48 Hours in India Chapter X “I Hear my Train a Comin’

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. 

Train stations in India are strange places. They smack of British colonialism,  urine and the general impression of permanent crowds. This was our first one, but not our last and certainly not the most intense.

I checked the ticket for at least the fifteenth time. It still said all the same things. I watched the LED display overhead. It was in Tumil but it did have a train number on it. It wasn’t our train number, but I wasn’t too worried about it yet– we still had five hours until we were supposed to be humming gently over the tracks to Chenai.

The sun was beginning to set, one of those red, pollution fireball sunsets that knock the world slightly off kilter for the ten minutes of magic hour. Colors shift and the rules of the world seem slightly less concrete. You become unmoored from reality in the dying light and what seems ridiculous in the harsh light of day seems eerily possible in the red lit transition to complete dark.

On that day, magic hour found me worried. We didn’t understand how the night trains worked and we weren’t sure we had a spot on the train. The paperwork we’d filled out that morning in a random railway office seemed awfully casual. I tried to replay the phone call the man in charge had made. It couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds and I didn’t hear any mention of our details. What if we didn’t have spots on the train and we were simply homeless in Trichy, proud owners of train tickets to nowhere? We’d have to trudge back along the main drag and book another night at India’s loudest hotel. In the gathering darkness I could picture us stuck in Trichy forever, forced every day to schlep to the ticket building, buy a useless ticket, then hike through the city and wait for a train that never came, only to return to the hotel and do it again, day after day after day. The idea had a nightmarish logic to it. Permanent purgatory for over proud travelers who need to be humbled. No internet for information, no way out, just making the same trek until you wasted away. I told myself it was ridiculous, but as night fell and the cold florescent lights flickered on overhead, some deep, reptile part of my brain wasn’t so sure. It’s amazing how daunting any obstacle can seem when you’re tired, hungry and lost. Any dreadful scenario seems inevitable when you don’t understand what’s going on.

We sat on concrete benches waiting. The station consisted of a long building, running parallel to the tracks that housed a restaurant, about a dozen offices (chief inspector of this, chief medical officer, chief this, chief that; India inherited a love for and heavy dependence on bureaucracy from the Brits) and a police station. There was a stall for filling water bottles with clean water, but it was broken. I was too nervous to read and couldn’t settle down. I hiked up and down the station, trying to get any information I could regarding our train.

One of the things that made me nervous was the fact that nothing added up. The information on the ticket didn’t quite jive with the station numbers. We’d bought sleeper class tickets, but the station didn’t have a spot for them. One lady had told us to check in after 7 PM at an office that wasn’t where she said it was. Another man told us we didn’t have to check in at all. Someone else told us the train number was different, but we’d know what the number was. After a few similar experiences in the following weeks I realized this is typical in India. Things are relabeled and the ticket machine is never changed. Platform numbers change depending on the train. Certain buses don’t display their number, but it’s the blue bus, not the red one. It seems to be the result of a slowly changing and infrequently updated system. The things that misalign would never throw a local or anyone with a few months of time in the country under their belt, but for us, it was asking a lot to trust that a casual phone call secured us places on a sold out train that would pull up to an unknown platform and should have sleeper cars on it. Even after several weeks it was difficult to trust that the unlabeled bus stop was where the bus  actually stopped (even if it was an hour and a half late) or that the train would be there and you’ll know which one is it, don’t worry about the train number. Just one of the little idiosyncrasies and joys of India.

We sat on the platform until it was dark. After that we wandered into the second class waiting hall. It was a large tiled room with metal benches along the walls. People were sleeping up against the walls, wrapped in blankets and laying on neat stacks of cardboard. They had a separate waiting room for women that men were not allowed, complete with dour looking female guards. We stuck to the main waiting room and snacked on wafers while we waited. The fear that we were going to get thrown off the train and have to stay in Trichy abated a bit with some food. From where we were sitting I could see the tracks where I was at least 50% sure that our train would pull up. Time ticked away slowly. The departure time came and went. My stress grew with each passing minute and the only thing that kept me from running back to the ticket building was the fact that no one else in the waiting room seemed concerned. Ten minutes after we were scheduled to leave a long train pulled up to the station. There was a grumbling of motion through the waiting people. I ran out to check. There were sleeper cars. There was at least one sign that said Chenai. It was looking promising. Long papers were taped to the outer shell of the train cars. I worked my way towards the front of the crowd to get a closer look. It was a passenger manifesto, printed in faded dot matrix. I scanned the list, heart thumping a bit and saw the two names that caused a wave of calm to wash over me:

“SOFI ELEITT” and

“MITCHEAL WILLAMS”

Berths 55 and 56 respectively. Looks like that casual call got the job done just fine. Sofia and I hustled on board, ready to get off our feet and maybe get some sleep after such a long day. We did get to lay down, but the it turns out sleep on the night train is a different animal.

