It is hard to believe that more than a week has passed since my arrival in India.. loud, colorful, vibrant India. All the sights and smells and encounters seem to take up more space than a weeks worth of time. I arrived in Chennai after 16 hours of travel from Paris, with a layover in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Although it was a relatively brief 3 hour layover, it definitely marked the entrance into a new world; Remi and I were directed to opposite sides of the room for security checks: men in one line, women in another. I managed to get a few hours of sleep on the plane before arriving in Chennai le bon matin, walking straight into a wall of heat as I set foot outside the airport. We made our way to the local train, growing sweaty under the weight of our backpacks, hassled by the cries of all the taxi and rickshaw drivers. The adventure was just beginning. Of course, taking a taxi directly to the city center would have been much too simple, (not to mention way too expensive) so we squeezed our way into the train, to the surprise and I think delight of many of the Indians, many of whom gave us directions in broken but decipherable English. The train was packed! People sitting, standing, sweating: it felt more like a train for cattle than people. Yet everyone around us was friendly and accommodating, curious to see backpackers braving the train. One time we got off too early, but we quickly corrected our mistake and set off anew, on the right path once again. We transferred trains once, making our way to Triplicane, a neighborhood in Chennai that promised guest houses for travelers on a budget.
After a few attempts, we found guest house in Triplicane for a reasonable rate: the King Royal Palace. Palace might not be the word I would use to describe this hotel, where a few friendly cockroaches greeted us in our room, but the grandiose name was a (comical) statement in and of itself. We were situated right off High Road, one of the busy main streets in Triplicane, where there seemed to be zero rules of the road: between the cars, taxis, tuk tuks and bicycles ran the street at all hours without any seeming order. Other striking first impression: the filth! Garbage was everywhere, in the streets, in the train, in the water. Chennai is a coastal city, but the shore is covered in trash and even if the strong ocean current wasn't enough to keep people out of the water, I imagine the trash would be. A few people had warned me before my depart that Chennai was an unfriendly and uninteresting place to visit, but I was pleasantly surprised by the two days I spent there. It is true that Chennai is not a tourist city, but I liked that, especially for the starting point of this trip. People were surprised and usually happy to see Remi and I, as we blundered through the public transport system and got lost at night, walking circles around the street that led to the King Royal Palace. We visited our first temple and we enjoyed the carnavalesque beach. We met some really interesting and authentic people.
Street encounter, she practiced her English!
After two days, we were ready to move on, and we were excited to say goodbye to the cockroaches. We headed on to Kanchipuram, but not before an exciting ride on the city bus, which took us to the bus station. I had thought the train was crowded, but once I took a look at the bus situation, it turns out it wasn't so crowded after all. We squeezed in with our backpacks; this time the Indians were decidedly less delighted to see that we were taking up about twice the amount of allotted space per person. More offensive still, we had yet to learn proper bus etiquette! Only a bit ruffled, the Indians pushed us into place, at the front of the bus, where we were supposed to have been all along. We made it to the bus stand unscathed and with a rush of adrenaline, we were off on another bus, this time to Kanchipuram (and with air condition. Luxury.).
While I had bid farewell to the cockroaches, the Guest House in Kanchipuram was home to its own fine array of insects as well, although more so the nocturnal variety which we would find out a few hours later. We had settled in after a brief tangle with a local rabatteur, who had made off with 500 roupies (Remi had accidentally paid the middle man instead of the hotel). I was in the room, so I heard the scene from above and didn't particularly care to implicate myself in the proceedings. Remi raised enough of a commotion that the townspeople rallied, bringing in the guilty man with a look of shame on his face and the 500 roupies in hand. With that fiasco resolved, Remi and I set off to visit the temples of Kanchipuram. The city is a place of pilgrimage for Indians as well as foreign visitors, for its nearly 125 temples in the area. We decided to do the visit by bike. Renting bikes proved to be relatively simple, 6 roupies per hour and we just had to return the bikes before 9:30 when the shop would close. The shop keeper gave us a few vague instructions to start out and we were off! Into the craziness of Indian traffic, with me in a full length skirt, and reverse traffic rules (legacy of the British rule). After a few wobbly starts (that bike was heavier than it looked!) I started to get a feel for things, and after one corrected wrong turn, we arrived at the first temple, which was right in the city center. It was much bigger and more impressive than the temple we had visited in Chennai, and there were buses of Indians outside coming and going. The adventure continued, as we traversed the town to see two more temples, to the shock of the oncoming traffic. There were smiles and car honks, and even one older man on a motorcycle who pulled up next to me, all the while pedaling through traffic, as he inquired where I was from. A beautiful and thrilling experience all in all; the traffic felt much more navigable as a biker than a pedestrian and I'm already excited for my next ride. The night brought a different type of adventure, although it was of a less thrilling nature. The hotel was mosquito ridden by night, even with the windows closed tight, and the sheets seemed to crawl. Remi and I were awake all night, tossing and turning, and scratching! We were more than ready to leave when morning came.
