There comes a point in every traveller’s life when the experience of going to a foreign place no longer feels the same, nor as exciting as it used to be when she first began. Cities blur into similar skylines, restaurants and bars. Non-cities remain precisely that—good in small doses but rarely more. The magic of travel fades into a succession of airports, suited executives and boring business hotels, or a kaleidoscope of lobster-red package tourists and concrete bungalows on dirty beaches.
Even I could not avoid that fate.
Having travelled around many parts of the world on a student’s budget not too long ago, I used to skip perfectly affordable, mid-range hotels in favour of Rs100 rooms. I was used to travelling for three months or more at a time, and had a strict travel philosophy: “It’s got to be all or nothing. Either luxury on a private island scale, or whatever I can get for next to nothing.”
The Philippines, with its 7,107 islands, was especially appealing. Under-visited and often overlooked in favour of Thailand and Indonesia, the Philippines has a certain charm that sets on slowly, but lingers on long after you’ve left. It’s so large, with each region and group of islands distinct from each other, that it feels disjointed; and so disorganized and chaotic that it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly the Filipino experience is about. Is it about the colonial heritage of Intramuros in Old Manila, or the pine trees and mountain ranges around Baguio, where strawberries, ube (yam) jams and hot springs rule?
Why the Philippines is not overrun with tourists is the reason why it should be: It can be experienced in so many spectacularly different ways.
Madras to Thiruvannaamalai, 185km
I’ve often said India never calls for me, she mostly shouts. With India, there is no moderation: you either love her, or you hate her to death — she never cares for you, or you can’t get enough of each other. It’s clear which camp I fall into.
I could have been in class, somewhere in Singapore, dying in a statistics lecture on an unbearably hot day. A message would come in from friends in Mumbai — usually about their plans that weekend — and I would not be able to work, talk, study, or function. Not until I booked a ticket to India. I could never explain it, I just had to do it.
It was like that again when I sat at the void deck of my apartment, decked out in my funeral whites, missing my grandfather terribly, not knowing how I would ever stop. Other people need Prozac; India’s yelling, honking and shouting did it for me. It did it for me every time I needed her.
When the horn sounded at flag-off, we left Kodambakkam High Road behind. The gaggle of reporters, photographers, radio personalities, curious onlookers and well-wishers faded into the distance. Our destination: Thiruvannaamalai.
If you looked on a map, the holy southern Indian city is merely 185 kilometres from Madras. If you took a bus, it would take just under five hours. If you travelled by car, perhaps three and a little bit. Since we took an autorickshaw, our estimated travel time was something like eight hours. Or before nightfall; whichever came first.
It takes a while to actually leave Madras. The city is a sprawling mess of neighbourhoods, many of them neat and compact and middle class and manicured — by Indian standards anyway. We passed Thousand Lights, rode on to Cathedral Road, our music thumping in our DIY in-rickshaw entertainment system.
Near Menaka Cards factory on Arcot Road I made us slow down to stare at the ridiculous sign I have always loved on the side of its building: “Marriages are made in heaven. Marriage cards are made in Menaka”. We strode on confidently — empowered with the sort of zeal only people who knowingly embark on insane adventures can have — past Mount Road, on to Saidapet. Guindy. St Thomas Mount. Chennai Airport. And then it was the open road from there, our first “highway” on an autorickshaw.
From then on we were well and truly on our own. We would lose sight of all the other rickshaws in the rally, most of the time, and only run into them when someone broke down, when we ran into another team in a random village, or when we caught up with the rest of them somewhere on the road. It would be up to us to decide which way to go and how to get there.
Most mornings we were armed with little else other than the name of our final destination. At our daily morning briefings we were given tasks, and sometimes hints of how we should make our approach, but that did not preclude the fact that we would be waving our arms frantically outside our rickshaw most of the day, shouting at someone who was walking, or riding a bike or rickshaw: “Thambi! Chengalpattu, where? Left-ah? Right-ah?”
We perfected the art of speaking without words. Most times we received instructions with a bob of the head, and we replied and expressed our gratitude in the same way.
Thiruvannaamalai was not a difficult destination to get to. Excited and pumped with adrenalin, we raced our rickshaw through the Great Southern Trunk Road and then the National Highways like champs on three wheels. We stopped when we found the first breakdown of the day, Tim and Gary’s, but otherwise stopped only to refuel, and to drink sugarcane juice. We got there fairly quickly, and without much incident. (Other than when we’d stopped for a train crossing in a small village, and a little girl came up to me to ask, “aunty aunty, what are you, white or Indian?” I said I was yellow, and drove off before she could ask me what a yellow person was.)
Chengalpattu. Tindivanam. Vallam. We stopped outside Gingee Fort to take photos of the fort and of the bulls with painted blue horns. Pennathur.
