English, Stories From India

My first impressions in India

Hindu temple with typical architecture from South India. Pondicherry (India)

Before traveling to India, I spent a week in Dusseldorf with one of my best friends from school and her lovely husband, their home is like my second home. My flight to Chennai was scheduled from Frankfurt, so I had to take a train from Dusseldorf to there. That winter morning, I walked a few blocks from the house to the train station with my hands in gloves and my winter cap. The station was quite empty as it was not even six o’clock. I checked carefully from which platform the train to Frankfurt was leaving. I was incredibly nervous as I went up the stairs with my suitcase, ready to board. While buying a flight ticket with Lufthansa, the airline gives you the option to also buy a train ticket to travel a part of the journey by train. In my case it made a lot of sense to take the train to connect between the two cities instead of a flight; and it proved very convenient to get directly to Frankfurt airport station.  The reserved train carriage has a special space for suitcases, and in case of a delay in the train schedule, the airline takes responsibility and change your itinerary accordingly. In any case, I do not think that anybody would even consider a delay, because trains in Germany works like a clock. As per the schedule I was supposed to have something like three hours which was enough time to check my luggage at the airport. But it so happens that always while travelling, things do not happen as you expect, the train was delayed by more than two hours which just made me even more nervous!

Dusseldorf (Germany)

As soon as the train reached the station, I made a run to the nearest counter to dispatch the luggage. Thankfully, in between the station and the airport  there are many counters were it is possible to check the luggage which is not allowed on board, giving passengers the possibility to continue with less troubles through the long corridors that lead to the main area of the building. The person who took care of me at the counter told me, “You have to run because it’s too late, I’m not sure if you will be on time for boarding.” Very worried I ran as fast as I could. Somehow, always in those situations, even short distances seem longer, and what you would easily do in a normal situation seems impossible. When I got to immigration to stamp my passport there was a very long line; so for the very first time in my life, I asked the other passengers to allow me to skip the line and go to the front because I was going very late and  was risking to lose my flight. Usually, I am one of those people who are always on time. After passing security, I continued walking through the corridors which seemed endless, to finally reach my departure gate which was the last gate in the airport.

I finally made it to my boarding gate with just a few minutes to spare. Right from that moment I understood that this experience was not going to be like previous ones. Even before boarding, the atmosphere was completely different. Amongst the passengers I saw some western faces who were a minority. Most of the passengers were Indians, the women were easily recognizable because they proudly wore Indian outfits that I had so rarely seen in the past. Today I know how to differentiate the different outfits worn by Indian women, and I even love to wear them. But, at that time, I had only heard the word saree and had just seen very few Indian women wearing it. My knowledge of India by then was reduced to almost nothing. All I knew about India came from some of the stories that my mom told, some of the random conversations with a couple of Indian friends that I made during other trips. And the only time I tried Indian food was for my birthday the year before with my brother at an Indian restaurant in Berlin.

My first indian meal. Butter chicken, naan, biriyani and chutney. Berln (Germany)
Women wearing saree in Pondicherry (India)

My flight was bound to Chennai which is the capital, and the largest city of Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is the southernmost state in India and is the tenth largest state in size and has the sixth largest population. It is highly urbanized, densely populated, and one of the most industrialized states. Tamil Nadu was founded in 1956 to accommodate Tamil speakers, Tamil is one of the oldest languages on the planet. For more details you can visit the following  https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_Nadu

Sunrise in Kanyakumary, Tamil Nadu. the most southern area in India.

As we boarded, I had a lot of contradictory emotions. On one hand, I was going to see my mom after a long time and I was extremely happy about it, but on the other hand the uncertainty of being in a completely new universe was making me very anxious. The plane food was also different, the menu was reduced to two kinds of vegetarian food, and the coffee had been replaced by tea, which is popularly known as the national drink of India. Although I grew up in Colombia where one of the best coffees of the world is produced, changing coffee for tea was not a problem, because I loved tea from a very young age and always preferred it when I had to choose between the two drinks. After eating I fell asleep and when I woke up, we were almost about to land. The nine-hour journey passed quietly, and the plane arrived on schedule, 1 AM Indian Standard Time. If you want to know more about tea culture in India I highly recommend this blog https://zenningmyway.com/2020/09/19/things-to-do-in-fort-kochi-cochin/.

I knew that once I land in India, I would not have network to reach my mom, so before boarding in Frankfurt my mom gave me all the instructions on the phone. She had told me that at the main door a taxi would be waiting for me, to take me to Auroville. When I deboarded, all that cultural clash became more evident. India is a densely populated country which makes public places very crowded, on my arrival these crowds made the biggest impact on me. The lines in immigration and security were endless, but I had no major problems beyond having to wait more than an hour to get visa and passport stamped. I soon realized India is a matter of patience, which was not my strongest point at that time. My mom had advised me to change some money at the airport. The money exchange office was also very full, and I was quite intimidated to see that every single person in the line were men. But in the end, I did not have any problems, it was just my mind and insecurities that were making me see situations much worse than what it really was.  

