* If you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m going to be milking the whole ‘fleiling’ thing in each title for my travel-related posts. It will get old – maybe it already has – but you should know that I will carry on nonetheless, because I’m an arse-hole.
After an initial Indian fortnight spent at zero-waste, tree-saving, eco-community-project Sadhana Forest in Auroville (the whitest, most Western place in India), I’d decided it was time for the next chapter. A few friends that I’d met there had been talking about going to Sivananda Ashram – a Hare Krishna yoga and meditation centre, on the outskirts of Madurai – so, mainly due to my lack of an alternative plan, I decided to join them. What happened at the Ashram is another story, but for now I’d like to tell you about the two-day journey that took place between Sadhana and Sivananda.
The day was Sunday. We were due to leave the forest. After a lot of faffing about on each of our parts, Swiss-French Mathilde – who very much "moves with the wind" – decided she was going to sack off yoga and go to a vipassana instead. A vipassana is a 10-day-long, completely silent meditation course where you wake up at 4am, meditate for around 10 hours per day, and have no access to reading or writing materials, technology or the outside world. We said our goodbyes and she was off. One down.
Because British Holly had already left the forest and was due to meet us at the Ashram, Catalan Uri and I packed our things, had our last supper with the Sadhana group and were moped-ed out to the bus stop by a few friends. We lugged our rucksacks onto the first bus to Pondicherry, where we were to find a bus to Madurai. The bus tickets cost 5 Rupees each – just over 6 pence. I should not have chosen a long, loose skirt to wear on the journey as we had to stand up for the duration and the doors never close on buses here. Let me just say, there was a strong breeze.
We arrived at Pondicherry bus station, and after many fingers pointed us in contradictory directions, we eventually found the right place to buy our next tickets. With around two hours to kill before the bus was due to leave, we found a couple of seats and tried to make ourselves and our bags as inconspicuous as possible. As the only westerners at the station, we didn’t exactly blend in – over-sized luggage or not.
Our next journey was going to be a seven-hour bus ride and I’m a firm believer in Bringing An Abundance Of Snacks On Long Journeys To Make Time Go Faster, so I bought us two packets of biscuits despite Uri’s indifference on the matter. We’d both decided to dehydrate ourselves as much as possible before departure so that we didn’t need the toilet on the bus. I held my breath and headed to the bus station’s bog for one last drain of my stubborn little bladder. I could spend an entire blog-post (bog-post?) describing the state of the ladies’ toilet but I don’t want to put myself off my lunch so I’ll refrain. Now would be a good time to exercise your imagination. Uri decided to hold in whatever was left in him after seeing my reaction to the women’s.
The time had come, and we boarded our chariot. How we managed to cram our hefty rucksacks onto the tiny overhead shelves, I do not know or understand. We had seat numbers 3 and 4 – right behind the driver. Niiice, I thought to myself. Lots of leg-room. Little did I know, these were the worst seats in the house. Now, if you’ve never been to India, then I’d like to take a moment to explain The Way of The Roads:
– Cows are at the top of the hierarchy. You don’t hit a cow with your car. You slow down and wait for them to amble out the way in their own time. You can beep all you like, but they know they’re holding all the cards and they milk that privilege dry. They rule the streets, completely and udderly. (I’m sorry, I had to.)
– Indian bus-drivers are fearless and insane. You may feel like you’re about to be driven off the side of the unstable mountain road you’re ascending, but trust your driver – who is now simultaneously peeling and eating a banana with one hand (and then throwing the peel out the window, no matter what or who is on the other side of it), somehow avoiding crashing into a possy of juvenile delinquent monkeys, and carrying your life in his other hand – and you may survive to tell the tale.
– The horn is not to tell other road-users or pedestrians to "fuck off" or "be careful" – it’s to let them know that you’re there, and probably about to overtake them at an alarming speed. I have not been on a road here yet where a horn hasn’t been blasted out at least once every thirty seconds.
Indian bus horns are not like regular horns. They are in their own special category, perhaps only accompanied by vuvuzelas. They are awful. Uri and I tried our best to sleep, but even earplugs can’t drown out the most migraine-inducing sound ever to grace this planet when you’re sat a metre and a half away from it.
Despite our best dehydrating efforts, halfway through the journey we both needed the toilet, and quite desperately. The bus stopped for a break and we braved our respective loos. One good thing about traditional Indian hole-in-the-ground toilets, is that there’s little – or less – chance of you accidentally grazing your arse on other people’s urine when you squat to pee. I have never pissed so quickly in my life because I panicked as soon as I got off the bus that it would leave without me if I took too long and I’d be stuck forever at this little pit-stop piss-hole, having to beg the tea-stand owner to give me a job selling 10 Rupee cups of masala chai until I could save up enough of my wages to smuggle my way back into the UK because I didn’t have my wallet or passport or visa on my person… Needless to say, the bus was still there when I returned.
