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.