48 Hours in India Chapter IX “The Long Trudge and Impressions of the Hidden Temple”

After lunch we made good time. Packs always seem a bit lighter when you’ve got food in your stomach and have just had a rest. Not that our packs are particularly heavy. This was a conscious choice and one of the core tenants of our travel philosophy.

We decided from the outset to travel as light as possible, in the smallest bags possible. It has a variety of benefits, from never having to check bags to being able to hike across the Indian countryside on a whim. There are a lot of other backpackers on the road who take the opposite approach: they have a ninety liter trekking pack on their back, stuffed to bursting, and a smaller pack (usually just slightly smaller than our packs) on their front. They trundle slowly through the  streets of backpacker hub cities like large cordura shelled turtles. I’ve lived on the road for close to six months now and for the life of me I can’t figure out what they’re carrying. Our packs (he said, smugly with a self righteous air) are 26 and 29 liters, just slightly larger than a school backpack. Our wardrobes are limited (we wear the same thing over and over and over and are constantly shower washing skivvies, and we don’t have a lot of cold weather gear(I’m currently sheltering from the rain on a cold day in Nepal wrapped in a yak wool blanket because I don’t have a jacket. UPDATE: I bought a fake Northface jacket in Nepal. It was cheap, works great and packs down to nothing) but with a little improvisation, we can get by most of the time. It certainly helps when you make the interesting choice to trek across an Indian city in the heat of the day.

Lunch was the end of the truly crazy traffic and crowds. After a few more hectic street crossings, we were headed out of town. The main road cut from the market, took a turn northwest along the bank of the river and then ventured over the water on a large four lane bridge. I was nervous this bridge, like the overpass, would not have a walkway. This fear proved groundless as we crested the last hill, climbed out of the city and looked towards the island. A wide walking path ran along both edges of the bridge and a few people were hustling across the expanse in the heat. The river under the bridge, represented on the map as a shore to shore wide blue ribbon, was a narrow green snake slithering between two giant expanses of exposed sandy river bed. Small white herons stood on the backs of cows and bison who drank at the waters edge. Trash floated on the still surface like new years confetti, carried by the slow current. On the bridge, auto rickshaws zoomed by with their characteristic gocart lawn mower sound.

There’s not much to say about the hike across the bridge. It was hot, it took a long time and we made it across in one piece.

We paused in the slim shade offered by a concrete power pole on the far bank. A herd of goats passed by, clomping down the steep bank towards the water. A man with a stick herded them along and nodded at us as he passed. We’d made it onto the island.

The island was really more of a giant delta, held like a dusty diamond between two hasps of green water.  It’s a teardrop shape about five miles long from top to bottom, with the temple located on the far side. We headed up a two lane road along the southern edge of the island, slowly making our way closer.

When you walk on the roads in India, you’re often walking either on the actual road, or on an unpaved shoulder. Only in the big cities is there something resembling a sidewalk and even that is a treacherous, uneven and broken affair. Most of the time you’re picking your way through rubble and around storefronts. In rainy areas there are small concrete ditches on either side of the road. In some areas these are also sewers. Most of the time they are covered with concrete pavers and this makes a decent walking surface. However, you have to constantly watch where you step: the pavers are often broken or missing and the ditches can be deep and filled with a lot of things you don’t want to fall on top of or into. Like rusty rebar, trash and sewage.

The road to the temple was two lanes (which means a minimum of three lanes of traffic) and either side was fairly open. Jungle terrain and buildings set back from the road gave us a decent walking space. The exhaust was thinner and the traffic less intense. We made good time and soon rounded a long gradual bend and saw it rising in the distance: the temple.

After the curve, the road was ruler straight and the temple sat at the far end. We were still more than a mile away, but the temple stood high above the surrounding buildings and jungle. It looked ancient and colorful and terrifying in the distance. And it was a distance– it took us over an hour to get there from when we could first see it.

