We prepared a feast for eight on Saturday: Indian cuisine. I’ve been warned of eating “a la carte” at street vendors, and there’s the infamous “traveller’s diarrhea” that leads to hours on the toilet, if there are any toilets. If I’m really lucky, I can ingest a hungry bug that will suck all the nutrients out of my dinner and eventually turn me into a walking twig. People have been telling us that we will lose weight in India, until the feast.
Vicky, who has been to India twice, told me that she gained weight her first visit: 10 pounds. One would hardly notice 10 pounds on her. Still, her clothing squeezed her enough that she could not deny the truth. How did she manage to accomplish it? Deep fried bread! Lots of chai: not low fat, not soy, not unsweetened.
However, she managed to curtail her love of fried breads the next trip, and to ask for chai without sugar. The result was no weight gain. So, shall I indulge in fried bread? Oh yes! The sugar I would not miss, but the bread? That I would regret not eating, at least a little. Still, it’s good to know that if Vicky loved the food, then there is good food to enjoy on our journey.
I understand that foreign visitors either love India, or leave on the first flight home. Richard is of the former persuasion. What that means is that he tells me only small amounts of information, so as to ensure that I’m not catapulted into the second group through shear fear and loathing.
The latest revelation was quietly inserted into our bedtime discussion last night with an understatement only a satirist would enjoy. He said, “The beds aren’t very comfortable in India.” Right. That translates into: “Expect to sleep on a lot of floors. If there are any beds, they will be as hard as concrete. The floors will be more comfortable.”
Our friends, Nichola and Jean Francois, who were in India last year, have advised us to take toilet paper. Great. No coffee. No toilets. No toilet paper. No pillows. No beds. However, you get “bed tea” every morning. And I understand the iced coffees are pretty good. So, there’s hope yet.
We’ve packed our bags. I swear, most of our baggage contains unctions and ointments to ward off evil insects and intestinal bugs. I’ve packed one extra pair of socks, two smalls, one pants, two shirts, a pair of light PJs. Believe it or not, I can take my crochet with me. I checked. Well, they allow you to take pens on board. A pen is no more lethal than a plastic crochet hook, in the right hands.
We have the house/cat sitters in place. We have one more day of rain. We have an overnight with friends in Vancouver, and then we fly Cathay. They have rice cookers, woks and such on board. You can eat any time you want. Too bad the movies that are on offer are mostly bad Hollywood tripe. Fortunately, Richard has his MP3 player crammed with music, audio books and films worth watching. And I have two Cadfael books to enjoy on the trip.
What to do when your pre-paid taxi drops you off unceremoniously in front of a nondescript building at 3:00 AM, which looks closed? Afore mentioned edifice is supposed to be where we will be laying our very weary heads, but after much shaking of doors and rattling of locks, my reward is a very disgruntled and sleepy watchman who does much of the circular shaking of the head accompanied by unwelcome words sounding horribly like “full, no room”.
At this point our trip now becomes an unofficial adventure. my companion is not amused, as this is her ceremonial entry into India. After travelling for 26 hours, she’s keen to rest. However, there are benefits to having no room waiting. Just down the street a welcoming beacon of light invites us to one of the marvels of india… the chai stall.
Dragging our belongings along Triplicane High Road, I breath a sigh of relief and ease my bulk into the one small booth inside. I can’t stop ordering chai. It comes in small gulp-size cups, hot, sweet and spicy. Just what the doctor ordered. As we sit sipping, the world awakes. A posse of auto-rickshaws convene for a brew. We watch a cart pull up across the road with small bits of kindling. There isn’t a tree in sight, so who knows what city park had been recently denuded.
Our taxi ride from the airport was one of the least hair-raising yet. Possibly the collection of miscellaneous parts known amusingly as an Ambassador Taxi was barely capable of life-threatening speed. I’m not usually around at 3:00 AM, so it could be that the city does really slow down. As expected, the driver, having assured us of knowing precisely where the Hotel Himalaya was located, got hopelessly lost. Down serpentine streets looking for any auto-rickshaw drivers who could be summoned for directions. The circular head movement can mean many things. I’ve yet to meet an Indian who would admit to being clueless as to location of your destination — but they generally are. All very well intentioned but not particularly useful for successful direction finding. Give me Google Map any day.
There’s something divinely comforting to sit surrounded by the sweet susurrus of Hindi. Always accompanied by much smiling. If chai be happy juice, these guys — for the clientele is exclusively male — must be getting their fair share. The Hindi is accompanied by a continuous sloshing of water. Despite the appearance of actually being in a landfill, individual dwellings are generally spotless… as are the inhabitants. Other than being a head taller, westerners always stand out as the most unkempt, slovenly lot. We even have access to hot water, but we don’t seem much better for it. There’s grime a plenty — my red backpack became black after 6 months of exposure to every known filth in this country.
