After a week of Indian hotels we had our routine nailed down – we would take turns checking if a hotel was acceptable, or at least on the dirty side of acceptable. Louise and John would be declaring their marriage to the desk clerk, they were just friends but it was necessary for a man and woman to share a room. Eugene would be outside chaining Rickshaws together. The Boy helped me to carry some of our bags to the room, while making small talk about cricket. We fought through the crowd at the corner off-license and settled into our room with beers for the night. After an hour, the door burst open. We had heard that it was technically illegal to drink in hotel rooms and the police regularly conducted raids. It was the Boy, he rushed to the television and turned it on, ‘The IPL cricket will now commence’ he announced with a bow and shuffled out. We all exhaled a sigh of relief.
We had made it to the city of Chennai, or Madras for seemingly everyone outside of politics. We dedicated the morning to buying tickets to that night’s cricket game. We were directed to the side gate of the stadium, a heaving mass of bodies pushing and heaving against it. Sporadically an arm shot through the grate holding a ticket and quickly exchanged it for cash with the chosen person. The stadium was next to the river with an ungodly stench wafting in our direction. We managed to buy three tickets and then a solid wooden door slammed shut inside the gate. We headed back to the Rickshaw arguing about who would get to go. A petite Indian woman in ragged Indian robes approached me, a baby was cradled in her arms, held in with two amputated wrists. The baby grabbed at my clothes as I gave her some crumpled up Rupees. The shock of seeing the abject poverty of India will change a person to their very core.
At the cricket game the crowd was going wild, cricket is a national obsession in India but to be honest – I had no idea what was going on. The 20 20, in an attempt to sex-up cricket, had scantily clad cheerleaders entertaining the crowd. A senior police officer stood between the crowd and the cheerleaders with what looked like a truncheon but was, in fact, closer to a beating stick. You can determine the seniority of an Indian police officer by how luxurious and twirly their mustache is. Every time someone got too close to the cheerleaders they would get a whack to the head. One Indian man had clearly come prepared with a full motorcycle helmet on, the officer’s beating having no effect as the man screamed gleefully.
The next day we trundled along the dusty Indian highway. There are people everywhere in India, a constant sea of bodies washing over the landscape. We had finally driven so far into the desert and so far from a village that it looked like there was nobody around. But then all of a sudden, an Indian man dressed in a white dhoti jumped out of a bush on the side of the road. The dhoti looked like a bedsheet folded around his waist, like a tiny tanned sumo wrestler. He was also carrying a bow and arrow. Just when you think India can’t surprise you any more, it will find a new twist. When Indians see a Rickshaw coming they will raise their hand to flag it down for a lift. When they see it is painted like a cow they put their hand down with a confused look. Then they will raise their hand again because you can’t phase an Indian.
We stopped at a road side cafe in a tiny village. The waiting staff didn’t speak a word of English so we ordered by pointing at other people’s food. I ordered chicken to the surprised look of Stephen. ‘Did you not see the uncooked chicken outside the door with the flies on it?’ ‘Oh that’s not my chicken.’ I answered willfully ignorant. The food was served on a giant banana leaf. It was delicious but lacking in spice. Every restaurant i went to in India said, ‘Ah, it’s a white man.’ And took all the spice out. When I finished, the waiter came around with a large pot. I shook my head no but he ladled out a large serving. Not wanting to be rude I finished my second helping. He returned again but this time I playfully shouted no and blocked my leaf with my arm. He pushed my arm out of the way and spooned another huge helping on my leaf. It turns out in India, not leaving some food on your plate is rude.
That evening we made it to Gopalpur-on-sea, a coastal town so run down that the guide book recommends that if you are a woman travelling alone, you should befriend a local family. We had settled in on the roof of the hotel for a night drinking Sandpiper beer when all of the lights in the town went out, including the lighthouse!
The day after we again ate up the miles, pushing on into the harsh Indian daylight. The roads were perfectly tarmaced and aside from the odd wrecked truck, we didn’t run into any obstructions. As the light dwindled we wondered why trucks were lined up on each side of the road. We found out at 9pm. The highway ended at the state line and continued into Orissa, the poorest Indian state, as a dirt road. Just as we started to come to terms with the dirt road, every truck for miles and miles pulled onto the road. We were in the middle of truck rush hour on a dirt track. It is too hot for the truck drivers in the day time so they pull over and wait for night time. Trucks were overtaking trucks, pushing our little vehicle onto the grass. I swerved between the behemoths, squinting at the tiny light provided by the Rickshaw. The glare on the windscreen made it almost impossible to see. After an hour of near misses and constant panic, we pulled off the road at a sign that just said ‘beach’. The road had much less traffic but still every time a truck barrelled past it was a frightening noise. Stephen was calling out what was coming up from behind. ‘A truck is coming.’…’Correction, two motorcycles riding side by side in the middle of the road.’
We reached the edge of the town and pulled in, John passed around a disgusting bottle of Indian rum, i accepted it with my hand still shaking. I took a long drink to calm the nerves, not even waiting until the Rickshaw was parked up. That experience may have coloured my judgment slightly but that beach village at the end of that horrific road was paradise.
To be Concluded…