23
Dec 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Santhanam

It is no secret that India has given us stage fright. We’ve learned quickly that any sort of personal space or blending in with the masses is far from realistic. Over the last two years we’ve grown accustomed to being foreigners, but now for the first time we feel like E.T.

Chennai was a serious eye opener. It was a crazy concoction of everything beautiful and ugly in the world and a transition took place in me while we were there. The most peculiar things seemed normal after two weeks;  men who slept in their rickshaws at night, cows sleeping in the street, random nighttime parades, women in burkhas, the stares, Hindu rituals, and the segregation of men and women. Chennai was alive and real and there was no denying its hypnotizing energy.

Yet the city was draining my energy and I knew it was time when our hotel’s elevator became my secret closet. It was a partially manual elevator and once inside the cage I’d close the double set of metal caged doors, press “3” and then relish in my seven seconds of bliss. Indian tunes would begin mid-song and a blast of cold air would explode from the ceiling fan, temporarily extinguishing the feeling that I was being baked alive.

When departure day finally did come I was a twist of emotions; excited yes, but hesitant too. Was I really ready for this? It had been almost two months since we had done any real overlanding and it all kind of felt foreign to me. We exited the port’s gates at three in the afternoon. It was far too late to begin our first drive in India but the fact of the matter was we weren’t going back to Chennai. Absolutely no way.

A few hours later we found ourselves at the police station in Mahabalipuram.

“Here goes nothing,” Brad said, and then disappeared into the station while I patrolled Nacho. I felt at peace. The streets were pleasantly quiet and no one had discovered us yet. I relived the day’s events as Brad worked his magic.

“Hi Sir. My wife and I are driving a campervan and are looking for a safe place to park for the night. Is there a place nearby?”

“Oh no! It is not possible. Very dangerous! You must stay in a hotel.”

Brad wasn’t having any more Indian hotels. “I’m sorry, but that’s not possible. Our car is our home. What about in the police parking lot?”

They didn’t have one. “Impossible. You can’t sleep on the street. It is too dangerous.”

“It doesn’t look dangerous.” Brad put on his worried face and began his act. ”I don’t know what we’ll do. It’s so late.” He pointed outside to the van, “I think we will have to camp right there on the street tonight. Good place?”

The police man pondered what to do and then picked up his phone and placed a call. After a few minutes he hung up the receiver and addressed Brad.

“I have called my friend. He is the manager of Talasayana Perumal Temple and he says it is okay, you can camp at his temple. When you get there ask for Santhanam.”

We only had to venture a few minutes to find the 600 year old temple, and Santhanam was waiting for us outside. I liked him instantly and after two weeks in India he felt like our first real contact. He looked at us with curious eyes but not like we were aliens.

“You need anything, you call me. We have a guard here at night so it is safe.” We both felt grateful. He was proud of his temple. “I am the manager at this temple. Before me, my father was the manager, and before my father, it was his father. Please I want to show inside. It is dedicated to the reclining Lord Vishnu.”

We followed him inside and he led us to the shrine of Lord Vishnu where we were greeted by Gopal Krishna, the temple priest. He looked like an exotic character on the History Channel. He wore a white lungi and decorated his forehead with a series of painted lines—a red one down the center and two surrounding white lines that merged at the ridge of his nose. We talked with him for some time and I liked him just as much as Santhanam.

“Welcome to India Sheena and Brad,” he said, and then dipped his finger in a red paste and marked our foreheads with tikka dots. On our way out I stopped to listen to two men play their trumpets in the temple’s inner courtyard. Their melody echoed through the building and instantly brought me back to the Indian wedding we stumbled upon in Kuala Lumpur, Malayasia. It was the same song.

We parked Nacho in the vast temple courtyard, surrounded by the ancient buildings. During the first night, I awoke and peered out of the pop top window. Surrounding the van, visible in the full moon’s light, were dozens of cows sleeping around Nacho. They were the town’s cows, which plied the city streets by day dining on anything remotely edible and wreaking havoc with traffic. At night, this was their peaceful domain. Sleeping at the epicenter of a sea of cows under a full moon was surreal, although in the morning we noticed that one of them had eaten the corner of our bamboo mat, which took away a bit of the appreciation.

