48 Hours in India Chapter X “I Hear my Train a Comin’

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

Train stations in India are strange places. They smack of British colonialism,  urine and the general impression of permanent crowds. This was our first one, but not our last and certainly not the most intense.

I checked the ticket for at least the fifteenth time. It still said all the same things. I watched the LED display overhead. It was in Tumil but it did have a train number on it. It wasn’t our train number, but I wasn’t too worried about it yet– we still had five hours until we were supposed to be humming gently over the tracks to Chenai.

The sun was beginning to set, one of those red, pollution fireball sunsets that knock the world slightly off kilter for the ten minutes of magic hour. Colors shift and the rules of the world seem slightly less concrete. You become unmoored from reality in the dying light and what seems ridiculous in the harsh light of day seems eerily possible in the red lit transition to complete dark.

On that day, magic hour found me worried. We didn’t understand how the night trains worked and we weren’t sure we had a spot on the train. The paperwork we’d filled out that morning in a random railway office seemed awfully casual. I tried to replay the phone call the man in charge had made. It couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds and I didn’t hear any mention of our details. What if we didn’t have spots on the train and we were simply homeless in Trichy, proud owners of train tickets to nowhere? We’d have to trudge back along the main drag and book another night at India’s loudest hotel. In the gathering darkness I could picture us stuck in Trichy forever, forced every day to schlep to the ticket building, buy a useless ticket, then hike through the city and wait for a train that never came, only to return to the hotel and do it again, day after day after day. The idea had a nightmarish logic to it. Permanent purgatory for over proud travelers who need to be humbled. No internet for information, no way out, just making the same trek until you wasted away. I told myself it was ridiculous, but as night fell and the cold florescent lights flickered on overhead, some deep, reptile part of my brain wasn’t so sure. It’s amazing how daunting any obstacle can seem when you’re tired, hungry and lost. Any dreadful scenario seems inevitable when you don’t understand what’s going on.

We sat on concrete benches waiting. The station consisted of a long building, running parallel to the tracks that housed a restaurant, about a dozen offices (chief inspector of this, chief medical officer, chief this, chief that; India inherited a love for and heavy dependence on bureaucracy from the Brits) and a police station. There was a stall for filling water bottles with clean water, but it was broken. I was too nervous to read and couldn’t settle down. I hiked up and down the station, trying to get any information I could regarding our train.

One of the things that made me nervous was the fact that nothing added up. The information on the ticket didn’t quite jive with the station numbers. We’d bought sleeper class tickets, but the station didn’t have a spot for them. One lady had told us to check in after 7 PM at an office that wasn’t where she said it was. Another man told us we didn’t have to check in at all. Someone else told us the train number was different, but we’d know what the number was. After a few similar experiences in the following weeks I realized this is typical in India. Things are relabeled and the ticket machine is never changed. Platform numbers change depending on the train. Certain buses don’t display their number, but it’s the blue bus, not the red one. It seems to be the result of a slowly changing and infrequently updated system. The things that misalign would never throw a local or anyone with a few months of time in the country under their belt, but for us, it was asking a lot to trust that a casual phone call secured us places on a sold out train that would pull up to an unknown platform and should have sleeper cars on it. Even after several weeks it was difficult to trust that the unlabeled bus stop was where the bus  actually stopped (even if it was an hour and a half late) or that the train would be there and you’ll know which one is it, don’t worry about the train number. Just one of the little idiosyncrasies and joys of India.

We sat on the platform until it was dark. After that we wandered into the second class waiting hall. It was a large tiled room with metal benches along the walls. People were sleeping up against the walls, wrapped in blankets and laying on neat stacks of cardboard. They had a separate waiting room for women that men were not allowed, complete with dour looking female guards. We stuck to the main waiting room and snacked on wafers while we waited. The fear that we were going to get thrown off the train and have to stay in Trichy abated a bit with some food. From where we were sitting I could see the tracks where I was at least 50% sure that our train would pull up. Time ticked away slowly. The departure time came and went. My stress grew with each passing minute and the only thing that kept me from running back to the ticket building was the fact that no one else in the waiting room seemed concerned. Ten minutes after we were scheduled to leave a long train pulled up to the station. There was a grumbling of motion through the waiting people. I ran out to check. There were sleeper cars. There was at least one sign that said Chenai. It was looking promising. Long papers were taped to the outer shell of the train cars. I worked my way towards the front of the crowd to get a closer look. It was a passenger manifesto, printed in faded dot matrix. I scanned the list, heart thumping a bit and saw the two names that caused a wave of calm to wash over me:

“SOFI ELEITT” and

“MITCHEAL WILLAMS”

Berths 55 and 56 respectively. Looks like that casual call got the job done just fine. Sofia and I hustled on board, ready to get off our feet and maybe get some sleep after such a long day. We did get to lay down, but the it turns out sleep on the night train is a different animal.

48 Hours in India Chapter IX “The Long Trudge and Impressions of the Hidden Temple”

After lunch we made good time. Packs always seem a bit lighter when you’ve got food in your stomach and have just had a rest. Not that our packs are particularly heavy. This was a conscious choice and one of the core tenants of our travel philosophy.

