This trip was mired in uncertainty, defined by it perhaps. Nonetheless, Max and I developed somewhat of a morning routine which I came to appreciate. I miss it now that I am back in Chicago.
The first night in SRM Hotel, our fancy hotel in Trichy, I crashed hard after dinner, my body beginning to betray me, sabotaging even simple tasks in order to compel me to recharge. I relented and fell into a deep but short sleep around 8pm, waking up just before midnight. I stayed awake, unable to fall back asleep, my body somewhat satisfied, although I suspect more confused than anything else. Around 5 am I heard Max stirring in the bed beside me. It was comforting knowing someone else might be joining me in the realm of the waking. He efficiently and silently conducted his morning routine, moving about as if he were alone in the room, a reminder of what he was like as a college housemate. Showered and conscious, he transformed into the active curious companion I’d hope he would be.
One of the biggest hurdles in planning this journey was whether or not to bring a companion and if so, picking the right person, which felt impossible. Once it became clear doing this trip alone was not a good idea the task became finding someone who could be on their own, take care of themselves and communicate clearly, so I would have to worry little to nothing about their needs in order to focus on mine. After months of avoiding asking friends I started thinking about who I could tolerate and vice versa for a week in what was likely going to be a stressful and uncomfortable trip. Max, who I met in his Spanish 101 class in college and who I later lived with for a year checked most of my boxes. We had historically been clear communicators, we’d lived together and a few years ago we took a short trip from Oregon to Lake Tahoe and then the Bay Area together.
Impulsively, one late November evening I sent Max a text, “Want to come to India with me in February or March as I confront my birth mother? I’ll pay all expenses. It’ll be like a vacation except not at all relaxing” I was nervous sending the text, asking for something, putting myself out there. Max did not disappoint, 3 minutes later, “Absolutely. I’m honored you thought of me and if you let me know by mid January I can certain[ly] take up to 10 days off work” Feeling and seeing such quick acceptance and support was overwhelming. The next few months we spent working out our respective travel plans and visa situations. Max’s was much simpler than my arduous although ultimately successful quest for an Overseas Citizen of Indian (OCI) card, the equivalent of an Indian green card.
Back to our first morning in Trichy: we decided to go for a walk. With temperatures cresting to a scorching 110 degrees, we figured we should take advantage of the comparatively cool and unstructured mornings. Max quickly set up his camera, slinging it around his neck, wearing his long white cotton flat collared shirt. It looked Indian, like the pink one he would purchase at a Pothy’s the night before we left Trichy. I was thankful Max brought his camera and agreed to take pictures; it felt relieving not worrying about that layer of documentation.
Walking out of the hotel’s open glass doors and across the parking area towards one of the two front gates we could feel how much cooler it was than when we arrived. We had taken a train, a very crowded train at that, from Chennai to Trichy the day before. I’d been unable to purchase train tickets online so we had purchased them at the Edgmore train station. In the rush of finding the ticket counter and then our platform I had forgotten to request A2 seats, so we had, to our surprise, gotten the cheapest tickets. It is possible to get a seat with those tickets but it requires a pushy assertiveness that does not come easy to Max or me. We are happy to subject ourselves to extreme physical discomfort in order to avoid an uncomfortable interpersonal interaction.
We nodded to the hotel’s gate keeper, a stout gentlemen in a uniform who returned our nod and added a smile as he jotted something down on his notepad. I noticed as we drove in and out of those entrances a dozen or so times throughout the course of our stay that the guards would track each and every vehicle that entered the property. I wondered how effective a system a paper log like that really was for record keeping; it felt performative rather than practical. Performative in the same way that young children emulate their siblings, without knowing what their idol is doing, but repeating it because that is what is done. This thought, imbued with my Western and more specifically, American exceptionalist acculturation, caused me to grimace acknowledging my separateness and difference, questioning everything, looking at it with a skeptical, untrained and judgemental eye. This gaze would relax a bit during the trip. I found myself defensive in Max’s presence, defensive of a culture I barely knew. Sometimes his questions or skepticism felt like a personal attack. I found myself defending and vouching for locals in unreasonable ways, forcing a bond, a connection and closeness that sprouted but was never given the chance to bloom.
SRM is located on a long curved road, Race Course Road. Along our portion, and stretching in both directions, left and right, is a pedestrian pathway that resembles a sidewalk. It is raised and has two tracks, paved in sections of white, red and grey bricks. This pathway was part of a public infrastructure campaign in Trichy. There were signs painted on walls throughout the City that said, Clean City Green City which seemed to be a motto, perhaps nationally, for investments in wellness and environmental projects. I was happy to see the slogan whenever it appeared, usually unexpectedly. I posed next to a few of the signs, thinking of how fun it would be to post them to my Twitter with a witty comment. None of them have made it out of my Google Photos folder and it seems unlikely that they will.
