“The Marina Beach, covered with glittering golden sand and a clear strip of blue sea, is among the most magnificent beaches in India” is what I’d read when I looked at a Chennai travel guide. “…after visiting the beach, you will feel the waves and winds of rejuvenation take hold of your every sense,” that’s exactly what I need, I thought, dragging myself unwillingly out of the hotel room.
Beaches in the most generalised sense are things of wonder. You hear the word beach and you’re immediately turned on. You think Summer! Sunscreen! Speedos! Serenity! I do anyway. Perhaps because I’m Australian; used to Slip! Slop! Slap! and holidays full up on dolphins at sunrise.
Now, this is my third time in India, so it’s not like it was my first rodeo. I wasn’t expecting Bondi. However, I have been to Goa, known for it’s laid back tropical vibe and all-night parties. It’s like an Indian Byron Bay, where aside from the creepy out-of-towner Indians taking photos of sun baking girls, bikinis aren’t generally considered taboo. Stall vendors serve you beer, while amazing elderly women sell you fresh fruit they’ve carried on their head. I was in need of a relaxing atmosphere to take my mind off my personal qualms, so I went in search of beach people and the smell of the sea.
My auto driver dropped me off at the top end of Marina Beach, near a set of memorials which I got awkwardly lost among. I backtracked out of the crowd of confused men paying their respects and found the actual entry point. And by entry point I mean you could step off the boulevard and onto a stretch of dusty sand laced with rubbish. It was about 300m from where I was to the “clear strip of blue sea” the travel guide had promised me. Between us sat empty stalls waiting for the weekend night markets to begin again, tents and a scatter of sleeping bodies.
“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I mumbled to the mangey dog trotting beside me.
As I strolled along the boulevard wondering who lets the guy with the homemade tattoo gun do their tattoos, and considering how to approach the water’s edge, my thoughts were interrupted by a bubbly man with a large grin.
“Hello Miss! How are you?”
I answered the question untruthfully positive and returned the query.
“I’m very good, Mam. It’s great to speak with you to practice my English!” India must know I took Advanced English in school because everyone says that to me. “Where are you going Mam? I’ll take you in my auto!”
“No, thank you so much. But I’m actually very happy to walk today.”
“Mam, no! It’s too hot for walking. Come! 100 rupees and I’ll take you to church, temple and all along the beach!”
I told him I really wanted to walk right now but if I see him later I might take him up on the offer.
But then after walking 200m further along the boulevard and having him pull up in his auto saying “Mam! Mam! You’ve walked too long now, come come!” I got a little irritated with his persistence in interrupting my zen seeking and took a hard left onto the sand and towards the water.
“I’ll wait for you here!” he called as I nodded and waved and thought please fuck off.
The sun belted down on me and my large forehead screamed at me for not wearing a hat. The stretch of sand is actually the second largest in the world at 13km, so you can imagine how I felt a little like I was making an intrepid trip through the desert and wondering if the water ahead was just a mirage. Eventually I became close enough to begin to consider where I might sit. I stood scanning the area for the cleanest looking sand when I felt something tap my leg. It was two beautiful Indian children, one with a small monkey on her back, all gesturing for money. Foolishly I supplied them with all my small change at once, only to turn and see a small flock of children running in my direction. Oh, shit.
“I’m so sorry, guys. I don’t have any more,” I said genuinely distressed. But they weren’t listening, they continued to plea, as you would. Little hands patted and pulled at my clothes and it all became too much. I backed away from the water and turned back for the boulevard. For the entire 300m back I curbed my walking path to avoid more child beggars, it was a big space so it wasn’t that difficult to do, but it was hard on my heart.
I wasn’t in the head space to be around such disadvantage. Being a privileged traveller in areas of poverty has always torn at me, but today was particularly bad. I had come to the beach selfishly seeking to boost my sense of wellbeing, because my biggest problem is a break up I won’t let myself get over. But I was confronted with the hot and sticky truth that my problems are a grain of dirty sand in comparison to the rest of the world’s problems.
When I was approached by the last lot of kids whose little hands started to actually dig into my pockets, despite my best efforts in telling them to stop with adult authority, I became close to breaking point. I was slapping their hands away chanting ‘no, stop, sorry’ like some sort of timid protester. It wasn’t until they heard the whistles and shouts from the auto driver, who had clearly been following me, that they subsided. The guy was standing on the boulevard carrying on like a crazy coach from the side line.
“Children want money, Mam. Come now, I’ll take you to church and temple, 100 rupees,” said Captain Obvious as I approached him again, stressed but thankful to be off the sand. “Okay, driver want money too,” I said, defeated.
And off I went with the pushy driver, cruising along the shoreline watching India do its thing from a motor vehicle. I don’t think I rejuvenated my soul that day, but it did get a helpful slap in the face.
India travel tip: Always carry small change, you can’t just hand out 100 rupees to one child in a group of ten. And if you hand out 100 rupees to ten children you will have no rupees to get home.