Welcome to Incredible India.
Arriving in Chennai, India, we really had no idea what we would be up against and the nervous tension pre-arrival was palpable. We didn't know where we were going, how to get there, or even how long we would spend there. All we did know, was that we booked a one way ticket from Bangkok with no plan other than going to the Holi Festival in Vrindavan/ Mathura. The festival date varies every year, per the Hindu calendar, and this year, on the 23rd of March, we booked a room for the entire week-long festivities.
The Cow Pen at a Temple
Doubtful About India
So what do you do and where do you go when you know little to nothing about India? We found quickly, it wasn't easy. Simply getting money from an ATM at dark, in Chennai's Airport proved time consuming and frustrating. We did however have one thing on our side. Nearly everyone in India's cities, speak some English. I'm not going to lie, that evening sitting in our musty hotel room, I began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into.
No matter what you have in your head about India, simply dissipates when you arrive and hear, see, smell and feel what it's like to be there. It's an immediate assault on the senses, a perfect place for someone like me with a tad of A.D.D. Sensory overload almost makes it hard to process at times. And Chennai was no different.
Taking a Tuk-Tuk Tour
Tuk-Tuk Tour of Chennai, India
Taking an auto-rickshaw (or tuk-tuk as they are sometimes called) can be an incredible way to see the City. The small roads and congested traffic is best left to a small vehicle with questionable suspension. A kidney jarring tour of the city only costs you about 300 rupees for a couple of hours. No clue if this is a good price or not. But when we do the math, it comes to about 5 dollars US.
We hoped in a tuk-tuk with a guy named Wajid who is Muslim and from Chennai. We wanted to check out some coffee shops and he took us to the most commercial of coffee shops in India called "Cafe Coffee Day". This is a national chain found everywhere in India. We got ourselves a nice coffee shake and sat there for a while drinking it before hopping back in the tuk-tuk and going to the next place Wajid wanted to take us.
St. Thomas Cathedral
St. Thomas Cathedral
The next place he took us was St. Thomas' Cathedral. Southern India in particular has a strong Christian following along with Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. St. Thomas the doubter, an apostle of Jesus was killed and buried right here in Chennai. And yep, we got to see the tomb. One of only 3 places in the world you can see an apostle tomb. One in the Vatican , one in Spain, and here in Chennai. Other than that, the cathedral was nothing special as far as Catholic Cathedrals go. We sat inside the cathedral for about 3 minutes before we started to feel our skin burning and we left.
Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple
There are also many notable Hindu Temples in town.The Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple, a colorful Dravidian-style temple dedicated to Shiva, established in the 7th century & later rebuilt. The 10,000 statues representing the 1000 stories of Lord Shiva, as we were told from our shifty tip-pandering guide, were being re-painted. The huge 120 foot pyramid like gate was covered in tarps and scaffolding, made of tree branches and rope.
Free Temple Tour!
As we go there, we were told we had to tour with someone from the Temple. That doing it alone was not allowed. (Found out later that wasn't true) Our driver found a guide (maybe a cousin of his) who showed us around the temple and explained significances of everything. He made it clear he "worked for the temple" and that it was free to take his tour. It was actually pretty nice to have him, as he told us a lot we would have never found out if just wondering around.
Our "free" guide
Paying Through The Nose for the Free Tour
We walked around with the guide for about an hour, then he asked us how much we would like to "donate" to the temple. Shocked he was asking for money, we offered 5 dollars. He looked at us and said "oh... people usually give 20" We could tell we were simply a walking dollar sign to this guy and handed him the 5 dollars equivalent of rupees and said it would have to do. He then walked with us a little longer and asked for a tip. I tipped him a little, then he turned to Shelly and asked for a tip from her. We didn't oblige and ended up telling the tour guide we no longer needed his assistance. We walked around some more and snapped some pictures and headed back to Wajid to take us out of there.
Another Free Temple - this one really was
He took us to another temple that was free after explaining to Wajid our displeasure with paying so much for our free tour. We walked around the Ramakrishna Temple grounds and noticed how different it was from the previous temple. More modern and quiet. Not full of tourists or hawkers trying to get you to buy tours etc. It was nice to hang out quietly in the gardens and get some reprieve from the heat of the south. It was getting late and we asked Wajid to get us some food.
Gandhi Statue Near The Beach
Our First Real Indian Meal
The city also offers great Southern Indian Food. Spicier than their countrymen to the north, the pride of Tamil Nadu (Chennai's State) is Dosas. No we didn't have one. We did however buy our tuk-tuk driver Wajid, a lunch at a local eatery whose food was delicious. We asked Wajid to bring us to a place he would eat if we wanted a good meal at a restaurant, and he took us to Hotel Faro in the City Center. Authentic southern curries and naan were on our menu, and Wajid ate some Biryani. We spent about 6 hours with Wajid and saw a good part of the city including the neglected beach areas with their fish markets and vendors and a statue of Gandhi in front of the state police building by the beach. (which was filthy)
Sim Card Hell
We also tried to get a sim card for our phones. Wajid helped us at the local Idea shop and they said it would take a couple weeks to get us signed up. Wajid sold us his sim card instead after we declined to wait in Chennai two weeks to get phone service. It worked and we were glad to get some internet on our phones to book rooms and use Google Maps to see where we were going. Getting cell service in India is hard to say the least. We later found that to be true every city we went to. Getting one "gifted" or sold to you is illegal and they end up not working later on when the cell company gets wise to it. Usually easiest to get them on the black market this way however.
A River In Chennai (or sewer?)
Change In Perspective
Chennai was a great place to get our feet wet in the ocean that is India and allow us to slowly acclimate to not only the heat, but the culture of India. We would need it... next stop Delhi. What we realized was how dirty India is. There is nothing to prepare you for this. We passed by a river that you could have walked across due to the pollution. It's overwhelming at first. Some might think it's too much. Others might wonder how we can just arrive without a plan.
Getting to a foreign country without a plan of where to go or how to do it however, leads to the excitement we desperately seek. It's good stress. Stress is working a job 40 hours a week, with two weeks vacation year, in a position you aren't particularly fond of. Stress is worrying about bills and getting sick and dying. The "stress" of travel is different. It's new and although you feel anxiety, it's a different type of anxiety. We enjoy this about travel. To feel this nervous excitement and wonderment of what is to come, is why we do what we love doing... travel.