Ultra-Deluxe India – 04.08.2013

India sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night; her constant hustle and bustle means that often my mind is left racing to try and catch up with and comprehend the overload that is what my eyes have seen. When I finally drift to sleep at night, I’m frequently still thinking about the culture we’re currently immersed in, and my dreams float through scenes of people-packed bazaars and chaotic, colourful street scenes.

I felt unmotivated this morning; lethargic and in a not-so-interested-in-temples mood. We hauled our luggage down to the Trichy Junction Bus Station cloak room early in the morning, and paid 100 rupees for a half-naked man to store our only belongings, alongside his graying-underwear and once-white, sweat-stained shirt that was hung neatly from a wall hook. I prayed our bags would still be there when we returned in 12 hours time.

We found a chai vendor and filled our flask with sugary liquid; what has quickly become our morning routine here in India.

Brunch was a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal from some local joint, served, surprisingly, on a banana leaf. The eighty staff members (or there abouts) were keen to watch these two foreigners attempt to eat with their hands, and the majority of our meal was spent with many, many enquiring eyes studying our every mouthful. We questioned the level of safety in eating this food; it was a little cold and dodgy looking, so we quickly bought a coke after the meal, with the hope that the terrible chemicals in coke would kill any nasties before they had the opportunity to flourish and strike us down. Not sure how effective this method of avoiding Dehli-Belly is, but anything goes in this sort of hygienically challenged environment.

Because we were feeling really lazy today, and because we knew we had a long, 8 hour bus ride ahead of us this evening, we took a Tuk tuk to Trichy Old Town area and the main Bazaar.
We saw a very impressive church… and then proceeded to go shopping. Well, not so much shopping as simply walking through the Bazaar; a crowded, hectic, chaotic, overwhelming, polluted, noisy space full of people buying and selling, clothing, watches, baby clothing, sari material, plastic shit, cooking ware, fruit, shoes – always so many shoes… Amidst the normal human crush and pushy motorbike drivers honking their horns, it was so much to take in.

Flustered, frustrated, unable to find the places we wanted to get to, we left the bazaar in search of the Rock temple, which we did see from a distance, as it sat high above us – something like 400 steps above us. Laziness, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, the extreme heat and the fact that non-hindus can’t go into the temples were combining factors in the decision not to climb the rock. We considered climbing it just for the view over Trichy, but it wasn’t that much of an argument since from the ground, Trichy looks like a sprawling mass of buildings set on mountains of dirt and red dust, littered with rubbish and crowded with people, cows, goats, dogs and traffic… and no doubt, also a big cloud of pollution. The stench of urine is really strong here too – although you can’t see it, I imagine it to be a big, yellow blanket of stinky invisible-ness. So, we passed on the climb and the view, and instead took a tuk tuk to another temple about 3km further away.

Hindu  temples are impressive with their large, towering entrances of colour and sculpture, statues and depictions… but it’s hard for us to appreciate them any further really, as we can’t comprehend the spiritual and religious traditions and meanings.

The temple was dark, damp, and full of people either sleeping, eating or begging, and the areas were piling up with rubbish. The stone carvings inside the temple were really quite impressive, but there was a temple elephant wondering near the grounds, with paint covering its face and chains on its feet, and I hate that with a passion; poor animal treatment masked under the name of religion is not something I’m impressed by. For me, this temple was nothing spectacular.

Moving on, we had to get out of the heat and sit down. It seems there is a lack of places to actually just sit, drink some chai and relax… we found a small eatery and had an ice cream, and proceeded to make a rough itinerary/plan for the rest of our trip in India… we were there for a while – a concept that obviously was strange for the locals – but we needed the break.

Finally, we decided to visit the biggest temple here in Trichy, that is also supposedly one of the biggest in India – we figured we should make the effort since we are only here once.

We walked there, and it was a nice stroll past children playing cricket, women in coloured saris carrying large parcels and items on their heads, goats sleeping on the road and cows munching on piles of rubbish.

At the entrance, we were stunned by so many people and such a towering, impressive entrance. People were everywhere.

Shops, market stalls, clothing, foods, chai… we walked the streets through what felt like a small enclosed city to the next main entrance and another impressive tower of colour and sculpture, but decided not to go any further in, again; we’re obviously not hindus and we respect that this is a place of worship.

