India is a very intense experience that can easily overwhelm you. Coming from the west I found myself once again looking around at the apparent chaos surrounding me and wondering how this country actually manages to get anything done. But here, far outside the safety of familiarity, it’s possible to find a sense of freedom and perhaps adventure which is both exhilarating and intoxicating. In the Hindi language the word for tomorrow and yesterday are the same, which is perhaps the best indication of how things are in this part of the world.

This trip to India has been entirely different to the first time I came to this part of the world back in 2004. I was prepared for the culture shock to some extent, but as Joelle says, it still takes a couple of days to get into the groove of India. Home luxuries like refrigerators, reliable electricity, wireless internet access, air conditioning, and plumed toilets were largely absent on this trip. However, the liberation from this years seemingly unending British winter was more than welcome. “You’ll never hear me complain about heat.” I told Joelle.

My first mistake was bringing so many white T shirts and light colored summer clothes. White things don’t stay white for long and it would seem I still have to perfect the technique of hand-washing things using buckets and the floor!

I should also mention that the Srinivasa wasn’t the only place I ate. Joelle and Laxman prepared many colorful and thoroughly enjoyable meals, some of which we ate in equally colorful company!

Joelle & Laxman

Arunachala, the holy hill.

On one afternoon while Joelle and Laxman were doing their daily walk around Arunachala, the “holy hill,” I borrowed the moped and decided to go exploring. A dirt track behind Laxman’s house that headed away from the mountain looked enticing to me. I figured that even without a map it would be impossible for me to get lost as I could always just head back in the direction of Arunachala at which point I would find the road that circles the mountain.

I found my way to a small road along which there were rows or palm trees. I kept stopping the moped not to take pictures as much as just soak up the fact that I was enjoying being off the map in India, or at least off my map, not that I actually had a map of course, but you get the point I’m sure.

As I sat there on the moped looking across the fields of palm trees and Papayas I knew that this would be one of those afternoons that would become solidified in my memory, minutes weren’t merely passing, they were being carved out of time itself.

A little way down the road I came upon a small village. The first house along the road was painted in bright colors and so I decided to stop a take a photograph, but no sooner had I taken the camera out of my pocket than a smiling man started walking across a nearby field calling out to me and waving. He approached me and quickly established that the colorful house was his. Neither of us spoke the others language so we engaged in one of those conversations where we both spoke in our native tongue while making exaggerated hand gestures and nodding.

He invited me to step inside his home which was painted dark blue, sparsely furnished, and surprisingly cool on this scorching afternoon. He showed me his kitchen and seemed especially proud of his TV. He then led me outside to the steps onto his roof where he reached up and grabbed the branch of the overhanging tree taking some kind of fruit from it. Speaking Tamil enthusiastically and gave me a few of the tiny fruits and indicated that I should eat them. “Ah, we eat these?” I asked. He stepped back and wobbled his head some more while smiling broadly. I looked at them and thought to myself that I simply had to eat this whatever it was, to refuse would be a little rude.

“You’re not trying to kill me are you?” I asked, feeling a little like someone on a travel documentary. “Are you vegetarian?” I continued. “I only ask because I’m concerned you might be a white meat kind of guy.” I joked as if for the benefit of an imaginary camera crew. He then stepped forward and took the tiny fruit from my hand and broke it open with his hand, then ate one and again motioned to me to eat. With that I smiled and said “Gesundheit” as I ate whatever that was he gave me. He seemed pleased and said something which I hoped was “I’m so glad you enjoyed that” rather than “Ha, you fool, now you’re going to die!”

In truth I wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. In my experience people in the rural villages are always happy to see tourists who have dared stray from the guide book. Smiling man was now waving and shouting at the entire village from his roof top while pointing at me and getting more of those strange nutty fruit things to eat. I might be here for a while, I thought to myself as other villagers started to arrive and talk to me in Tamil.

I stayed with the smiling man and his friends for a while, before eventually shaking everyones hand and saying goodbye as I made my way to the moped. A number of them were talking to me at once, perhaps under the notion that more than one person speaking might somehow make them more understandable to me. I smiled politely and then began to rev the bike, signaling my imminent departure.

At that point one of the men pointed back in the direction I had come from. “This road is a dead end?” I asked, in English, which, of course, they couldn’t understand. “I should turn around then?” Much nodding and wobbling of heads was happening, so in the belief that the villagers were helpfully telling me the road went nowhere, I turned the moped around at which point of the men got on the back and pointed forward while saying something which sounded like “Kalabala jalafalkarootala mallapagaboolika.”

I assumed he was just hitching a ride so I took off, but as we neared a dirt track and he tapped me on the shoulder indicating that I should take the track, which I did. Well, it was a hot day and if I could help a guy out by giving him a ride why not right?

At a small house the man jumped off the bike and motioned for me to park. I parked the moped and followed him to his back yard. He said something while smiling and pointing at the trees then he rummaged around a few pots in his yard and produced a large knife. Maybe in any other situation such a large knife in the hands of a stranger might make me somewhat nervous, but this man seemed to happy to be a knife wielding killer. He walked toward me smiling and still pointing at the tree while talking. Then he tied the knife to a long stick and cut down a coconut, open it, poured the milk into a cup and gave it to me to drink. As I drank it he cut down a small bunch of bananas and a large papaya fruit which he then presented to me as a gift, such generosity to strangers would be almost unheard of in the west. He introduced me to his son and we talked as best we could for a few more minutes before I got back on the moped and continued my ride.

I rode through several other villages, stopping to take pictures here and there, but generally just enjoying the beautiful hot sunny weather and being free as a bird.

As I rode through little villages made up of mud huts and rudimentary one room concrete homes, people would wave at me and shout out “Hi!” or “Hello!” then laugh when I returned the greeting. Children stopped me and often insisted that I take a picture, excitedly shouting “photo, photo!” They would pose in stiff upright stances with their hands by their sides like little soldiers standing to attention, then the moment the photograph was taken they would hurriedly crowd around me to see themselves on the screen of the camera.

A little way down the road I came upon a small village with a fairly imposing church. In such an overtly Hindu area seeing a church was extremely unusual, especially considering the fact there are some 52 holy sites around Arunachala. So I stopped for a moment just to look at it from the roadside.

A villager then approached me and said “Helping?” which I took to be an offer of help, so I asked him if the church was a Christian church “Yes,” He said “Catholic church.” With that he turned around and shouted at a child who scurried away as if to get someone. He then indicated that I could take a closer look, so I parked the bike and walked up to the square building that looked bland when compared to the many ornate Hindu temples in the area.

At that point the child who had run to get someone emerged with a lady who had a very large key with which she opened the church. She smiled at me and pointed at the door saying something in Tamil. Children then came over joined by other villagers and before I knew it I was having a guided tour (in smiling Tamil) of this one room Roman Catholic church (called St. Joseph’s) accompanied by delighted children who laughed at every word I said. After a while I bid the villagers farewell, got back on the moped and took to the road once again.

My friend Mick Singh once told me the hardest thing about going to India is getting there. At the time I didn’t really understand what he meant. Now I do. 

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