Indian Tales 1 – Chennai

Our 5am arrival at Chennai Airport was misleading. The road outside the terminal was deserted. The only man driving a cart saw our confusion. The direction and distance to an ATM was unclear. He offered to take us, luggage and all. Rupees acquired he took us back to an area where we could get a taxi.

Our cabby took us for a ride, financially speaking. We didn’t realise for a couple of days, but the 20,000 rupees (£20) was inflated to match our European pale looks. But hey, you have to work these things out and we made someone’s day. The journey itself was something else. Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the capital city of Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India. Over six and half million people live in the main city, double that if you include the whole metropolitan area. They all seemed to be out on the roads, despite the early hour.

It was cacophonous chaos. There might have been three lanes marked on the road, but five weaving snakes of tuk-tuks, cars, lorries and buses filled the road, whilst hundreds of motor bikes and scooters dodged in and out. Everybody sounded their horn. They shouted: “I’m coming,” “Get out my way,” “Stop,” “Go,” and everything in between. They all drove on each other’s brakes, missing each other by an inch or two. Most junctions had no traffic lights. Two or three roads converged, weaving in and out of each other, always moving, always hooting. Traffic as deafening water.

Moving into the city, we passed commercial areas; food and bike shops predominated. Cows stood on the side, between shop sellers, pedestrians, parked scooters, bikes and rubbish. Buses crammed with commuters bulging beyond their boundaries, pushed their way onwards, their bulk dominating. After some confusion our driver found the hotel and we stumbled in. The room was spartan. Cavernous, with white walls, maroon floor tiles and fluorescent lights. Basic; but surprisingly the discordant horns could not be heard. We immediately set the alarm for two hours and went to sleep.

First bright idea on awaking was to go for a little walk and visit something cultural. The Government Museum was close, a fifteen minute walk said Google Maps. It wasn’t up to date. The route took us through hospital grounds, passing maternity, gynaecological, paediatrics and other departments. At one intersection dozens of people sat, shaded from the hot sun, on the floor, eating and drinking; chatting and patient. We wandered about looking for the exit, trying numerous avenues, some frequented by packs of dogs, others workmen digging trenches for new pipes. People stared as we passed, “What are they doing in hospital?” they thought.

Eventually, we gave up. Making our way back to the hotel we decided to try the attached restaurant, before another sleep. The Thali I ordered consisted of eight small bowls, each filled with a different dish; some curries, chapati, rice, dahl, yoghurt and some unidentifiable ones, but all tasty. Dinah had a dosa filled with something vegetarian, a breakfast staple. After a few minutes we looked up to find that all the kitchen staff had come out to watch us eat with cutlery (not hands, as they did). As I finished one little bowl it was exchanged for another. A constant stream. All for about £2. Stuffed, we found our beds and slept for three hours.

Late afternoon, we flagged down a Tuk-tuk and set off for a temple. The usual raucous journey and a driver who said we could pay what we wanted. My proffered 200 rupees (£2) was met with a fading smile. Maybe I hadn’t got that right. Shoes deposited in waiting shelves we walked barefoot down solid stone paths, past the icons, pillars and queues of people waiting to pay homage to their chosen good. We were to learn more of Hinduism’s flexibility later in the trip. After the temple we wandered down to the vast beach, the size of a small desert, and along the prom before heading inland.

The aim was to find a bar. Not so easy. My downloaded Google map (no roaming data) showed us where we were, most of the time, and where our destination was. On the way three roadworkers stopped us for photos. They’d seen the camera round my neck and wanted their photo taken. They weren’t particularly interested in the result, just wanted to be recorded. One told us with pride that he was called Gandhi. We found the bar, had a couple of Kingfishers each (there are four or five types, Strong became a favourite) and some veggie food. What exactly is lost to blurry jet lag, but full to the brim, we tuk-tukked to the hotel for more sleep.

Gandhi
4 replies
  1. Les Hall
    Les Hall says:

    Very happy to see a new post and India! Been on my bucket list since my first Vesta curry 😉 Maybe not that long but somewhere I have always wanted to visit. I recently read an article about best places to move and live in and India came very high on the list. I can’t remember what towns they recommended but most were places I had never heard of.

    I have lived in some rough parts and some I accepted but others depressed me, mostly with the litter and the mess and the obvious signs of neglect and of people having given up and not caring. Did you feel that? And the hygiene!? I know I sound like a panty-waist First Worlder but it could be an issue for me. Sure I have eaten in iffy places all over the world, but India seems to be extreme.

    But the adventurer in me also feels that I could live with it and not be bothered. Did you feel conflicted with emotions flipping between amazement and disgust?

    What really appeals is the colors. My sanitized visions of a myriad flowers being sewn into garlands. Piles of beautiful fabric in markets. Platters of earthy red ground spices. Tuk-tuks painted in a blaze of primary colors. And so on.

    Would love to hear more and I hope you are shooting lots of fotos.

    LZX

    Reply
  2. leeaspland
    leeaspland says:

    Hi Les.

    Good to hear from you. Yes it is a chaotic, messy old place. The people we met were all very open and friendly. The food was fantastic, but because of the slap-dash way they often keep meat, we ate veggie all the time. In the south that is supposed to be less spicy, but that is no longer the case. Most of it is ‘hot’! In my due diligence for this piece I researched Chennai. Of the 6M+ living in the city, 40% are officially homeless. We saw little of this. Those areas would be significantly different. However, it is all so colourful, the clothes, the vehicles, the blue sky and dazzling temples. Keep it on your ‘must visit’ list. It’s worth it. More stories and photos to come.

    Reply

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