Instead, we watched the people move around us; a couple of motorcyclists had an argument over who would go through a tiny entrance first, children played, and a massive crowd gathered around an eatery that was frying up delicious smelling food – we’ll try whatever they’re eating. A man helped Jake to order, and he was served a couple of green chilli/bell peppers fried in a spiced lentil four batter, and a couple of other fried lentil things. It was too much food, and we ended up giving some food to a couple of locals who were really appreciative. We never throw food away here; it’s always given to someone who needs it, and that simple act today showed us, again, how much we take for granted.

We caught a bus back to town as evening was falling – it was so interesting to see the bazaars packed to the walls with people, every different eatery cooking and preparing different foods, chai stalls crowded with people, and families out together. It’s fascinating, every time, to see India in action; night times are wonderful in this country – at least, in the small area we’ve seen. It’s as though India operates during the day, and lives at night.

We had dinner at a local place that was decent; we tried dosai which we will definitely be eating more often now; another Indian food to add to the ‘safe to eat/I-know-what-that-is’ list.

10pm and we picked our back packs up from the cloak room – they were still there, and so was half-naked man and his dirty underwear. Packs on, we walked through the station – very cleverly right past the massive stretch of urinals – as the thousands of staring eyes fell upon us – we’re starting to find this less unnerving and slightly easier to ignore.

We’d reserved an Ultra Deluxe Class, Air Conditioned bus ahead of our overnight journey and were secretly smug with our out-of-chatacter organisation!… but when we arrived, we were directed to a dilapidated and un-roadworthy looking vehicle, with peeling, faded-green paint, several large rusting sections, broken chairs and stuck windows. The air conditioning didn’t work, unless you count the very economical and eco-friendly open windows – which worked a treat for the duration of our journey – except when it rained.
We sat down, wondering when the ultra deluxe part of our journey would commence, then reminded ourselves to stop being such spoiled Westerners. The Indian music started blaring – the beginning of the sound track for our trip to Ooty – people began reclining their seats to uncomfortable levels, and the driver backed out of the madness that is the Trichy Junction bus stand.

Then the music and lights were turned off – the ultra deluxe part began – and silently, we rolled our way up and up and up to Ooty over a period of 8 hours.

At around 1am we stopped for a break: the lights were turned on and the driver screamed out something, of which I simply understood “chai” and “bat-roum.”  I was up.
All of a sudden all these sleeping bodies had risen, and we were all off the bus; I stood laughing at the hilarity of this nonsensical situation.
In the darkness, men dispersed in every angle to urinate freely (literally) whilst the women lined up to pay the toilet guy 3 rupees. Yes; at 2am there’s a guy sitting at a wooden table outside stench-embedded, urine smelling toilets, waiting for buses to arrive and for people to come and use the toilet…I won’t be complaining about my job again, ever.
Someone else (or maybe the same business-smart man?) obviously thought it would be a profitable idea to have a ripped music and DVD shop open for business at this time of night; therefore, nothing could be heard over the blasting speakers, which sat in the dusty open surrounds, filling the late-night air with loud, bad quality Indian music.
I stood in front of our bus and was overcome with laughter: as screeching treble filled my ears – along with much obligatory hocking and spitting – I stared in awe at the absolute dump of a vehicle that was being masked as a bus, titled at the front with some crooked, rusting letters spelling “U  RA D L X” (what would’ve once said Ultra Deluxe, before half of the letters fell off and it became not so ultra).
More to the point, on the side of this magnificent beast was some painted text, which titled this thing a “Highway Airline.” I was almost in tears at this point from laughing; I’ll blame it on exhaustion.

Still, here we were in the cool night air – Indian men doing double takes as they walked past this laughing white girl – traveling in true style on our bus Highway Airline to the hill country town of Ooty, 2240m above sea level. I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the most comfortable 8 hours, but we loved every moment of it, and our dodgy Highway Airline too.

In the early hours of the morning, the bus speed slowed to accommodate for the hair-pin bends, curves and turn as we made our way through the hills and the sun began to rise. We watched, bleary eyed, as scenery rolled past our eyes like we had never before seen, and for a fleeting moment, we forgot we were in India.

Advertisements

India India

Welcome to Chennai – our first destination in India – our first dot on the map.

It’s a sprawling, hot, hectic, buzz of people, non-stop chaotic traffic and horn honking, animals roaming the streets and rubbish strewn everywhere. It’s true what they say – our first impressions of India have been felt through an absolute assault on every sense.

