Honestly, in the past few days, I've probably had more sensory stimulation than during the whole rest of my trip. This is not a country you can half-ass; I doubt you can just check out a few sites and do the whole hostel thing. I’m sure there’s some sort of “backpacker trail” in India; however, I’m certainly not anywhere near it. I recently wrote about the tidiness of my previous destination, Singapore. Well, India is surely Singapore’s worst nightmare: a grimy, disorganized, loud place, where anything goes.
I arrived in Chennai, capital of the southern state Tamil Nadu. According to Wikipedia, Chennai is rated as one of the twenty cleanest cities in the country. Hmm, if the ranking holds true, I have absolutely no idea what to expect from the thousands of cities that didn't make the list. There is garbage strewn all over the streets, dilapidated sidewalks, plenty of homeless people, and heavy traffic pollution. It’s not uncommon to see cows on the side of the road, and street food hygiene standards are nonexistent.
I quickly left the big city, and headed to Pondicherry, capital of the Puducherry union territory (sort of like a state, but ruled by the federal government). This territory was under French occupation, and thus architecturally reminds me of Vietnam (a French occupied country). However, Pondicherry is still unmistakably India. I was served food with bare, dirty hands, walked through death-defying traffic, and got stared at by hundreds of curious Indians. On my second night there, I got food poisoning. It was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life; I quickly ran to the hospital where they injected me with some painkillers.
As I sat in the filthiest, most run down guesthouse I've ever stayed in, I felt, for the first time like a “real” traveler. I’m so glad that I chose to travel in India after leaving Southeast Asia. Now that I’m slightly more wary, I’m finding it simpler to “ease” my way into this colossus of a country. I can already tell India requires a great deal of effort to explore.
If it sounds like I’m bashing on this wonderful country, I’m not. Sure, it can be an exhausting, sickening, and depressing place at times. However, the rest of the time it is exhilarating, colorful, and friendly. I actually love how there are relatively few tourists here; as a result, I've been interacting more frequently with the local people (it doesn't hurt that many of them know English). Yeah, there are a fair number of people who just want your money. However, the rest have been interesting, kind, and helpful. Upon taking the train from Chennai airport to the city center, a man graciously explained the transit system to me. He then spent the next ten minutes writing me a page full of useful Tamil (the local language) translations. This happened within an hour of arriving in India, and gave me a wonderful first impression.
I must also say, Indian cuisine is hands down my favorite cuisine yet! I plan to eventually dedicate an entire post (or three) to just Indian food. Though I've eaten a number of incredible dishes throughout my journey, Indian food blows the competition away. It’s ridiculously cheap (less than a dollar for a large meal), is usually eaten with one’s hand (even rice), and uses a heavenly blend of spices.
Right now I am staying in Auroville, a beautiful town near Pondicherry. It is a historically diverse place, whose community is comprised of people from over 40 countries!
I’m just beginning my two-month-plus excursion into India. I cannot wait to see what lies ahead!