We awoke the next morning to a frenzy of activity around Nacho. The temple was bustling with worshipers and we were in the middle of it. “Can’t we just stay in Nacho all day?” I suggested. I was still having India stage fright. Unfortunately I knew we’d have to emerge because it was sweltering inside of Nacho. We opened the sliding door to a sea of colorful saris and curious eyes. Gopal Krishna was waiting to greet us into the day. “Brad and Sheena! Good morning!”

I learned quickly that Mahabalipuram is not some secret tourist destination, it‘s a World Heritage Site and with good reason. According to inscriptions, the monuments found here are the sculptural legacy left behind by Pallava kings Mahendravarman I (580 – 630 AD), his sons and their descendants. The King was a patron of fine arts and the area served as a leading port in ancient times.

Just outside the temple we stood face to face with the world’s largest bas relief etched into the side of a boulder. It depicted a scene of Hindu mythology that springs to life during the rainy season when the cleft in the rock, representing the Ganges River, flows with water and drains into a tank at the boulder’s base. All over the hillside were other boulders scraped and sculpted into shrines and caves and stone columns, and their walls too were covered in stories of Hindu mythology. It was spectacular. A man followed us through the ruins.

“To your right is the world’s largest bas relief.” Brad and I exchanged looks and then cut him off.

“Sorry but we don’t want a tour guide.” He seemed hurt.

“I am not a tour guide. I’m a student and I have a shop that sells rock sculptures.”

“Sorry we’re not interested.”

“Please just come to my shop.”

“No we aren’t shopping. We just want to walk.” The rock seller left, but was almost immediately replaced by another rock seller, and then another.

At the top of a ridge which sloped downward into a grassy field we came to another interesting site—“Krishna’s Butter Ball”—a comical name for a giant boulder, precariously balanced on the edge of the hillside. We retreated into the maze of boulders where billy goats hopped carelessly on the sides of boulders while scores of monkeys headed to their daytime hideouts. We explored more and hid under a tree as the weather changed instantly to a downpour of rain.

We walked to the beach, drank coconut water, and finally walked back to Nacho. On the other side of the van a homeless family had set up camp for the day. The children bombarded us before we had time to retreat into Nacho. They held their palms upward and pinched their fingers together.

“Money! Money! Money!”

We distracted them with games and Brad taught them how to play Stingbee, which caused them to erupt into laughing fits. Soon, however, their mother saw they had made no money and screamed at them to return. She gave us the stink eye and we returned the gesture. They left and quickly returned looking even more desperate.

“Money?”

We coerced them into playing more Stingbee and then retreated into Nacho.

The next morning we were invited to Santhanam’s house for coffee. His home was just outside the temple’s wall, set back a little and tucked between two buildings. He saw us from inside and excitedly waved us into the inner courtyard of his home. This courtyard was surrounded on all sides by pillars and doors. The walls were decorated in posters of Hindu gods and goddesses and the back garden was dominated by a deep well and a giant tree.

He pointed us toward his bedroom. “Please take a seat.” He turned on the ceiling fan and left to make us coffee. He came back carrying a tin tray with three cups of coffee. “The shops in town don’t make such good coffee. That is why I wanted you to come here. You are the first guests I have had in my home.”

We felt honored. A few hours later as we were set to leave, Santhanam presented us with a few unexpected gifts: a set of postcards of India, another set of Mahabalipuram, a yellow felted Hindu necklace, and a small framed photo of Ganesha. “You must put this in your van. Ganesha is the god of travel and he will protect you on your journey. Please do call me in the future. You are now my friends.”

We felt so fortunate to have met Santhanam, and while he didn’t know it, we had met him at the most perfect time. He had shown us a different side of India, one that we both needed to see. We all walked together to the temple. As we started Nacho and prepared to leave, Gopal Krishna emerged from the temple.

“Good morning Brad and Sheena! It has been a pleasure to have you at the temple the last few days. I wish you the happiest of journeys!”

