Sunday, December 17, 2006

12.17.06, 10:15am – Rain Tree Hotel, Chennai, India.

I got lost this morning. I can hear my wife both groaning and giggling at me.

This morning I decided to wander the streets near my hotel to get a more personal experience of the shops and general street scene I’ve seen only from my taxi. I also wanted to buy some packaged fruit juice since my restriction on fruits at breakfast is starting to kill me. I walked one direction from the hotel and bought some juice at a standard issue street shop. Relatively uneventful experience with one exception: crossing the street. It’s mayhem and requires complete awareness. The first time I tried it I noticed an Indian man about 10 meters away trying to cross the same way. I just tagged along with him and walked when he walked. The next time I tried it myself and was nearly run down by a tuktuk. After that near miss I kept imagining myself lying in the street with a broken ankle which then caused the words from the Travel Doctor in Oakland to start running through my head, “If urgent medical care is needed, every effort should be made to get to Singapore”. Let’s be careful out there. As such, I no longer walk on the side of the road in the direction of traffic, I cross over to the “wrong” side of the road and walk there. It is so much easier to deal with insanely piloted vehicles of uncertain trajectories when I can see them coming. Walking with the traffic is just too crazy. Beep beep from behind and you’d better immediately make every effort to move over to the left (yes, the left, they’re backwards over here) or at least hold your exact course, hope for the best, and be ready for the brush of the handlebar on your elbow.

A tuktuk. How embarrassing to be run over by one of these, huh?

Having acquired my juice I walked by to my hotel after successfully remembering to make the turn on to the correct street.

There is not much here to distinguish one street from another and there are no, and I mean NO street signs. I really don’t know how people know where they are or what street they’re on. Alley, alley, side street, side street, alley, hey the cab is turning onto this side street. How did he know that was the right turn to make? I have no earthly idea. I know that part of it is living here and driving a cab for a living, but, really, what about people who move here from Bangalore or Delhi? How do they know how to get around? There is definitely something navigational in the culture I’m not picking up.

Full of navigational confidence, and being under no particular time constraints, adventuresome spontaneity takes hold and I walk past my hotel and down to the next major cross street. That’s where the Park Sheraton is and I’ve heard it’s quite swanky. It’s by far the biggest building in the area. It sits at a kind of crazy intersection (5 or 6 streets all intersect in the general area) with some busy street stands and shops clustered nearby. My curiosity not yet satisfied, I roam further down one of the streets. More shops, many still closed, probably because it’s a Sunday morning. I turn around and start walking back. I take some photos, admire some stuff, smile at some people, feel slightly self-conscious walking past the group of men clustered in front of a street café (and I’m a guy), and am generally distracted. After walking for about 10 minutes I realize, hey, I don’t remember that building. And I certainly would have remembered that shop over there as it’s painted bright blue and the entrance is adorned with bright orange flowers. I think I took a wrong turn. Great.

I walk a bit further just to be sure but, really, at this point it’s pretty obvious; either I was asleep on the walk out and missed all of these shops and stalls or I went the wrong way. I’m lost in Chennai! I’m lost in Chennai! Eh, well, despite the complete lack of navigational aides available to me, there are far worse places to be lost on foot. Like East Oakland. Here I am in a relatively safe environment (except for the traffic), I have so many freaking tuktuks at my disposal it’s silly, I have the hotel’s business card in my wallet (thanks to Dave for that tip) and, if all else failed, I’m sure I could just ask someone for directions. I opt for none of the above and instead turn around and walk back the way I came. Soon I realize that, while distracted by the group of men earlier I walked past the road I was meant to take. I took it this time and was shortly back at my hotel. Crisis averted.

Women selling flowers.

Some random thoughts for no reason:

- Somehow the broken glass they use on top of fencing and walls is even more menacing than barbed wire. They stick it business end up into a top layer of mortar. There is an elegant brutality in its simplicity and there is no mistaking its message. Bravo on the nice reuse of materials, too.

Keep out.

- I just cannot get used to moving over to the left when passing someone on foot coming the other direction. I don’t know how many funny stares I got in the mall yesterday as I moved over to the right and ended up having to cram myself between the person and the wall as they confusedly got out of the idiot westerner’s way.

- My wife would really like the design of this hotel. Out front is a curtain waterfall falling into an infinity pond with floating blossoms. Inside, light-colored marble floors meet frosted glass wall panels with brushed nickel fixtures that accent and offset the warm wood tones of the walls and furniture. Modern light fixtures, clean lines, simple but elegant furniture, she would really dig it. Even the bathroom sink is essentially a big white bowl atop a wooden table (with a drain and all that, too, not just a basin). Top all of that off with its sustainable business practices (it’s an “Ecotel”) and it’s almost like she designed it herself.

- On the flight to Singapore, just before we landed, they handed out the immigration forms. Down at the bottom it says, in bright red block lettering, “Smuggling drugs into Singapore is punishable by death”. Um, wouldn’t the time to tell me that be BEFORE I got on the plane with all of my illegal drugs? Thanks for the info but we’re about to land and now it’s too late for me to do anything about my stash. That is, if I were smuggling drugs.

- The coffee here is good. But the flavor seems to change by the day, if not by the cupful. I swear, my first cup this morning was light and flavorful (if just a bit too watery) and the next cup was dark and sweet and thick as syrup. It’s tasty though and one of my favorite parts about breakfast.

- Sometimes I feel like I’m backpacking. And not the staying in hostels backpacking but backwoods backpacking. I think it’s the combo of walking around smelling like mosquito repellant all day and brushing my teeth using a bottle of water.

- My testers do not drink enough water. I didn’t see them drink hardly anything or go to the bathroom all day yesterday.

- I went downstairs to the lobby yesterday to exchange some traveler’s checks (or cheques, if you prefer European flavours and colours). They didn’t have any 500Rs notes so they gave me a stack of 100s (100Rs = ~$2.30, so don’t get all excited). It was a bundle like you see in the movies, with the rubber band around it and everything. I felt like a drug dealer or some sort of hotshot about to hit the town in Vegas. How am I supposed to walk around town with this thing? Between my digital camera and my fat wad of cash I might as well hang a sign on my neck that says, “rob me!” Even the most well-behaved society has their moments of temptation and weakness, no?

That’s all for now. The car has arrived and Manickam and Anwar (my Navis India testers, as opposed to the CTS testers I’ve been hanging out with to this point) will be here shortly. Time for more explorations of Chennai.


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