After a night spent defending ourselves against pissed off mosquitoes we grabbed some breakfast in advance of our journey to Chennai. While I drank my tea and browsed the newspaper I wa
After a night spent defending ourselves against pissed off mosquitoes we grabbed some breakfast in advance of our journey to Chennai. While I drank my tea and browsed the newspaper I watched three men collecting coconuts across the road – one at the top of the tree throwing them down, and two at the bottom with flat sheets of hessian that they flicked upwards to meet the falling coconuts which became safely wrapped inside. Next to the coconut tree a man was preparing coals to place inside his large clothes iron.
We didn’t have to wait long at the bus station for our ride to Chennai, and were surprised to find ourselves on a shiny, new air conditioned coach – so new that there was still plastic on some of the seats. Maybe it was the driver’s natural driving style, or maybe it was the fact that he was at the wheel of something so new and so expensive, but it seemed as though he navigated his way through India’s streets a little more cautiously than other drivers have.
Chennai is only about 100km from Mamallapuram and it didn’t take long for us to reach its satellite suburbs and settlements. A city of over 6 million people – the fourth largest in India – Chennai is also one of the most spread out. We passed universities, hospitals, schools, business parks, gated communities – all like isolated islands of development in a sea of nothing. There were buildings bearing familiar brand names like eBay, PayPal and Accenture (complete with a giant poster of Tiger Woods on the front). The flat, deforested land allowed us to see far into the distance, with signs of massive development apparent everywhere in the haze and smog. It seemed that everywhere we looked there was another large building or skyscraper under construction – giant concrete monoliths wrapped in makeshift scaffolding of wood and rope. Often these gigantic developments, promising riches and luxury, grew on one side of the road, while shanties and relative poverty huddled on the other. I saw a Dominos Pizza outlet that reassured passers-by with a sign reading, “We do celebrate birthday parties here”.
Approaching the centre of Chennai we asked the conductor for the best way to get to our desired suburb. As so often seems to happen here, people fell over themselves to help and we ended up with four or five bus passengers giving us directions. One lady told us she was getting off at the same stop as us and insisted on walking us across the road to the local train station, buying us two tickets from the machine, and showing us to our platform. She sincerely asked us for our opinion on India and wished us a great trip. This lady, who had gone so far out of her way to help two strangers, even initially refused to take the Rs. 10 for our tickets and I had to insist several times.
The suburban train ride was certainly an experience, and I can now add India to the list of countries in which I’ve pissed people off commuter train passengers with my backpack. With every carriage door wide open, and a faded sign declaring roof riding illegal, I spent the six stops taking in as much as I could. There were people riding the train from all walks of life – businessmen to beggars, traditional sari-wearing ladies to Western clothes-wearing youth. At each stop a new beggar would get on the train and walk up and down the aisles; one was a little boy selling cheap notebooks, another was a crippled old man pushing himself around on a makeshift skateboard. As the train passed over the city’s wide, polluted and rubbish-strewn river, the smell became overpowering and several passengers automatically held handkerchiefs to their noses.
After a little while sorting out some accommodation near Egmore station we grabbed some (very late) lunch at a local restaurant before heading back to our room to rest up for a bit.
In the early evening we decided to go and see a movie, so we caught a rickshaw to a multiplex cinema a few suburbs away. We really want to see a new Indian film that seems to be popular at the moment called 3 Idiots, but we haven’t seen it showing anywhere with English subtitles. That left us with one choice: Avatar.
For Rs. 95 we bought the best class of ticket (Quartz, which allows you to sit in the rear third of the cinema; Topaz costs Rs. 85 and gets you a seat in the middle; Zircon costs Rs.10 and you have to sit in the front two rows under a stupendously massive screen.) After some baffling previews for films in Tamil and Hindi, the feature started but audience conversations didn’t stop. Didn’t really matter because the volume was turned up way past eleven, and drowned out all the voices, crying babies and mobile ringtones. After ninety minutes the screen went black, the lights went up, and a giant “INTERMISSION” appeared on the screen, and it couldn’t have come too soon because Spykey and I were turning into ice blocks thanks to the overzealous air conditioning (complete with occasional bursts of sickly-sweet deodoriser.) Finally, after the movie re-started, the Australian dude kissed the alien chick, the cinema exploded with applause and cheers, the movie ground on towards its predictable James Cameron finale, and the credits rolled. Two stars, Margaret.
Riding a rickshaw back to our hotel along a different route, we caught our first glimpse of Chennai’s slums across the other side of the river. Being dark, and with only occasional light shining out from between sheets of iron and wood, the sense that so many people are living in a basically invisible part of the city was eerie. The fact that we’d just been to a clean, air conditioned cinema, eaten popcorn that we weren’t hungry for, and escaped so completely and pleasantly from reality for a few hours left me feeling conflicting emotions. We passed a massive hotel complex, teeming with life and shining brightly with light, directly opposite the slums, the people gathered in such affluent surroundings seemingly oblivious to the hardship just across the water.
After a decent sleep in and a lazy coffee we walked down the road to the Five Rathas – one of two World Heritage sites in Mamallapuram. The Five Rathas are a set of carved stone monoliths just to the south of the city. There’s a temple, an elephant, and all the other sorts of things you’d expect ancient Indians to carve out of stone. Most of the site’s visitors were Indian nationals, themselves tourists to Mamallapuram. One nice man asked where we were from, welcomed us to India, and then commenced a lavish monologue that could’ve been written by the Indian Tourist Board itself. He impressed on us the need to visit a World Heritage site in his home city, bragging that it was massive compared to the tiny stuff at Mamallapuram.
