I’m told by my team mates that there are plenty of advantages of being a foreigner in India. For example, they claim that whenever we go out for dinner together, they get better service in restaurants. Now that’s not for me to comment on because I’ve got nothing to compare it against. I’m friendly to waiting staff and they mostly seem to be friendly to me.
This is Part 2 of the 1000KM wedding, if you haven’t read Part One of this scintillating story then I suggest you head over here and read it before continuing here.
We arrived in Tiruppur about 6:30am, my body was running on auto-pilot from lack of sleep and I was thankful when I collapsed in to the hotel bed – and even more thankful that the hotel was really nice, none of the 5 star nonsense you get in Chennai but clean, neat and modern.
There was a bit of a who-hah to check in, I didn’t have my passport on me and the hotel insisted that they needed to have a xerox copy of my passport and visa in order for me to be able to stay. But rules in India are made to be flexible and when we said we’ll find another hotel suddenly passports were forgotten. It wasn’t as if I was going to be staying over night anyway, it was just a place to crash and get refreshed on the Sunday.
In India the wedding reception tends to be held before the actual wedding ceremony, I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this but it probably has something to do with the astrology and auspicious days which many people rely on for the timing and date of the actual ceremony. The astrology charts of the bride and groom will have been consulted way before they’d met each other to check that the two people are compatible and it would also reveal the best day and time to get married. Invariably the ceremony would take place at some ungodly hour like 5 o clock in the morning so instead of asking guests to attend at this time, a reception is held the evening before at a much more sociable time.
We now had 6 hours to kill in Tiruppur, I wanted to be a tourist and go around snapping photos but it turned out one of the guys I was with had an old university friend living in the town so he asked me to join them for the afternoon.
It soon became apparent that the old university friend came from quite a wealthy family; my first introduction to him came when he asked if he could come in to my room to check the decor and furniture because he wanted some ideas for the hotel he was constructing within the town. Next we went to the modern cinema complex that his family owned and then on to his family house on the outskirts, although not before passing several Vodafone stores which his family operated.
The guy was 28, married with a young son, drove a Volkswagon Passat and was realizing his life’s dream of building a hotel while simultaneously managing a chain of Vodafone stores. It’s very difficult not to compare yourself!
The family home was built on a colossal scale, I think they gave the architects a picture of the Empire State Building or something and said: Think big. And big it was, the lounge alone was 3 stories high. The whole house was spotlessly clean and was completely devoid of any kind of ornaments or clutter, come to think of it I didn’t even see any family photos or any other kind of pictures hanging on the wall, I’ll have to ask about that and find out why.
You can’t beat a bit of Indian hospitality and even though the guy came back home with two random people (one of whom was this bloody foreigner) his wife and mother set to work in the kitchen immediately and within 30 minutes lunch was ready to be served. In keeping with tradition, despite the opulence and obvious wealth, it was served on a banana leaf. Banana leaves are often used as plates in homes and restaurants because they are clean, waterproof and are obviously bio-degradeable so can be quickly disposed of – they don’t need any kind of processing or packaging like paper plates so all in all 100% environmentally friendly!
After lunch (I had seconds!) we went to see the guy’s new hotel that he was building. Most of it is a building site still but he’s currently got the headache of trying to work out the best light switches to use in the hotel rooms and what kind of laminate finish to use on the furniture. By comparison, my biggest headache seems to be am I going to have enough time to clean the house, do my laundry and get the grocery shopping done on a Sunday afternoon. Different worlds!
One of the many differences that I’ve noticed between the East and the West is the attitudes towards ownership. We would always call the home where our parents lived our parents home, in India, the parents home is often referred to as ‘our’ home. Similarly when this person was talking about the various businesses his family members ran it was always ‘our’ business, even when it was completely operated, run and managed by another family member. The cinema is completely run by his Dad, which in a western sense would make it his Dad’s business, but it was still referred to as ‘our’ business. The hotel was his idea from conception to execution and he alone would be responsible for the running of the place when it was done, but it was still ‘our’ hotel.
