April's Notes From The Road: Chennai 1 (2008)

Vanakkam – hello in Tamil! We’ve been in Chennai now for three fascinating, sensory-overwhelming, hot and muggy days – and so much more in store.

Getting here was a fun adventure (and 36 hour endurance test) in itself. From San Francisco via Seoul, South Korea (Incheon airport to refuel), on to Singapore (and a seven-hour layover in the middle of the night) and finally arrival in Chennai. We left early afternoon on Friday and arrived late morning on Sunday – still not quite sure what happened to that second “lost” day in flight but sure glad it will be recovered on the way back!

We flew on Singapore Airlines, which remains in my opinion one of the best airlines in the world. They recently introduced the new A380 with full “executive cabin suites” that make first class look fit for a pauper. Full-size bed, meeting area and flat panel TV all within an enclosed cabin – basically like cruise ship lodging with wings. Incredible. (No idea how much the suites cost though…) The in-flight entertainment system is also exceptional. More than 100 movies and 700 CDs available on demand, along with Berlitz language tapes and a slew of destination-specific programs and information. I brushed up on my Tamil, Hindi and Portuguese – vanakkam (hello or goodbye, similar to ciao in Italian), nanri (thank you) and enaku puriyavillai (I don’t understand) are already proving to be very helpful, and we are still surprised at how complicated it is to say “I love you” (naan unnai kaadhelikkiren).

Singapore’s Changi Airport has got to be the easiest airport in existence in which to entertain oneself. We arrived in one far corner terminal and our connecting flight left from essentially the opposite end, so we decided to walk – and can report that the airport’s total length is approximately 1.5 miles. Changi might as well be a small city; with enough money one could live quite well there. From more mundane food kiosks offering everything from “polar puffs” to beetroot juice to Goan fish curry, to more exotic fern and orchid gardens that could compete with botanical gardens, to Ferrari, Tag Heuer and La Perla stores… a good crash course in multiculturalism and global commercial trends (and all the more oddly memorable at 2am).

On the last leg to Chennai I began to review the various information on Tamil Nadu that I’ve been collecting for months. Lots of fun and brought back lots of memories about the time I have spent in India already… Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment; kharma, dharma, moksha and life cycles’ and the symbolic importance of the lotus (India’s national flower, which is revered for its combination of resilience and grace). The fact that the lotus can bloom from the depths of India’s grottiest rivers is admittedly pretty impressive…

Chennai itself (formerly known as Madras) continues to be enjoyable. It is much further from the well-worn tourist path than many other places in India (Jaipur and Agra by a long shot, but even nearer cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad attract many more visitors). One upshot of this is that we feel much more off the beaten path and in a “different” place. We were two of three non-Indians on our Chennai-bound flight, and I can count on one hand the number of westerners we have seen since arrival. On the downside, there is relatively less to see and do for tourists here. Perhaps one way to analogize is by noting that Chennai is responsible for 40% of India’s automotive industry (indeed, our flight included about 60 Indians who were returning from the Hyundai HQ in Korea) so visiting Chennai is a little like visiting Detroit – more of a living, breathing, working city than a tourist’s delight.

The saying is that Tamil Nadu has three seasons – hot, hotter and hottest. We are on the cusp of hotter, and I don’t want to think about what July is like. By 1pm yesterday we had taken two showers already and were ready to melt. Average temperatures for Chennai in April are 96F (high) / 82F (low) – enough said! I am normally not a fan of air conditioning but am having that preference turned on its head here.

Still much to share… including how the IDLO law-and-microfinance course is proceeding thus far, the vibe of the city and favorite South Indian foods sampled so far. Think fish, fiery chillies, buttery naan and amazingly rich filter coffee (surprisingly even more of a local passion than chai).  For these trivia bits and more, until the next post!

TraveloguesApril Rinne