India: Land of bustling bazaars, colorful saris, ancient temples, dreadlocked holy men, fragrant curries, annoying touts, unpredictable transportation, and just a hell of a lot of people. The country is huge, so from beaches, to hill stations, to Himalayan mountains there is a little something for everyone. Among travellers the Indian experience is perhaps the most polarizing on the planet. Love it or hate it, the country certainly draws strong opinions. And I think that is what allured me here in the first place, to see first hand what it’s like and form my own opinion.
After a month in Myanmar I flew back to Bangkok and applied for my visa to India. And let me tell you, they do not make the application easy. I have never filled out a more in depth application in my whole life. They ask everything from your parents’ names, jobs, and birth places to things like work history, every country you’ve ever visited, and identifiable body markings (webbed toe!). Other things required are specifically sized passport photos, flights in and out of the country, and hotel bookings upon for your city of arrival. The flights and hotel booking part also completely contradicts one part of the application that says you should not book your entry into India before obtaining your visa. My first attempt was rejected because I didn’t book an exit flight (I told them I was taking a bus to Nepal). Obviously when you’re traveling the country for a few months with no real set schedule you don’t know the exact date you’re going to leave, but there’s no getting around Indian bureaucracy!
Fortunately I had read that the travel company across the street will book your flight, print the reservation, and then cancel it for a small fee. Good ole’ Bangkok. They give the people what they want! So armed with my fake flight from Delhi to Kathmandu I tried again and this time my application was accepted. While it was processing I waited in agony while lying on the beach on the island of Koh Chang. All in all it took nine days to process. Nine days I had to wait in the heat of Thailand sun on those annoyingly sandy beaches. I discovered that meanwhile everyone back in Chicago was having the time of their lives frolicking around in a snowy winter wonderland. Life isn’t fair, but oh well. A few days later I boarded the cheapest Air Asia flight I could find and was off to Chennai, India!
Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu, the large province in SE India, and considered by most travellers to be a massive hole. Regardless, I wanted to give it a chance, as cities that are big, crowded, dirty cities often have some interesting street photography opportunities if nothing else. My flight arrived at 10pm and after some trouble at immigration about my lack of a hotel booking (I cancelled it after my visa application was accepted) I made my way out of the airport and into the sticky Indian air. They had prepaid taxi booth, which was nice, as I wouldn’t have to deal with those notoriously slippery taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers on my first night. I went to the main tourist drag and found myself a halfway decent hotel for 900 rupees ($15) a night.
As I ventured out of the hotel around 11:30 pm the first thing I discovered in India was the street food as well as the level of English proficiency. I stepped up to the street stand a little apprehensively because I hadn’t bothered to look up any Hindi words, and didn’t even know what the word for hello or thank you was, but I was greeted with a warm “Hello, what you like to order?" In smooth, accented English. I had an omelette, chapatti (fried bread), and a tea, all of which cost a total of about 50 cents! After being asked all the questions I would come to know very well in the following weeks (What is your name, Where are you from, How old are you, Are you married? etc) We had a nice little chat about what Chicago is like, and then I went on my way.
What I hadn’t realized going into India was that Indians speak excellent English, especially in the big cities. I guess I just figured it would be like the other large, culturally diverse countries I’ve been to where the people first learn the local language (in this case Tamil) and the national language (Hindi) followed by English. I didn’t know that for many citizens English is basically the national language. They were a British colony after all. So that works for me!
The next morning I headed down to the hotel restaurant and got acquainted with South Indian breakfast. To the inexperienced observer it looked like vats of gravy accompanied by plain donuts, tortillas, and rice. In fact it was dhal (lentil soup), tomato chutney, and coconut chutney, with chapatti and fried bread rings (I still don’t know what these are called) to dip in the sauces. The first thing I realized was that I didn’t know what the proper eating etiquette was. I looked around and watched the Indians devouring their food. Everyone used their hands, well more specifically their right hand (the left hand is the dirty hand) to tear the chapatti into small pieces (harder than it looks) and thoroughly dunk it in the dhal or shovel heaps of rice into their mouths, which is also somewhat tricky to do without spilling. It looked like a messy affair. I chose to stick with silverware for the rice.
After breakfast I headed out the museum, which cost 250 rupees for foreigners ($4) and 20 rupees for Indians (33 cents). Cameras were prohibited and had to be put in a locker, but the thought of putting a couple thousand dollars worth of camera equipment in a shitty little Indian locker room didn’t sound very appealing to me, so I decided to take a pass. I headed instead to the old town, which is a frenzy of shops, narrow streets, and crumbling buildings. The first thing I noticed was how many variations in clothing style there were. The young men mostly wore western style trousers and button downs, but the older men often wore the more traditional skirt-like lungyis, while the muslim men wore their white hats and white smocks (I need to look up some words). The women almost exclusively wore brightly colored saris, except for some of the muslim women, who donned the full on black burkas. The children were in nice looking school uniforms, and they had just gotten out of class for the day, so I was getting a lot attention. Walk around any untouristy part of India with a big camera in tow and you will have an endless supply of men and children clamoring to get their photo taken. I found this amusing at first, nowadays, not so much.
The other thing that you notice is how chaotic the roads are. Crowds of people fight for space in the narrow lanes with motorbikes, bicycles, autorickshaws, and wieldy bullock carts. Absolute chaos! You feel like your going to get run over by a speeding motorbike about every 10 seconds. They probably wouldn't run you over, but they're damn good at bluffing. And if there is a pileup of people trying to get through a clogged up street, people will literally come up behind you and push their way through. It’s a dog eat dog world out there.
And the honking! It is ceaseless! In India honking is like sonar, it’s used to let everyone within a 50 foot radius know that their vehicle is coming. Even motorbikes going down a completely empty road will beep every few seconds just to let anyone who might possibly be entering the road know that they are there. All the trucks say something along the lines of ‘Please Honk’ on the back so they know when someone is behind them or going to be passing them. Peace and quiet anywhere near the street will not be found.
It was definitely an interesting afternoon. For the sunset I decided to head down to the city beach, which is more of a carnival rather than a place to go swimming. There are small rides, balloon shooting games, horses, cotton candy vendors, and lots and lots of people. Very few people go all the way in the water, but for many standing ankle deep and letting the waves splash them seemed to be quite the exciting pastime! I was basically adopted by a family (some people seem to really really like talking to foreigners) who kept me well fed, and somewhat captive for a good part of the evening. Two of the guys actually went in for a dip and were very disappointed that I wouldn’t go in with them. Getting all my clothes soaking wet while leaving my camera bag alone with a bunch of strangers, yep, that sounds great!
Well that was my day in Chennai. The following morning I flew off to Kochi, on the SW coast in the state of Kerala to start my long overland journey northwards. Unfortunately I'll be off hiking in Nepal for the next couple of weeks so I won't be able to update this blog, but I'll have a lot more posts after that. I promise!