Chennai, India. We never thought we would go to India, it was never on the “bucket list” so to speak, but here we are and it is almost time to leave.
Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India, the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu. We are based in an apartment right in the thick of everything, Besant Nagar, only 15 minute walk to the beach. We were told this was a good first place to visit in India as it is safe and friendly. A good place to “get the hang of it” before you take the training wheels off.
We haven’t been any further than the city this trip, I would love to get out and see the country side, but that will be the next trip. It has been great to really get to know one place. This is one of the things we love about house sitting, you get right off the tourist route and generally stay longer than just a holiday so you do get to know the local people. It has been harder here to get to know the locals as there is a very definite language barrier, but that doesn’t stop us trying! A lot of Indian people can speak English, but they have such a strong accent, it is hard to believe that we are speaking the same language.
We get a lot of attention here as we look so different. It is the young, probably late teenage girls who stare mostly at me, but when I look at them and smile, wow the smiles that break out on their beautiful faces just melts my heart. They sometimes say hello, or just shyly wave. I am thinking that seeing me, dressed in my ordinary, colour-less western clothing, must be like us in New Zealand seeing someone dressed in a bright coloured Saree walking down our main street. I guess we, also, would take a second look.
This city is a place of extremes. It is so loud and so colourful. I don’t think I have been in a place with so much vibrant colour. The pride in their presentation is palpable. Mens crisp white shirts ironed to within an inch of their life. The small children, immaculately dressed. Girls in beautiful dresses and sparkly jewellery that you would only expect to see on dolls in shop windows in the western world. The little boys with waistcaost and tie, hair slicked down perfectly. And the women, I try not to stare, but they are so beautiful. I cannot tell you how many different colours, shades of colours, colour combinations, depths of colours there are. I don’t think I have seen two Saree the same. Sparkle, silver, gold, flowers, all on their person, it is just stunning. I am guessing when I say 90% of women are wearing traditional Saree, or if not Saree, then other traditional dress like Shalwar and Kameez, and you can tell they wear it with pride and respect. Whether they are selling bangles on the side if the street or at the beach, they are still wearing their Saree – blows my mind!
FUN FACT, the Saree, sometimes spelt Sari, is made from hand woven, uncut cloth and is on average 8.5 metres long. It can be draped over 100 different ways. The first Saree can be traced back to 2800 and 1800BC. The word “Sari” is believed to be derived from a Sanskirt word meaning “strip of cloth”. Traditionally worn alone until the prudish Victorian era, when it was recommended to wear a petticoat and blouse underneath. AND, if you do it right, (the drape) then you don’t need any safety pins! I would so love to try one on! 11 Million people are employed by the saree cloth weaving industry!
Indian people are so business minded, if you don’t have a physical shop, then set one up on the street. There is a guy down the road with a sewing machine on the sidewalk under a tarpaulin. Sometimes you see him cutting cloth on the concrete. What fascinates me most about this one is that behind him are some old wooden shelves filled with books. They look like fabric sample books. This is literally on the street, out in the open, and not very well protected from the weather, this is his office and workroom, just amazing.
Then there is the man fixing suitcases, nothing goes to waste here it seems. The guy fixing bicycles. Mending bikes so old and rusted, they look like they have been around since the first Saree.
And then there is the ironing guy. This is the one I like the best. The irons are cast iron and full of hot coals, they look so heavy. There are often two people ironing in the little hut on the street, all day, ironing, ironing. I guess no ironing is done if it is raining.
The bicycle cart which sells fruit and veg and coconuts, the ladies sitting at a table on the street all day, every day, tying flower garlands. The man on a bike with a flask and paper cups selling cups of coffee. The man with the Samosa on a tray on his head, he carries a plastic box too, so when you want to buy, he puts the box down as a temporary stand – he has obviously got this down to a very fine art.
When they do have premises, they can be so small. No bigger than a cupboard with a counter at the front. All their goods hanging all around the opening. Everything from sweets to mobile phones. Fruit, veg, brooms and baskets, you name it! Rice? What kind of rice do you want? There is a counter with about two dozen trays of different rice and grains, there is always a line at this counter. They choose what they want and get a sack of it. So many shops, we often wonder how they all keep a float.
And then there are the shopping malls. No city is complete, anywhere in the world, without a shopping mall with the same high street stores and restaurants. Starbucks, McDonalds and Dominos, they are all here, Marks and Spencer, Sephora, Pandora, Tommy Hilfiger etc etc.
I mentioned extremes, there is great poverty here too. It surprises us sometimes the smallness of the gap between the two. I don’t want to dwell on it, it is a fact of life in every city. But everyone seems happy, I guess it is all perspective.
Chennai is a sensory overload. The colours, the smells and the sounds, all on steroids, an assault on the senses. But we love it. This adventure was not on the bucket list……….. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge, take the acute angle and give it a go, you might just be surprised at how good it is – because life is far too short not to!
Wonderful piece of writing Donna! Our first trip to India .. overwhelmed by Calcutta, the traffic, mold, color… just finished reading White Tiger. What’s up next? Camping around Australia?
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Thanks Lou! Yes I can just imagine Calcutta, how wonderful! Camping around Australia will feel very tame lol xx
Another superbly written and illustrated blog – thanks for lightening my day Donna. I’m at my desk looking out on the glistening blue of Tauranga harbour, but dreaming of the colours of South India. Have spent too much time dwelling on the map at the start of your blog showing the location of Chennai…apart from Kabul i have been to every other city on the map so have been on a wander down memory lane! Yes the colours of the South are superb (North India is somewhat less colourful due perhaps to the Islamic influence, the adoption of western style dress and the predominance of salwar kameez for the ladies).
To get to try a saree, just head into any saree sales showroom and they will readily outfit you in one, with no compulsion to buy madam! Or ask a neighbour in the apartment block, I am sure they would love to dress you up! South Indian sarees are also unique in them mostly being up to 9m in length, compared to 5m for the North Indian saree, where it is worn! But the colours in your photos just pop – I love the painted temple gopurams (towers) with their profusion of Hinduisms many many gods all having a jolly old time! And how immacuately the kids are dressed for a soiree on the beach in the evening. And the smell of the jasmin flowers the women tie into their hair. Your blogs are making me realise I really am well over-due for a visit to South India as I was last there in 1998 – and amazingly from your pics and blog, it seems that things have not modernised as fast as I imagined they would, although there certainly were no multi-storied shopping malls in Chennai when I was last there! Enjoy your last days before moving on to your next awesome adventure. Cheers.
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Such a beautiful comment Reece, thank you! I truely hope you get back to this part of the world soon, you will feel like you never left! See you soon!