India: Chennai

People have always described India to us in one word: polarizing—you either love it or you hate it.  We arrived in Chennai with an expectation that we would instantly fall into one of these spectrums of amazement or disgust.  My friend Ram, from my time at RedEnvelope, picked us up from the airport (wearing an old RE shirt I had designed in my previous life as a creative event planner).  His driver, Bhala, happily maneuvered his way through traffic providing Ram and I a chance to catch up.  Without ever having met Joshua, Ram was opening up his home to us, dedicating his personal time to showing us around and providing us with every detail/sliver of information Joshua could think to ask…and what was his first question…“how do you use the bathroom?” I nearly died of embarrassment and so did Ram (most of the routine now makes sense, but there are still a few loose ends we are trying to sort out).  I’m not sure being so direct is part of Ram’s natural state.  Nevertheless, with the welcome we received from Ram’s family, Visha and Sunanda…India didn’t feel foreign at all.  It felt like home.

So far here is a list of things I like about India:

The colors – While my wardrobe at home is full of black and grey, and my road wear is mostly brown (now) and blue, Indian women don’t wear anything but color.  Gemstone hues of pink, purple, turquoise and yellow, embroidered with gold and covered in jewels.  Even children run through the parks wearing vivid silk outfits that I would personally save for a very special occasion.  The sidewalks are full of bright skittles moving in and out of shops, jumping into auto-rickshaws, resting under umbrellas, reminding me of blinking Christmas lights that are always on!

Indian Skittles

The bells – There must be a reason, but I have yet to ask…families attach small silver anklets to their children around age 1.  The anklets almost always are adorned with bells that twinkle as the child walks.  Perhaps it’s comforting to know when your child is on the move or a tradition with much deeper meaning, but hearing the children dash through the streets or kick their legs while a parent holds them hasn’t stopped making me smile.

The flavors – Finally, flavor!  We’ve been yearning for the chance to taste Indian dishes in India.  Although, we’ve found them to be less spicy than those made in the US, the flavors are exquisite.  Many dishes share the same colors (brownish) and the consistency is more or less always sauce (they call it gravy), but the flavors range from sweet to spicy and back again.  It’s incredible how many ways India can make cauliflower taste good…and for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I might add.

The eating – At first I was turned off by eating with my hands (I mean, hand).  Joshua had to sit on his left hand to avoid using it!  But, after a few meals, when I was able to get enough food in my mouth and less on my clothes, I felt liberated eating that way.  Watching Indians, there is a grace and finesse to eating with your fingers that takes practice.  It’s not as unmannered as I once thought…and one solid benefit, I eat WAY slower!

The head wiggle, yes! – Our driver Bhala does it with the biggest smile, when he says “yes” or is in agreement with what we are saying his head wobbles exactly like a bobblehead.  It’s not the up-and-down yes we are used to or moving your chin from side to side as one would designate the word “no.” His ear drops to his shoulder on one side and then he repeats the movement on the other side in a mini-figure 8 pattern.  It’s hilarious how many times Joshua and I have asked a question of a shop owner only to ask two or three more times because we are trying to decode the head bob before walking out of the store to confer with each other on the answer.  Watch two Indians have a conversation, and it looks like they are sitting on vibrating chairs.

The hospitality – I’ve never been anywhere in my life where such instant hospitality is granted to strangers.  Ram introduced us to several of his friends and colleagues (a range of successful intellectuals) some of whom HE hadn’t seen in years.  Within minutes of meeting us, they treated us to meals, invited us to share their homes and generally offered us everything in their power to give.  We were floored by the generosity.  It made me excited to have an apartment again where we can host guests and return the favor!

The Ramasamy’s – Ram, Visha and Sunanda MADE our time in Chennai.  I’m not sure if we could have arrived to a city so large (20 million) without their assistance.  It was like experiencing India on training wheels.  They taught us about South Indian customs, provided us recommendations on what to eat (and how!) and even gave us a chance to decorate their Christmas tree softening the disappointment of what we were missing at home.

Holiday Spirit

Holiday Decorations

Happy Holidays from India

The Madras coffee – Coffee changes from region to region.  For two months in Africa, I basically abstained because instant coffee doesn’t excite me at all.  In India, we expected to drink tea, so when we saw locals drinking coffee, we were thrilled to join in.  The coffee process starts when hot milk is mixed with sugar by pouring it back and forth between two cups.  The farther apart you hold them, the more froth.  The milk/sugar mixture is added to the tar-like coffee…as a rule, the milk is always poured into the coffee, not the other way around.  It is served on the street in a small cup (3-4 oz) for around 10-20 rupees ($0.25 to $0.35 USD).  Ram reminded us to always ask for filter coffee (or you might get Nescafe), and we were two happy travelers.

The smiles – Smiling, laughing, welcoming us to visit and share their country and culture, we’ve felt so much warmth from Indians.  We’ve exchanged basic pleasantries with every local interested in practicing their English greetings.  The fact we get to say we are from California makes people scream with delight.  We’re famous here!  People stop to take our photo (when we are paying attention or not) or shove a child (or grandparent, for that matter) into our arms for an opportunity to get a picture with us.  Sometimes my cheeks ache from smiling so much, but the cheer they exude is contagious.


The price – You cannot beat the prices in India.  Unlimited meals at lunch cost less than $2.  It took us 2 weeks to burn through $1 worth of talking/texting time on our phone.  Our money feels like it will go a long way here, if we stick to Indian food, buses/trains and basic hostels.  You can pay a lot more for less when you want the comforts of home like when I wanted to use internet at a coffee shop (Coffee Day), and I had to pay 10x the price for a cappuccino just to stay on top of my growing Facebook addiction.

