Chennai to Kanchipuram; A very frustrating day for transportation; In which we have our first experience with Indian buses; Joining forces with Rafael and Juan Luis, the crazy Spaniards

After our Valentine’s Day debauchery the night before, none of us were in any mood to get up early in the morning. We should have - it would have changed a lot of how the day worked out. But after a late breakfast we left Sujit with deep thanks and got on the road again. His housekeeper was probably profoundly relieved to see us go. An autorickshaw ride to Tirumailar station and then we were on the train, which was crowded but not hideously so.

Here’s where things started going wrong. We hadn’t read our guidebook carefully enough, I guess, and had somehow gotten the idea that trains for Kanchipuram (our next destination) left from Egmore Station. We thought, in fact, that Egmore Station and Central Station were one and the same - they aren’t, needless to say. We had to walk five minutes from Park to Park Town station, and then had to wait there for ages for the connecting train to go one lousy stop to Egmore. Central Station, meanwhile, was only a block or two from Park, so if we hadn’t gone off on a tangent we could have been there very quickly. Egmore Station is huge. I left Sheryl with the bags and went to find out about trains. The ticket office was mobbed - there were easily a thousand people in line. I could have waited there for an hour, I’m sure. The other problem is that Indian trains are referred to mainly by name, like the Kanyakumari Express, but the boards don’t give any intermediate destinations so unless you already know which train you need, you have no way of discovering it. So I went and fetched Sheryl and we rethought things. There was a little information window there, and we managed to extract (painfully) from the attendant the information that there was only one train left that day, at 6:30 in the evening. This sounded very strange to us, since our guidebook said that there were many trains. Of course there were, but they were leaving from the other station, unbeknownst to us.

That train would have gotten us to Kanchipuram too late, so we had to take the bus. Chennai’s bus station is 7 or 8 kilometres west of town and off a train line. We could have taken an autorickshaw, I suppose, but the 27B bus was only Rs4, which struck us as a much better deal. Of course we’d have to suffer a hideously crowded jolting bus, but you can’t have everything. We were hot and tired by this time, and so I didn’t react quickly enough to stop Sheryl when she got on the right bus in the wrong direction. By the time we got off we were a 15-minute walk through a stinky, dodgy part of town back to the station. The hustlers were swarming, the traffic was horrible and our packs felt very heavy. But the universe gave us a gift - the bus in the right direction was nearly empty. We almost wept with relief, I can tell you.

A half-hour ride took us to the bus station, where we alighted and surveyed the seething, honking mass of buses. It was horribly intimidating at first, but each bus bay was labelled with the destination of the bus, so it was easier than it seemed at first. There were a half-dozen bays dedicated to Kanchipuram buses, and most of them were full with buses, and all the buses were crammed with people. I whimpered inwardly at the thought of trying to board one of them and find a place for both of us and our giant packs. We tried one bus and although Sheryl got to the back, I was summarily ejected. Ditto for the second bus. The third bus was empty but the driver was on his lunch break and clearly wasn’t leaving any time soon. We joined the mad rush for the fourth bus when it arrived, but weren’t fast enough or mean enough to get on it. The fifth bus, though, came when the crowd had thinned a bit, so we were able to fight our way onto it. Sheryl ended up sitting beside her pack a third of the way back in a two-seat row, and I got bounced around three separate spots before ending in the window seat of the right front row, wedged in with my pack between my knees, my feet up on a rail and my small pack on my lap crushing my guts. In the process I hit my head on the ceiling hard enough to make my eyes cross. A round young housewife looked very concerned, but I grinned and laughed it off, which made her smile.

After we’d won our seats things were smooth enough, more or less. Sheryl had an altercation with the conductor - he asked “one or two” and she wasn’t sure what he meant, so said “one”. He made her move her pack down between the seats then and she nearly lost her temper. Seems he’d been asking if she wanted to pay for a seat for her pack, which she would have done in an instant since the fare was only 23 rupees - about CAD $0.60. But the opportunity was gone by then - the conductor had summoned a man to take the seat. I was a little concerned, since I couldn’t see her or reach her, and we’ve heard a lot of reports about Western women being groped in crowds here. But he was almost instantly asleep, so there was no need to worry.

I myself was wedged beside two Spanish backpackers, the only other foreigners on the bus. They had much smaller packs than me, since they’re only travelling for three weeks - a very good thing, given the size of that seat. Rafael and Juan Luis were both great guys and I took an instant liking to them. Not just me, as it happened - at one point in the journey I heard a loud squashed-cat sound from the seat behind and looked around to see a little boy about a year old staring at Rafael with huge wide eyes. The Spaniards played goo-goo games with him over the seat back, and then his mother handed him over to sit on Rafael’s lap. He sat there happily for ages, drooling and grabbing everything in sight - including my nose, with which he was strangely fascinated. Everybody in the front rows of seats was grinning at us - kids are the ultimate icebreaker. I’m normally not wild about kids, but he was cute. I was happy that I had no lap to offer, though - he was only wearing a strip of cloth for a diaper. Rafael was very lucky, I’d say.

