Chennai, India - February 5, 2008
05.02.2008 - 05.02.2008 92 °F
I should caution that when I make these broad, sweeping generalizations, I’m speaking only about the pinprick of a time and place that I am encountering. For me to summarize an entire country’s culture and history in a word or two on the basis of having spent less than a week in one little spot is ludicrous, but I can only share what I am able to observe.
What I have observed about India – and specifically Chennai (which was Madras until 1997) thus far is that it is way more intense than Shanghai or Bangkok, though it’s much smaller. Chennai is in Southern India, which I understand is very different from Northern India – as different as northern and southern California or Michigan’s upper and lower peninsula are from each other. The thing that has struck me the most though is that Chennai is supposed to be a bit of a sleepy town, whereas my experience is that it’s more crowded and buzzy than any of the places we’ve been. It’s a working class city that is expanding and it’s a very cosmopolitan place, but it’s really, really busy.
The first day off the ship was the first time in years that I've truly been shocked by a new environment. I had to concentrate on not letting my eyes pop out of my head and to keep my jaw closed. I ended up spending Day 1 with two people from the ship, and we spent the day working to stay one-step ahead of our cab drivers who were hell bent on scamming us and have it down to a science. It was work, pure work, to keep from getting taken to the cleaners. When all was said and done, the night ended with a midget, a worrisome mosquito bite, WAY too many whisky shots, and the police. It was truly insane.
The craziness began the night before we’d even arrived. Our pre-port security wound up being three hours of fear-mongering. By the end of the community-wide meeting we were all convinced that if we don't get malaria, we'll die of dengue fever or chikengugya disease or that we foreign ladies will be raped, robbed and pillaged. We were told that unlike the previous port, the ship will be heavily guarded 24/7, and our bags will be inspected upon re-entry to make sure that nobody has brought any food aboard. Though most of us take these things with a grain of salt, everyone was clearly affected by the heavy handedness of the warnings.
The next morning, before immigration had cleared us all, I asked M., a faculty member, what he and his wife were planning for the week, and he said that he wasn't going to get off the ship at all. I cracked up. He said that after that meeting, all he could think of was a painting he'd seen in the 1960s called "Overpopulation," that had images of mutant and mutilated babies and bodies crawling all over the place begging for food and water. He added that he grew up in the 'hood, and he doesn't need to revisit any of that. I laughed so hard that I was crying, and I told him he's ridiculous. Unbeknownst to me, my experiences later in the day would make his fears less silly sounding.
One other event that set the tone for this entre into India: the locals had a welcoming ceremony for us, which was most unexpected. We were greeted by women in colorful saris and kortas, men banging drums and playing other indigenous instruments, and we were bestowed with garlands and bindis (the dot on the forehead). Sounds lovely and visually and aurally, it was. The olefactory aspect of this was a bit of a challenge though. It smelled like we were in the middle of a garbage dump and flies were everywhere. However, as far as you could look in any direction, we were surrounded not by garbage but by rows and rows and rows of brand new Hyundai cars all around us. The juxtaposition was hard to comprehend and that became the main feeling with which to contend the rest of the day and night.
N. and I had decided to beat the crowd and head into the city in order to buy some local garb at a place that had been suggested by our Academic Dean since women are expected to adhere to certain dress requirements. We quickly worked out an arrangement with the most aggressive of a clump of taxi drivers. He took us to a man-powered tuk tuk. The new guy rode the two of us through slowly but surely out of the port area, where we caught our first glimpses of genuine poverty such as I've never seen, even in Africa. I’m not saying it’s not there – it’s just that I’ve never seen it. A railway runs through the port and there were truck loads of rice being unloaded. Now and then a bag would rip open and people would amble over and try to pick up the loose grains like lazy birds who had just discovered a scattering of bird seed.
I started to get antsy almost immediately because I, in true American style, just wanted to get to our destination as quickly as possible and being pedaled at snails pass wasn’t gonna cut it. But then we stopped, and the man w/ whom we'd originally negotiated appeared beside us with a motorized tuk tuk. Yay!, I thought, but if only I had know what was to come. We reached a checkpoint where we had to sign out and also show a sort of local pass that we'd all been given and told to carry with us 24/7. The port is very heavily guarded, in fact much more so than in Shanghai or Laem Chabang.
At the checkpoint, N. and I ran into D. The three of us decided to combine as one party, though we were driven in our separate conveyances. Our first stop was to buy some Indian garb so as to be presentable the next day at our AFPs. I found a beautiful sari ensemble but N. tried it on first and it took half an hour for them to teach her how to wear it. When it was my turn, I said forget it and bought a korta instead, which is basically a pullover dress that you can wear over pants.
Next stop, a roadside pharmacy for mosquito repellent since none of us are taking our million dollar malaria pills (a story in itself). Next stop, the bank for ATM cash withdrawls. This was when I began to realize that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. As we attempted to navigate the machine, a crowd gathered outside the ATM doors, with D's driver at the fore, nose pressed against the glass. I shoved my money deep in my pocket, and we waded back to our cabs. We asked the drivers to take us to a particular market that we'd been told about, and they told us that that market was closed. We asked about the second one on our list and were told that the place isn't a market, but they have a friend who owns a place... which is a typical scam. We insisted on being taken to the first place on the list, but they drove us to a market we'd been warned about, aptly called The Thieves' Market. We were definitely making it hard for them to cheat us, but it quickly became wearying. By this time they’d been driving us around for about three hours, including waiting for us at the first shop. We decided to have them take us to the Marina Beach, the second longest urban beach in the world after Long Beach, California, and then dismiss them from there.
