logoEat - Drink - Protest

A culture blog by Lauren Girardin, a San Francisco-based city girl who eats out and kicks about.

January 29, 2004

India ~ Day 1

Brought to you by: Enterprise-Rent-A-Car

The chakra starts its spin

India - Day 1
Plane to plane to plane. To India, to Tamil Nadu, to Chennai - for a wedding, to begin with. In the space just yesterday over-filled by a bon voyage San Francisco Mission burrito, there's now a yawning gap in my gut, carved out by the unknown potential of my first visit to a third-world country.

The Chennai airport is small, stale and dimly dingy, especially when compared to the spacious mall-slash-museum-slash-arboretum-slash-airports found in San Francisco, Hong Kong and Singapore. I'm prejudiced that much of the rest of India will be similarly well-worn.

At baggage claim, my boyfriend, Todd, and I easily find our checked baggage - actually, it finds us. The baggage boys (who are young enough to be called just that) know the lightly marred backpacker packs belong to us, two of only a half-dozen pink-skinned people deplaning this late at night. We move to the end of the customs queue, for final permission to enter this country so far from our own. The air is muggy and we're dead on our feet, feet that shuffle just one foot every five minutes, so slow after soaring across the world.

mouse-over Todd's mug
My passport and I are processed without international incident, but Todd hits a cultural, bureaucratic snag. A quarter-hour passes while a crowd of India-born customs agents tries to reconcile whether Todd's here-and-now face is the same as his five-year-old passport puss. The discrepancy is in his 'do - none of the officials are willing to sanction with stamp that this normal-shorn man in front of them is the same wild jewfro'd guy pictured in the passport. This will be the only time in India we'll find a reluctant stamp.

Either it's decided that Todd is indeed himself, or a stamp is ultimately stamped simply for the hell of it. Immediately as we exit the airport we see the familiar faces of Raja, the looming groom, and Sheri, a friend for half-a-life who arrived in Chennai only half a day ago. They both greet us with strong, sweaty hugs as Sheri declares with raffish delight, "I've already thrown up! Want some of my soda?"

Together we traverse the parking lot, stepping over barriers, around vehicles, and past anxious swarm of men each offering, "Good Taxi! Very Cheap!" who all continue to follow us at a distance, still hopeful for a fare despite our repeated refusals and stiff competition. Into an awaiting car, hired by Raja's father, with AC, Air-Con, Air Conditioning - a rare premium here.

And they're off! Into the dark, smoggy night, to bandy for speediest, swerviest route against bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, auto-rickshaws, cars, buses, produce trucks, and petrol tankers. Vehicles veer so close I could reach out and tweak the moustache of any driver. These varied vehicles ignore lanes, laws and the will to live, abiding by the only rule of the road in India: honk, and honk often. Honk when you want to pass, honk once you've successfully passed, honk to warn of imminent danger, honk to acknowledge a honk was heard, honk to test that your horn is still honking, honk in thanks to Ganesha. There are no traffic lights or stop signs or common sense to impede the constant transportation momentum. There's only the swirl of sooty air caught in headlights, the whine of engines and the honking.

Honk, honk honk!! HONK honkhonk! Honk honk HONK! Honk!!

We arrive, impossibly un-fender-bendered, at the Hotel President, where Sheri, Todd and I will share a room for pocket-book's sake. Raja leaves for his father's house, promising to meet up for breakfast and shopping in the morning. Sheri shows us our room, just down the hall from the hotel's throbbing American-style dance club, "Sway." The tour of our accommodations includes a dozen on/off switches (one outside the room that controls the room power, some for lights, some for the fan, some with no known purpose, and none labeled), the many Sheri-squished mosquitoes in the bathroom ("The trick to keeping them in check," she explains, "is to keep the bathroom door closed and the AC full blast."), and the narrow single-sized bed where Todd and I can snugly if precariously curl up together at night (we call the front desk for a cot which never comes). Weary, we crash hard.