Welcome to India
I believe when we last spoke, your humble correspondents were pack tidily into a Korean airways flight to Mumbai. In what seemed like no time, said flight landed in Mumbai at what we were forced to begin calling 1:30 am. The first impression I had of India was that it was disorganized and completely ok with it. Also there was the head wiggle. It’s everywhere. It seems to translate roughly as “no problem.” And everyone does it. So after much confusion, wandering, and waiting around, we were shuttled from the expansive, and very much under construction, international terminal over to the domestic terminal. We waited around and drank tea from the “cafe coffee day” (as I understand it, a Starbucks competitor) until they opened up the domestic security scan around 5 am. There were separate lines for women and men, so we entered the men’s line and got scanned, then entered the gate. I say “the gate” in the same way that some might say “the terminal” because there is only one gate, which is gigantic, with multiple lines for different flights all fighting to get out the same exit. Then, passengers are bussed to different parts of the runway where their flights are waiting. The sun was just rising as we piled on the bus towards our flight, and in no time India was unfolding beneath us.
All the while, I succeeded in trouncing Scott repeatedly at whist. We walked out of the Chennai airport and into he morning heat and the midst of a giant crowd of drivers, waiving names written on cards.
We found ours at the end of the line, a young man who drove like a demon and spoke very little English. I quickly realized that driving like a demon was a prerequisite for any hope of navigating the boiling veins of traffic in Chennai. At first it was an intense fear of death by traffic accident which held my attention, but as near miss after near miss became the norm, I became transfixed with the sights around me.
The road outside the airport was busy, and crammed with cars, trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicyclists, and from time to time a spurt of pedestrians, forced into the road for lack of a decent sidewalk. Our driver spoke little, but honked often. It quickly became apparent that the honk of the horn in India holds a very different place than it does in the US and is polar opposite of Iowan horn etiquette. Here, the horn is used as a sonic pulse, sent out to alert other drivers of your position; in Iowa, it’s like the button like that which holds the potential of nuclear holocaust: right there in front of you but never to be touched. Slowly the scenery changed from crumbling urban proprietorships to open views of the ocean and and grass huts. As the air around us began to heat up, the driver asked to stop for a little snack, then again to wash up, we agreed and added in a stop of our own to photograph a salt producing operation.
We also passed school after crumbling school, all focused on technology and engineering. Our driver dropped us off outside the Hotel de L’Orient in Pondicherry, and we were immediately greeted by a man in flowing robes who served us a sweet and slightly salty lime tonic.
Refreshed, we were shown up to our room. The hotel is breathtaking, with a beautiful courtyard restaurant and a French colonial theme.
After no more than 5 minutes of collecting ourselves, we hit the streets. First thing’s first: we rented bicycles. The entire rental (two people; three days) was only 180 rupees, or about 5 dollars. Wheeling in Pondicherry, is quite the wild ride. Bikes, like the cars, must use their bells to alert fellow traffic of their position. The road is busy with the same assortment of vehicles, and one rides on the left to boot.
So naturally, I was frightened of dieing on this first day of wheeling in Asia, but as we rode, stopping to perform errands (buy a cellphone, some shirts to sweat up, handkerchiefs, visit Scott’s old pad), I began to feel what Scott describes as a “more heightened humanity” among the Indians. Each person that we interacted with was friendly, willing to chat, helpful, and seemed to give off a carefree stressless air. We stopped at one of Scott’s favorite restaurants for a thali, which was the tastiest thing I have ever had the pleasure of shoveling into my mouth with my bare right hand. By the end of the wheel I was ringing my bell like a madman and beginning to relax my fears of bodily harm. Sweaty and tired, we arrived back at the hotel to relax and write this post, grinning like buffoons, when we were confronted by the man at the door of the hotel, “a man in a jeep arrived at 1pm to talk with you, he is still waiting, let me go get him.” After some searching we finally found this fellow, who turned out to be the courier, send by our illustrious chief snake charmer and head of the Bangalore office, bearing our 1st A.C. tickets on the grand trunk express (stay tuned) to Agra, Delhi, and later to Varanasi (ditto).