Due to our late start this morning it was very much lunchtime when we arrived back in town. I wasn’t really hungry so Spykey went off to eat and I planted myself and my netbook in a touristy cafe, purchasing a shit cup of tea in exchange for a place to sit and write for 90 minutes. When Lisa found me after her lunch she guiltily admitted to eating spaghetti bolognaise in a tourist restaurant – guiltily because she had sacred cow for lunch, and guiltily because it was “really fucking good”.
In the afternoon we went shopping and bought a large cotton sarong (probably about 2m x 2m) decorated with an intricate blue elephant print. We’ll use this as a bedsheet due to the highly dubious cleanliness of the sheets in some hotel rooms.
Just as the sun was getting ready to start setting, we went to check out the second of the World Heritage sites: the Shore Temple. While walking up the path leading to the entrance gate, a gorgeous little girl politely stopped Lisa, said hello, shook her hand, and solemnly welcomed her to India. Lisa is constantly stopped and greeted by Indians, and especially little Indian kids; the ongoing Scott-snub has left me feeling a little sad and rejected. Perhaps my beard is scary. Anyway, I took a photo of the little girl, her whole family, and Spykey the Goddess of Indian Youth.
Although the Shore Temple is quite small, the stonework is incredible, and the entire site complements the temple with beautifully arranged cows, moats, walls and gates. Having perfectly timed our visit to coincide with the “golden hour” of light, the Temple and the surrounding area looked magical. There’s something about the deep, dusty blue colour of the Indian sky and the way it contrasts with the lush green colour of the vegetation that is unique to India.
With Lisa back at the hotel room I headed over to the street vendors near where we bought the sarong to buy her a little carved stone elephant that she’d seen and liked earlier in the day. My first real souvenir purchase, it was a good chance to have a little haggle with the salesdude, although neither of us really had our hearts in it, and we easily settled on a price exactly halfway between our initial offers before warmly shaking hands. On the way back to the hotel I got chatting with another of the stallholders who I thought was just going to try to draw me into his shop, but we talked about everything else but shopping – Australia, India, cricket, how the trains work, food – for about 20 minutes without him once even obliquely trying to turn my attention to his wares. It was really nice to have my cynicism blown apart by somebody who just genuinely wanted to interact. Afterwards I walked down to the beach and enjoyed the last few moments of daylight looking out to sea. I reminded myself I was in India – it was pretty cool.
Back at the hotel, Lisa and I were getting ready to leave the room for dinner when a rickshaw backed up to the gate of the hotel’s courtyard, guided and pushed by some of the hotel employees, where it let fly with an almighty cloud of foul white smoke that filled the entire building – our room included – and reduced visibility to practically nothing. Running out of our room, Lisa and I took refuge in the reception area with all the other guests. One of the hotel workers strolled nonchalantly through the cloud and into reception where he informed us merrily, smile on his face, that the “mosquito cloud” is good for us because there will be “no more mosquito”. A few of us asked why we weren’t told to leave our rooms before the cloud was released, and his answer was that the cloud is harmless to humans, only “no good mosquito”. Whatever the insecticide was that produced the white cloud, all it succeeded in doing was driving every bloody mosquito inside for the night, away from their poisoned watery homes.
We’re off to Chennai tomorrow which will be a serious change of pace from Mamallapuram. Keen to check out India’s fourth-largest city.
Dec 29, 2009
Spykey woke up still feeling a bit tired but much improved on yesterday. While she was packing her bag I ducked out for a sly masala chai on the side of the road. Standing in the mornin
Spykey woke up still feeling a bit tired but much improved on yesterday. While she was packing her bag I ducked out for a sly masala chai on the side of the road. Standing in the morning sun amongst a group of men – office workers, rickshaw drivers, street vendors – holding my scalding hot glass and watching the morning traffic dance its crazy Indian ballet only centimetres away, I took a moment out from making love to my chai to draw in the smells around me. Besides the heady, pungent and peppery smell of the tea, there was the chai vendor’s cooking gas, two-stroke fumes from rickshaws, wafts from an open sewer somewhere nearby, a hint of livestock, delicious aromas drifting across the street from the deep fried yummy snack man, and that ever-present taste in your nose from the dust. And all this as a morning pick-me-up to make you feel alive for a measly Rs. 6. Beats any Melbourne latte den hands down.
Walking back to the hotel I witnessed a brilliantly hilarious example of Indian traffic management. A crowded street had gridlocked with two opposing flows of traffic – cars, trucks, hand-drawn carts, rickshaws, bicycles and pedestrians – coming to a complete standstill. The air was filled with the sound of a thousand horns blaring, and for once the Indian vehicle horn had utterly failed to make the traffic move. More traffic was piling into the melee from both directions and pressure was building dangerously at the eye of the storm. I was standing very close to the action and part of me was eagerly awaiting the explosion, keen to see what was going to happen. Right at that moment, a solution arrived in the form of a traffic police truck with a bullhorn mounted on the roof. Sitting inside the truck was a driver and a maniacally-grinning passenger holding a microphone. As the truck drove purposefully straight up the middle of the road, pushing all in its path to the side, the now-laughing passenger started barking instructions into the microphone, the bullhorn dutifully relaying those instructions to the snarl of traffic at over 100 decibels. For about 30 seconds the mass of humans and machines seemed to vibrate in oscillations of increasing intensity, building to a point that I thought must surely mean somebody was going to get hurt, but somehow – I simply don’t know how – something that the giggling traffic policeman shouted down the microphone worked, and the intricate knot of traffic started to untangle itself. As my chance to pass through came, I walked away from the scene in delightful awe.