We decided from the outset to travel as light as possible, in the smallest bags possible. It has a variety of benefits, from never having to check bags to being able to hike across the Indian countryside on a whim. There are a lot of other backpackers on the road who take the opposite approach: they have a ninety liter trekking pack on their back, stuffed to bursting, and a smaller pack (usually just slightly smaller than our packs) on their front. They trundle slowly through the  streets of backpacker hub cities like large cordura shelled turtles. I’ve lived on the road for close to six months now and for the life of me I can’t figure out what they’re carrying. Our packs (he said, smugly with a self righteous air) are 26 and 29 liters, just slightly larger than a school backpack. Our wardrobes are limited (we wear the same thing over and over and over and are constantly shower washing skivvies, and we don’t have a lot of cold weather gear(I’m currently sheltering from the rain on a cold day in Nepal wrapped in a yak wool blanket because I don’t have a jacket. UPDATE: I bought a fake Northface jacket in Nepal. It was cheap, works great and packs down to nothing) but with a little improvisation, we can get by most of the time. It certainly helps when you make the interesting choice to trek across an Indian city in the heat of the day.

Lunch was the end of the truly crazy traffic and crowds. After a few more hectic street crossings, we were headed out of town. The main road cut from the market, took a turn northwest along the bank of the river and then ventured over the water on a large four lane bridge. I was nervous this bridge, like the overpass, would not have a walkway. This fear proved groundless as we crested the last hill, climbed out of the city and looked towards the island. A wide walking path ran along both edges of the bridge and a few people were hustling across the expanse in the heat. The river under the bridge, represented on the map as a shore to shore wide blue ribbon, was a narrow green snake slithering between two giant expanses of exposed sandy river bed. Small white herons stood on the backs of cows and bison who drank at the waters edge. Trash floated on the still surface like new years confetti, carried by the slow current. On the bridge, auto rickshaws zoomed by with their characteristic gocart lawn mower sound.

There’s not much to say about the hike across the bridge. It was hot, it took a long time and we made it across in one piece.

We paused in the slim shade offered by a concrete power pole on the far bank. A herd of goats passed by, clomping down the steep bank towards the water. A man with a stick herded them along and nodded at us as he passed. We’d made it onto the island.

The island was really more of a giant delta, held like a dusty diamond between two hasps of green water.  It’s a teardrop shape about five miles long from top to bottom, with the temple located on the far side. We headed up a two lane road along the southern edge of the island, slowly making our way closer.

When you walk on the roads in India, you’re often walking either on the actual road, or on an unpaved shoulder. Only in the big cities is there something resembling a sidewalk and even that is a treacherous, uneven and broken affair. Most of the time you’re picking your way through rubble and around storefronts. In rainy areas there are small concrete ditches on either side of the road. In some areas these are also sewers. Most of the time they are covered with concrete pavers and this makes a decent walking surface. However, you have to constantly watch where you step: the pavers are often broken or missing and the ditches can be deep and filled with a lot of things you don’t want to fall on top of or into. Like rusty rebar, trash and sewage.

The road to the temple was two lanes (which means a minimum of three lanes of traffic) and either side was fairly open. Jungle terrain and buildings set back from the road gave us a decent walking space. The exhaust was thinner and the traffic less intense. We made good time and soon rounded a long gradual bend and saw it rising in the distance: the temple.

After the curve, the road was ruler straight and the temple sat at the far end. We were still more than a mile away, but the temple stood high above the surrounding buildings and jungle. It looked ancient and colorful and terrifying in the distance. And it was a distance– it took us over an hour to get there from when we could first see it.

Hindu temples are very foreign to a western eye. The temple itself is a set of goparums, which are ornate towers over gated entrances, topping square castle-like walls that surround the temple. The largest is the outermost and each layer of temple are ensconced with smaller and smaller versions until you are in the sacred center. Non-Hindu’s are not allowed into the innermost areas. The large, outer goparum is all that we could see from the distance. The goparum themselves are layered eaves, diminishing in size at each level. This gives the illusion that the building is impossible tall and receding into the stratosphere when instead the top level is perhaps only a quarter of the size of the bottom layer. It’s a fascinating optical illusion and lends the goparums a supernatural scale and feel. This otherworldiness is reinforced by the fact that the entire surface of the goparum is covered with hundreds of brightly colored figures mounted on the ledges. They’re carved into the surface, not in a roman-esque shallow relief but rendered in a full three dimensions.  They hang off the edges of the structure weirdly life-like (considering they are mostly minor deities and supernatural figures) as if they were real bodies glued haphazardly on the edges of the temple instead of carved out. The effect gives the impression that the temples are crawling with giant ants, covered completely in a mildly organized chaos incomprehensible to an outsider.

