Traveling Alone, But Never Alone, in South India

The following are excerpts from the blog I created to document my solo backpacking travels across Tamil Nadu, India in 2011. I adored the time that I spent in South India, and though years have passed, sometimes an image or a scent instantly brings me back to that adventure. This is particularly true whenever I smell Jasmine or the right combination or spices.

Tricky Temple

Bus Travel – Friday, May 6, 2011

I’ve traveled between cities by bus twice now, and I have to say that I think this mode of travel exposes me to the guts of Indian life. The buses are crammed full of people doing everyday things, and they don’t stop letting them on just because we’ve run out of room. I haven’t had to hang off the side or ride on top like some brave souls, but on the way to Puducherry I did remain standing for nearly two hours.

Traveling between cities allows me to see the beautiful countryside. Farm land lined with fruit trees and thatched roof houses intermingled with little Hindu temples. I wish I could stay in these serene places but it’s rare to find someone that can understand my English in these rural areas. I wish that I could speak Tamil. I was badly misinformed when I read that everyone in India speaks English. Some people speak some English. In the cities, the people who work the shops, hotels, and bus stations speak some English, but outside of the cities, I’ve found that I’m often left to communicate with hand gestures.

Mamallapuram – Saturday, May 7, 2011

I started out at 6am so as to avoid the blistering heat that I’ve learned sets in by about 8am. I was in awe at the beautiful detail of the stone carvings here, spending hours climbing over the boulders and wandering through the streets, watching the sculptors carve large stone Hindu deities as sculptors have for centuries. This is the hottest and driest time of the year here, keeping the foreign tourists away. However, the Indian tourists continue to flock to the temple towns, making pilgrimage to the oldest temples in India. These families who ventured to the southern temples seemed very interested in me. The children often run up to me and stare, sometimes bravely but timidly asking my name. This has become such a common occurrence that I’ve come to expect it each time I stop to rest.

At one point while I was admiring the Mandapas, several children ran up to me. They wanted me to take a photo of them. They got a kick out of seeing the image of themselves on my digital camera. We were quickly joined by their family who asked the usual questions: “Your name?”, “You from?”, “You like India?” This conversation has happened many times since I arrived in Tamil Nadu. I like the Indian tourists very much. They are often from smaller towns and have, like me, traveled long distances to visit the temples. They are friendly and genuinely interested, and our conversations always end with group photos taken with my camera, and theirs if they have one.

On the third morning of my stay in Mamallapuram, I went to the famous Shore Temple and it was a beautiful sight. It’s on a bit of a peninsula surrounded by the Bay of Bengal. The temple is carved out of beautiful red stone with three sandy pathways circumventing the structure between patches of green grass. I spent quite a while there, just sitting and watching the families. Eventually, a crooked old Indian woman in a sari tried to speak to me. I repeatedly said that I didn’t understand while she gestured that I should follow her into the temple. She brought me to the carving of the lounging Shiva and asked me to take photos. Soon her large family joined us. The group of mothers and aunties fired questions at me in Tamil while gesturing toward their jewelry and hairlines. I asked if any of them spoke English and one woman shouted for her teenage son who understood English enough to translate for us. This is what the women asked me, in this order, “Where is your husband? Do you have children? What is your name? Where are you from?”

With help from the boy, I found out that they were from Pollachi, a rough 7-hour drive southwest of Mamallapram. They were very kind and even invited me to their home before our conversation ended with the usual group photos. I tried to remove the silly looking hat I was wearing in an attempt to smooth my hair that remained frizzy, sweaty, and plastered to my head throughout my trip. But when I tried to remove the hat that shaded my eyes, they laughed and said, “No, no!” gesturing that I should keep it on. They must have appreciated my disheveled, sweaty look. Perhaps it makes for a better story told to the family back home.

Family Shore Temple

The Puke Bus – Saturday, May 14, 2011

I wanted to travel from Kodaikanal (Kodai) to Coimbatore, and then make my way to Udhagamandalam (Ooty). This was harder than I expected. Kodai is at the top of a mountain, and so is Ooty, with Coimbatore lying on the dusty plains in between. Travel to Ooty required that I take a bus down the mountain to Coimbatore, then another bus up the mountain through Mettupalayam and Coonoor to Ooty.

