Backpacking, Chennai, India, Making friends, spirituality, Travel
I fell in love with you and I cried (Chennai part three draft chapter for book)
On our first day in Chennai we had noticed how pushy the rickshaw drivers were. Crossing the busy roads was hard enough and made harder by rickshaws slowing down for us and offering us a ride. Although our guesthouse was in a quiet street, this joined the main street and on the corner there were always lots of rickshaw drivers who seemed insulted by us not using them. After a few days we stopped and talked, they said, ‘Every day you walk past us, every day you don’t use us.’ We explained that we were usually only going a little way up the road to eat, and that we had to get at least some exercise. They seemed satisfied then, and we agreed that we’d use them if we were going further afield. Out onto the main road turning left, past the big white mosque then just a short walk on broken pavements or in the road and we reached the juice bar and the place we went to for breakfast.
As always we had quickly created a little world of familiarity. Twenty four hours in we had eaten at the same place for breakfast twice, eaten dinner at the restaurant where they stared at us twice, and visited the juice bar twice. My favourite juice bar drink was called Mayflower, made of kiwi and lime. In restaurants I ordered sathakudi juice because I had never heard of it before, it’s also called sweet lime juice.
For breakfast I had Pongal, again because I had never heard of it before, an almost-impossible to finish dish that felt like eating the creamiest mashed potato, although it is actually made from rice. I told Y about it and said I thought it would be the ultimate heartbreak comfort food, he laughed and said at his work they call it the sleeping pill, as it makes the students sleepy. For dinner we ate Sambar idli as an extra, ‘famous’ at the restaurant, and Sambar vada, lovely comfort food that even came in dear little mini versions. I also ate tomato oothapam which looked kind of like a pizza. There seemed to be lots of coffee, and some places only did coffee, no tea.
Where we were in Chennai, as compared to where we were in Varkala, some things were not quite so easy, we couldn’t just take our devices and chargers to the nice tourist restaurant, plug them in over dinner and use the fast internet to catch up on social media and download something to watch; the local places did not have WiFi or charging points.
One day, late afternoon-early evening we walked to Chennai beach (pictured), this involved turning right onto the main road, in the same direction as the restaurant where we ate dinner, walking along a very busy main road with no pavements, negotiating our way through rickshaws, scooters and other pedestrians. Past street stalls of food and plastic tat, and glass fronted air-conditioned shops selling the most beautiful gowns and long embroidered men’s jackets, in my fantasies we’d dress like that. At the crossroads we turned left, instead of crossing over to the restaurant or turning ‘right at the flower garlands,’ which led to the market.
We passed more shops and restaurants, cows eating out of garbage, banana street sellers, then onto a main road with wide pavements. We passed people living on the pavements with shelters, cooking equipment and even a chicken. We walked through a subway and came out onto another main road, crossed over and arrived at the beach.
When we see something for the first time, we see it through the filters of our own experience, comparing it to our own familiar versions.
Chennai beach was nothing like any beach we had seen before. It was huge; long, wide and flat, it is the longest natural urban beach in the country according to Wikipedia. There were numerous closed up little stalls about the size of a packing crate, covered in tarps. I thought maybe it was because it was out of season, but Y told us afterwards that it was only open properly in the evening; we were there too early.
There were a couple of plastic roofed stalls with a few chairs and tables selling snacks and drinks with a few customers, and only a few other people around. We were the only foreigners. In the distance near the promenade wall was an encampment. A man went past us on a horse, he made the horse go fast past us as if showing off. Along the main drag of stalls were two men with balloons-on-a-board-with-guns stalls set up. ‘Give me a break, give me a break,’ the man kept saying to us as we went past. My husband almost had a go, then stopped, suddenly realising he didn’t want to potentially be centre of attention. Something about the atmosphere made us uneasy.
A boy was selling strange ginger coffee from a flask; it was very milky and tasted of ginger but only faintly of coffee. We were on our way back to the road when a child ran out from the encampment towards us. Close up they were absolutely filthy, impossible to tell if they was a boy or a girl. They started tugging at my arm. A man from one of the stalls threw a stone in the child’s direction and they ran off. A moment later another smaller child came running but by then we were almost at the road.