And with that we were off. Maybe India wouldn’t be so bad after all.

 

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20
Dec 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 21 Comments

Cars Honked, Cows Ate Trash, and People Stared

Nacho arrived in Chennai Port aboard a mighty container ship after having floated from Bangkok to Singapore, and then across the Indian Ocean to India’s Central-East coast. The logical procession of events would have had Nacho unloaded from the ship so that we could be on our way, but in India logic has no place.

Our shipping agents were right on top of things from the start, quickly delivering our Carnet de Passages—a sort of passport for Nacho—to the customs agent for processing. But the first day went by with no action. And then the second and third days. And then four, five, six, and seven. Every time our agent asked Customs if they had done their job yet, they were told “tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Sheena and I passed from being “amused by India” to “under siege by India.” Day after day we renewed our hotel room on Triplicane Road and made our sojourns into the city for what we shall call “cultural experiences” to the chorus of cars honking, cows eating trash, and people staring at us.

After our first trip to the beach we realized that beachcombing wasn’t any longer in the cards for us on account of our status as extraterrestrials and the constant pestering that that brings. Our walks in the city became one-hour jaunts—expeditions, really—into frenzied and overwhelming territory filled with aggressive touts and beggars, and where our white faces marked us not as people, but as walking money, causing everything to cost double and people’s hands to magically open, palm up. These outings required immense mental preparations and were followed by evening bouts of PTSD.

One evening I took a picture of some children dancing, and then offered them two rupees in thanks. The rupees were snatched, and I was immediately mauled by at least a dozen street kids who poured out of the woodwork like angry wolves in a bad horror film. They hung on my clothing and limbs while I tried to escape, demanding more money. In my rush to get away, during which time Sheena and I lost each other, I was dragged into an ankle-deep gutter filled with fecal goo wearing only my sandals. I barely kept myself from concurrently barfing and slaughtering the kids, and the event was infuriating enough to send me into a two day funk. As the days passed and these events began to multiply, we became jaded, and I only partially emerged from my funk.

All the while cars honked, cows ate trash, and people stared.

One day a new face appeared at the hotel—that of Tatjana, a petite twenty-something German girl with blond hair and blue eyes. It seemed to us that Tatjana never left the hotel, a fact verified by Tatjana herself when we invited her out to lunch.

“I haven’t left the hotel in two days,” she said as we entered the restaurant a few doors down from our hotel. On her first day she had attempted to walk to the beach, but upon exiting the hotel became surrounded by twenty Indian men who proceeded to grope her body while one man tried kissing her neck while she walked. She looked to passersby for help, but everyone simply watched like dead-eyed spectators at a cricket match. She retreated to her room and refused to leave, and had been subsisting on granola bars that she brought from Germany. We wondered how she would cope during her planned six month stay in India.

On the morning of the eighth waiting day, ten days after we’d arrived in Chennai, I called our shipping agent. I could tell they were disappointed, but they told me to hire a cab and come by the office anyway. When I arrived, two of the agents got in the cab with me and told the driver how to get to the customs office.

As we approached the office, they explained to me that the customs agent was purposely ignoring us day after day, most likely expecting some kind of bribe to get him to do his job. By bringing me along, they hoped to force his hand. I was to be used as a sacrificial lamb in a fight against corruption and ineptitude. Our plan seemed destined to succeed.

When we got to the customs office, our shipping agent entered first and then grabbed my arm and pushed me into a chair in front of the customs agent. The agent was in his late twenties and appeared to be in a state of repose. He put down his newspaper when I sat down.

“This is a foreigner,” our agent began, “and he has been waiting for four days to get his car from the port [a gross understatement]. He is foreign. We would simply like for you to process the foreigner’s paperwork.” He repeatedly placed emphasis on my foreignness, perhaps so that I would be felt sorry for. It didn’t at first have the desired effect.

“Who do you think you are!?” the customs man began, addressing our shipping agent. “Do you think that you can pressure me? I have superiority! I am your SUPERIOR! Besides, it’s after 4:00, so it is impossible to process this today.” This was the part where the angry tribesman nonchalantly slices off the sacrificial lamb’s head. I closed my eyes and waited.

