By Mary Kay Seales
“In 2015 Chennai was named the “hottest” city (worth visiting, and worth living in for long term) by the BBC, citing the mixture of both modern and traditional values.”
What were they thinking?
I don’t like to diss any place that is not my home because I am a visitor. How can I be critical, as an outsider? It seems completely disrespectful.
But do I have to love every place I visit?
I lived in Chennai for 5 months in 2011, and found it to be one of THE most chaotic places imaginable. A slow moving river polluted to the max runs through the city, its air quality, zero on most days of the year, and traffic insanity that has to be seen to be believed. The “hottest” city worth visiting? Hot, yes! But “hot”? I don’t think so. Just my opinion, of course.
Here’s another surprising statistic: “Chennai attracts 45 percent of health tourists visiting India, and 30 to 40 percent of domestic health tourists. As such, it is termed “India’s health capital.”‘ Yikes! Just walking into the local grocery store was like walking through a fertilizer factory – I had to hold my breath and get my items fast. Take that quote about the health capital with a grain of salt.
I wish I were exaggerating. Actually, I loved India in the way that everyone loves India. It is an entire world unto itself. It shocks you. It slaps you upside the head. It changes you. But to call Chennai the hottest city worth visiting is a bit of a stretch in my book. Just saying.
Many people in Chennai were very poor, desperately so, living along the banks of that polluted river on massive piles of trash, or in the shanty town strip along Marina Beach, entire families in small makeshift houses of cardboard or whatever was at hand to construct a dwelling.
But Chennai also has a large middle class and a thriving ex-pat community. I met and had dinner with a couple who had lived in my city, Seattle, Washington, for their graduate studies, after which they chose to move back and build their home in Chennai. They had designed and built a beautiful modern home.
But! It was situated at the end of a road thick with mud, and it bordered on a mosquito-infested swamp. It took me about two hours to travel the 30 miles from my neighborhood to theirs in rush hour traffic. A real bloody nightmare.
Chennai used to be called Madras, but the name was changed in 1996, part of the purging of Anglicized names left over from their colonial past. Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta is Kolkata, and so on. The population of Chennai is over 8 million, almost 27,000 people per square kilometer. It is located in South India in the state of Tamil Nadu on the eastern coast. The predominant language is Tamil. The major religion here, Hindu.
The only means I found to escape the madness of Chennai when I lived there were my daily walks to Marina Beach, a sandy stretch of coastline along the Bay of Bengal on the edge of the city in the neighborhood of Mylapore, where my apartment was. The market area of Mylapore is also home to the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, another place I escaped to in the evenings to get away from the madness and chaos of the streets.
But I wasn’t the only escapee at Marina Beach everyday. It was an evening ritual for many others as well, and on the weekends, the beach took on a carnival-like atmosphere for families, lovers, teens, and out-of-place foreigners like me. As the sun set, the wide expanse of sand was transformed into food kiosks and rides and carnival games.
On weekday mornings, Marina Beach was relatively calm, a few fisherman with their boats, the shell man, the horseback riders. Unfortunately, because of the pollution, and the strong currents, and the fact that this beach was bordering a village with no running water, I was told not to swim there. People played in the waves, but my Indian colleagues told me in no uncertain terms not to go in. Something about leishmaniasis.
I had to content myself each day with sitting on the sand and watching the sun go down.
There are so many reasons to visit India, and most people I know have loved their travels there. I had the opportunity to visit other cities in India, some quite like Chennai in their choking air pollution and out-of-control chaos. But others were lovely and charming – charming in the sense that you fell under a spell. Incredible Hindu temples, and temples within temples, statues of Hanuman and other dieties, wild monkeys, lush vegetation and the strikingly beautiful women in colorful silk saris.
I’m certainly not the first one to say that India is an enigma for outsiders. Maybe for insiders as well:
“Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.” ― Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger
I had thought I was a bit worldly before visiting India. I had lived in other countries, as a Peace Corps Volunteer on two occasions. I felt I had a grip on adapting to other cultures and lifestyles, and that I couldn’t possibly suffer culture shock, no matter where I went.
But everyday in Chennai was a challenge for me.
In the end, I have to thank God (and all 33 million Hindu deities) for Marina Beach, my respite from the chaos of Chennai and my way to connect with India’s lovely people.
Great Reads by Indian Authors:
White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee
Mary Kay Seales is a travel writer and photographer, and also teaches writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the owner of Closing the Circle: Copywriting that Connects, which specializes in marketing materials for the travel industry. Visit her website at http://www.marykayseales.com