I have a love-hate relationship with India’s religious, holy cities. I know how my skin colour, and the fact that I was born outside the structures and strictures of traditional Hinduism, means I will never encounter holy life in an Indian holy city the way it was meant to be; I will always be an outsider, always a firingi, in the religious places far more than in most other cities. It also means I see much more of the harassment and the stupidity that their most aggravatingly frustrating touts and pimps and drug dealers subject to foreigners, who believe we all come to India’s holy places to seek darshan with the gods of drugs and sex, without exception, and must thus be given what we want: sex and drugs. In Benares I felt no holiness, only sexual harassment; I did not have high hopes then for Thiruvannaamalai.
By the time we found Chengam Road, with some difficulty, it was already dusk. The town’s sacred vibe was apparent: in addition to the numerous temples, priests and sadhus, there were a great many white people in what I call “enlightenment attire”, wandering around town. When we pulled in into the grounds of our first base hotel, a fancy resort along Chengam Road, we were tired, but victorious.
I could not have asked for a better way to end the Rickshaw Challenge, having had such a great first day; but something about Thiruvannaamalai did not sit well with me. The hotel’s staff started off friendly and grovelling, but when they found out my team did not intend to plan to stay the night and spend a ridiculous sum on their “affordable luxury” they quickly turned sour. The cheap hotels we wanted to stay in were sneered at by them — we CANNOT stay in those hotels, they said, because “these hotels allow smoking”, and “they serve alcohol and meat.” I have utmost respect for teetotalers, vegetarians and non-smokers, but it’s this sort of holier-than-thou attitude practised by a small number of you that makes me run in the opposite direction and do those very things you dislike.
So off we went, back onto Chengam Road, back towards the town centre, in search of the Promise Land: a cheap hotel with alcohol and meat.
We were turned away by many budget and mid-range hotels, because I was “gasp a WOMAN!” I was a woman who intended to share a room with a white man and an Indian man, but the idea was inconceivable to many. I was told by several hotels that they were looking out for me by not letting me stay there, to protect my honour or something flaky like that. Others said they were protecting me from the many bachelors who stay in their hotels, as though these bachelors would not know how to deal with the presence of a Chinese woman in a rickshaw wallah uniform. Dejected, exhausted, and still ranting about self-righteous vegetarians, we finally settled for a bright pink hotel with a decent fan room for a handful of rupees.
A shower never felt so good.
I slept on the floor, deciding it was preferable to the hard double bed shared by the boys, and dreamed a long dream about driving down the Great Southern Trunk Road.
Tomorrow, we would conquer Yercaud.
There are slower ways of seeing India. On a buffalo. On a “two wheeler”, a motorcycle, stacked to great heights with assorted luggage until you can’t see what’s in front of you. Or on foot, “by walk”, like a sadhu with no clothes on.
We travelled by autorickshaw.
An autorickshaw isn’t too bad an idea on paper: it is, after all, capable of hitting up to 50km per hour. Which would be comforting if our speedometer actually worked. Instead, ours wavered meekly several times per day, mostly settling for the number 65. How machines lie. I wouldn’t even call our autorickshaw a machine — a primitive piece of equipment, yes, but machine, implying any form of mechanical achievement or efficiency, no.
We set off from Madras one hot morning, dressed to the nines. It was a good idea before flag-off, this brilliant idea we had of dressing just like a rickshaw wallah. The previous nights we had been in Pondy Bazaar every night, looking for various items to complete our get up. We’d planned to dress as Super Mario characters at first. The mustache and beret were no problem, the theatre costume company we’d checked out earlier had plenty of those things. They were initially designed for Roman centurion characters and other popular roles, such as various Hindu gods, but we could appropriate those items to create our Mario outfit. But the suspenders were impossible. Even the salesmen at Saravana Stores laughed at us when Karthik described what we wanted. “You mean you want dungarees, saar? They’re so old-fashioned. You cannot find them in Madras. They’re too old-fashioned, saar, we have no dungarees.” If a Madras salesman tells you they are out of fashion, they are out of fashion. So we thought we’d dress like a rickshaw wallah instead.
Saravana Stores is a bit like Singapore’s Mustafa Centre. Mustafa scores better on the “has all the crap you ever need to buy” front, but Saravana wins on the “has an entire section of the store dedicated to rickshaw men’s uniforms” front. We skipped over like crazy firingis, trying out different types of singlets (who knew there were so many?); a variety of khaki shirts, and patterned lungis. A few hundred rupees later, we were in business.
