Thursday, December 20, 2012

Into India

“Don’t arrive after dark,” said our Lonely Planet guidebook, but our plane ticket had other plans.  We landed in Chennai, India around 9:30 after a three or four hour flight from Bangkok. I don’t really keep track of how long the flight is anymore. It just doesn’t seem to matter. 

Chennai runs a neat pre-paid taxi service, where you go up to a little desk, pay a fixed price and take your little ticket outside.  It still felt like Asia, but everything was a bit different.  Gone were the yellow cabs, replaced by British-style bobby cars that looked brown on bottom with white on top.  The inside was covered in a flower pattern.  The Tuk-Tuks on the other hand were yellow, much less exposed to the elements and are now called “auto-rickshaws”. 
Soon, we were racing down the freeway toward our hotel, which was recommended and cheap, according to the Lonely Planet.  We’ve been in some pretty crazy traffic before, but Chennai has to take the cake.  We were swerving all over the road, dangerously close to crashing.  The brakes got slammed on a few times, including right next to huge trucks in the middle of traffic.  At one point I stopped looking out the front window.
We were dropped off at Chandra Park hotel around 10:30 and ended up getting a deluxe room for $42 a night.  It’s a bit expensive, but Leslie has a sore throat and isn’t feeling good.  A clean room with multiple movie channels, included breakfast and air-con has become our base for the next few days while she recovers. 
Breakfast is a buffet of Indian food, which is absolutely amazing.  Various spiced sauces are put on the plate with a ladle along with some rather bland cakes, breads or rice.  Then, you mix the bland solids with the very flavorful sauces.  About 2/3 of the people eat with their hands. 
Our laptop finally gave out in Bangkok, so we got a new one and I needed to rebuild the machine.  I found a little place that rents cubicles with hard-wired internet for Rupee 30 an hour, which translates into an office cublice for about $5 a day.  I got the necessary stuff working, but when I got back to the hotel room, Leslie was locked inside.
We got the front desk, and once they understood the problem they sent in a few maintenence guys through the window.  We’re on the fourth floor, and we’re still not sure how they got there, but after a half hour and the atention of a dozen hotel staff Leslie was freed.
Day two started with a trip to the pharmacy after breakfast. The mission was vitamin C, ibuprofen,  and some throat drops.  It was the furthest into the depths of the city I’ve been.
The first thing I noticed is the attack on your smells  Wonderful, disgusting and ever-present.  The first might be a wonderful spiced dish or samosa smell coming out of the restaurant, but two minutes later it smells like poop.  Then comes another restaurant, followed by garbage.  T
The second thing about walking the streets of India is that your preconceptions of personal space have to change… immediately.  Your personal bubble is constantly violated, and you can’t back away without running into someone on the other side. 
To top the entire thing off, people are quite well dressed.  I’m wearing a polo shirt, but that was pretty casual.  Ninety-five percent of the men were wearing button-up shirts, including the homeless. About 70% are wearing slacks, with no shirts.  Most of the men were wearing dress shoes, with a few wearing leather-strapped sandals and some barefoot.  I saw more than one barefoot in a dress shirt and slacks.
Third there’s the traffic.  Lanes are optional at best.  In most of Asia, you have to walk into the street where there’s motorbikes, trusting the motorbikes to go around you.  You just have to avoid the less-mobile vehicles, like cars.  Cars are more numerous here, so they’re harder to avoid.  They’re joined by commercial vehicles and everyone is always honking.  Crossing the street becomes a harrowing experience. I went with the old standby method… walk in a local’s hip pocket.  I was a bit more nervous than normal, so stood rather close to whoever I was following.  Fortunately, that’s normal.
After fifteen minutes or so, I found the pharmacy that I’d identified on Google Maps.  The first man inside didn’t speak English, so I had to wait for the proprietor to get off the phone.  His English was quite good, although he spoke with too many polite phrases, as the Indians are wont to do.  “Hello, please, sir.  Tell me, please what him want, please, sir”. 
Vitamin C, Ibuprofen and a bottle of water set me back rupee 47 ($1 = 54R).  At first, I though he said 600R for the vitamin C, which I told him was way too much.  He laughed and asked me where I was from, smiling when I said USA. He then went into a short speech about how great the Indian medical system is.  “In American, you pay, pay, pay,” he said. “India is the best in the world for good care for cheap.”  I’ll agree it was cheap, but he didn’t have the soar-throat drops I wanted.  
Walking back was another assault on the senses.  A homeless man with a wounded hand started asking for money. A man in about my age was sitting next to a garbage can eating a sauce and rice mix off a plate on the ground with his right hand while holding a toddler in his left.  A whole in the sidewalk let my nose know that the sewer ran right underneath.  Every forty yards, another dumpster shared its aromas with the world.
I reached the hotel room, gave Leslie what I had, then decided to make one more attempt at the corner convenience store. 
Immediately, I was followed by a shorter man with curly black hair.  “Where you going, where you from?” he asked.  I ignored him, and went about my business, but he followed me into the open-air corner shop.  The store was about ten by fifteen feet, with counters ringing the store.  I asked one man behind the counter if he spoke English and he kinda shrugged.  So far, India has very diverse English skills.  Some people are perfect, others know very little. 
He directed me to another counter, which had a six-inch deep apothecary cabinet that took up the entire wall behind the cabinet, like bookshelves.  It was made out of glass and hard-wood and was surprisingly beautiful.  It looked custom-built, and very old.  Both men behind the counter were busy, and the small man who was following me was looking up at me with puppy dog eyes, so I decided to deal with him.
“What do you want?”  I asked, directly and forcefully. 
He hemmed and hawed for a little bit before asking me, “marijuana?”  I chuckled a little bit.
“No thank you,” I said.  He looked relieved to have asked his question as he smiled and turned away.  “Good luck!” I told him.
Soon, the apothecary had given me the drugs I wanted (12 pills for 20R) and I was heading home. 
I was the only white person on the street, although I did see another traveller who I think was Japanese, so I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I was actually stopped and had a short discussion with a man from Sri Lanka in what I believe was monk roads.  He is on his way to Varanasi tomorrow, which is one of themost holy places in India, where people deposit dead bodies into the holy Ganges river.  We chit-chatted for a bit before I headed back to the hotel room where I found Leslie in bed watching a Pierce Brosnan/Sandra Bullock RomCom. 
Not a bad place to be sick, but hopefully, we’ll be on our way soon. 

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