We spent two days and nights in Chennai, which was just about the right amount of time for my taste.
Chennai is a city of 7.7 million, and when it was known as Madras under British rule, it was effectively the capital of southern India. The contemporary states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu were ruled out of Madras well into the 1950’s.
The city has been a commercial hub for centuries, trading with Roman, Greek and Chinese merchants. In the last five centuries, the Portuguese, English and French fought to control the city. Strangely, aside from the occasional landmark, I didn’t notice any dominant colonial architecture throughout the city such as in Mumbai.
The city has its interesting spots, which won me over, but it is still a tough city to navigate. For one, huge swaths of the city are unwalkable. There are multiple lanes of heavy traffic often clustered around busy roundabouts. Pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent, and where there are crossings, they are universally ignored by motorists. Much of the city reminded me of the least walkable parts of Mexico City but even Mexico City is far more walkable than Chennai. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it took me upwards of 10 minutes to cross some roads. I would usually attribute that to not being as bold as the locals, but I also saw locals waiting a good 5 minutes before they could make it across.
Motorists ignoring a pedestrian cross-walk
Two roundabouts, multiple lanes of traffic, and people taking their chances walking amongst the chaos:
Chennai was one of the departure points for half of the people in our group. I made an exception to my no-group-meal rule, and while the meal was pleasant in terms of the company, the atrocious service was a reminder of why group meals are to be religiously avoided in India. I faired relatively well in terms of getting what I ordered, but it did take them close to 40 minutes to bring me a lemon soda. My neighbours didn’t get half of what they ordered (but were billed for everything), and when it came to paying the bill it was as if the servers went out of their way to put random items in people’s individual bills. Paying the bill took close to 30 minutes.
After dinner, Flo, John, Laura and myself went off to locate some of the better bars in the city. This brings me to the second point of annoyance with Chennai–bars catering to middle-class Indians and to tourists screw around tremendously with the menu-listed price of their drinks to the point that you end up paying Toronto yuppie bar prices for drinks that already look somewhat expensive on the menu.
For example, I had a cocktail at one bar that was priced at $550 Rupees ($11 CDN). When I paid for the drink, the taxes and assorted charges brought that drink up to $750 Rupees, i.e. $15 CDN. That’s a near 40% surcharge. At that point I switched to a beer for my second drink, only to see the $350 Rupee menu price somehow transform into $600 Rupees, which is now a 70% surcharge. Whatever they are doing to arrive at their prices, they are certainly not just adding any form of flat tax or service charge.
After two drinks, and feeling totally fleeced, we gave up and made our way to the bar located in the basement of the original restaurant where we had dinner. Since this is a bar for locals, the drinks were priced in a straightforward manner–$400 Rupees a beer, everything included.
The bar was filled exclusively with men. If you were to look towards the back of the bar in the picture I took below, you would see it packed with guys just sitting back listening to the man and woman singing traditional Indian songs. The music was phenomenally good and it struck me as odd that absolutely no one was dancing to the incredibly upbeat music. I got Flo to agree to go dance, but when I stood up to dance she left me stranded and dancing alone in what will forever be the most awkward minute in my time in India. Everyone was starring at me as if I had just dared to urinate on the floor, the only exception being the two singers on stage who were very encouraging. Eventually Flo and Laura stood up, and at that point we caused a bit of a sensation. All of a sudden a bunch of guys stood up and started dancing with us as well, but at the same time the bouncers in the bar were actively making people who were dancing further away from us sit down–they didn’t want anyone except those in our immediate vicinity dancing. After about 10 minutes or so, the bouncer came up, and with a nervous smile said, “OK, you have fun dancing?” which I took as a cue to sit down, thus bringing the dancing to an end. The bouncer looked very relieved.
I asked the bouncer why there were only men around, and he replied that Indian women don’t go to bars because that would be improper (and true enough, I never saw a woman in a bar that catered to locals). I then asked why people are not allowed to dance, and he essentially said that people tend to get too rowdy; glasses get broken, people get hurt, the police end up getting called, and the bar eventually gets shut down. I for one am glad that we livened the place up for one night, even if only for 10 minutes.
