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Race to the Grand Trunk

We awoke this morning earlier than we would have liked after a charming evening with two ravishingly capable Indian women. I mean, of course, the lovely Mendakini and Jagruti, newly christened members of the AsiaWheeling team, and official Pondicherry field command. So you, dear reader, may find it no great surprise that we were awaking at this ungodly hour to have a fine breakfast with those same two women to commemorate our last moments in beautiful Pondicherry. By the time we got a call from Jagruti, we were sipping strong south Indian coffee, chasing it with Malarone, and reading the newspaper in the courtyard of the l’Orient.

Hotel Mornings

We parked our bikes outside a french restaurant, just as the two of them arrived on motor bikes. We dined like imperialists, with more strong coffee, soft-boiled eggs and homemade bread with rich butter and jam. We dropped off the bikes with some tinges of sadness. They had served us well in this city and we would surely miss them. Who was to know what unruly, or easily spooked cycles might lie in our future? We rode back, the four of us, on the women’s mopeds. It was not the first time that I thought it might not be so bad to simply spend the rest of my time on earth clinging to a hurtling chunk of metal, piloted by a beautiful woman. But nay… there is more more wheeling to be done before I sleep.

We packed quickly, and, in my case, somewhat frantically. Both Norton and I have been paying no small attention to the mounting evidence that malarone has a somewhat jittery anxious effect of the psyche. We settled the bill and made sure to leave our mark in the guest-book before we went outside to meet our driver.

The cab company, Selvi Travels, is was started by Scott’s former colleague Maran (we thoughtfully approve if his lack of a last name) so we were given a king’s treatment. It was our first time in an AC cab, and to be honest, I prefer to sweat, windows open, and feel like part of the world which I traverse. Regardless, it was the safest I have ever felt on the insane, lane-less roads of Tamil Nadu. On the way, our driver, a tenacious man named Shiva (the name of our last driver also… more data needed before we draw conclusions here, though) pulled off at a ruined temple complex, which had turned into a tourist bonanza. The temples themselves were stunning, and Shiva walked us to the beach via a secret back rout, so as to avoid paying the 250 rupee entrance fee. Instead we made our way to a beach where a little bazaar had been erected, and a a crowd had formed around the shore where largish waves crashed, disrupting the trajectories of the many swimmers which chose to enter those treacherous waters.

Ancient Stone TempleCarvings

This was also my re-introduction to the world of panhandling children. In my time in Russia, I had developed some utility in the navigation of aforementioned emotional and delicate situation. But these skills had all but disappeared and I found myself heartbroken and guilt-ridden as we were pestered by adorable starving children. Shiva did his best to keep these children at bay, but as we left, a child was still tapping on the window of our cab, and a thin woman was begging at Scott through the glass. It was about then that we realized the aforementioned drug interaction –perhaps between Malarone and caffeine?– was in full engagement. The two of us began to get nervous (about getting sick: India is many beautiful things, hygienic is not one of them), finding a place to stay in Agra, the looming vastness of the trip, our own fortitude. We stopped for a thali at a vegetarian restaurant by the side of the road, and Scott and I sat at the table, gripped by the mild, but persistent hysteria, and ate giant piles of rice.


A full stomach was no solution, though. What we needed was progress, a feeling of accomplishing something, of bending just some modicum of the randomness of infinity to our will. We needed the internet.

So we asked Shiva to take us to an internet cafe in Chennai. Though, he spoke essentially no English, the man was able to communicate to us that he had no knowledge of Chennai and wouldn’t know the first thinga about finding an internet cafe. Our cell rang and it was our good man from the clock and breakable nick-nack shop, calling to tell us that our Jaracks (the card proving that we had a residence and some legitimacy in India) was not 2 sided, and necessitated our return to his shop for some reconnoiter of the situation.. This, we attempted to inform him, was not possible due to our imminent departure on the grand trunk express towards Agra and the Taj Mahal. Upon hearing this he promptly hung up. At this time we still know not what the situation is with the insufficient jaracks, and whether at any moment, Airtel may simple cut our service. Please, dear readers, pray with us that this does not happen. For our mobile is our only lifeline to Tamil, Hindi, and Bengali speakers that may approximate directions to our motorized vehicle drivers and paternalistic civil authorities.

As our cab drove deeper and deeper into the throbbing and scattered nervous system Chennai, Shiva began to pull over and roll down the window, asking people in Tamil/Hindi/English where we could find an internet cafe. We asked pedestrian after pedestrian, each giving us uncorrelated directions. Twice we arrived at a cafe only to find it closed on Sundays. At our wits end, we finally rolled into Chennai’s swankiest, most sprawling, most confusing, beehive of a mall.

Inside the mall we found a microscopic version of the days earlier meanders. Shopkeeper after shopkeeper pointed us in conflicting directions, across multiple floors and “phases” (your guess is as good as ours) of the mall. Finally, though, we got there. It was like a drink of cool water after days in the heat of the desert.

Chennai Internet Cafe

Refreshed and re-fueled by the interwebs, we bid Shiva farewell at the Chennai train station, tipping him a sum that must have been close to his monthly wages, just as a 10 minute summer monsoon began to pour down in heavy curtains over the expanse pavement outside. We ran through the liquid onslaught and into the station. Indeed it too was a sight to behold, and another chance to sharpen my tolerance and composure under the assault of heartbreaking child beggars. As Scott once, I believe very wisely, said “giving money to panhandlers supports the market for panhandling.” Put another way, if one wants to help those less fortunate than he, that person is much better off giving money to an organization whose business it is to redistribute, invest, and create wealth, than to attempt to do such a fragile operation at the random whim of your choice. Such a philosophy seems sound to me, and paired with the fact that, once you have given a rupee to one child beggar, you are soon swarmed by the all the rest in sight, becomes attractive enough to simply embrace.

Reserved Waiting Hall

Now, laden with 1 box of English digestive biscuits, 4 huge bottles of water, 1 Sprite, 1 Pepsi, 2/5 bottle of Indian scotch whiskey, 10 pounds of digital technology, and a 1st AC room on the Grand Trunk Express, we are settling in to blog, rage on php/kml/css, eat the Indian snacks that are being sold by fellows wandering the train, and engage in our own special blend of railroad intrigue.

What are we listening to? Scott’s digging Luke Harris’ Day for Night Mix and Woody’s chiefing out on Cha by Steven Bernstein. Oh and of course our Tamil Classics.



  1. Megan | June 17th, 2008 | 3:01 pm

    I just finished fixing my bicycle and was daydreaming about my sister’s January wedding in Goa – and thought hmmm I wonder if Woody is in India right now…
    And ah you are! Love the post. So glad to hear you guys are having a good time. From the barren wasteland of suburbia to wherever you are right at this moment, i’m sending you good travel vibes!
    – Megan

  2. Woody | June 20th, 2008 | 7:35 am

    Thanks for reading, Megan. Wheel Safe!

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