The 'real' India

"Wow, I think we've hit the 'real' India."
"There's no 'real' India," retorted David.

And of course he's right - what I meant was that we'd reached an uncomfortable, less endearing India. The train from Allepey to Chennai took 14 hours, but it might as well have been 14 hours on a plane. The fourth-biggest city in India churned my stomach even before the engine changed its tune and the train slowed down. The smell is an all-body, intoxicating experience - an evil concoction made up of the fumes of 2 million vehicles and the effluent of 7 million people. Maybe there were exotic perfumes and fragrant spices and fleshly cut flowers in the mix there, but I couldn't smell any of that. All I could smell was pollution and poo.

So I decided that if I had to live in Chennai, I would move to Allepey. Not that many people have that luxury - I suppose people are tied to places by work, loved ones and lack of opportunity. I saw my first Indian slum in Chennai, on an early morning stroll along Marina Beach (scattered with old shoes and empty drink bottle, circled by big, black, dirty birds). It was sad and beautiful, bursting with colourful humanity. The scene - women in saris washing children in multi-coloured plastic tubs amid fish vendors and wandering goats, all against against a backdrop of ocean - would have made some great photos. I poised the camera a few times, but it didn't feel right. I couldn't turn someone else's poverty into a Kodak Moment, to take home and call my own ("Here, look - I took a piece of this bathing man as a souvenir!") . I took some photos of the goats instead.

We spent the rest of our time in Chennai trying to avoid Chennai. We sipped real, espresso, barrista-made coffee in a hip, sexy area that had more in common with Collins Street than Marina Beach. We went to an air-conditioned cinema and watched a film in HIndi. We paid Rs750 to take a taxi to the airport (we got ripped off) because thankfully, we were just passing through, on our way to Delhi. Money gives you that ability - to shut the world out and turn the air-conditioning on, if that's what you want. When you have money, you can choose not to see, not to experience. Money keeps us inside a bubble, which takes a whole lot to pop.

I do appreciate it, though. I do appreciate my ability to shut out the world, at times.