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

48 Hours in India Chapter VI, “Big Traffic in Little Trichy and the Garbage Alley Less Traveled”

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.

 

48 Hours in India, Chapter IV “Homeless in Trichy”

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. 

Buying tickets on public transportation in India reminds me of the DMV during peak hours, if the DMV workers didn’t like you, didn’t speak the same language, were always overburdened, only used technology from the early eighties and the whole thing took place in a Kafka story.

You’re constantly bombarded by the crush of the crowd and wildly conflicting information. One person will tell you there is no train, another will tell you there is one, but it’s sold out, and a third will tell you there’s only a train every other day. After you sort through it all, you’ll realize that none of them are correct, and whether it’s a language barrier, miscommunication on your part or part of a tradition of confusing foreigners, you end up going through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat. When you have to get out of town, you have no choice but to dive into that process with gusto and, if you’re persistent and lucky, you’ll come out the other side with a ticket to the next destination. Leaving Trichy was the first of many such experiences for us. Ah, the joys of getting around in India.

The train station in Trichy is large, old and always busy. It consists of a long building in front of six rows of rat infested train tracks, a separate ticket building in front and a palacial office complex guarded by soldiers on the other side of the busy parking lot. Each building is large, concrete and somehow both nostalgic and menacing. But before you even get to the buildings you’ve got to navigate the crowds.

The path to the ticket building is a gauntlet of colorful chaos, a deluge of sensory overload in the form of a flood of humans. Men in dhotis, slow moving contingents of women in colorful saris and  solitary, emaciated sadhus (no doubt mixed in with fake sadhus, not that we could tell the difference) are all flowing through the walkway, sitting on the curbs and sleeping in alcoves. Endless lines of autorickshaws and taxis drop people at the curb, pick people up and jostle to go through the large round-about, honking endlessly.  Large troupes sit together on neatly folded cardboard and blankets in the shade of the multistory station building. They stop chatting and watch as you go by. It’s an intense experience to walk through that crowd, especially when you draw attention to yourself just by being a foreigner. You can feel all the eyes on you and while it’s almost all just simple curiosity, it puts you on edge.

The ticket building is one large room filled with metal chairs all facing a row of teller windows. The walls above the teller windows are covered in Tamil and impossibly complex train schedules that, if studied carefully, contradict each other. Behind these windows sit ancient CRT monitors manned by three or four uniformed workers, who speak through small holes in the grimy plexiglass to the hordes outside trying to buy tickets.

At some distant point in the past the building was set up for people to queue in orderly lines in front of each window, but the rows of metal chairs cut this area very short so lines can only be two or three people long. It doesn’t matter anyway because people simply swarm the windows like bees on a flower almost out of pollen. When you’re in India, you need to get used to the idea of wedging your way to the front and not letting people in front of you or you’re going to be queueing until you starve.

We’d been there the night before and, after working to the front of the mob, we were helped by the same ticket lady. She was just as surly and just as hard to understand as she’d been nine hours ago. She informed us there was a train leaving at ten o’clock that morning, that it was sold out but that they kept a few extra seats for foreigners as long as we filled out some paperwork in an office in a different building.

It was very difficult to hear her through the small window in the plexiglass and she didn’t go out of her way to explain. You have to crouch, ask your question then quickly put your ear to the hole in the glass, trying your best to ignore the cacophony of the crowd behind you. It means you can’t read their lips as they speak and you’re left trying to piece together their response, sometimes not even sure if they’re speaking a language you understand. It’s not a great way to communicate and it makes the process, already burdened with cultural barriers and your own ignorance, really prone to error. Which in our case, turned out to be a hard learned lesson.

