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I was excited about this day and the 2.5 hour drive to our base city of Pondicherry, further south. Within a minute of leaving the airport in Chennai, I plunged into real India.
Belu, our young, happy driver from Pondy, sped into the serpentine streets of the city. I did not have enough eyes to soak it all in. The city was like driving through a real life "Where's Waldo" cartoon but with Indians and more livestock. And without the vibrancy of color that I expected. Chennai, when I think of it now, was the color of sand. The roads, the buildings, even the bright saris, veiled by light brown sand. Like in Delhi, the acrid smell of smoke hit me, a certain scent which I now believe is burning cow dung. There are smells you come to associate with places, and this is one of them here.
The streets are lined with every kind of specialty shop imaginable, each one about the size of a walk-in closet. They sell all the necessities of life by category -- a broom shop, a tire shop, a bathroom fixtures shop, with tea stalls intermittent to the fruit, lumber, clothing, kitchenware, mobile phone, and brick shops. It had been raining in town, and there were huge puddles on the dirt road for Belu to navigate -- puddles, along with goats, cows, people, children, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, carrier trucks, and city buses. Driving is English-style, on the left (unless previously said objects are in your way, apparently), and it seems to me there are no absolute rules. Yet somehow, things flow without incident, I believe due to some complex language of constant horn-honking. With a symphony of octaves, they say -- on your left, on your right, go faster, get out of my way, don't hit me, I'm about to hit you, look out here comes a bus, and such. Usually I would be freaked by all this, but for some reason I really didn't care about the traffic. I was absorbed with the city and its humming, buzzing, honking life.
Within 15 minutes, we were in the countryside, and I was loving it.
The road to Pondy is generally a mile or so from the water's edge, and both sides of it are lined with little villages. This coastal road reminded me very much of a drive down the western coast of Mexico from Acapulco to Huatulco, but with about 397 fewer road humps, more trash, and a lot lot more people. Plus here in India, there was nil likelihood of seeing a cow slaughtered at a roadside shop 15 feet from your vehicle, which is nice.
Halfway into the drive the fauna became much greener and higher. Once in awhile the ocean came into view. We passed groves of eucalyptus trees, and their smell combined with the humid heat from the recent rain and the salty ocean air made for the second memorable scent of the trip. Eucalyptus and smoke, beauty and grime, chaotic noise and the peaceful countryside -- it was just the beginning of my story of India.