Lisa and I hopped a rickshaw to the bus station on the other side of town and asked around for a bus headed to Mamallapuram. Settling in for the trip, we negotiated the tight urban streets of Pondicherry, headed for the East Coast Road. The moment the bus pulled away from the station our conductor commenced a shouty and aggressive conversation on his mobile phone, causing him to gesticulate wildly and frequently startle the driver. This conversation continued for the entire two-and-a-bit hour journey, pausing only long enough to allow him to occasionally get up and sell some tickets.
For Rs. 60 each you not only get transport from one city to another, you also get a theme park ride. Disneyland should open an attraction called “The Indian Bus Experience”, featuring hair-raising games of chicken with other buses, death-defying three-abreast overtaking manoeuvres, a steady blast of cool, dusty air in your face, and a grinning driver who pays little attention to the road, and even less to the speedometer because it doesn’t work.
As we left the dense cityscape of Pondicherry, the scenery quickly changed to vast floodplains. Most of the land is given to fields of rice, and there are so few trees that we at times could see clearly to the horizon. The bus frequently passed villages of varying sizes, some more developed than others, and many dozens of shrines and temples. A surprising number of shrines are located by the side of the main road, seemingly isolated from any signs of residential living. Some of the shrines are nothing more than a statue (always draped with fresh flowers), while others are large buildings, intricately decorated and showing obvious signs of constant visitation. At least three times we passed games of cricket being played by large groups of adolescents on makeshift dirt pitches, the boundry of the ground marked with pieces of rope or flags stuck in the ground. As we drove though a mid-sized village I noticed a petrol tanker at a service station bearing a hand-painted sign on the back: “Highly inflammable”. I love Indlish.
There are a couple of by-elections coming up in this part of the country and we drove past a large political rally taking place in a large-ish town. As we approached the settlement I noticed large political flags sticking out of the ground at intervals of about five metres. These flags went on for at least a couple of kilometres, and were complemented by large posters bearing slogans written in Tamil. The rally itself was on a makeshift stage just off the main road and it was attended by hundreds of men in flowing white clothes (I couldn’t see any women from our drive-by vantage point.)
Because we were the only two passengers alighting at Mamallapuram the bus dropped us at the side of the highway instead of driving into the town’s bus station. A quick rickshaw ride later we were on the main tourist accommodation street and were comparing accommodation offers from several hotel touts. We picked one of the cheaper quotes, checked the room, checked in, and headed straight out for lunch. Spykey finally satisfied her growing seafood craving with grilled fish and chips and I had a lovely green pea masala. The firm texture and full flavour of the fresh green peas made me realise how normal it is for us in Australia to eat relatively flavourless frozen food.
After witnessing a petulant display of bitching and moaning at another table in the restaurant, and after walking for a while around Mamallapuram, we were struck by the number of German tourists currently in this place. Granted, Mamallapuram is an extremely touristy destination, but the German to non-German ratio of visitors is very high. I’d go and ask one of the Germans why Mamallapuram is so appealing to them but their fashion sense frightens me.
To round out the afternoon we took a stroll around the beach (where a group of university architecture students cornered us to talk cricket and have their photo taken with us) and the amazing rock carvings and temples around Arjuna’s Penance. The many sculptures, temples and monuments in the centre of the town are extremely popular with Indian and foreign tourists. It’s easy to kill a lazy hour or two just walking around and checking things out, or finding a shady spot and relaxing in the lush grass. It’s also very easy to turn one of the corners of the labyrinthine paths and startle a couple sharing an intimate moment in relative solitude.
We took a couple of hours rest in the late afternoon then headed back to Arjuna’s Penance in the evening to watch a free dance concert as part of the Mamallapuram Cultural Festival taking place at the moment. Each night the temporary stage features dancers from a different region of Tamil Nadu, and tonight we saw a variety of performances ranging from a wedding dance to a piece that celebrates the changing of the seasons.
Quite tired from a day of activity and hot sun, we grabbed a quick dinner and headed off to bed.
Poor Spykey was up frequently during the night with the effects of gastro so she was exhausted all of today, despite the gastro easing off significantly before midday. I ducked out early to get some baguettes for her delicate stomach, grabbing a lovely onion dosa and a sweet, scalded-milk street coffee for myself on the way. My appetite is back with a vengeance after my flirtation with gastro earlier in the week, and I’m sure that Spykey’s will come back soon as well, even though she’s vowing right now never to eat Indian food again. We splashed out and bought a small jar of Nuttela (Rs. 175) to ease her transition back onto solids.
I kept Lisa company for the rest of the morning, letting her kick my arse at Gin Rummy to lift her spirits. After an hour or so walking around, and then on the Internets to upload some photos, blog some blogs, and do a bit of research on visas, I returned to the room to see how she was going before heading off to check out the Pondicherry Museum.
The Pondicherry Museum houses a small collection of relics from the old French government and some other completely random items. Next to ex-Governors’ furniture and household items sit swords, coins from around the world, archaeological finds from the region, geological samples, and religious icons. There was some pretty interesting stuff to look at – especially the artifacts from the 2nd century BC – but the most interesting thing about the museum was the people who were visiting it.
Pondicherry is clearly a popular tourist attraction for Indians form the north of the country, and the contrast between these visitors and the locals is stark. From the way they dress to the way they converse with the locals in English due to a Hindi/Tamil language clash, the northerners stick out like tourist dogs’ balls almost as much as I do. The museum was full of Northerners, and often in small family units with young children. I know it seems silly, but the best bit about my time at the museum was watching an immaculately dressed young girl of about five or six, round glasses upon her face and hair arranged in perfect plaits, attempt to imitate the poses of the gods and goddesses depicted by a room of religious statues. She moved seriously around the room, face full of concentration, mirroring each deity’s configuration of arms, legs, body and head until she had achieved a level of mimicry that was to her satisfaction.
