Gyanada 2014

As you may know, I set up The Gyanada Foundation last year. We’ve spent the past year building the organisation and learning as much as we can.

Last year, we supported 150 girls in India. This year we hope to raise that number to 350, including the existing students we have onboard currently; also expanding geographical reach alongside enrolment numbers at the same time.

Yesterday evening we had a great event at Artistry where we talked about what we’ve done so far and what we hope to accomplish in the near future. Here’s a summary and how you can help.

Watch the Video

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The Geography of Hope

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.


There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.


The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.


I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.


I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.

An Indian Decade

As a wee child in Varanasi before I threw away my backpacker wardrobe.

I’ve been coming and going from India for the last ten years.

In 2004 I started to hatch the first plans to flee the terrifying life laid out for me — that of a student in a Singapore university, doomed for the corporate world or for the civil service — into the wide open arms of India, which changed everything, and who I have grown to love unconditionally. Those early escape plans evolved into a lifestyle I would not trade for anything in the world, one which has given me ample global career and life opportunities simply because I could not sit still when I was 19.

I’m currently finishing my book, a travelogue and guidebook to India for independent female travellers, which seems timely and necessary at this point; I also set up and run The Gyanada Foundation, which aims to help girls in India receive a better education. I look forward to a few more decades with India in my life in a big way.

I’ve written a lot about India in various forms, but here are some posts previously posted here about India:


Speak of India and its great cities, and someone is bound to correct you.

Mumbai, they say, offended, as though you didn’t know any better. In other situations, Chennai. Yet I do say and I do like saying Bombay and Madras because those were the names we had for those cities, growing up a sea away from the subcontinent, and nostalgia counts for something, nationalist political correctness be damned.

It’s a weird question I cannot answer whenever someone asks the inevitable, why do you love India so?

Where do I begin?

Do I begin with the story of how hearing my China-born grandparents conversing in market-Tamil with our Tamil neighbours as a child mesmerised me whole, leading me to watch Tamil movies endlessly wondering why I could not understand the dialogue? I was convinced I was Indian, there was just no other way about it: being told at age 5 that I was a disgrace of a Chinese person for not being good enough at a language nobody spoke at home (we spoke dialects and English instead of Mandarin), only made me more determined. The singing and the dancing and the prancing around trees made sense to me; the kungfu television shows felt alienating.

Or perhaps it has something to do with how I was born a stone’s throw away from Little India, how my parents were wed on Diwali, and for the astrologically-minded — of which I am not — that made perfect sense to explain away my identity confusion? My solo walks around Little India as a teenager led me into informal Tamil lessons I can no longer remember, and spice shop tastings that made me feel, for once, that this is a home I understand? 

Or that nearly all of my early mentors in childhood and adolescence were Tamil-Teochew poets and Sanskrit scholars who imparted in me a love for rhyme and meter and an irrational fear of booming voices; that later in life, nearly all of my friends, lovers, business mentors and collaborators would also be connected to India in some way or other?

None of that matters.

What does is that in 2004 I walked out of the airport in Calcutta and felt immediately that I had come home, through no other prior connection; and that every year ever since I have returned, twice, thrice, and more each year, sometimes staying for months.

Whenever I read travelogues about India I am often unable to understand why the authors keep writing about the Indian Arrival Syndrome: something about throngs of humanity and masses of people and rotting flesh and cow dung and about needing to flee. The only time I have ever felt that way upon arriving anywhere has been in the great cities of America and Europe, where I have arrived and thought: oh my god, where are all the people? I need to leave. (Eventually, I got over it. But I certainly don’t write travelogues about arriving at places I don’t know and wanting to leave.)

I love that I am at home in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay (I’m only just learning to like Delhi). That I have my secret places, amazing friends, and a world of possibilities. If I want to drop in on a film set, I can; if I want to organise a great conference, I can; if I want to do business, I can too; if I want to set up a foundation and educate a hundred and fifty girls, it’s possible as well. I am aware everyone’s mileage varies, including that of the people who actually live there — but that’s just how it’s been for me: it gives me an imagination. Mostly by showing me the extremities of the world.

After every breakup, illness, death in the family or other assorted tragedy large and small, my first instinct is to go to India — anywhere in India. It works. It’s been called my Prozac, but what it is is really far simpler. India is where I go to make sense of the world when the world no longer makes sense for me. That arrangement has worked so far, this past decade.

I’m excited about what the next five or so Indian decades will bring.

A Weekend Getaway

Still scratching the surface of my favourite country in the world, this time by going to Coorg.