I was glad of the window seat for the breeze, which kept me from asphyxiating, even when the bus drove through a cloud of some kind of dust and my sinuses instantly swelled up like balloons. I’m not sure what it was, but ever since then I’ve been sneezing and my nose has been dripping and burning. Some strange kind of allergic reaction, I guess. It was a two-hour ride to Kanchipuram. When we arrived there was an instant frenzied rush for the door, and an equally frenzied crowd outside trying to get it at the same time as everyone was fighting to get out. This country, honestly. Sheryl and the Spaniards got out okay, but I got stuck fighting the boarders to get out. With elbows and shoulders and the help of gravity, I got outside, but I made no friends among them, it’s safe to say.

Kanchipuram is a busy town. It’s tiny for India - only three hundred thousand people or so. Most of them seemed to be crowding the bus station when we got there, and a good tenth of them were hustling for their hotel commissions. We joined forced with the Spaniards and found our way to the main road with all the accommodations. The first couple of places we checked were full and the third was too expensive. The fourth was Rs350 and we might have taken it, but there was a place a couple of doors down that was 150. Yes, 150 rupees - that’s CAD$3.75 for a hotel room. We settled for it, partly out of a desire to save money and partly out of a desire to establish some kind of frame of reference for ourselves. What’s a 150-rupee room like? A rattrap dirt-bag, naturally, that goes without saying. Not clean, but not actually filthy. Thin foam mattresses I didn’t really want to touch with bare skin, and pillows likewise. Tiled walls and floor, grimy electrical fixtures and the ubiquitous ceiling fan. An attached washroom with a spout and bucket for washing and a squat toilet (also known as a porcelain-lined hole in the floor), awash with skanky water and smelling of mildew and worse. So not that bad, really. I’ve slept in lots worse, I told myself, and it’s true - but that was before I met the local insect life that night. Bedbugs I can deal with, and the three-inch cockroach in the toilet was just something to aim for, but the mosquitoes were unbearable. There was a window with a shutter that opened onto the hallway and we’d left it open, forgetting that there was no door between the hotel and the outside, and that the mosquitoes could come and go (mostly come) as they pleased. We both coated ourselves with repellent, but the mosquitoes here only laugh at repellent (and probably at flyswatters and hammers too). By morning we’d both been bitten to within an inch of our lives by the combined bedbug-mosquito coalition forces.

All that was later that night, though. As we dropped our bags food was more on our mind than living conditions, since we hadn’t really eaten all day. The Spaniards had vanished to find another hotel, so we went downstairs and picked the first restaurant we saw, which turned out to be one of the Saravana Bhavan chain. They have locations in Scarborough and Mississauga, believe it or not - at least according to their menu. It’s basic, cheapish and cleanish. There was a handwash station on one side and a bunch of formica-topped tables with chrome legs. Half the menu was entirely familiar to us - we’ve spent a lot of our lives eating Indian food, after all. So we’re in a position to say that the palak paneer was okay but too oniony, the biryani and aloo gobi were good, and the naan was too thin. People were covertly watching us as we ate - maybe just the novelty factor, or maybe making sure we didn’t eat like barbarians and use our left hands (I was sitting on mine to make quite sure I didn’t, actually). It made me happy we’d practised ripping naan with one hand.

We walked off dinner with a stroll around some of the town. We found 3 of the 5 big temples, noting their locations for the next day. It was dark by this time, and all the kids were out playing. Half of them waved and yelled “Hi!” or “Hello!” over and over. It put me in mind of my brother’s stories about my little niece screaming “HELLO!” from their balcony at people below on the street, except that with these kids when we said “Hi! How are you?” they invariably said “… Bye!” and ran away.

Kanchipuram is a dusty town, but busy. Colour runs riot everywhere, from the temples to the bullock carts - two- or four-wheeled carts pulled by big animals that are apparently neither bulls nor cows but actually oxen. They’re all a pale tan colour with a big floppy hump between their front shoulders, and they all have gaily painted horns in bright colours and patterns. Each horn is nearly always a different colour - I only saw one that had both horns the same (solid sky-blue). The paint on the metal frame of the carts often matches the colour of the horns, too. Trucks, too, are all cheerfully coloured, with each panel a different hue and hand-painted designs and embellishments on the front, back and sides. Some have flowers, some have eyes, and every single one has a “Sound Horn” notice painted on the back with flourished and decorations. It must be a law here that every truck has that notice, but the owners have made the best of it and they play with the words, decorating them so much that they’re often illegible. Sheryl and I decided that these warning notices are the probable cause of all of India’s traffic noise, and began to plot a two-person campaign to quieten the country by producing thousands of “Do Not” stickers and slapping them on in front of the “Sound Horn” warning. They probably wouldn’t stick for all the road dirt coating the trucks, though. Another brilliant plan foiled again.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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