India, we quickly learned, was not going to be a cake-walk. It didn’t take
long for the realization to set in that any hope of finding personal space or
blending in with the masses was unrealistic. Over the two years preceding our
arrival in India we had grown accustomed to feeling like foreigners, but in India
we suddenly felt like extraterrestrials.
Chennai had been a serious eye-opener. It was a crazy concoction of
everything beautiful and ugly in the world, and I had seen a transformation take
place in me while we were there. The most peculiar things began to seem normal
after just two weeks: men sleeping in their rickshaws at night, cows lounging on
busy city streets, random nighttime parades, women in saris, everybody staring,
Hindu rituals, and the segregation of men and women. Chennai had been brutally
alive and its energy was hypnotizing.
But the city had drained me, and I knew it was time to leave when I had
begun to see our hotel’s elevator as my secret getaway closet. It was a manual
elevator, and once inside the cage I would close the double set of metal caged
doors, press the button for the third floor, and then relish in my seven seconds of
personal bliss. Nobody could see me, and I couldn’t see anybody. Indian tunes
would begin mid-song and a blast of cold air would explode from the ceiling fan,
temporarily extinguishing the feeling that I was being baked alive.
When the day came to depart from Chennai, I was in an emotional
quagmire – excited yes, but more than anything, I was hesitant. Was I really
ready for this? It had been almost two months since we had done any real
overlanding, and it had begun to feel foreign to me, like we had forgotten how to
survive. And India? What a place to have forgotten how to survive!
We left the gates of the Chennai port at three in the afternoon. It was far
too late to begin our first drive in India, but we certainly weren’t going back to
Chennai. There was absolutely no way. We turned south and started driving, and
a few hours later we pulled up to the police station in the coastal holy town of
Mahabalipuram in the dark.
“Here goes nothing,” Brad said, and then he disappeared into the station
while I patrolled Nacho. I felt at peace. The streets were pleasantly quiet and no
one had discovered us yet. I recalled the day’s events in my mind while Brad
worked his magic with the police.
“Good evening, sir. My wife and I are driving a campervan and are
looking for a safe place to park for the night. Is there a place nearby?”
“Oh no! It is not possible. Very dangerous! You must stay in a hotel.”
Brad wasn’t having any more Indian hotels. “I’m sorry, but that’s not
possible. Our car is our home. What about in the police parking lot?”
They didn’t have a parking lot, as evidenced by the police cars that lined
the side of the dilapidated road in front of the station. “Impossible. You can’t
sleep on the street. It is too dangerous.”
“Oh no, is it really dangerous?” Brad asked. He put on his worried face
and began his act. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. It’s so late.” He
pointed outside to the van. “I think we will have to camp right there on the street
tonight. Good place?”
The policeman pondered what to do with this stubborn foreigner who
refused to stay in a hotel, and then picked up his phone and placed a call. After a
few minutes, he hung up the receiver and addressed Brad.
“I have called my friend. He is the manager of Sthala Sayana Perumal
Temple and he says it is okay. You can camp at the temple. When you get there
ask for Santhanam.”
We only had to venture a few minutes to find the 600-year-old temple,
and Santhanam was waiting for us outside. I liked him instantly, and after two
weeks in India, he felt like the first real person we had met. He looked at us with
curious eyes but not like we were aliens.
“If you need anything, call me. We have a guard here at night so it is
safe.” We both felt grateful. He was proud of his temple. “I am the manager at
this temple. Before me, my father was the manager, and before my father, it was
his father. Please I want to show you inside. It is dedicated to the reclining Lord
We followed him inside the dark temple—by now it was late at night,
making the experience seem like a dream—and he led us to the shrine of Lord
Vishnu where we were greeted by Gopal Krishna, the temple priest. He looked
like an exotic character from the National Geographic. He wore a white lungi and
decorated his forehead with a series of painted lines: a vertical red one down the
center and two vertical white lines that merged at the ridge of his nose. We
talked with him for some time and I came to like him just as much as
“Welcome to India, Sheena and Brad,” he said, and then dipped his
finger in a red paste and marked our foreheads with tikka dots. On our way out I
stopped to listen to two men play their horns in the temple’s inner courtyard.
Their melody echoed through the building and instantly brought me back to the
Indian wedding we had stumbled upon back in Kuala Lumpur. It was the same
We parked Nacho in the middle of the temple’s dirt courtyard,
surrounded by the ancient buildings. During that first night, I awoke and peered
out of our rooftop tent window. Visible in the full moonlight were dozens of
cows sleeping in a circle around Nacho. They were the town’s cows, which plied
the city streets by day, dining on anything remotely edible and wreaking havoc
on traffic. At night, this was their peaceful domain. It felt so surreal, to be
sleeping in the center of a circle of holy cattle under a full moon in a temple,
although in the morning we noticed that one of the cows had eaten the corner of
our bamboo mat, which somewhat lessened our appreciation of them.
