Our plane landed in Chennai in the dark, and we emerged from the
airport into a tumultuous mess of bodies. Touts hurried from passenger to
passenger trying to round up business for the taxis. Swept up in the chaos, we
found ourselves cramming into the back of an old Ambassador with a velour
headliner and ornamental drapes hanging above the windshield. The driver
gunned it and we heaved into a thick torrent of box trucks and taxis and
motorcycles. We fought the urge to fall asleep aboard this Indian death rocket
while we listened to our cab mates: a couple of idealistic young hippies who
were on their way to becoming enlightened and certified as ayurvedic healers at
a meditation retreat with their internet yoga guru.
One hour later the old Ambassador deposited us in front the Hotel
Melody, a ramshackle heap of brick and mortar that we had booked in a hurry
online in order to receive our Indian visas, and which looked nothing like the
pictures. Nothing about it seemed “quaint and inviting.” The cab driver did his
best to cheat us out of more than the agreed fare, but we stood our ground and he
drove away with the hippies and their guitar.
The hotel owner was kind, and walked us to our room—a mosquito-
infested, moldy, dank hole in the corner of the dilapidated building. The beds
were hard and clammy, and the air stank of deep, pungent body odor. It was as if
the humidity in the room, which soaked the walls and sheets, was not water, but
rather a fine mist of rank armpit juice. Throughout the first night I would
repeatedly wake up gagging, as though a big sweaty Indian man were
smothering my face with his sour, repulsive underarm. This was a rude
awakening after five weeks spent in our fluffy white Bangkok apartment; we
weren’t in Kansas anymore.
In the morning I dragged Sheena along to a corner store that sold incense
sticks, and I burned them continuously the following evening to try to mask the
body odor. Our room had neither mosquito nets nor window screens, so we slept
with the windows closed to fend off dengue fever. The room quickly filled with
incense smoke, making it hard to breathe, but every time I awoke I was relieved
to be asphyxiated by hippie-smelling smoke rather than by a big, wet Indian
armpit. When our booking expired in the morning, we hastily moved to a
slightly less repulsive hotel.
Out on the street, Chennai could be described as no less than a complete
and brutal assault on the senses. There were no in-betweens. The traffic was
suicidal and unforgiving, every car continually blasting its eardrum-splitting
aftermarket horn. The roadsides, alleys, and street corners were ankle-deep in
rotting trash, and the gutters were filled with a black sludge formed by a
concoction of human and animal excrement mixed with stagnant water, urine
and dust. The sidewalks were unusable, filled with parked motorcycles, shop
inventory, or else replaced by deep crevasses filled with black goo.
There was never a time that the place didn’t smell. It fluctuated
depending on location, so walking in a straight line brought a profusion of odors
ranging from decomposing garbage, to mutton briyani , to burning plastic, to chana
masala , to cow poop, to the overwhelming wet odor of copious amounts of
human piss baking in the sun. But it never smelled like nothing.
Cows roamed the streets, rested in busy intersections, shat on sidewalks,
and swallowed plastic bags like they were weeds while dining on the trash heaps
that filled every nook and cranny of the city.
But amid all of the slime and stench and eardrum-splitting noise, Chennai
had a saving grace: it was fascinating. We had found a place with more color and
life than any place we had ever been. Men with wooden staffs and white robes
hobbled down the middle of the street, beautiful sari-clad women traveled in
packs, people in cars honked incessantly at one another, but waited patiently as
enormous cows sauntered along in front of them.
One night we were awoken from our sleep in the middle of the night by
the sound of drums and eerie horns outside. We jumped out of bed and ran
downstairs and into the street to see what was going on at such an hour. When
we emerged into the empty street, we found a group of men carrying a giant
statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, down the middle of the street. A
band of musicians marched in front while women twirled around, flapping their
vibrantly colored saris in the night air. A shirtless man walked up to us and
handed us some sweet pongol in cups, and then the procession left us behind. We
ate our pongol on the street in our pajamas, then sauntered back upstairs and fell
back asleep. It was as if it was all part of a dream.