As many of you will know by now, I have spent a substantial part of the past decade travelling through India. I still feel like I’m barely done with scratching the surface. There’s just so much to see in that vast, amazing country that I call my second home.

For some time now I’ve wanted to go to Coorg.

Coorg, also known as Kodagu, is a hill area in the state of Karnataka, in the Western Ghats. Its people are known as Kodavas (not Coorgis!) and all I knew about the place was that it had coffee, beautiful people, and pork curry. All that was sufficient to inspire me to plan a trip there.

From Chennai, I took a quick overnight train to Mysore Junction (book early, book ahead — this route is headed towards Bangalore, and therefore sells out early), but you can also take a bus. At Mysore Junction, I arranged for a car to pick me up for breakfast and to my resort of choice.

An acquaintance from Mysore highly recommended Travelparkz, and he was right: they were a very reliable car and driver service, and it was good value. I hired them for a pickup from Mysore Junction railway station to the resort in Coorg that I was headed to; and for a drop-off from the resort to Bangalore city a couple of days later. I highly recommend these guys, though it’s best to reach them via phone. They speak English.

I had heard about The Tamara from friends in Bangalore, so I decided I would give it a shot. It’s a very new place and it gets most things right. My only complaint is it didn’t have as much pork as I would have liked.

You can wander about the grounds of The Tamara on your own, or sign up for one of their daily walks with their on-site naturalist. I did none of the above as I was too busy resting after a long week at work in India!

Highly recommended. I will be returning to Coorg shortly, although I may want to check out Victory Home next, since I’ve just met these guys in Bangalore.

Damn I love this country.

Tamara - Path
The path to my cottage

Tamara - Shoes
Happy feet

All rights reserved, The Tamara Coorg

Gyanada Foundation Soft Launch

Announcing the launch of a new non-profit that aims to improve girls’ education in four states of India.

I’ve thrown myself headlong into work — real work, and then foundation work.

India is an important part of my life and I owe everything to her. Over the past couple of months, my friends and I have been busy putting a little NGO together, the Gyanada Foundation.

Today (Tues, 12 March) between 7 and 9 in the evening, I’ll be hosting our soft launch at Artistry, 17 Jalan Pinang.

Here are the event details! Hope to see you there.

It Was All New

Some say Orientalist. I say tomato.

I have a tattoo on my lower back. It was given to me by the grandson of a tribal village chief. I grimaced for hours on the floor as he used the primitive tools and ingredients that had tattooed his Iban people for centuries, on me, a girl from a big city.

I’d always wanted a tattoo, but didn’t know what; this one crept up on me. Like the girl I was there with (we had a crazy idea: we would visit and live with an Iban community in a longhouse and celebrate Hari Gawai with them), I wasn’t expecting any of this. The girl, the tattoo, or that I would have such a story to tell many years after the fact. I chose a bunch of tribal motifs from an album and told him to make it up. I got lucky: I like my tattoo very much, even if it is what some people would call a tramp stamp. I’m proud of it. There’s a story to tell each time anyone asks about it.

The girl is no more in my life but the tattoo remains, defiantly representing all of the new beginnings I will embrace in life. Tomorrow, I start a new life and more and more I feel as though the year of grieving and floating, which so profoundly altered my path and direction in life as well as my livelihood and future plans, is finally about to draw to a conclusive close.

I am finally ready for another tattoo. This time, I know exactly where it should be, what it should say and what it should look like. I would not have known this without the pain of my first tattoo. It will be a beautiful Sanskrit verse from the Bhagavad Gita and I intend to have it inscribed on my upper left shoulder. This time, I will harbour no plans or illusions about the permanence of anything other than that of the Sanskrit verse on my shoulder; this time, I will learn to love without needing to know the world.

Taj Mahal Foxtrot

A note from New Delhi

Taj Mahal Foxtrot, namesake of the book by the same name by naresh.fernandes

Another new year, another bad habit: I’m late, again.

Just a few days ago, I was sitting at the back of a Toyota Innova, stuffing my face with mithai and chips — not at the same time — thinking what a nice surprise it’d be for my readers, to finally post, and on New Year’s Eve, too. I didn’t make it. I got busy.

The landscape outside my window was of rural Rajasthan: familiar. Not as brutal as the Marwar I came up close to, the last time I was here, at the peak of summer. Not too long before that I had arrived in Rajasthan with my young traveller tie-dye pants, led by nothing other than the youthful desire to do something unexpected, terrible and difficult. Things are quite different now: I have a ‘job’ to get back to. No doubt it’s a business I own and run, but I still can’t get away for as long as my college summer breaks allowed me to.