Walking back to the hotel room I decided that I’m getting better at crossing Indian roads, finding that I much more naturally look in every direction of the compass several times before hurrying across, and continuing to check during the crossing. No matter how much these road conditions are starting to become normal for me, I’ll never get used to seeing entire families riding helmet-less on a single motor cycle, father in control with toddler between his knees on the petrol tank, and mother riding side-saddle, one arm wrapped around father and the other arm wrapped around a baby.
I arrived to find Lisa feeling much better but still completely lacking energy. I started pasting stuff into an empty exercise book: ticket stubs, receipts etc. My favourite scrapbook item so far is the hotel invoice from Tiruchirappalli that records my name as “Scot Budge”.
As the sun dipped low in the western sky, I headed down to the beach promenade to check out the sunset activity and to pay my photographic respects to Mahatma. For the next hour I walked around enjoying the magical atmosphere as families and school groups and friends mingled alongside food vendors and hawkers, eating, laughing and chatting, faces turned into the cool, salty sea mist blowing off the Bay of Bengal. I took heaps of photos, and you should check them out, but here are a couple of my faves:
By the time I arrived home Spykey was ready to attempt some more solid food so we went out and got her a vegetable soup and some plain rice, which seemed to do the trick nicely. Bus to Mamallapuram tomorrow – keen to check out the beach and the apparently awesome temples.
Merry Christmas, everyone! Our Indian Christmas conformed perfectly to the stereotype, with Spykey spending the day between bed and toilet suffering from gastro. The scorecard now reads:
Spykey has two points because her gastro had the works, while mine only had the spews.
Because I was looking after Lisa and preparing her Christmas dinner of Gastrolyte, I only really left the hotel room to do a few chores. For this reason I decided to take advantage of the tiny television in the corner of the room and file a report on Christmas Indian television in Pondicherry.
A freaky dude in a Santa costume doing talkback against a greenscreen showing random and freaky images
The plan is to head off to Mamallapuram tomorrow but we’ll wait and see how Spykey’s feeling. Four hours on a bus may be just the thing she doesn’t need right now.
Woke up after a terrible gastro sleep feeling extremely tender and light-headed. We left the hotel at about 10:00am and procured breakfast of dry baguette (me) and street food (Spykey). I spent the day munching on nothing more than baguette. Next we went to the train station to find out about services to Chennai, discovering that trains leave daily at 5:30am and 8:00pm – neither of which suit our purposes very well.
Dropping in at the tourist info centre, we asked about buses to Chennai and were told that they leave “constantly”. Initially sceptical, the Lonely Planet confirmed that over 50 buses ply the coast road between Pondicherry and Chennai daily. “Just go and get on,” we were told. Fair enough. But the friendly tourist info man also suggested we stop off at Mamallapuram on the way to Chennai, and after some further investigation we decided to take his advice, and will stay there on Saturday night en route to Chennai.
Our afternoon was spent on a “tour” of
Auroville almost defies definition. It’s sorta like a cult, sorta like a religion, sorta like a business, and sorta like a mini-nation. No matter what it is, it certainly attracts a lot of white, Western hippies. According to the information at the Auroville tourist centre, Auroville is a multinational, anti-religious experiment in human unity living. At the centre of the Auroville complex is a giant golden sphere – the Matrimandir – surrounded by red sandstone gardens. The tourist video at the Auroville tourist centre emphasised that the Matrimandir is a serious thing that wants (yes, the Matrimandir is sentient and wants things) to be used for serious purposes, so the Matrimandir is definitely not a tourist attraction. However, the video then told us that free passes to view the Matrimandir are available from the tourist centre. Here is the Matrimandir very much not being a tourist attraction:
The Matrimandir itself is strictly off-limits to tourists, unless you speak nicely to the staff at the tourist centre and convince them that you want to use it for “concentration”. Then you can go in.
On the way back to Pondicherry we stopped at Auro beach for a while. We watched fully dressed businessmen frolic in the water with their pants rolled up, families in matching white underclothes soaking up to their waists, couples walking hand-in-hand despite the social awkwardness of such an act, and cows. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t get enough of cows on the beach.
It was only after spending an afternoon in tranquil settings like the Auroville gardens and the beach that we realised just how much of a constant assault on the senses India is. Spykey says she often gets dizzy walking through the streets because there is so much going on all around her. Without being facetious, I reckon India gives you a little bit of insight into how some ADD sufferers must feel. The few hours spent in such calm surroundings helped us to relax and recharge; we both noted that our three-and-a-half days in India so far had felt like like weeks.
Walking back through the streets of Pondicherry I felt for the first time a little sickened by the filth and the rubbish and the stench. I’m sure my still-delicate stomach had a lot to do with it, but I found myself thinking, as all Western visitors to India must at some stage, how can they live like this? I’m still trying to gather my thoughts on the questions posed by travel to a country such as India, and I’ll try to get them into a coherent post soon so that we can have a chat about them.
After hunting down some dinner for Lisa (I had some baguette from my stash) we walked through the bright neon lights of the shopping district for a while, shook the hand of a small white-face-masked Santa, and went back to base for reading and sleep.