At around 4.30am, we finally arrived at Madurai bus station and decided that sitting down might help our brains to function and make a plan. It didn’t. We stared at the ground aimlessly for a few minutes then, after realising that neither of us were trying to think of anything, picked up our bags and started walking. I decided (I think it was my idea, anyway) that it would be an excellent idea for us to sit in a hotel lobby for a while until cafes opened for breakfast or our Couch Surfing host could pick us up. I can’t really remember my logic, but Uri apparently went along with it. We stared up at the various neon lights, picked one at random, then charged towards it like the three wise men chasing the star leading to the baby Jesus.
A sofa was my salvation but it was quickly stolen away from my loving grip, much like in the real story of the baby Jesus. We had reached the inn, and they’d appeared to have space for us in their lobby. I had quickly curled up and fallen asleep on their ridiculously comfortable sofa but was soon woken up mid-dribble by Uri – The Manager was apparently watching me on CCTV and was pissed off. I sat up and Uri and I glared aimlessly at each other in a kind of what-the-fuck-do-we-do-now kind of way. He’d read in The Bible (Lonely Planet’s guide to India) that there was another hotel which had a 24-hour restaurant and WiFi, so, with this being our only option, we decided to go there. Before we left, however, we took it in turns to go to the toilets and brush our teeth. I also did a poo. Mainly due to the fact that I needed to poo but also because I resented being woken up from my nap. Retaliation by defecation… It works for me.
After trying and failing to haggle the price down, we grabbed a very expensive rickshaw to the fancy hotel. We were warmly welcomed and then shown the restaurant which was by no means a 24-hour one. "The restaurant opens at 8am," said the smiling hotel man. It was 6.30am and we were both very hungry. We smiled weakly back at him then sat down to a WiFi-less, mosquito-swarmed table. A squashed banana was shared and we waited patiently for 8am to arrive. I’ve always been quite proud of the amount of food I can eat, and Uri can put any contest-winner to shame. There was no menu, only an all-you-can-eat breakfast for 325 Rupees. That may only be £3.87, but by Indian standards that is a LOT of money. We did our best to get our money’s worth and gorged ourselves on fresh fruit, dried fruit, pastries, pancakes, dosa, idly, cereal, omelettes, cucumber juice, melon juice and black coffee until we could go no further.
Slowly, we gathered our piled-up possessions and ambled into the centre of Madurai. We still had another five or so hours until our Couch Surfing host was to pick us up, so we decided to explore our surroundings. There was a problem, though: we still had our huge rucksacks with us. We’d heard that train stations had luggage storage so we made our way there. The rumours were true. We weren’t, however, allowed to dump our stuff without a ticket. With nowhere to go by train, we asked the ticket lady which was the cheapest possible ticket. She frowned at us, not understanding why we didn’t know or care where we wanted to go. After some time, we had two tickets to Rameswaram which we had no intention of visiting. We handed our tickets-to-nowhere over to the luggage man and attempted to explore Madurai, each of us now 15kg lighter.
On our way to Sri Meenakshi Hindu temple, we made friends with a tailor. I say "we" but he basically only addressed Uri… I love being a woman. He showed us the best way to the temple, via a quick detour to his shop to try and sell us lungis, dhotis and sarees. We thanked him but told him we were just interested in seeing Sri Meenakshi, so he called his friend from a neighbouring shop to show us something. We were tired and confused so we went with this new man, not knowing what was happening. After some time spent stood around, smiling and nodding at the wooden statues and chunky jewellery, the guy led us up three flights of stairs to a balcony with a nice view of the temple. He told us many stories about the gods, none of which I can remember because I was running on two hours of sleep. Uri took some photos and I stared up at the swarms of birds circling the intricate, multicoloured building.
Temple security was pretty strict and we had to leave our shoes and belongings behind. Whilst waiting for Uri on the other side of the pat-down search-station, a security guard asked me if he was my husband. Again due to my lack of sleep, I failed to come up with a complicated backstory for our emotionally wrung-out love affair that eventually ended up estranging us from our families and sending us packing to India in search of new horizons, so I just said, "No." He wasn’t impressed.
