Getting a visa validated in New Delhi at the end of January, you already knew that a storm was brewing. Customs officers were wearing masks and gloves. There were bold warnings everywhere about recent travel to China and a few other locations. At the time, there were no (official) cases of Covid-19 in India. It was a blissful calm before the worldwide storm. Fitting that this trip would be something lovely like a wedding. When I mentioned to people that I was visiting India for a wedding, it became more and more clear that this was really an experience unto itself. That made this trip quite different in a couple of ways: I had never visited South India, and I wasn’t strictly visiting as a tourist. The unfortunate thing about the latter of those is that this trip just didn’t lend itself to tons of amazing pictures. Meeting friends, and friends of friends, and family of friends, and so on… shopping, etc. South India is famous for temples, but this itinerary was far too short to make a dent in any of that.
Chennai is a modest flight from Delhi. Stepping outside, you’ll feel the difference in humidity immediately. The treeline brimming with palms of different types, even knowing ahead of time that this is more of a tropical climate, it’s somehow jarring to feel like things are so different while you’re in the same place. I imagine this might be how a visitor to the states would feel flying from New York to Miami. We arrived just in time, cutting things very close to visit for a friend’s wedding. Now, this whole thing was quite the production. And as it was, I even got cheated a bit, because this couple didn’t have a traditional Hindu wedding. In any event, the reception held hundreds and hundreds of people. I was the only non-Desi person in attendance, so I may have been a mild spectacle. I will comment on one cultural difficulty, if you will. Ok… put me anywhere in Asia with and they hand me any type of chopsticks: metal, wooden, ceramic, short, long, round, flat, etc… I’m good. But that’s no big deal, of course. The curveball in South India as far as eating utensils is, in many informal settings… there are none. None. And this in a place where one of the absolutely beloved staples served with most meals is Sambar (a lentil-based vegetable soup). How do you eat soup without a spoon? Well, it seems that you kind of use your index & middle fingers along with your thumb to sort of make a spoon type motion. Pair that with Idli & Dosa (Indian breads), torn off with the same hand and used to move around the Sambar and such. I’m in no position to give a tutorial or proper explanation of this, but I think I’ve got the general idea. The fact that there are no utensils and people are eating with their hands might give the appearance of a free-for-all, but make no mistake: there is plenty of etiquette that goes with this as well. I just won’t claim to know all of it. I know you stick with the right hand. I know it’s best to not feed someone else in front of other people (unless married, and maybe not even then). I know that, as a white guy, I’m always going to find a way to turn things into a sandwich.
Pondicherry is an interesting town a couple hours away from Chennai. It’s under a different type of governance, a bit like Washington D.C., so there are some tolls entering and exiting the town. The town itself has some French colonial history that remains quite visible. There are lots of French-speaking foreigners and locals. Another curiosity in Pondicherry is what I would categorize as a cult, followers of Aurobindo. The main Ashram and burial site of the founders is located there as well as “Auroville”, the town adjacent to the place run by their followers. It seems that quite a lot of money from these folks flows into the local economy. My impression of it was that it was sort of Hinduism meets Scientology. Nearby the Aurobindo Ashram is the Ganesha temple that I found much more personally enriching.
The last stop on this trip was a small town between Chennai and Pondicherry called Pallipatu. This was the hometown of the friends that got married, so we made a trip out there to visit as we made our way back to Chennai. Unfortunately, work and other circumstances made this trip shorter than it should have been. Ideally, we should’ve had another week to venture out further to visit some of the temples that are days away from these cities. As it is, I have some pretty good reasons to make some return trips to the region. Next time it needs to be on a less tight itinerary.