Eating in Chennai was like realizing that our tongues had been sheathed
in a protective coating all along, and then removing it to taste food for the first
time. Each day we emerged from our guesthouse and found our way to one of
the hole-in-the-wall restaurants lining the chaotic streets. Sometimes it was
simple, as in the case of the boy who served mutton briyani into a page from the
day’s newspaper. We would pay him the equivalent of fifty cents and then stand
on the sidewalk eating it with our hands out of the newspaper. Other times we
sat inside sweltering restaurants while fans pushed the humid air around, and we
gorged ourselves on mouthwatering curries and south Indian specialties like
dosa , idli , puri , or the all-you-can-eat south Indian thali . We ate always with our
hands—but only the right hand. Early on I held my naan with my left hand, and
this caused other diners to stare at me and laugh. We drank masala tea, served in
steel cups and poured back and forth at arm’s length by its preparer between the
cup and a deep saucer in order to mix and cool it before serving. The most
expensive entrée on any menu hovered around a dollar or two.
And then there were the people. People-watching in Chennai became our
favorite pastime while we waited for Nacho to arrive at the port. Each day we
emerged from the guesthouse with the camera, in search of people. Four shops
down, there was a hole-in-the-wall where men sat around a crude machine. One
man cranked a large wheel while another sat on the ground sharpening knives
and scissors against a spinning piece of stone. Seeing my camera, they invited
me inside, told me the story of how Gandhi used to spin thread for his own
clothes, and then they let me take a series of photos. Next door the young man
with his giant cook pot asked me to photograph him serving up some briyani into
a steel bowl, and then offered me lunch. On the next block, we peered into an
open gate where a young girl in her school uniform watched the boys exercise in
the yard before class. When we turned to leave, a beautiful woman who was
seated on the curb asked me to take her picture. And down the block the story
But the fact that we were intriguing to strangers was both a blessing and
a curse. One afternoon we walked from our guesthouse to the beach. Along the
way we met a homeless family, and we made small talk with charades. They
were thrilled when we wanted to take their photo, and excitedly handed Sheena
their bare-bottomed baby for the occasion. Arriving at the beach, we walked a
hundred meters across the sand where mobile popcorn stands were painstakingly
dragged through the deep sand, young Muslim and Hindu couples strolled, and
people huddled in the shade of the dozens of abandoned wooden carts dotting
the sand. As we strolled, young groups of boys began approaching us. They
would ask us where we were from, and then quickly ask for our photo. They had
no interest in me; the bottom line was that they wanted their photo taken with
Sheena. We found it a little disconcerting, and were later told that young Indian
men and boys like to take photos of themselves with white girls so that they can
post them on Facebook and claim that they have a white girlfriend. The constant
photographing may have been a small annoyance at first, but when we reached
the waterfront we couldn’t walk more than twenty feet without being stopped by
a different group of boys wanting their photo taken with the white people.
After becoming quickly overwhelmed, we retreated toward the street. In
doing so, we found ourselves behind a bunch of abandoned shacks, and soon a
dodgy looking man fell in step behind us. We could tell he was there, but
thought nothing of it at first. A short while later we passed a trash heap, and the
man bent over and picked up an empty glass bottle. He fell back in step and got
closer to us and we could feel him burning holes in the back of our heads with
his eyes. Sheena stopped and turned to me.
“I’m feeling uncomfortable,” she said.
“Got it. Let’s go,” I said. We turned around and walked past the man with
the bottle, and as we passed him he angrily threw the bottle at a shack and it
burst into pieces. We speed-walked out of there and made our way back to the
guesthouse feeling a little exhausted, and a little jaded.
Our first impressions of India were that it was too loud, too stinky, there
were too many beggars and touts, the traffic was the worst we had ever
experienced, and some of its men had a tendency to be inappropriate. But on the
other hand, it was possibly the most captivating place we had ever been,
everybody was interesting to look at, and some of its people had a tendency to be
very kind. It was going to be a fascinating place, if not more than a little
Triplicane High Road
Nacho arrived in Chennai Port aboard a mighty container ship after
having floated from Bangkok to Singapore, and then across the Indian Ocean to
India’s central-east coast. The logical procession of events would have had
Nacho unloaded from the ship so that we could have been on our way, but in
India logic has no place.