But from our great distance we couldn’t see any of that. As we got nearer the businesses and homes on either side of the street gave way to shops geared towards pilgrimages. Storefronts sported bright flower wreaths and small offerings. Many sold brightly colored banners featuring the elephant headed Ganesh and hundreds of unrecognizable spirits, deities and avatars. Soon we were not the only walkers on the road: we were joined by crowds all headed towards the temple on foot. As we grew nearer, the crowds grew more intense and as we made it to the temple walls we were hiking through a small shanty town, typical of the kind that exists outside of large religious sites. Low tin roofed hutches lined the streets selling fruit, offerings and bottled water. Crowds sheltered up against the tall wall separating the temple from the outside world. The main road was now devoid of cars: they were fended off by a series of iron pilings driven into the pavement and the taxis and autorickshaws prowled back and forth on the other side, waiting for a fare to emerge from the caged area. The traffic now was on foot and bicycle. Ascetics wandered the streets, looking like skeletons wrapped in old leather shambling up and down asking for alms. Crowds sat in the shade of the goparum and pilgrims made their way through the large gate and into the temple area.

By now it was mid afternoon and the light was beginning to shift. We walked through the gate under the goparum. It was at least thirty yards of stone corridor, the arabesque roof a hundred feet overhead. Inside the air was cool. Beggars and holymen lined the walls, raising thin and calloused hands at the crowd flowing through.

Inside the outer wall was stuffed with people and shops. Knick knacks, food, religious icons– it seemed to never end. The road led on, through three more goparums, each one smaller than the one before. It seemed like the temple went on forever, and endless and exhausting array of streets, stalls, people and hiking. The press of the crowd had finally worn us down. We weren’t allowed to the inner areas of the temple, so we returned to the outer wall and bought a water and stood in the relative calm of the small market and admired the gopaurm.

We’d walked six miles– likely more, through dusty streets, impossibly crowded markets, through alleys to get here. We took a few pictures, marveled at the intricacy of the figures crawling over every surface of the tower and debated whether it had been worth the hike. We were exhausted and hungry but we decided it was worth it. We were the only non-locals we’d seen in hours. This was definitely something outsiders don’t see often. We did our best to soak it in and then we turned around and left. Kind of anticlimactic, but there it is. We came, we saw, we didn’t get hit by a bus. A success in my book.

We decided not to walk back. We were sunburned and aching and had breathed enough exhaust for one day. We hired one of the autorickshaws outside the temple and for 300 rupee we were zooming back into town. It took about half an hour to get back to the train station, a journey that had taken us almost five hours on foot. Our driver took us around the market and used the overpass and zoomed through the roundabouts. The ride might have been terrifying if we weren’t so tired and beaten down. But soon we we were standing outside the ticket building at the Trichy train depot, a place we’d been so frequently it was starting to feel like home. It’d been a very full day and we still had a night train to go.

48 Hours in India Chapter VIII, “A Religious Parade and Lunch in the Disco Bat Cave”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

A mob of people clad in orange robes headed our way down the narrow market street. Each person had a large wooden saddle frame on their shoulders, decorated in peacock feathers and bright paint. When the marchers got closer, we saw that each frame housed a small statute of some inscrutable but mostly anthropomorphic Hindu deity, each one unique and shockingly foreign to our uninitiated, western eye. Some statutes had dozens of arms or extra eyes, some were bright blue or green, some entangled in rainbow serpents, others sporting animal heads, limbs or wings.  As the parade approached the music swelled to a panic inducing volume. The  high pitched warbling of the venu flutes  that half the walkers played was like a whole hive of angry, arrhythmic bees trying to outdo each other. Those without flutes plucked away with wild abandon at veenas, a small stringed instrument that looks and sounds like homemade cross of a sitar and a banjo. The resulting music, both grating and messily beautiful was the perfectly complimented the already overfilled chaos of the street. The regular traffic, usually as crushing and impersonal as a penitentiary license plate stamping machine, gently parted for the parade of shuffling orange holy men.

The cacophony of flutes and  jangly veena strings reaching a zenith as they passed in front of us. One old man, naked except for an orange cloth wrapped around his waist, left the parade and approached us, gesturing for money. As soon as we didn’t hand over rupees, he gave us a smile, touched his hands to his white painted forehead and returned to his spot on the slow moving orange train of worshipers.

The parade took our final reserve of energy and we were suddenly exhausted, hungry, and desperately needing to get off the street. 

We pressed on, making quick work of the lighter traffic left in the wake of the parade. We hustled past the fort on the rock, a stunted castle perched on a giant monolithic stone like a tiny hat on a giant. I’m sure there’s some fascinating history to it, but it was not the time for touristy meandering. We took a left, became entangled in a group of uniformed school children leaving a temple and were swept along with the crowd.

We passed brightly colored sari stalls, flea markets, fruit stands and little nooks that sold bundled textbooks for technical certifications, most of them looking hopelessly outdated. The usual assortment of carts, autorickshaws and the occasional full sized car waded through the crowd. All were honking, all the people on the street were yelling and we were running on fumes.

Covered in dust and getting hungrier by the minute, we pulled ourselves out of the flow and decided it was well past time to eat something.

One of the best things about travel is the food. It seems that no one in Asia or India cooks at home, instead everyone dines at the hundreds of local stalls, shops, carts and restaurants that make up a good portion of any city block in Asia or India. Because it’s an everyday occurrence for the locals, it’s not cost prohibitive.  You can get scrumptious food from a street vendor in Thailand for just a few bhat. In Cambodia you can get an amazing bowl of soup from a street cart for less than a dollar,and eat standing up in the street. In Malaysia the tandoors on every corner are churning out delicious and affordable naan and chicken and the Chinese noodle shops are busy night and day.