Everything feels different. Only India feels the same.

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This winter made Rajasthan different from the last. It was much better, with its cool — almost too cool — air, dry spells. Not quite as cold as Delhi.

Hurtling through traffic, avoiding cows and camels, stopping occasionally for a ‘sulabh’ break — BYOTP (Bring your own toilet paper), the Innova, the “metal cow” of the Indian road made its way through all places familiar and strange.

We made a makeshift cinema on the rooftop of the small bed & breakfast we were staying at, shivering in the cold under bundles of blankets, with a dazzling view of the Umaid Bhawan in the near horizon.

We drank copious amounts of lassi.

We ate, drank and made merry — with our hands, of course, for to eat with a fork and a spoon is just like making love through an interpreter.

We didn’t break up at the Taj Mahal.

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I’m in a different place now. A good place.

Not too long ago I was hopping around some parts of the world on a series of one way tickets, with nothing to hold me down to any place or any one. Just me, my backpack, my cameras, notepads, my lone self in a hostel room for one, on the lonely (but fun) road to self-discovery. That part of my life seems to be a distant past now. The places are the same but the package is different. I could not go away for a year now, not without looking back wistfully at some people, things and creatures.

The things that bind come when you least expect it.

They were the crazy thoughts that slip into your head when you meet someone for the first time — at a bar, or at least that’s how it was for me. The furious back-and-forth binary exchanges through various electronic sources. A text. An email. A few stamps in your passport and many flight tickets later, and you’re settled. Sort of. Settled as far as you can be. You go to a city, rent a house, set up a business, own a dog, and suddenly you’re one of those people boring hippies to death about how you love Singapore because you can go jogging at three in the morning and feel safe. Suddenly you’re one of those regular people who can go someplace breathtakingly beautiful like the Taj Mahal and feel nothing except annoyance at the incessant crowds, and you’re not the sort of girl who goes to the Taj Mahal and breaks up with the person next to you anymore.

No one ever tells you it’s going to get better in your twenties.

They don’t. Okay, so you can drink Yakult everyday before lunch and after lunch, and nobody tells you you’ve gotta eat a vegetable. That’s where it gets tricky. No one tells you anything — you’re supposed to know. About everything. About salaries and savings. About weddings and funerals. About businesses and jobs. About children and insemination. About… everything. It’s up to you. You can drink as much Yakult as you want, but if you lau sai, you take yourself to hospital and you pay for your own medical bills. You can go through life never eating a single vegetable if you don’t feel like it, but when you’re constipated… well, never mind.

You amble through life, finish college, and if you’re lucky, acquire some sense of purpose — I like to think I was lucky in that department — and then you try to make yourself a success. Somewhere along the way, one of your friends is going to die in an accident, another one of your friends is going to be diagnosed with a terminal disease, and there’s going to be absolutely nothing anyone can do when faced with sudden mortality: something most of us have not had to think about until now.

I’m not sad or anything like it. Quite the opposite. I love what I do (btw, it’s a combination of writing, speaking, and separately of selling and making apps and running a small company that makes apps), I wake up every morning the master of my own time and location — which is something I established a long time ago as a bare minimum for any endeavour. I will be where I want to be, when I want to be. This has meant 800km trips up and down the North-South Highway every other week, crazy meetings packed in rapid succession, and some sort of invisible third arm growth that is my iPhone and high speed internet connection.

Some mornings, though, I wake up missing the part of me that’s long gone. That part of me that used to write furiously, take good photos, chase stories, pursue any trail of human interest in my vicinity. I’m not complacent or anything: I’ve just lost it. Like not knowing how to play a piano again from neglect, despite banging on it for 10 years: I’ve just lost it. I’ve lost my need to go to places, see things, talk to people, take photographs, write stories. I’ve lost my wide-eyed curiosity and innocence — I’ve seen it all before, my brain tells me, and there are precious few things in the world that leap out at me the way everything once did. Absolutely none in the developed world, which doesn’t interest me anthropologically or culturally in any way, and a dwindling number in the developing world. India. Yemen. Syria. Places like that — full of raw energy, waiting to be unearthed. And in India’s case, ever-surprising and ever-ready, no matter how many times I go back there.

