How to travel in Chennai with “City Eyes”

Afternoon shower, by the railway tracks

Chennai in all honesty, isn’t the easiest of all places to visit. Perhaps is my lack of knowledge of Tamil that makes the auto-wallahs unyielding and hard to bargain with, or it could be the crazy traffic, or the heat or maybe it’s just because I wasn’t there long enough.

Now Salman Rushdie, in his book Midnight’s Children introduces the concept of “city eyes”. He says that , “When you have city eyes you cannot see the invisible people, the men with elephantiasis of the balls and the beggars in boxcars don’t impinge on you, and the concrete sections of future drainpipes don’t look like dormitories.” In essence, this refers to the pair of eyes that see a city on it’s most superficial level – the shopping malls, monuments and perhaps poverty but omitting the finer details, such as the smiles of the inhabitants of the city and their way of live.

In my case, it took me two months to be in India before the “city eyes” dissolved. Only then, through the rush of Delhi traffic, I found myself having the patience and peace amidst the chaos out there to look at freshly washed laundry hanging in the on railings in between road dividers. I could notice droplets falling out of drainpipes and brightly coloured houses with laundry flying in the wind.

In Chennai, the “city eyes” never left me. Perhaps it was due to the immense torrent of sights, smells and heat that assaulted my sense. I had arrive from Kashmir, and the temperature difference was hard to cope with. What’s more, I was always on the defensive, fighting my way through things. Bargaining with auto-wallas, running through impossible-to-cross roads – where got time to notice drainpipes and smiles on the faces of children!

I spent my first two days going on day trips to small towns outside of Chennai. That is in itself, a story of its own. But Chennai thought me a few hard lessons, which I, as a supposedly well-trained traveller in India had quite stupidly missed out.

1. Learn the local language of the place before going. If you are going to use English, prepare to pay a higher price. All the auto-wallas were unyielding when I tried to bargain with them in English. That didn’t happen in North India, cos I was well verse in the Hindi numerals and used the very respected word, “bhaiya” (brother).

2. Road names are not what they seem. On my way back to my hostel on the first day, I alighted at a place called Ponamalle High Road. Thinking it was the road name of my hostel, I thought I could walk back from the bus stop. Following the shop numbers, I started walking like there was no tomorrow. After 1.5 hours of walking with no hostel in sight. I gave up and flagged an auto. Which brings me to the next point.

3. Remember the address of your lodging, if not, at least take the name card of the hotel. Oh god, on the first day when I tried to go back, I couldn’t remember the exact address of the hostel, except that it was on Pomanalle High Road. When I asked the driver, he told me that there were many parts of Pomanalle High Road, and asked me for the postal code. It was getting dark, and the only thing I could do was to whip out my smartphone and access the internet. That essentially cost me an additional SGD26.40 for 1MB. Oh gosh! If only I had took the name card.

4. It is unadvisable to wear skinny jeans in hot weather. After that 4.5 hour bus ride to Tiruvannamalai and back, rash started to develop on the back of my knees and also on my ankles.

6. If you are the toilet paper – dependent sort, please bring your own. I ran out of toilet paper on the 3rd day, and unlike the Delhi which has some easily accessible grand supermarkets, my search for toilet paper in Chennai was fruitless. Well I guess, it’s very possible as a matter of last resort to go and eat at a restaurant and help yourself to the tissue there.

7. Even though you see some bodies of young men hanging from the door of the bus, that does not necessarily mean that the bus is full. The bus could be empty inside, it’s just that these men wanted some fresh air.

8. It is very possible to hop up buses when the traffic light is red, to avoid walking long distances under the hot sun to a bus stop that is quite far away. I think you can only do this in India because the bus door is always open. That also, happens to be my greatest achievement of this trip. I spotted my bus, 15B zooming past me and there was no bus stop in sight. Naturally, the inner traffic-rule-breaker in me then ran past cars, cursing an auto-riskshaw that was blocking my way and hopped on the bus. I must say the passengers were quite surprised to see me.

