India: Spellbound by the sights

By Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng immerses himself in the rich colour and chaos of daily life in India.

A boy stands behind a spice stall in one of India's colourful markets. Photo / Derek Cheng
A boy stands behind a spice stall in one of India's colourful markets. Photo / Derek Cheng

There is nowhere in this world like the sensory onslaught of India. As you cross the road, she relentlessly blinds you with splashes of colour, deafens you with car horns that make your ears bleed, invades your nostrils with odours, both scrumptious and odious, all while you sink in her humidity, and stare wide-eyed in awe of her beauty and appalled at her poverty.

You never want to close your eyes in case you miss something.

I arrived in India somewhat blind. I had done no research and simply thought there'd be an information desk at Chennai Airport - an airport that services a city of nearly eight million.

But when I touched down - after receiving my convenient visa-on-arrival that is open to citizens from 11 countries, including New Zealand - it was close to midnight and there was nothing to greet me but dissonant traffic sounds.

I found myself in an air-conditioned room in a poor suburb close to the airport, and immediately set off in search of food.

I had heard many a tale of "Delhi belly" flooring the strongest of stomachs often for days, weeks. But I was starving, and followed my nose to a street stall of fried roti with chicken curry.

I ordered three rotis and looked for utensils before remembering where I was, and dug in with my right hand (the left hand is for toilet business). Rich spiciness enveloped my taste buds. I ordered two more.

The morning daylight revealed the true rulers of India. Cows. Everywhere. In the streets, the fields, sifting through rubbish, defiantly indifferent in the middle of roads as vehicles of all sizes swerve clear of them. Cows are sacred in Hinduism, the predominant faith in India's patchwork of spiritual traditions, and are treated as such.

I set off in search of internet access to find out where I was and what the sights were - how strange to be so reliant on the web. But this was clearly not a place frequented by tourists and all inquiries were met with shoulder shrugs.

Instead, I marvelled at the wonder of daily life - street stalls of samosas and buttermilk, and fruits that look like alien heads; saris that decorate dirty paths with bright red, teal and lime; cricket played in alleys, fields, footpaths; beggars framed in a soft cloud of flies following them like a scar of poverty; piles of debris on the side of the streets and rubbish strewn everywhere as if it were a cash crop.

People playing street cricket. Photo / Derek Cheng
People playing street cricket. Photo / Derek Cheng

There was nowhere to take a moment to sit and be. At every eatery, the customers were in and out after wolfing down the most delicious conduits of curry - thali, rava, dosai, chilli or coconut chutneys, accompanied by roti, naan or paratha (bread layered around potato and onions).

And then, the traffic. Imagine you're trying to cross a river, where logs of all sizes are hurtling downstream towards an endless black hole. Except that the logs are rushing upstream, as well as downstream. There are bicycles, rickshaws, trucks, buses - a vehicular frenzy through which pedestrians weave, calmly, as if they were simply crossing the road, which they are.

The following day I jumped on the first bus heading south towards Pondicherry, a city with a beautiful French quarter that featured in the movie Life of Pi.

Life on the bus mirrors life outside the bus: overpopulated and dangerous to the point of absurd. It was packed so tight that the people inside looked like they were excelling in a game of Ultimate Squish, while half a dozen schoolboys clung to the outside of the door frame, dangling over the rushing road as the bus rumbled through the countryside.

It was hot, musty and while most were glued to the latest Indian kung-fu movie on the TV screen - played at the world's loudest volume - I watched the coastline and day-dreamed of a cooler place.

Travel anxiety crept in. Would I get off the bus at the right stop? Would someone try to trick or rob me? And then a moment of absolute clarity hit me: I was totally free. It didn't matter where I stopped. I could go anywhere, do anything, unhinged and uninhibited. And who would want to rob a guy who was several inches taller than everyone else? I wanted to go everywhere, to drown myself in as many Indian experiences I could find.

After the bus pulled into Pondicherry, I found a home stay where the French-speaking owner couldn't pronounce my Chinese surname and just started calling me Bruce Lee.

Pondicherry used to be the centre of French colonial power before the English-dominated era, and the waterfront properties are known for their curving archways, proud pillars, shutter windows and terrace balconies that overlook the ocean. Many properties were not even in use, as if the town had such an abundance that it didn't know what to do with them all. The coastal area is the life-blood of the town, bustling with crowds, markets, fruit vendors and snake charmers who dance a deadly two-step with cobras.

A snake charmer in Pondicherry dances a deadly two-step with a cobra. Photo / Derek Cheng
A snake charmer in Pondicherry dances a deadly two-step with a cobra. Photo / Derek Cheng

A large crowd gathers nightly in front of a huge TV screen to watch the Indian Premier League cricket, a sport that is as sacred as any religion. Cricket is on the front page of every newspaper, every day. The exploits of the games the day before are the constant topic of conversation.

There was even Gyanendra, whom I met in the park in Pondicherry, on his fifth cycle tour around India. Four of his trips had been for world peace, but the fifth was for the glory of the Indian national cricket team in a world cup year. His eyebrows lifted in puzzlement when, upon discovering this, I exploded into giggle fits.

It was in the park, too, where I met an unusual man who repeatedly shook his fist at me, moving it back and forth next to his mouth. Was my travel anxiety justified? Was I about to be robbed?

He mumbled something.

"You're homeless?" I asked.

"Home sex," he replied with a bit more confidence, gesturing again with his fist.

I declined. This was one Indian experience I was happy to go without.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore.

Details: Adventure World organises customised tours with your own driver. Phone 0800 238 368.

Further information: See incredibleindia.org.

- NZ Herald

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