Back at our hotel (no, not the Claridge family hotel, the hotel where me and the guys were staying) we ran in to a spot of bother. It was coming up to 6pm and we realized we had no transport to get from the hotel to the reception which was about a 30 minute drive away – everyone thought everyone else was going to organize it. This being Tiruppur, a small tier 3 kind of city, there were no call taxis available and no auto driver wanted to go all the way out of the city.
The bus back to Chennai left at 9pm so we had to get to the reception quickly to allow enough time to get back to catch the bus. After half an hour of frantic phone calls to friends and acquaintances (after eating, India’s second favourite pastime is networking and building contacts) we found someone who would give us a lift to the wedding but he couldn’t make it until 7pm. This should give us enough time to get to the reception, get photos taken with the anxious bride and groom to be, eat dinner then race back to the bus station.
Of course, if it actually went as smoothly as that then this wouldn’t be India and there would be no point writing this story.
The timezone for India is referred to as IST, officially known as Indian Standard Time, but colloquially it’s referred to India Stretchy Time because it’s very rare for people or events to ever be, or start, on time.
Of course, 4 years in India and I haven’t lost my British sense of time so at 7 o clock sharp I was suited and booted in the hotel reception area waiting to be picked up. The rest of the gang was upstairs watching the cricket and generally laughing at me for getting ready so early. By 7:30pm a couple of them came down to the reception and started making phone calls to find out where this guy was who was supposed to be picking us up.
“5 minutes” he said.
5 minutes is a word you hear a lot when you ask how long something is going to take or when the person will be done by. It basically means I don’t know, so we settled back down in the chairs in the reception while my work colleagues decided to do all kinds of poses infront of a camera which was frankly embarrassing.
7:50pm we get a phone call from the person picking us up. He can’t find the hotel. No one I was with knew their way around Tiruppur so we handed the phone to the receptionist who explained where the hotel was. “OK, 5 minutes” he said.
7:55pm he phones again, he still can’t find the hotel with the new directions. More explaining from the receptions. “OK, got it, 5 minutes”.
8:05pm and this guy finally turns up in a rude boy Suzuki Swift with blacked out windows, over the top spoiler attached to the roof, 20 inch sub woofers in the boot and of course the neon yellow go faster stripes.
Boring engineering fact for you here: A spoiler (or more accurately a rear wing) put on the back of a road car is more about show than anything else. It has the effect of increasing the weight of the car and the drag while producing none of the downforce since a road car doesn’t go fast enough so basically you end up spending more money on fuel, drastically reduce the re-sale value of your car and has the side effect of making a car owner look little bit, well, silly
No one seemed the least bit bothered that it was now impossible for us to get to the wedding and come back in time to catch the bus. India has chilled me out a lot (no, really it has!) and I know that if a show starts at 7pm then it will be gone 7:30pm before it actually starts (thanks to India Stretchy Time) so why rush, but the fact that I was 500KM from home and knowing that we would be hard pushed to catch the bus in time started getting me pretty anxious.
The useless spoiler on the top of the car apparently wasn’t just for show because the guy really did drive like he thought he was on the race track. Squeezing through the narrowest of gaps, overtaking on blind bends, forcing the on coming traffic to veer violently out of the way, it’s either a miracle we didn’t hit anything or I’ve discovered India’s new Formula 1 driver.
At last we reached the reception, I glanced at my watch, it was 8:30pm, just about enough time to say hi to the bride and groom and hop foot it back to the bus station.
The way the wedding receptions work in India is that there is a big hall with a raised stage at one end. The married couple to be sit on a big sofa and a never ending queue of guests pour in from far and wide to get their photos taken and give gifts and wishes. Fortunately when we entered most people had wandered off to take advantage of the free food (see above, India’s favourite pastime) so we scrambled up on the stage, said our congratulations and then raced back to get the bus.
