There’s something both scary and exciting when you get off a plane in a strange foreign country, knowing you’re going to spend the next two years of your life here, whether you like it or not. The first thing that hits you is the humidity. Then, all your bags collected, you head into town and the next thing you notice is the traffic, which even at 2 am when we arrived seems like complete chaos, yet it somehow seems to move with a logic and a rhythm fully understood by the locals. The sights, sounds and smells over the next few days are exhausting, though you’re safely behind the glass of an air-conditioned automobile being driven by someone who does this for a living. But to really get a feel for what’s going on in this sprawling city of 8 million, you have to venture out on foot into the thick of things, in small portions at first but nevertheless you have to do it. Otherwise, you might as well study a place from books or from the internet – no need to actually go there.
The neighborhoods in Chennai all have a bit of everything, all mixed up and pell-mell. They all have different names known to the locals, so that if you tell a delivery person your street, they will insist repeatedly that you give your specific location – by which they mean your neighborhood. Each neighborhood has a “First Street”, or a “Second Main Road” and you walk 5 or 6 blocks and you’ll soon see a “First Road” and a “Second Cross Street” and you soon realize you’re going to need to figure out where each neighborhood begins and ends.
Our particular neighborhood is Raja Annamalaipuram, which everyone calls “R.A. Puram.” I’m not sure where it ends and begins, but I know we’re in it. So today I decided to take a walk around that neighborhood, camera in hand, and capture different sights which probably exist a hundred times all over Chennai – but they’re new to me. As you look at them, imagine the locals’ reaction to seeing a foreigner taking pictures of seemingly commonplace things in their neighborhood. What a sight I must make.
To start out, I stepped outside and noticed the neighborhood security guards had decorated the small Ganesha shrine set into a stone wall with hibiscus flowers. Can you spot the gecko?
A few more random shots:
You’ll see these carts up and down the street – they belong to street vendors. In the background, the clothesline is in what is essentially a vacant lot (but overgrown), and in that lot some people have set up improvised housing. This is what I mean when I say the neighborhoods are somewhat ramshackle; 400 meters down the street is what they call “Minister’s Housing”, and the area between is filled with street vendors, regular (but small) shops, and a canal I’ll mention later.
The woman in the photo below came riding along in traffic on her bike, and came upon 4 cows standing in the middle of crowded traffic, so she jumped off and started slapping the cows on the hindquarters to shoo them away. There are cows in the streets everywhere; where do they go at night? When I went running this morning in the half-light before 6 am, I heard a rooster crow nearby – looking up to my left, I saw someone looking out the window of a 2nd floor balcony; the rooster was standing on the rail of the balcony. At the time I wondered if the chickens are kept indoors?
The young guy standing in the photo above stopped me and asked me to take his photo. Then he looked at my (pretty fancy) camera and asked if I was going to sell the photo. I assume he wanted a cut. When I told him no, he shook my hand and introduced himself. Notice the “pickup truck” bicycle in the foreground – very handy to have. Behind me is the R.A. Puram train station, and the rail runs overhead (top left of photo). The whole time I was taking this photo I was pretty much holding my breath. The men are sitting on a bridge running left to right, which crosses over a canal that runs underneath, and it stinks to high heaven of sewage and is the color of filthy dishwater. To be blunt. But it doesn’t seem to bother these guys, nor does it bother the men who are sitting here every time I pass by – including at 6 am just after the sun has risen.
A bit further down the road is one of the small temples found all over. Mornings, someone is inside ringing a bell, praying or getting things set up. As I was walking by, a Mercedes pulled up and the passenger jumped out, went into the temple for thirty seconds, came back out, and they drove off. Presumably they were in a hurry to get somewhere, but she needed a little religion first. The photo below that is a close-up – notice the temple keeper peering out on the left side.
Finally, a couple of street vendors/entrepreneurs who graciously allowed me to take their pictures. The first one makes his living ironing clothes. There is no electricity; he uses one of those old-time irons you fill with hot coals (?). The second is a shoe repairman. He proudly explained he’s finishing a job on a pair of shoes that needed new soles. Where I come from, we just throw them in the trash…but here, it’s a way to make a living.
Tomorrow I’ll post about interesting views concerning home and building construction – what Westerners would call superstition. But this is serious business in southern India – hopefully you can check back in.