Saturday, February 27, 2016

Of Course You Can Take Your Baby to India

A few months ago our friend Ram announced he was moving back to India and getting married.  We are very sad to see him go, but were excited to be invited to his nuptials in Chennai, India.
Chennai is the fourth largest city in India and is located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeast coast.

Chennai has been called the "Detroit of India" because of its large automotive manufacturing industry.  It is not a place we ever expected to visit, but it is definitely an up-and-coming tourist destination.  (It was named one of Lonely Planet's Top 10 Places to Visit in 2015.)    

We checked with the doctor and got the thumbs up for traveling with Natalie.  ("Of course you can take your baby to India.  Don't drink the water.  She will be fine."  We love our very practical German doctor.)  We packed up Natalie's favorite toys and braced ourselves for the 10 hour flight to India.  (She did great.)  

Puzzles are delicious.
Our first day was spent touring around some of the sites in Chennai.  We had done a lot of research on the dos and don'ts of traveling to India, but hadn't quite grasped how excited people would be to meet Natalie.  Natalie thought she was going to have a quiet day exploring the local museum and hanging out with her favorite animal--the elephant.

Instead, she caused a bit of a scene.
A bit stunned by all the attention.  We loved how excited everyone was to see her.
During our time at the museum, a few hundred school children stopped to check out the museum's newest and hottest exhibit.  There was lots of a cheek pinching, photo taking, and questions about Natalie.  No matter where we went, everyone--young, old, women, men--showered her with attention.

The first of 1,000 cheek pinches.  She was a trooper.  We had no idea cheek pinching was a thing.
There were also exhibits at the museum not named Natalie. 
Look!  I found the hippo.  
Next, Natalie and Matt had their first rickshaw ride out to the beach.  The driving and traffic in India is crazy.  Each of the roads seem to have 2 lanes, but end up with cars, rickshaws and motorcycles at least 10 wide jockeying for position.  Inches between you and the next vehicle.  People driving the wrong way.  Definitely no seat belts or car seats. 

Totally terrifying, but somehow there is a magical rhythm to it all and everyone gets where they need to go.  Each ride is punctuated by a cacophony of horns as drivers signal that they are passing, stopping, going, or just saying hello.  With barely inches to spare.

Natalie was mesmerized by all the sounds and colors while Kristin held on for dear life.

Despite a dangerous riptide preventing anyone from actually swimming, the beach was full of people on a nice Saturday night.  There were also lots of vendors selling trinkets, food, and just about anything else you can think well as a few random cows.

Although we've gone running with our group in Stuttgart about 100 times, we've never visited another outpost.  So the next day we headed out to Indian suburbia for some exercise and merriment.  

It was great to see some of India outside of the city of Chennai.  There was a dramatic mix of lovely estates with utter poverty right next door. We were welcomed with amazing hospitality and even more delicious home cooked food.

The next day was our Pretty Woman-style shopping adventure in Chennai.  We needed some clothes for the wedding so we spent a number of hours being completely overwhelmed with Indian department stores.  There were so many sarees--thousands upon thousands--it was difficult to pick.  Kristin changed her mind about a hundred times on which ones she wanted.

Natalie, of course, was the star of the show, even though her mom was the one with the credit card.

On to day 1 of the big event:  Ram and Swati are getting married.  But there are about 100 things that need to happen before they were even engaged.  And most of the time we had no idea what was happening.  So grab some flower confetti and hang on for the ride.

I'm pretty sure we are bringing some fruit as an offering to the marriage hall.

Too little for a saree but still sporting the bright colors

The lovely bride.  In her first of about 20 amazing sarees.
While Kristin spent time getting henna on her hands, Natalie explored the wedding hall and introduced herself to all of the other guests.

Kristin is not super patient, so this was torture.

Natalie found her new favorite way to get around 
After 3 plentiful meals the first day and more snacks and drinks than you can imagine, we were stuffed.  At each meal, we would get a banana leaf and the servers would come by with about 20 different South Indian vegetarian items for us to sample.  We aren't sure what most of it was, but it was delicious.  Eating it all without utensils, just scooping with our fingers, made it fun as well.

And there was a helpful menu for each day to tell us what was on our plates.

There was even a live band to add music at the appropriate parts and the day ended with the couple being officially engaged.

We were warned about the band

Day 2 of the wedding had a bright and early start, with our friends carrying the groom around to meet his bride.  Some flower garlands were exchanged.


After a few more hours, and a few hundred more handfuls of flower confetti, and a few more meals, the bride and groom were officially wed! 

Once the wedding festivities were complete, we were lucky to take a tour with Storytrails India of a wonderful temple. Th
Kapaleeshwarar Temple was built over 500 years ago to honor the Indian god Shiva.  The temple had recently been repainted and the scaffolding had only been removed from the main tower gate 2 days before our visit.  Unlike many of the temples in India, all of the figures were wonderfully vibrant and detailed.  

You can't just pick one favorite.

Peacocks are prominently featured since Shiva was worshiped in this form.

We also had a chance to explore the area a bit.  Nearly every block featured a vendor selling fresh orange juice or sugarcane juice.  Both were squeezed when you ordered them, absolutely delicious, and a cup was about 25 cents.

Our friend Melissa, who lives in India, assured us it was safe even for our weak western stomachs

Locals doing some shopping

On our last day, we headed for a day trip with our friends to Mahabalipuram, a town about an hour south of Chennai.  Mahabalipuram has a series of temples and other archaeological sites dating from the 600s, including rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), giant open-air rock reliefs, and a Shore Temple.  We started at the Pancha Rathas, which are a very cool group of carved structures resembling chariots that the gods would ride on.  The structures were all in great condition because they had been buried for hundreds of years before being discovered and excavated by the British in the 1800s. 

We then headed down the road to the shore temple, which was considerably more eroded because it had been exposed to the elements for longer but was still beautiful and impressive.

One of the best decisions we made was to stay in a nice, western hotel while visiting.  Compared to Germany or the USA, the room was very cheap and offered a wonderful refuge for us when we needed some time to decompress.  Especially when traveling with a little one, it was great to have a climate controlled, clean, quiet place at the end of the day.  Our flight home departed at 2am and the staff was even nice enough to let us check out at 4pm but still play in the rooftop pool and then shower before dinner and the flight.  

Relaxing finish to a fun trip

The star of the long flight home
It was a fitting end to a wonderful trip.  India is a place Kristin and Matt have each wanted to visit for many years and this offered us a perfect opportunity to see a small part of it.  We were extremely lucky to have the means and excuse to take advantage of it and look forward to visiting again.