India is same same but different. There’s not much in the way of literal street food, but the local cafeteria style restaurants are legion and seem to never close. A curry masala, a plate of rice and a naan and you’re good for most of the day. An interesting aside: in Malaysia, which has a significant Indian population, most Indian restaurants are buffets where you’re handed a plate of rice and then you go to town on a paradise spread of spicy Indian dishes. Once you’ve filled your plate and sit down, a worker will come by, examine what you got and through some inscrutable calculus, write an amount on a ticket and slide it under your plate. It’s a great system and you eat with your hand, no utensils. Fun all around. Street eating is available almost anywhere, almost anytime, all you have to do is pick one of the several places that are never more than a hundred yards away.

We sheltered under the dusty eaves of a large building and, not surprisingly,  were standing just outside an eatery. A sign on the door promised air conditioning (shortened to  “air con” by everyone we’ve met on the road) a delicacy in southern India. We made one of those tired, hungry decisions that are frequent on the road and went right in without a second thought.

It was a strange place. Downstairs was a large open air cafeteria. It was empty except for a few lounging employees. A man at the door led us up a short flight of worn marble stairs and through several wooden doors with glass plate, the kind that should say “Sam Spade, Private Eye” in a great, noir-ish font. This, the man told us with a hint of pride, was the air con room. The room was almost completely dark. The walls and the ceiling were painted matte black and there were no windows. The only light came from slowly changing neon string lights lining the low ceiling. The back wall was fake stone with a Ganesh statue bathed in slowly shifting purple light, like some combination of a seventies lava lamp and a Hindu shrine. Long, low booths in faux fake leather lined the walls. Below the neon stringers was a banner that ran round the room and had pictures of food next to slogans like “Mushroom Chilly. Hot!” below a cartoon mushroom that was superimposed over a mushroom cloud and a horrifying, grinning clown face. A man in black met us and led us to a booth.

We slid our bags in beside us. The place was empty and we were sitting underneath a neon green light that gave everything a sinister cast. It was unsettling, but they did have air con. The second we passed through the doors, the cold air hit us. I remember audibly sighing. The cold, non dusty air moving across my sweaty body made me feel like I was living a Dentene Ice commercial. It was amazing and worth the bizarre atmosphere: I’m willing to sit in a lot of strange places if they have air con. I’m currently sitting in a giant and deserted coffee shop on the ground floor of a luxury hotel in Vietnam. I’m here because the power is out at the hostel and this place has wifi and air con. It’s also playing exclusively children’s music and “Monster Mash” on the speakers. I don’t know why, but it’s better than sweating onto my keyboard, even if I’ll be signing “It was a graveyard smash [the monster mash! Ahh Wooo!] for the next three days. The moral is, your expectations and idea of what luxury is shifts on the road, and you become willing to endure interesting things in order to be cool and out of the sun. 

The decor of the place was the only strange thing there. The food was good (although a little off putting since I didn’t know what I ordered and it looked menacing in the green light, like I was eating at Frankenstein’s work bench) and the service prompt and intense. I ordered what turned out to be fried rice and veggies and our waiter watched us eat without looking away or maybe even blinking.  Whether out of determination to provide a high level service or because we were doing it all wrong, I couldn’t tell. I became used to this as we made our way through India, but this was our first encounter with unapologetic, continuous staring. The kind that doesn’t go away when you make eye contact, but remains fixed on you, accompanied by a blank expression that provides zero context for what they’re thinking. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s mostly unabashed curiosity, especially in places that don’t see many outsiders. 

Wanting to prolong our time in the air con we drug out lunch as long was we could, ordered three liter and a half water bottles (also icy cold) and a milkshake. We were in a dark, cool, cave and it felt good. It might be decorated in a slightly terrifying way, but it was quiet and made the idea of heading back into the baking sun, fighting the traffic and the smells, seem like too much.  

But you can’t stay in weird themed restaurants forever just because they’ve got air con.  So with sighs and a lot of fussing over our packs, we paid and headed back out into the chaos, blinking in the afternoon sun and moving slowly but surely towards the blip on the map that my phone said was a famous temple.

48 Hours in India Chapter VII, “The Welcoming Underbelly of Trichy and Market Madness”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

It turned out the garbage alley was delightful. Yes, it was dirty, yes it was a place I would not want to be after dark and yes, we did get a lot of strange and not entirely friendly looks (in retrospect they were probably more startled and confused than unfriendly) but as soon as we were off the road, I relaxed a bit. No one bothered us as we walked– except a group of middle aged men, who were all smiles and were deeply fascinated with our appearance in their alley. They wanted me to take a picture of them, which I did. They thought it was hilarious– one guy didn’t want his picture taken but his buddies bullied him into it and then made fun of him when they saw the picture on my phone. They didn’t speak any English and we speak zero Tamil, but there was a lot of friendly, non-sense small talk back and forth.  We shook hands all around, smiled and waved and moved on. I began to feel better about Trichy. They may not get many travelers in this part of India, but the people are friendly, polite and curious.