The smell – Women wear jasmine flowers in their hair.  Men and women sew long strands and sell them on the street for a few rupees.  We feel fortunate when we get a whiff–it’s such an enticing smell for India…it’s an incredible smell for anywhere.

The rice flour designs – Every morning, the women of many households clean their steps/porch and draw a design at the entrance to their home with rice flour.  We’ve heard it helps keep the ants outside, it’s symbolic of taking care of both big and small, but either way the intricate symbols are welcoming (and change daily like cool temporary tattoos for the home).

Rice Flour Designs

The history – Armed with a list of sites from Ram, we toured Chennai taking in the fort at George Town and several churches.

St. Mary's Church

St. George Chuch

He accompanied us to Dakshinchitra, a collection of relocated houses from 4 South Indian states re-created and displayed on a large tree-filled property where artists practice and teach their craft.

South Indian Home

Cleaning House

Colorful India

Making Saris

Joshua had a Ghost moment here with a soft-spoken Indian man.

Joshua's Ghost Experience

We were in awe at the sanctuary known as Crocodile Bank where they have a program which pays villagers to bring in poisonous snakes.  The venom is taken from the snakes before they are returned to the wild to help make various medications and anti-venom serums.  Incomes benefit the village where the snake catchers reside.

King Cobra

Venom Collection


And finally, we marveled at the archaeological masterpiece, Mahabalipuram, built by the same dynasty that constructed Ankgor Wat in Cambodia as well as other cave temples and shrines from the 8th Century and beyond that were carved into single rocks the sizes of buildings.


Rock Carvings

Five Chariots

Number One Fan

Here is a list of the things that I don’t love about India:

The water – Before we arrived in India, we got recommendations from colleagues and friends who have traveled or lived in India.  “Always drink bottled water,” they told us.  Ok, ok.  We get it.  Drink bottled water, but sometimes it was followed by “make sure it’s sealed!”  We didn’t understand until we bought our first bottle of water at the local “store” with the plastic safety wrap intact…only to find the seal underneath was NOT!  The bottle had obviously been refilled.  We couldn’t believe it.  How serious do you have to be to refill water bottles and fit them with phony safety wrap?!?

The open defecation – On the streets of India there are dogs pooping, cows pooping, chickens pooping and MEN pooping.  I never thought I would watch a grown man bend down on the side of the road with his lungi pulled up to take a dump, but now I have.  Unique Indian experience, check.  Perhaps because some men poop (but never women in daylight), others feel they need to wash it down with pee.  Standing, waiting for the bus and need to pee…turn your back to your neighbors and go…don’t lose your place in line!  After a while, I started to encourage Joshua to do the same…what has become of me?!  It’s hard to find a bathroom and most of the time they are dirtier than the surroundings, so I’m all for “do as the Romans do” on this one, I guess!

The smell – Combine garbage, rotting food, dying animals, human waste, body odor, heavy rain and cook it in a hundred plus degree temperatures for months on end and that still won’t describe the smell of some streets in India.  I wouldn’t call the edge of the street a gutter, per say, more a river of trash and debris that carries smells and organisms around the city.  Joshua’s sense of smell is acute, and his gag reflex has been getting a workout.  The smell of jasmine and incense can only cover up so much.

The toilet – Difficult to locate and usually not more than a tiled hole in the ground, toilets in India are their own mystery.  Typically, the floor is soaked or covered in the former guests’ remains.  The room usually contains 2 buckets and a water gun or spigot.  What we know is that toilet paper is absent.  I’ve heard splashing in the stall next to me, but I’m not sure how it dries in time.  Oh, and where’s the soap?!?!

The traffic – Lane lines are for decoration only.  You can drive without brakes, but not without a horn.  Cars, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, carts pulled by horses and bulls, buses all competing for the same space on the same road.  There are no real traffic signals or rules, just try to avoid being hit.  The mentality seems to be go, then look.  Be aware, very aware!

The horns – Horns honk to say “I’m going,” “I’m turning,” I’m stopping,” “You’re in my way,” “I’m backing up,” “You might not see me (but now you can hear me!),” and more.  It’s like a tick.  People can’t stop honking.  It’s pollution in the air of India!

The trash – Littering is more than just common in India.  People eat something and throw the wrapper on the ground.  It makes me sick.  But, a woman who has lived in India for 30 years told me she paid a local to clean her yard.  The women swept all the leaves into a pile and left all the plastic and paper.  When the house-owner asked about the trash left in her yard, the Indian woman was surprised, “You want me to sweep that up too?!”  It’s almost as if the trash is not seen…as if it doesn’t suffocate the natural beauty of the land for Indians.  For me, the trash was overwhelming, filling the streets and piled in every space not filled by a human being.  At some point, they’ll notice, but until everyone cares…it doesn’t seem like a problem the country is bound to fix.

The dogs – Indian dogs eat garbage.  They wrestle each other for scraps of paper with hidden morsels of food stuck to the bottom.  All the dogs look scraggly, unkempt and injured in some way, but the lady dogs look the most haggard with nipples so saggy they touch the ground…like a curtain between both sets of legs.

So perhaps it’s true, there are things to love about India and things that are hard to swallow…but either way, you’ve got to see it!

One thought on “India: Chennai

  1. Refreshingly objective account for a western tourist — neither romanticizing nor patronizing. The positives and negatives have been recounted sincerely. Of course it does take more than a couple of weeks of city tours to understand any country but very balanced first impressions.

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