Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner



By John Meade

Rickshaw Rides and Revelations
madu and his family     On my first day in Chennai I was driven around with two of my friends in a rickshaw.  Our driver’s name was Madurai and he asked to be called Madu for short.  I had been told to be careful around rickshaw drivers.  I had been told that they are only out to cheat tourists and will more than likely rip you off given the opportunity.  With all that in mind, I was skeptical at first when Madu asked to drive us around for the entire day.  There was something about this man that seemed different though.  I agreed to let him take us around the city for the day because he appeared quite sincere. 
     One of the first things Madu did for us was take us to lunch.  We approached the restaurant from the back alley, which made me nervous, but once we got inside it was a really nice place.  Madu ordered for us, acted as our translator, showed us the proper way to combine the food, and instructed us on how to eat with our hands.  He was joking around with us the entire time and it felt for a while that he was more than just our driver.  He had become our newfound friend in India.
     Madu drove us around for the remainder of the day while we shopped and drank tea.  He turned out to be rather helpful and we had a wonderful afternoon talking with him.  When it came time for us to return to the ship Madu drove us back.  On the drive back he asked us if we would like to join him for dinner at his home later in the week.  We said that there would be nothing that could keep us from going.  He was delighted and we said our goodbyes.
      On the last night in Chennai we met Madu outside the port gate and he drove us to his home.  He told us how his wife was busy preparing dinner for us and that his two teenage daughters would be returning home from school shortly.  It really goes without saying that southern India is extremely poor.  We all knew this beforehand, but nothing really prepared us for the shock of Madu’s apartment building.  To get into the neighborhood we had to jump down from a broken section of the highway.  We then walked through a courtyard area that was littered with trash, food waste, and human feces.  We followed Madu up the stairs to his third floor apartment.  We walked in the door and were immediately welcomed by his wife and smiling daughters and proceeded to sit down with them for our meal. 

madu and his rickshaw
      Afterwards, I was bewildered at the entire experience.  I kept finding myself thinking about how these people could be so nice and happy when they lived in such horrible conditions.  Madu’s home was only a small room not even ten by ten feet, but he and his family seemed to have nothing to complain about.  In the face of such poverty and hardship, they were some of the happiest people I have met on this voyage.  An excerpt from one of our readings on India really rang true to me after this experience.  In her book Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, Sarah Dickey writes, “…weakness and powerlessness do not characterize most of the daily experiences and expressions of poor residents in [southern India].  Life is not pervaded by futility and resignation to the extent that people stop trying…” My experience with Madu and his family is one that touched my heart and truly changed my outlook on the poor of India.   

Home Page