Our flights from Sydney to Chennai were a truly budget experience. Air Asia seated Dan and I in different rows, dashing our plans to binge-watch Netflix together for the duration of the journey. We boarded at 9.30pm, well-fed and in good spirits. I’d been feeling apprehensive about the trip, but as it kicked off the nerves gave way to excitement. The first leg of the flight, from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, was uncomfortable and mostly sleepless. We shared a soup and bleary looks at the airport. The second flight was no more enjoyable.
Once we landed in Chennai and stepped outside, the familiar sounds, smells and sights of Asia greeted us. Loud and varied vehicle horns, muggy heat, incense, petrol. The half-an-hour ride to our hostel (The Red Lollipop) cost us $20AUD, but we cheered up when we found a stall next door that fried up fresh samosas for ₹8 (about 16 cents) a piece. Our hostel was clean, quiet and well-equipped. We napped for an hour with the fan on, then went for a wander around the neighbourhood.
We quickly remembered that crossing the road was more complicated here. Motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, cyclists, pedestrians and cows weave around you with apathetic ease while you try to keep your cool, eyes transfixed on the nearest bit of footpath across the road. We walked past fruit stalls and coffee shops and mobile phone service centres and spice supermarkets. We found somewhere to lunch – a local eatery with plastic blue seats where one of the staff took a guess at what we might like to eat and brought it on out. Dosas and a dahl. It was all delicious. We kept walking and found a residential area in some back streets along a train line. The houses were each painted a different bright colour. We saw baby goats and more cows wandering around the alleyways. Then we walked back to the hostel to do some planning for the days ahead.
After some downtime we headed out again, down the street to one of the more decorated temples in Chennai (the Arulmigu Kapaleeswara). Above head height, brightly painted figurines clambered atop one another to form huge rainbow pyramids. People shuffled between shrines, pausing to collect small handfuls of white ash (stardust) and wipe their brows. In the centre of the temple square, cows were jostling in a pen in the dark. I wondered darkly how that was supposed to represent an act of worship. Accompanying us on our temple visit was a Dutch guy named Eloy, who would become one of our closest companions in India. He had short black dreadlocks and a nose piercing, and a laid back attitude. He was the right balance of curious and assertive. Dan and I liked him right away.
We got some dinner and headed back to the hostel. There, Dan did some yoga on the roof and I battled an upset stomach by doing pretty much nothing.
The next morning was a slow start before a big day of walking. First we walked out to the beach, a bleak and desolate sight indeed. Slums lined the sand’s edge, and along the sand itself we spotted improvised tents, wondering with a lump in our throats whether some Chennaians called the meagre structures home. Rubbish was everywhere. In some places the smell of stale urine was enough to make me gag. I contemplated the fact that less than a week ago I had been back home in Australia swimming through some of the most beautiful, crystal blue water I’d ever seen. It’s funny, the places we leave and the others we choose to go.
From the beach we spotted the steeple of the Santhome Church and moved in that direction. The church was definitely out of place. Inside was the typical set-up; pews and statues of a bleeding Christ. The tomb out the back had a more Indian feel to it, and in a small underground room we found devotees singing along with a loud recording of what I presumed to be a hymn. The tomb is apparently the final resting place of St Thomas the apostle, and the church one of three in the world which houses the body of an apostle. Funnily enough, Yours Truly the atheist has been to all three (the other two being Santiago De Compostela in Spain, and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome).
After the church we headed towards a mysterious place called The Theosophical Society, which boasted a lovely campus of gardens and ponds. It was a long walk to get there. We crossed bridges which, in another world, would have had beautiful views. The college wasn’t yet open to the public so we found a little garden in the city and sat for a while. It was a pretty oasis in amongst the noise, and men came with their tiffins to eat in the shade of the trees. One man in particular caught our eye. We imagined him as the hero of a short story. He looked so deep in humdrum that he must be about to embark on some life-altering adventure.
Once the college grounds opened at 2pm we wandered through them, enjoying a break from incessant car horns. We found a Buddhist temple with a pond. It began to rain and the ripples made patterns. We kept walking, past dilapidated buildings and stray dogs. We speculated about how the college must have looked in its heyday. It had all the makings of a grand, prestigious place but none of the upkeep or care to keep it that way. We found what’s alleged to be the world’s largest banyan tree. It looked less like a tree and more like a thousand of them, growing vertically but entwining with one another to form a gnarled canopy. At the exit we paused to sift through books at the Theosophical Bookshop. There were titles like “Looking in, Seeing Out: Consciousness and Cosmos”, “The Play of Consciousness in the Web of the Universe”, “Practical Occultism” and “The Rebirth of the Occult Tradition”. Pretty kooky stuff.
We hitched a ride back to the hostel on a tuk-tuk. The driver didn’t really understand where we wanted to go, but he got us near enough. Once back home, I collapsed into bed after a very average dinner of digestives and two-minute noodles. Dan got more samosas and water for us both before climbing into the bunk beneath me.