Kristof and I took a 3:30am flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka to Chennai, the capital on the east coast of the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. With only a month in India there is no way you can see even half of the best parts of the country. Most Westerners who go spend all their time in the north but we wanted to spend a week in the south first to see what it’s like and then take a train to Delhi and continue from there.

Tamil Nadu is the most urbanized state in India, home to 72 million people who speak one of the few surviving languages of antiquity, Tamil. The most common language in India is Hindi but hundreds of millions of people speak their own regional language and also learn Hindi. There are a whopping 22 official languages in India and hundreds more are still spoken widely. Tamils are fiercely proud of their language, history, culture and heritage and some say they were the “original” Indians, having settled into southern India long before the rest of the country formed into their own societies. There’s so much to say about the state that if you are interested in learning more you should just read the wikipedia article on it.

I had some idea of what to expect of India from reading articles, watching documentaries and talking to people who have been there. Things I had heard about it:

1. hottest place on Earth
2. extremely overpopulated
3. poor
4. proud
5. hairiness is a virtue
6. cricket is a way of life
7. hordes of pitiful homeless orphans will glom on to you in public places until you can escape or until Indian adults take pity on you and shoo them away
8. scam artists abound
9. religious ascetics are fascinating and mystical people who “really get it”
10. there are endless examples of a unique culture that is so different from the West that you just have to go to understand

With these things at the forefront of my mind I fetched my pack from baggage claim at a quarter to six and ventured out into the madness.

Walking out in the 85 degree heat before 6am, and staring at the thousands of people waiting outside, I was able to address the validity of some of my preconceptions. It was going to be very hot and densely populated, and 80% of Tamil Nadu men have a mustache. But street kids were nowhere to be seen, and although a hundred tuk-tuk drivers threw themselves at us we were quite used to it from Sri Lanka and easily navigated past the first groups to the ones out on the street, which are cheaper since they don’t have to pay airport parking fees.

And now introducing Sean Windell, our best buddy from UCSB who agreed to travel with us for the month in India. His flight had arrived an hour before ours and he was waiting for us at baggage claim with his trusty Lonely Planet-style tour book in hand. We piled into a tuk-tuk with all our bags and set off for the train station to get the hell out of Chennai, which has a reputation for being hot, polluted, overly congested, and with few attractions spread widely throughout the sprawling city. We decided it would be better to head for Trichy and Madurai asap to see more interesting and tourist-friendly parts of Tamil Nadu.

After three hours in the air-conditioned tourist booking office upstairs in the jampacked Chennai central station we were able to book trains down to Madurai via Trichy. As we waited for our train we eventually looked at the ticket again and realized it said 10pm, not am. We had inadvertently booked a sleeper train and would have to spend the day in Chennai. We fould a somewhat quiet place on the side of the road and went through the book for a while to see if anything was nearby that we could check out.

The streets of India are very busy, loud and colorful. The first thing you notice is what people wear: men all wear cotton pants and cotton collared shirts. Women all wear colorful, patterned sweeping sarees and boys usually wear shorts. On the street most people would look at us a little strangely, but as long as we smiled we would almost always get smiles back. Often men would want to know where we were from and immediately get excited about the US and want to talk about it. Less often than anywhere else on my trip, it seemed, did they follow it up with a sales pitch.

We decided to walk to the beach along the coast of Chennai to get one last glimpse of the ocean before being inland for the rest of the month. The water was not clean, nor was the beach, and hiking a quarter mile in sand under the baking sun was something I could have done without. Still, there’s something calming about the ocean and it was sort of nice to see it.

We spent most of the rest of the day in a stuffy internet cafe working out our itinerary for the month. At night we took our sleeper train south. Trains in India are so and fascinating that I’m just not gonna talk about it right now, I’ll do that later. Trust me, they’re great.

In Trichy (Tiruchirapalli) we visited two of the most visited places by Hindu pilgrims, The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple and the aptly named Rockfort .

To get to Rockfort we took a tuk-tuk to as close as we could and then took a twenty minute detour through a small, fairly quiet neighborhood to find the entrance. Aerial view:

At the top is a temple to Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom, power, success, and prosperity, or basically the guy you want on your side. He looks like a man with the head of an elephant. At the temple Sean made friends with a monkey.

The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is a pretty impressive sight to behold. The road up to it is incredibly busy with thousands of pilgrims, ascetics, vendors and the very occasional Westerner passing through.

Inside this temple, as in several others we would explore, the temple elephant stood near the front to give blessings to those who made ten rupee ($.25) offerings. These offerings would go into the elephant’s trunk and snorted back into the trainer’s hand. The trainer was actually a little busy catching up with old friends, which I thought was kind of funny as all these pilgrims were lining up for a special blessing and the guy didn’t really care about what was going on around him.

Inside the temple was interesting because of how open and quiet it was inside as compared to the chaos just outside the walls. Many a poor, tired pilgrim will sleep the day away after making it here.

We would visit many temples in the future, but for now it was time to explore some more of that good ol’ Tamil Nadu vegetarian food. As the state is so strongly Hindu there is almost no meat to be eaten. The same went for Varanasi, our next stop; we ate vegetarian for the first two and a half weeks of traveling in India. Eating the food here was fascinating and challenging. It was interesting to see how much variation there can be in the final product with a limited number of ingredients, and slowly we caught on to some patterns. For example, a staple is fried bread, which can be done in several different ways with different looks and names. I don’t remember the name for this one but it was a nice surprise.

Our last day in Tamil Nadu Kristof and I hung out in a not-so-airconditioned internet cafe while Sean went out and explored a little bit of Chennai. Here’s a cool tree that he saw, I can’t remember what kind of tree it is or where he saw it but it’s just really cool.

And finally, one of several themes we would revisit in India: