If you breathing in lungful of fumes, masticating on mouthfuls of dust or balancing on a squat feeling as though the whole of your insides are liquefying and escaping from every one of your orifices pointing to the ground, you may be wondering what on earth you are doing in South India, but don’t despair, there is more to the place than pollution, dust and dysentery.
For years many have made the pilgrimage to India to find the meaning of life—hippies, new age, no age, freaks, gurus wanna-be, spiritual healers, escapees and every jack-ass wondering soul rejecting one reality to replace it with one of their own. For that alone India is a very generous place. Aside from accommodating all kinds of religions, sects and cults, India’s main faith generously offers a plethora of gods and deities for every occasion, unlike the stingier one-god varieties of other far flung places. And let’s face it, when it comes to discerning between the forces of good and evil, we really need all the help we can get.
The honourable battle between those forces is first played out outside of major airports, where auto-taxi drivers tell you that there is no public transport to where you want to go, while the good citizen insists on the contrary. In the shared language (English), which you are included, the conversation follows a pukey Anglo-Indian politeness and code of conduct, but in the local lingo exchange (Malaylam) between the interlocutors who have taken your interest at heart for varying reasons, the contest is a little more belligerent. Eventually the bus arrives and the choice between good and evil is quite clear.
So, jump on the bus that wasn’t meant to exist and get while the getting’s good on trek down the road to salvation–to Pondy, an incense burn away from Auroville, the once utopia dream that is now a reality, where everyone (of a particular colour and scent) is in perfect harmony and centered with the universe and its laws. With its rows of arts, craft, Indian clothing shops that no Indian ever wears and ayurvedic remedies for everything, ayurvedic massages, ayurvedic creams, ayurvedic toilet paper, ayurvedic balms, ayurvedic condoms, ayurvedic bakeries, ayurvedic vehicles, schools, software, beds, pillows, children and golf balls, Auroville is the Mecca of good intentions.
And yes, the imposing golden golf ball of Auroville, the impressive edifice built to reveal the meaning of life. Not ready for so much higher consciousness all at once and unwilling to sit through the preparatory short film, access to the golden ball was flatly denied by the custodians of the truth. This time resigned to stand in awe on the other side of the fence, like most locals, but sure to return in the next life as fast as an Indian can get the keys to the place for my share of enlightenment.
On the subject of fast Indians, the Fastest Indian is by far the most convenient way to get around. A fine example of Indian motoring engineering, the Fastest Indian is a four-stroke, slick, two-wheeler with the whole lot of 220cc of torque that can be hired for a few hundred Rupes per day. On it you can duck and weave in the Indian traffic, dodging cars, bikes, rickshaws of any shape and form, cows, goats, chickens and sundry wild life.
In the same day you can earn yourself a radioactive sunburn and be pelted by half of the heavens quota of rain for the season, but at least you are moving at your own pace, mostly avoiding the ubiquitous question “Where you from? Oh, Australia. Great cricket team. Do you know Ricky Ponting?” Ricky who? You mean the pub brawling, Tassie lad, who was sent to anger management courses to be sculpted as a great captain for his country and a role model for kids, and now writes cricket diaries that no one believes because every one knows that what goes on tour stays on tour? No, I don’t!
If you are feeling more adventurous and dyslexic, then consider the Royal Enfield, the pride of Indian motoring heritage. For as little as IR 350 a day you can hire this agricultural machinery that vibrates your teeth out of their gums, sounds like a constipated Harley, but if you can overcome the right being left and the left being wrong brakes and gears positions, it flies like a bullet, pot holes permitting. Yes, some of those are a real challenge, falling in one is easy, getting out of it is an exercise in mountaineering, if they are not filled with water, in which case expect the unexpected.
While the sights and scenery are breathtaking, the only disadvantage of flying through highways and back roads with the wind in your hair on a motorbike is that too much speed may prevent you getting in close to the people and the culture of the place. A simple remedy is to travel with a woman, because the attention she provokes can bring you as close as sharing spit with the locals and takes you to places you would certainly not have the privilege to see if you were a male travelling alone. In any case, why would you sit on a roof-top cafe’/bar, serviced by well trained waiters, when you can be unceremoniously ushered in the darkest, dingiest corner, closest to the toilets ‘for women only area’, and where staff answer to you (the male) even when she asks the questions, or give you the change when she pays the bill? Such is a man’s world.
In this man’s world non verbal communication is as important as the spoken garden variety. A case in point is the head wobble. Indian people are genetically designed to be able to swing their heads with ease and grace without moving their shoulders. A marvel of muscles and nerves coordination that allows them extraordinary head control, far superior than any other Caucasian. But in the non-verbal communication what does the head wobble actually mean? Preliminary investigations revealed ‘yes, I can’t’, or ‘no, I do’, but in the amusing toing and froing of attempting to have some requests met, it could also mean ‘no, yes, no, I would if I could but I can’t so I won’t’ type of thing. In the end when all else fails it’s the smile, eye contact and the nod that break all communication barriers, in this man’s world.
Can’t really have a man’s world without sport. Aside from cricket, the other national sport in India is groping. Yes, the perennial search for firm buttocks attached to a tourist body, preferably female and well shaped that can be quickly and swiftly squeezed before disappearing in the crowd. Unsure how the score is kept, the game can be played almost anywhere, train and buses being among the favourite playing fields, but also markets, bus stands, street corners, queues and every where you can stand up right.