We are staying scant blocks from the worlds longest beach – outside of Australia. This factoid comes from Suresh, our new best friend. He comes equipped with a shiny new auto-rickshaw – or three wheeler – the ubiquitous form of transport around here. as westerners we are fair game for anyone selling anything, so his invitations to ride are almost swallowed by the background. However, his beguiling smile and excellent English win me over, and before long we are racing through the streets in what he affectionately calls his”Ferrari”. Actually autos are far speedier than would be his namesake. They can be maneuvered by hand in the inevitable traffic chaos. these situations generally include a melee of bikes (powered and not), autos, trucks, buses, pedestrians, cows – all vying for the same few inches of space. generally accompanied by much waving of hands, indecipherable exhortations, the we are off again on the racetrack.
Inevitably our guided tour being deposited in “friends” gift stores. Most drivers have kickbacks arranged to deliver guileless marks into such emporiums. Suresh lets us know entreatingly, that if we buy big his daughter will get a free dress. Generally its my policy to avoid such wallet-emptying places. To the newcomer, still thinking in Canadian $, it’s be-dazzlingly cheap. however, I have hardened myself to equating one t-shirt (probably made in China) to several days living here. We make polite noises and flee, empty handed.
Three hours and 150 rupees later ($3), we stagger off the auto. Meanwhile Suresh has arranged a special “Pongal Puja” for us. Pongal is a local festival, where it is – unbelievably – even noisier than usual. we discover that he has a”program” arranged, which involves leaving – right now. I am on sensory overload – in a scant few hours it seems like i have lived a several lifetimes. We have had a walk on the beach to see the sunrise, with bashful bathers frolicking in the sea, we have had our first breakfast in India – scrumptious egg dosas, idlis and puris, all cooked up in a minuscule kitchen right on the street. Followed by our guided tour. Plus jet-lag from 26 hours of traveling. so we negotiate an hours reprieve from “The Program”, slurp down a couple of pineapple lassis, and snatch 40 winks.
I have to say that i have never experienced anything like the openness, hospitality and sheer bigheartedness of Indian people. Ambu – Suresh’s sidekick, bundles us into another auto and takes us down ever-narrower (and busier) side-streets to his home. This consists of a tiny concrete cubbyhole , smaller than our hotel room, occupied by a cast of hundreds. We are treated like royalty, fed with special Pongal food served on a palm leaf, washed down with “sof dreenks”. We meet the whole damn family, take a zillion photos with Karen’s camera, then are led through the neighbourhood akin to visiting gods. Karen delights the assembled crowd – mostly men and children (women designated to domesticity) by doing a Bollywood dance routine to the accompanying sound track. Before long the whole street is alive with a hand-clapping chanting chorus. Its right out of a movie – unforgettable.
Whenever I have encountered such outpourings of generosity i feel so graced, lucky to be alive, and I never know how I can repay. Not that it’s expected. I imagine the roles reversed. would I open my house to complete strangers and shower them with gifts I could barely afford? I would like to think so. However, it reminds me of an unkind remark made by our Canadian bus driver en route to Vancouver. He wondered aloud why we would go all the way to India when “we have got enough ragheads over here”. I fear that may well be a typical reaction. We leaved draped in dazzling cloth, amid waves, farewells and entreaties to visit again. O lucky man, I think.
I am sitting in a hot cubical at an Internet cafe. At least this one actually has high speed. But the men at the counter look at me and smirk. I’m the only woman here. It’s after 8 pm. The sun set at about 6. We ate mushroom masala dosai and then had a pineapple lassi. Food to live by.
We arrived at the Chennai airport at some ungodly hour, and waited for an hour to get through customs. Richard pre-paid for a taxi to take us to the Himalaya Guest House. The driver eventually found it. The Himalaya was not open. Richard banged on the glass door and rattled it until a sleepy man came to the door and told him there was no room at the inn.
Was I dismayed? You bet. But Richard pulled me up from the steps of the Himalaya and I dutifully dragged my tired body after him. He spied a small chai shop that was open down the street. I drank several cups of the sweet tea until I regained my strength.
What now? Richard asked how far the beach was: only a 10-minute walk. I wondered if the Indian sense of distance was as distorted as their sense of direction. But it was only a 10-minute walk. We followed a group of locals through a dark lane of market stalls. Our feet sinking in cool sand, we could hear the distant waves. Finally, we reached the ocean. We sat on this enormous beach in the dark, along with a sprinkling of people who stood next to the water allowing the waves to roll over their feet. Some young men and boys stripped to their smalls and dove into the waves. We watched the sun come up.
