As I part ways with Chennai, here are some reflections:
I can’t find anyone to say Chennai is a beautiful city. Alas if the locals can't do it, I'm the last one to bestow false platitudes upon it! Let’s be honest, I was most glad to leave the auto-rickshaw for my room at The Ikean Embassy at ever opportunity!
However I can say (with relief) that the people of Chennai proved to be a redeeming factor in my views about the city. I really wanted to talk to some locals and it happened easily- I chatted and laughed with my fellow passenger on the city bus from Chennai to Mahabalapuram (16Rs). I learned that the 37 year old commuted 150Kms several times a week looking after a cardboard box packaging business and that he had previously worked in Saudi Arabia for 17,000 Rupees ($300) a month as a driver but the mean Saudi boss made him wait 3 months to get paid and in the end he had to complain to the labour board to get his money. He took a pay cut to just over $200 month for this job but it was worth every penny to come back to India. He looked about 47 and we were both surprised when we discovered we were the same age. It’s amazing what a few hundred KMs fewer commuting every month (and a few more skin care products) can do for the skin!
Later on, I became best buddies with a group of Tamil guys in their 20s who were sitting on a rock, at the site of ancient temples whiling away their Sunday afternoon. The chat went from one of them asking, "Are you Tamil?" and ending with us taking a group picture all hugging, and me renaming the one they all teased for wearing sunglasses as, "Mr. Sexy" and promising to make a billboard in London of the picture I took of him, with the caption, "For a good time, call Mr. Sexy"... They were in hysterics. Then the made me repeat a line that their Tamil film hero always speaks and videoed it on their phones. I guess I have a knack for connecting with the locals!
I spent the day at the temples of Mahabalapuram, a World Heritage Site- the carvings in the rocks are amazingly detailed. Unfortunately Indians are not really good at enjoying anything from a distance. Let's just say, they're 'hands on' with their ancient artifacts. Hands on, limbs on, bodies on... even flasks of tea on....there were people sprawled out on the ancient rocks like they were at the beach, people sliding down rock faces like they were at a park...the list of horrors goes on.
In general, less educated Indians (they’re here in their millions), throw plastic cups, bottles and wrappers on the ground like it was the only thing to do with them, men just urinate from any convenient location. For some reason I keep thinking about the contrasts between throwing a cup out of a bus window and peeing on to a wall, to the way people live in my old neighborhood in Laguna Hills California. A man urinating on someone’s front wall without a care in the world, versus a neighborhood watch letter informing a resident that their garage door is open too long, or their hedge has 4 extra leaves on it...for example…it’s just SO extreme!!! I want to do a social experiment and pluck a family from an Indian slum and move them into a McMansion in Orange County, and then plant one from the OC into a slum dwelling in India. I think the latter family would just about have a breakdown within 24 hours. How lucky I am to have experienced both worlds, to see the contrast first hand!
I rented a bike from the Radisson Resort down the road from the temples- it was a fun and fast way to see the rocks, but 90 minutes was about all I could take. The town surrounding the site had a stench from Hell. In true Indian style, just beyond the gates, The Radisson resort smelled of paradise. A 180 degree departure from life outside the gates. I even saw a Porsche 911 parked in the lot! The resort deatured amazing bungalows built around a man made lake and the restaurant was serving a fresh barbeque fish selection. All this while people sat in the dirt outside with naked babies, begging for money.
While out on the bike, I reached a new low in disgust. After taking a wrong turn down an alley, I saw 2 rotting dog carcasses just lying on a heap of garbage at the edge of a park where kids were happily playing cricket. One even looked like it had been burned. A very nasty experience. I couldn’t pedal my way out of there fast enough!
At one point in my walk among the temples I saw a little boy of about 4 walking all alone! I talked to him and even stopped and gave him a granola bar from my bag. I had to stop a family who spoke English to ask the boy where his parents were. "He knows where he is going" said the woman, and walked off... leaving me just a little disturbed that parents would let a little boy that young walk alone amongst a crowd of thousands, and not one of the thousands would notice. I was saddened, beyond any misery I had felt on my whole trip thusfar. I walked with Darshan as far as I could to see where he was going- and when he got to the edge of the tourist area and walked into the adjacent village, I waved him off and let him go. I caught this on camera and it makes me sad to see this clip every time.
Well on a brighter note, my day had enough action to make up for the previous day's inactivity. I made some new friends through some friends of a friend (ha!) and before I knew it we were hanging out poolside at The Ideal Beach Resort, just outside Mahabalapuram. Wow was it ever a welcome relief to come back into an isolated bubble of loveliness!
We had dinner at a cool restaurant and Hookah bar called Mocha Mojo, which those of you following with Eagle eyes will recall is the same name as the bar in Mumbai where I had sat with Kunal and tried for 2 hours to dissuade him from buying a Bio-Disc. Just a quick flashback there, but this place was unrelated to the one in Mumbai. This amazing group of new friends included 3 Fellowes from the US, working on NGO programs doing work with among other things, HIV affected women in rural areas. They have set up a kitchen where women can cook for cheap and sell their food into the community. Learning about all this good work was a really welcome balance to the negative thoughts from earlier in the day. Nicole, Tatiana, Elyse, Lokesh, Nikolai, ‘Anna and the Mexican’ and of course Nipsy… fantastic people- it was so GREAT to spend time with them!
And so now I am very excited. I am going to see my people; both literally and figuratively. I’m going to stay with my aunt and uncle in Chandigarh (not Bel Air! But the Fresh Prince of Chandigarh has a ring to it). And I am of course, a proud Punjabi. I have not been to Punjab for 25 years. Let’s hope they’ve been busy building straight, cow-free roads and proper toilets!
Chandigarh is often regarded as India’s finest city- designed by a Swiss designer (Le Corbusier). It is ‘master planned’ down to its man-made lake and ‘sector’ layout. I have my hopes high. The hope building also continues, as tomorrow I board my first ever Jet Airways flight. India’s finest airline to India’s finest city? Well let’s see how the expectations re-setting goes!