9. Take public transport. The trains are good, just that there is a little long queue to purchase tickets, and the bus comes frequently. In my POV, the auto-wallas are just assholes.

I wanted to say that the police can be quite assholes too. But that is really quite beyond you and not within your control so it can’t be a tip. Basically I went to visit Fort St George on the last day. Some policeman, bursting with self-importance, ordered me to walk 1.5 km around the army barracks to reach the Fort, while the locals used the short cut which was about 500m in.

I tried to explain to him that it was too far, and he asked me to take an auto. Of course, at that point of time I was so pissed of with the drivers that I swear never to take an auto that day. I ended up walking 1.5 km to reach the fort, and it didn’t help that there was a bruise on my feet which made walking quite painful.

Just to prove a point, I entered the Fort from the main entrance – pretending to be interested in the Fort Museum/ church, but my goal was to essentially use the short cut back to the railway station – and of course prove a point. Lucky for me, I was rewarded because I had the chance to visit the St Mary’s Church, the oldest surviving church in India. I have been to a number of places of worship in India – Muslim dargahs and Sufi shrines, Hindu temples and Buddhist caves, but a church? Wow.

It’s really quite lovely, as sunshine falls through the shutters on tombstones that graced the courtyard. Statues have been erected in honour of lieutenants who passed away at sea – they look mostly like Sir Stamford Raffles. There’s a painting of The Last Supper up front and I accidentally rested my feet on the stool meant for prayers. My biggest regret is not staying for the service – I was there at 11.50am and there was a service at 1.30pm (Friday). There is also a service on Saturdays 4pm. (I went to a shopping mall instead, sadly giving in to the temptations of air-con and KFC.)

So that was my best memory of Chennai, along with taking the local train to the airport. It cost me RS6, and makes my blood boil to think the auto walla would charge me RS400 for the same trip. I am further peeved when I find out I can buy Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children with that kind of money.

And Chennai marks the end of my trip. It doesn’t have the beauty of Kashmir, or the historic monuments of Delhi, but I think if I stayed long enough, I will like the city. In fact, the sight of men in their short lungyis (in Yangon the lungyis were longer) and a cloth wrapped round their heads, and women in their elegant, brightly coloured saris made me think of photos of Singapore in the 70s found in my Social Studies textbook.

It’s like seeing historic Singapore with your own eyes.

The short lungyi. In case you are wondering, they wear shorts inside. I saw one bhai lifting his lungyi up to stuff money inside his shorts. It’s really awesome how they sit – note the bhai on the right is sitting without revealing his coffee shop (zao gening)? haha

Chennai india lady sari
As I said before, I think they saris are quite beautiful: ) But this lady is barefooted!
St George's Fort Chennai
I think this must say St George’s Fort. Some English would be good!
How to travel in Chennai
Flagstaff on land – rescued from a shipwreck
Chennai local train
How to travel in Chennai – Inside a local train
St Mary's Church chennai
St Mary’s Church – oldest surviving church in India
It is so rare to see churches in India.
St Mary's church chennal oldest
An oasis of peace
st marys church chennai statue
Risk sounding disrespectful, but this looks like St Stamford Raffles
st marys church chennai tombstone
They all start with the same line, “Here lies interred.”
chennai city straw houses
Straw houses by the road. Unlike the houses by the road in Delhi which have zinc roofs, these roofs are made of straw. I can see why. I am careful not to call them slums because I am not sure of the definition. They look like pretty solid houses.
chennai railway tracks
Railway tracks, my favourite.
Tirusulam Local train airport
Map of local train to the airport – Tirusulam. Very useful.
Ampa Skywalk mall chennai
Ampa Skywalk mall – my place of refuge.
KFC chennai
KFC, for the tired soul
15 min short cut that I was refused. Had to work for 45 minutes or more around the fort.
Clothes dropped!
Park railway station chennai
Rickety bridge to Park Railway Station. Quite strangely, I had to walk across the railway tracks to reach the platform. Being the kiaxi Singaporean I was, I glanced up every now and then to see if a train coming.
Eating at the airport canteen – 3 times cheaper than the airport restaurant with very nice chai.