Or at least that’s how I saw it going in my mind. We spent about 2 minutes on stage with the bride and groom but with so much free food on offer the temptation was too much, everyone had to dig in, go back for seconds and thirds, try out the four different types of desserts and then discuss what had been eaten at length.
Myself, on the other hand, worried about the 9 hour bumpy bus journey back to Chennai with limited toilet stops, opted to play it safe and had just plain idlys.
By this stage it was almost 9pm and the bus was due to depart the bus station 30 minutes away so with my anxiety getting the better of me I went over to the person I was travelling with and asked him what we were going to do about catching the bus. He looked at his watch for probably the first time that night and made a sort of “oh” sound. He dug out his phone and the conversation went a little something like this (paraphrased of course):
Friend: Hi, we were supposed to catch the 9pm bus but we can’t make it to the station on time, can we get a later bus?
Company: No, sorry sir, all services are full you must come to the bus station
Friend: Aiyyo, but we are too far away to catch the bus
Company: Sir, you must come to the bus station
Friend: Can’t the bus sort of pick us up as it goes past? We are near the Perumanallur cross roads
Company: No sir, it’s the rules, you must come to the bus station
Friend: Err, ok, how about if I pay a small fine to the bus driver?
Company: Wait let me call you back
And so it turned out, for a small ‘fine’ we were able to catch the bus at a major cross roads as it went past us. It was silly of me to worry about getting to the bus station on time because in India everything works out in the end.
This is the beauty of India and I’m constantly amazed by how everything just seems to work out. No matter how bad you think you are in the dodo, some how it will work out. I don’t know how and I don’t know why, but I love it 🙂
“Hey Pete, are you coming to Sathish’s wedding?”. Asking if you are going to someone’s wedding is a daily occurance in India where everyone gets married between the ages of 23 and 29. Heaven forbid you should get to your thirties and your parents still haven’t found you your soul mate, right?
So in my office there’s a group of guys a year or two younger than me and since they are now deemed to be reasonably well settled (ie. they’ve held down a job for four years) their parents have been hard at work back in their home towns and villages trying to find the perfect bride for them to ensure that they have someone to cook chapattis and keep the house in order.
Most of these guys are now married and I’ve received invites each and every time along with the insistence that I attend. I’m rather ashamed to admit that despite wedding invitations being given to me at least twice a week I’ve only attended two ceremonies in the near 4 years I’ve been here – infact there is one girl who used to be on my team that is so angry that I didn’t come to her wedding that I don’t think she’s speaking to me any more! Ouch!
Last week I received a wedding invitation from Sathish, congratulations all round, his parents have found his wife and now they are to start their journey of love together. These moments are occasional, said the wedding invitation, but my presence would, I was assured, make it sensational.
“Pete, we’re going to the station to book the tickets to Sathish’s wedding, are you going to come?” I have to be honest, after the look of anger and disappointment I got from the other employee when she came back to work the other day, I thought I should make an effort. “Sure, why not” I told them “where is it?” “It’s in Tiruppur, about 500KM from here.” Oh God. Fine, put me down for a ticket and tell me the cost later.” I said to them.
“So guys, what time is the train leaving tomorrow?” I asked, rather naively. “Train? Who said anything about a train, we’re getting the bus.”
OK, freeze frame.
Buses in India have rather a bad reputation. You can’t go to the BBC news website without reading a tragic story* about how a bus crashed and 40 people perished or open the local newspaper without seeing a burned out picture of a bus.
My friend’s brother was involved in an accident where the bus driver fell asleep and slammed in to an oncoming bus, his injuries were severe enough to get him admitted in to hospital but because India is so vast it took over an hour for even the police to get to the accident and the injured had to be taken in another bus that was passing by.
As you can imagine my face kinda froze in place, buses are not the way I want to get around this country. “But you said you were going to the station to buy the tickets” “Yeah, Pete, the bus station”. My face must have been quite the picture because they all burst out laughing and started teasing me.
