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Published: August 30th 2017
Geo: 10.012, 76.2251
We have been away from home nearly 3 weeks now and exactly 2 of those weeks have been spent in India. When we arrived in Chennai we had the idea that we may spend a day or 2 there as we didn't feel that there was much there to see or do but we thought we should at least give it a chance. After our lavish stay in a posh hotel we ventured out into the unknown, literally. We managed to get to the train station which like those in most cities was a heaving hub of activity. We attempted to work out how to get around the city, we attempted to find accommodation for that evening we attempted to stay calm and not be overwhelmed by the sheer size and pace of the city. We weren't very successful, in a period of 2 hours we had achieved nothing more than obtaining a Sim card for the mobile, we couldn't find any definitive information on bus timetables and we were having no luck finding accommodation. After crossing and recrossing the main street, which in itself is an adrenalin pumping life threatening activity,several times, we decided that maybe Chennai wasn't for us and we should get out of town, quickly. Once we made this decision things started to fall into place for us we contacted a hostel in Mamallapuram which had a room close to the beach at reasonable rates and with the help of some sympathetic locals we managed to get a bus to the main bus station and on a "local" bus out of there. With a huge sigh we were heading out of the chaos that is Chennai. Now a local bus is a bus mainly used by "locals", there are other more comfortable air conditioned buses but they are far more expensive and they deny you that authentic Indian experience of being crammed into a small space with well over the legal amount of passengers. In fact people on these buses are so tightly packed in it acts as a safety net by preventing anybody from being thrown around the cabin when the driver slams the brakes on or lunges unexpectedly around an unsuspecting auto rickshaw, bicycle or cow. Not many tourists choose to enjoy the experience of the local buses but they should its really cheap and highly entertaining if some what dangerous.
2 hours or more on a bus without the ability to move in any direction is a great test of discipline and it goes to explain a lot about how patient and adaptable the Indian people are.
Mamallapuram is basically a tourist town, there are a few temples around the area but most people go there because its a calm place when measured in Indian standards. We found this place to be a nice introduction to India and when we left 5 days later we felt more equipped to take on a real Indian city. This was all good in theory but the next place we landed in was Ponducherry, a port town on the Bay of Bengal. Its a city of segregation, locals on one side of the canal ( when reading the word canal always insert "open sewer" as a more descriptive explanation) and tourists on the other. This town was a thriving port up until about 50 years ago with loads of ships sailing from here with spices and cargo set for Europe a mainly France and it is mainly the French who have influence the psyche of the city. This is not as flattering as it may sound, people are abrupt bordering on rude and far from helpful, that is of course unless you happen to be French, which the city is full of. We did a little sight seeing, and wanted to stay for the large Hindu festival that was going to be on that weekend but nobody had any accommodation for us so we had to leave town. At this point we made our first Indian train trip. How cool it is too be able to stand in the open doorway of a train traveling at high speed through the country side passing through rice field and coconut groves, waving to the children in the school yards and getting suspicious looks from work men, who are obviously not ever going to enjoy the wonders of travel to far off lands. I must add that before we got on the train we need to get some local currency, which we attempted to do, on the way passing a beggar who was looking in the need of a donation, so as we were about to go and get some more money we decided to give him all we had which was 10 Rupee. We went on searching and couldn't find anywhere to exchange money and eventually we ran out of time and had to head back to the train station penniless, on the way passing the same beggar who ironically now had more money than us. We had resigned to the fact that we would go hungry for the next 9 hour train ride when by chance a man who sold food to train passengers took pity on us and gave us a cup of coffee and pakora each in exchange for $1 US which I happened to have in my wallet, this sustained us only barely until we hit Madurai.
Madurai it turned out was a great city, the people where friendly and helpful, the food was excellent and once we had found some true local eateries where you pay local prices we really started to embrace the Indian style of eating with our hands, or should I say hand, you only use the right hand as the left hand is used for personal hygiene purposes when you have to embrace the Indian style toilet, which is usual a squat toilet which comes with no paper and only a bucket of water. I'll leave it to you to figure out what you do.
The level of cleanliness of rooms for accommodation varies greatly from filthy, smelly, OMG you cant be serious, to this isn't to bad for a few nights to I'm happy to pay a few Rupee extra because the toilet seat has actually been cleaned in the last 5 years and I don't see the outline of a body on the filth ingrained in the sheets. The cost of the room doesn't always reflect the state of the room. We stayed in 2 different places in Madurai the 2ND better than the first, but if either of them had been in Australia they would have been condemned as unfit for human habitation. But when in India you have to do as Indians and not have your expectations set too high, well no higher than your budget anyway.
We left Madurai on what was our 2ND Indian train trip, this time it was an over night train, 11 hours in the close proximity of people you didn't know and where unlikely to know due to the language barrier. I have caught a few overnight trains in various parts of the world but I can honestly say none of them compare to an India over night train. The carriage is air conditioned to the point of being the coldest place in the continent, when it is still a balmy 28 degrees outside the train carriage is cooled to the level where by blankets are actually handed out. I had the top bunk on the side isle, it has no windows and the curtain is not sufficient to block out the glare from the ceilings neon light, so I spent most of the trip standing out the back looking out the open door. I would often be asked by a fellow traveler where I was from and how long I would spend in India but the conversations always came to an abrupt end when it was obvious to both of us that all avenues of communication had been exhausted.
The toilets on a train anywhere in the world are a place to avoid unless absolutely necessary but on an overnight Indian train its like descending into Satan's own arm pit, there are smells and liquids from another realm and because of this you spend quite some time convincing yourself that bodily functions are optional, you don't want to expose delicate areas in that environment or hold onto the bars provided but if you do have to go and you don't hold on there is the real possibility of slipping over into the putrid unknown, I'm sure if this happened you would be an outcast for decades or at least until the smell wore off.
When catching a train in a foreign land there is always the added apprehension that perhaps you might miss your stop. This feeling is magnified when you cant even decipher the language, when you are reliant on the kindness of strangers to inform you where you should get off it can leave you a little nervous and in hope that they have understood your poor pronunciation correctly.
So far we have fared well and managed to get ourselves about the country with out any serious issues sure there is some back tracking at times but we like to look at that as added sight seeing. Travel and holidaying in a country like India is hard work you don't get a lot of time to kick back and relax, but it is challenging and it does make you tap into parts of yourself that are either dormant or you didn't know you had and that can only be good for personal growth.
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