By the time we returned to the street where we had our tea, there were more shops open, and a few guest houses. The Himalaya was no longer the bargain Richard recalled from former visits. So we walked along a side street and found cheaper accommodations at the Cristal Guest House. (Yes, they spelled it “cristal”.)
This is more than basic: Indian style toilet; cold-running water and tiny. These I can handle. The thin matress clearly had seen better days and nights. I was more than thankful that we had brought sheets and pillows to use.
We were hungry again. As we headed back to the main street, a young man stopped us at the corner. He was an auto-rickshaw driver. Saresh asked where we were from and what places we were going to visit in India. His English was very good. Although we did not require an auto-rickshaw right then, we decided to seek out Saresh after we ate. We found a small stall that made breakfast dosai and rice cakes. Very tasty.
Finally, my first auto-rickshaw ride with Suresh. Exhilarating! These drivers know how to move through busy traffic. All vehicles have turn signals, but I rarely see them being used. Instead, Indians sound their horns and use a set of hand motions to indicate what they are doing. Traffic moves in all directions. Vehicles do not stay on their side of the street. They weave in and out, and somehow manage to avoid one another. Pedestrians must keep a careful eye open when crossing streets or rounding corners. But so long as one makes no sudden changes in direction, the drivers are able to avoid one’s flesh and limbs.
Suresh brought us to a number of tourist sites: the beach again (still few people), the Shiva temple, and the St Thomas church. Then he took us to three different shops, in the hope that we would buy lots of goodies and he would receive a new shirt or clothes for his children. I’m afraid we were a disappointment as tourists. We bought a few small, light-weight gifts, but not enough to get him that new shirt.
Once we arrived back at the corner of our temporary home, Suresh arranged for us to go to a Pongal event with his friend Ambu. By this time, Richard and I were zombies, and begged off so we could have a nap. Ambu agreed to meet us at 1:00, and we returned to Cristal to fall into our beds for a short but much needed rest.
Our Pongul event was really a visit to Ambu’s home where we met his wife, children and sisters. His sisters lived next door, but each family lived in a one-room dwelling about the size of our kitchen, maybe even smaller. They had televisions. I notice that tv is much like tv in North America: a device to seduce the masses.
We received gifts of cloth, ice cream, Pongul rice and in return we took several photographs, hoping to have them printed for these generous people. I felt strange at first. These people work hard, and have simple homes. Yet, they really do enjoy sharing time and stories with foreigners. Still, when Ambu drove us back to Cristal, we gratefully fell once again into bed. It was 5:30. We woke the next morning at 6:00 am.
I recall the noise level rising at some point in the night: televisions blaring, people shouting, singing. None of it mattered. I slept until I had to get up to pee. This is a feat for one used to sitting on stable porcelain rather than squatting with stiff knees. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy a strange, black thing on the bathroom floor that turns out to be a cockroach. It’s about 2 inches long, and lies on its back, legs moving slowly. Apparently, half drowned by the continuously running faucet, it is too water-logged to flip over and scuttle away. I crawl back into bed. The cockroach is still in the bathroom in the morning, but a shower sends it down the drain.
One thing about the city shops in Chennai: they have lots of staff. Whenever you enter a shop, one sales person leads you around to see everything they have. They make such an effort that I suppose lots of shoppers buy out of a sense of obligation. Even when you directly tell them you are not interested in jewelry, they are curious to know why. But this is a sales skill I know to well. Answer them, and the they will always have a suggestion that will meet your need.
Problem is, I don’t need anything but lodgings, food and water. I have bought a few small gifts for our house/cat sitters but that is all I want. Still, shopping in India is fraught with eager sales people, bartering and finding the right shops. One store sells the same as the next, but the prices can be very different. For example, anywhere in or around Auroville, the prices are much higher than stores out of the tourist areas. But the problem with shopping in non-tourist areas is that many of the shops have poor quality items, especially clothing.
Still, the shirts I brought to India, although light by my standards, are actually too warm here in the south. I can’t imagine how hot it gets in the summer, but now it is like being in Ontario in the summer: hot and humid. I have kept an eye open for a shirt and pants made in very light-weight fabric: so far, the prices are too high. The shirts I have I bought from the Sally Ann, and so I don’t care how stained and torn they get. And that is the key: bring clothing that you can afford to damage or lose. Buy clothing according to your need. For quality and long-lasting items, expect to pay more. Don’t care if it lasts? Then spend the $5 on that bright red shirt with the elephants, but don’t wash it with clothing of other colours. Nothing is colour-fast here.
Unlike in the west, you will be served. Don’t get annoyed if they don’t listen to your “no thank you”. I found the best way to deal with such persistence is just to walk away. And haggling is fun. Prices are always higher for westerners, so I don’t feel bad knocking the price down several notches.