In 2006 I travelled across a large part of southern India. I always meant to write down some of my experiences and then I never got around to it, until today! Hurrah! So, I shall begin with the beginning where I landed in Chennai, which used to be known as Madras. I had already had quite an exciting time getting there as my plane had to be grounded for three days in Sri Lanka, so I was able to stay free of charge in a top notch hotel, not very far from a beach which was hit by the 2004 Tsunami. I strolled the length of this beach where many hundreds of people had lost their lives and tried to imagine how it must have been. The Sri Lankan people are diminutive in stature, polite, attractive and extremely welcoming so although my brief visit was poignant, it was also very nice.
I met my then partner at Chennai airport which was milling with thousands of people. Having never travelled to a country like India before, there was a lot for me to learn about how to behave and what to do to try and avoid being ripped off or at the very least being hassled to buy things we didn’t want or need. We had already back packed together in south America so we were quite seasoned travelling companions. We made good travelling companions, it was just a pity much of the rest of it didn’t work. Anyway, we always took our Bible with us, the Lonely Planet guide and identified a hotel which looked reasonable. All the small hotels in Indian cities are very basic with showers that are often tepid, beds that bewilderingly, have woollen blankets in such astonishing heat and which are commonly damp because of the humidity but we didn’t care. We were so enthralled with just being there, we booked in and went out walking to explore. Here’s a travel tip; it is possible to book and pay for your taxi in many parts of India at a sort of pay station, it’s a good way to avoid being conned and also, when you ask a taxi to take you somewhere, make sure before you drive that they are absolutely clear about your destination otherwise you will almost certainly wind up at a hotel which is paying them to take you there and not the hotel of your choice. Then they generally tell you to come in anyway as it is their brothers’/cousins’/uncles’ hotel and it can sometimes feel a bit churlish to say no.
When we went out walking, we were immediately surrounded by lots of very small children who followed us for some time giggling and chattering to one another. We were holding hands and although it’s customary for two men to hold hands in many parts of India, or two women, we even saw two female police officers strolling along holding hands, it is not acceptable for a man and a woman to hold hands. It produced a lot of staring and some disapproving looks so we quickly realised and gave up on that one.
Chennai is a large, bustling city. There are loads of interesting shops and ancient architecture, markets packed with all sorts of colourful produce and of course, tailors’ shops. India is famous for its tailors and often when you visit, you will be stopped in the streets by a man or woman speaking perfect English, inviting you to come and visit their brothers’/cousins’/uncles’ clothes shop. As a general rule, I became very polite at striding in a forward direction and saying, “no thank you.”
On the streets are people selling many different types of food and delicious things to drink. My favourite drink was barley sugar juice, so refreshing on a hot day. The long fronds of barley sugar are put through a mangle and the juice dribbles into a glass. Chai, which is a spiced Indian tea, is also delicious and only a few pennies a glass. When we stopped to drink or eat, people often asked us about our cameras and mobile phones. It became clear that what we had paid for our mobiles was often more than twelve months’ wages to the street vendors. Our very favourite thing to eat was a ball of puffed up bread called Poori, about the size of a small balloon, when you break it open it is filled with hot, spiced potato and is absolutely heavenly even for breakfast. We sat eating them many an early morning while the mossies tried to get around the mosquito coils and have their own feast courtesy of our ankles.
India assaults you on all sides, it is extremely shocking sometimes, I had never seen such levels of poverty, such a poor infrastructure, for example, open sewers running down the middle of main streets and so many people, some with appalling disabilities and diseases, especially leprosy, begging on the streets. India is also immensely colourful, vibrant, beautiful, and wondrous it is without a doubt, my favourite place. In Chennai, the main stretch of water running through the city is known as the Buckingham Canal, it is a fabulous breeding ground for Malaria and all along it`s banks are tiny huts made from sticks and mud and sheets of old cardboard, where entire families live. It is almost unimaginable how they find enough food to survive. At night, when it has gone dark, homeless families begin to take up residency actually on the streets, they fill up the pavements in family groups and light small fires to cook by. Naked babies sleep under the stars on banana leaves while their families eat and play around them on the pavement. In the morning, they are gone.
You can see pictures of my travels in southern India by visiting my photo’s page on Myspace. http://www.myspace.com/nellypitt