We awoke the next morning to a frenzy of activity around Nacho. The
temple was bustling with worshipers and we were in the middle of it. “Can’t we
just stay in Nacho all day?” I suggested. I was still having India stage fright, and
the inside of Nacho with the curtains pulled shut was our only sanctuary.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long for our sanctuary to become stiflingly hot and
muggy under the south Indian sun. We opened the sliding door to a sea of
colorful saris and curious eyes. Gopal Krishna was waiting to greet us into the
day. “Brad and Sheena! Good morning!”
I learned quickly that Mahabalipuram was not some secret find, but
indeed a World Heritage Site, and with good reason. The town sits amid granite
hills and boulders, and the surrounding rocks are littered with carved stone
monuments dating back to the years around 500 AD. Just outside the temple we
stood face to face with the world’s largest bas-relief etched into the side of a
boulder. It depicted a scene of Hindu mythology that springs to life during the
rainy season when the cleft in the rock, representing the Ganges River, flows
with water and drains into a stone pool at the boulder’s base. All throughout the
surrounding hills there were other boulders scraped and sculpted into shrines and
caves and stone columns, their walls covered in stories of Hindu mythology. It
was spectacular, and we purposely lost ourselves in the boulders to enjoy some
solitude. An Indian man found us and began following us through the ruins.
“To your right you will see a carving depicting an offering to Lord
Vishn–” Brad and I exchanged looks and then cut him off.
“Sorry but we don’t want a tour guide.” The man acted hurt.
“I am not a tour guide. I’m a student, and I have a shop that sells rock
“Sorry we’re not interested.”
“Please come to my shop.”
“No we aren’t shopping. We just want to walk.” The rock seller left, but
was almost immediately replaced by another rock seller, and then another. We
had been warned that in Indian culture it is not normal to approach strangers for
the purpose of making friends or offering help, and that if someone approached
us to offer unsolicited help, it was probably out of their own entrepreneurial
interest. So far we had found that to be true, and it took great effort not to
Beyond the top of a ridge, where a granite slab sloped downward into a
grassy field, we came to Krishna’s Butter Ball – a comical name for a giant
round boulder, precariously balanced on the slope, looking as if it might roll
away at any moment. We continued on through the maze of boulders, passing
billy goats that hopped carelessly on the sides of boulders, and scores of
monkeys that bounced and jumped to their daytime hideouts. We walked on, and
then hid under cover of a leafy tree as the weather changed and it began to rain.
We walked to the beach, where we bought coconuts from a man with a
machete, and we drank the water inside. In the late afternoon we returned to
Nacho, where, on the other side of the van, a homeless family had set up shop
for the day. Before we had a chance to retreat to our sanctuary, the homeless
children bombarded us with their palms upward, pinching their fingers together.
“Money! Money! Money!”
We distracted them with games and Brad taught them how to play
Stingbee, a hand-slapping game, which caused them to erupt into fits of laughter.
It was his underhanded way of beating the parents at their own game, while
adding some joy to the children’s lives; a joy their parents had failed to deliver.
Soon, however, their mother saw that they had made no money and screamed at
them to return. She gave us the stink-eye and we returned the look. The children
quickly returned after some coaching, looking even more desperate.
We coerced them into playing more Stingbee, which further induced fits
of laughter—just what these kids needed, we thought—and then we retreated
The next morning, Santhanam invited us into his house for coffee. His
house was just outside the temple walls, set back from the street and tucked
between two buildings. He saw us from inside and excitedly waved us into the
inner courtyard of his home. The courtyard was surrounded on all sides by
pillars and doors, and the walls were decorated with posters of Hindu gods and
goddesses. A giant tree and a deep, wide well dominated the back garden.
He pointed us toward his bedroom. “Please take a seat.” He turned on the
ceiling fan and left to make us coffee. He came back carrying a tin tray with
three cups of coffee. “The shops in town do not make such good coffee. That is
why I wanted you to come here. You are the first guests I have ever had in my
Given his role as the temple keeper, and the fact that most visitors came
and went without staying long, it must have been difficult for him to build
relationships with outsiders. We felt honored to be his guests, and we could tell
that he was very proud. A few hours later as we prepared to leave, Santhanam
presented us with a few unexpected gifts: a set of postcards featuring scenes of
India, another set featuring only Mahabalipuram, a yellow felted Hindu
necklace, and a small framed photo of Ganesha. “You must put this in your van.