Each morning and two evenings that we walked we took a left out of the driveway after nodding to the gatekeeper. We both watched the road anxiously; given its curve it was hard to see very far in either direction, and we were both wary of getting plowed over by a rickshaw or adventurous scooter. In May, when my cousin and I traveled in northern India he had taught me how to cross the street. Instead of running when there was an opening, he showed me how to slowly inch out into the street and let the traffic maneuver around you. After doing this once or twice I realized how methodical and calm people seemed crossing the street. Patient, understanding and accepting of the circumstance, as if they really had much of an alternative.
One of the more embarrassing but endearing moments of the trip was on our last day in Trichy. We were driving back from unsuccessfully seeing Sarai, I needed to find an ATM to pay Amitabh, the driver and interpreter, and Arun and Anjali for the car rental and other incidentals. The first ATM did not work, or was out of cash. We ventured on to the next, looking for a large national or international bank machine, which were more reliable. Amitabh pulled the rickshaw over and hopped out with me. By this time, I felt confident in small customs such as how to pour the coffee, respectful nods and crossing the street. I was still terrified but excited to prove I could do it as a local would. Ambitabh was not having any of it. Without me noticing he angled his way in between me and the oncoming traffic, stealthy cradling my hand so as to move me when it became safe. He led us forward venturing into the onslaught of beeping rickshaws, scooters and the occasional car. Unbeknownst to me, Anjali was doubling over with laughter from the back seat of the rickshaw, filming me being chaperoned across the small but busy side street, sealing my identity as a fragile foreigner. It was embarrassing, but more so it was endearing. My heart was already full from the care and effort Ambitabh put into each and every task we set him to, this additional act of somewhat maternal protection from him felt good. I felt mostly undirected in this trip, on this journey, and having someone literally take me by the hand and lead me was relieving even if infantilizing.
Max never quite got the hang of the not running across the street part of crossing the road but he wasn’t going to be able to blend in even if he did; standing head and shoulders above everyone we encountered and visibly of a different complexion he was doomed from the start.
Our first walk was short. Both of us cautious of getting lost or doing something offensive or indecent unintentionally. Max was hungry, but wary of all the unknown foods. He claimed he found a super market on Google maps and as we set out he suggested we head in that direction. I was skeptical such a thing existed in India, the land of a billion shops, but didn’t argue. We crossed the street and walked along the path, busy with early morning exercisers and people out for a stroll, couples, groups of men, young and old alike, and the occasional jogger. Most acknowledged our existence but didn’t seem too alarmed by our presence. Whenever Max would stop and peer through his camera at the world, people would stop or turn their heads, curious what Max thought was photo worthy, straining their own eyes to see what he saw, a fruitless endeavor that they tired of quickly, returning to their conversation or activity. When Max was alone, without me, it seemed he had more interactions with Indians, generally young boys who were as curious about what he was documenting as who he was. He took their pictures, let them look through his camera, occasionally taking off the shoulder strap and letting them take pictures of him or reach other.
We did not end up finding a super market. We did find a “landfill,” a bunch of small stores along the road with crackers and water as well as curd milk and other delicacies we did not try. Max got his first pictures of bullocks and we stopped at a chai stand on the way back and had a morning chai. I loved drinking the chai. The variation in flavor, vessel, and preparation made it feel new each time, yet the routine familiar. It felt like a part of the culture I could engage with, something I could definitively say “yes” to.
I was surprised how widely the flavor of the chai varied. I did not recall such strong differences from the trip to Himachal Pradesh last May. After our first few cups, Max and I quickly agreed the best tasting chai was out of a large aluminum thermos with a metal handle that we had on the train from Chennai to Trichy. Packed in the train’s hallway like a sack of potatoes, the food man hawking the chai was efficient in his distribution, 10 rupees for a small paper cup which most passengers drained, even though it was scalding and then tossed out the window into the passing countryside. There were a few instances where public littering was publicly reprimanded but a standing room only lowest class train in rural India was not one of them.
Max described it as deliciously burnt milk and sugary. No doubt it was sugary, as was all of the chai, but I reserved my judgement on the milk, feeling unable to assess it. What stuck with me and would deepen was the taste of cardamom, the flavoring, strong but not overpowering. I took the balanced flavors for granted and would yearn for that perfect mixture the rest of the trip. Perhaps our exhaustion improved the taste, nonetheless that recipe would not be repeated over the next week, to my disappointment.
Our morning chai was steaming, sweet and delicious, even as the temperature had climbed into the 90s. The street now full with children walking to school, adults running errands and beeps of traffic. Standing outside the chai stand, leaning up against the concrete post of the adjacent awning felt good, it felt like I was in India, it felt like I was back. I was calm, eager and anxious to begin the search. We finished our chai and set the glasses in the small holes punched out in the stainless steel counter top, cleverly designed.
By the time we returned to SRM it was time for breakfast, planning and strategizing with Arun and Anjali.
Photo Credit – Max Shannon