The temple itself was beautiful; a rainbow of pastel colours and 33,000 detailed sculptures of the gods lining every surface. Uri and I walked around for a while then sat in front of its famous golden lotus flower pool. A few groups of Indian youths started giggling as soon as we sat down and I thought for a second that I’d sat in shit. Little did I know that this was to be the first of many selfies I’d be having with teenagers and adults alike. We smiled and posed for their shots, our eyes puffed up from lack of sleep.
Our stomachs gurgled, cuing us to leave. We found a local vegetarian restaurant serving thali – a meal comprising of a mound of rice, four or more different curry sauces, pickle, poppadom and usually some kind of milk-based porridge-like desert, all served on a banana leaf which you wash yourself at the table before your meal. Most restaurants will refill your banana leaf before you can say ‘no’, so we obliged and stuffed our faces. I’ve become a big fan of eating with my hand, although it can somewhat slow down the process. Your right hand is for eating and your left hand is for wiping your bum after you go to the toilet, so left-handed foreigners get some very intense looks whilst eating in restaurants.
For some stupid reason, I’d decided that now was a good time to try on a saree. I was shown different materials before being spun around in circles as the two shop assistants wound the material around my body. The nursery rhyme "Wind The Bobbin Up" sprung to mind in a kind of reworked haunted-house version while I smiled on the outside but felt slightly traumatised on the inside. All I wanted was to be asleep. Uri found th
e whole thing quite amusing and took a few photos.
It was finally time to meet Khartic, our Couch Surfing hero. We headed back to the train station with a spring in our step, picked up our rucksacks and called to say we were there. He was at the bus station. Damn, yeah, I remember now that he did say bus station. Ok, we’ll be half an hour. Sorry.
Somehow, we located a bus going towards the station. I had clocked eyes with a middle-aged man down the other end of the bus when we’d gotten on, as his eye-contact was unashamedly obvious through the crowd. I glared back for a second before quickly looking away. It’s pretty routine to be constantly stared at when you’re not in a touristy place so I didn’t think much of it. It was hot and the afternoon traffic was heaving, so I hung from the handrail like a limp sloth. Uri and I looked at each other and laughed at how ridiculous the day had been so far. It wasn’t until we were about to get off the bus that I felt something against me. The bus was packed full of people and I must have absentmindedly assumed it was the corner of someone’s bag against my arse until that point. (Generally, when it’s 5.30pm on a London tube and you’re wedged under a sweaty business man’s armpit, if someone’s got their soggy umbrella stuck up your right nostril, you don’t tend to notice because that’s what’s expected on overly-crowded public transport.) I turned to get off the bus and saw the staring-man’s eyes next to my left shoulder, his erect penis pushing through his dhoti and against my left peach. Still he glared at me as I quickly scrabbled to get my bags and got the hell off that bus. I still shudder thinking about it. I love being a woman.
Karthic found us, looking like two lost, stinking – one also now sexually-assaulted – puppies at the side of the road, and drove us back to his place. Because of Sadhana’s zero-waste scheme, until now we’d only been able to have a shower by pumping water into a bucket, carrying the bucket to the ‘shower block’ and pouring a cup at a time into an over-head bucket with holes in its bottom. This shower at Karthic’s house was my first regular shower since getting to India and it felt like heaven. I say that, but heaven was still freezing cold and I had no shampoo, much like my previous two weeks on planet Earth. Using a bar of soap to wash my mane, I noticed that I was getting dreadlocks against my will. Afterwards, I sunk into a nap that I could have happily stayed in for another fortnight, but was (again) woken up by Uri because Karthic was going out and was giving us a lift back into town.
Before heading out, though, our host called us downstairs. He had made masalachai (milky tea with lots of fresh spices) from scratch and proudly handed us over two mugs full. Uri smirked down at me from over the top of his mug and I gave him the evil eye: I’m vegan and am trying my best to keep that up whilst away. Torn about not wanting to hurt our host’s feelings, I gingerly sipped a drop into my mouth. As well as for the moral reasons, I don’t like drinking milk for the taste. Even the smell of it makes my stomach churn a little. I made some "mmmm!" noises and mindlessly sloshed the liquid against my closed lips for a few minutes, hiding behind my mug. I thanked him for the fiftieth time, then dashed off to the sink to wash up my cup, pouring it down the drain before he could notice.
We piled into the car and, making conversation, asked Karthic about his favourite places in Madurai. "Mmmm… Nowhere really. I like hanging out with my friends." What was his favourite Indian food? "I like pizza." You get the picture. Most of the journey was spent in silence after that.
‘Twas the night of Super Moon but seen from the town, no sign of enlargement ‘cept slightly more round.
