Pancake Overload! – Chennai, India
“Are you are telling me that travelling is a complete waste of time?” Jan was a wide-eyed backpacker from New Zealand who couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. He was “doing India” by journeying along the well-worn banana-pancake circuit. He had his set-list of places to visit and things to see – because the guide-book said he must, and was probably ticking them off with a pen and gained immense satisfaction from having done so. He began his day early, clutching his book (and pen), and returned hours later after having gone through his tick-list, and having achieved his daily quota of sights. I answered his question in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner.
“Yes, that’s about it. Look at the banana-pancake circuit. It’s just an endless stream of westerners passing through the so-called hotspots of India on their way to nowhere in particular. They spend a few days in a once-in-a-lifetime must-see spot, and then move on to the next once-in-a-lifetime must-see spot. They seek permanent excitement and pleasure, but after a while it all means nothing to them. Excitement and pleasure are best served in small and temporary doses otherwise they become meaningless.”
The banana-pancake circuit is mediocrity personified. Its a safe trail of easy-to-see places, and relatively few backpackers venture beyond the confines. This is disappointing as some of the best places and better experiences are to be found beyond. The pancake trail is “lowest common denominator” travel; the easily digestible route for the mass backpacker in transit, and the Lonely Planet guide-book is one of the books unwittingly responsible for creating or sustaining the phenomenon. In William Sutcliffe’s classic “Are you Experienced”, the Lonely Planet guide is referred to as “the book”, the bible for backpackers – and that’s the problem. Too many unimaginative travellers treat it as the definitive word in travel.
The pancake-circuit consists of towns or areas within cities that have hotels and cafes aimed almost exclusively at foreigners – and banana, chocolate, honey and any other form of pancake you can think of is usually listed on the menu. It’s quite strange really, because in my entire life, I’ve never seen a banana pancake on a menu in any place back home; and what’s more, had never eaten one before I came to India.
Pushkar, Manali, Udaipur, Hampi, parts of the Main Bazaar in Delhi, and particular streets in Varanasi form part of the circuit. They are all listed in “the book” (and other books beside), and are great places to hang-out and meet other westerners. They tend to make the travel experience in India more bearable. But many become trapped in these traveller-ghettos. They have become popularised by the guide-books, and are a sanitised world developed for westerners. Too many pass through like headless chickens.
I was talking to Jan in a pancake-type street café in Mamalupuram, a dusty, sun-baked coastal town about 50 kilometres south of Chennai. He continued to listen to my rant – “After two or three days in a “must-see” location, a lot of backpackers get bored of the place, their own company, or of other backpackers. They feel compelled to move on believing that the next hot-spot will be better than the last, and the people there will be more interesting”.
Their journey continues in a self-delusory mode, because as soon as people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they didn’t want to be there in the first place or at least want to be somewhere else – somewhere better. The problem is that some seek a permanent high from “doing the circuit”.
Jan was probably thinking what I was thinking about myself – “What’s this guy doing here if he feels like this? Why doesn’t he do us all a favour and go home?” If he was, he was too courteous to have said it. He countered by saying – “What about those people who come here and spend weeks or even months in one spot, doing courses on meditation, yoga or something like that? They can’t be described as running around like headless chickens”.
That was the cue for me to whine about one of my favourite topics – “A lot of those types are trying to find themselves. I always wonder where on earth did they lose themselves. If they had lost themselves in England then that would be the place to search. Why come half way across the world? And if they had indeed lost themselves, then who are they now? If they don’t know, then who does? They are completely bananas – probably as a result of pancake overload”.
Jan was on his first big trip away from home. He was overwhelmed by India – well at least by what he was seeing of it – the palaces, forts, and temples along with the everyday chaos and colour that bombard you in the streets. Give him a couple of months and “temple-fatigue” will have set in. He won’t have reached my heady standards by then, but he’ll be on his way – perhaps.
My attitude was the end-product of an eight-month trip and I had been out too long. Ten trips to India in as many years would place a strain on the most ardent of traveller; and it had. It was time to leave. I went to Chennai to the main tax office to obtain a tax clearance certificate. This form supposedly proves that you have not been working in India during your stay. It’s a useless piece of paper really, because no one has ever asked me for it on leaving India. But I thought it was best to be safe than sorry.
On the fume-belching bus from Mamalapuram to Chennai, I must have had two or three separate conversations with local people. Each one was the same. “What is your good name sir” – “How old” – “Married?” – “What is your job” and so on; a mind-numbing daily question and answer ritual based around my status. So I was happy to find something different when I got to the tax office – the one place more than anywhere else where you would expect to be asked such questions.
Tax offices are foreboding places – officialdom (babudom, to borrow an Indian term) running riot, but I was pleasantly surprised. I entered the room designated for foreigners and there she was – a cow of a woman – in the nicest possible sense of course. Many women in India remind me of the street cows found in every town and city. They stand exuding serenity, surrounded by urban chaos, and have a certain understated dignity. They glide along almost unaffected by the brutality of the urban world, and possess a certain presence that western women tend to lack.
The tax officer in question engaged me in longest conversation that I’d had with an Indian woman in eight months (or should that be, the only conversation?). That probably says less about my social skills and more about the general position of women in India. It was the most interesting and unusual encounter I’d had for a long time. This was a woman who didn’t care to engage on a trivial level. She was deep.
She compared the nature of patriarchy in India with elsewhere, and talked about the petty vindictiveness of bureaucrats (babus). I suspected that her expertise on these matters stemmed from first-hand experience, and was the result of her having been a casualty of both on a daily basis. Then she surprised me by talking about, of all things, permanency and disillusionment. She told me that we all seek permanency in our lives, but as soon as it seems to appear we want something else. So everything is just temporary. Even disillusionment is temporary – intermittingly peppered with moments of happiness (perhaps not, as it always comes back to haunt).
I realised her expertise on this subject was probably also based on first-hand experience. It was perhaps the result of her having seen and spoken with so many jaded western backpackers who had passed through her office over the years. This was a woman after my own heart. She was enchanting. I got the impression that she wanted to be somewhere else, but felt trapped forever inside tax-office hell or babudom. The most frustrating thing was that she knew it, and couldn’t do anything about it.
I left auto-rickshaw choked Chennai clutching my tax certificate and headed to Delhi to fly home. After a 36 hour train journey, I arrived totally shattered and checked into a hotel. It was full of westerners, no doubt bloated with pancakes. I read my Lonely Planet guide and pondered about the permanency of disillusionment, the temporariness of happiness, the disillusionment of permanency, and the happiness of temporariness. It was an absolute nightmare. I decided to go to sleep. I suddenly felt enclosed, and woke up sweating and gasping for breath. I had dreamt that I was trapped forever inside a giant banana pancake. The most frustrating thing was that I knew it, and couldn’t do anything about it. No matter how much we try to escape from bland standardisation and mass conformity, it is, increasingly, the way of the world.
Colin Todhunter is the author of Chasing Rainbows in Chennai, which reached No.3 in the bestseller list of India’s largest bookstore, Landmark. This piece is an extract from the book. All of the other chapters can be found in the India stories section of BootsnAll.