Then there’s the writing. Not having had the discipline, time or desire to write as often or as much as I once did, the year or two of utter neglect is leaving me scrambling to pick up the pieces before I lose it forever. It’s difficult to keep writing when you’ve been stuck, as so many writers before you have been, on that one debut novel you’ve been hacking away at for years. On the bright side, I am at a better place right now to write — and finish — that novel.

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So the point of all this, I guess, is to figure out what’s next? Lots.

There’s that book to write. Like an awesome Chinese soup on slow boil, it can’t be hurried. I’m just doing what I know best, although I should know better. But that’s for me to figure out.

There’s the business, which appears to be growing. I’ve had the good luck to work with great people, so I’m excited about what it’s going to bring in 2012.

Then there’s the travel. I’ve been lucky to be able to visit all these amazing places and to know a few of them quite intimately. There’s plenty of travel scheduled for 2012, some work, some leisure, and I may finally be able to get to a few places I’ve dreamed of going since I was a little girl. Places that were difficult to get to.

On the home front, my resolve to spend more time with my family in Singapore appears to be going well. On the home front in KL, we’re at a good place although there are some plans (on my part) to move back to Singapore at some point this year.

I don’t know. For someone who hates planning, I’ve certainly planned too much. Always the big picture, the big goals at the end of the line; never the small details. Maybe it’s time to think about the details, too.

Health-wise I’m in pretty good shape. I’d let myself go — so typical of a long-term relationship — but I think I’m back at a healthy weight, build and BMI. Never again. Although the rapid and massive weight loss means I need to shop for a wardrobe anew, it’s a step in the right direction for 2012!

I won’t bother with setting any resolutions since those so often disappoint. Let’s just say I have my eyes on the prize… or prizes! Lots to do, lots to work towards — a combination of company work, personal work, and community work — and I can’t wait to get started. Though I’m currently nursing a flu from the brutal Delhi winter smog, I can feel it in my bones that 2012 is going to be a year without precedence, one that will blow the last 5 out of the water (and I’ve had very, very good years recently)!

Also, I’ve been going back to India really, really often. That counts for something in the greater scheme of happiness. Happy new year, everybody.

Quora: Is it safe for a single woman to travel alone in India?

Here I start a series of my best answers on Quora, starting with this one. It still has the highest numbers of upvotes!

For those of you who don’t know, Quora is an amazing community full of smart people asking and answering interesting questions. I spend a lot of time on it.

Follow Adrianna Tan on Quora

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My answer:

Absolutely. Many women do. I have travelled alone to India over 20 times. To all parts.

I used to always stay in $2 rooms alone, and also travelled sleeper class in long train journeys alone.

You need to have your wits about you, more so that you are a lone woman, but this is true of all places if you have travelled alone before.

I’m not saying nothing untoward will ever happen, just that the most I have seen has been verbal harassment which was quite easy to disarm. And that this did not happen significantly more than other places I have travelled to alone, and I will include Yemen, Bangladesh, some parts of western Europe in that list. You will have some trouble travelling alone anywhere — I don’t think India is a special case in any sense.

Someone told me, very early on when I first started exploring India alone: when in doubt, talk to a woman. I thought he was nuts but then I tried it whenever I felt unsafe anywhere (this has happened just a handful of times). People in India are super friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask. It should not be too hard to find English-speaking local women who can help, as they deal with much worse on their own. I realized this person was absolutely right: Indian women got me out of situations with calm ferocity, each and every time. They would tell the guy/s to f*** off, and make sure they deliver you to safety. This has happened across India and I urge you to consider this if shit ever hits the fan (it shouldn’t).

Some things to note, from anecdotal experiences (all of this has happened to me):

– a generalization: you will probably find South India very safe compared to North India. If interested, ask some locals on their opinions on why that is. My experience is just that in south India people are more reserved and less taken by the idea of anything foreign.

– many people in India are unable to comprehend why you should want to do that. Many of my friends there who come from privileged backgrounds, are not even given the opportunity to travel alone the same way I did. Most of their parents thought I was mad, and thought their country extremely unsafe. I think as a foreigner, one is held to a different set of standards and you can see India in a completely different way. Don’t be put off or scared by stories of other people’s opinions. Discover India for yourself and never be afraid of her. There’s a lot to learn.

– you will be asked endless questions about your personal life. What is your good name, what is your country, how old are you, are you married, how many children do you have, do you like India, what is your native place, how much money you make and can you help them get a job in your native place. Be friendly, be open to making stuff up (“the correct/expected answers”) if you like. It doesn’t really matter. But do not take this personally: this stuff is expected, considered good form, and not intrusive at all. They will also want you to send their regards to your parents, who they haven’t and will never meet, just keep it all in good faith. Friendliness takes you far in India.

