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.


21 Comments

  1. mashoud

    Brad,

    Are you kidding? You’re saying nobody told you ” India will shock you to no end, make you cry like a baby and laugh your guts out…sometimes all of these at the same time.

    However, this is Mumbai where kids will gather around you speaking gibberish and pointing to your shoes and while you look down to make any sense of it, the rest would empty out your backpack. Yes, really. Happened just before my flight out and no passport. That’s when you cry and kick yourself at the same time.

    But wait, get the hell outta this hell-hole and you will have some laughs down south and north. But don’t ever trust any gibberish nor any promises.

    And lastly, watch out for Montezuma’s revenge. That is when you will be most vulnerable.

    Take good care of your self and Sheena.

    mashoud

    Comment by mashoud on December 20, 2013 at 6:48 pm

  2. Ada

    This morning, I’m feeling satisfied participating in your adventures from afar! I can’t wait to hear what it’s like outside of the city. And what of Tatjana? Is she still in her hotel room? Stay safe! xoxo

    Comment by Ada on December 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm

  3. Ada

    …and in a parallel universe, today is pajama day on the last day of school before Winter Break. There is a gingerbread house building party. Chaos around the world.

    Comment by Ada on December 20, 2013 at 8:48 pm

  4. Rob Wilmoth

    Hi Amigos,

    Greetings from snowy and frozen Northwest Colorado.

    During your global ramblings I’ve found myself completely envious of your adventures. Now ………. not so much. Ha!

    I’ve got a few friends that consider themselves “travelers”. They’ve traveled all around the world, for decades, with no home base to speak of. If one asks them about “who they are” ……….. they’ll answer “I’m a traveler” with no hesitation. These friends will all admit that India is a tough nut to crack. They’ll tell you that they return to India each time with hesitation and reservations. Yet they return. They’ll also add that traveling through, and living in India, will change you profoundly. And usually for the better………

    Safe travels and good luck. Thanks for all the voodoo, that you do!

    I immensely enjoy following along with you two and your adventures. Gracias for that! Looks like you two could use a beer. Get one for Tatjana too.

    Rob

    Comment by Rob Wilmoth on December 20, 2013 at 10:45 pm

  5. Rob

    India, a place with a lot of people that has been there for a long time. All I know about it is what I read on the blogs of travelers.
    Right now it doesn’t sound like a pleasant place….I hope it gets to be less threatening once you get out of the city.

    Comment by Rob on December 20, 2013 at 11:13 pm

  6. Sue

    Well, your trip doesn’t start out to great, making you want to run! Curious people? To say the least.
    I, personally, have never been to India, but many people in my life have, and they always go back! Obviously NOT to the places that you have been, like the port to get Nacho (I am surprised that she wasn’t stolen). You will find the most amazing places and the most amazing peoples in your future travels but remember what “mashoud” said and never trust gibberish and promises, that’s not to say you won’t meet at least one that you can trust, like maybe a fellow Volkswagon lover.
    Remember, don’t drink the water *insert smile here.
    Be strong my friends and look after each other.
    S

    Comment by Sue on December 20, 2013 at 11:20 pm

  7. Anoop

    Guys, I have been following you progress over all these years… Am truly amazed at your perseverance and am jealous of your journey.. Good luck for all your travels. After all this time, I chose to add in a comment, and the reason is that, you both are in my City.

    Triplicane and part of the city you are in is the old town. It is an old settlement and personal space is non existent. If you guys are in the city of a bit longer, I would suggest the Youth Hostel, at Indira Nagar. It is a very good option and parking would not be an issue. 7km south of the beach you guys visited. A comfortable part of the city to hang in or stay would be a locality called Adyar.

    My parents might have one of their properties vacant and they would love to host you, if you guys plan to stay in the city for a while. Let me know your thoughts. I will message you a “must see” list in south India over the weekend when i get a chance.