“Ugh, God, fine, how long is it going to take to get there?!” “About 9 hours Pete.” There was a nervous exchange of glances between the guys, “What!” I demanded, “Err, it’s non A/C too.” Let me just remind you that this is India where the night time temperature is still around 28 degrees, not having A/C for 9 hours would be like spending a night in a Swedish sauna. Where 12 months of vigourous gym workouts have failed, a night on a bus to Tiruppur would have me shedding the kilos in no time.
I called up my girlfriend in desperation and told her the news, hoping for some kind of reassurance. “Oh God, you’re going to die!” she said. I didn’t feel reassured.
CST Bus stand, 8:50pm
You may think I’m stating the obvious here but there are a lot of people in India. No, really, there are so many people. Think Sydney Harbour, Leicester Square or Times Square on News Years Eve and then double the number of people and you have the average number of people at a public location at any one time in India.
Dealing with this many people who all want to get from A to B means that despite having one of the most expansive railway systems in the world and despite having the most rolling stock in the world, the trains are usually fully booked up to a week in advance.
The spill over goes to the bus stations and you’ll never see anything like it, hundreds of buses coming and going, thousands of people lugging suitcases, hawkers trying to sell you tickets, and the bus horns. The bus horns. They are not just loud but musical. Think “Delalalala” or “dum deledum de dum” or “Belee buluu belee buluu”. There are no LED displays showing departure times, there are no sign posts, the bus station is barely illuminated, you must find your bus by looking for a little sign that is placed in the window of each bus.
Now, if your idea of a bus is the X15 commuter to Northampton then you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen some of the private buses they have in India. The business bus that flies between Bangalore and Chennai is like an executive lounge on wheels with big reclining seats, plug points, desks and WiFi facilities. For the middle class traveller you can travel by night in a sleeper bus with fully flat beds or a semi-sleeper which has reclining seats and loads of leg room.
11am, 2 hours south west of Chennai
I’m writing this from a semi-sleeper bus as it careers down one of the high ways of Tamil Nadu. I’ve got acres of leg room, I’m lying almost flat with my legs stretched out, people around me are snoring, the windows are open and the smells of countryside India are assaulting my nasal passages.
Ah, the smells. Did you know that the traditional way of making leather is to use animal faeces because the bacteria helps soften the skin – think about that the next time you buy a leather handbag! Although if you are a male reading this and buying handbags you probably have a few more things to worry about than the fact that it’s been submersed in dog shit for the last 3 months!
Now, thanks to the numerous tanneries dotted along this highway, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the traditional leather factories are alive and well in India. Even the usual failsafe of pulling your t-shirt collar over your nose doesn’t block out the smell of rotten, decaying flesh, urine and poo.
The journey is to take 9 hours in total and there is no toilet on board. This means that we have to stop for what are popularly referred to as pit stops. These pit stops take place at what could be described as service stations without the golden arches. People get off and refresh themselves with tender coconut milk and samosas instead of an artificial burger and coke. For those brave enough you can check out the toilet facilities but ensure you make full use of the t-shirt-collar-over-your-nose trick because it’s not going to be pretty. Infact they charge people 1 rupee to use the bathroom but on both pit stops so far I’ve chosen to ignore the man on the desk and plead ignorance of a stupid foreigner and walked straight in.
2am, Somewhere in Tamil Nadu
Judging by the last 4 hours, I’ve worked out that the way to drive a bus in India is to hurtle along at 100KM/h, blasting your horn for as long as you can at any headlights you see in the distance and then slam on the brakes as you approach a junction. The state of the high ways have got progressively worse the further we’ve got from Chennai and in places it even becomes a dirt track. In others we’re quite literally skipping over the pot holes. It’s like turbulence on wheels. Fortunately I’m one of those weird people who enjoy turbulence and find the rocking and shaking very relaxing.
4:12 am, Still somewhere in Tamil Nadu…Possibly Salem
It’s now gone 4am and I’m not sure what’s going to go first, me or the laptop battery so I think I’ll call it a draw and try to get some shut eye.
* This accident occurred on the same bus route that I was travelling on. Eek!