Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Paranoia of Solo Travel

There probably isn't a good time to lose all of your luggage in a rogue taxi hijacking, but within an hour of getting off the flight at the start of a 3 month trip is surely one of the worst. Alone in the darkness in the back of a beaten-up old taxi at 2 in the morning somewhere in the semi-rural outskirts of Chennai, this was the only thing going through my mind. I thought of my last late-night solo trip in such a vehicle in Pisco, Peru - the parallels were clear. It was only a matter of time before I was driven to a small village and devoured by the locals. or at the very least robbed of all my possessions including the shirt off my back and left by the side of the road. I tried to think positive - living naked for a day in the slum, fighting my way back to the city to get help sustained only by stagnant water and potato peel would make a moderately amusing yarn, slums being India's latest must see attraction after all. I might even meet some characters in amongst the decaying animals and wrought iron and spend a few days sorting junk with them. i instantly regretted not getting budget insurance. and losing my brand new $14 microfibre trek towel. Yes, this sure was a crap start to the trip.

Cracks had started to appear on the plane (only metaphorically - thankfully). After several hours, I started to realise that i'd forgotten some important things. Like toilet paper. And money.

Let's start with toilet paper - who in their right mind goes to india without toilet paper? This is a country whose capital city is named after a traveler's stomach complaint. And worse, the lonely planet seemed to imply that it doesn't actually exist within the country since Indians use their hand.

The money problem, I hoped, was more surmountable. Despite the fact that the world's favourite airline had scheduled all india-bound flights with convenient midnight arrivals, I was confident there would be an operational ATM somewhere at Chennai's apparently 'modern, well-designed' international terminal. As it turned out, there was. but it was on the outside of the building and nowhere near the exit.

Arriving and entering the terminal had calmed my concerns a little. I was able to meet some real Indians, who seemed friendly enough. But if there was one thing about India I feared more than Delhi Belly, it was pestering. Incessant, slightly camp pestering. With that in mind, i wasn't in any rush to stroll outside of the building, past the soldiers with large rifles, and straight into the teeming crowd outside.

The problem is that not being in a rush, especially when combined with not having the slightest idea where you are going, can be encouraging for pesterers, and this lot had a clear view into the terminal. So I kept walking with false conviction, feeling embarrassed by others on my flight noticing that i hadn't prepared for this predictable difficulty. And the next thing i knew I was past the soldiers and out. 'Shit. That was a mistake - perhaps there was a cashpoint inside after all'. I thought 'where did he say the outside one was?' Sure enough, within seconds I was surrounded by taxi drivers. 'Bollocks. look calm'. "Hi. Yes. Good evening. England, thanks. No thanks. I already have a reservation thanks. Just waiting for a friend. Good thanks. No I'm not married." 'I'll go back inside and take stock', I thought, but the clearly quite amused soldier at the door had other ideas. And the mob, if they had doubted before, were now certain I was either very confused or a little bit mad - both of which stood to increase their chances of getting money out of me.

I spotted a police man, or at least a uniform of some description, and I and my growing group of followers approached. 'excuse me - do you know the way to the cashpoint?'. He pointed a fair way along the side of the building and then explained something in half English and half nonsense that I realised later was a reference to not stepping on the families sleeping on the concourse. I followed and was relieved to see the cashpoint in one of those card-only sealed rooms - the crowd, somewhat surprisingly, waited patiently outside while I, reassured by the number of troops in the vicinity, tried to withdraw . Worryingly, the neither of my cards seemed to work.

I considered my options. A taxi to a place to sleep cost about $5. A place to sleep cost about $5. I had 2 dollars and 4 pound coins. This wasn't good.

The crowd grew as i searched for another ATM - we clambered en masse over more sleeping bodies, past a group of women having a picnic on a pavement at the edge of the car-park. But despite the number of assailants, I didn't feel the threat to be anything like the south american equivalent. There was, in fact, the slight possibility in my mind that these men were honest cabbies, simply touting for late-night business with particular zeal.

Mercifully, for no apparent reason, cashpoint 3 with credit card 2 chose to dispense. I made sure the cash was well secured and hidden in my money belt (the benefits of this are limited when a small crowd watches you do it - with faces pressed against the glass of the cashpoint booth) and we strolled back to the terminal exit. Here, I approached one of the pre-pay booths recommended by the LP, bought an official-looking ticket and waited for the licensed driver to pull up in his airport cab and uniform. To my horror, ticket in hand, I was instructed by the man at the booth to 'go with him' - with one of my original assailants. Overcome with that self-concious and isolating feeling of being watched by absolutely everyone (a common affliction for the solo traveler, especially at the start of a trip - perhaps something to do with lacking the frame of reference that is people you know) and convinced that I was appearing increasingly unhinged, I followed. Nervously. Thankfully the remainder of the mob seemed to graciously accept the battle as lost and dispersed.

Walking across the dark carpark my fears grew. The car was old, and dark, just like the Peruvian cab. I was ushered into the back. I thought 'yes', then 'no', then eventually got in and pushed my bag across the seat, just as I had done last time. If the overwhelming deja vu was a cause for concern, I was a reassured momentarily by presence of religious icons on the dashboard. After all, when has an overtly religious man ever been responsible for a violent act, I thought?

Anxious and in a vain attempt to appeal to the better instincts of a man who was, I was now sure, at the very least a psychopath and probably a mass murderer, I began to chatter uncontrolably. What's your name? ' 'Rafi - 'where are you from?' - 'yes' - 'are you from chennai?' - 'yes' - 'is it far?' - yes - 'nice car' - 'yes'.

Rafi clearly wasn't certain of his English, but in hindsight it's clear that he was at this point certain I was off my rocker. As we chugged along and my nervous interrogation continued his bemusement turned to boredom. ' I play music ' he muttered and turned up his soundsystem. A perfect way to cover up my screams as he holds the knife to my throat, I feared.

Accelerating through the main arteries that I hoped surrounded the city, past a huge haystack cycling along in the fast lane and a woman doing pottery by candlelight in the hard shoulder, the rhythm of the Tamil pop created a surreal atmosphere. With 35 degree humidity blowing in my face I began to feel pleased that I would at least have experienced many of the ingredients of a typical urban indian journey before my trip was prematurely curtailed. There was certainly a little more spice to this than my dawn stroll up a deserted King's Cross road to get on the Picadilly Line 11 hours previously.

With the horn permanently on, crossing more white lines than an MVP running back, we weaved in and out of rickshaws, autorickshaws, cyclists, lorries, elephants, police vans, pedestrians, chickents, cows and buses. The surroundings appeared at first more built-up then less as my perspective, and mood, shifted violently, from 'yes we are approaching a city of 6 million people' to 'that's the dark field round the back of his house where he's going to bury my corpse'. I scanned the roadsigns desperately for names of places I had read about. 'Chennai' would have been a start.

Eventually the number of buildings increased to the level where I could be reasonably confident we were in a city. I got a first taste (and smell) of slums as we weaved through side streets passing families asleep on pavements, shopfronts and rubbish heaps. With my heart still racing we turned down a narrow alley and miraculously pulled up outside the hotel. The exact one I had requested.

I wanted to hug the driver, even give him a kiss, thank him for saving my life. I gave him too much money, feeling bad about my embarassing behaviour and awful chat. He waved the change at me out of the window as i got out.

So I climbed the steps of Paradise Guest House - this particular version of utopia had rather more bare rubble and exposed wiring than the one peddled by Bounty commercials and the like - and clambered into bed. It was little hotter that I usually go for, I would have appreciated some bedsheets and I might have swapped the 18-inch lizard in the bathroom for a toilet you could sit on. But nonetheless, I was alive. And if I carry on with that mindset I can't fail to be pleasantly surprised from now on.

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