Monday, February 16, 2015

What to do in Chennai

When Charlie and I arrived in Chennai after a 28-hour train ride from Calcutta, we got in a fight with an auto-rickshaw driver within our first 30 minutes in the city. We were specific at the rickshaw stand about where we needed to go, but our driver followed his own directions despite my insisting that he was wrong (they call me GP-EL for a reason). I finally thrust my phone to his ear with our hotel on the other line (a working phone is a MUST for travel around India), and after a few words, he admitted defeat. But he wanted us to pay the amount on the meter after driving us in circles, when we had already agreed on a lower price to the correct location. Obviously. 

We did not pay the higher price, but things got heated when we got to our destination. It's a theme in India (and life) – headstrong men there REFUSE to ask for clarification or assistance when they're unsure of something. I couldn't count on two hands the amount of times a driver told us he knew where we were going, even when he literally had zero idea and didn't even understand our words when we announced our destination. Too nervous to lose the job, these guys drive off with you and try to casually clarify later, which leads to disaster more often than not. These encounters are what make travel in India incredibly frustrating, and make it a country that's gratifying to make it through a day in.

That argument left me with a sour taste in my mouth, but Charlie and I quickly got started exploring the car-friendly city by foot. Walking in Chennai is a death sentence, thus, we didn't get far. But, unsurprisingly, there was a Saravana Bhavan location near our hotel for dinner. This chain of vegetarian South Indian restaurants has shops all over the globe, but there are 20 locations in Chennai alone and the chain's headquarters is there too, making it a must-do for any visitor to the city. Not to mention the rockbottom prices and tasty eat-with-your-hands food. Don't go at your masala dosa or idly with a fork. You'll look like a loser. (I ate idly with a fork.)
Speaking of idly, you have to eat these fermented pancakes at Ratna Cafe while you're in Chennai. The place definitely looks shabby from the outside, but wander in and you'll find a friendly staff. Watch locals to see how to eat your idly and how to drink your coffee, which comes with a deep saucer and is meant to be poured back and forth between the cup and saucer until it's cool enough to drink. Our waiter saw that we were puzzled and happily taught us the coffee trick.
The idly sambar at Ratna is delicious – the airy white patties are served with plenty of thick sambar, a mild vegetable sauce made from lentils and peppered with curry leaves and coriander seeds. Mush a piece of your idly up and mix it with the sambar before enjoying. Extra sambar is always at your disposal, and don't forget to get serious with the coconut chutney that comes on the side.

One more place you should eat in Chennai is Zaitoon. Charlie and I ate there for two nights in a row, and it was some of the best food we had in the country. We initally approached the restaurant because from the outside it looked legit, which is fairly uncommon in India and became a serious factor when deciding where to eat for three months. Do judge a book by its cover. Zaitoon is a Middle Eastern restaurant with a couple of locations, and we ate there during Ramadan, meaning that it was packed with huge groups of hungry Muslims breaking their daily fast at the iftar meal when the sun set.

Perhaps this is why Charlie and I enjoyed Zaitoon so much – we were the only foreigners in the multi-level place, and we watched in fascination as groups of guys our age gorged themselves on meat. At a table of maybe 15 dudes next to us, waiters cautiously dropped dish after dish (we're talking entire barbecued goat legs) into the center of the table and retreated before the guys could pounce and clear the plates in seconds, like piranhas to a meaty ankle. Zaitoon had some amazing fish tikka and chicken shawarma wraps – everything we ate there was so tasty that I was able to forget about the glance into the kitchen that revealed trays of raw meat resting on the filthy floor.
Indians know Chennai for its sprawling Marina Beach, and a few minutes spent wandering the expanses of sand give insight into exactly what locals here call a good time. Rickety carnival rides, balloon games with shotguns, feral dogs and bloody seafood. Oh, and getting knocked over repeatedly by waves, while fully dressed in your most colorful sari.
We didn't eat seafood on the beach because, look at it (even I have boundaries), but I did give a little kid with plumber's crack 10 rupees for a seashell that he harvested from the waves and hoarded in a pile in the sand. He looked at me like I was an alien, literally, and his friend promptly stole the money from him. We also spent our entire time on the beach getting stared at – the Indian specialty. Chennai beach: definitely a recipe for fun! The beach is more lively at night when it takes on a full-fledged carnival atmosphere, but as you can see, there are throngs of people all day long. 

