And now India is happening! The second you step outside here, BOOM, it’s full-on. Bali was refined and polite, like a gentle stream trickling through the forest, but India is immediately a rushing river full of all the extremes of life, filth and transcendence all swirling together.
The flights on Air Asia were just shy of abysmal. I don’t expect a free meal on such a cheap flight, but charging for water is inhuman; even cattle in transport get free water occasionally. Not being able to put your seats back is pretty unpleasant on a four-hour flight (we were in front of the exit row). And the spray can fumigation at the end, with passengers on board, was another classy touch.
Arriving in Chennai, though, was perfect India, full of zest and drama. We’d made a friend on the way, an Indian ex-pat who’d been living in New Zealand for over a decade, and he offered to have his taxi drop us at our airport-area guest house on his way into town. He explained the plan to the driver, and off we went.
Only then, as we hurtled through the grungy, shadowy roads near the airport, did the negotiations truly begin. The driver claimed that our guest house was NOT in fact on the way, but in the completely opposite direction from where our new friend Neil was headed, and therefore justified a higher fare. We said that was absolutely not the case, it wasn’t out of the way at all. Matthew got out the map on his phone and showed that the guesthouse was undeniably right on the way to central Chennai. The driver justified his lie by talking about road directions and exits and where he could and couldn’t turn. Neil argued that he knew the area perfectly well and it was no problem. The argument was colourful, rapid-fire, switching between Tamil and English.
And then suddenly Matthew and I realized that this was a performance, a game, joyfully being played between two old friends who’d known each other for years. Neil and the driver were mocking each other, their words jabbing playfully, exaggerated, full of intensity and just plain fun.They probably would have been having a similar argument whether we were even there in the cab or not. There was no greed, no animosity in the bargaining and arguing, just free-flowing poetry. It was more joy to watch than a great tennis match. We sat back and watched, unable to stop grinning.
Losing the game, but still trying to make a comeback, the driver asked about our plans in Chennai, hoping to gain our business tomorrow. When we said we were heading to Tiruvannamalai, his whole being lit up with excitement. “Oh! Tiruvannamalai! Arunachala! That is my place!” Turns out he loves the mountain, his wife is from there and her brother is a stone carver near Arunachaleswarar temple, his taxi business is named after Ramana Maharshi, he’s devoted to Shiva (who happens to be incarnate as the mountain Arunachala) – in short, we couldn’t have picked a place in the world that meant more to him and gave him more joy.
Though he was disappointed to learn we already had a taxi booked to Tiru, he dropped all his fight about the fare, and happily dropped us at our room, urging us only to hire him when we are next in Chennai. Which we will gladly do.
The drive to Tiruvannamalai was lovely and uneventful. Being back feels surprisingly normal and natural, especially without the jet lag of having come from the other side of the world. We’re staying at the ashram for the first week and have found an apartment in walking distance for next week and onwards. It’s been less hot and humid than it was in Bali, and easier to keep cool. The food at the ashram is clean and healthy and I’m feeling much better than I was the last few days in Bali. I’ll write plenty about the experience here, but this week I’m focusing on living it! So: away with the screen for me now, back to the meditation hall…