    P.S Both of you have an awesome story telling ability, I love to read and re-read your posts.

    Good Luck with your travel. Stay safe.
    Anoop
    anoopkrishna.r@gmail.com

    Comment by Anoop on December 21, 2013 at 1:18 am

  8. Mom

    I would hate to think that foreigners who visit the USA, who first land in, say, Los Angeles, would not think this city was an indicative of the rest of our beautiful nation. I hope your adventures OUT of Mumbai help you to see why many people want to return to India, and return again! Please be safe, and carry a big stick!

    Comment by Mom on December 21, 2013 at 1:21 am

  9. great post! I am rolling with laughter because it’s exactly what we, and every other traveler to India, faces! Such a complete disregard for personal space, the staring, the men making the chirping noises at me, someone being constantly in your face…..and that is when you’re not stepping in an open sewer or cow dung or being peed on by monkeys… oh, good times! And yet, amazing how we’ve never felt more alive than in that chaotic craziness.

    Comment by Rhonda on December 21, 2013 at 2:02 am

  10. Meta

    Accidentally I discovered your travelogue. I have been to many places in your journey, but never have I read something where I have nodded in agreement, throughout your South east Asia trip.

    Thanks for sharing

    Comment by Meta on December 21, 2013 at 6:56 am

  11. natraj

    Hello there, i commend you for experiencing india through living in places where average indians dwell and driving along,rather than staying in a gated star hotel where the affluent and educated group hangs around etc.Kudos
    the culture of india has been exposed to sudden capitalism for last 15 years or so compared what it experienced the previous few centuries, and only the educated upper class and politically powerful class are changing their lifestyles to that of advanced countries
    for some reason , majority follow a caste system where someone is superior by birth even with same skin color,which is highly condemable, in this day and age, which leads to more apathy when they see so much suffering around them, they tend to attribute it to karma- you reap what you sow- albeit they believe in bad karma from past life, which is ridiculous and anyone seen suffering, is felt sorry, for a little time and they console themselves, saying may be the suffering person has curse from a previous life or a bad deed
    they are also confused by questioning for the first time in centuries the presence of god , karma etc i think.
    you cannot forget that india’s problem is as also due to high population compared to the area it has, thrice the population of usa with one third the area with a non capitalistic life till recently, and of course a self inflicted poor urban infrastructure which is inexcusable. so much garbage lying around in 2013 is just awful,i accept
    america had capitlaism for long long time and am sure it had its birthing problems and poverty etc,like london had a disease problem with sewage overflowing in many places due to rapid expansion and commercialisation in the previous centuries,leading to outbreak of plague(according to discovery channel).
    the majority of indians still embrace half heartedly, a non-capitalist life, accepting all its physical sufferings, while showing apathy to people enjoying materialism, even when materialistic indians flaunt their money amidst poor indian settlements which are often located side by side,
    even then, with such poverty, you dont see many poor people shooting or killing rich people, as much as you see in the western countries.here the poor might attack the rich or rob them here but generally dont cause bodily of fatal harm like in the west..yet(fingers crossed)
    india is seeing money flowing in like 15 years or so and has no time for gradual capitalism,like say kfc is already there in many indian cities, now starbucks coming etc unlike usa where usa people saw for a long time the corporations grow to the gigantic size for many years etc
    abt harassment,india may be a sexually hypocritical society where public display of affection, discussing sex are still taboo. one can say due to the majority of internet videos etc showing white women in all kinds of sexual way, people in the third world india have the wrong impression that all white women are sexually liberal etc without emotions and welcome ungentlemanly behavior from a stranger, so may be thats also one of the main reasons your acquaintance Tatjana was mobbed inapproriately and others etc
    I have lived in usa for a long time, till sometime ago, and i understood a lot more about usa when in stayed in many states,poor neighborhoods, rather than just driving through many states there or affluent cites.
    i already have typed a lot and hope you get the gist of the problem.
    note:-when you have time try to see a film called samsara-2001-it wont help a lot, but help understand the apathy of majority of rural,village indians to modern life i think, i am no expert, but life is a journey i guess not about the destination,
    —and humans also tend to just follow what the hip,trendy,good looking , upper class ,affluent human lifestyle, but in a non-perfect way, i guess, monkey see – monkey do…..
    hope this helped and wishing you a good educational,third world indian experience………
    natraj

