to photograph and blog about; they're humans living remarkably similar lives in a remarkably different place, and it's in recognizing both those similarities and those differences that we truly acknowledge our kinship and find a connection.

The human respect I feel from Indians in the street is reinforcing this lesson, but it's not new. Back in high school I joined the "Special Kiwanis Youth" club at school, working with developmentally disabled adults. At first I did it mostly to increase my chances at scholarships and with Dawn Rydeen, but grew to genuinely love the experience and the people, and went on to coach them in the BC Special Olympics long after the scholarships had passed by. One day my girlfriend Dawn (yes, the ploy worked) thanked me for having moved past my initial child-like treatment and learning to meet them as adults in a different place.

A dozen years later, I returned at night to my Tanzanian fishing village after some time away and woke up Barney Mpombo to get my mail from the church office. He shook himself awake and fetched the mail, then as he handed it to me, the always-smiling and accommodating face turned dark and he said, "Don't ever ask me this again." I suddenly, shamefully realized that I had treated this man, 10 years my senior and the #2 most powerful, respected man in the church diocese, like some expendable junior third director who had nothing else going in his life except to indulge my needs (not that I should treat an employee or anyone that way either). This isn't a first-greeting example, but speaks to the same issue of seeing other people in relation to our needs and interests.

Well, I'd love to tell you about the temples, fresh mangos, public bus ride, market shopping, dosas, Bollywood film, dead puppy on the roadside altar, string of 200 fireworks lit on the road to stop traffic and celebrate a young man's arrival after some important life event, historic fort tour, hand-made 25-foot long bamboo ladder strapped to the side of a bicycle, and other amazements that have filled these first 2 days here in Chennai, but you can read all that in the Lonely Planet guides, and hopefully I'll be able to upload photos that will fill those thousand words. Besides, this internet cafe is costing me a whopping 20 rupees (40 cents) per hour, and has become rather cramped and hot, and horns are constantly tooting outside reminding me to get back out and experience some more.

So instead I'll leave you with this sign from the washroom door of the department store so modern and fancy that they had sit-down toilets instead of the usual squat kind.

1. Sit on seat cover and don't climb on seat.
2. Don't wash your feet in the toilet. Don't wet the floor.
3. Flush before and after using the toilet.


  1. I am enjoying reading your posts about India, but we all missed you at WHYM last weekend.

  2. Enjoying and appreciating your reflective, and self-relective, posts - as always. As for feeling like a foreigner in a village in Zaire, I walked down the streets of a huge, lower middle-class suburb in Accra not long ago (and other parts of the city too) and did not draw any noticeable attention. Everyone treated me as another person.

    I am sorry you felt dehumanised by your experience in Africa but it's not surprising if children and even adults struggle to connect with someone who comes from such a different space (urban/rural, Western/African, university educated/not). Eating with your hand does not erase those differences which are not only in your skin colour but the very way you walk, stand, look, smile. In your reason for being there, at that time and place. Perhaps your experience would not have been that different in a small rural village in India.

    That's a nice thing about cities - the urban experience (though with differences as you've observed) is a common one now, around the world, and those of us who live (or have lived) in cities can connect fairly easily - as I guess people with similar lifestyles have always been able to do.