India is beginning to slow me down, as if I'm walking through treacle. I've had schedules and plans to help me along since I left Sydney back in the heady days of inexperience, and India's no different, but for the first time, I'm utterly disinterested in rushing round everything on my list: I seem to spend most of my planning sessions dropping things from the itinerary, rather than adding them.
It's India, you see. The concepts of 'mañana', 'whenever' and 'siesta' don't need to be spelled out: taking however long it takes is the philosophy, and if you don't roll with it, you'll be run over. Buses arrive when they arrive; trains depart when they pull out; banks change cheques when they change them; beggars die when they die; cows sit down when they get tired; the electricity works when there isn't a problem. The suited executive from the Land of the Transit Lounge would lose his mind in Indefinite India, but for the long-term traveller it affords the opportunity to glide into another timeline: if the world of the West is a well-oiled machine, India is a Heath Robinson contraption whose purpose is unclear, performance sporadic and schematics fascinating.
The places make India, the people make India, the atmosphere makes India, and rushing around from place to place only manages to change a journey of discovery into the pandemonium of those ten-sights-a-minute guided tours. This is more than a little pointless, surely? I have learned more about India and seen more amazing sights by sitting down and watching the circus pass through town than I have by zooming through the hills by bus or train. The journeys are interesting, but the destination is more so, whatever the guidebooks say about 'getting there being 90 per cent of the experience'.
But there is a downside to all this slow living. Waiting an hour for your morning pot of coffee isn't unusual, and getting tea instead of what you ordered is even more normal. Asking a question like 'Is the sea always this rough?' will get you the less than useful answer 'Sometimes'. Asking whether there is a bus to the next town elicits the ambiguous 'It's possible'. And the ubiquitous head wobble can mean yes, no or maybe, depending on quite how it's done, leaving the novice westerner flummoxed1 and more confused than before.
Still, if you just smile at people, they grin back, dope-fuelled eyes as red as butter chicken. The Indians spend a lot of time staring into space, as do a lot of the western visitors, so it's not hard to understand why things don't get done. As we walked to see the Five Rathas (a lovely collection of small rock temples just outside Mamallapuram), this crazy man lurched at me, making a grab for my hat, and as I ducked to one side, he lost his balance and tumbled onto the pavement, smashing his coccyx on the concrete. He passed out there and then, but it woke me up: he was still unconscious when we went past him again. Even the police raid2 during our last night at the hotel was happy: we grinned aimlessly as they fired census questions at us, and they went away satisfied and probably wondering why we were smiling so much. But it worked.
So I find myself leaning into the wind, wading through the surf, crawling uphill: use whatever metaphor you like, I'm thoroughly getting into the Indian way of life, taking in their timescale, and probably losing a bit more of my western self in the process, which is no bad thing...
It's the most intriguing and interesting time I've had in my life.
1 And sometimes angry too. Howard, for example, would get quite irate with the Indians, sometimes culminating in the accurate summary, 'I fookin' hate fookin' Indians, they really piss me off sometimes, they're just fookin' useless!' Luckily I've been able to roll with it as far as it rolls, but poor old Howard seemed to get all the bad luck: while I was travelling with him he never seemed to get what he ordered in restaurants, he always got stared at (probably because he shaved his head), he always ended up in the bus seat next to the dribbling weirdo or in the ladies' section, and not surprisingly it got on his nerves. As he said, 'Any nation who worships an elephant and a monkey must be up the bloody spout anyway.'
2 Not entirely surprisingly the police were investigating the room previously occupied by the Indian Soap Opera crowd.