Awake at 5:45am for our 6:30am train to Pondicherry. A pre-dawn walk through the streets of Trichy with our backpacks allowed us to watch the city come slowly to life. Street vendors were opening for business, sweeping the ground immediately in front of their shops to produce small squares of clean in a sea of filth; around coffee and chai stands, crowds of people stood in the clouds of steam, chattering over small glasses of hot, sweet milk; office workers waited by the side the road, briefcases in hands, waiting for a bus to work.
Once on the train we settled into our seats and bought a couple of cups of coffee from the wallah. I had a flick through The Hindu, the national English language newspaper, and Spykey dipped into our little bag of snacks. Our first train ride, we spent a lot of time watching the country fly past through the window. After about an hour I taught Lisa how to play Gin Rummy and it looks to be a promising time killer for us.
Changing trains in Villupuram, we bought a couple of samosas between platforms. An hour later we arrived in Pondicherry, although I was initially confused by the huge “Welcome to Puducherry” sign and I resisted Lisa’s assurances that we had arrived at our destination. I am now fully aware of the city’s alternate name; I acknowledge and accept your shit-giving in advance.
We hopped a rickshaw to a potential hotel but found it to be full. A brochure from the Department of Tourism gave us a list of hotels and I set off to go find something suitable while Spykey sat by the Bay of Bengal with our backpacks. As I walked through Pondicherry inland from the beach I was shocked after walking for about five minutes by the quite sudden transition from calm French-style streets, buildings and atmosphere, to more typical Indian anarchy in the space of one block. A small north-south canal divides the city into two rough halves, with the east side a bit like a theme park, catering pretty openly to tourists, and the west side being where the locals are more likely to be found. The whole city is fairly touristy, however, with Lisa and I spotting more fellow foreigners in two minutes here than we did in two days at Tiruchirappali.
I headed back to the beach to find Spykey after booking into the hotel and rescued her from a lovely, harmless but persistent Indian man who had an insatiable desire to chat. Lisa said he wanted to talk about spirituality but got the hint when she didn’t. An Indian Jehova’s Witness, if you will. We walked back to the hotel, dropped our bags, and headed straight out to eat.
Walking through the west-side streets we were struck by how much more affluent this town is than Trichy. It’s obvious,when you think about it, but still an interesting contrast. There are large, shiny shops selling clothes, bicycles, electrical goods, everything. Lots of tourists, for sure, but mostly still serving the locals. We had an underwhelming meal at the best looking place we could find and – sure enough – found a bunch of much better looking places within five minutes of leaving.
After an hour’s stroll through the streets and the waterfront we retired to the hotel to rest for a bit. Our portable clothesline found itself strung from window bars to coat hook on the back of the door, bearing the underpants, socks and t-shirts that I washed in a bucket in the bathroom. Damn fine job, too.
Heading out for dinner I had some pretty nasty heartburn going on and about a 15% NQR feeling in my stomach. I bought some heartburn tablets and crossed my fingers. We ate a great meal and went out for a walk but I had to call it off and go back to the room where I did some awesome projectile vomiting and slept poorly due to nausea and an extremely mild fever for about 12 hours.
If this is the backpacker version of the “seasoning” that colonists to British America had to go through, then consider me seasoned.
Slept like a bearded baby all night, woken briefly only by a massive fight between a pack of dogs somewhere nearby, and the Muslim call to prayer just before dawn. At 6:45am the room’s doorbell rung and we were both shocked by the sudden realisation that we even had a doorbell. Outside, one of the many hotel employees stood offering hot, sweet coffee made with condensed milk and I enthusiastically accepted. Drinking the coffee on the balcony watching the city come alive, we planned our day before going downstairs for breakfast dosa and sambar.
First on the agenda was a trip to the train station to book our journey to Pondicherry the next day. We spent a little time trying to work out exactly how to go about buying a ticket, as there seemed to be snaking lines everywhere with no real clarity as to their purpose. Eventually, by watching everyone else, we worked out that we had to fill in a little booking form (acquired by pushing to the front of a line and reaching through the perspex barrier) and waiting in a queue that seemed simultaneously out of control and highly ordered. During this process we had a chat to the first non-local we’d seen so far (another Australian backpacker), before the guy at the vacant “credit cards only” window took pity on us tourists and waved us over. He served us quickly, efficiently and politely, and even let us pay in cash. We walked away with our ticket and clear written instructions about the train changes we would have to make.
From the station we went to an Internet cafe and then bought a couple of hot samosas while waiting for a bus to the Rock Fort Temple. The bus ride was great fun with deafening Indian pop music, the constant horn orchestra, and burning incense making it a total sensory experience. Walking through the “rich” part of Trichy – there were lots of large consumer goods stores – we headed for the temple.
After taking off our shoes and leaving them at the bottom we climbed the 400 steps to the top barefoot. Sitting casually on the stairs all the way up were people resting, sleeping, chatting on their phones or selling trinkets. We politely declined one staff member’s offer to waive the “Hindu only” regulations for entry into the temple in exchange for 1000Rs, and kept climbing to the top. Once there, we marvelled at the view over the vast urban mass of Tiruchirappalli on one side, and the dry river and dense greenery on the other. A terribly humid day – it had been trying to rain since daybreak but hadn’t managed more than a few spits of water – we were not surprised to see great masses of dark clouds looming ominously. We admired the view for a while, took some touristy photos, and made our way back down.
Walking around the streets at the base of the rock fort we stopped at a street vendor and bought a selection of deep fried yummies along with some chutney. We sat next to a weird man-made lake with a small temple on a central island and ate our food with an audience of curious observers. Food is quickly coming to rule our lives here in India.
