Incredible India: The Shock of Chennai

On the 15t of December I started my first trip to India, namely its southern part and the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Goa.

I don’t claim for any artistic value in the blog posts that follow. Nor are these intended for advising travellers what to see in India. The purpose is purely to structure and reflect on my experiences so that they stays vividly for as long as possible. If someone will find these notes useful – great. If not, I don’t bother.

Looking back, I think the blog served the purpose. The Indian season still stands out in my memory, and I made a few readers and fellow-bloggers along the way.

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My flight from Kuala Lumpur was bound to Chennai that had just suffered a severe flood. It was a sleepless night at the airport of KL, to where I had arrived from Singapore. Before departure, I went online and saw that Google embedded a yoga asana into its search engine name. I treated this as a good sign.

One the plane I met an educated Indian man who worked for Yahoo!, one of the most famous American companies, in San Fransisco. He was visiting his native Chennai after a honeymoon with his wife in South East Asia. We had a nice chat, and they recommended me how to get around in Chennai, as well as helped find a local train station near the airport upon arrival.

The guy seemed shocked that I refused a cab. How else to immerse oneself into local-ness if no by catching a local train?

My first-minute impressions of Chennai were simple. Big. Dirty. Stinky. Noisy. Friendly. I took a local train in the direction of the hostel where I planned to stay overnight. Along the way, I always asked for assistance where to get off, to transfer, etc. Everyone was very helpful.

The train was crazy – dirty, smelly, with people stuck like sardines, getting on after the train started and getting off before it stopped. I saw Youtube videos about local trains in Mumbai, but to to experience something similar was totally different. I actually enjoyed it.

It took me a loot of time to find the hostel after getting off the train at Indra Nagar. The language barrier was there, but not so much. A mixture of greeting in Tamil + a question in English + thanking in Tamil worked just fine. The first-minute impressions were aggravated. Super dirty. Super stinky. Super friendly 🙂

In many streets the piles of garbage were just in the middle of the road. The youth hostel was no exception in terms of cleanliness and smell. Besides, all the rooms were booked. The man at the reception was very helpful though. He explained several options how to get to the T-Nagar bus terminal (from where I decided to go to the nearby Mamallapuram), and even drew a map 🙂

My understanding was that Chennai was a typical Indian megapolis. Extremely noisy and dusty in the streets. The traffic seemed to be crazy: cars, buses, tuk-tuks (yellow three-wheel cabs), cows … everyone constantly horning and creating accident-risk situations. No rules for pedestrian-crossing. At some point you just started crossing the road 🙂 In one word – CHAOS. And guess what, somehow that chaos WORKS in India.

There is alway room for improvising. No matter how rigid the (social) structures are. 

Riding a local bus was another tremendous experience. For 13 rupees I took a half-hour ride through the centre. Chennai public buses are very old and rusty 🙂 There is a conductor who collects the money and blows a whistle if a passenger requests a stop, and after the bus starts off.

After arriving at the bus terminal, I found out that the next bus to Mamallapuram was due in 2 hours. Several times locals came up to help. Since I had time, I went out to explore the neighborhood. I first stopped by at a hotel to have lunch, but it turned out it was too early (before 12). So I went to a local supermarket to by some water and fruit (remaining very skeptical of the food and water sold in the street). Afterwards, browsed the Pondy Bazaar (market) a bit. The feeling was surreal –  people selling food, clothes, what not amidst the dirt and smell of sewage. Small shopping malls were also there – shiny shops bordering the kingdom of dirt and dust.

Inequality is the word that comes up easily in mind when you’re in a big Indian city.

I also explored a textile fabric shop. Every time the shop assistants were chasing me, even though I said several times that I was just looking around. Went on to the nearby hotel to have a biryani chicken with rice for lunch (still quite dubious about hygiene, but the food was OK, and I was OK too), and returned to the bus terminal.

The ride to Mamallapuram took two hours. It was incredible. It was VERY noisy as we passed through Chennai. Our own bus was horning loudly all the time, and sometimes giving a lower long horn like the ships do. The road was like a roller-coaster. I nearly fell asleep several times – to be awaken by another bad bump along the road. IT WAS FUN.

After arriving in Mamallapuram, I quickly found the Lakshmi Cottage which I read about in the Lonely Planet book. Needless to say, I was called out numerous times and inited to have a look at the stuff sold by the locals. I felt the day was so long, but when I looked at the clock, it was just over 3 pm!

The first half day was very interesting, exotic, and tiring.

After taking a shower and taking a breath, exploration of Mamallapuram – a town famous for its stonework – began.

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