On our arrival to India, our friend Sid, who we met in California, was spending the holidays at his hometown Chennai, but we could not make it to see him there. However, he was very happy when we told him we would be going to Chennai, so he suggested plenty of things to see and food to try. In fact, Sid is super excited about South Indian food, and we will be too, starting at the station of Chennai.
For some reason, the trip on the train left us exhausted, out of energy, caput. We decide to enter the first restaurant we see at the station. We order two coffees and one sweet thingy called rava kesari. When they bring our coffees, they are in metal glasses, which are in turn inside an empty metallic bowl each. The waiter explains the how-to by stylishly pouring the liquid from one receptacle into the other. Actually it makes sense because it is served so hot it is impossible to drink right away, and this process also helps mix the sugar evenly and turns the coffee foamy. The rava kesari is a sweet made of millet, dried nuts and raisins with syrup. Everything is so delicious that we take seconds and our batteries recharge almost immediately. It is a sweet start in Chennai.
Sid also puts us in touch with Vinoth, with whom we will be visiting the city on our first day. Our meeting point is the Government museum, which has many different exposition halls and is said to be amazing. We’ll have to believe it, because we have decided to see it on the only day of the week it is closed… Vinoth arrives a little later, and after introductions are made, he suggests we go somewhere else. Together, we take the very difficult-to-understand city bus. There are no signs whatsoever of where the buses go, what lines go through a certain stop and signs in buses are written in Tamil, so it is darn difficult to find your way around unless you ask a lot and manage to find someone who can speak English; we feel very lucky to have Vinoth guide us.
Chennai is a modern city, probably because of its national importance as IT hub. And we precisely go visit one of the best IT universities in the country. Vinoth explains that becoming a student here requires a lot of effort, but contrarily to what happens in other countries, going to a highly reputed school like this one is very cheap. The special fact about it is that the campus is located in a vast forest, where lots of deer, birds, snakes and other wildlife coexist with humans. The university infrastructure is so good that it is like a city in itself, with its own transportation, dorms for students and staff, primary school for staff’s children, etc.
While we enjoy some fresh juice, we get to know more about Vinoth. Not only is he a very smart, minded person about the environment, but he also is starting his own organic farm. Organic agriculture is very scarce in India, not mentioning environmental consciousness. He decided to leave aside the typical capitalistic way of life and took a trip around India with 150 rupees budget per day (that translates in about 1.5 US dollars per day). As he had free time, he joined a NGO in Chennai that is trying to repopulate the endangered sea turtles of the area. He is the opposite concept of what phone companies look for as customers, with his old Alcatel phone that uses only text to check Facebook; to us, he is a hero.
Before calling it a day we head to the beach, full of food stalls, fair games, flying kites and locals enjoying the very warm weather of Chennai. One of the typical snacks is a cob of roast corn for which a rudimentary machine that creates huge sparks is used. The turtle conservation center is a little farther away; we’re sad we can’t go check it out. Then, Vinoth points us to the correct bus to go back to the hotel and we leave behind a wonderful day.
The second day we spend the whole morning and early afternoon trying to buy a train ticket; we won’t bore you with the details, but have we mentioned how hard the simplest of things can become in India?
For lunch we try one vegetarian restaurant that has chains all over South India. Everything is delicious and so cheap!! South Indian typical dishes are dosa and idly, usually taken for breakfast and served on a banana leaf, but this establishment offers a great variety in curries and sauces, too.
One of the popular sights of the city is its Kapaleeshwarar temple, dedicated to Shiva. Southern India temples have a particular style and are very colorful, so Carlos is sad we did not come during daylight for better pictures. Near the entrance gates are stalls that sell many flower collars and other shiny offerings. The ambiance is busy and we marvel at the many sculptures on the temple gopuram (gateway towers).
Some music and chanting can be heard, and when we think it must be the usual chore of devotees, we discover it actually is the Malar cultural association of Chennai performing. There is a group of adults playing and singing, while their students (all girls of three age groups) dance at the rythm of the music. Not only are their clothes and makeup amazing, but also are their moves, their expressions and the hieratic postures they adopt to tell stories. With every move they change the position of their fingers painted with red henna and they place their arms in different angles, accompanying this with an overexpressive smile, wide open eyes or a tilted head. It felt like looking at the statues of a Hindu temple, but alive. We stayed until the end of the show, marveled at being able to experience it. After some more delicious South Indian food, we head back.
On our last day in Chennai Vinoth joins us for the Fort Museum. The Fort St George nowadays houses the state’s Legislative Assembly and Secretariat, but some space serves to display Chennai’s origins and history, with quite a lot of artifacts from the colonial era.
Vinoth is joining a foreign traveler to visit some organic farms around India, so we say our goodbyes after the museum. We head on to the San Thome Cathedral, which again feels like a piece of Europe, but to which people enter barefoot. In the back, there is a small chapel where part of the remains of the Apostle Saint Thomas are said to lie. Some posters say this is one of the only 3 sites in the world where some apostles’ remains are found, namely the Vatican, Saint Jacques cathedral in Spain and this one.
On our way out, an Indian man who is a Spanish teacher talks with us, and kindly drops us off at the Mamallapuram’s lighthouse, from which we get nice views of the beach and the city.
It is a pity we hadn’t more time to explore the surroundings of Chennai, but we had a great experience. See you in the nearest vicinity to Sri Lanka: Rameswaram.