Some shots from our walk home. Note, the streets look as abandoned as they would in a North American city at 4:00 am. It was only 11:30 pm:
The following day I did a bit of sight-seeing on my own. Initially my plan was to take a tuk tuk to central Chennai and walk around the major sites. However, a tuk tuk driver offered to take me around for a ridiculously low price so I agreed to be chauffeured.
Below is the Sri Ramakrishna Math, which is the first branch of the monastic organization, Ramakrishna Math. The organization was founded by Swami Ramakrishnananda in 1897:
Photos of San Thome Cathedral which was initially built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It was later rebuilt in the 1890’s in the neo-Gothic style:
Marina Beach is shown below. This beach stretches 3 km and is said to be the longest in India. However, due to very dangerous currents, no one swims here at all. It’s like a gaudier Coney Island (which previously struck me as impossible) with food stalls and rides for kids. The beach was my favourite part of Chennai. For some reason all of the stalls were closed when I went–I imagine that they open up again at night:
The High Court in Chennai is said to be the largest enclosure of judicial buildings in the world after the courts in London. Unfortunately pictures were once again entirely prohibited, so you will have to click on the link below if you want to see what it looks like beyond one of the entrance gates:
Getting into the court was a bit of an ordeal. One of the gates is intended for tourists, but they only allow tourists to visit on Saturdays. However, the High Court in India is a public court, so you just have to go to another entrance and walk through the gate with a sense of purpose. No one stopped me. There is a museum inside one of the buildings where they have a replica Court from the 1800’s which is worth checking out:
For lunch, and only for lunch, I would high recommend going to the Zara Tapas restaurant. Even though it is part of a restaurant chain, it is a high-end chain with excellent food. If you go there for dinner each of the tapas dishes costs around $8-12 CDN so it is not a cheap endeavour. However, they have terrific lunch menus that are great value. For $650 Rupees ($13 CDN) you get an appetizer, main dish, desert and a fancy cocktail (note $650 Rupee is the Chennai-weird-extra-cost-at-bars adjusted price, on the menu it is only $369 Rupees). While I would hardly call the food Spanish tapas, the food at the place is a delicious Indian take on Tapas. I liked the food so much that I sought out the Kolkata branch of the chain a few weeks later:
The only thing that soured my afternoon was the end-point of my tour with the tuk tuk driver. At first, I thought that the driver was remarkably honest–tuk tuk drivers always want to take you to certain stores because they get a commission on anything you purchase. This driver told me straight up that if he could take me to a store, even if I don’t buy anything, he would get a coupon that he can use to get free gas. Because he was only charging me $8 CDN to take me around for two hours, I agreed to go to two stores so that he could get his coupons. However, as the tour progressed he started telling me about how he had a kid going to school and that he had to pay for his books and tuition the following day (in early November, sure). By the end of the tour he was being bold enough to demand $1000 Rupees instead of the agreed upon $400, so that he could purportedly pay for his son’s schooling costs. When I gave him $500 Rupees at the end of the tour he was visibly angry.
Which brings me to the third annoyance about Chennai. The tuk tuk drivers are notoriously dishonest and it is by far the hardest place in India to negotiate a fare. Lonely Planet goes so far as to advise people to take taxis instead of tuk tuks to save themselves the hassle. That being said, that night I did negotiate a good fee to get taken to a restaurant half-way across the city. It came out to about $20 CDN to be taken 20 minutes away and back, with the driver waiting for me while I ate dinner.
I went to a restaurant/bar named Downing Street which was supposed to have good food. When I arrived, I was told that they don’t allow single men inside (I have since encountered this rule in other establishments in India). I hypothesized that they don’t allow single men inside in order to avoid having droves of guys harassing the women (for example the monthly Besharem dance night in Toronto only allows men inside if they are with a woman explicitly for this reason). In any event, I managed to talk myself inside just by being persistent, though the effort did make me just want to eat and get the hell out as soon as possible When I went inside, I was baffled to see that yes, there were no guys sitting on their own at the bar or at a table, but there were several groups of men without any women in their party. As such, I have absolutely no idea what the rule is meant to accomplish. The restaurant didn’t look particularly remarkable so I did not take a picture. On the bright side, the bill inflation here was only 20-35%.