There are too many things to look at when you step out onto the street; everything seems to move around us in all directions at any and every moment, and the colours and sights of life in this city are simply incredible.

Walking out of our guest house late evening on our first night here, we were in absolute awe of what we saw, heard and smelled around us; 8pm, and this city is just getting started.

The streets are alive and teaming; the people and traffic, sounds, smells, and foods overwhelmed us, but excited us more than we could’ve possibly imagined.
Shops, street foods, hole-in-the-wall eateries, countless chai vendors who pull chai from silver cups into tiny take away canisters, people buying and selling, working and sleeping, eating and socializing, and simply just being – it’s madness and it’s incredible.

Children play, bare footed, in and amongst construction sites, held together with bamboo poles and fraying rope. People sleep in old wooden carts, on side walks, on pieces of tarp on the dirty ground and on the road side. It’s sometimes confronting, and a lot for our western minds to comprehend.

Traffic whirls and whizzes around us in a constant stream; by now – thanks to Sri Lanka – we are used to crazy driving and non-stop horn honking – but this city takes chaotic traffic to a new level that we couldn’t have anticipated to this extent.

Samosas, fried rices, tandoori ovens cooking chicken and naan, and a myriad other fried goods are readily available; people are everywhere cooking and eating all these fascinating-looking (and no doubt tasting) foods that we’ve never seen or experienced. People cook with woks at the front of tiny eateries, sending rice and oil flying high into the air with every toss, and turning fried goods in bright red batter over and over in boiling oil.
Women braid tiny flowers into beautiful little flower garlands and a speed that makes it impossible to see how their fingers work.
Men sit at ancient-looking Singer sewing machines on the side walk in the open air; their feet moving up and down as they sew tailor made clothing items with precision and speed.
Textile shops are lit up with flashing lights, and the brightly coloured pashmina scarves hanging from hooks at the shop fronts are inviting.
A shop selling elaborately decorated and beautifully made traditional Indian hats is fascinating to look in.
Little shop fronts sell the most random of goods individually (not as a whole pack) and wrap them in newspaper for your convenience. It made buying a single mosquito coil for our room too easy.
Men gather for conversation in the middle of walk ways.
Cows stand lazily within the main stream of traffic.

It’s wonderful, fast-moving madness.

Shoes off at the door, we wandered in to the show room of a sitar and musical instrument shop where beautiful wooden traditional instruments and drums in all different shapes, colours and sizes lined the marble floors. For a few moments, it was quiet.

Back on the street, a tiny open space between two buildings is being well used as an ironing business – a frail elderly man maneuvers a massive antique iron – fuelled with hot coals – over layers of colourful cloths.

Restaurants and eateries are in full swing – people are everywhere eating and eating and eating! Chai vendors are everywhere and they all seem to have their own ways and recipies for the best cup of delicious, delicious chai.

People smile at us and it seems people are happy to help if they can; our first impression of Indian people has been really positive.

Upholsters are sewing with big needles out in the open streets, people are drilling and working on construction sites, bare footed locals walk over rubbish and rubble and cracked pavements and waste – and other foreign things I dare not think about – people are weaving and working and sleeping and driving and shopping; it’s non-stop and it’s a very new and different world.

Just a few minutes of walking along the streets was exciting and exhausting; the concentration levels required to focus on and remain uninjured are high. Avoiding being hit by the continuous stream of traffic that comes at you from every angle, often undercutting you on the frequently non-existent footpaths is the number one focus, and whilst doing so, you need to watch every step to ensure you dodge any cracks, holes, dips, rubble, waste, rubbish, gooey matter, foreign objects, dogs, sleeping bodies and many other hazards. The constant crowds of people and traffic mean limited space; moving through a sea of colourful saris and foreign faces with paint-smeared foreheads very quickly becomes normal.

This place is intoxicating, our senses are feeding off the new and the different. Everything is exciting right now, and we’re now a little more prepared for what the next three months here might offer us. We know it might not always be so wonderful and exciting, but for now, it’s safe to say that our short-lived experience of ‘every day life’ here left us excited, overwhelmed, a little shocked, entertained, hungry, disorientated, and above all, in love – already – with incredible India.

And, once all of this chaos, madness and utter exhilarating excitement was enough and our first evening in this country drew to a close, it was only when I saw a small, naked child pooing in the busy main street that I finally thought to myself “…yes, we’ve done it. We’re finally, actually, really, truly here. Welcome to India.”