I can't blame people for their reaction when seeing Charlie and I – it's conceivable that many (maybe a majority) of the one billion people in India have never laid eyes on a Westerner. In fact, in a remote village in the Sunderbans region, I saw a woman's jaw drop when she saw us. It was incredible to see her thought process as betrayed by her face. But it's more annoying than endearing when you get asked ten times a day to pose for a photo with an extended family. Look, there's a right way and a wrong way for locals to approach foreign tourists. A guy in Rishikesh introduced Charlie and I to his mother, wife and three children, including an infant, one by one, and asked that we shake all of their hands. He thanked us, and it was sweet. That was OK. A guy in Shimla once went on to snap a photo of me after I denied his request to do so – he subsequently encountered my wrath. Not OK.
One thing we did in Chennai that we didn't do in many other cities was take a guided tour. I have strong feelings of conflict over guided tours – in some instances they can provide fantastic insight into what exactly you're seeing, and can be informative and helpful. Other times they can focus solely on tourist attractions that you'd see on your own and be full of annoying people. Charlie and I found out the hard way that an annoying person can break the experience when we had to spend two days with an awful middle-aged American cult member who moved to India 20 years ago and regressed into terrible-two-like tantrums. It sucked.

But in a city like Chennai, where it's difficult to walk around and intimidating to enter places like temples on your own, a guided tour can be the perfect answer. By the time we got to Chennai we were already in India for about two months, and we knew the difficulties of Indian cities well and were ready for a break. I found the Storytrails tour company through a quick search online, and fell in love with the company's storyteller-as-guide concept. Storytrails offers "trails" focusing on superstitions, shopping bazaars, jewelry, food, dance and more, and guides are local and knowledgable. The tours are pricey, but worth it.
On the day that we wanted to take a tour, the only one available was the Peacock Trail, which wanders through the city's spiritual Mylapore area and focuses on rituals and symbolisms that appear daily across India. Our guide, Lakshmi, was a woman of a high caste – a type of person that we hadn't spent much time with during our travels in India. Most tour guides in India (from what I've seen) are men, and wealthy Indians don't often work in tourism. So not only was our tour of Mylapore fascinating – our conversations with Lakshmi also gave us a look into the views of India's wealthy classes on the country's social and womens' issues. 
On our tour we explored the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, learned the mythical stories behind the different types of worship that happen in the temple, and even visited a Hindu priest's historic house where we saw how a typical home centered around an open courtyard where cleaning, cooking and eating took place. Near the home, we spoke with a man making floral garlands who insisted on giving us each a tiny rose for free, to demonstrate that India is not all about money. Our guide Lakshmi told us that he does that for every group she takes by him, without fail. 

We learned about the intricate rice powder designs with different meanings that Hindus draw daily outside their homes (called kolams), and about the meanings of the high thresholds at the doorways to Hindu homes. We learned why new homes and businesses hang demon masks outside to ward off the evil eye, (for the same reason that many new mothers deck their babies' faces in black makeup,) and that the lime and chilli combo that we saw hanging from the rearview mirror in essentially every taxi or auto rickshaw was a symbol of luck. We even laughed with our guide about how modern women use sticker bindis these days out of convenience. We got a ton of background about rituals that we saw every day in India, but were pretty much ignorant of.
We also visited the San Thome Basilica, where we were surprised to be met by crowds of Indian Catholics attending mass – the women dressed in luxurious saris and with plenty of fragrant jasmine draped in their hair. The statues and images at this church and others in the country bear Indian qualities that were originally meant to make the religion relatable to locals when the Portuguese arrived in the 1400s – a statue of Jesus Christ on the altar here is flanked by peacocks which are sacred birds in Hindu mythology. This is also supposedly one of only three churches in the world that have relics from one of the Twelve Apostles – the church is built above the tomb of St. Thomas, and apparently there's a remaining piece of his finger down in the depths of the compound. 

So, short story: Storytrails provides great guided tours and is worth the spluge and early wake-up. The price of our tour included lunch at a local restaurant in Mylapore, where our guide told us about the typical dishes on the menu and also taught us about famous South Indian sweets. Our tour group also happened to have just two other (not annoying) people aside from Charlie and I, so really, it was a winner. In fact, I kind of wholeheartedly endorse tours in India, because they just makes things so much easier. When Charlie and I were traipsing around the streets of Old Delhi in a culture-shock panic, we envied the groups of tourists that went past with a sense of direction and zero care in the world. 

While Chennai isn't on the list of main destinations for most tourists visiting India, a few days in the city can provide a glimpse into the culture and cuisine of the country's south. It's less touristy than other cities so we didn't feel like we were about to fall victim to scams the entire time, and the lack of huge tourist sites means that visitors have time to dive deeper into typical daily life. We saw a movie while in Chennai, and experienced how Indians cheer and holler (and talk on their phones) throughout the film. And they served steamed corn at the movie theater, topped with your choice of margarine or masala spices! Yum. 


Anonymous said...

Thanks for such great information! There aren't a lot of blog posts about Chennai and this was really helpful!

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