21
Jan 2014
POSTED BY Brad
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Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 36 Comments

Fork Me: A Drive Across India – Part 2

<< Click to read Part 1

Every morning on our trans-India drive started out the same way; we awoke from fitful sleep by our talking phone alarm clock to the suffocating weight of reality pressing down on our chests. It was a terrible feeling, as if we had accidentally burned down the house with the entire family inside. We were damned to this fate, and there was nothing we could do to change it. After oatmeal and coffee we would tidy Nacho’s insides and then pull away from our petrol station camp spot to rejoin the decaying ruins of National Highway 7.
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19
Jan 2014
POSTED BY Brad
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DISCUSSION 27 Comments

Fork Me: A Drive Across India – Part 1

The distance from Hampi, India, to the Nepalese border is 2,200 kilometers, approximately the distance from Phoenix to Seattle. The plan was to drive to Nepal for the short trekking season, and then return to India later to explore the North.

“It’s only 2,200 kilometers,” I reassuringly reported to Sheena. “We’ll be yodeling in the Himalayas in three days, tops.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. If we had the power of premonition we would still have Lennon, the Pontiac Aztec would never have seen the light of day, and I would still have the will to live. But we don’t, and so we began the drive across India, blindly walking straight into the field of rakes.
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17
Jan 2014
POSTED BY Sheena
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DISCUSSION 7 Comments

Hampi Campers

A few weeks back when we went to our friend Santhanam’s house for coffee I brought along my India map, and he offered his advice on the must-see destinations in South India. While we sipped on coffee in his bedroom we worked through the map. He highlighted several places on the map that I had never heard of.

“The Thillai Natarajah temple is there, dedicated to Nataraja, Shiva, the Dancer of the Universe…”
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09
Jan 2014
POSTED BY Sheena
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DISCUSSION 13 Comments

The Onam Food Babies

Over the course of a few days we crossed the subcontinent from the Indian Ocean west to the Arabian Sea. We left Pondicherry, first stopping in Madurai to celebrate the birthday of the elephant god Ganesh, and then to the hill station of Munnar to escape South India’s heat. The ground rose from the desert plains like a strange goose bump until we were in the middle of a Van Gogh painting with fluffy clouds and Assam tea fields manicured in rows of stripes and swirls. The air smelled of freshly cut tea leaves and at 5,000 feet it was actually cold. I strutted around smitten with happiness in my sweater while Brad removed Nacho’s starter and reshaped its mounting surface with a file to fix some starting issues we’d been having.
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04
Jan 2014
POSTED BY Brad
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DISCUSSION 6 Comments

Nacho’s Ark

By the time we reached Pondicherry, we figured we had our system down. We’d drive into town and ask at the police station where it would be safe to camp. With all of the recent high profile rape cases here in India, this was no place to mess around. I’m squeamish, after all, and my worst nightmares revolve around me dropping soap in prison showers.
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23
Dec 2013
POSTED BY Sheena
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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
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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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