Sunday, December 17, 2006

12.17.06, 8:00pm – Rain Tree Hotel, Chennai, India.

Back from another day of sightseeing. This time with Manickam and Anwar. Manickam arrived with a bunch of flowers as a gift. How nice. I like both of them. They are really cool people.

We headed out to do some more shopping as I wanted to get some silk. They took me to a place called City Centre. Guess what it was? Another shopping mall. Yay. This one was far more upscale than the one yesterday. We visited a few clothing stores then I had had enough.

Next we headed to and area of Chennai called T Nagar, which is the closest thing I've seen to what could be called downtown Chennai. It was easily the busiest part of the city I had seen yet. Crowds and crowds of people. Anwar claimed it was due to the Christmas shopping season. Um, aren't most of these people Hindus? Anyway, it reminded me a lot of Times Square in New York. The street was just jammed with cars, close to what should be 5 lanes in each direction.

The crowd at T Nagar.

We went inside into a store with so much silk it was mind boggling. Silk in so many different forms and colors I was frozen into place. Luckily my guides were able to ascertain my desires and led me to the proper place. Excellent service. I believe the counter guy would have kept showing me things until I keeled over.

Lunch was next, but only after we walked back to the taxi. Manickam says, "The taxi is across the street, is that ok?" Um, sure, why not? No big deal, right? Soon I realized why he asked; the taxi is on the other side of that very same street jammed with 10 lanes of crazy traffic, and we're about to cross it. Crosswalks? Pshaw. Waiting for the light? That's for suckers (and we'd probably still be waiting there). My street crossing adventures of the morning near my hotel were nothing compared to what I was about to do. We stood on the side for a few seconds, then, after checking to make sure I was ready, my guides led the way. There is nothing quite like standing between "lanes" 3 and 4 of traffic moving 20mph while waiting for a "gap" in the traffic so you can dart in front of a car into the next "safe" area. Cars whooshing by, motorcycles swerving to avoid you, and the ever present honk honk honking. I mean, I was standing in the middle of 5 lanes of oncoming traffic. Just breathtakingly insane. But no big deal for these people.

The view while crossing the street. I'm between lanes of traffic.

For lunch they took me to a westernized hotel called the Regency something or other, I think. The restaurant inside looked like the shopping area of a Vegas casino. The ceiling was painted the sky-and-clouds motif and the walls were made to look the outside of shops. If you’ve even been inside the New York, NY or Paris or Venetian casinos in Vegas you know what I’m talking about. Except I think this was supposed to look like an American city (not that New York isn’t American, but you know what I’m saying). Uncle Sam posters telling me to buy war bonds, faux vintage Texaco signs, you get the idea. The food was mediocre.

We piled back into the car and headed south. This time we went past Dakshina Chitra (yesterday’s historical stop) another 45 minutes into an even more remote area. The few remaining shops and semi-rural buildings finally giving way to flat coastal grasslands and bluffs and cows. Hey, it’s the ocean! And, hey, there’s a bus in our lane and it’s coming right at us! I hate to keep trying to describe the traffic, but when the freakin’ center line on a two lane highway is routinely ignored it tends to rattle me. What percentage of the US driving population is terrified of passing on a two lane highway? 75%? 80%? In India, it’s hovering close to zero. Just flash your headlights and move on over, straddle that centerline and if the car in the other lane has room on the shoulder, well, they’ll move over. If they don’t, well, just slow down a bit so you can sqeeeeeze on by at the cautious speed of 45 km/hr. But, Mr. Taxi Driver, is it really necessary to pull this maneuver on a two lane bridge with 1ft diameter posts where the shoulder would be?

It didn't help that as I was staring out the window I caught a glimpse of two twisted chunks of what I assume used to be vehicles about 15 yards from the highway. They were down the slope and behind the screen of some trees. It turns there was an accident there just a few days prior involving a bus with a capacity of 10 was carrying 14 people crashing headlong into a lorry (truck). After that I contented myself with taking in the sights and resigning myself to the thought that I probably didn’t want to see it coming.

Our destination was a touristy area called Mammalapuram with some really really old stone temples originally made in 700AD. The major temple in this area is called the Coast Temple. It sits amongst the sea breeze and ocean grasslands about 100 yards from the coast line. After wandering in this area for a while we left and drove about 5 minutes to another temple site. Most of the temples and statues in this area were carved from solid rock. Giant boulders up to 20ft high carved into temples with colonnades and pilasters and filigree. Both places had many tourists walking around and most of them Indian. My guides refused to leave until I had been photographed with nearly every statue, temple, and blade of grass.

In front of the Coast Temple

Before we left Anwar bought me a coconut from a cart and the seller chopped the top off, stuck a straw in it and handed to me. Mmmm…coconut water. When I finished he took it from me and with three or four expert chops with his large curved machete he exposed the flesh and carved it out. So this is what they’re eating in Survivor. I didn’t realize how little of the coconut is actually edible.

Back in the car to reverse the semi-terrifying drive, only this time, to increase the difficulty rating, we’ll be doing it in the rapidly growing darkness. Good times! When we got back into Chennai we hit some of the worst traffic I’ve experienced. I guess that’s what happens when your roads narrow and widen for no particular reason. I tried to get some good video footage of the craziness that is Chennai traffic. I got some decent stuff but it seemed that every time I hit stop something ridiculous would happen. For instance: A motorcycle speeding past our creeping taxi at at least 20km/hr and swerving through the nearly stopped cars. Or, a family of 5 on a motorcycle going by with dad driving, little bro and sis (they looked around 3 years old) in front of dad between him and the handlebars and big sis (roughly 8) between his back and mom at the rear. Damn but I wish I had caught that.

Now I’m back in the room and Chelsea has just tied their football match with Everton in the 52nd minute.

Back to work tomorrow.


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