We took off from our base in Kodambakkam High Road, much to the delight of the local press. I was interviewed several times, very likely because I was a girl with a tilak on her head, dressed like an autorickshaw man (thereby bending gender norms a little bit). I smiled nicely and fiddled with my lungi, and put on my best I am a foreigner accent. All was forgiven. Foreigners can do whatever the hell they want because we’re all supposed to be crazy. Crazy enough to be driving a three-wheeler for 21 days continuously anyway.
Among the many questions posed to us by the Indian media, the one I could not answer was, “What do you hope to achieve by doing this? What is your intention?” Insanity has no intentions. It simply happens. Likewise, when I first read about the Rickshaw Challenge five years ago in Wired, I knew I had to go. The insanity took over and consumed me until I finally bit the bullet and went for it.
Where we would live, where we would spend our nights, how we would repair our auto when it broke down (and we knew it would break down at least once a day), I had no idea. Everyone else had booked the hotel package that came with the race, but we were too
cheap adventurous for that. If we were going to see South India the way none of us had ever seen her before, we would do it the proper way. We would drive an auto everywhere and we would stay anywhere, as long as it was close to a TASMAC and a good breakfast.
With that policy of insanity and inebriation firmly in mind, we set off for the open road, cruising on the East Coast Road. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
There I was, sipping my welcome drink in a posh Ubud resort, when I almost choked on it.
I was accompanying friends as they sought the best wedding venue in Bali. Concerned about the monsoon, they asked the hotel manager why it hadn’t rained at all in the week we were there.
Without batting an eyelid, she informed us there would be no rain for the entire month. “You see, Julia Roberts is in town.
The Hollywood leading lady has many accomplishments to her name, I get that, but the ability to control weather surely could not be one of them. As it turned out, one of the most popular myths in 2009 went something like this: Roberts came to Bali to shoot Eat Pray Love. To minimize interruption on the set, traditional rain-makers were hired to cast spells over the skies to keep the rains at bay.
One can never be too sure about these things in a mystical country like Indonesia (and I say this as a committed, practical Singaporean), but what’s certain is Bali—and by virtue of proximity, South-East Asia at large—has had an indelible spell cast on it by the Eat Pray Love marketing machine. You can now go on Eat Pray Love tours to trace Elizabeth Gilbert’s footsteps around the island. You can meet the medicine man she consulted, at $25 (around Rs. 1,145) a pop. You can meditate at a beautiful beach resort, learn yoga, and wander around Bali in search of the enlightenment that Gilbert and Roberts popularized in print and on the big screen, respectively. I love Bali, yet I could not help feeling like I wanted to eat, pray and hurl.
I trotted off instead to my beloved Thailand, into Bangkok’s chaos and the hidden order beneath it, and the secrets of the Andaman islands.
I have a piece in the Valentine’s Day issue of Mint, the Indian paper. Read it here. I have not written much since my cover story in Reader’s Digest Asia in July 2010, so I’m feeling pretty good about my “comeback”. I will be writing more regularly, here, as well as for a handful of publications.
One of the projects that’s been super fun to work on has been the birth of the Klang Valley’s first homemade ice cream outfit, The Last Polka. M and E run the ice cream empire, I help out with the other bits, like the… tasting of the ice cream. And the copywriting.
What started as a crazy idea — bringing ice cream to KL from Singapore, in a bus, because we couldn’t get it here — turned into opportunity. “Why don’t we just do it ourselves?” I’m quite the pro at eating and at being strongly opinionated about what I put into my mouth, but the girls have much more of a culinary bent than I do. So I stick to writing about it.
Exactly one year on, we’ve managed to introduce the pleasures of homemade, “artisanal” ice cream to the Klang Valley. From the little home kitchen and tiny machine, to the ramped-up production now underway, the French-style, Asian-inspired gourmet ice cream idea has flourished from the idea it was, to the real brick-and-mortar business it now is. The ice cream now retails at three location: Marmalade at Bangsar Village II, Marmalade at Mont Kiara, and The Bee in Jalan Universiti (Petaling Jaya). The first scoop shop just opened a few days ago at Taylor’s Lakeside campus.
The ice cream repertoire has expanded rapidly: we’ve now introduced Guinness, French Toast, Nutella and Horlicks to the Klang Valley, to great acclaim.
We were asked to collaborate with Time Out KL for a Valentine’s Day special — an aphrodisiac flavour. We managed to create two. Until the end of February 2011, the special romantic combo of chocolate chilli and strawberry cream cheese can be had for just RM 45. Since cool indie ice cream kids love cool indie music kids, we’re also collaborating with one of our favourite bands, Furniture. Their new album (preview here) “They Made Me Out of Dreams You’ve Forgotten”, can be purchased together with the two tubs of ice cream for just RM 65 in all.
Order at our website (I know, we need a new one — I threw this together very quickly even before ice cream production began, and we’ve since outgrown it!), and get yourself some love.