“Yes of course, you are my superior, sir,” our agent said, backpedaling a little bit. He had to play the game, and he had to play it with British imperial mannerisms. “I wouldn’t dare pressure you, as I am merely a shipping agent and you are a customs agent. I simply wish for you to accompany us to the port so that we can help this foreigner get on his way.”

The customs agent settled down a little as the praise was lavished on, and finally reclined in his chair. He had saved face, and waited a few moments before continuing. I stroked my doughy soft neck with my hand.

“I will accompany you to the port, but only because of my graciousness. It is my decision, do you understand? This has nothing to do with your demands.”

“Of course, sir,” our man said.

Awkwardly, I was to share the back seat of my cab with the customs agent on the hour-long journey to the port. I put on my cheery face and used the hour to make friends and bring him up to speed on our trip. I knew that a customs approval in India could get ugly really fast, so having the agent on our team would be critical. We arrived at the port and got out at Nacho’s container.

I climbed inside, fired up the engine, and backed Nacho out for inspection. I stood there looking dopy with an innocent smile on my face. This was intentional. After a cursory glance around the outside, it was time for the interior inspection. Nacho was supposed to be completely empty, as the Carnet only covers importation of the car and a few choice accessories.

“Ready to have a look inside?” I said cheerily, and then slid the door open to reveal our treasure trove of undocumented belongings. “Here she is, surfboard, clothes, this is a toilet, shoes…” I smiled at the agent and shoved my hands into my pockets like a bumpkin, and then stepped aside.

He looked dumbfounded. He checked the list of approved accessories, and then peered inside again. He turned to someone and whispered, “None of this is on the Carnet.” I pretended not to hear. He looked over at me and I smiled. After a few minutes he gave me the motion to close the door, and we were done. Bullet dodged.

But it wasn’t over. No, this is India, and it’s never that easy. I drove Nacho back into the container, it was re-sealed, and then a truck moved it a few rows over, where we would come back for it the following day to retrieve it.

The next day, after a couple of hours of paperwork, it was time for the grand finale. We opened the container, and prepared to remove Nacho. In true Indian style, the moment that the doors were opened people emerged from the woodwork and surrounded the container to watch. All work at the port seemed to cease, and I emerged to the blank stares of a dozen dead-eyed onlookers.

I had noticed a small pool of brake fluid under one of the rear wheels, so decided to stop just outside of the port to investigate. Sheena and I drove out and found a small, empty parking lot where I could work. I decided to start by checking my tire pressure, and I hunched down next to a wheel. Nothing out of the ordinary.

When I stood up to move to the next wheel I was shocked to find more than a dozen Indian men surrounding me, staring. I stared back, confused. Where had these people come from? This place is like the Twilight Zone. I walked over to the next wheel and the mob silently followed me, staring, as if witnessing for the very first time how man makes fire. I hunched at the second tire, and the mob stood directly over me, straining to see the pressure. They followed me around to each tire, and then waited in Nacho’s doorway as I found my tool kit. I crouched at the rear wheel, and the men stood over me. Nobody spoke. Occasionally I looked up or waved, but they stared back at me as if I were an alien. When I had finished I stood up, hot, sweaty, dirty, and hungry.

From the car, Sheena handed me a portion of briyani  wrapped in newspaper, and I stood in the middle of the mob of men and opened it. They stared at me. I stared back. They said nothing. I said nothing. I scarfed down the briyani with my hands, all the while being watched intently by the mob, only inches from my face. I played their awkward game.

When I was done I looked around, turned, and got back into the car as awkwardly as possible.

“Bradley, please don’t set up the GPS right now,” she pleaded. “Let’s just go down the road a little.”

I agreed, and we rolled onto the congested, dusty street. A hundred meters away, where there were clearly no people around, I pulled over and started dialing in our destination on the Garmin. I leaned forward as I searched the map for our hotel, but after a few seconds something didn’t feel right. It was as if there was a presence of something nearby. I paused, and turned my head. Inside of my window, right behind my head, three Indian men stared intently at the GPS.