I boarded the bus from Kodai as I did any other, but I was in for a surprise. I soon found out that busses travel down mountains much faster than up. The roads to and from Kodai are steep and narrow with hairpin turns and very little for guardrails, sometimes just some rocks that line the roads. The trip up to Kodai had been a bit nerve wracking but I was pleasantly distracted by the beautiful views of the mountains and the monkeys, new to me and quite captivating. Our current driver took advantage of the downhill nature of our trip and took speeds that any American would have considered suicidal. The bus whipped left and right down the mountain and the bus swayed back and forth. My knuckles were white as I gripped the window bars with both hands as to not slide off the bench and right out of the open door of the bus.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan then you’ll understand this: the only thing I can liken this experience to is the Knight Bus, but imagine the Knight Bus driving down a mountain around hairpin turns. The driver even had to pull the brake whenever encountering another bus or truck on a curve, which happened too many times to count. This sharp braking repeatedly caused all of us, and our bags, to slide forward into whatever was ahead of us. After both vehicles stopped, one vehicle would squeeze through the turn, and then once around the curve, our driver would step on the gas and away we went again (“Taker her away Earn!”).

Terrified that we were going to fly off the side of the mountain, I already knew that this was my least favorite part of India and I didn’t think it could get any worse. But then, about 45 minutes into the trip, PEOPLE STARTED TO VOMIT ALL AROUND ME! Men, women, and children were vomiting out the windows left and right. I had taken an antiemetic, as I do before every bus trip to prevent the motion sickness to which I’m prone, and I was so thankful it was working, but all the vomiting around me was making me a bit nauseous anyway.

We stopped about halfway down the mountain, after about 2 hours on the bus, at some roadside stands. My fellow riders and I stumbled off the bus, looking weak and pale. One little boy who had been throwing up in a towel was crying. When it was time to get back on the bus he seemed to be fighting against the notion and cried louder and louder as his mother led him to the steps. I couldn’t understand the words but I could certainly empathize, as I really, really didn’t want to get back on that bus either. But what choice did we have? So we piled back on the bus for another hour of hell before we finally landed on flat terrain.

Bus

A Physicist, a Doctor and a Priest – Sunday, May 22, 2011

On Wednesday, I traveled the long trip from Ooty to Chennai. I hired a car from Ooty to Coimbatore, and then took an eight hour train ride to Chennai. The day would have been long and boring had I not met some lovely and interesting people along the way. In India, people often approached me. As a woman traveling alone, this made me a bit nervous at first, but as time passed I realized that people were genuinely interested and didn’t have any ulterior motives. They just wanted to connect, welcome me to their country, and talk.

While waiting for my train in Coimbatore, I met a Catholic priest who was from a town further south. He was waiting for a train to Goa to visit the churches and shrines there. He was raised Catholic and his mother was from Sri Lanka, an island off the southeast coast of India. He showed me photos of his family on his cell phone, including several smiling nieces and nephews. We had an involved conversation about the human need for human connections. I was reminded again of the closeness of Indian families. They have strong family relationships and they cherish their children. Families take care of each other and they keep each other in line. The priest and I also discussed spirituality in India. I revealed that I was repeatedly struck by how I was enveloped by spirituality everywhere I went. Whether it is Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or Jain, faith is strong and the rituals are an important part of daily life.

On the train to Chennai I met a physicist and a doctor. We were crammed into the same train car with too many other people headed east. The physicist was an older man who lived and worked in Chennai with his wife. He was boisterous and talkative and barely missed smacking several people around him while talking with his hands. He was very interested in international politics and expressed his opinions a bit too loudly. He shared his support and admiration for the U.S., but also noted that India was going to be the “next best country in the world”. His political talk made me a bit nervous on the crowded train, especially since tensions between India and Pakistan were high. The American military had just caught and killed Osama Bin Laden a few weeks earlier. During my short time in India, I found that political discussions were common but lacked the uncomfortable nature that often accompanies political discussion in the U.S.

Eventually, I turned to speak to the young doctor sitting next to me. The doctor was a practicing physician who recently finished his education. He was 23 years old and lived with his parents outside of Chennai. He had many questions about the United States, especially about familial relationships, courtship, and marriage. At first he was shy with his questions, but once I asked him what else he’d like to know, he fired away. I found that he was a proponent of “love matches” and strongly disagreed with arranged marriages. He laughed when I asked what his parents thought about his views. His voice took on a serious tone when he said that his parents would kill him for speaking his opinion about the subject. The doctor had a girlfriend whom he met while at University and they very much wanted to get married. As the doctor showed me a photo of his girlfriend, he explained that she was from a higher caste and he wasn’t sure if her family would ever agree to the marriage. Apparently, his love had already broached the subject with her parents several times but the answer was always no. He was hopeful that advancing his career might eventually convince them to agree to the marriage. The doctor was shocked when I told him about the divorce rate in the U.S. He asked, “But why would people want to get divorced if they choose to marry each other?”

The doctor was kind enough to answer the lingering questions I had about India (the cows and goats who wander the streets do have owners). Before he got off the train, the doctor shared that he had never spoken to a foreigner before and had yet to travel outside of India. He thanked me for my willingness to talk to him. It is I who is grateful that these people were so willing to talk to me. I learned so much, and the pleasant conversation made an otherwise long trip much more entertaining.

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