Our shipping agents were right on top of things, having delivered our
Carnet de Passages —a sort of passport for Nacho—to the customs agent for
processing. But the first day went by with no action. And then the second and
third day. And then four, five, six, and seven. Every time our shipping agent
asked the customs agent if he had done his job yet, he said, “tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Sheena and I transitioned from being amused by India to
feeling under siege by India. Day after day we renewed our room in the
guesthouse on Triplicane Road, and made our sojourns into the city for what can
be euphemistically called “cultural experiences” to the chorus of cars honking,
cows eating trash, and people staring at us.
After our first trip to the beach we realized that beachcombing wasn’t any
longer in the cards for us on account of our status as extraterrestrials and the
constant pestering that that brings. Our walks in the city became one-hour jaunts
—expeditions, really—into frenzied and overwhelming territory filled with
aggressive touts and beggars. Our white faces marked us not as people, but as
walking money, causing everything to cost double and people’s hands to
magically open, palm up. These outings required immense mental preparations,
and were followed by evening bouts of PTSD.
One evening I took a picture of some children dancing, and then offered
them two rupees in thanks. They snatched the rupees, and I was immediately
mauled by at least a dozen street kids who poured out of the woodwork like
angry zombies in a bad horror film. They hung onto my clothing and limbs while
I tried to escape, demanding more money. In my struggle to get away, during
which time Sheena and I lost each other, I was dragged into an ankle-deep gutter
filled with fecal goo, wearing only my sandals. I barely kept myself from
concurrently barfing and slaughtering the children, and the event was infuriating
enough to send me into a two-day funk. As the days passed and these events
began to multiply, we became jaded, and I only partially emerged from my funk.
All the while, cars honked, cows ate trash, and people stared.
One day a new face appeared at the hotel – that of Tatjana, a petite
twenty-something German girl with blond hair and blue eyes. It seemed to us
that Tatjana never left the guesthouse, a fact verified by Tatjana herself when we
invited her out to lunch.
“I haven’t left the guesthouse in two days,” she said as we entered the
restaurant a few doors down from our home base. On her first day she had
attempted to walk to the beach, just as we had, but upon exiting the guesthouse,
twenty Indian men surrounded her and proceeded to grope her body while one
man tried kissing her neck as she walked. She looked to passersby for help, but
everyone simply watched like slack-jawed spectators at a cricket match. She
retreated to her room and refused to leave, subsisting on granola bars that she
had brought from Germany. We wondered how she would cope during her
planned six-month stay in India.
On the morning of the eighth waiting day, ten days after we had arrived
in Chennai, I called our shipping agent. I could tell he was disappointed, but he
told me to hire a cab and come by the office anyway. When I arrived, two of the
agents got in the cab with me and told the driver how to get to the customs
As we approached the customs office, they explained to me that the
customs agent was purposely ignoring us day after day, most likely expecting a
bribe to get him to do his job. By bringing me along, they hoped to force his
hand. I was to be used as a sacrificial lamb in a fight against corruption and
ineptitude. Our plan seemed destined to succeed.
When we got to the customs office, our shipping agent entered first and
then grabbed my arm and pushed me into a chair in front of the customs agent.
The agent was in his late twenties and appeared to be in a state of repose. He put
down his newspaper when I sat down.
“This is a foreigner,” our agent began, “and he has been waiting for four
days to get his car from the port [a gross understatement]. He is foreign. We
would simply like for you to process the foreigner’s paperwork.” He repeatedly
placed emphasis on my foreignness, perhaps so that I would be felt sorry for. It
didn’t at first have the desired effect.
“Who do you think you are?!” the customs man began, addressing our
shipping agent. “Do you think that you can pressure me? I have superiority! I am
your superior! Besides, it’s after 4:00, so it is impossible to process this today.”
This was the part where the angry chief nonchalantly slices off the sacrificial
lamb’s head. I closed my eyes and waited. It hadn’t worked.
“Yes of course, you are my superior, sir,” our agent said, backpedaling a
little bit. He had to play the game, and he had to play it with British imperial
mannerisms. “I wouldn’t dare pressure you, as I am merely a shipping agent and
you are a customs agent. I simply wish for you to accompany us to the port so
that we can help this foreigner get on his way.”
The customs agent settled down a little as the praise was lavished on him,
and he finally reclined in his chair. He had saved face, and waited a few
moments before continuing. I stroked my doughy soft neck with my hand.