We were officially in India with our own vehicle. A place with no concept of personal space, where traffic is dizzying and dangerous, and where we are literally regarded as alien creatures. A place where Sheena can’t be left alone, where we’ll always have to be on our guard. Perhaps to the greatest extent thus far, we feel very far from home. We rolled on, eager to leave town. Meanwhile, the cars honked, the cows ate trash, and the people stared.

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15
Dec 2013
POSTED BY Brad
POSTED IN

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 15 Comments

India Overload

Our plane landed in Chennai in the dark and we exited the airport into a calamitous mess of bodies. Touts hurried from passenger to passenger trying to round up business for the taxis. We were swept up in the chaos and found ourselves cramming into the back of an old Ambassador with a velvet headliner and ornamental drapes hanging above the windshield.  The driver gunned it and we heaved into a thick torrent of box trucks and taxis and motorcycles. We fought the urge to fall asleep aboard this Indian death rocket while we listened to our cab mates: a couple of idealistic young hippies who were on their way to becoming enlightened and certified as ayurvedic healers at a meditation retreat with their internet yoga guru.

One hour later we were deposited in front our hotel, a ramshackle heap of brick and mortar that we’d been required to book online in order to receive our Indian visas, and which looked nothing like the pictures, nor did it seem “quaint and inviting.” The cab driver did his best to cheat us out of more than the agreed rate, but failed and drove away with the hippies and their guitar.

The hotel man was kind, and walked us to our room—a mosquito-infested, moldy, dank hole in the corner of the dilapidated building. The beds were hard and clammy, and the air stunk of deep, pungent body odor. It was as if the humidity in the room which soaked the walls and sheets was not water, but a fine mist of rank armpit juice. Throughout the first night I would repeatedly wake up gagging, as if a big sweaty Indian man were smothering my face with his sour, repulsive armpit. This was a rude awakening after five weeks in our posh, fluffy white Bangkok apartment; we weren’t in Kansas any more.

In the morning I sought out a general store that sold incense sticks, and burned them continuously the following evening. Our room had neither mosquito nets  nor window screens, so we slept with the windows closed to fend off dengue fever. The room quickly filled with incense smoke, making it hard to breathe, but every time I awoke I was relieved to be asphyxiated by hippie-smelling smoke rather than by a big, wet Indian armpit. When our booking ended in the morning, we hastily moved to a less repulsive hotel.

Out on the street, Chennai could be described as no less than a complete and brutal assault on the senses. There were no in-betweens; the traffic was suicidal and unforgiving, every car continually blasting its eardrum-splitting aftermarket horn; the roadsides, alleys, and street corners were ankle-deep in rotting trash; the street gutters were filled with a black sludge formed by a concoction of human and animal excrement mixed with stagnant water, urine and dust. The sidewalks were unusable, filled with parked motorcycles, shop inventory, or else replaced by deep crevasses filled with black goo.

There was never a time that the place didn’t smell. It fluctuated depending on location, so walking in a straight line brought a rainbow of odors ranging from decomposing garbage, to mutton briyani, to burning plastic, to chana masala, to cow poop and the overwhelming wet odor of copious amounts of human piss baking in the sun. But it never smelled like nothing.

Cows roamed the streets, rested in busy intersections, shat on sidewalks, and swallowed plastic bags like they were weeds while dining on the trash heaps that filled every nook and cranny of the city.

But amid all of the slime and stench and ear-splitting noise, Chennai had a saving grace—it was fascinating. We had found a place with more color and life than any place we’ve ever been. Men with wooden staffs and white robes hobbled down the middle of the street, beautiful sari-clad women traveled in packs, people in cars honked incessantly at one another, but waited patiently as enormous cows sauntered along in front of them.

One night we were awoken from our sleep in the middle of the night by the sound of drums and eerie horns outside. We jumped out of bed and ran downstairs and into the street to see what was going on at such an hour. When we emerged into the empty street, we found a group of men carrying a giant statue of Ganesh the elephant-faced god down the street. A band of musicians walked in front while women twirled around, flapping their vibrantly colored saris in the night air. A shirtless man walked up to us and handed us some sweet pongol in cups, and then the procession left us behind. We ate our pongol, sauntered back upstairs, and fell back asleep, as if it was all part of a dream.

