Incredible India!

Incredible India!

Chennai and Fair Trade Shop

I woke up early, as I always do to catch the sunrise and watch us pull into port. However this time it was cloudy, sticky, really humid, hot and there was no sun. So I went back to bed and woke up a bit later and watched us sail into the industrial port of Chennai formally called Madras.

We were constantly told that India was going to shock us the most, it was to be an attack on all the senses, it was going to be the major culture shock, and it might even change some of us. When we got there and when I got off the ship I was not overly shocked, nor were my senses “attacked,” rather I was in awe and fascination of this incredible and complex country.

The port was pretty much a dirty, ugly industrial port. With trucks, cranes, and containers constantly moving about. The local authorities required everyone to take shuttle buses from the ship to the gate, even though it was easily walkable. From the ship we could already see the rich history and story of India, British colony buildings lining the horizon, mixed with 20th century office buildings alongside Hindi temples and Islamic mosques.

India was by far the most annoying port we came to in terms of authority. We had to do a face to face inspection for immigration and every time we left and entered the port we needed to have our passports checked. This often took up to 30 minutes or more depending on how many buses and people were there. Most trips in India were late because of this.


Once we were allowed to get off the ship, a friend and I took the shuttle to the gate and took an auto rishaw, or in Asia its known as a Tuk Tuk and headed into town. We immediately headed into hot humid, and slightly smoggy air of Chennai. The port was right next to a train station, so there was a train crossing that we waited for, it took a very long time as 1) the train was extremely long, 2) the train was going really slowly and carrying containers from the port. Once the last train passed, people started to duck under the beams and began crossing the road, then the beams were lifted and the cars started honking and we entered the hustling and bustling streets of India. The sense of hearing was filled with the noise of honking, the sense of smell was filled with the smell of diesel, the sense of sight was filled with vibrant colors of the clothing, buildings and cars, the sense of touch was filled with the stickiness of the atmosphere. And I had yet to experience the sense of taste in India at this point and would not have experienced it until the 2nd day. My friend and I wanted to go to an ATM, so our tuk tuk driver took use to two, one had a long line and one had no line so we used this one. Then our driver wanted to take us to a few stores that paid him commission to bring tourists to them, we had some time to kill and we thought why not see Chennai from a tuk tuk? As we went into the inner city, we saw just how fascinating India was. Colorfully painted buildings dotted the streets, the honking continued, people walking barefoot alongside dogs and cow and cow dung, store vendors hustling to set up shop, food vendors making amazing looking and brilliantly smelling Indian street food. At this point I did not see any affluence, it was mainly scenes from many other developing nations. But soon we drove by a large shopping mall, and we saw fancy cars being sold, and ads catered to the rich. It was indeed “two Indias” or even “28 Indias” as our interport lecturer said. We soon arrived at a store front that looked like a museum. It sold carvings, handicrafts, jewelry and scarves and pillowcases. I bought a couple of items. Indeed a few more SAS students who also rode on tuk tuks entered the store, you could quickly see that there was a whole system worked out. One person could own a couple of stores or be in joint ventures with their brother, cousin or friends and would have deals with the tuk tuk drivers to bring tourists there to shop. Our driver took us to another store. This store was much larger, it sold clothing, artifacts, handicraft, furniture, and many more, it was slightly more pricey and I had already bought stuff from the first store and wanted to save my rupee for the rest of my 6 days in India, so I did not purchase anything. It was getting late and I needed to head back to the ship to eat a quick lunch and then head on an FDP (faculty directed field program) to visit a fair trade shop. So we asked our driver to take us back to the ship. On the way he kindly pointed out landmarks in Chennai including a statue of Gandhi and the University of Madras. When we got on in the morning we made a deal for USD$1 (48 Rupees) per person, when we got to the port he asked for 300 Rupees per person. He explained that the $1 deal was for the ATM only but he took us far into the city and to the stores. I figured that he was nice, took us to nice stores, and gave us a free city orientation of Chennai, but he did not make the price clear, so I made a deal to pay 200 Rupee per person. I got back to the ship, had lunch and headed to get on the bus.

