“You cannot enter the country on this visa” were the first words to welcome us to India. We arrived at Chennai International Airport early morning and waited for around 2 hours in a long queue at customs in the hope that someone will commence their work and start clearing e-visa foreigners. The queue was incredibly long, the air was stuffy and most people were getting increasingly irritated at the lack of personnel available to stamp our passports and wish us a pleasant stay. A few people even tried the other queues reserved for Indian passport holders in the hope to not miss their transfers to their hotels, but to no avail. We were all trapped in an endless, stagnant bureaucratic nonsense.
Hours later, G and I found ourselves in front of a sturdy Indian man with a thick moustache and a cheeky smile. His spent shirt had a yellow badge with a large smiley face on it, as a sign of irony.
"For how long do you intend to stay in India?", the man asked.
“Two days” we replied in tandem, with an air of desperate expectation.
“Two days? That is too little. Let me see the details of your hotel”.
Reluctant, we showed our far too packed itinerary organised by the InterContinental. The man checked our itinerary, e-visa and then proudly announced:
“You cannot enter the country on this visa. You need a business visa. This visa is no good”.
I looked at G, I looked at the man, then stared at the smiley face badge which mockingly gazed back reminding me I wasted a red-eye flight and two hours in a pointless queue just to be refused entry in the land of silk and spice. I don’t quite know what I said after this point, but apparently, I shape-shifted into a scolding mother… a scolding mother convincing enough to grant us entry to the country, I must add.
Alas, welcome to India.
I am not too sure how to even begin to describe our trip to India. For one, it was far too short. Although sometimes, it’s the short encounters which leave you in awe, with an undefiable hunger that lures you back for more. Everything was overwhelming: a riot of noise, colour and motion. Disoriented, our heads were spinning from the heat, yet our eyes would refuse to blink for as much as a millisecond, mesmerised by the amalgam of everything around us: Endless possibilities of chaos which at first, made no sense to us.
India sure is an assault on the senses. Despite the agitation, smells, grime, we somehow learned to defy logic and quickly and effectively immersed ourselves in it all. It took us precisely 1 hour to let go of any dismay and ease into it. And that was only the beginning.
No trip to India is meant to be gentle and relaxing, but rather a mayhem of emotions. Our first experience was no different. Our arrival at the hotel was about traditions, conversations, exotic dishes and far too many spices and tastes for an early morning breakfast. We were accompanied by staff everywhere we went and treated like precious crystal pieces. Sheltered from the outdoors frenzies, our hotel was located on the beach, in the Bay of Bengal. Fringed by soft sand with towering palm trees and exquisite suites with views, the resort was our piece of quiet in an otherwise mania of everything. The path to our room was a narrow concrete bridge-like construction with views of a delicate pond and an inviting swimming pool. Above us, there was a magical dance of dragonflies, gently swaying all around us. How is it, that from the furore of India on the other side of the hotel walls, we entered a fragile world of profound quiet?
‘Themed Story in Stones’ was our opening experience in India. Our talented driver took us to the UNESCO World Heritage site, also known as the World’s only Sculptors City. It was our first chance to learn some about the otherwise rich history which spun off from Pallava Dynasty. It was that very afternoon that we realised how little we really knew of India.
After a delightful dinner, we finally arrived back to the comforts of our hotel room, where, we fell asleep within a matter of seconds and did not move for the next 10 hours.
Our second and last day in India took us on an unexpected path, around 2 hours away from the hotel. We went to unlock the silk route of Kanchipuram, in search of two ancient temples, Kamakshi Temple and Vandarajan Temple, followed by a unique experience of local lifestyle of the silk weavers.
Our affairs were very packed, fast-paced and chaotic. Given how sought after authentic Kanchipuram sarees are, I wanted to buy my own souvenir from the region, but soon learned it’s not as easy as picking a colour from the shelves. The purchasing process involved tough negotiations, dubious facial expressions and a lot of back and forth mathematical communication on a white piece of paper. I think that’s where I learned that unless it’s written down, it is not to be trusted.
We quickly learned that negotiation is a survival skill in India. And trust is not something you should offer blindly to anyone. In fact, we learned that even our guide was not to be trusted, but luckily, we did find that one of our hosts, Krishna, seemed to have our true interest at heart.
India didn’t lure us, but the people within its borders did. We arrived in the land of silk and spice with the preconception that we are never to return, yet here we are twisting and turning for an opportunity to spend several months discovering India's true beauty. From the tropical Malabar Coast in Kerala with its exquisite Arabian Sea shoreline, through the promiscuity of Goa, to India’s largest city, Mumbai and beyond. And then there is the Pink City of Jaipur, the capital city of New Delhi and the Northernmost part of India which welcomes you into our wildest dream: the Himalayas.
Can there be any other country on this planet, as diverse, culturally rich, yet chaotic and overwhelming?
--Our journey to the airport was not without its adventures. At night, we learned, drivers use the very bright night lights on their cars, making almost impossible to see the roads ahead because of the incoming vehicles. The traffic lights are not to be respected and the right of way applies to the largest car with the loudest horn.
Our India sure looked different at night. Between these bright episodes of distress, we’d see a dark, narrow alleyway, which, once bustling during the day, was now abandoned and filled to the rim with plastic bags and empty bottles. Just like a window into a post-apocalyptic future, the only living creatures roaming through these grimy streets were a handful of skinny cows chewing on leftovers, and stray dogs digging through the mountain of waste.
We've now been home for a few days. It's pleasant to enjoy the sterility of Europe, the calmness of the traffic and the rather cool fall evenings. Yet, despite falling back into our normal routine, we still make comments about colourful moments and shocking scenarios. We say we'd never go back, yet we've been refreshing the travel deal websites for plane tickets. To what must we owe this state of mental confusion?
We are yet to discover if we long for India or the company of the people we met during our stay. And to settle our affairs, there is only one way to find out: a trip back, this time, however, with a ticket which buys us time to deeply immerse ourselves in what we’d otherwise call, a true cultural shock.