    Comment by natraj on December 22, 2013 at 1:55 am

  12. Chris Sanor

    We understand, but much less of a culture shock in Kerala where we were there to kayak. We do remember the village showing up to watch us assemble our folding kayaks. The Perrier River and canals were teeming with people and small boats, all curious of our alien selves and our Feathercraft folders. I can’t imagine driving there, we hired a cab for the trip which came with a driver! A lovely Hindustan Ambassador ( similar to a 1950’s British sedan ). You are surely the only Vanagon/Subaru on the sub-continent. Continued good luck!

    Comment by Chris Sanor on December 22, 2013 at 5:19 am

  13. Pat

    Wohoo! you should ship back Nacho to Bkk!

    Comment by Pat on December 23, 2013 at 12:06 am

  14. Wish we could follow you into India but we are broke. India was our next stop but it looks like the USA and Canada are going to be the end. Enjor your travels. We’ve been to India and you’ll get used to being surrounded ! Its rather like Ethiopia in that respect. You don’t know where the hell they come from !

    Comment by overlandbirds on December 25, 2013 at 6:05 pm

  15. Ernesto

    wowwwwwww siempre me sorprenden

    Comment by Ernesto on January 3, 2014 at 4:31 am

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  17. @Mashoud, people did tell us to watch out for India, but we thought they were just being sissies. Guess we were wrong. For the record, we were in Chennai, not Mumbai. Chennai is a bit more chaotic that Mumbai, but nevertheless we found that every place in India was full of touts, trash, and scammers. We had isolated bits of enjoyment here and there, but all in all it was usually hard to enjoy ourselves. It saddens me to say this, but that’s the way it was. I don’t think it was an issue of not having an open mind, or coming with high expectations, as we’ve been through 20 countries on this drive and have gained an expectation about how humans should treat each other. Everything just fell apart once we got here.

    Comment by Brad on January 9, 2014 at 5:33 pm

  18. Thanks, @Rob Wilmouth, we really needed a beer after this! However, I don’t think we’ll ever be coming back to India…

    Comment by Brad on January 9, 2014 at 5:35 pm

  19. @Anoop, it’s too bad that we didn’t reach out to you before we arrived in Chennai, as we undoubtedly would have had a better experience. Unfortunately our blog lags behind “reality” by a few weeks usually due to the time it takes to write and produce the stories. By the time we got your note we were long gone. Thanks anyway for the kind gesture.

    Comment by Brad on January 9, 2014 at 5:39 pm

  20. @Natraj, we had lots of conversations with educated Indians that we met here that brought to light lots of the points you mentioned in your comment. The sudden rush from agricultural subsistence to city life and the money grab really had a hard-hitting negative effect on the visitability of India. Everywhere we went we were met by upturned palms, corruption, and scams. There were a few notable exceptions, of course, but after two months in the country those negative memories will stick with me. It’s important to understand these things when visiting here, but understanding them doesn’t make it any better.

    Comment by Brad on January 9, 2014 at 5:44 pm

  21. Chintan

    Man its the same for Indians who might do something odd or out of the ordinary for the aam aadmi (common man). Its scary for me to take women out sometimes, you can’t do shit if she is being stared down, or eve-teased… its just sad and disappointing that we are out of control and senseless. I have no heart to defend my people…coz i’ve almost been clobbered to death for getting lost in a grassland!
    Hope you guys had a better time in the next blog… :-)

    Comment by Chintan on January 10, 2014 at 4:56 am

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