Confession: I wasn’t particularly excited about visiting India. At the same time, I wasn’t unexcited to visit India. It was just…there. Another dot on the map (albeit a massive one), another stop on our Semester at Sea voyage. My feelings were lukewarm. I was more psyched to see countries like Vietnam and Japan for the first time, and to be frank, I was more terrified than anything of our pending travels through North India, not fearful for my safety but pretty certain at least one of us would come down with a case of the dreaded Delhi Belly.
(Spoiler alert: We didn’t. In fact, I didn’t have so much as a stomachache the entire time we were there. I attribute that to Dr. Diarrhea’s advice of taking two Pepto tablets before each meal, which enabled me to gorge myself on all the curry and paneer in the land and not pay for it later.)
My feelings changed drastically over the coming days; actually, it only took minutes of driving through the crowded streets of Chennai to realize I was really going to like India. I liked the electric energy of the city, the fast-paced way at which the people moved from place to place, the bazaars, the tuk-tuks, the naan. Oh God, do I love the naan. As our executive dean told us during the pre-port lecture, India is a shock to the senses. It’s an overload on all accounts: sights, smells, sounds, experiences.
We arrived at 8am on a Monday morning to a security lock down…already a shock to something (namely, our patience). Due to what I assume is lingering repercussions from the Mumbai bombings last year, port security was lid-tight; every time we sent a SAS trip out of the gates, each and every participant had to get off the bus at the entrance and go through an intense customs process that could take up to an hour. When you came back through, it was the same story, only not only did you have to go through clearance once more, but you also had to pass through a security line similar to that at an airport and have all of your belongings screened.
It was more than mildly frustrating. As a result, SVV spent the entire first day tackling logistics like money exchange on the ship—have you ever tried to stuff 5,000 rupees ($100) in your wallet? It’s so many bills, I felt like I’d won the lottery!—as I did my job dispatching said trips. We didn’t even attempt to venture out beyond security until the evening for Semester at Sea’s Welcome Reception at a local hotel.
The first day in the country corresponded with my field office co-worker Paula’s birthday, so all of our staff and faculty friends attended her unofficial “birthday party,” totaling more than 120 SAS participants who came out for the festivities. When we arrived, they put leis around our necks and smudges on our foreheads (meant as blessings), and we mingled with students from the local universities as we noshed on southern Indian nibbles. I also had my first brush with henna. While I wavered back and forth whether or not I wanted to get it done, despite it being free, I wasn’t sure I wanted a stained hand for the next month to come; some of the students were still painted from as far back as Morocco. But I took a chance, and it was completely gone within a week.
Then, two Indian dancers took the stage and dazzled us all with their colorful costumes and their even more colorful moves.
They clicked and blinked and sashayed their way around the stage for the next half hour as we all sat mesmerized by the enchantresses.
I was too excited by everything to take any footage, but I highly suggest you watch this amazing video that our ship photographer Spencer Weiner shot of the production. If nothing else, it will give you a dose of major India wanderlust.
After the party was over, we opted to return to the ship, primarily because we’re old and 11pm is late for an aging married couple to be out on the town, but also because we had a 3am wake-up just a few hours down the line. Our destination: the fortress and former hunting grounds of Ranthambore. I am not one who likes to rise before 8am, and even that is pushing it as I often don’t go to sleep until after 1am, so I felt about as bad as I looked when we arrived to the Chennai airport before the sun had even popped out to say hello.
But the coming days would be totally worth the bleary eyes and painful wake-up calls.