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.