Hindu temples are very foreign to a western eye. The temple itself is a set of goparums, which are ornate towers over gated entrances, topping square castle-like walls that surround the temple. The largest is the outermost and each layer of temple are ensconced with smaller and smaller versions until you are in the sacred center. Non-Hindu’s are not allowed into the innermost areas. The large, outer goparum is all that we could see from the distance. The goparum themselves are layered eaves, diminishing in size at each level. This gives the illusion that the building is impossible tall and receding into the stratosphere when instead the top level is perhaps only a quarter of the size of the bottom layer. It’s a fascinating optical illusion and lends the goparums a supernatural scale and feel. This otherworldiness is reinforced by the fact that the entire surface of the goparum is covered with hundreds of brightly colored figures mounted on the ledges. They’re carved into the surface, not in a roman-esque shallow relief but rendered in a full three dimensions.  They hang off the edges of the structure weirdly life-like (considering they are mostly minor deities and supernatural figures) as if they were real bodies glued haphazardly on the edges of the temple instead of carved out. The effect gives the impression that the temples are crawling with giant ants, covered completely in a mildly organized chaos incomprehensible to an outsider.

But from our great distance we couldn’t see any of that. As we got nearer the businesses and homes on either side of the street gave way to shops geared towards pilgrimages. Storefronts sported bright flower wreaths and small offerings. Many sold brightly colored banners featuring the elephant headed Ganesh and hundreds of unrecognizable spirits, deities and avatars. Soon we were not the only walkers on the road: we were joined by crowds all headed towards the temple on foot. As we grew nearer, the crowds grew more intense and as we made it to the temple walls we were hiking through a small shanty town, typical of the kind that exists outside of large religious sites. Low tin roofed hutches lined the streets selling fruit, offerings and bottled water. Crowds sheltered up against the tall wall separating the temple from the outside world. The main road was now devoid of cars: they were fended off by a series of iron pilings driven into the pavement and the taxis and autorickshaws prowled back and forth on the other side, waiting for a fare to emerge from the caged area. The traffic now was on foot and bicycle. Ascetics wandered the streets, looking like skeletons wrapped in old leather shambling up and down asking for alms. Crowds sat in the shade of the goparum and pilgrims made their way through the large gate and into the temple area.

By now it was mid afternoon and the light was beginning to shift. We walked through the gate under the goparum. It was at least thirty yards of stone corridor, the arabesque roof a hundred feet overhead. Inside the air was cool. Beggars and holymen lined the walls, raising thin and calloused hands at the crowd flowing through.

Inside the outer wall was stuffed with people and shops. Knick knacks, food, religious icons– it seemed to never end. The road led on, through three more goparums, each one smaller than the one before. It seemed like the temple went on forever, and endless and exhausting array of streets, stalls, people and hiking. The press of the crowd had finally worn us down. We weren’t allowed to the inner areas of the temple, so we returned to the outer wall and bought a water and stood in the relative calm of the small market and admired the gopaurm.

We’d walked six miles– likely more, through dusty streets, impossibly crowded markets, through alleys to get here. We took a few pictures, marveled at the intricacy of the figures crawling over every surface of the tower and debated whether it had been worth the hike. We were exhausted and hungry but we decided it was worth it. We were the only non-locals we’d seen in hours. This was definitely something outsiders don’t see often. We did our best to soak it in and then we turned around and left. Kind of anticlimactic, but there it is. We came, we saw, we didn’t get hit by a bus. A success in my book.

We decided not to walk back. We were sunburned and aching and had breathed enough exhaust for one day. We hired one of the autorickshaws outside the temple and for 300 rupee we were zooming back into town. It took about half an hour to get back to the train station, a journey that had taken us almost five hours on foot. Our driver took us around the market and used the overpass and zoomed through the roundabouts. The ride might have been terrifying if we weren’t so tired and beaten down. But soon we we were standing outside the ticket building at the Trichy train depot, a place we’d been so frequently it was starting to feel like home. It’d been a very full day and we still had a night train to go.

48 Hours in India Chapter VIII, “A Religious Parade and Lunch in the Disco Bat Cave”

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.

48 Hours in India Chapter V, “Drunk Toddlers Make Interesting Decisions”

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. 