The rest of the underpass portion of our trip was uneventful. Sorry for the let down. Periodically a set of concrete stairs would rise up to the overpass and we’d trudge up them, hoping to find a sidewalk topside. No such luck. The stairs simply emptied out onto the narrow shoulder and another set went back down on the same side. The road twisted and turned, dusty buildings rising two or three stories on each side. We were walking in a dusty concrete canyon, the ground worn flat by countless cows, people and motorbikes.

We hiked this way for a long while. Time has an interesting way of moving when you spend your days walking. It stretches out, measured in hours, miles and water breaks, almost luxurious in how much farther and longer you have to go. And then, when you’re moving, it slips by in quick spurts while your attention is fixed on not getting lost or hit by a bus, or just by the alien scenery around you. Suddenly you realize you’ve been walking for hours: you’ve put a lot of miles behind you and you’ve had a long while alone with your thoughts.

After our underpass adventure, we made it to the market street entrance. On the map it was one narrow and straight spine branched by hundreds of tiny side streets leading up to the fort on the rock. Traffic intensified to the point that the honks all blended into one continuous howling beep that echoed off the sides of the buses. It seemed to come from every side and I honestly have no idea how it was helpful to anyone. The shops on either side were larger and closer together. The road funneled us into the market area, enclosed in a tall wall with an ancient gate. Traffic on the inside was just as intense but instead of buses and cars it was pedestrians, carts, motorcycles and bicycles loaded impossibly wide with giant bundles. People were constantly pressing on all sides and you couldn’t stop moving or you’d block traffic completely. We were in the old city for sure.

Up ahead at the end of the road rose a monolithic rock face with an ancient fort perched on top. At this point we weren’t really getting hassled because we’d passed out of the area that foreigners, as infrequent as they must be in Trichy, tended to go. We were simply oddities or, more frequently, slow moving objects obstructing the natural rhythm of foot traffic.

I tried to take pictures as we went, but I couldn’t capture the press of the crowd or the overwhelming sense of motion of hundreds of people, carts and motorbikes. I’ve found this to be typical of the most intense travel moments. Either navigating your environment is so harrowing that it demands your full attention and the idea of taking a picture doesn’t even cross your mind, or you  do think of it but don’t dare pull out a camera because you’ll get run over by a rickshaw or a bus, or lost in the crowd. So, you settle for photographing around these moments, remembering to take pictures when the moment is passed, or capturing what it was like before it got too intense to focus on something other than making it through to the other side. In this way, the best and most intense photos slip away and you’re left with a blurry sasquatch photo that can never convey what it was really like to elbow through the local market in Trichy.

You can tell almost everything you need to know about a town by the contents and behavior of the market. For example, on Khao San Road, the most touristy 200 yards of Bangkok, stalls are filled with offensive t-shirts, kitschy souvenirs and elephant pants. Vendors walk around with  a plate of giant scorpions on sticks, literally nightmare popsicles bought exclusively by intoxicated blokes and bros who eat them so they can post the video to snapchat to ensure their friends home they’re living their travel life to the fullest. I know this because I helped film for a bro or two when we sat at a pub on Khao San. One threw up on the bar, the other in the alley beside the bar. The crunching sound made by biting into a giant baked scorpion is haunting, and shockingly loud. There’s a reason the scorpion ladies (it’s always middle aged Thai ladies, don’t know why) seek out the loudest and drunkest on Khao San: no sober person would pay to crunch their way through a six inch baked scorpion on a stick. The market in Khao San lets you know that no one lives there, locals travel there to cater to and skim money off of drunk and obnoxious tourists.

The market in Trichy, as you might expect, was completely different. Instead of knick knacks and crude tank tops there were stalls stacked high with pots and pans. Rubber hoses, bags of concrete, woks, fryers, baskets, gaskets and motor oil.  Shops that rebuild engines, sell mattresses and farming equipment; small wood shops that make doors, broom handles and ladders. The things the people of Trichy needed for day to day. There’s no room for nonsense like scorpions and bongs in Trichy: their market is lean and utilitarian.

As we made it through the market street, there was a big commotion up at the end by the rock fort.  We were more than halfway down the mile and half stretch  when we could hear the high bugling horns, coming our way. In the distance I could see a large deluge of orange clad people, headed our way with cacophonous fanfare. The market was about to be invaded and overrun by what sounded like a marching band made up entirely of vuvezelas and jangly banjos. We pulled up, found some shade high up and out of the way and waited

48 Hours in India Chapter VI, “Big Traffic in Little Trichy and the Garbage Alley Less Traveled”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

We set out from the train station, dodging the auto rickshaw drivers who swarm like flies towards people with bags. We made our way through the main thoroughfare once again. By now it was getting close to noon, the time of day when the urine smell becomes baked onto the black top and the exhaust sits right over the road in the still air. The traffic was bumper to bumper, which in India means that giant buses and trucks force their way through lighter traffic and everyone honks continually.