SIPA Fair Trade Shop

After a 1.5 hour trip, and a 40 minute wait at the gate for the immigration process to be completed again, we arrived in a suburb of Chennai called Teynampet. We got off our bus and walked into an alleyway lined with cows, colorful houses, grass huts and a big sewer dump. We walked deeper into this alleyway and turned into another alleyway where we finally arrived at the headquarters of the SIPA Fair Trade Shop.

We were treated to fresh coconuts upon our arrival and proceeded to take a seat under some shade, and also walk around the outdoor work area where some women made incense and necklaces and a man made wooden toys, all while we sipped on our refreshing coconuts. The SIPA shop was very similar to a fair trade shop I visited in Cambodia called Tabitha, the organization that Taipei American School goes through to build houses in rural Prey Veng, Cambodia on its annual IB Cambodia service trip. Very simple building, yet clean and well organized. The concept and idea behind SIPA is also very similar to that of Tabitha.

After finishing our welcome coconuts we headed upstairs to an air conditioned room where one of the founders and owners of SIPA gave us a talk on the idea behind SIPA and fair trade. He also invited some of his more prominent employees to talk as well as a fellow supporter who won a Nobel Alternate Prize for her efforts to build houses for rural communities in the region.

After the talk we had time to browse the shop, which I must admit was slightly disappointing. There were some great products and I did buy things, but I felt like there could have been so much more with the resrouces and talents that SIPA has available to them. Tabitha had a near 3 story store filled with amazing and colorful silk products, SIPA only had a small room and small outdoor space as their shop. I felt that they really could expand more in terms of their variety in products because fair trade is such a wonderful idea and I really want to support the organization, but I did not buy as much because I felt there wasn’t much to choose from.

After we got back to the ship, I ate dinner and packed and went to bed for the next day I needed to wake up at 3AM for a 4AM trip departure to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur!



Bright and early the next morning I woke up had a light breakfast and got my stuff to meet my group before we boarded the bus and headed to Chennai International Airport. We checked in and waited in the very outdated domestic departure lounge for our SpiceJet, and Indian low cost carrier, flight to New Delhi or simply Delhi as it’s known in India. It was my first ever low cost carriers experience, and indeed the seats were very crammed and lucky for us semesteratsea had already ordered and paid for our in flight drink and meal. After 2 hours of flying we arrived in Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport’s low cost terminal. On our descent into the airport I saw the beautiful Baha’i Temple, a new a fast spreading religion, the Delhi Temple is in the shape of a lotus.

The moment we stepped off the plane I could feel the difference between north and south India, Delhi was less humid but nonetheless it was still extremely hot. The auto trishaws were less modern that those in Chennai as well.

Delhi is clearly a capital city, for most of it contains walled or gated and fenced governmental buildings. I had heard from many of my Indian friends that Delhi was a horrible city, but I didn’t really get that feeling, then again I only did spend 1 day there and we only visited some key sites and spent quite a bit of time on the bus.

Our first stop along the way to the hotel was Qutab Minar, one of the oldest buildings in India and the oldest tower in the world that still stands today.

Other sites that we visited were:

– India Gate

– Imperial buildings, including parliament, the court house, and various embassies. It was like visiting Washington D.C, the government central of India.

– Humayun’s Tomb, this is like a miniature Taj Mahal and it is made from red sandstone. Personally I thought it looked prettier than the Taj.

We were scheduled to visit Raj Ghat, but a diplomat from Vietnam was visiting Delhi so the site was closed off. We did eventually visit it on the last day of our 4 day tour. Raj Ghat is Mahatma Gandhi’s Samadhi. This is where Gandhi’s body was cremated, the site was also the cremation site for other notable people in India’s modern history including Nehru.

After a quick and efficient tour of Delhi we returned to our hotel and called it an early night for we had an early departure the next day.


Early the next morning we boarded our bus and headed off to the Delhi Railway station. Our bus parked on a curbside and we carried our suitcases and crossed the crazy street.

We lined up for a security scan of our bags, and then got on the platform. We had air conditioned cars which was nice because 2 hours on a train without air conditioning in the Indian heat and humidity would have been a bit challenging.

The train was not too bad. I was picturing the commuter type trains that most movies and documentaries tend to show with the mass of people overflowing the trains. But it turned out to be a rather normal cross-country train, with 5 seats across. We were served water, tea, and breakfast. This by the way was our 2nd out of 3 breakfasts on this morning. There were a few delays here and there as is common across India, but eventually we got to Agra.

