Sunday, January 30, 2011

I'm Here

I remember reading once that upon arriving in India, the senses are assaulted.  That was all I could think of when I walked out of the airport last night and was immediately immersed in all of Chennai’s chaos and strangeness.  The first thing that struck me was the noise.  Car horns never seem to cease here.  Their use is not reserved for the rare circumstance when you have to alert another driver of your unnoticed presence or protest their careless driving.  No.  The drivers here use their horn as a way to demand the right of way from other cars and pedestrians alike.  The horns come so varied and so often that they are sometimes indiscernible in the cacophony and it’s questionable whether they achieve anything at all.

And then there is the smell.  It would be inaccurate to say that the city streets stink.  There is a mix of food, spices, dirt, sweat, exhaust and excrement that somehow manages to be less offensive than it sounds.  It’s simply alien.  And that combination of smells permeates everything and everyone. 

In the midst of the more concrete senses, there’s also the feel of the place, which is probably what I was least prepared for.  It is neither threatening nor welcoming, but something that manages to be the two.  As I walked through the crowd looking for a sign with my name on it signaling that I’d found my cab driver, I realized I was the only non-Indian I could identify.  But rather than stick out awkwardly, I noticed that it was only the odd individual who would even bother to glance at me.  Most people looked far past me, searching for someone they knew perhaps.  They didn’t seem to notice me at all, even as I was headed right towards them, and moved out of my path only as I pressed into them to get through.

After only a couple of minutes I realized I had a shadow on me: a dark skinned Indian man with a stern look who walked uncomfortably close to me.  “Taxi?” he asked.  I told him I someone was supposed to be waiting for me.  “Someone waiting for you?” he repeated.  And even though I confirmed, he stayed right on me, moving alongside me as if we knew each other. 

I had read in “Culture Shock! India,” a book Kevin gave me for Christmas so I could prepare for my trip, that taxi drivers in India are aggressive: they will fight, often with each other, for your business and offer the lowest rate and a reassurance that they know exactly where you’re going.  But once you’re in the cab, all of those agreements go out the window.  I wanted to avoid this as much as possible but the hotel was not going to make it easy for me.  “Where are you going, sir?” he pressed.  So I told him my hotel’s name and when he asked for an address, I pulled out the sheet with the hotel information.  He asked me about three or four questions that I couldn’t easily make out but I generally understood that he wanted to know if I was sure they would be here.  I shrugged.  He pulled out his cell phone and looked at the hotel number then handed me his phone.  The guy who answered was unmoved by my predicament.  He stepped through the situation with me: I was at the Chennai airport, I’d asked them to send me a taxi, I didn’t see anyone here waiting for me. 

“Can you take a taxi, sir?” 

I remembered another line from “Culture Shock! India”:  Indians have a hard time saying “no” and an equally hard time following through on what they agreed to do.  So I just hung up the phone and asked my shadow how much he’d charge for a ride to the hotel.  “Rs 560.”  About $12.  I agreed.

He pushed the cart with my bags through the crowd, across the street and into an area where various taxis were coming through.  We stopped by a car that I initially thought was his but was not.  “Where’s the car?” I asked.  And he blabbed something off that roughly communicated that we were actually waiting for someone with a cab.  I had not been picked up by a taxi driver but rather by a taxi pimp. 

Making conversation with this guy was not easy.  He clearly knew only enough English to fulfill the necessities of his trade.  But he tried anyway.  As we waited, another guy came up to me.  I was clearly standing next to my shadow, who had both hands on the cart with my luggage. “Need a taxi, sir?”  Oh boy, I thought, here we go.  So sure enough, within 10 minutes of landing in Chennai, I’d had two experiences the author of “Culture Shock! India” had warned about: I’d been promised a ride that never showed up and now had two taxi drivers fighting infront of everyone else for my business.  Excuse me, a traxi driver and a taxi pimp.  The shadow won the argument and the new guy walked away.  Soon after a car pulled up with a driver who managed to speak even less English than my shadow.  The taxi pimp said something to him and we were off, then the taxi driver asked me where we were going.  I told him the name of the hotel.  Clearly it’s not a well known hotel because he had no clue what it was, so I pulled out my information sheet again and showed it to him.  He was still not sure.  So I pulled out my hand Chennai map and pointed to where the hotel was.  He nodded and we were off.

At this point I’d lost all confidence that I would get to my hotel in a decent amount of time.  I’d asked the hotel how much time to expect the ride from the airport to take and they’d suggested 30 minutes.  I’ve since learned that Indians would rather give an inaccurate answer than no answer at all.  The taxi managed it in less than 20.  In that time I had my first glimpse of the rampant poverty: trash lay strewn along the sidewalk, women in colorful saris walked barefoot along the filthy street, stray dogs, mostly emaciated, roamed freely, looking for food in the trash piles.  There are cities that, despite their decline, still manage, in their architecture or street art, to offer a glimpse of what they were at their height.  But Chennai offers no such insight.  It’s hard to imagine what this place was like when the streets were not crumbling under the vehicles and the buildings weren’t crumbling around their inhabitants.

When I finally stepped into the hotel I took my first real breath in this country.  The room itself and the hotel in general were not especially impressive, but I was at least where I was supposed to be.  It has the essentials: running hot water, air conditioning, a comfortable bed, windows I can close to shut out the overwhelming amount of stimuli, and the reassurance that I will have these things until I leave a month from now.  In this country that is not something to be taken for granted.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Oreste,

    Brace up! :-D I spent six months in India once, on business, back in '96. You probably won't have a spare moment while you're there, but at some point you may find my web journal hilarious and so familiar. It's

    You're in for a month of 24/7 wide-eyed wonder, I'm sure.

    All the best,