48 Hours in India, Chapter III “Sleepless in South India, featuring Rajinikanth the Tuk Tuk Driver”

Where we did go was back through the main part of Trichy, which we had seen from the cab as we barreled through the town. The more modern part of Trichy had two main streets connecting a large train station and a very active bus depot. They two were about a mile and a half apart and in between them lay what I thought of at the time as ‘Mad Max Flea market’ but is actually just what a lot of streets in the smaller Indian cities look like. The roads were paved but potholed and trash filled. Giant buses roared through small streets lined with stalls selling shoes, phone cases and fruit, everything coated with grime and dust. Rubble and thick black mud lined the streets and the entire walk from end to end smelled like urine and diesel exhaust. The crowd was fast moving and pushy and equally beaten down looking. Not exactly the Taj or downtown Mumbai. With our packs on we wandered up and down this stretch looking for accommodations or a restaurant with wifi. We found plenty of places to eat, a few to stay and absolutely no wifi (we later found one hotel that did have it: it cost eight times what the hotel we were staying did, so no dice). We ended up back at the big roundabout in the middle of town. On one side of the roundabout sits the beehive-esque bus station, across from an ancient five story hotel. At the bus station, full size windowless buses would tear through the roundabout, honking the whole way in one long blatting scream as people jumped on and off without the bus stopping. Smaller vehicles and motorbikes flitter between the gaps of the big buses. The whole affair had the look and feel of a very loud ant colony working at full tilt. We’d done some pricing as we walked and settled on the big old hotel because it seemed safe and was 700 rupee a night for a double room. Again, that seemed surprisingly cheap.

The lady at the front desk was cold and matter of fact. We did the normal exchange, passports, paperwork, payment, etc. and we learned an interesting facet of hotels in India: most rent rooms out in 24 increments, meaning that if you check in at say, 5:15 am because your night train got in two hours early, you’re checking out at 5:15 am the next day. This was going to be our experience at our next hotel, two days from when we checked into our second accommodations in India. But for now we checked in just before dark and had the room until 7:30 the following evening. Plenty of time to figure out our next step.

The 700 rupee room was larger than I expected. It was on the third floor, with a small barred window overlooking the roundabout. Two beds, a small TV and a reasonably comfortably mattresses, which is always a plus. It’s amazing how many different mattresses you sleep on when you travel long term. It gives you a connoisseurs’ snobbery regarding cheap accommodations and I’m 100% certain that you could blindfold me, fly me to Thailand, Cambodia or India, plop me on a mattress in a hostel, hotel or guesthouse costing less than $8 a night and I could identify the country just by the mattress. Interesting and unexpected tidbit: Cambodia has the best cheap mattresses by a wide margin. I’ve slept on a more comfortable mattress in an open air jungle loft with a pallet bed frame and mesquito net in Cambodia than in a relatively fancy hotel in India. One of the many reasons I’ll always love Cambodia. The noise outside our room was a constant cacophony of roaring engines and honks, but we had a door that locked and our own bathroom. It’s difficult to describe how comforting that is when you’re overwhelmed on the road, no matter what the condition of your temporary home is: you have a space in which you are in control.