It turns out they had a plan too, which was to separate us. We set off towards the beach but D's driver suddenly made a U-turn, and our driver pretended that he couldn't keep up. We insisted he turn around and finally he did, but as we drove in the opposite direction, we passed D. and his driver who were pulled over. We got our driver to stop and insisted he take us back to D. and then we started over. Once we got going they tried again. Though D's driver was leading, we got to the beach first. At that point we started to feel pretty f*cked, like totally at the mercy of these guys. I tried to pay them but they wouldn't accept the money and kept insisting that they were ours for the entire day. We honestly didn't know what to do, so I suggested we just walk on the beach and walk away. N., didn’t like that idea. She wanted our driver to call D.’s driver. He told us he didn’t have the guys number but we knew it was a lie because they’d been on the phone together earlier.
20 minutes had gone by, and I was feeling really edgy. I was just about to insist they take us back to the ship, when D.’s tuk tuk arrived. We asked him what had happened and he said that the guy must have taken the long way. Now mind you, we weren’t paying by the meter. They wouldn’t offer a rate either – they just kept telling us to pay them what we thought was fair in the end. The three of us consulted together and decided it was best to terminate our little relationship and start with fresh drivers. At that moment, a pedaled tuk tuk came into view with two of our friends from the ship. One was M., an IRC, and Ramon, a crew member. Everybody loves Ramon. We were pleased as punch to see him, but I noticed that M. looked sad beyond belief. I asked what was going on and Ramon revealed that it was his last day. His contract with Royal Caribbean was up, and he was going to go back home to Honduras the next day to be with his wife and four month old baby daughter whom he hasn’t even met yet. This put a bittersweetness on the rest of the day because truly he’s everyone’s favorite guy. I broke the spell by saying that there are no goodbyes, only hellos and then the six of us walked out to the water. The beach wasn’t empty but it wasn’t very busy either. We watched some fisherman sorting through their catch and watched the water, which seemed very different from the waters from which we’d come. I noticed that the beach itself – the sand area – was pretty dirty – more refuse than one would expect but it’s also right in the city. Because everyone was feeling somber, we decided to go get a drink.
The three drivers talked among themselves and then decided to take us to a nearby place. We worried about the fact that two of the vehicles were motorized and one wasn’t, but the drivers actually went slow enough that the guy carrying Ramon and M. could keep up. It was rather amusing except for the fact that the traffic is nuts and there were moments when I thought that any one of the three tuk tusk would get creamed. It’s like imagine all the motorized bikes, trucks, and tuk tuks of Bangkok and Shanghai and then add cows. Hey, there’s a cow laying in them middle of the street. No problem, just swerve around it even if you’re swerving into oncoming traffic. And the pedestrians? They’re just as mad. Seriously, it was unreal, but we made it to this bar in one collective piece.
Inside, it was dead except for us. We ladies had some rum and mango juice concoction and the men had Kingfisher Lager, which I remember my dad drinking in Tanzania, and which I drank throughout my summer in Paris. After that, Ramon and M. had to go back to work. D., N., and I decided to go find food. This is where things got bad with the cabbies. D. had read in a guidebook that the Mylapore District has several good restaurants. He didn’t have a specific one in mind but tossed out the idea of having them take us to the district and then we could walk around and find a restaurant on our own. When we explained what we wanted to the drivers, they tried to get us to eat at the place we’d had drinks. When we insisted on going to Mylapore, they told us it was very far away – too far. D. pulled out a map and asked where we where on the map. Mylapore wasn’t very far at all.
They relinquished and drove us all of five to seven minutes and then pulled up to a restaurant that looked like a drive in burger place except it was Indian food. They insisted that we eat there – obviously they’re getting kick backs for taking us to certain places – but we refused. That’s when I noticed a street sign that said “Mylapore” on it with an arrow point. They hadn’t even taken us to right the district. At that point were finally fed up enough that we decided to part ways with them. We rapidly decided amongst ourselves to pay them 500 rupees per cab (which we later found out was too much). When we tried to pay them they did the same as before – pushing the money away and telling us that they would stay with us all night and take us back. D. was getting really angry though he was maintaining his cool. The more angry he got though, the wilder their antics became. They told us that by law we couldn’t go another cab driver … they told us only they know the ports … they told us that they would get in trouble because at the checkpoint they keep track of who goes with whom and by law they have to bring us back… then when it became apparent that we really weren’t going to continue with them, they began demanding 1,500 rupees from each of us. By this time, a crowd of locals had gathered around us and were trying to negotiate for us – clearly on our side but not helping matters. It started to become a small mob scene, so D. finally said either you take the money we’re offering you or we walk and you get nothing. The crowd didn’t like that but they didn’t prevent us from walking. I don’t know if the drivers were merely trying to save face, but they shouted that they would wait for us in front of the restaurant.
On our own at last, we walked and walked and walked. By now it had gone from dusk to full on night, and we were hungry. We walked down narrow streets. Nobody paid us much attention but I was uncomfortable because of what had happened. We were in some sort of mixed use neighborhood, which seems to be typical of Chennai; there didn’t appear to be a business area or a residential area – it was mixed. We stopped at a small streetside stand and bought samosas and gulab jamun and we kept walking until we realized it was a bit futile. We ended up eating at a Indian fast food restaurant afterall! I was bummed by that, but it was decent.
Afterward D. had written down the address of a movie theatre that plays locally made films with English subtitles. Chennai has a film studio industry, Chollywood, that’s second in size to Bollywood, We found a new driver who agreed to carry all three of us – the other two drivers had told us that men and women can’t ride in the same cab. We got to theatre around 8:30 but the next round of films wasn’t showing until 10:45. I was ready to call it quits at that point, but I wanted to be a good sport so I agreed to walk about for a while longer.
We stumbled down a few blocks and that’s when we saw the midget in a fez standing in a doorway. We looked up and saw a sign that said “Chennai Cultural Centre.” The midget waved us in.