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.