“I will accompany you to the port, but only because of my graciousness.
It is my decision, do you understand? This has nothing to do with your
“Of course, sir,” our man said.
Awkwardly, I was to share the back seat of the cab with the customs
agent on the hour-long journey to the port. I put on my cheery face and used the
hour to make friends and bring him up to speed on our trip. I knew that a
customs approval in India could get ugly fast, so having the agent on our team
would be critical. We arrived at the port and found Nacho’s container.
I climbed inside, fired up the engine, and backed Nacho out for
inspection. I stood there looking dopy with an innocent smile on my face. This
was intentional. After a cursory glance around the outside, it was time for the
interior inspection. Nacho was supposed to be completely empty, as our Carnet des
Passages only covered importation of the van and a few choice accessories.
“Ready to have a look inside?” I said cheerfully, and then slid the door
open to reveal our treasure trove of undocumented belongings. “Here she is,
surfboard, clothes, this is a toilet, shoes…” I smiled at the agent and shoved my
hands into my pockets like a bumpkin, and then stepped aside.
He looked dumbfounded. He checked the list of approved accessories,
and then peered inside again. He turned to someone and whispered, “None of
this is on the Carnet.” I pretended not to hear. He looked over at me and I smiled
like a half-wit. After a few minutes he gave me the motion to close the door, and
we were done.
But it wasn’t over. No, this was India, and in India it is never that easy. I
drove Nacho back into the container, whereupon it was re-sealed, and then a
truck moved it a few rows over, where we would come back for it the following
The next day, after a couple hours of paperwork, it was time for the
grand finale. We opened the container, and prepared to remove Nacho. The
moment that the doors were opened, people emerged from the woodwork and
surrounded the container to watch. We had started to notice that gawking was
something of a theme of India. All work at the port seemed to cease, and I
emerged from the darkness to the blank stares of a dozen dead-eyed onlookers.
I had noticed a small pool of brake fluid under one of the rear wheels, so
I decided to stop just outside the port to investigate. Sheena and I drove out from
the container yard and found a small, empty parking lot where I could work. I
decided to start by checking my tire pressure, and I hunched down next to one
rear wheel. Nothing out of the ordinary.
When I stood up to move to the next wheel I was shocked to find more
than a dozen Indian men surrounding me, staring. I stared back, confused. Where
had these people come from? This place was like the Twilight Zone. I walked
over to the next wheel and the mob silently followed me, staring, as if witnessing
for the very first time how man made fire. I hunched down at the second tire, and
the mob stood directly over me, straining to see the tire pressure but never
speaking. They followed me around to each tire, and then waited in Nacho’s
doorway as I found my tool kit. I crouched at the rear wheel, and the men stood
over me silently. Occasionally I looked up or waved, but they stared back at me
as if I were an alien. When I had finished after more than a half an hour, I stood
up, hot, sweaty, dirty, and hungry.
From the car, Sheena handed me a portion of briyani wrapped in
newspaperfrom our neighborhood briyani boy, and I stood in the middle of the
mob of men and unwrapped it. They stared at me. I stared back. They said
nothing. I said nothing. I scarfed down the briyani with my hands, all the while
being watched intently only inches from my face by the slack-jawed mob. I
played their awkward game.
When I was done I looked around, turned, and awkwardly got back into
“Bradley, please don’t set up the GPS right now,” Sheena pleaded. “Let’s
just go down the road a little.”
I agreed, and we merged onto the congested, dusty street. A hundred
meters away, where there were clearly no people around, I pulled over and
started dialing in our destination on the GPS. I leaned forward to search the map
for our guesthouse, and after a few seconds something didn’t feel right. It was the
feeling as if someone were standing right behind me. I paused, and turned my
head. Inside of my window, right behind my head, three Indian men stared
intently at the GPS.
We were officially in India with our own vehicle. A place with no
concept of personal space, where traffic was dizzying and dangerous, and where
we were literally regarded as alien creatures. A place where Sheena couldn’t be
left alone, where we would always have to be on our guard. Perhaps to the
greatest extent so far, we felt very far from home. We rolled on, eager to leave
town. Meanwhile, the cars honked, the cows ate trash, and the people stared.