Ganesha is the god of travel and he will protect you on your journey. Please do
call me in the future. You are now my friends.” We placed the picture inside and
hung the yellow felt necklace from our rearview mirror.
We were fortunate to have met Santhanam when we did. While he had no
way of knowing it, he had come into our lives at the perfect time. He had shown
us a different side of India, one that we both needed to see. We all walked
together back to the temple. We started Nacho and prepared to leave, when
Gopal Krishna emerged from the temple.
“Good morning Brad and Sheena! It has been a pleasure to have you at
the temple the last few days. I wish you the happiest of journeys!”
And with that we were off. Maybe India wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Auroville Main Road to Sadhana Forest
By the time we reached Pondicherry, we really had our system down. We
would drive into town and ask at the police station where it would be safe to
camp. Following a series of high profile rape cases in India, including cases
involving camping foreigners, it wasn’t any place to mess around. I’m a
squeamish person, after all, and my nightmares often involve the dropping of
soap in prison showers.
But in Pondicherry, our camping system would have to wait. Our India
guidebook said that Pondicherry was “a little pocket of France in Tamil Nadu.”
Oh? Upon entering town we expected to see a parade of dapperly dressed
androgynous artists carrying baguettes on their antique bicycles, but the truth fell
short of the high bar set by our frog-eating friends of Gaul. I hadn’t recalled Paris
having been quite as loud, so full of street cows, or having sidewalks so
extensively decorated with discarded garbage. We wound our way into the city
center, which was distinguished from the rest of the city by two streets having
pastel-colored buildings – what our guidebook must have been stretching to call
“a little pocket of France.”
We wanted two things in Pondicherry: a safe place to sleep, and some
French food, as would be expected from a little pocket of France. We found a
restaurant with a French name, and then conducted a culinary experiment whose
outcome unambiguously concluded that pastel-colored paint does not a French
restaurant make. Indeed, ratatouille should not be ordered unless it is either
prepared by a loveable cartoon rat, or by a person with generations of finely
aged, hickory-smoked camembert cheese coursing through their veins, and has a
last name in which at least thirty percent of the letters are silent.
As we sipped our après food lemon soda, the gods decided to
spontaneously punish some group of sinners somewhere by flooding
Pondicherry. The rain came down just as described in that biblical story about
the flood, and before anyone could even begin to think about saving any
animals, the city was under water. But a simple flood would not deter me—I was
on a mission to avoid a rapey camping experience, and went out with my
umbrella to find the police station on foot while Sheena read her coming-of-age
princess novella in the van, which was by that point nearly submerged.
I scoured the city amid the shin-deep sewer, and was passed from one
police station to the next. As it turned out, the police of Pondicherry became
quite busy with traffic issues when the city spontaneously flooded, and the needs
of worried American car-sleepers were rightly ignored. Eventually I was
directed to the main police station, and over an hour after my walk began, I
emerged, prune-legged and successful. Our camp would be within the cramped
and flooded courtyard of the downtown Pondicherry police station. I returned to
the van, which was by then under water, and told Sheena the great news.
As the rains continued to fall and Pondicherry sank deeper under water
and ever closer to a state of emergency, we did what any sane person would do.
We sought out the deepest waters and watched cars try to pass through them.
Just as we arrived, whom else should we miraculously run into but our German
friend Tatjana from the Chennai guesthouse, along with a protective male
chaperone. We caught up for old times’ sake, recounting the events of the several
days since we’d last seen each other, while standing knee-deep in the street’s
After Tatjana left, we watched with carnage-hungry eyes as cars,
motorcycles, rickshaws, and bicycles attempted to ford the dangerous standing
water. From my younger years spent playing Oregon Trail on the computer, I
knew that this could be very dangerous. We lost a lot of good Zekes fording
rivers back then. And if fording the river didn’t get them, you could bet that
cholera was waiting just around the bend.
At just about the point where we were ready to call it a day and retreat to
the police compound for the night, we noticed two wide-eyed, idealistic-looking
western hippie types approaching on their underpowered scooter. This should be
good, we thought, and waited in anticipation. To our dismay they stayed upright,
but just as they reached the deepest part, their little one cylinder engine aspirated
some water and died. They pulled it to higher ground where they were met by
hoards of well-meaning Indian men, who also happened to be clueless about
Indian man after Indian man grabbed the bike, twisted the throttle, and
kicked the engine until fatigue got the better of them. After a while it was
determined that the bike would never run again, and the idealistic-looking
western hippies seemed hopeless. At this, I walked over and told the couple that
their bike had aspirated some water, and that they’d have to dry out the cylinder
before it would start. This produced blank stares, so we walked the bike over to
Nacho where I removed the spark plug and cranked a small typhoon out of the
cylinder, then set it to dry out.
