Saturday, January 12, 2008

Welcome to Chennai

Three hour flight to Washington D.C., three hour layover, 7 hour flight to Frankfurt, 3 hour layover, 8 1/2 hour flight to Chennai, one hour drive to hotel.  Sounds brutal, yes?  But it was fine.  I was well prepared.  I did a bunch of reading about nanosciences and engineering on the first two flights, got good and tired, then popped an ambien for the last flight to India.  I fell asleep immediately, and was surprised and pleased to wake up pretty well rested about five hours into the flight, which was just in time to watch a very strange Indian movie about a man running from the law, and to eat my fourth meal of boiled spinach, rice, and lentils (I've now had what seems like 64 such meals).

Off the plane in Chennai, and walking through the airport at about midnight, I was suprised at the overpowering smell of fresh plaster, and the clean, stark white walls of the airport.  Got my suitcase and emerged into the humid night, met by hundreds of Indians, maybe waiting for family, but mostly drivers hoping to take passengers somewhere for a few rupees, I think.  A friend said that when she arrived in Delhi last week, she got in a driver's car, and instead of taking her to her hotel, he tried to take her to his house, where he could charge her for staying, I guess.  She politely declined, then not so politely, and he eventually took her to a hotel.  Scary, in retrospect  But the institute arranged all of our drivers, assured us of our safety, so I found the sign with my name and went with the driver, no problem.  Maybe I should have been afraid, but I wasn't.  Giving up on the fear has been a practice for this trip, I think.

The taxi was old and diesel-powered, and Chennai is humid and polluted, so I immediately felt my lungs start to constrict and figured I was going to have an asthma attack.  Mostly I was struck with the surreality of it all.  I was tired, and excited, and amazed by the amount of debris in the road, the dozens of cows picking through the trash for food, the stray dogs with their ribs sticking through.  There are ads on every square foot of space here, too.  There are messages everywhere, though I can't read most of them.

And then there was the driving--the roads were relatively empty at that time of night, but that didn't make things less exciting.  Here is how driving works here:  the driver basically drives down the middle of the road, straddling the white lines, when there are white lines.  When a car approaches from the other direction, also straddling the white line, the two cars honk at one another and flash lights at each other until one finally calls chicken and gets the hell out of the way.  It's very exciting.

I see that I've made the mistake of getting too involved in the details because it's different from what I'm used to.  I'm like the person who insists on showing you six hundred pictures from their last vacation. 

At the same time, it is not as foreign as I had expected, somehow.  Everything is just a little different, but not a lot.

Then again, I haven't really escaped the hotel compound, which I call Fantasy Island.  More on that soon.


  1. i saw ur commets on is true. you heard of launching of car costing 2500 dollars on 10th this month at can accomodate 5 people.are u on visit to india or working here?u still here in india?my email is

  2. wow! just, wow. i've been meaning to ask you, what do you teach?

  3. Wow...have fun...Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, says this about Chennai: The city faces problems of water shortages, traffic congestion and air pollution. Sounds like you're not far from Denver at all.

    Of course it says a lot of good things, too....have fun, dude.

  4. I knew you were going, but I never asked why? Did I miss that entry?
    Are you trying to top my sabbatical- which has ended up turning into me becoming my mom's roommate in Rand McNally's "No. 2 city for retired living"- talk about death and meanness.
    I can 't wait to read all about your travels. Hopefully God won't come in the form of "the squirts".
    Love you.

  5. I've never learned so much from any other blog. Enjoyed reading this today.