I quickly noticed that there were very few people traveling alone, not to mention that I was the only woman who did not come in a group. Many stories are told about traveling as a single woman in India, and I must be honest that some of those stories were also part of my nervousness. From the very moment I planned my trip, I always thought it was better to take a tour avoiding being alone, but that night I had no other choice than taking a private taxi to reach Auroville where my mom lived. I soon realized that the protected atmosphere of the airport was not even half as challenging as to what I found outside. Outside the main gate, behind a small barricade they were at least 200 people. All of them men, not a single woman. The flights coming from Europe usually arrive early in the morning, so it is quite common that the arrival area is full of taxi drivers waiting for passengers. My mom had arranged for a taxi to pick me up, but there were so many drivers waiting outside, all of them holding signs with names written on it, that my immediate thought was how I was going to be able to recognize my name in that crowd. But amazingly in the middle of all that tumult, I saw a driver with a little paper that read ‘Cristina’. It was a huge relief for me. The taxi driver did not speak much English, but in broken English he asked me to follow him. As we were on our way to the car, he passed me his cell phone and said, “mom.” I did not understand what he meant, I put the phone to my ear and finally took a deep breath when I heard my mom’s voice on the other side telling me: “The journey takes almost three hours, so you’ll be arriving after 4 A.M. I will be waiting for you”                

Woman hearding her goats in Auroville, Tamil Nadu (India)

The taxi ride was comfortable, and I slept almost for the whole journey. During that time of the morning the city of Chennai and the highway to the south were quite empty, it was not until the next morning when I understood what the organized chaos of the Indian traffic meant. That first morning I woke up in Auroville surrounded by trees and chirping of birds. Being in Auroville I never felt I was in India. Hugging my mom again was an incredible feeling, our relationship was not always good, but we have become very close after my teenage years, and much closer in recent years.

That morning my mom had an appointment in Pondicherry town. Auroville is 40 minutes away from Pondicherry town. Pondicherry is a Union Territory, they have an independent government that is directly under the central government in Delhi, unlike other states. This territory was part of the French colonial Empire, although it is now completely independent from France, the French influence is largely noticeable in its culture and architecture. Unlike the rest of India, this territory was never under the rule of the English empire. Pondicherry (or Puducherry) city is a small town compared to the large Indian cities, and its population is just under 1 million people. More information at the following link  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puducherry-Puducherry_(city)

Collage of the french neighborhood in Pondicherry (India)

We decided to go to Pondicherry by rickshaw or tuktuk, a three-wheeled vehicle very known in India as it is a cheaper alternative for the locals instead of a taxi, when the bus is not available. Very soon after crossing the Auroville border, I started feeling what it really means to be in India. Honking is a quite common practice, and the drivers use it very differently from what is used in the West. A honk could be used to warn other vehicles, to overtake, or simply to let others know that there is someone on the road. It is more of a peaceful warning sign, but the streets and highways become very noisy. When driving, you not only have to be careful with cars, motorbikes, buses, trucks, rickshaw and so on, but also with cows, goats and buffaloes that are common and highly respected passers-by. To cross a street, there are no streetwalks or anything like that, but there is a respect for the pedestrian and a special rhythm that makes things move in the street in the right way. It is important to add that, in India people drive on the left side of the road, which was the opposite direction to what I was used to in Colombia. Crossing the street, I had to make an extra effort to check from which direction the vehicles were coming. Being there in the streets, in the middle of this chaos, I wondered thousand times from where had I gotten the great idea of visiting my mom in India?

Bullock carts are also part of the Indian traffic

My mom was already very used to the Indian traffic, and she was moving around very naturally. Once we got to Pondicherry, she asked me to wait for her while she was at her appointment. I replied pretending to be extremely comfortable: “Of course Mommy, there’s no problem, I’ll be waiting for you in an hour at the supermarket.” The supermarket was just four blocks from where we were, but once I was alone, I felt totally lost.  I knew exactly where I was and where I had to go, but everything around seemed so different that I felt there were threats everywhere. I decided to start walking and found that the best way to escape that chaos was to enter a big cloth shop that was a few meters away, and there finally I felt I was safe.  I tried to pass as much time as I could, and then I went back and waited in front of the supermarket for another fifteen minutes without wanting to move. After visiting many countries alone, India hit me in a way I never imagined, I just wanted to run away.

A year later I visited Pondicherry, and I laughed alone at all those thoughts and fear I had felt that first day. Pondicherry is a super nice city, quiet compared to other places in India, and if today someone asks me if I recommend visiting Pondicherry, blindfolded I would say yes.

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