As we recently announced on our social media, our friend Ana was travelling in India for a month recently, and decided to write about it. This first part is about how she felt after landing and her experience in Chennai. Feeling curious? Just keep reading…
“I could have never imagined that on November, 10th last year, I would shout: “I’m going to India!”. That day I booked my plane tickets to Chennai, the capital of the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
My friend Nani had been living in Chennai for a year. I decided to visit her and travel around the country together during her last month in India. On one hand, I was very excited because it was my first time travelling outside Europe. I was going to have the opportunity to know a very different culture. Also, as a social and cultural anthropologist, I assumed I’d get a surprising cultural, social, and personal enrichment. On the other hand, I couldn’t help worrying about the unknown. Yes, I had read about India, but being there taking part in their lives, their customs, and their way of being and living would be totally new. And it was much more than that.
First of all, you should make a list with all the important things you have to check before the trip. Basically, vaccines, visa, and information about the weather and the appropriate clothes for each city. For two reasons:
- Weather can vary significantly from south to north. Remember, although on a map you might not notice it, India is huge. In the south, it was around 30ºC in January, but only 10ºC in the north.
- It’s a conservative country, so women should pay attention to what they wear, especially when visiting temples and so on.
The night before my departure I was enthusiastic. All my fears and worries were gone. I was looking forward to being there and starting this journey.
Landing in Chennai
I landed in Chennai airport with no battery on my phone after nearly 20 hours of flights. I had to queue for a long time in order to pass through security controls, and then I ran to collect my luggage. You can make good money exchange inside the airport, if you have patience and time. I was already running behind time, since Nani had already been waiting for me outside for half an hour. In the end, I could change some money just before leaving the airport, where there was nobody. The exchange rate was not good, so I recommend coming with the change from your country or do it inside the airport.
I didn’t realise that I was actually in India. I had to collect my luggage, exchange money, and go out to meet Nani. The well-known jetlag wasn’t helping me at all.
My friend had already warned me about the taxi drivers at the exit doors. They almost harass you to make sure that you choose them. It is more expensive to hire an Uber or a taxi at the front doors, unless you’re a good haggler. If not, it is best to go out on the road and catch one from there. Nani’s instructions were clear: don’t listen to them, just walk and look for me. When I left the airport there was an endless line of men waiting to be hired. At the end of that line was Nani jumping and screaming my name like crazy.
We hired an Uber. My friend had an Indian number, which makes using the app much easier. It was on the Uber when I realised I was there with her, in another part of the world. I started to look around and stared at the huge cloud of contamination. I could feel the sticky and hot atmosphere.
In Chennai, the first thing you’ll notice is that traffic is chaotic. There are no pedestrian crossings or traffic lights. However, what is chaotic for us makes total sense for them, as long as they beep their horns properly. The Uber left us in Olympia Opaline Navalur where Nani used to live. Here, enormous blocks of buildings contrast with the rest of the low-rise houses.
The second thing you’ll notice is that they shake their head to say yes or no or maybe, depending on the context. When I asked Nani a question she shook her head to say yes. I had to ask her again thinking she hadn’t answered to me. “What are you trying to say with that tic?” She started laughing and explained it to me. Two weeks later, I was shaking my head like a local.
After several days in Chennai, I had already met some colleagues of Nani’s. I always asked them the same questions: “For how long have you been living in India?” and “Why India?” Even I asked myself “What I am doing here?” Not in a philosophical way, just because I was going to spend a month in a country which at first sight seemed noisy, sloppy, and where you feel constantly observed. You are “the other”, “the exotic one”, and they are surprised to see you in their country. Your only option is to get used to it and enjoy the experience.
Tamil Nadu seems to be more conservative when it comes to culture, tradition, language, clothing and everything that includes belonging to an ethnic group. It looks like they hold strong traditional values in public, but then you’ll discover that everyone acts under their own rules. It’s the same in most western societies, so the contrasts and the hypocrisy did not surprise me. It seems silly but what surprised me the most was that women dress with saree, the traditional dress for women, and men have more options. There are exceptions, of course. This refers to Chennai, in the north I saw different styles of sarees and kurtis (kurtas for men).
At this point you may be wondering where the cows are. They are everywhere: on the road, in the street, in front of your house door…even in the seashore. They are part of the population, like dogs and cats (and rats and mosquitos).
NYE in Chennai
I was lucky to spend New Year’s Eve in Chennai; in Tamil Nadu they celebrate it on a different day. My new friend, Alejandra, together with some other new friends, rented a house to have a big party. Mandalic Masala was the name of the party. According to Alejandra, mandalic because of the Buddhist art related to mandalas and masala because of the food. A house full of people from all over the world: Colombia, Togo, Senegal, Germany, France, Nepal, Egypt, Russia, Spain, different parts of India,…
That day I experienced how Indians drive, when my new friend Surender took us to the party. “Nani, where is the seat belt?” “There’s no seat belt”. “What?” I was speaking in Spanish so he couldn’t understand my concerns. It felt like a fairground ride. Actually, it was funny. I also experienced how Indians party. I can’t remember much more about that night, you know what I mean, it was just a night full of magic.
Public transport rules
The first time I went out around Nani’s neighbourhood was when I went to buy a sleeping bag. I recommend getting one, as it might be handy when staying in hostels. I went to Decathlon with my new friend Deborah and it was my first time on an urban bus from God knows when (yes, that old!). Women must stay on the left, men on the right. They have a strict rule about it, since they think they can prevent some problems this way. You can buy a ticket inside the bus. The ticket inspector is sat down, or he walks along the bus and controls who gets on and off. I kept the tickets because I think they are pretty amazing.
One day I went with Nani and Eder to Thyagaraya Nagar, also known as T. Nagar. It is a neighbourhood in Chennai, considered the biggest shopping district in India. It took us less than an hour to get there by car, but 2,5h to come back by bus.
You can see in the photos the main street full of people and stores. And this is just a part of it. Some of the people stare at you, some just smile (mostly young women). Many others try to sell you everything they can because, of course, you’re a tourist. Behind us you can see part of a bus.
Getting ready for the big journey
After a few days, our trip started. It is difficult to buy train or bus tickets being a foreigner. You have to register to get a user and a password, and then wait for a confirmation. It can take days to receive it, or maybe you’ll never get it. For the first journeys, we didn’t need to do anything because we travelled with two Indian friends, Lokesh and Melwyn. They were in charge of buying the tickets and making the reservations. We bought the return flight through MakeMyTrip.
To travel in the north, having not much time to see all the cities we wanted to visit, we decided to hire a travel agency in Delhi. It has its pros and cons. This agency works in a very special way, and veeery slow. We were in contact with the agency every day but sometimes we panicked, as we didn’t know if the services we had paid for were 100% good and trustworthy. We had some problems of communication. However, everything went pretty well and like Nani and I said all the time: shanti, shanti (inner peace). This refers to a deliberate state of psychological or spiritual calm despite the potential presence of stressors.”