While waiting for a bus back to the city centre we tried to buy a SIM card for our mobile phone. This seemingly simple task turned into one of the most hilariously complicated debacles in such an Indian way, with thirty frantic minutes elapsing, Lisa disappearing with one of the stall staff to get a “Xerox” of my passport, the photocopy getting blown away in the wind, half-a-dozen random people stopping to “help”, and no actual SIM purchase taking place because it all just got too complicated. We tried to reimburse the stallholder for the photocopies he’d paid for but he wouldn’t accept the money, and even tried to give Spykey an umbrella for the rain.
After waiting for ages in the wet for the correct bus we decided to hop a rickshaw, blowing our budget for the journey out from 6Rs to the princely sum of 70Rs (not even $2). The 4km journey was worth every rupee thanks to a hair-raising, but highly enjoyable, sprint through Trichy’s traffic, usually on the wrong side of the road. Screeching to a halt at a set of traffic lights, missing the arse-end of a cow by millimetres, Lisa and I laughed with joy. The driver turned around and made rollercoaster movements with his hand and racecar noises with his mouth, clearly proud of his driving skills. When we arrived at our destination he shook our hands and solemnly wished us a happy new year.
By this time it was mid afternoon and it had started to rain steadily so we chillaxed and read our books for a few hours before grabbing an early dinner of dosa, chaat, rice and chutneys. Early night again because tomorrow we have a 6:30am train to catch.
After a hell overnight flight from Australia to Malaysia (Air Asia will apparently be upgrading every seat in its fleet during 2010 due to overwhelming customer feedback — no shit) we arrived into Kuala Lumpur Airport at 4.30am, severely sleep deprived and a bit grumpy. A coffee and some noodles later we boarded another Air Asia plane bound for Tiruchirapalli. The only non-Indians on the flight, we started to stand out a bit, not helped one bit by Spykey’s Queen of Air Asia outfit, comprising a bright red, gold-rimmed Air Asia blanket around her shoulders and a gold inflatable Air Asia pillow around her neck.
My first glimpse of India from the aisle seat came as the aircraft turned while gliding low over farmland on its final approach, and the landscape looked hot, tropical and steamy. As we landed I could see mossy and faded concrete barriers marking the airport boundry, and lush, green tropical overgrowth surrounding the single runway. After disembarkation we breezed through customs and entered the arrivals hall to get our bags, where Lisa and I separated to go to our respective toilets. A few minutes later I came out of mine to find Lisa standing out the front of the ladies’ summoning a security guard. The door had locked shut and the poor women inside the toilet were banging on the door and couldn’t get out. Pretty bloody funny, you’ve got to admit.
While the toilet drama was unfolding a baggage carousel drama was just beginning a few metres away. Something had gone wrong with the carousel motor and a man was climbing inside the large motor casing to have a look. WorkSafe would’ve imploded if it saw this dude in thongs climb over moving machine parts and lower himself towards a bunch of grinding gears, belts and cables.
About ten minutes later the baggage was flowing freely and the toilet women were getting closer to freedom with a trolley load of power tools on the way to join the dozen men randomly bashing and prodding at the stuck door. When we finally got our bags and left the terminal, the toilet door had almost been completely opened up with an electric jigsaw like a can of cat food.
We left the air conditioned terminal and got our first proper smell of tropical India. A low, humid fog hung in the still air and dragonflies danced, forming thick clouds. Putting on our best tout-defending facial expressions we headed for a rickshaw and got a 100Rp (approx. $2.50) ride the 6km into town. This is the moment that I exploded with delight. There we were, Lisa and I, sitting in the back of a rickshaw, backpacks on our knees, dodging chaotic traffic as we passed mini-slums, roadside stalls, cows, goats, kamikaze buses and just about anything else you could think of. The wind rushing through the open-air vehicle brought a rainbow of smells to our noses, while the cacophony of car and bike horns around us served as the soundtrack to this most amazing of first experiences. Spykey and I didn’t really talk during the ride, preferring instead to just soak it all in and smile dumbly at each other.
We arrived at the bus station in the centre of Trichy and made our way through the anarchic streets to a budget hotel that both Lonely Planet and some independent research on the Internet suggested wasn’t totally crap. On the way we saw beautiful women in saris, families walking together, men huddled outside chai stalls, a man taking a shit in the street, and just about every other cliche you can think of. We reached Hotel Arun, booked in for two nights (800Rp — approx. $20), and collapsed wearily on the bed. It was only 11am local time, but it was 4pm according to our bodies and we’d been travelling for about 18 hours.
But we only paused for long enough to settle into the room and wash our faces, for there was food to eat. We headed straight back to the main square and into a restaurant we’d seen a bit earlier. It seemed very busy and popular with the locals (mind you, we hadn’t yet seen anyone but locals, and haven’t all day) so we marched straight in, bought two thali tickets for 90Rp (approx. $2), and had so much more than our fill of a variety of vegetarian curries, chutneys, papadams and rice, served straight onto banana leaves and shovelled into our mouths with hand (me) and spoon (Spykey).
Leaving the restaurant, we headed off on a meandering walk around the town in the midday sun. We saw street vendors, electronics shops, mechanic stands, tiny shanty enclaves, open sewers, streets of explosive traffic, dead rats the size of large cats, schoolgirls in identical green uniforms and with identical plaited hairstyles (who laughed at us — fair enough, I suppose), and even more Indian cliches. By about 2:30pm we were getting pretty tired and very hot so we retired to the hotel for a few hours of rest, trip planning and napping. One of the guys who works at the hotel took us up to the roof and pointed out some local landmarks like the massive concrete water tower and some important buildings. He also took a photo of Lisa and I (separately) on his phone before solemnly shaking our hands and going back downstairs.
