After a week in India I’m still coming up blank when I try to describe the experience. I could write a typical travel blog – an afternoon touring Chennai where we saw the Kapaleeshwarar Temple to Shiva; another afternoon in Mahabalipuram to see the Shore Temple and Five Rathas built over 1,400 years ago; a flight to Cochin and tours of the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth, constructed in 1568, the Dutch Palace Museum from the same era, Fort Cochin, on the Arabian Sea where fishermen still use Chinese nets, tall structures that dip in and out of the water with long weighted poles; a searing hot day on a houseboat touring the cooling backwaters of Kerala, shallow lakes separated from the sea and made in to a maze of channels through man-made islands that form rice paddies, the lunch served onboard a banquet of southern India food – fried whole fish, chicken curry, rice, thoran, dahl, chapatis, papadum, yogurt, pickle and three more dishes I can’t name — afternoon tea served with fried bread (so much better than the fried dough at the Deerfield Fair) and fried bananas.
Then there was the trip to Munnar, a mountain town of tea plantations which quilt the slopes with deep green tea planted in tight rows that circle around hills, cross valleys and climb steep ridges in varying patterns drawn by the narrow paths kept open for harvest.
But none of that describes what it’s like to be in India, it’s just what we’ve done.
I think the real problem in trying to write about traveling in India is that being here absorbs so much of my sensory processing capacity there’s nothing left to think, to abstract into language the immensity of the unceasing jumble of people and crazy driving and streets lined with ramshackle shops and trash and rubble, cows wandering along the roadsides, almost all the women in saris and the men in western clothes, fancy new high rise apartment buildings going up next to abandoned, half-built high rises with naked concrete corroding in the salty, tropical air.
That temple in Chennai? It was covered with scaffolding because it’s being repainted and it’s in the middle of a slum, the approach to it from one side down a narrow alley with piles of trash and litter. All this next to a fancy department store selling silk saris and suits for men. When you enter the shop, any shop, any tourist attraction, you’re met with multiple men ready to sell, sell, sell, “please, ma’am, come in to my shop, do you want postcards, promise you’ll come back, see these carvings I did myself, buy this shirt, buy this bag, buy, buy, buy.”
Driving is a wild game of chicken, with cars, trucks, buses, auto rickshaws and motorcycles passing in any zone at any time, often needing to squeeze three vehicles in to two lanes because the passing car coming at you hasn’t made it back to its own lane, the whole dance incessantly announced with horns. And more often than not pedestrians are added in to the mix and they move out of the way even less than vehicles. I’ve never been in a country before where I didn’t think I could drive. Here having a driver is a necessity.
One way I’ve tried to capture some of the constant intensity is taking videos as we drive – shop, hut, poster plastered wall, women walking, men huddled around a tea stand, cart of oranges and cucumbers, empty building shell full of trash, fancy house, pile of concrete rubble, children in school uniforms, motorcycles parked in knots, a “cool bar” with bottles of soda hanging in front, empty open storefronts, shuttered storefronts covered with sheets of corrugated metal, and on and on and on. As we drove up in to the mountains there were some stretches of road with nothing on either side – because there were sheer cliffs, up on one side, down on the other.
Tonight we’re flying to Delhi and I’ll be able to see a bit of northern India because I’ve only been in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the two most southern states. India has 29 autonomous states with far more diversity than among the United States. While Hindi is the official language, it’s spoken by less than 50% of the people. Imagine if half of the states in our country spoke different languages. We’re going to Agra tomorrow to see the Taj Mahal. I expect to be as overwhelmed as I’ve been all week.
But here is another side of India – the dinner we were served on the plane was vegetarian, as it has been on both our flights, so many Indians being vegetarian and restaurants all advertise “Veg and No-Veg.” The airplane food was excellent, two different curries and rice and raita. Every meal in India has been outstanding. I can say one thing for certain. India is delicious.