Dec 2013

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.  We later rent a Lamborghini and got out just to get us enjoying the rest of the day. 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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Dec 2013

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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