– an unpleasant quirk of travelling as a lone female: this is a strange, not very nice thing but you will find out that in some places, some local men will assume because you are a foreigner = you are willing and able to have sex with them because all foreign women are not Indian and therefore impure and loose by definition. You won’t hear this said, but it is thought by many. I have found this attitude more pervasive in the north than anywhere else. I have seen and heard and experienced this behavior personally from lowly educated men and highly educated men alike. Remember, most local men are GREAT. It’s a couple of bad eggs that spoil it, as always. Just remember this terrible idea comes from watching tv and never having interacted properly with foreigners and believing in the myth that all white (and foreign women) are interested in alcohol and sex (and necessarily with them). Many people also won’t be able to understand why your husband or boyfriend is okay with you travelling alone.

– in general, the “holier” the place, the more shit you will get as a single lone female. The negative stuff I’ve experienced have come exclusively from the touristy and/or holy cities/towns. No problems at all outside these parts. There’s a crap ton of hypocrisy in the so-called holy places. All the sexual harassment I have ever faced have come from weird men in “holy” places. Luckily none of it was ever dangerous, just annoying.

So, be on your guard but make sure you don’t let any kind of fear cripple your trip either.

I mean, I have more than survived India alone.. And I also have a lot of female friends who have travelled India alone many times over the way I do. Their experiences more or less corroborate with mine.

The assumption is that you will dress appropriately and be sensitive to local customs. You will be fine. More than fine. Make plans before hand to meet some prominent local people in major cities, especially if they are in a similar field of work or working in an area you are interested in finding out about. I’ve learned a lot from talking to journalists, artists, tech types. They can teach you a bit about their city, and they will also watch out for you as you are a guest of Mother India’s after all!


A crash. A breakdown. 200 kilometres in the opposite direction. Andrew and I were left without our native son, and we screwed it up in as many ways as it was possible to. Yercaud more than made up for it, though.

Thiruvannaamalai to Yercaud, 155km, though it ended up a lot more

I come from a place with no highlands. No real ones, anyway — the highest point, Bukit Timah Hill, is a mere 163 metres. Enough for families and joggers to work up a sweat on Saturday mornings; not quite enough to keep going. You run, you jog, you break up a tiny bit of sweat — then it’s time to “descend” for breakfast at the nearby hawker centre.

Not so in India. Home, after all, to the Indian Himalayas. My first time in India was magical, and one I will never forget. As a naive amateur traveller at the time I had mistakenly assumed all mountains were the same. I had only experienced winter, once, in Mount Sorak in South Korea. I remembered four degrees Celsius was quite doable, even without too many winter clothes. I packed just as light, then, for the Indian Himalayas. On reaching Darjeeling I realized what a mistake that had been. This time, I was no newbie: I had been to India about fifteen times since, and knew a thing or two about its disparate climates. I also knew a little bit about its hill stations, and its rickshaws. Something in my body — common sense? — also told me it might be a bad idea to climb a hill station in an autorickshaw.

One of the things that people who know me are likely to say is that I like to do the very things that I’m told would never work.

Like driving an autorickshaw up a hill. Remind me to never do that again.

The last we ever saw of our route book
The real story began the moment we left Thiruvannaamalai. The breakfast briefing made it seem easy enough. Take off at 8am, get lunch somewhere on the way, meet in Harur to make sure everyone was on time, meet again somewhere near Pappireddipatti so we could time our ascent uphill together.

Andrew and I were to get horribly, horribly lost, that day. For the first — and only — time.

Karthik left us that morning in Thiruvannaamalai for Chennai. Having just obtained his PhD days prior to the race, he was slated to move to Brussels soon after. Due to some bureaucratic screw-up, he had to bus it back to the capital for a medical appointment for his Belgian work visa, then head back to meet us in Yercaud that night. Not having a Tamil-speaker onboard was doable, but my team had gotten used to the idea that we could muck around after flag-off, have breakfast, hang out with locals, see a few sights, then start moving.

Flag-off at Thiruvannaamalai was as uneventful as it could be — I could not wait to get out of there. Karthik bid us farewell even before we woke up. When Andrew and I got to base we were pretty sleepy, still, having spent the previous night sleeping on terrible beds (and I on the floor). When the horn sounded and all the teams started for Yercaud, we headed to the nearest coffee shop to eat a quick breakfast (muruku and some other snacks) and to take swigs of coffee before we started properly. It must have been 8am, usually an ungodly hour for me, but the faithful were already awake.