We got on the bus and went to a hotel for our 3rd breakfast.

Then we headed for one of the Seven Wonders of the World: The Taj Mahal.

We got off the bus in front of the entrance and walked into the main area. Along the way hagglers tried to sell us things as they did in every site we visited. We got the tickets outside the red sandstone walls and gates of the Taj before lining up to go through security. There were 4 lines, 2 for men and 2 for women. Each gender had a line for normal ticket holders and another for like a more expensive ticket. Most tourists used the more expensive ticket line and did not need to wait.

Security went smoothly for the men but took a lot longer for the women as they had their handbags and what not. You basically can’t bring anything into the Taj other than yourself and a camera.

We walked along the pathway and turned right to the main gate before the gardens and the Taj itself. From the Islamic archway of the gate I could see the white marble of the Taj glistening in the sunlight.

For me it was a magical moment, a dream come true. I have always dreamed of going to the Taj, always heard of its beauty, and wanted to see why it was a wonder of the world.

Truth be told, other than that first magical moment, the rest of my short lived 45 minutes at the Taj was somewhat disappointing. It wasn’t really because we basically rushed through the site, but I thought it was somewhat underwhelming and way too overrated. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty and truly amazing that the building is basically one single slab of marble, but it just didn’t have enough to make the magic last. Many of the other sites we visited were a lot more mystical and magical than the Taj.

Nonetheless I think that Taj Mahal is still worth a visit, and when you do you need to spend at least one full day in Agra. Go to the Taj at sunrise, mid day and stay throughout the sunset and wait for the moon, as it is supposed to be amazing with a full moon.

After the Taj we visited a marble workshop, where we saw craftsmen inlaying the marble just the way it was done when the Taj was being built. We toured the shop selling various marble items and then left.

After the Taj we visited the Agra Fort.

After lunch at the hotel we departed for Jaipur.

Halfway through the drive we stopped at Fatehpursikri, an abandoned Palace from one of the earlier capital cities in India. Our tour bus couldn’t go up the hill to the palace so we took smaller shuttles.

This palace was far more mystical and interesting than the Taj Mahal, and there was hardly any tourists there other than Semester at Sea people. We were able to walk through the former bedrooms, courtrooms, and really imagine ourselves being in the presence of ancient Indian Royalty. Something that I did not feel at the Taj.


At around dinner time we pulled into Jaipur, checked in and grabbed dinner.

After dinner we went to the rooftop pool bar and saw that an Indian wedding was going on in a courtyard next door. Some people decided to go and see if they could join in. They walked in took photos and were eventually kindly asked to leave.

The next morning we headed out to the Amber Fort. Along the way we passed the water palace of Jaipur, it was a small palace sitting in the middle of a lake. It resembled a smaller version of the famed romantic hotel the Taj Lake Palace located in the same state as Jaipur, Rajasthan.

We got off the bus and lined up to ride the elephants up to the fort. To ride the elephant tour groups get to the fort early, because the elephants can only make a few trips up the fort a day. Luckily for us we made it there early enough and got on the elephants and went up to the fort. It was a very nice experience, we got to take in the surrounding landscape and architecture as we ascended the hill to the fort. Along the way hagglers tried to sell us things, and my friends and I played along with one of their tricks when one man said “30 rupees” for 2 turbans, that is less than a dollar. After we exchanged items, he said no no no “30 USD” well we wore our turbans for a few minutes then returned it and got our money back. Just a bit of fun.

We arrived at the fort and began our tour and walk. It was an amazing place. There was a hall mainly decorated with mirrors of all sizes, there were marbles hallways, painted walls and it was just simply magical it was no wonder many Bollywood films are filmed here. This was my favorite site that we visited on this India trip. I liked it more than the Taj. There were so many layers to the fort it was like visiting the Indian Forbidden City.

After spending the morning in the fort, we departed for lunch and a tour of Jaipur. On our way out of the fort we saw a snake charmer who upon seeing us began playing his flute and letting the cobra be charmed, well he couldn’t do anything when all of us whipped out our cameras and snapped away without paying him.