Each floor of the hotel had a staff person 24/7. I’m not sure what their duties were, but our guy seemed to mostly watch TV in a vacant room while pretending to make up the bed. I decided to give the TV a try– we’d spent a little time during our first place in Thailand flipping through the channels and found it fascinating to see how different cultures consume their news and entertainment. We were in Thailand right after the king passed away and almost all channels (there were about twenty five) were devoted to coverage of religious ceremonies revering the king, biopics, specials about his life, and footage of weeping old folks clutching pictures of the monarch. Indian TV was, not surprisingly, a different animal and much like the country itself, it was vast, loud and different enough culturally to be completely baffling to a foreign eye/ear. There were exactly one hundred channels. About a third were what looked and sounded like an Indian telenovela: soap opera plots, low production value and recurring character types (the evil older general/military man and the meddling grandmother seem especially pervasive). Another third was Bollywood/Kollywood music videos, both current and vintage. These were fascinating and, coupled with what I learned from a late night conversation with some stand up comics in Bangalore about film’s role in Indian culture and politics, have ignited an intense curiosity about Indian film culture and convention. My inner film geek will explore this when I get home. The last third was split between news and movie channels. The movies were mostly heavily censored western films and Kollywood classics. The censorship was fascinating. Every time a character onscreen smokes, the words “smoking kills” are superimposed over whatever they’re smoking. Not even Thorin the dwarf in one of the bloated Hobbit films escaped: while he sat in the Prancing Pony discussing the Lonely Mountain with Gandalf (why on middle-earth was that a scene? Why that many movies out of a simple story? Why run over my childhood and leave it in the middle of the road, Peter Jackson?) the words “smoking kills” hung over his pipe in English and Tamil. There is also considerable censorship regarding any kind of amorous activity: I’m not entirely sure characters can kiss on screen. In all of the Bollywood (and Kollywood) I’ve seen so far, the romantic climax of the film is usually a kiss between our hero (a lower class good guy, probably played by Rajinikanth) and the leading lady (of a higher class than our scruffy but lovable leading man) which is generally not shown on screen but shot from an angle that obscures the lips touching or the kiss is just heavily implied by the circumstance. In the film I watched Rajinikanth played a tuk tuk driver who stood up to the local mafioso who was bullying old shopkeepers and, no joke, little old ladies. Punctuated with the expected but startling dance numbers, Rajinikanth sacrificed himself in place of another tuk tuk driver, was subjected to a smash cut heavy passion of the christ-esque beating in the town square, and some how survived and got the girl. I’m fuzzy on the plot because India is of the opinion that subtitles coddle the viewer. But, Rajinikanth wins the girl, has a sizzling early eighties biker themed dance number and kisses the girl– which we see in a medium shot of Rajinikanth’s face, momentarily obscured by the back of the leading lady’s head, and then he has lipstick on his face and a punch drunk expression. All that’s missing is cartoon hearts circling his head. It’s amazing, and was a welcome change of pace from the chaos of Trichy and our misadventures trying to 1) find food; 2) find lodging; 3) find internet and 4) get the hell out of Dodge.

We checked in around seven pm, puzzled through some bollywood (the Rajinikanth adventure was later) and went to sleep hungry. We’d stopped by the train station during our long walk hoping to buy tickets and had been told we’d have to come back in the morning to buy tickets for the night train, so we went to bed early ready to get to the train station first thing.

Around nine thirty we learned why our room was cheap. The constant horn honking outside showed no sign of sloping off. If anything, it had picked up. By midnight I gave up any hope and resigned myself to the roar of Indian traffic for the night. Sofia put it earplugs, but I’m not comfortable doing that in a place I’m not familiar with– what if you sleep through a fire alarm, or sleep through someone sneaking in and walking off with your bags? These seem paranoid now, but they seem the height of prudence when you’re a little stranded on the wrong side of the tracks in a country you don’t understand. So I watched Tamil soap operas, the Rajinikanth tuk tuk driver epic and a Chinese Jackie Chan film I’d never heard of and drifted in and out of sleep. The horns tapered off slightly between 4 and 5 in the morning and then picked back up with gusto after that.
The next morning we were up bright and early and made the trek through the increasingly familiar streets of Trichy. Every morning, businesses would sprinkle lye powder on the mud in front of their stores, giving the illusion both that it was clean and that it had somehow snowed. The night before there had been a young man with one leg passed out drunk in the street, but he was gone in the morning and I worried about what had happened to him until I saw him again later that afternoon. I couldn’t tell if he looked worse for wear or if that was a normal thing for him. 

We worked our way into the ticket building, ready to buy our tickets and move on as soon as possible. But that’s not what happened, and the small part of Trichy we’d seen was nothing compared to what we’d see in the next eight hours.

48 Hours in India: Chapter II “Trichy Business”

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. 

So far, so good, but all we’ve done so far is sit in a plane, something anybody can do. At this point in our travels we’ve gotten very comfortable flying and making it through airport security. The only stress I feel comes from the unknowns of international flights: was the three year old article I read online about the Indian visa process right? Do they take USD, or RM, or can I change money there? Did I parse the strangely translated Indian website correctly? Do I have enough cash on hand? Too much? (the answer I’ve learned after several sketchy border crossings, both air and over land, is that if you’re headed to a tourist friendly country and have done the minimum of research and prep, you’ll be okay). It’s always a bit stressful to change money and during your first few transactions with a new currency you worry that you accidentally overpaid your taxi driver by a few factors of ten (a mistake I recently made in Vietnam where twenty three thousand dong roughly equal a dollar. Forty five pucks makes you a millionaire and it’s tougher than you’d think to keep track of all those zeros). Also, nothing makes your head spin like converting ringit to rupee (about 4.7 and 67 to 1 USD respectively) and then trying to figure out if the taxi driver is ripping you off or not, while he and a flock of auto-rickshaw drivers all vie for your business.

