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Chennai, India

27 Mar
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Marina Beach, Chennai

I planned from the beginning to stay in Chennai because I had the flight from here at 4:30 am. But I kept hearing that is not worth to visit or worse, in an unkind way, that is a dump. A lot of travelers stay actually in Mamallapuram, 2 hours away by bus, and take a taxi from there directly to airport.
Chennai is the fourth largest city of India and as it is expected after I saw Delhi is hectic, polluted and dusty. The traffic is intense that does not let you cross the street. I started to use the Saigon way to cross the street, only that the Indians are not so used with it and the traffic is also way more complex than the flow of motorbikes from Vietnam.
The Brits established a fort in Chennai that serves even today as the seat of the government from where the omnipresent Lady Chief Minister Jayalalyta oversees the state. It has also a relatively interesting museum with the history of the Fort and a church were many Brits found their spot for eternity. The Absolutely-No-Photos obsession was extended even here in the Fort but I walked around and shot a little, unfortunately not too interesting.
In a city spread on 70 sq. km the sights are far apart. I tried to walk to the High Court, that could be seen closely but it took forever and unfortunately could not be visited except on Sundays, So I started to haggle with the tuk-tuk drivers who are asking astronomical prices in Chennai but you can bring them to reason if you know the rate and I finally got one guy to bring me to Swami Vivekananda’s House, called the IceBox, a beautiful pink villa on the sea side, unfortunately closed on Wednesdays.
It was hot so I went on the beach, a stretch of sand so wide like I never saw before anywhere. I guess it should be around 400 meters or more to the sea, a beach of good sand.
I walked and shot on the sea shore the fisherman’s boats that were going out in the Gulf of Bengal. Lots of people were in the water and many more wanted to have their picture taken, so I obliged. Some were completely painted in red and I guess should be something related with Holi festival and they were getting in the gulf to wash off.
I was walking toward the south where is St Thomas church and the Hindu Temple that I planned to visit, when at one moment it started to stink. Sewage, refuse, shit and garbage. First I could not see anything till I realized that the beach, near the water, was full of shit. I thought that it was from animals till I saw it right in front of me and further away…..There were people defecating right near the water and waiting for the evening tide, probably, to do the flush. The smell was penetrating, raised by the breeze so I started to walk further away from the sea shore and then I saw for the first time the slum. I am reading in this trip Gregory David Roberts’ “Shantaram” whose action happens in a Bombay slum but one is to read completely protected in a posh environment a book, even so in depth described, and another is to be in it with all the olfactive senses triggered. The book really hits home.
There were tents made out of scrap, rests of cardboard, some pieces of plastic, reed and all tied together by strings. Inside or in front of that makeshift, that could be put down by a slow wind, were entire families, with many naked kids or in rags. In the middle was a river of sewage that was trickling down on the beach till it made a little pool that might be cleared hopefully by the tide. And everything was engulfed in this stench that probably here, on the beach, was way softer than in the sweltering Bombay. I felt guilty, like a voyeur of sadness and tragedy and I tried to walk away, maybe inside of me afraid of such appalling scene. There were few tents but behind them were the “cushy” makeshift slum houses made in the same way but a little sturdier. Behind them you could see a building site of a new high rise and St Tomas Church. When the building will be finished these people would be pushed away to find another spot where to live their misery for another short span of life.
I crossed the slum toward the church. The stench was allover and bombarding my senses from all direction and for a long time followed me. I was sure that somehow I stepped on something and carried it with me but it was always there, everywhere, and only far away after I went to the main Hindu temple and the Ramakrishna temple it faded but the wind was occasional bringing it back to remind me that those people are there as real, alive and human as me.
I tried to escape the reality and went to the regular motions of visiting St Thomas Church. Behind it is the tomb of Thomas the apostle, in a crypt underneath. It is recorded in history or legends that after he went with Christ, St Thomas went to India and he died here. Together with St Peter in Rome and Santiago de Compostella, these are the three churches built on the tombs of apostles. From there I walked to the Kapaleeshwarar temple, mentioned in history by Ptolomy. The temple was rebuilt about 300 years ago in Dravidian style being very atmospheric inside where deities can be seen deep in their temple lit by candles. I could visit the inside of the temples with no problem and even i could take all the shots needed outside. I continued to the Ramakrishna Mutt temple, the old temple built at the beginning of the 20th century that has a meditation chapel with the portraits of Rama Krishna, Swami Vivekananda and his Mother, whose statue is also on the first floor.
But in spite of the visits, the occasional stench coming with the breeze still reminded me of those people. I walked on the beautiful promenade of the Marina Beach, devoid of any places typical for such a location in the west: no beer and food tables, no roof top cafes, no frapuccinos. Kids were playing cricket or soccer on the beach. The sellers were positioning their carts to burn corn, or to sell ice cream from iceboxes, makeshift carts for a makeshift life.
Around 6:00 pm I decided to go and maybe to do some shopping in the bazaars and I ended up in a completely different world, so far apart from the slum people. It was a world of Movenpick, Lavazza bars, Swatches, Natuzzi front store, Van Heusen, Gabana.life and all the labels you imagine where a shirt cost would feed a slum family for a month. I ended up also at one mall, Express Avenue, built on a very large surface with Tissot and Rolex, Levis, Quinzo and Gloria Jean’s Coffee that was pumping Madonna on each floor. What world are we living in that we can have these two sides so close to each other? What lesson do we get? What karma do we accumulate, or they cleanse? Then I realized, a thing that in fact I always knew, that we travelers are never in contact with this affluent part of the Indian society. We roam the temples, sites, markets and traveler hotels and deal daily with bus and tuk-tuk drivers, talking mainly with peasants that barely know a word in English and occasionally we meet the slum people, begging to us a chance-less beg in a country of too many that forces our minds to render them invisible. Somehow, the world of Natuzzi cohabits with the world of the slum like we do with the poor of Harlem or from wherever, about which we know nothing. Each one in his own cage according to the level of comfort he could afford, oblivious that they others exist more than in the TV News.
I returned at the hotel to pack and check out. Chandra Park was a good choice recommended by Lonely Planet. It is actually a 24 hour check out hotel, that it means, only in India I saw this, if I arrived the previous evening close to 11:30pm I could officially stay till 11:30pm the next day, but they let me stay till I leave to the airport around 1:00 am. It served me well this time because my flight is at 4:30 am.
The waiter at dinner pointed to my shirt and I remembered again about the political gaffe I did today. All my shirts being dirty after such a long trip, forced me take a new T-shirt that I purchased, on which it spells Sri Lanka over some elephants. I was too immersed in my travel plans and oblivious for a moment of the serious row that happens right now between the Tamil population and the Sri Lanka government that conducts a genocide against the local Tamils in the island. The issue is so serious that in the morning it was announced the Lanka professional cricket players purchased to play for Indian teams will not to be used in the games played in Chennai in order not to create tensions at the game. I noticed on the way today that many people looked at the shirt and some asked if I am Sri Lankan, a possible look alike after 30 days in the Southern India sun but in the current political situation it was hard to explain that it was not a political statement but just the only clean shirt that I had….

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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Blog, India

 

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