Bus scramble Kanchipuram to Mahabalipuram; In which the germs catch up with me; Where dirty white boys with dreadlocks come to die; Home of the stonecarvers

I felt like the living dead when I woke up this morning. I knew illness had been coming ever since I’d boarded the flight to Chennai and everyone on it was either coughing, sneezing or both. I wasn’t seriously sick, just a bad cold, but it really put me down for a couple of days. Naturally our plans didn’t include lying in bed all day moaning, so it was on with the packs and out into the bright and deafening daylight to catch a bus to Mahabalipuram (or Mamallapuram, the Tamil name) a couple of hours away.

Not being completely stupid, we’d asked for bus information yesterday and discovered that the bus to Mahabalipuram was the 212A and left at twenty minutes to the hour. We couldn’t see the 212A anywhere in the bedlam of the station, though. Asking people led us to a bus with no numbers or English markings at all, but three of the passengers gave us an affirmative nod when we asked “Mamallapuram” and pointed at the bus - this “yes” nod is distinct from the noncommittal sideways head-wobble used in these parts, which can mean anything from “I don’t know”, “okay” or “if you say so” (I choose to interpret the head-wobble as the gestural equivalent of the word “whatever”).

This bus left at half-past ten. We knew we weren’t on the bus we wanted to be on, but the nod of the other passengers and the fact that we were leaving town in at least the right direction combined to give us a small measure of confidence. Misplaced confidence, as it happens. When the conductor came around to collect our money we asked for Mamallapuram and got a torrent of headshaking and Tamil in reply. The two young guys ahead of us had a few words of English and Sheryl somehow guessed that we had to change buses somewhere. Our map was buried somewhere out of reach for the moment, but we got them to write down the name of the town - it turned out to be a place called Tirukkalikundram which I knew. It was in the right direction, and only stopped about 15 kilometres short of Mahabalipuram. I figured there would be ways of making that last leg and was more or less satisfied to get most of the way there on the first bus.

The bus had filled up by the time we reached Tirukkalikundram but we managed to get off in good order. We had a look around - Tirukkalikundram’s bus stand was on an anonymous bustling street with the usual dusty shopfronts, stray cows and dogs and underemployed autorickshaw drivers. One of them helped us out and told us any bus would go to Mamallapuram - “but not that one”. It was only ten minutes until a bus came for us, but maybe we should have waited for the next one. It was very crowded. We had to fight our way on, and the conductor made us squeeze into the middle of the bus. This is all with our giant packs hanging off our backs and fronts, in a narrow aisle on a bus crammed with people. “Sorry, sorry, sorry”, we kept repeating. There was nowhere for us to sit, of course, and so we stood through the jolting, swerving half-hour journey trying to brace our weight against the packs as best we could, and trying not to crush anyone. I felt very sorry for all the other passengers, but they were very patient and forgiving with us, and one old lady in particular kept us busy with pointing and hand-waving from her throne in a middle row, manoeuvring us into empty spaces.

Standing with the packs on a bouncing bus was no fun at all, and we were in rough shape when we got to Mahabalipuram around 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Still, it hadn’t been a much longer trip than the two hours we were expecting. When the Spaniards finally showed up in the late afternoon they said that the 212A, the bus we’d intended to take, had been three hours, so maybe we were luckier than we thought. We were snagged by a hotel tout as soon as we got off the bus. We were naturally suspicious, but he claimed he was representing one of the hotels in our guidebook and demanded (really) that we get in an autorickshaw so we could go to look at it. I was sceptical, of course, and figured we’d end up at some other hotel entirely, but I watched the route and he turned out to be on the level, and the hotel was one of the cheaper places in town. Bare-bones but clean, and after the nasty bug-infested room in Kanchipuram, that’s all we were looking for.

Mahabalipuram is a stonecarvers’ village on the coast, where the villagers have resurrected the forms of the old Pallava sculptures. It’s a very small place, and the tap-tap-tap of hammer on chisel echoes everywhere throughout the day. It’s small, but very touristy. Very Western and everything twice as expensive as Kanchipuram. Beer and pizza were available everywhere, and it was hard to find an Indian restaurant. The place was crawling with tourists - probably outnumbering the locals. Each one was having the Authentic Indian Experience drifting around wide-eyed in saris and buying souvenirs. Interestingly, we’ve finally discovered where all those dirty white hippy boys with smelly blond dreadlocks go to die (excepting our good friend Armin of course, who is not dirty, smelly or a hippy). There was seemingly one on every corner squatting dull-eyed in the dirt or “helping” at one of the craft shops.

Such was my mood that afternoon that I could only see the tourists and the beggars that swarmed everywhere and was blind to whatever charm the place possessed. I’d been spoiled in Kanchipuram, I think - crowded, noisy and dirty as the place was, it was still fresh and friendly and we were the only foreigners there, so we got a lot of smiles and cheerful waves from the kids. Here, we were walking ATMs and nothing more. This was much more like the India I’d been warned about. Disappointed and upset, my mood must have been obvious, because Sheryl gently pointed out that I should probably wait to judge until I wasn’t feeling lousy, and she was right - I’d been sliding into a downward spiral. I reckoned the best thing to do would be to hide out and try to catch up with my writing. I emerged only for dinner and a drink with Sheryl and the Spaniards, and went to bed early, hoping tomorrow would be better.


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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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