The Trichy airport is small and we were only two of three people getting off the plane who weren’t locals and had to get in line to get our visas approved and passports stamped. To the energized and combat ready traveler, this is a good sign. But for someone not ready to lead the charge into the unknown, it should be a warning. No other foreigners means only locals, which means you’re off the beaten path. Which means you’re about to travel on expert mode. No signs for important things like, bathroom, or bus stop or “do not enter.” You’re about to be a rambunctious and unsupervised toddler, let loose in a world you don’t understand. You can’t do basic things like get food, or lodging or know where you can sit on a bus. You can’t communicate well, you can’t read and you’re likely to wander unknowingly into traffic unless an adult stops you.

But we didn’t know that yet. We got our visas examined, our passports stamped, I bought 600 rupees with the ringits I had left over and we headed outside. We’d read that there was a local bus, but we couldn’t find it. Which was fine because we’d have no idea where to get off if we had. We waded through the flock of aggressive taxi and autorickshaw drivers that congregate outside of every airport. Eventually we settled on a taxi driver that offered to take us into town on the cheap. We didn’t have a destination yet, as part of a bold choice to figure it out once we got on the ground. This strategy works well in places like Thailand and Malaysia, where every pad thai stand and kopitiam has excellent wifi. Not so much in small city in rural India.

The taxi ride was our first exposure to the driving in India, a style that is equal parts red blood cells smashing along in the capillaries of a person with severe hypertension, and  something I’ve come to call “Deathwish hornhonk.” It’d be a white knuckle experience, if there was anything to hang on to. The taxi, a small dusty car with the seat belts cut out, pulled out of the airport parking lot and onto the road, a two lane dustbowl highway with a hip height concrete divider running down the middle. On each side pulsed the now familiar flow of cars, autorickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, pedestrians, cows, pushcarts and giant trucks decorated like hindi christmas trees. We zoomed around them all, close enough to touch through the rolled down windows, our driver laying on the horn and accelerator equally while he made his sales pitch.

All taxi drivers that hang around at airports sell hard on the drive into town. You can hire them for the day to go see temples, and if you don’t have a hotel they will take you to places they have standing arrangements with. We’ve never taken a taxi driver up on these services because they tend to be expensive and I somehow don’t trust a history tour of an eight hundred year old temple complex ruled by three different kingdoms as given by a taxi driver who scams tourists at the airport every day. The only exception to this was in Cambodia, where we hired a tuk tuk driver for the day to see Angkor Wat, which was a great choice. There, the system was clever: the bus “station” was about three kilometers outside of Siem Reap, just a stand in the Cambodian countryside. A group of local tuk tuk drivers would ferry you for free from the bus stand to your hostel (we had reservations there– we weren’t overconfident yet) and they would do their best to sell you tours of Angkor Wat. We’d done the research and that was the best way to get around (you had to buy tickets in a giant government office several miles from the site and then the temples themselves were spread out over a very large area) and our driver, Pha, was a delightful person, spoke terrific english and was a great salesman. We hired him on the spot (I didn’t even haggle, which Sofia made fun of me for afterwards) and he was terrific: picked us up exactly on time (4:30 am) and took us everywhere we wanted to go and then some. I have no regrets about the money spent on Pha and our trip to Angkor Wat. But that was Combodia, we’re now in India and our taxi driver is definitely not Pha.

We politely deflected his offers to drive us to all the temples and asked him to drop us off somewhere in the middle of town. His english wasn’t great, our Tamil was non-existent and he really wanted to take us to some hotels that he almost certainly had a deal with. This is common among taxi drivers and the deal is usually along the lines of: “If you bring any dumb tourists to our hotel, we’ll overcharge them and give you a cut.” The hotel he took us to would have been a great setting for an Indian remake of American Horror Story. It was a five story concrete building, set back from the crowded road in a grove of dead trees. Dark windows, strangely quiet, deserted lobby. The elevator was tiny, the place was eerie and there wasn’t a single guest. We said we it was great we just had to go the ATM to get money and we left.

Before we did, we got scammed a bit by our driver. We’d negotiated the price of 200 rupee to get us to town, which I thought was surprisingly cheap. At the hotel he insisted it was 200 person, not 200 total. We hadn’t discussed this before, and even though it was a common scam (which you avoid by having a very clear conversation before you get in the cab) I paid him 400. We needed to get out there. We thanked him, asked directions to an ATM and hoofed it, never to return. For all I know the next batch of tourists that ended up at that hotel more or less met their end in some kind of Stephen King Tamil short story. 