It was just after nine, so we bought the tickets and hustled back to our hotel to grab our bags and check out. We made the trek again with our packs and wandered around the well guarded building across the street, in search of the paperwork and signatures that would guarantee us  seats on the next train out of Trichy. The guards outside the building but they didn’t even look at us as we went in (always a good sign) and we wandered for a few minutes trying to find anything that looked like an office where foreigners could fill out paperwork. There were no signs of any kind and we were lost. Ten was getting closer and we’d already spent a good chunk of our budget on the tickets and we were already checked out of our hotel. We were officially homeless. After ten minutes of wandering and growing increasingly nervous a lady in a blue sari took pity on us. Thank Shiva. After looking at the forms we had and the tickets we’d bought, she gave a big sigh and led us to a large open room on the second floor, filled with desks and file cabinets.

The place was an office, but not what comes to mind when you hear the term. The building was old, almost certainly built under British rule and left largely alone after that. The walls, floors and ceilings were all concrete and ornate, with lots of columns and moulding that was both decorative and utilitarian. Metal fans on long extensions telescoped down from the high ceiling and slowly turned the still air. The outward walls were almost entirely warehouse style windows; stacks of small frames, some missing glass, others blacked out. The light coming in was mottled and reminded me of a garage. There was no plastic or ceiling tiles anywhere. Everything was metal, heavy wood and concrete. The thick walls muted the constant honking and roar of the traffic outside and gave the place a slightly sacred feel: this was the holy place where signatures are given out, a nerve center of the impenetrable and vestigial bureaucracy inherited from the British that remains the law of the land.  The office gave off the sense that nothing had ever been replaced or updated and when looking out over the room it was easy to imagine East India Trading Company lackeys typing up telegrams during the British Raj, while soldiers armed with bayoneted carbines and gurkhas smoked outside wearing pith helmets, keeping a disdainful eye on the ebb and flow of humanity outside.

All of the public buildings, especially train stations, in India have this same strange, dated  feel, as if the past is superimposed on the present, or at least close enough that you catch glimpses of it out of the corner of your eye. A fresh coat of paint or the occasional passenger with a smartphone can’t quite undo the feeling: it’s steeped into the walls, reapplied every day by the crowds who are living the same way they did a hundred years ago. When you combine this sense of the past and the present coexisting with the general chaos of India and your own sense of being lost and out of your depth, you get a heady mixture of both travel fatigue and excitement. You can feel the history, reaching all the way back into mythology, coexisting with British colonialism and modern India, swirling around in the dust, coating every emaciated Brahman and temple, train station and pot-holed road. You can see it in the exhausting hives that are the cities and in the gurkha and rifle toting toting soldiers keeping watch in colonial era forts. It coats the walls and floors worn smooth with the countless hands and feet of countless people over hundreds of years, made permanent by wave after wave of humanity crashing repeatedly against the barely changing landscape. It’s too much to take in, an animal too complex and old to tame or even fully understand. India will lay you out and run you over with a fleet of rickshaws if you let it, and you can’t help but marvel at the mixture of beauty and chaos while it happens. The best you can do is hold on, take a few breaths and do everything in your power to get on your train.

We filled out more paperwork in the office, which included questions like “Why do you deserve an emergency exemption? To which we were instructed by the lady in the blue sari to answer with: “Because we are American tourists.” This made me feel uncomfortable, but we did what she said. After all, we were ready to get out of Trichy. A grumpy man behind a desk made a phone call, and we were told we had spots on the train and escorted out. More specifically, we had spots on the train leaving that night. Not the training leaving in the next half hour.

We were shooed out of the office before I could get my questions across. The ticket lady had said it was a train leaving ten am, not pm. But we were already out the door and the people inside had returned to whatever business they’d been working on before we interrupted.

I checked the ticket. The information was dot matrix printed onto a standard form, with fields for passenger info, berth, time, etc. The underlying ticket was offset so the printed information floated a bit unmoored from the corresponding text that gave it meaning. It was in Tamil and cryptically abbreviated English. The English portions were strangely translated and hard to parse but, on the very bottom edge of the ticket, partially off the edge was printed: “22:20.” This was in the general vicinity of the heading “Tim D” which I now understood to mean time of departure. I looked at my watch. 9:42. We had 12 hours and forty minutes to kill in Tiruchirappalli.