Around 4:00pm Spykey fell fast asleep so I sat out on our room’s balcony with a book, but ended up watching and listening to the street more than I read. I watched buses take the blind corner at way-too-fast km/h, on the wrong side of the road, horn blaring; I watched four men lazily change a flat tyre on a shiny white Ambassador taxi; I watched the men in the mechanic shop next door do some pretty special engineering with a big fuck-off hammer; I watched groups of women walk along the side of the street paying no heed to the rickshaws and cars that missed them by mere centimetres. I listened to the loud and animated conversation between a fruit trolley man and his customer; I listened to the multitude of personalised horns and reversing tones on cars, buses, motorcycles and rickshaws; I listened to the loud and tinny Indian pop music blaring from the mechanics shop, punctuated by the rhythm of the engineering hammer.
After Lisa’s nap we ate dinner in the restaurant attached to the hotel at the invitation of the nice man who took our photos. For about $1.50 we were again satisfied, full of chappatis, dhosas, pickles and curries, and we had pleased our host by enjoying his establishment’s meal. Spykey had made the change from spoon to hand by this meal.
Now, at the positively grandpa time of 7:00pm we’re laying in bed typing and reading. Given that our bodies reckon it’s midnight and we’ve had bugger all sleep, I reckon it’s not too disgraceful. Simply cannot wait to wake up refreshed tomorrow and get out there again.
It’s been an insane month leading up to our departure – moving house, storing possessions, ticking a trillion things off an ever-increasing list of tasks, organising bank accounts and credit cards, and all that stuff that comes along with any large change in the physical manifestation of your life. I said to Lisa really early on that I hoped we didn’t turn into those people who whine endlessly about how difficult and tiring their lives are because of the preparations for an amazing year-long travel experience. Real #LatteBeltProblems and #FirstWorldDisasters, you see. I’d hate myself, I said.
The preparations seemed to go on forever as we both grew increasingly impatient to just get on the freakin’ plane and leave, with our moods reflecting this. It’s not that we weren’t excited, but anticipation and exhaustion were overtaking us, with all the emotions morphing mostly into frustration. Friends and family who grilled us about our trip, excited on our behalf, were probably a little disappointed to hear a lot of bitching and moaning in reply. I dare say that Scott of one month ago would’ve hated Scott of last week. However, I guess it’s fairly human to get caught up in your own challenges and lose a bit of perspective.
By the time the actual evening of departure came around we were so ready to leave. Not because we wanted to get away from our friends and families (all of whom had given us a loving and humbling send-off), but because we just wanted to go. Now. Flying out from Coolangatta Airport because Air Asia saves a few dollars on fees there, we arrived two hours before our flight. After negotiating the relaxed Sunday night regional queues at security and customs, we were left with one-and-a-half hours to kill before the scheduled departure time, plus an extra thirty minutes due to a flight delay.
A quick browse through the airport’s book shop yielded a $10 Penguin classic (For The Term Of His Natural Life) and successfully burned ten minutes of our wait. Getting ready to sit out the other hour and fifty in the departure lounge, I automatically and unconsciously reached for my iPhone to check email, Twitter, Facebook, anything. Problem was, I’d cancelled my iPhone contract the day before, transferred my phone number to a pre-paid account to preserve it, and removed the SIM card for safe storage in my parents’ filing cabinet; the iPhone was nothing more than an $800 Sudoku machine (Spykey’s favourite time-killer.) For the first time in a long time I found myself disconnected from the online world.
I like the Internet. Actually, I love it. I’m not addicted – I can quit whenever I want to, I just don’t want to. So, I won’t lie: my first reaction to not having Internet on demand was frustration and alarm, but those feelings quickly turned to relief and liberation as I pondered what this simple and slightly pathetic realisation meant for me.
When I got back from my two years overseas in 2002 I vowed – only half-jokingly – to never own more stuff than I could fit in a backpack. After two years of living out of a bag I couldn’t imagine why I would want to do otherwise. Of course, when I went through all my crap last month getting ready to move it out of the house I became painfully aware of how much I’ve accumulated since I made that vow. Not that I regret owning all that stuff, it’s just that I doubt I could carry it on my back.
But no one mode of living is necessarily any better or more right than the other. While the backpack living was perfect for my state of mind and circumstances in 2002, owning a bit more stuff was just what I wanted in 2009. We adapt to changes in our lives and we adapt surprisingly quickly – the adaptation from backpacker to homeowner happened so slowly I barely noticed it, but in other circumstances the change can be jarring, especially if it involves a sudden and significant step outside of your comfort zone.
And this is one of the reasons why extended travel is such an exciting activity — it forces you out of your rut; it removes familiarity, pattern, order and routine from your life. And it does so suddenly, forcing you to quit familiarity, pattern, order and routine cold turkey. While these things are absolutely essential for most periods of your life, allowing you the headspace and mindset to focus on doing and achieving other things, taking them away now and again is like jumping in the freezing cold pool after being in the sauna: shocking but totally invigorating.
I’m writing this on the plane between Kuala Lumpur and Tiruchirapalli in India, and I’m not too proud to admit to feeling some nerves along with the excitement. But they are all part of stepping outside of my comfort zone, and those nerves, along with the satisfaction and relief of successfully rising to a challenge, play a large part in giving you that awesome feeling of being completely alive. Every now and then it’s nice to remove the safety net from your life and jump.
Forgive me, Internets, for I am in Kuala Lumpur and I have sinned.
I got free wi-fi in exchange for selling my soul to the coffee devil, but.
