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

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