Our next stop was Mahabaripuram, considerably more touristic than either Chennai or Kanchipuram. Mahabaripuram is a little town next to the coast thats known for its rock carving, located about 130 kilometers south of Chennai. Its a little beach town, with a relaxed vibe and its fair share of foreigners who come to vacation on the beach. Here, finally, we found our first clean hotel!! Clean, truly clean (and even better, no mosquitoes!). After a little bargaining, it was only a little bit more expensive than our usual price (350 roupies, about 5 euros). We relaxed with the pace of the village, happy to leave the craziness of Chennai and Kanchipuram where the streets were constantly filled with honking drivers and city noise. My favorite place in Mahabaripuram was a public park, about five minutes from where we were staying, filled with stunning sculptures. All of the figures had been carved out of enormous boulders that lined the park; imagine a sort of a rock field transformed into a sculpture-park. In certain places, entire temples, cave-like, had been carved out of the rock! We also visited the beach, an enormous stretch of beautiful beach, unfortunately also littered with paper, plastic, basically trash. All of the Indians congregated in one area, some braving the waves with glee, but always fully dressed. Our second beach trip, Remi and I came prepared to take the plunge, only with a few hesitations after having seen (and smelled) the city sewage that undoubtedly emptied somewhere nearby. These thoughts aside, we plunged in, refreshed by the ocean water. We stayed close to shore, since the currant was strong; I could feel how easy it would be to get pulled away.
The next morning we left Mahabaripuram, to make our way to Pondicherry, which promised to be interesting; the city has a long history of French presence and to this day it maintains a close (and somewhat unclear, at least for me) relationship with France. There are various French écoles and numerous signs in French throughout the city. The trip took us two hours by bus, a tiring trajectory especially since there were more people on the bus than seats. We arrived in Pondicherry and I still didn't have an appetite, even though I had yet to eat that day. Up to this point, I hadn't had any real signs of stomach problem or sickness, for which I owe thanks Mom and Dad and to luck for a strong stomach; street food is appealing for its variety and especially its price! But now, I was beginning to question my food choices: had it been unclean water? A chai from the street? I'll never know, but either way I was out for the day. After finding a hotel, I laid low, nursing a stomach ache and nausea in turn. Later in the evening we ventured out; Pondicherry doesn't have a beach, but there is a nice boardwalk by the ocean. The overall vibe of the city was an Indian-ized European city (which has become so popular among Indian tourists that staying for the weekend without a reservation is nearly impossible). Think streets on a ninety degree angle and boulangeries. Its appeal was somewhat lost on me, although Pondicherry did serve as a jumping off point for its neighboring city, Auroville.
While Pondicherry is known as the Ville Blanche of India, Auroville is something else entirely (although it does admittedly have one of the highest percentage of non Indian residents)- it is a sort of human experiment, living experience, blended with a certain type of spirituality. It is a relatively new community, envisaged by a German woman in the early 60s who is referred to as “The Mother”. She died only five years after the commencement of this project, but now her picture is throughout Auroville (or so I've heard, I have yet to actually see one). The basic idea, or at least as I understand it, is to form an international community that is simultaneously a spiritual community grounded in material projects. There are 46 nations represented in Auroville (or 43 depending on the day, the number varies depending on a Pakistani, Mococcan and Algerian, if one leaves the number goes down, one comes back it goes back up). Auroville is a large area of land, and while the Mother envisaged a community of 50 000, there are little over 2 000 that live there today. The largest group is Indian, which makes up 40% of the population. The next largest is French, at 30%. After that its mostly a mix of Europeans (notably Germans and Italians), some Israelis and a few Americans. And thats where I am now! More to come next about Auroville.
The first week in India has been a rush, an immersion in new colors, smells, language, and food. I have emerged (victorious?) from battle with the mosquitoes, newly armed with Odomo's cream, the local guard against these noxious predators. Never have I been asked by so many strangers (or any stranger I think for that matter!) to take my picture so regularly! I guess thats one way to leave a trace... I have been away from home for a month now, and I miss it. I miss my family, especially since its been hard to connect with the time difference. Wifi is few and far between and sort of shoddy in practice (ok really shoddy). This homesickness reminds me of what I am doing. It is hard to leave a place you love, even when you know you will return. Ultimately that is one reality of traveling; you are always leaving somewhere, constantly in transit. And I love what I am living. I am full of curiosity and questions, excited to look for answers that will only lead to more confusion and questioning. But that's the point.