Hungry, we had kothu parotta in Kambainallur
At the coffee shop near a temple on Chengam Road, we looked quizzically at the legions of old, white people in “spiritual clothes”. I looked even more quizzically at the firingi prices we were obviously paying here for muruku and kaapi. We read the newspapers, chatted a little, then with some reluctance got back into our rickshaw to begin the drive. Still no clue what we were in for. You know how some mornings when you wake up you drag your feet and don’t want to go to work?

That morning I woke up and dragged my feet and didn’t want to drive my auto. Off we went anyway. My job, since I was no good with driving these things, was to sit in the backseat and navigate. My tools? Google Maps on my iPhone. Google Maps in this part of the rural world was fine — if by fine you mean, places, villages, towns and cities actually show up, in English. The directions they came with were impossible. Being from the big city, you understand: if Google Maps screws up, it is the end of the world as you know it.

So we followed these maps on my phone, and the navigational directions they gave us. Except that we got hopelessly lost in the end. We kept going anyway, and the people we’d stopped for directions were no help. “Which way to Harur?” This way, that way, you go straight there and then you turn left… India is a pretty bad place to get lost in. Everyone wants to help, and does; except when you’re lost, all that help is really no help at all. At a petrol station we got the usual “OMG, foreigners! Driving a rickshaw!” curiosity. And still no worthwhile directions. We kept driving, driving, following one lead after another.

We passed lots of farmland, and lots of construction. We drove over bumps, we drove on very awful roads. We found ourselves in a village where I got out, and gesticulated wildly. Yercaud! Yercaud! Which way? (Making a note to myself that I should have paid attention to what little Tamil was spoken around me, growing up.) “There!” — followed by the Indian octopus. The one where at least eight arms point in eight separate directions. If you’re a newbie you end up following directions given by the person who made his case most forcefully and most convincingly. If you’ve been around these parts, it’s that guy you learn to ignore. We kept driving, in some direction.

With another happy passenger. Fare: zero rupees.
More farmland, more cows, more farmers and more awful roads. The lead we had followed previously now led to what seemed to be a dead end. I jumped out of the rickshaw and gesticulated wildly. Is Yercaud back there — pointing at the direction in which we came from, so at the least we could find out if we were going in the wrong direction — or that way? Nope, all the answers came fast and furiously. It’s the other way, just keep going.

I was driving on one of the smaller highways, emboldened by how easy it was becoming, when the highway suddenly led into a town, and the town led to lots of people. Remember, I don’t really know how to do this — I’m just not good with manual gears, not yet — so I suddenly felt I could not control the rickshaw, and it was cruising along at a speed that was much too fast even for an small town. Andrew, who was chilling out in the backseat, was starting to realize this too.

I kept going anyway, freaking out and yelling “ANDREW I NEED YOUR HELP!” but by the time he scrambled and leaned over to take control of the gears, the rickshaw had already hit a motorbike. There was an old man on it. He fell. I felt like everything that could have gone wrong already had — and yet here we are, about to be in the middle of a large mob with possibly no way of getting out of it.

True to my projections, a large mob had formed around us and the old man. But they were not yelling, nor were they demanding anything. They gathered in large numbers but then some of them helped him up from the ground, another group picked up his motorbike and brushed off the dust, and others yet just stared at us. “It’s okay, just go,” the mob was saying. But I knocked over someone’s bike and it’s possibly not working now! “No, he’s fine, you should get on your way.” I tried to give the old man some money to fix his bike. He shyly refused, acknowledging the power of the mob around him. They were so nice to us, almost to the point of assuming that we must have been so unlucky to have had a tiny accident here in their town, even though it was my fault, that I felt embarrassed instantly. Knowing I could not out-talk the mob, not in a language I didn’t speak, and not wanting to embarrass the old man either by insisting openly that he take my money for his bike, I made it seem like we agreed, gathered our stuff, and got back into the rickshaw. But not without shaking the hands of the man whose bike I had knocked over (even if it was gently so), and pressing a small wad of cash into his hands. We took off then, and kept going.

Then the phone rang. It was Aravind, wanting to know where we were — everyone had already assembled somewhere for lunch — so where the hell were we? Ask someone, he said. With no Tamil between Andrew and I, and sign language not cutting it for when actual explicit directions are required, I passed the phone to someone who spoke in Tamil to him.

