22 May 2016:
Left Mumbai today. Took a flight from Mumbai to Chennai and then from thereboarded a very small plan to take us to Tiruchirapalli, in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Like I said – small plane. Tight ride but really only an hour long. Claudia and I slept through the just about the entire ride; Ashwanth later told us he was too hot to so much as think. No air conditioning for the entirety of that quick ride in a tiny plane, either, which I suppose is good warm-up for all the time we’ll be spending out in the villages surrounding Tanjore as we interview m-pesa users and conduct focus groups. But a rude awakening, nonetheless.
When I wasn’t sleeping as we were flying in, I was staring out the dirtied, foggy window at the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful green fields squaring up across the ground. Brown, muddied rivers running through. Top of a train flying through the heads of green trees. Black roadtops and cows walking right through the middle of them. Even with the roads, everything looked totally untouched; mesmerizing in its greenness and simple patterns.
Before too long, we arrived at what might one of the smallest-ever international airports (flights to and from Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates). In fact, we weren’t even aware that it was an international airport until we walked out of the plane, across the tarmac, and into the airport and were greeted by a customs counter…
Upon gathering our luggage and heading outside, we were greeted by two different groups. Vodafone had sent some people over to welcome us and give us flowers (really, really beautiful…packaged and flattened rose bouquets laid against some kind of coniferous leaves). They also had been holding up a sign saying “Vodafone” on one line and “Mr. Ashwanth Samuel” on another line. Shwanth liked that; he laughed at what felt like an overblown welcome and asked if he could keep the sign for memory’s sake; the Vodafone representatives seemed flattered and, smilingly, handed it over along with our flowers.
We said goodbye to the Vodafone employees (they drove over an hour just for that…yet another example of the Indian hospitality we’ve already seen so many examples of!) and then turned around to be greeted by Ashwanth’s family friend, Joseph, who runs a school for girls in the not-too-far-off city of Madurai. Joseph had arranged for a driver and translator for us (the driver’s name is David, the translator’s name Prince) and we rode with them all in the small van from the Trichy airport to Thanjavur/Tanjore, where we’ll be staying for the next three weeks.
Joseph and Ashwanth caught up with each other immediately as Claudia and I began to talk with Prince, our translator, in the back of the car. Prince immediately began showing us pictures of his family: he has a beautiful wife whom he couldn’t say enough kind-hearted things about, and a young daughter who, we found out rather quickly, he pampers every chance he gets. (Throughout our stay, as we were driving to or from various villages and passing random shops and stops along the way, Prince was known to shout out in glee: “Oh, I need to get this for my daughter! Let’s stop, please!”). Prince also revealed that he worked as a pastor at his home in Madurai.
The drive was something. As Shwanth said while en route, “This is India.” The only driving we had done in India prior to this bit was when we were headed to Vodafone meetings at the headquarters in Bombay, and this was a totally different experience. No multi-laned, traffic-filled roads here, in rural Tamil Nadu. Instead: lots of cars, lots of honking, little space, and lots of movement.
One of my first observations as we made our way out of the more bustling city of Tiruchirapally: for a small, relatively unknown city, this is a pretty big city. Trichy isn’t enormous by many standards: it barely shows up on a map of Tamil Nadu. It’s best known for its temples and for that alone, tourists occasionally flock this far south for a day or so, a quick trip while on the path to another Elsewhere. Yet, despite its supposed smallness, Trichy was by no means rural. It was, most certainly, a city. How it towed the line between “city” and “small,” I had a hard time comprehending, however. In my experience, developing areas offer pretty clear distinctions between cities and villages. Cities are large, far-off, crowded, dirty, yet because of all that, full of opportunity. Villages, on the other hand, are rural: they’re small centers, meeting places for whoever lives nearby…the closest thing to a city in certain circumstances, but, certainly not a “real city” in the eyes of someone like myself whose experience with “cities” brings to mind images of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington. Yet Trichy changed that. I was expecting something far less metropolitan than what I saw, and I found myself surprised at my own levels of surprise.
As Shwanth had said earlier: “This is India.” I should expect to be surprised, constantly.