Crossing the street has always been a gamble in big cities, but India makes you feel like Evel Knievel  every time you step off the (mostly nonexistent) sidewalk. It reminds me of our first few days in Bangkok where we stayed in a small apartment in the far east side, well away from the tourist centers. We were the only non-Thais in ten miles and we were so fresh of the boat, I’d get terrible anxiety whenever we had to venture across a large street, simply because they drove on the other side of the road and the traffic light system was different. Oh, naive traveler. There were stoplights and actual crosswalks in Thailand. Yes, they drove on the other side of the road, but for the most part they stuck to that side and there was a tidy organization to the whole process. India is complete chaos and you haven’t seen any kind of traffic craziness until you have to negotiate a dirt roundabout full of buses, motorcycles, carts, autorickshaws and cows at rush hour.

The only way to do it is to act carefully, but boldly. Cars and autorickshaws won’t  stop but they will slow down. Buses will do neither. There is no real lull in traffic, only tiny moments when it’s not completely jam packed. You have to be aware and dive into those moments when they present themselves, because it may not come around again for ten minutes. Even the old standby of shadowing a local doesn’t really work in India. The gaps often aren’t big enough for two people and the local pedestrians must have made peace with their eventual traffic based demise long ago and thus take bigger risks.

We fought this traffic for a long time, realizing that Trichy is not just the scarred blacktop connecting the bus depot to the train station; that is only one appendage on a great scabrous creature that belches bus horns, farts smog and devours unwitting travelers with disinterest, digesting them in its dirt alley bowels, as they succumb to the touts, the pollution and general weariness. At least, that’s what it does to those brave and dumb enough to challenge it on foot.

Once we made it past the main chunk of town we ran into one of the few problems that come with app navigation: the quickest route, the road we had planned on taking, was not a local road with a hodgepodge sidewalk. It was a  large highway overpass with heavy traffic and a tiny, trash clogged shoulder. This happens sometimes, the app will think that a highway is a footpath or that you can and should walk through subway tunnels. We were a bit stuck, standing at the base of the overpass. That same meatgrinder traffic we’d just survived was barreling over it like a demonic marching band stuck in fast forward. We’re okay with walking many places that most people won’t, but I will not walk on the shoulder of an Indian overpass at rush hour. At this point we’d invested a solid hour into our route and turning back would add at least that and probably two miles to our trip. Plus we’d have to fight the same traffic we just left all over again.

We paused for a moment and took our bearings, something you try to do quickly: if you’re in a non-touristy city, you attract attention wherever you go. That can be good and bad, but when you’re in a city that’s an unknown quantity and this is your first experience with a new culture, it’s a big question mark. The best way to travel on foot through the unknown and potentially sketchy is to have a clear idea of where you’re going (i.e. no dead ends) and walk quickly. If you move quickly enough, the curious just get a glimpse, a smile and wave as you go by. We stopped on the side of the road and the stares began to mount. You become paranoid– is that guy on the phone letting his buddies down the road know that two tired, clearly lost foreigners are about to wander his direction with bags filled we money? We didn’t have bags of money, only dirty clothes and a few rupees, but that’s the kind of thing you think about when you’re a little lost in a foreign country.

About the time I was getting antsy, Sofia discovered a small footpath heading the same direction as the overpass. We checked and found a network of dirt streets, filled with trash and lined with small businesses, all sheltered below the highway. It looked iffy: goats digging through debris, a few burned out cars, people lounging in shops and empty buildings. The path wandered through the trash and traffic, a dirt alley following the overpass, leading off and disappearing into the distance.

I remember thinking that it was the definition of off the beaten path, or the road less traveled. It was not what I had pictured while reading Robert Frost and it made me nervous. If you go missing, no one checks off the beaten path at least, not until the beaten path has been thoroughly checked. That could be days. We’d had no contact with the outside world since leaving Malaysia 24 hours before. No none knew that we were hiking across Trichy on foot, no one even knew that we’d even made it into India for sure. We were in a gap, off the radar for at least thirty six hours and it probably was smart to take it easy, check in and just wait it out at the train station. After all, the train station was our way out, our way to internet and outside contact.

But it was go forward or back, and we were feeling adventurous. So we, put our packs on, tightened our belts and took the dive into the garbage alley less traveled.

 

48 Hours in India Chapter V, “Drunk Toddlers Make Interesting Decisions”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

A lack of free time was one of the many things that I spoke about when I voiced my desire to travel. Between work, commuting, errands and other obligations, it was rare to have a stretch of time longer than an hour or two that didn’t come with guilt: I should be working on this project, I’ve been putting off this task for too long, I should be training, I have a stack of books I’ve been meaning to work on. In fact, more than once I specifically voiced how much I’d love just having to wait around all day for a train with nothing to do but meditate and read. Like everything on the road, it’s not quite what you expect. Twelve hours is a long time when you don’t know the area, the language or the culture and you have everything you own on your back.

We indulged ourselves in a moment of slack jawed shock and then decided we needed to catch our breath and make a plan. This is a hard learned travel lesson, all the more difficult because it’s so obvious: when you’re overwhelmed or under pressure, or lost or freaking out, take yourself out of the situation. Step back, take a minute to calm down and think it out before you make a decision. It’s best to get off the street, away from the crowds and find a quiet place to catch your breath before you make the call. This can be difficult in India: you’re constantly being approached by people, the streets are loud, crowded and dirty and even finding a place to take your pack off is difficult. We got lucky– a friendly guard who shooed Sofia away from sitting on a berm outside the government building pointed us to a small enclosed and shaded grotto filled with old broken park benches. We regrouped there and weighed our options.

