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.
So far, so good, but all we’ve done so far is sit in a plane, something anybody can do. At this point in our travels we’ve gotten very comfortable flying and making it through airport security. The only stress I feel comes from the unknowns of international flights: was the three year old article I read online about the Indian visa process right? Do they take USD, or RM, or can I change money there? Did I parse the strangely translated Indian website correctly? Do I have enough cash on hand? Too much? (the answer I’ve learned after several sketchy border crossings, both air and over land, is that if you’re headed to a tourist friendly country and have done the minimum of research and prep, you’ll be okay). It’s always a bit stressful to change money and during your first few transactions with a new currency you worry that you accidentally overpaid your taxi driver by a few factors of ten (a mistake I recently made in Vietnam where twenty three thousand dong roughly equal a dollar. Forty five pucks makes you a millionaire and it’s tougher than you’d think to keep track of all those zeros). Also, nothing makes your head spin like converting ringit to rupee (about 4.7 and 67 to 1 USD respectively) and then trying to figure out if the taxi driver is ripping you off or not, while he and a flock of auto-rickshaw drivers all vie for your business.
The Trichy airport is small and we were only two of three people getting off the plane who weren’t locals and had to get in line to get our visas approved and passports stamped. To the energized and combat ready traveler, this is a good sign. But for someone not ready to lead the charge into the unknown, it should be a warning. No other foreigners means only locals, which means you’re off the beaten path. Which means you’re about to travel on expert mode. No signs for important things like, bathroom, or bus stop or “do not enter.” You’re about to be a rambunctious and unsupervised toddler, let loose in a world you don’t understand. You can’t do basic things like get food, or lodging or know where you can sit on a bus. You can’t communicate well, you can’t read and you’re likely to wander unknowingly into traffic unless an adult stops you.
But we didn’t know that yet. We got our visas examined, our passports stamped, I bought 600 rupees with the ringits I had left over and we headed outside. We’d read that there was a local bus, but we couldn’t find it. Which was fine because we’d have no idea where to get off if we had. We waded through the flock of aggressive taxi and autorickshaw drivers that congregate outside of every airport. Eventually we settled on a taxi driver that offered to take us into town on the cheap. We didn’t have a destination yet, as part of a bold choice to figure it out once we got on the ground. This strategy works well in places like Thailand and Malaysia, where every pad thai stand and kopitiam has excellent wifi. Not so much in small city in rural India.
The taxi ride was our first exposure to the driving in India, a style that is equal parts red blood cells smashing along in the capillaries of a person with severe hypertension, and something I’ve come to call “Deathwish hornhonk.” It’d be a white knuckle experience, if there was anything to hang on to. The taxi, a small dusty car with the seat belts cut out, pulled out of the airport parking lot and onto the road, a two lane dustbowl highway with a hip height concrete divider running down the middle. On each side pulsed the now familiar flow of cars, autorickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians, cows, pushcarts and giant trucks decorated like hindi christmas trees. We zoomed around them all, close enough to touch through the rolled down windows, our driver laying on the horn and accelerator equally while he made his sales pitch.
All taxi drivers that hang around at airports sell hard on the drive into town. You can hire them for the day to go see temples, and if you don’t have a hotel they will take you to places they have standing arrangements with. We’ve never taken a taxi driver up on these services because they tend to be expensive and I somehow don’t trust a history tour of an eight hundred year old temple complex ruled by three different kingdoms as given by a taxi driver who scams tourists at the airport every day. The only exception to this was in Cambodia, where we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to see Angkor Wat, which was a great choice. There, the system was clever: the bus “station” was about three kilometers outside of Siem Reap, just a stand in the Cambodian countryside. A group of local tuk tuk drivers would ferry you for free from the bus stand to your hostel (we had reservations there– we weren’t overconfident yet) and they would do their best to sell you tours of Angkor Wat. We’d done the research and that was the best way to get around (you had to buy tickets in a giant government office several miles from the site and then the temples themselves were spread out over a very large area) and our driver, Pha, was a delightful person, spoke terrific english and was a great salesman. We hired him on the spot (I didn’t even haggle, which Sofia made fun of me for afterwards) and he was terrific: picked us up exactly on time (4:30 am) and took us everywhere we wanted to go and then some. I have no regrets about the money spent on Pha and our trip to Angkor Wat. But that was Combodia, we’re now in India and our taxi driver is definitely not Pha.
We politely deflected his offers to drive us to all the temples and asked him to drop us off somewhere in the middle of town. His english wasn’t great, our Tamil was non-existent and he really wanted to take us to some hotels that he almost certainly had a deal with. This is common among taxi drivers and the deal is usually along the lines of: “If you bring any dumb tourists to our hotel, we’ll overcharge them and give you a cut.” The hotel he took us to would have been a great setting for an Indian remake of American Horror Story. It was a five story concrete building, set back from the crowded road in a grove of dead trees. Dark windows, strangely quiet, deserted lobby. The elevator was tiny, the place was eerie and there wasn’t a single guest. We said we it was great we just had to go the ATM to get money and we left.
Before we did, we got scammed a bit by our driver. We’d negotiated the price of 200 rupee to get us to town, which I thought was surprisingly cheap. At the hotel he insisted it was 200 person, not 200 total. We hadn’t discussed this before, and even though it was a common scam (which you avoid by having a very clear conversation before you get in the cab) I paid him 400. We needed to get out there. We thanked him, asked directions to an ATM and hoofed it, never to return. For all I know the next batch of tourists that ended up at that hotel more or less met their end in some kind of Stephen King Tamil short story.
We’d successfully made it into town, were now homeless without phones or internet, had no idea where to go or what to pay. Not bad for only three hours into being in the country. In terms of comfort and stress, things were terrible. But measured in adventure and road stories, we were doing great.