On the way home I bought some bananas from a woman with a stall at the side of the road. I said thank you in Tamil, wrongly and she corrected me (Tamil is hard!) and fed the bananas to the cows eating out of garbage. It’s something good you can do that’s less complicated, many things are complicated but this isn’t.
The night before we had gone to the market for the first time. Stalls on either side of a narrow street sold tomatoes, piled high and such shiny bright red, almost irresistible. Other stalls sold bananas, onions, or different kinds of fruit and veg. I saw long green vegetables that I’d never seen before that looked at first glance like enormous runner beans. Some stalls sold only coriander, walking past the smell was wonderful. Other people sold fruit and veg off blankets on the ground. In the midst of it all was a little temple with statues of the God with animals in bright colours, and a little shrine with candles.
I am not that confident in markets in UK, I never know how much to ask for, but here I just handed over a 10 rupee note and pointed to the tomatoes. I got a big amount, I ate a couple, and bought a bunch of bananas from another stall. Then we went down the backstreets and fed tomatoes and bananas to the cows. I did this a few evenings while we were in Chennai, it was one of my favourite things to do. Helping people a little by buying things off them, and feeding the cows, some of whom are painfully thin, and all of them at risk of obstruction, illness and death from eating plastic bags that food is thrown away in. The feeling of standing amongst garbage, feeling a cow eating softly out of my hand was spiritual, bittersweet.
I hadn’t been able to find a hand cream to replace my beloved Hemp hand cream and so when someone told me that there was a Body Shop in Kochi I was very excited. My husband looked up the locations on maps and rang them all up but they were out of stock. We tried again in Chennai, this involved a trip to the mall near where Y lived so we arranged to go there and then meet up. We got an Uber there as it was cheap and comfortable for a longer journey.
We drove through an area like nothing I’d ever seen, shops like old-fashioned British front room shops but smaller and more like warehouses; like loads and loads of mini individual scrapyards, chock-a-block to the roof, with tyres and all kinds of auto parts. I guessed that people fixed their own scooters or rickshaws, or had a mate who did. My husband had read that Chennai was called the Detroit of India; driving through this area I could see why. Later we hit the main road and saw lots of bright lights, including a framework of coloured lights making a Ganesha; the sights from the window a mix of old and new, rich and poor.
We got dropped off at the Mall and found the Body Shop. I was so excited that I accidentally knocked over several of the hand creams that were standing on their ends, and one went down the back of the display, causing the shop staff and the security guard to drop everything and try and rescue it. I apologised profusely of course and seemed to be forgiven.
They only had one tube and that was a tiny handbag sized cream as if I were being told, Okay, if you really think you have to have it, have it, but you really need to get with the programme of using local stuff. We ate really bad mall food- microwaved insipid versions of familiar Indian dishes- and watched people be in the mall, shopping and eating crap, just like in the West.
We got a rickshaw from the mall to Y’s house. We’d been unable to negotiate reasonable prices with the rickshaws in Chennai, even when Y told us, ‘Pay this to this, tops, and that’s being generous.’ He was shocked when we told him how much we’d paid to get to his.
Y lived in the top apartment of his landlord’s apartment block, and we sat up on Y’s roof space with his landlord and family enjoying the lovely evening breeze and the views of Chennai. I spoke a lot to the daughter who was nearing the end of High School. She laughed when I told her my dress was made out of a lungi. I talked about psychology, not a huge profession in India, and occupational therapy, also fairly small with posts often staffed by Europeans… About Indian squirrels and how I think they look more like chipmunks, and we all talked about Alvin and the Chipmunks, a surprising point of familiarity for all of us.
Indians walk side by side fearlessly even when there’s no pavement and Y was the same, walking and talking with us from his to the restaurant. Re crossing the roads Y said: ‘In Delhi you put your hand up. In Hyderabad you make eye contact with the driver. In Chennai you just walk out and the driver will make the adjustment.’ I was still terrified though.