We’d already checked out of our hotel. It seemed unlikely we could head back, explain the situation and get our room back for the next ten hours, it had been difficult enough just to rent the room and check out. We could pay for another twenty four hours, but it would put us over budget. After resting for a few minutes we were feeling rejuvenated and ready to take another swing at Trichy. We decided to hike six miles through the middle of the city to a famous temple on an island. The fact that it was gearing up to be a hot day and we each had packs on didn’t slow us down.

It’s high time for a quick disclosure about how we get around in cities and countries we don’t know without internet or toting big maps and a compass. We use an app. It’s called Mapsme and doesn’t rely on cellular data to get around. It functions almost exactly like google maps, including marking helpful locations like temples, hostels, or once in Malaysia, “Cheapest Booze in Penang Go Here!” pinned in a sketchy alley in Penang. It’s right about ninety percent of the time (it was right about Penang too: that was the cheapest beer in the city and a great dive bar literally in the alley. We had more than one adventure stemming from that alley during our time in Penang) and with it you can get around tangled dirt roads in rural Cambodia, labyrinthine Chinatown alleys in Bangkok, the chaotic tangle of downtown Bangalore and the narrow canyon-like footpaths of Kathmandu with relative ease. Travelling without it would turn us from toddlers in danger of wandering in traffic to heavily intoxicated toddlers actively trying to get hit by buses. It’s a lifesaver and we used it that afternoon to plan a route to the temple.
Our route took us along one of the main roads and then cut through neighborhoods and a tangle of small side streets then hitting a main market street leading to a fort up on a rock face. From there we were to cut across and take a very long bridge over the river. Then we were on the island and just had to walk a few miles along an island road to get to the temple. Simple enough on the map, which is a sterile grey field overlaid with white squiggles representing the roads, various dots representing businesses and landmarks, and a blue arrow that is you.

Mapsme is great for a lot of things, but if you’re determined to wander into traffic, it’s not going to stop you. We were rested, ready to see India and ready for adventure. So, we wandered semi-blind into the traffic. 

48 Hours in India, Chapter IV “Homeless in Trichy”

This is part of an ongoing story, published in digestible chunks, about our first experiences in India. These were some of the most intense moments on the road so far, and in writing about them, I went way overboard. So, tune in most days for a short, serialized snippet of the two of us struggling through our culture shock. If you’re tuning in partway through, all of the previous parts are on the blog. 

Buying tickets on public transportation in India reminds me of the DMV during peak hours, if the DMV workers didn’t like you, didn’t speak the same language, were always overburdened, only used technology from the early eighties and the whole thing took place in a Kafka story.

You’re constantly bombarded by the crush of the crowd and wildly conflicting information. One person will tell you there is no train, another will tell you there is one, but it’s sold out, and a third will tell you there’s only a train every other day. After you sort through it all, you’ll realize that none of them are correct, and whether it’s a language barrier, miscommunication on your part or part of a tradition of confusing foreigners, you end up going through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat. When you have to get out of town, you have no choice but to dive into that process with gusto and, if you’re persistent and lucky, you’ll come out the other side with a ticket to the next destination. Leaving Trichy was the first of many such experiences for us. Ah, the joys of getting around in India.

The train station in Trichy is large, old and always busy. It consists of a long building in front of six rows of rat infested train tracks, a separate ticket building in front and a palacial office complex guarded by soldiers on the other side of the busy parking lot. Each building is large, concrete and somehow both nostalgic and menacing. But before you even get to the buildings you’ve got to navigate the crowds.

The path to the ticket building is a gauntlet of colorful chaos, a deluge of sensory overload in the form of a flood of humans. Men in dhotis, slow moving contingents of women in colorful saris and  solitary, emaciated sadhus (no doubt mixed in with fake sadhus, not that we could tell the difference) are all flowing through the walkway, sitting on the curbs and sleeping in alcoves. Endless lines of autorickshaws and taxis drop people at the curb, pick people up and jostle to go through the large round-about, honking endlessly.  Large troupes sit together on neatly folded cardboard and blankets in the shade of the multistory station building. They stop chatting and watch as you go by. It’s an intense experience to walk through that crowd, especially when you draw attention to yourself just by being a foreigner. You can feel all the eyes on you and while it’s almost all just simple curiosity, it puts you on edge.

The ticket building is one large room filled with metal chairs all facing a row of teller windows. The walls above the teller windows are covered in Tamil and impossibly complex train schedules that, if studied carefully, contradict each other. Behind these windows sit ancient CRT monitors manned by three or four uniformed workers, who speak through small holes in the grimy plexiglass to the hordes outside trying to buy tickets.

At some distant point in the past the building was set up for people to queue in orderly lines in front of each window, but the rows of metal chairs cut this area very short so lines can only be two or three people long. It doesn’t matter anyway because people simply swarm the windows like bees on a flower almost out of pollen. When you’re in India, you need to get used to the idea of wedging your way to the front and not letting people in front of you or you’re going to be queueing until you starve.