While we waited, it became dark. And when it became dark, our new
friends became worried. They talked in whispers, and the outlook seemed bad.
They didn’t trust the bike and didn’t want to ride it so far at night, what with the
prowlers and all. Sheena and I looked at each other for a split second and just as
soon came to the collective conclusion that wherever they were going was better
than the flooded police compound.
“Look,” I said, “we’ll take you home. You can come back tomorrow to
pick up your bike.” At this they became wide-eyed and idealistic-looking again,
and loaded into Nacho.
“All right amigos, where are we going this evening?” I asked.
“To Auroville,” Ivy said. Ivy was an American from California who had
decided to move to India to live on a hippie commune, and had ended up in
Auroville, where she had met Alex of Latvia. They had become the best of
friends before their ill-fated scooter ride into Pondy.
“I have no idea where that is,” I said.
“It’s like, north. Or maybe, east.”
“Oh, I assure you it isn’t east, as we’re on the east coast. Do you know
how far? Or what road?”
“It’s on the road that goes north, I think,” Ivy instructed.
To summarize, we drove for a long time through the city, a trip that didn’t
seem familiar to either Alex or Ivy. Later we ended up on a northern highway,
after which we turned west for a prolonged sojourn through the woods on a back
road, which later placed us on a southern highway. A while later we were on a
steadily diminishing dirt road, made muddy by the biblical rain, and finally we
arrived at the Sadhana Forest, a sort of hippie commune on the fringe of another
hippie commune, whose goal was to reforest Tamil Nadu’s desertified plains,
using idealistic western volunteer power, or some such.
We parked in the pitch-blackness outside of the commune, and walked
through the dense foliage into what was turning into a very strange evening
indeed. We entered an enormous circular bamboo hut where a couple dozen
people sat around on mats. When we entered, Ivy called everyone’s attention and
“Excuse me, everybody, I have an announcement.” And then it was
silent. “This is Brad and Sheena. They saved us today in Pondy.”
“Hi Brad and Sheena,” said the collective voice.
We sat on the floor and chatted with Alex and Ivy, and then with a family
from the Netherlands. Next it was a man from Spain, and then a Swedish couple.
Everyone had come there to get away from his or her boring life for a while.
Accountants, grocery clerks, students, psychiatrists. Some had been there three
months, some for ten years. A small collection of children played on a rope
swing at the center of the bamboo hut. A man plucked a guitar, and people were
engrossed in conversation. An African-looking girl, very slightly too old to be
running around naked, ran around naked. Everyone seemed carefree.
Someone stood up and announced that it was mealtime, and a few people
walked around handing out plates filled with food made from the crops that they
had grown. Before we were allowed to eat, a small boy stood up and rang a bell,
and then said some kind of chant, followed by a moment of silence—by now it
was all becoming a ritualistic blur—and then we all ate. Someone else came
around and picked up the plates.
Everyone there had a job, and was on rotation. Some cooked, while
others watched the kids in the garden during the day. Some planted trees, while
others dug holes around the expansive property. One girl enthusiastically told us
she was on alarm duty. This meant that in the early morning it was her job to
walk from hut to hut singing songs to people in order to wake them up: a human
alarm clock. Each morning and night they sat in a circle and ate communal
meals. In the evenings they sat in circles and took turns singing songs to each
other, or telling stories for entertainment. There was no electricity except in the
main dining hut, and they were their own entertainment. They were all vegans.
We would never survive there, we decided. If not for the isolation from
society, or the veganism, then because we’re both too embarrassed to sing in
public. Behind dreams involving soap-dropping, dreams involving public
singing are my second worst nightmare.
“Okay everybody, dance party!” It was Ivy, and she was ready to kick it.
She would be leaving to go back to America in a week’s time, and she wanted to
put on one final dance party in the dining hut as her last hurrah. The lights went
out and her laptop conducted techno dance tracks to a solar-powered speaker
system. And just like that, the whole place was up and dancing, carelessly,
dreadlocks flinging around, arms flailing, bodies gyrating. Dancing is my third
worst nightmare. I would never survive there.
A day that had started out so typically, that was destined to end so unromantically in a flooded police compound, had turned into this. The beautiful result of a natural disaster combined with equal doses of hippie idealism, poor judgment, and bravery.