We’d successfully made it into town, were now homeless without phones or internet, had no idea where to go or what to pay. Not bad for only three hours into being in the country. In terms of comfort and stress, things were terrible. But measured in adventure and road stories, we were doing great.

48 hours in India: Chapter I: The Housecats Buy Tickets to the Outside

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 decided to go to India while sitting on a rooftop. This is something we try to do as often as possible on the road and we’re pretty good at making it happen. This particular rooftop is in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia, and we’d been on the rooftop a lot in the past month. The rooftop felt like home and it made India seem like a distant challenge, something difficult, a little scary and likely rewarding, but so far away that it wasn’t threatening. Like signing up for a marathon six months in the future– you’ll get in shape in time, don’t worry. We applied for visas online, bought a cheap flight to a place we’d never heard of and said goodbyes. We’d made KL our home for almost a month and walking to the train station had many of the travel jitters that we experienced several months prior, when we embarked on our first chunk of travel: a night bus from New Mexico to California.

I felt those jitters, but pushed them down. After all, we were experienced travelers at that point. We’d been to several countries, navigated tiny villages and big cities alike, no problem. Well heeled and gung-ho, we knew what we were doing.

False.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is real and India delighted in proving how little we actually knew about travel. More on that below.

It was and it wasn’t our fault. Kuala Lumpur had made us fat housecats, confident that if we we’re just let outside, we could tear that alley cat apart. Or catch that pigeon taunting us on the ledge. Or just live forever outside, a feline Jeremiah Johnson conquering the rugged outdoors in this extended metaphor. In KL we had a little home: a room at the end of the hall in a loft style hostel. We had neighbors that we knew. We worked regular hours. We had friends we saw everyday, a coffee shop we frequented after work and we were even regulars at a local restaurant. Life was great and grand and easy. I whistled as I walked the bustling Chinatown streets, feeling just at home sashaying past camera toting tourists outside of temples as I would  walking past crowds in downtown Albuquerque. More so, actually– I never felt unsafe in KL, which is not something I can say for the Burque and, unless you’re half brother is a strangely quaffed dictator, it seems extremely unlikely you’re going to get hurt/abducted/harrassed/mugged or killed in Malaysia. The place is safe and we felt safe, which made us comfortable, which made us think we had this whole travel thing licked. Travellers extraordinaire, glamorously jetsetting on a shoestring budget and hopping from country to country with the greatest of ease.

Enter Tiruchirappalli, India. And enter hard earned travel lesson #1, which is, tickets are cheap for many reasons. Before you buy, make sure you know your ticket is cheap.

The tickets to Trichy were cheap for the wrong reasons, but we didn’t know that yet. We bought them without much fanfare or research, the same method we used to get to Malaysia (another previously unplanned stop) and that worked out great. Before making that decision we toyed with the idea of returning to Cambodia, but it felt too much like moving back in with your parents, retreating to the known and comfortable. We didn’t travel just to sit on a beach somewhere the whole time (only part of the time, we’re reasonable people), we traveled to see the world, to have some adventure, and to interact with cultures we weren’t familiar with. Travel is supposed to be uncomfortable and strange and a little scary; a voyage into the unknown.

In this instance the unknown began with a familiar trip on KL public transit, something we were smug about mastering during our time in Malaysia. It’s a modern public transit system with regular trains and buses and signs in English. In retrospect it shouldn’t have been a source of pride to not get lost in a place bedecked with signs pointing you the right way. After that (which we did navigate like locals, for what it’s worth) a standard flight with our old friend Air Asia, who always feeds you, even on flights less than an hour and is always on time. A few hours later we were  walking across the tarmac of the dust and smog filled Trichy airport. Trichy is located in the south of India and our plan was to start in the south and head north via long trains, traversing the whole country in our visa-allotted 30 days. This plan, made by fat cats sizing up the mangy alley cat through the safety of a plate of glass, drastically underestimated the task at hand and overestimated our ability to get it done.

Trichy was waiting, looming just outside the airport, waiting to give us our first taste of India, ready to remind us that fat house cats need to reevaluate their decisions and harden their resolve when they decide to leave the comforts of home and go outside.