To avoid feeling left out sometimes even men can be pawns in the groping game. On an overcrowded bus to somewhere, an old man saw fit to take a good grip of my private components. Firmly holding on as one does with the joy stick of electronic games minus the firmness. Bewildered by the attention, it took a while to register the occurrence and respond accordingly. In any case, the crowed conditions did not allow for too many options, one being a forceful move against a Saree filled with flesh, which the reaction could have been equally, if not more embarrassing. The pot holes and hard brakes of the bus ride eventually resolved the situation.
When the attention becomes too much to bear, the obvious escape route for a quite break is a restaurant, as most parks without an entry fee are often close during the hours of optimum use. I guess this strategy cuts down the costs of maintenance. In any case, restaurants are a fine option because Indian cuisine is remarkably delicious, if you can get it. Most restaurants have menus extensive enough to make excellent bed time reading, pages and pages of culinary delights, but somehow you always end up with masala dosa, paratha or idly, the latter if it is early in the morning. What about the rest? Everything has its season, stupid. Of course, why didn’t I think of that?
In a slick restaurant I dared to order crème caramel for dessert, only to be told that it is out of season. I didn’t know that eggs have seasons, but a trip to South India gifts you some level of up skilling and education, doesn’t it? So, humbled by my lack of knowledge, I passed on the other choices just in case I should have sunk further into the abyss of ignorance. My fellow travellers however ended up with an expensive eye drop of chocolate mousse. Its nutritional value not enough to energise the tongue to lick the tiny test-tube it came in because the spoon didn’t fit and they were too apprehensive to ask for tooth picks, just in case they were out of season too. But at least we could sit back and relax, until the waiter, realising that we had finished and not likely to order anything else, circled our peaceful enclave until we forked out and got the hell out.
But intrepid travellers always find a way, especially those armed with the bible of this Lonely Planet. And with India’s immeasurable length of coastline, a place in the sand for countless sunrises, sunsets or both is not too hard to find. The golden sandy beaches of South India are a treasure find. A short stroll on most of them reveals a lot of the commonality of humanity.
Most beaches are beautifully decorated with excreta, each piece at times masterfully crafted in such way that it would require a cooperative and cumulative effort by a number of bowel movers to get it so high, as there is no way that one person alone could possibly discharge so much body waste. So, a short stroll on the beach is reminiscent of a walk on a mined field. Even the effects are similar, minus the bang of course. Stepping on a turd has the same paralysing effect as it does stepping on a mine, and the odour that emanates from the squishy mishap is similar to the smell immediately following stepping on a land mine and just prior to the bang. The difference is that the former leaves a lasting impression on the senses, reducing the desire to repeat the exercise, the latter may reduce the physical ability to walk on beaches or mine fields ever again, which is the lesser evil is a personal choice, of course.
Nonetheless, clean beaches aren’t hard to find. Short of flying out, there are the cliffs, the famous North Cliffs discovered during the hippie trail of a few decades ago, which have left a legacy of bohemian, laid back lifestyle garnished with bloody Marys and sex on the beach, concealed as chai tea or other police friendly concoctions. Less concealed is the flesh of holiday makers longing for sun and sand, even more less concealed the gawkers and pepping toms out to catch a glimpse of white, bikini-clad sirens, hopefully reappearing in their wet dreams for a few moments of slumber land abandonment.
A long stay here though, as pleasant as it may be, may cause problems to the locals, especially the guest house staff, who are a government institution in themselves and keep asking after a couple of days when you will be checking out, and a few days later to check out, bewildered because most travellers only stay two to three days. Joining their bewilderment, you also feel compelled to move on to spare the poor souls the agony of too much paperwork.
Sunrise to the East, sunset to the West (I think), if you want both head to the tip. The southern most point of the sub-continent, walked in its full length to reach this landmark by the legendary M.G. Can’t really say what he thought of the place, since his ashes skipped across to a rocky outcrop 400m from the shoreline.
Nonetheless, it is the place most travellers reach as a symbol of the end of a long and dusty journey. You may wonder if they would have started from this point, how much trouble they would have been spared, and from here you can’t really go far anyway, considering that many travellers have a one entry visa only. Multi-entry visas are issued just to those who don’t get it the first time.
However, hope is hard to kill, and somehow, in your heart (and the Lonely Planet), you know there must be a place where it all happens, and where the meaning of life will fall gently on your lap. Thus, further north on the East coast, for those super fit, there is an island, attached to the mainland by the mother of all bridges, distancing only a mere 33km from the other famous island of the sub-continent, and once the playground of British colonisers. If the long swim doesn’t appeal, Chennai has an international airport.
The great escape from the airport is as entertaining as the adventure itself. Security checks, counter checks, fees to enter the airport, duty free prices higher than street prices and overzealous military and civil personnel, bring you back to the original question: “What on earth am I doing in South India.” This time, though, you know you are getting out.
So, after six weeks of bliss in the southern end of the sub, I can’t say that I left my heart in South India. What I did leave behind though is my Swiss Amy knife, confiscated at the airport, my friend’s favourite sarong, and our trusty length of rope that served us so well as a washing line, but could have been easily turned into a noose if we had stayed any longer.