India Journal - June 18By Meredith Jagger
Edited by Jason Arthur
With 14 official native languages, hundreds of political parties (judging from the multicolored symbols that appear on the sides of buildings and on freeway dividers), and over a billion people, India is far from simplistic. Now that I'm here, a single individual traveling within a group, I have to gather my strength or get swept under by the currents of motion that are everywhere.
So much sensory input comes from simply walking down the street that I am exhausted after just a few hours. The smells of coffee, ripe fruit, manure, incense and diesel exhaust blend. Ringing cell phones, car horns, music projected from speakers and businessmen vying for my attention bombard my ears. My skin is covered with sweat and a thin layer of dust. My feet and sandals need nightly scrubbing to cleanse them of the dirt and mud they have accumulated. ("Yes, that was just mud," I tell myself.)
After a day in India, my bodily exhaustion is inconsequential compared to the mental overload, confusion, frustration, amazement and curiosity. At night I mull over it all before falling into dreamless sleep.
It took me days to shake off lingering feelings of illness and helplessness after visiting Chennai (Madras) during our first week in India. Chennai has the worst streets I've ever seen. The air would make even Californians hack, and the sheer volume of people in motion is like compressing Atlanta's rush hour traffic into three unmarked lanes.
The assortment of vehicles is amazing: white British colonial cars with rounded bodies and hood ornaments, colorfully-dressed pedestrians, motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles, wandering cows, city transport buses (some of them double-decker) spewing black smoke, rickety open transport carts full of rice or fruit, and shiny new SUVs amid ubiquitous rickshaws. In Chennai, manual rickshaws have been outlawed because they slow traffic down too much, but the standard yellow three-wheelers swarm like gnats. All these vehicles weave in an out of each other at a dizzying pace with skill I thought was reserved for stock car drivers. It was so fast, so hot, so much everything. I felt completely dislocated.
There is just as much activity on an American street, surely, but there are delineated spaces (lanes, shoulders and sidewalks) in which each separate activity may take place. People move in prearranged directions, and a U-turn is often seen as a bold, if not illegal, maneuver. Indian social life is strictly regulated by classification (the caste system, affirmative action, etc.) But the idea of staying in your "place" doesn't visibly translate into traffic regulation.
I rode through this chaos in Chennai, my stomach in knots. I sat on a foldout side-facing seat, in the back of the mid-sized SUV that our hotel provided as a sight-seeing vehicle. Only a thin layer of glass stood between me and unimaginable disaster. ("At least I have insurance," I kept repeating in my head). There were several close calls where it felt like we almost got rear-ended.
I discovered one of the finer points of Indian driving etiquette: the smaller the vehicle, the louder the horn. Buses squeak in comparison to small cars and motorcycles with air horns. Ears ringing and stomach turning, I was whisked along with my fellow travelers around the port city, with a limited view of India as it rushed by.
I was trapped in the back of that vehicle until we arrived in Madurai, where we will spend the majority of the trip. Our group agreed that the day trip to Chennai was our worst outing so far. No one felt well when we returned to our beachside hotel, about an hour outside the city. That car trip is an apt metaphor for the entire trip thus far.
Meredith Jagger is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
See the first installment of Meredith's India journal