In the afternoon we visited one of the oldest observatories in the world. It was amazing to see how smart people were back then and how they were able to create such advanced mechanisms with much resources. Then we visited the City Palace of Jaipur which belonged to a Maharaja.

The City Palace was quite impressive. I looked about the hall in which the Maharaja greeted his guests, one of the most important ones being Queen Elizabeth. I also toured an exhibit of Indian clothing from the region, mainly showcasing the fancy and ornamented clothing of the royal families that lived in the Palace.

After the tours we drove by the Palace of the winds, which is a building with lots of small windows for the wives and women of the royal family to peep through to watch events along the streets.

Then we walked about and shopped around the old town and Bazaar. Old Town Jaipur is made of buildings that are pink, hence the name the Pink City. Literally it is a sea of pink, it is also one of the earliest examples of a grid plan cities. The whole city is designed like a grid, and the main road was built with the intention to accommodate cars, even though when it was built that technology did not exist but the architect knew and envisioned that wider streets would be needed in the future.

After shopping we headed back to the hotel in a Tuk Tuk and breathed in pollution and exhaust from the trucks around us.

The next morning we departed Jaipur for Delhi. As we drove by the old town we saw that overnight the residents had set up Diwali (The Festival of Lights) decorations. It was October 14, Diwali was October 26. Strings of lights and flowers hung over the streets.

We drove past a few developing cities near Delhi, one was Neem Rana, known as a Japanese town because it was mainly Japanese companies that were building their factories there. We passed a modern looking suburb of Delhi and it was a busy IT district.

Here is where one could see the difference between poor and rich India. Indeed later on as we drove along the streets of Delhi I would see a girl and boy begging for money and food on the streets. The girl utilized her extreme flexibility to put on contortionist type displays to try to earn some money. Then we would see walled off and heavily guarded houses of government officials.

We tried to see if Raj Ghat was opened on this day and luckily enough it was. We walked toward the main entrance to the small monument and eternal fire that burned there. Along the way we saw mostly Indian tourists or pilgrims visiting this important site. We walked up a hill to the top of the outer wall to look down at the pilgrims making their prayers and paying their respects. Then with a small amount of money and taking off your shoes some of us went into the lower level of the site to see the monument and eternal fire.

It was like visiting JFK’s grave in Washington D.C. Powerful yet sad. But it really showed the impact that Gandhi had on Indian its people.

After that we had a quick dinner before we headed off to the airport. After check in we ran through the huge domestic terminal of Delhi’s airport as our Jet Airways flight was already boarding.

We arrived back in Chennai and spent less than the usual hour clearing the main gates and arrived at the ship at around 12:30AM.

Cooking Class!

On the last day of my adventures in what turned out to be one heck of a fascinating country I went on a trip to a cooking demonstration.

The demonstration was done by a famous Indian cook. She made herself famous when she began her own television program on cooking. She now has 18 books, 3000 recipes, and 1200 shows (total through the years). She was married at the age of 15 had kids at 17 and was forced to learn how to cook. But then she began to show interest in cooking and became very good at it. Her passion for cooking picked up when she turned 20, her cooking is influenced by her husband, father, and sister-in-law. Soon she started to create her own recipes and her family showed appreciation for her new creations. Then her cousin started a TV Program for women and asked her to appear on it to teach cooking and her popularity picked up.

We were taught to cook:

– Vegetarian Briyani, but we can add chicked or eggs to this or any of the recipes we learned.

– Carrot Halwa

– Chappathy

– Vegetarian Kurma

– Curd (yoghurt) Rice

– And Masal Vadah

All of it was good just like Indian Food. In my six days I ate more Naan than I normally eat in a year, I had so many cups of Lassi, and enjoyed a variety of curries, stewed lentils, and Indian sweets.

India received mixed reviews depending on one’s experience. Some people hated India because of their unfortunate events. But despite its problems I found it absolutely fascinating and is probably the first place I would want to go back to out of the 12 countries we visited. There is so much going on and so much to see and do that one short 6 day trip is definitely not enough.

I definitely think everyone should visit India just like everyone should visit China because these are two fascinating countries with rich histories and political struggles but are now emerging and world powers.

It truly lives up to the tourism bureau’s slogan: Incredible India!


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