After dinner we went back to his. Y called Broadlands for us as they normally have a ten pm curfew. He spoke with them in Tamil then told us they’d said, ‘It’s okay to come back late, Rachel and Anthony can come back anytime.’
Being at Broadlands provided our first real taste of backpacker sociability. Downstairs outside the office and backing onto a little courtyard there was a seating area where the WiFi worked, with an old sofa, two metal folding chairs and a low wall that doubled as a seat. This area was an informal meeting hub, most times there was either someone there or someone came along at some point. C from Detroit said ‘I’m not normally very sociable but every time I sit here, I end up chatting to someone… its nice.’
C had been in India for six months and had travelled all over setting up links with crafts people wanting to export to the US. C was a Christian and had a beautifully warm and positive attitude towards both his fellow human beings and the way the universe worked; believing in opportunities and in going with the flow. We shared our stories; C on his ex wife: ‘She had her own problems, but I thought if I could only love her hard enough…’ and we made a strong connection.
We met a young French couple, a man and a woman, she spoke to my husband about her experience of Kolkatta; seeing lots of people sleeping on the streets had upset her. She’d expected to find backpackers to socialise with but found that there weren’t many around and those that were weren’t that friendly, mirroring our experiences in Goa and Hampi.
The man talked to me about clothes, about Western versus Indian dress. I told him I covered up. ‘But is it for you or for them?’ he asked. It’s a hard question to answer, both, I suppose, it makes it easier for me, by making it easier for them.
We met D, an American who had lived and worked for nine years in China before coming to India. He had just spent nine months in an Ashram in Varanasi learning Sanskrit. ‘It’s not like you can order a cup of tea in it, it’s not used like that, it’s to better understand the mantras, when the meaning is known they are easier to remember.’
My husband asked him in a quiet moment, why are you here (in India). D said, ‘I don’t always answer this but you seem pretty cool so I will. I’m after self realisation and I’m not leaving until I get it.’
There was an Italian man next door who had been in India for twenty years, he said he was unwell, he was very thin, so he was going home for health tests under the free health service. He had spent time in an Ashram, he spoke about his master and said, ‘You must go there.’
We met a South African man just once briefly while we were waiting for our cab to the bus to Pondicherry. He had lived here for fifteen years. He asked us straight away, ‘Has India changed you?’
‘It was what we had to do to get here that changed us,’ I said. ‘Leaving everything, dismantling our lives there.’ Or I could have said, Everything changes us, all the time.
On the other side of us was an Italian woman, a yoga teacher. We got off to a slow start. She told me not to smoke outside my room on the step because the smoke got into her room, which was fair enough and I stopped. After a few days she did chat to us a bit, but didn’t have anything good to say about where we’d been- Kerala- ‘That’s where everyone goes’- or where we were going- Pondicherry- ‘Full of Westerners, it’s not really India.’ When we came down with our backpacks to go to Pondicherry and she saw our yoga mats she said, ‘Do you do yoga?’ sounding really surprised.
‘People underestimate us, maybe I shouldn’t mind, but I do.’ My husband said. Sometimes we feel more vulnerable than others. We talked about it later. Re people we meet who trigger stuff for us- firstly note that our perceptions can be at odds with their intentions, just as can happen vice versa. From the start I said to myself she could be getting divorced, or anything. We really know nothing about people we meet, but the fact that emotions are brought up is helpful for growth and can be explored. If I feel people underestimate me or think I’m boring or whatever is it because I think those things about myself. Through meeting those people these feelings are made solid for me to address and to learn from. Other people help us deal with our own stuff in more ways than one.
We are still in Koh Phangan, Thailand, same place as last week. We have a friend from the UK with us now and tomorrow we all move to a different part of the island, nearer a proper town, less partyish, and right on the beach.
After working hard whilst I was on my own for four days, I then gave myself four days off. I worked on this week’s section on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. My realisation/motto this week has been: Don’t overload the branches, sections, paragraphs, sentences.
This has meant I have sloughed off bits to be written about later. Which has also helped with time management. I have also given just brief outlines of some aspects, particularly people, that I will go into in greater detail for the book. Time management, again.
Thank you very much for reading
See you next week