You can’t go swimming here… or stroll on the beach

The day after I arrived in Chennai I went to the AMS Raj Palace Hotel to look for a fellow KYM student I corresponded with online.  While sitting in the lobby I happened to run into two KYM students, one from Britain and another from France.  The British woman had been in Chennai for a few days and told me how she’d been to every swimming pool in walking distance of the hotel (for her that meant 2-3 miles).  She said the Raj had the nicest changing rooms and pool, and she was going to sign up to swim there for a month.

Finding a place to swim in India is not easy.  Yes, you can find some decent pools at hotels; just last weekend, I saw a gorgeous outdoor pool at the Taj Connemara hotel.  But almost no one in India swims- that may be a completely exaggerated statement but it feels to me as if there isn’t a lot of people who swim or know how to swim.  The same British woman told me that there are some Indians at the pool but they mostly wade about and do not swim.  She said at a different pool there were Indians gawking at her because she was doing laps.  She also told me that she’s seen just two bathing suits for sale so far (she’s been looking for several weeks) and they weren’t on display.  The shopkeeper went to the back of the store and brought the two bathing suits out for her.  We’ve concluded that Indians are not so keen on swimming.

I have visited several beaches in the last two months and seen beaches on both the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.  I have also been to Kaniyakumari where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean all meet.  During that trip, one of the two Indian escorts we traveled with refused to even go on the beach because he said he was afraid of the ocean.  The other Indian guide went to the beach with us, pulled up his dhoti up to about his knees, and walked in as far as his calves.  Of course I assume the fishermen know how to swim and I met a Belgian guy who went diving for mussels with some local Indian men.  But one thing I know for sure is that I’ve not seen a single Indian woman swimming or even out of her sari at the beach.

I haven’t been to Goa but I understand that it’s so westernized there that foreigners wear their bikinis freely to sunbathe and swim in the ocean.  In Varkala, there were some foreigners in bathing suits but I chose not to do that at all (I don’t wear anything that shows my shoulders or knees here in India).  It’s not uncommon for Indian men to hang around the beach, stare and take photos of the foreign women who are sunbathing.  When we went to Mahabalipuram the other weekend, we walked along the beach near the Shore Temple.  There, some of my student friends couldn’t hide their excitement in seeing the ocean, and rolled up their pants and hiked up their skirts to walk on the beach and dip in for a bit.  We encountered many sets of eyes following us even then.

Indian ladies on Elliots beach, Chennai

I always see women in beautiful saris, some with elaborate embellishments, walking along the beach and even walking into the ocean fully clothed.  It’s no wonder Indian women don’t swim.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to swim wearing a sari, even in salwar kamees or kurtas (long tunic and pants).  I would surely drown!  I wonder where the recruits for the Indian women’s swim team come from…

Back to the beach.  Sadly the beaches here in India are not clean.  Forget swimming, it’s difficult to enjoy the beaches because there is so much trash.  Last Sunday I went to a nearby beach (an easy 10 minute rickshaw ride) where I hoped to take a leisurely afternoon walk.  But just like everywhere else in India the beach was covered with rubbish.  I even saw a decaying corpse of a dog.  I thought long and hard before I took my shoes off to walk on the beach.  There was a nice breeze and the beach wasn’t very crowded, but it was hard to appreciate the expansive ocean and the clean air because I kept scanning for broken glass and other objects as I walked.

I don’t find many trash cans in public spaces in India.  Often I end up walking all the way home or to school holding my tissue or some other trash because there aren’t any trash bins on the street.  Today I saw a woman on a motorcycle tossing a plastic bag filled with her trash on the side of the street as she rode by.  There is so much natural beauty here and so many Indians who worship all kinds of Gods and Goddesses.  Why not Mother Earth?  Why not honor, respect, and preserve it?

We talk about the overwhelming amount of trash here quite a bit amongst the students.  I joked with a friend that a waste management company, along with a recycling and scrap metal business will make some enterprising Indian person millions.  I’m trying to understand why it doesn’t seem to bother the people who live here so much.  Or maybe it bothers them but they don’t know what to do about it?  I’m debating whether I should check out another beach this weekend…

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2 Responses to You can’t go swimming here… or stroll on the beach

  1. asami says:

    It’s very curious why Indian women don’t go swimming — I’ll have to ask Himanshu. When I was in Malaysia, I saw women wearing their colorful clothes covering their hair, sleeves down to their wrists and dresses down to their ankles. At the beach, I wondered what kind of modest swimsuits they wear, and I was horrified to find that they swim in clothes that look just like what they wear on the street! I thought the same thing, that if they had to swim, they would get all tangled up in all that fabric and drown. I suppose it’s still refreshing to get in the water, but I was so surprised.

  2. asami says:

    Chris, I asked Himanshu about swimming, and he said that it’s a more recent sport for Indians. In cities, it’s becoming more common for children to learn how to swim; but in less urban areas, people just don’t do it as much.

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