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The Long Walk Home or We Call It Spur Stank for a Reason

28 June 2008

So tonight after work, Ana and I walked to the small grocery store near the office to pick up some mangos for dinner. (We’re out of cooking gas, and apparently the place we have to have it refilled is so far away that no one has even heard of the neighborhood. So we’re just eating fruit now.) After spending a good 10 minutes outside waiting for me to pay for my yogurt and fabric softener, Ana decided that she wanted to walk home. Being cheap and not wanting to spend my own Rs.15 on an auto-rickshaw, I agreed to join her.

Now, mind you, our walk home is only a little over one kilometer, pretty much straight shot and that’s about it. Yet I’ve only walked this route three times, and I don’t plan to walk it many more. While Mike was here, he, Amy, and I walked home one night, same route, to be “healthy.” Mike commented after we arrived home that he didn’t think there was any health in that walk. He’s probably right.

Here’s the thing: Our walk home takes us along the Cuoom River, one of two rivers in Chennai. However, to call it a “river” is a bit of a stretch; the words I would use are more like OPEN SEWAGE PIT. The banks are littered (maybe teeming is a better word?) with garbage, and, at any given time, there are no less than four male motorists emptying their bladders into the water. (There is no shame about peeing in public here. It’s like Saturday night in Wrigleyville after a Cubs game all the time.) The stench that rises from the Cuoom can be downright overwhelming, even as we drive swiftly past in an auto. Now imagine walking along it for twenty minutes. Add in burning trash, the smell and the smoke. Mix in a few piles of cow dung, and you have my walk home.

So now you know why I don’t walk it often. Yet, on the other hand, I think it is important to take that long walk home once in a while because at no other time am I so smacked in the face with the realities of life in India. I know it doesn’t sound that pleasant, being smacked in the face, and it’s not, but still it’s very important. Otherwise, I could quite possibly spend my whole time here going from air-conditioned flat to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned restaurant, etc., only really experiencing Indian life on my 5-10 minute auto rides every day.

First, there is the traffic — yes, I do see the traffic when I’m riding along in it, but it’s different walking beside it, especially since pedestrians are the lowest in the pecking order. Thankfully, most of the walk home we have a walking path not taken over by tea stalls, co-opted as motorbike parking lots, or transformed into homes (more about that below). However, there are still the blasting horns and the intricate motorbike patterns (like Shriners without the little hats!) and the occasional scrapes with death by large white Ambassador (the car, not a European diplomat). It’s fascinating to watch. (Tangent: Our office director told me about how one of my Indian co-workers, on her first trip to the U.S., stood for ages in front of the window of her hotel room and stared out at the traffic in the D.C. street below, utterly and completely amazed by the order of it all. I might get myself a downtown Chicago hotel room after I get back just to do that for myself and try to capture a little of her wonder — kind of a reverse culture shock.)

Second, there is the heat and the humidity. It radiates from the pavement and saturates the air around me, feeling almost like warmed water in my lungs. Many of you know I’m a huge wimp on a hot day, and walking in Chennai makes me feel like I’m making myself that much stronger. Pair that with my Nordic ability to withstand the cold, and I’ll be invincible! … Or maybe I’ll just join a summer sports team after I get back.

Finally, along the river in many places, and especially along my route from the office, the poor of Chennai have made their homes. They live in huts near to the water’s edge or just out in the open along the walking paths, carving out space among the myriad street dogs. It is poverty so real, so visceral, that you can’t ignore it. You have to see it. And you have to be moved by it. So, as much as the heat saps me of energy, seeing these people’s lives makes me want to fight. Which keeps me moving, no matter the smell or the heat or the crazy traffic.

(I’ll be adding pictures to this post as soon as I can find my camera cord, so check back later…)

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