We’d been there the night before and, after working to the front of the mob, we were helped by the same ticket lady. She was just as surly and just as hard to understand as she’d been nine hours ago. She informed us there was a train leaving at ten o’clock that morning, that it was sold out but that they kept a few extra seats for foreigners as long as we filled out some paperwork in an office in a different building.

It was very difficult to hear her through the small window in the plexiglass and she didn’t go out of her way to explain. You have to crouch, ask your question then quickly put your ear to the hole in the glass, trying your best to ignore the cacophony of the crowd behind you. It means you can’t read their lips as they speak and you’re left trying to piece together their response, sometimes not even sure if they’re speaking a language you understand. It’s not a great way to communicate and it makes the process, already burdened with cultural barriers and your own ignorance, really prone to error. Which in our case, turned out to be a hard learned lesson.

It was just after nine, so we bought the tickets and hustled back to our hotel to grab our bags and check out. We made the trek again with our packs and wandered around the well guarded building across the street, in search of the paperwork and signatures that would guarantee us  seats on the next train out of Trichy. The guards outside the building but they didn’t even look at us as we went in (always a good sign) and we wandered for a few minutes trying to find anything that looked like an office where foreigners could fill out paperwork. There were no signs of any kind and we were lost. Ten was getting closer and we’d already spent a good chunk of our budget on the tickets and we were already checked out of our hotel. We were officially homeless. After ten minutes of wandering and growing increasingly nervous a lady in a blue sari took pity on us. Thank Shiva. After looking at the forms we had and the tickets we’d bought, she gave a big sigh and led us to a large open room on the second floor, filled with desks and file cabinets.

The place was an office, but not what comes to mind when you hear the term. The building was old, almost certainly built under British rule and left largely alone after that. The walls, floors and ceilings were all concrete and ornate, with lots of columns and moulding that was both decorative and utilitarian. Metal fans on long extensions telescoped down from the high ceiling and slowly turned the still air. The outward walls were almost entirely warehouse style windows; stacks of small frames, some missing glass, others blacked out. The light coming in was mottled and reminded me of a garage. There was no plastic or ceiling tiles anywhere. Everything was metal, heavy wood and concrete. The thick walls muted the constant honking and roar of the traffic outside and gave the place a slightly sacred feel: this was the holy place where signatures are given out, a nerve center of the impenetrable and vestigial bureaucracy inherited from the British that remains the law of the land.  The office gave off the sense that nothing had ever been replaced or updated and when looking out over the room it was easy to imagine East India Trading Company lackeys typing up telegrams during the British Raj, while soldiers armed with bayoneted carbines and gurkhas smoked outside wearing pith helmets, keeping a disdainful eye on the ebb and flow of humanity outside.

All of the public buildings, especially train stations, in India have this same strange, dated  feel, as if the past is superimposed on the present, or at least close enough that you catch glimpses of it out of the corner of your eye. A fresh coat of paint or the occasional passenger with a smartphone can’t quite undo the feeling: it’s steeped into the walls, reapplied every day by the crowds who are living the same way they did a hundred years ago. When you combine this sense of the past and the present coexisting with the general chaos of India and your own sense of being lost and out of your depth, you get a heady mixture of both travel fatigue and excitement. You can feel the history, reaching all the way back into mythology, coexisting with British colonialism and modern India, swirling around in the dust, coating every emaciated Brahman and temple, train station and pot-holed road. You can see it in the exhausting hives that are the cities and in the gurkha and rifle toting toting soldiers keeping watch in colonial era forts. It coats the walls and floors worn smooth with the countless hands and feet of countless people over hundreds of years, made permanent by wave after wave of humanity crashing repeatedly against the barely changing landscape. It’s too much to take in, an animal too complex and old to tame or even fully understand. India will lay you out and run you over with a fleet of rickshaws if you let it, and you can’t help but marvel at the mixture of beauty and chaos while it happens. The best you can do is hold on, take a few breaths and do everything in your power to get on your train.

We filled out more paperwork in the office, which included questions like “Why do you deserve an emergency exemption? To which we were instructed by the lady in the blue sari to answer with: “Because we are American tourists.” This made me feel uncomfortable, but we did what she said. After all, we were ready to get out of Trichy. A grumpy man behind a desk made a phone call, and we were told we had spots on the train and escorted out. More specifically, we had spots on the train leaving that night. Not the training leaving in the next half hour.

We were shooed out of the office before I could get my questions across. The ticket lady had said it was a train leaving ten am, not pm. But we were already out the door and the people inside had returned to whatever business they’d been working on before we interrupted.

I checked the ticket. The information was dot matrix printed onto a standard form, with fields for passenger info, berth, time, etc. The underlying ticket was offset so the printed information floated a bit unmoored from the corresponding text that gave it meaning. It was in Tamil and cryptically abbreviated English. The English portions were strangely translated and hard to parse but, on the very bottom edge of the ticket, partially off the edge was printed: “22:20.” This was in the general vicinity of the heading “Tim D” which I now understood to mean time of departure. I looked at my watch. 9:42. We had 12 hours and forty minutes to kill in Tiruchirappalli.