When I got the phone back, Aravind calmly told us we were at least two hundred clicks in the opposite direction. Please drive back towards Harur ASAP. Still the villagers pored through our route book, and were unanimously convinced we just had to keep going, there would be a turn, go up that hill, and then it’d be Yercaud. I could see it, and I wanted that hill to be Yercaud, quite desperately. But of course it wasn’t.

So we doubled back and drove off in the other direction.

One hour. Still no sign of Harur. We were, instead, in Kambainallur. This being a good-sized village, and by this I mean there was actually a place we could stop and eat a proper meal in, we parked outside a little hut where I saw something I recognized. An iron griddle. With food on it. Food being kothu parotta, one of my favourite childhood foods. This far out from home, and from the places I knew in India, having something close to home like kothu parotta was a wonderful feeling. It reminded me of all those nights I walked from my university hostel in Singapore to Little India to eat parotta, chopped up, with egg and chicken. I decided I would have the same thing right here in Kambainallur just so that I could feel we might somehow find our way to Yercuad later.

The people at the restaurant were bemused, to say the least. When I think of rural Tamil Nadu now, I will forever remember it for the sweltering, still heat beating down on our backs. No wind, no breeze — just the slow oscillations of a very old, very dirty ceiling fan. Tic. Tic. For half an hour we ate our tasty kothu parotta in the hut, and entertained the people of Kambainallur who were coming into see what we were up to. Yes, we are driving this thing…

I’m often asked, wasn’t it dangerous? Dangerous, to the extent of possibly damaging life and limb on the road, yes — theft and other crime, not so. We usually parked our auto somewhere in sight. By the time we were here in Kambainallur we had gotten so comfortable in this part of Tamil Nadu we even experimented with leaving our bags of expensive camera equipment in the rickshaw, although well-disguised. Every single time we — as foreigners in this part of town — were treated with far more curiosity and amusement than anything we owned (which probably didn’t look like very much, considering how we were dressed).

We clambered back into our rickshaw with a small post-lunch stupor, armed with cold Pepsi and Thums Up, and took off somewhere into the distance. This time we had a small feeling we might be on the right track. We kept driving, and noticed people were trying to flag us down. This time we were in the small country roads that cut through the villages, not on the state or national highways, and not on the larger arterial roads between the towns either. There did not seem to be any public transportation — nor any other autorickshaws — around for miles. We decided since we had just had a small spot of good luck (with the tasty lunch and finally figuring out which way to go), we would pass on the karma. We began picking up passengers.

All of them were going a short distance, usually to the next village, so each ride lasted an average of 10 minutes.

With our music thumping in our rickshaw, food in our bellies and cold drinks in our hands, Andrew and I started feeling rather invincible. We stopped for every single passenger who flagged us down. Each time, happiness as we drew to a halt, then confusion, horror, as they looked into the vehicle and found us looking like that. They all climbed in in spite of the incongruity. Not knowing how to speak with them we simply drove on straight, and they told us when to stop.

Lady we gave a ride to in Kambainallur
First, an old lady near Kambainallur who wanted to go to her sister’s house. She climbed into the backseat with me, her orange sari so long it flapped into my lap. She was mostly silent, being rather shy as some rural old ladies can be, only using her hands to direct how we should go to her destination.

After a few minutes, her curiosity got the better of her and she asked, in Tamil (which I understood a very limited amount of), “Where are you going?”


“By rickshaw?”

“Yes. From Chennai.”

“Why didn’t you take a train? It’s so much faster.”

With that, she pointed to the village she wanted to alight at, and ran off into her sister’s house. I often imagine what she might have said to them. “I came here to your house in an autorickshaw, driven by an American and a Singaporean, and they were dressed like rickshaw wallahs.” I often imagine that might have been the rural equivalent of saying you just saw a spaceship.

We kept going. We picked up at least four people, each of whom was just as incredulous as the last. One man had huge gunny sacks of spices with him, and he too sat in the back seat with me. Each started out shy, embarrassed, but burning with curiosity — each ended up wondering why we were doing this. At that point I was starting to wonder myself.

One happy passenger after another, we were finally well and truly on our way. Harur was in sight. Our team phone was low on battery, so we had no communications from the Mothership (the convoy) since the last time we spoke. We found that M., who was responsible for making sure all teams got rescued if anything went wrong, had been waiting in Harur for us for hours. His pickup truck was recognizable from afar, so we drove up to him. It was 4pm. All the teams started making their way up to Yercaud about 3 hours earlier. “So you better start now before it gets dark.”