The food in Chennai was life-changing. Every day we emerged from our hotel and found our way to one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants lining the chaotic streets. Sometimes it was simple, as in the case of Briyani Boy, who had invited me to take his photo. He served mutton briyani into a page from the day’s newspaper, and then we would stand on the sidewalk eating it with our hands. Other times we sat inside of sweltering restaurants while fans pushed the humid air around, and we gorged ourselves on mouthwatering curries and South Indian specialties like dosa, idly, puri, or the all-you-can-eat South Indian thali. Always we ate with our hands—but only the right, as the left hand has a single and kind of gross purpose in India, and is not to come into contact with food. We drank masala tea, served in steel cups and poured back and forth between the cup and deep saucer repeatedly from such high heights to mix and cool it before drinking. And invariably the most expensive entrée on any menu hovered around a dollar or two.

And then there were the people. People watching in Chennai became our favorite pastime while we waited for Nacho to arrive in the port. Each day we would emerge from our hotel with the camera in search of people. Four shops down there was a hole in the wall where men sat around a crude machine. One man cranked a large wheel while another sat on the ground sharpening knives and scissors against a spinning piece of stone. Seeing my camera, they invited me inside, told me the story of how Ghandi used to spin thread for his own clothes, and let me take a bunch of photos. Next door a young man stood proudly in front of his briyani pot, spooning portions into steel bowls for his hungry clients at fifty cents per meal. He asked me to photograph him serving up some briyani, and then offered me lunch. On the next block, peering into an open gate revealed a young girl in her school uniform watching the boys exercise in the yard before class. When I turned to leave, a beautiful woman who was seated on the curb asked me to take her picture. And down the block the story continued.

But the intrigue that strangers feel for us is both a blessing and a curse. One afternoon we walked from our apartment to the beach. Along the way we met a homeless family, and we made small talk. They were thrilled when we wanted to take their photo, and excitedly handed Sheena their bare-bottomed baby for the occasion. Arriving at the beach, we walked a hundred meters across the sand where mobile popcorn stands were painstakingly dragged through the deep sand, young Muslim and Hindu couples strolled, and people huddled in the shade of the dozens of abandoned wooden carts dotting the sand.

As we strolled, young groups of boys began approaching us. They would ask us where we were from, and then quickly ask for our photo. They had no interest in me; the bottom line was that they wanted their photo taken with Sheena. At first this confused us, but we were later told that they simply want to take photos of themselves with white girls so that they can post them on Facebook and claim that they have a white girlfriend. Now if anyone wants a photo, they get both of us or neither. This may seem like a small annoyance at first, but once we reached the waterfront we couldn’t walk more than twenty feet without being stopped by a different group of boys wanting photos with their new American BFFs.

After becoming quickly overwhelmed, we retreated toward the street. In doing do, we found ourselves behind a bunch of abandoned shacks, and soon a dodgy looking man fell in step behind us. We could tell he was behind us, but thought nothing of it at first. After a while we passed a trash pile, and the man bent over and picked up an empty glass bottle. He fell back in step and got really close to us and we could feel him burning holes in the back of our heads with his eyes. Sheena stopped and turned to me.

“I’m feeling uncomfortable,” she said.

“Got it, let’s go,” I said. We turned around and walked past the man with the bottle. As we passed him he got angry and threw the bottle at a shack and it burst into pieces. We speed walked out of there and made our way back to our hotel feeling a little exhausted, and a little jaded.

What can be said so far about India? It’s too loud, too stinky, there are too many beggars and touts, the traffic looks to be the worst we’ve ever encountered, and some of its people have a tendency to be inappropriate. But on the other hand, it’s possibly the most interesting place we’ve been, everybody is a intriguing to look at, and some of its people can be very kind. This is going to be an interesting place, if not more than a little overwhelming.

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