Flying to India in an hour-and-a-half. Spykey has a $13 blanket from Air Asia wrapped around her shoulders. A more cynical person than I might suggest that they purposefully set the air conditioning to 12 degrees to sell more blankets.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to travel to India. Even after many years of thinking about visiting the country, reading books, consuming news, watching documentaries, and talking to other travellers, I still reckon my preconceptions of India — mental pictures of the sights and expectations for the experience — are vastly different to the reality.
I think the first time I really thought about India was during the 1987 cricket World Cup. I can remember seeing a few pictures of the tournament on the telly and being curious about the anarchic crowds and the foreign-ness of it all. At a mere nine-years-old I probably didn’t even know where India is on the map. Some years later I watched Gandhi in high school and had my first real exposure to Indian culture and history through the film and the subsequent discussion. My interest was piqued.
A couple of years later I again saw some cricket, this time from the 1996 World Cup, and can remember being transfixed by a night match in a packed Indian stadium. It felt like I could almost reach out and touch the atmosphere — the seething mass of humans, the not-quite-bright-enough lights, the insane noise. It was at that moment that I decided I wanted to go to India. Since then I’ve spoken to many dozens of people who’ve actually been to the place and every single story and anecdote has strengthened my desire to visit.
In 2002 I nearly made it to India, having planned to spend a month there on the way back to Australia from Europe, but aggressive nuclear tests by India and Pakistan at around the time I was booking my ticket made me a bit nervous and I decided against it. So next Monday, after many years of waiting, I’m finally going to arrive in India.
But over to you. I’d love to hear your stories from India, or how your own preconceptions smashed up against the real thing. Also, our first stop is Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu — any local tips?
At any given point in time there are millions of people travelling around the world. Some are on fully-paid luxury business trips, checking out their host cities between catered meetings and long lunches; some are on organised bus tours having the travel experience handed to them according to a timetable; some are with their families, staying in the best two-and-a-half star hotels they can afford, ordering in restaurants to a budget, and ticking things off a list of “must see” attractions; some are on working holidays, interacting through employment; some are roughing it in budget backpackers’ and soaking up the local atmosphere, often in backpackers’ pubs, surrounded by other local atmosphere-soakers of similar non-local origin.
While it’s natural to feel that one’s travel experience is unique and special, chances are it’s very similar to the experience of many, many people who have done it before or who are doing it at the same time. But travel is a personal thing, and even twenty people who take the same bus tour, see the same sights, buy the same souvenirs, and eat the same food, will arrive home with twenty different personal experiences due to their unique perspectives, circumstances and contexts. So for this reason, each travel experience could still be said to be unique and special — at least on one level.
When I was 22-years-old, back in 2000, I arrived in London to start the same working holiday experience that has been enjoyed by millions of Australians over the years, and that was being simultaneously enjoyed by tens of thousands of other Australians. Over the course of the next two years I had an utterly non-unique but utterly awesome travel experience. I lived in London and Edinburgh, I travelled to over twenty countries across continental Europe, Asia and northern Africa, and I snowboarded for 50 days straight in a small Austrian village — all of it along with all the other backpackers who were doing the same sorts of things at the same time.
During this time, not only did I have — literally — the time of my life so far, I came to an important realisation about how cocky, naive, immature and unworldly I really was (and still am, really.) I didn’t exactly “find myself”, as the horrible cliche goes, but I certainly learned some honest and useful lessons about myself (and have since happily ignored most of them.) However, there is one lesson that I’ve embraced wholeheartedly: that I can’t really think of much in life I enjoy more than travel.
Nothing beats the emotions and sensations that overwhelm you while facing the challenges of travelling through a strange place — the emotions and sensations that combine to make you feel totally, completely and absolutely alive. The adrenaline rush of negotiating a taxi ride with a pack of drivers in a crowded and dusty village square; the wonder of sitting on a hillside watching the sun rise over an ancient cityscape; the fun of meeting new people who are either fascinating, intriguing, dull or repulsive, or somewhere in between all of those; the total sensory overload of being surrounded by unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. Sure, there are frequent stretches of boredom, frustration, mundanity and repetition, but the contrast between the positive and the negative makes the total experience all the better.
In five days I am leaving Australia to travel through India, the Middle East and northern Africa for about twelve months, give or take a bit. My partner (the beautiful Lisa, generally referred to as “Spykey”) and I have quit our jobs, put our stuff in storage, and bought one-way tickets. While I’m excited beyond belief and I reckon my trip is going to be a thousand kinds of awesome, I’m highly aware that I’m not blazing any sort of trail; there are millions of people who’ve already been to the places I’m going and done the things I’m doing, and millions others who have done the job quitting and stuff storing thing.
Given how many people are travelling right at this moment, and how the vast majority of travel experiences aren’t in any practical sense original, who’d want to read the travel blog of some guy from Melbourne they’ve never met? Trust me, I’ve thought about this, and I’m not going to be at all offended if you shrug your shoulders and sigh a hearty “who cares?” But this is a blog, and blogs are about a conversation rather than a monologue; while I’ll be the one writing the posts about my own experiences, I’m writing this up as a blog in order to interact — to hear your travel stories and anecdotes, share mine with you, discuss slightly more meaty topics such as the politics, media and culture of the places I’m visiting, and generally share this trip of mine with you. I’d love it if you decided to come along on this journey with me.
It goes without saying that I’ll be taking a veritable shitload of photos, and you’ll be able to browse them all in the photo gallery. I’ll also be regularly updating a map of our trip, along with our dynamic and organic itinerary.
Here we go, then.