At Harur I don’t think either of us had any idea we were only halfway there. It seemed such a tremendous accomplishment to have made it thus far. I started to feel relieved, like we could take things easy from here. We even celebrated with a 20 minute fresh fruit juice break. But we were to face a truly uphill battle.

We left Harur and made for Yercaud. We were so hot and dazed and frustrated by this point that even the relatively straight road towards Pappireddipatti, from which we would begin our ascent, was difficult to find. M. drove his pickup truck alongside, doing the convoy equivalent of kicking our asses, and we were finally in Yercaud!

Not so.

After 45 minutes up the hilly roads into Yercaud, a gear and brake problem we had been ignoring for the last four hours began to act up. The rumbling sound from the rickshaw was growing so much louder we had to pull over on the side of the hill. M. was not far behind, so we got him to take a look. Yet another 45 minutes spent not-moving, even though M. had really talented mechanics working with him, the sun began to fade. I have been to many places in the world and I’m supposed to be used to this — but it takes a huge effort for me to remember that when the sun sets, sometimes what follows is total darkness. And so it was. “Turn on the front lamps,” I said to Andrew. “But… they are already on.” They were just feeble, and really quite pointless. We could not see a single thing. M.’s team sped off and we soon lost them, driving in the dark ourselves. Our feeble lights did as much as to allow us to see when something was immediately in our faces, but not much else.

We were heading to the base hotel, but there was still a substantial climb to make. We were probably driving in the dark for about an hour before we finally saw a sign that said “Glenrock Estate” — our base camp for the next two days. Despite following the signs, and the instructions we received earlier, we could not find it. We would go straight, make a left bend, and then be in complete darkness again with no signs of a hotel anywhere near us. We kept going in what must have been circles in the dark. When we finally saw a bunch of lights, we knew it was not the hotel but the small village of Kakampatti. We pulled over for me to get some directions.

I ran into a store with a telephone, and dialled hopelessly for our friends. No luck — nobody had any cellular reception at the hotel. I asked a few villagers where Glenrock Estates was, and they said it was just ten minutes away, just up the slope we just came down from, where it was so dark we could not see the sign that said “turn right”, so we missed that completely. When I got back to the rickshaw and to Andrew, he was on the ground peeking into the underside of our rickshaw. Disaster, yet again.

A bolt had fallen off the rickshaw some time in the last ten minutes. It could not start without this bolt — there was a risk the rickshaw would simply fall apart, if we did. But it couldn’t even move at all. At this point I was beyond wanting to cry. Somehow I had some blind faith in how India always comes together for me.

A villager got on his motorcycle, and said he was going to buy the part for us from the garage 15 minutes away. When he returned, we found he bought the wrong bolt, and before we could even thank him for his help he got back on his motorcycle with someone who knew more about mechanics than he did, and they both went back to buy the proper part.

I sat on the ledge, wanting to help but really not being able to, just tired beyond belief. It’s the sort of feeling when you are not sure when the work day will end — except in this case you don’t know when the day will end, or whether you will get to where you need to be. I was fully prepared to spend the night in the village.

Suddenly, loud roars came riding down the hill towards us, and two men on quad-bikes came towards us.

“You must be Adrianna and Andrew.”

I thought they must have been angels.

“We’re the Bosen family, from Glenrock Estates. One of the village kids ran up here to tell us, quite breathlessly, that there were two foreigners whose rickshaw had broken down in their village. Since you were the only people not here yet, we assumed it must be you.”

The beauty of my mother India is in how in spite of the chaos, things come through. If you don’t panic, if you don’t worry too much, if you don’t allow yourself to be swept away by how different, and how insane, India seems to you, she will be good to you. Our rickshaw stayed in Kakampatti that night, but we didn’t have to — we got into the quad-bikes with the Bosens, and they brought us uphill to their comfortable coffee plantation estate where we joined the teams around the bonfire, with Kingfisher and coffee magically appearing each time we wanted some.

Coffee. Beer. Food. A comfortable bed, even though it was one I shared with 20 other beds in a dorm, I was happy we made it. Now that the worst was out of the way on the second day of the race, surely there could be no worse moments hereafter?

The villagers of Kakampatti fixed our rickshaw for us, and even drove it to the hotel when they were done.

Yercaud may not be in the Himalayas, or any other majestic mountain ranges, but as a compact and quaint hill station in the Shevaroy Hills it was all I needed it to be, right there and then.

Aside: Visit the Bosens at their lovely Glenrock Estates in Yercaud! Great coffee and quaint place to stay.