Madurai is pretty polluted so the moon looked the same as normal, except less clear because of all the CO2 in the way. Masala dosa (spiced potato mixture wrapped in the best lentil-based pancake you’ll ever meet) and vanilla rollies were had on a hotel’s roof in the centre of the restless, honking city. As we were leaving, a very smiley man on the street asked to have photos with us. Shaking hands with him, and grinning for the picture I thought, ‘This must have been what Princess Di felt like’. Smiley tried to persuade us to visit his orphanage the next day, "To look at the children." I’m sure he meant it in a very different way, but from his wording I couldn’t help but picture the kids in a prison line-up and the man trying to get us to choose one of them to take home for Christmas.
Speaking of home, this is where we went next. Trudging back to the bus station, the traffic between us and it was ridiculous. There are hardly any crossings or traffic lights on busy Indian roads, so you just have to lunge yourself into moving traffic and hope to Dog that you don’t get whacked by a lorry. Uri and I must have been stood there hesitating for a while, because before I knew it was happening, an old Indian woman grabbed my hand in hers and proceeded to guide me across the street, weaving me through the moving traffic, to the other side. Before I had a chance to say thank you, or even look at her face, she was gone. If you’ve seen Mulan, then you’ll know what I mean when I say it reminded me of the granny crossing the road with the cricket. If you’ve never seen Mulan then stop reading this and go and illegally download it because you’ve gone very wrong in your life until this point.
A quick WiFi check-in before bed told us that Holly had decided she was also sacking off yoga to do vipassana with Mathilde. Two down.
Two mattresses on the floor with two plonkers atop them. After the longest day imaginable, the possibility of sleep seemed too good to be true. That was the deepest I’d slept in a long time. After being kicked out of the hotel inn that morning, journeying across land and a sea of roadside rubbish, we had reached our manger. Thank you, God of Mattresses. We didn’t even bother saying "goodnight" to each other. I was out like a light and into heaven.
We are the worst people in the world.
I wasn’t sure what was going on in my dream, but it was violent. There was a lot of banging on doors and muffled shouting. I opened my eyes, which were now caked in dried sleepy-eye-gunk, to check if it was Uri that had woken me up. He was dead to the world, curled up under his bed-sheet. I looked around the room, dazed. The banging was still going on. Was I still dreaming? After way too long, I got up to check if it was coming from our bedroom door. I opened the door to the smell of pancakes and a sheepish Karthic; we’d slept in, making him late for work… and he’d made us breakfast. It was now 8am. He’d told us through email, and then again when we’d gone to bed, that he needed to be out the door at 8am. The cherry on top of the shit turd was the fact that he works for the government and had an important exam to take when he got in today. I apologised x7, shook Uri awake, he said "FUCK", I threw my stuff into my rucksack, ran downstairs, apologised x12, Uri decided now was a good time to have a shower, I apologised x83 for Uri’s timing, Karthic smiled nervously and shifted about with his keys in-hand while I found new ways to apologise and before Uri sauntered down the stairs ten minutes later. Karthic handed me two chocolate pancakes, warm from his heart, wrapped in foil. I took them and then discovered eight-hundred and ninety-four new ways to simultaneously thank and apologise. Needless to say, we weren’t asking him about his favourite foods on the drive into town.
Our host sped away and we bought two more tickets to nowhere, then dumped our bags. It was around twenty seconds later, as we left the station, that I realised we hadn’t needed to keep buying two tickets each time – one was enough as the bags only needed to be under one person’s name. I told Uri. He said nothing. I agreed.
We went to find WiFi, sat down at the internet cafe, stared at each other, couldn’t remember what we needed WiFi for, then left.
On a hunt for a caffeine fix, we sat down and ordered two coffees; mine black, Uri’s sugarless. Two milky, sugary coffees were plonked down in front of us. I lay my head down on the table.
Finally, FINALLY, it was time. We boarded our bus to Sivananda. Uri slept whilst clinging onto our bags that were propped up like dumpy children in the aisle. Like I said, Sivananda is another story for another day, and I assume you’ve gotten this far now by reading all of the drivel above this paragraph, so well done! I know I went on for a while, but just be thankful that I didn’t tell you it in person – some of my old college friends coined my monologues as "Leila Stories" and would begin to chat amongst themselves once I’d gotten to the fourteenth unrelated tangent of what should have been a two-sentence tale.
All I have left to say is this: If you ever happen to find yourself in South-East India, Tamil Nadu specifically, don’t go to Madurai… but if you do, then make sure your earplugs are industrial strength, NASA-tested Soundproof™ before you board your bus.