I'm up way earlier than planned on a Saturday morning perfect for a lie in. My body is taking quite a while to adjust to the time difference between India and here. We arrived back on Wednesday after a night flight and I'm still wanting to go to bed by about 8pm (not great for socialising it must be said!) and waking up aroun 5 or 6am, as India is 5.5 hours ahead of us. I never knew time differences came in half an hours as well as full hours. Well I suppose going away to 'far away' places teaches you new things...
I've been mulling over what I learnt during our 10 days in Chennai. It seems so easy just to slip back into 'normal life', but I don't want to forget, or not fully appreciate my time away. I have to say I didn't feel like I experienced 'Culture Shock', nor was I particularly overwhelmed by any element of what I encountered, which means the things I learnt/felt/saw were perhaps more subtle and I think I absorbed a lot without registering it. [This is not to say that I am insensitive or a particularly hardened traveller, it's more that where we stayed and the places we visited were probably more 'tame' than other parts of India - from what others have said].
SO... what did I learn that I didn't know before...?
"The North East"
We met and made friends with several people from the North East of India. Now I profess my ignorance - I originally thought that this meant Calcutta and thereabouts. I hadn't quite taken in the fact that west of Bangladesh there's a whole other 'chunk' to India. Our friends came from Nagaland and Manipur, regions that border on Burma. Again, in my ignorance, by their physical appearance i would never have said they were 'Indian' - I probably would have guessed Thai or Malaysian.
Which brings me to the whole crazy nature of colonially created borders and nations. There are over 2,500 people groups in India - it seems madness that a few foreigners decided to make this mass of land a country. And no wonder there's been tensions. (I speak with very limited knowledge and experience e.g. of the nature of Indian 'national identity', so forgive me if I offend in any way, I'm just processing a mix of things seen, heard, learnt - and most probably assumed, because I think this is what humans do!) With this many ethnic groups it's impossible to generalise and make comparisons - because for example even within say Nagaland, there are many tribes who are fighting against each other. Having said this, people did seem to often identify themselves by the region that the came from e.g. Kerala or Tamil Nadu.
Through meal time conversations we learnt that it was quite a big challenge for the 'north easterners' to come and live in the south east. There are big differences in food (much more spicy and less sweet in the north east - they even put chilli with raw mangoes... i think i'd find the diet more challenging!). There were jokes about how you know when you're in the north east when you don't even see any crows about - because all the animals have been eaten. A friend we met from Nagaland had eaten dogs, crows, frogs, ants, spiders - basically everything we could think of asking him! There's also differences in what is acceptable in terms of clothing. Chennai has been quite influenced by the West but we still had to be careful to dress modestly and cover shoulders, legs, etc, whereas the girls from Manipur were used to wearing strappy tops and shorts. Another funny, although perhaps slightly uncomfortable, conversation was about differences in skin colour and body hair... J said she found hairy men 'disgusting' (there were plenty of moustaches around in Chennai!) and had been nervous about meeting southerners with much darker skin. [That's another crazy thing that one doesn't just encounter in India... all over the world people are trying to lighten their skin - staying out of the sun and even using bleach, while we pale one roast and toast ourselves at every opportunity!! ]
Having mentioned some of the cultural differences, what was brilliant about the place where we stayed was that there were people from all over India, and from a whole range of economical and social backgrounds. AND they loved each other, shared everything, and served each other. Their diversity was expressed in positive ways, such as when they danced... when we move our bodies we express so much that can't be said, and these were times when the influence of ethnic/cultural background, mixed with the uniqueness of each person, really shone through.
There are more things to say, but this post is getting long, so I'll leave them for another day. :-)