Chennai is hardly a tourist’s paradise. Chennai tourism isn’t extremely common because there aren’t a lot of sites to see honestly, but the people are friendly and the lack of infrastructure actually makes the city more interesting to those who aren’t especially focused on pre-approved tourist destinations. Chennai is a busy place that’s unmistakably Indian, though the locals themselves feel that their state (Tamil Nadu) is excluded from Indian politics in Delhi and they might be better off forming their own separate country.
We stayed in Chennai for two weeks in a vacation rental that was located in a pocket of paradise off a busy, chaotic street in the Pallikaranai neighborhood. We found the rental at AirBnB. I was really concerned when we first drove into the city. The streets were typical in terms of India; lots garage-stall-sized businesses built into cement bamboo structures with metal roofs. But back behind all the craziness, our apartment complex was in a guarded area surrounded on all sides by a large, mostly clean driveway. Inside the complex, things were relatively calm, though still unmistakably Indian to my American eyes.
Our vacation rental owner, Jay, was extremely friendly and helpful. He’d been back and forth between India and the United States many times as the employee of an IT company. His English was fluent and he understood western expectations. It was easy to communicate with him and he helped us find reputable drivers and whatever resources we needed while we were there. A person like Jay can make a big difference in how easy it is to get to see a city like Chennai in a short period of time. The whole vacation-rental-experience quickly gave us a more local perspective on the city than what we could have gotten from a hotel.
In the basement of the apartment complex, which was a parking garage, for example, a number of teachers gave young students lessons in various things like dance and martial arts. We saw one female instructor teaching young girls a traditional Indian dance in a car stall on the bare cement. Some little girls sat quietly with their legs folded waiting for instruction as the teacher watched and guided the other girls as they stamped their feet. Later in the week, a taekwondo lesson took place in a different car stall. A group of young students lined up obediently in their white uniforms on yoga mats. Sometimes in the evening, older women would take their seats on cement half-walls for a meeting of some kind. Families were out at all hours of the day and night doing things together in the common areas.
The weight room offered special hours for “women only”, which was something Lydian appreciated. Though, when she went to the gym during the hours when it was also open to men, the vibe was okay too. The men were polite and helpful to her, but not overly helpful. She liked her time in the workout space at the apartment. While she lifted weights, John and I circled the complex jogging.
There was a grocery store inside our apartment complex, but it was pretty small and basic. We did most of our shopping there nonetheless because the shop owners were so friendly and excited to have us as customers. John bought a big bag of produce every day for just a couple of bucks. A bigger grocery store was nearby, outside the complex and we’d walk there from time to time too…past the resident cows (a mother and her calf) and a variety of street vendors selling things like coconuts or fresh fish (laid out on a platform within inches of the street itself).
When we left the complex and walked to the left we had one experience: a lake with lotuses growing and ducks on one side, a variety of typical storefronts on the other. When we walked to the right, the street was wide, but filled with puddles here and there. Similar storefronts lined the street on both sides, but there was a temple not far away and some side streets leading off into the unknown with whole communities of people and who-knows-what.
Rickshaws tend to be scammy in Chennai or at least this is what we read before we got there. So we never took a rickshaw, but instead braved the city buses. Chennai buses were not nearly as edgy as buses we’ve taken in other countries. The bus stops were relatively easy to identify (once we’d seen one). The buses themselves filled up to capacity with people both standing and sitting as we neared the inner city, but then, they emptied out at the edge of town (a very typical experience). I’m sure the buses vary in terms of their traffic, but the experience was tolerable because the people were respectful toward us and helpful. The men (as a general rule…not a STRICT rule) sat on the right side of the bus, the women and children on the left. Payment was sent back to the guy taking care of such details, the money passing hand-to-hand from rider-to-rider. Change for a bus ticket in Chennai is returned to the passenger the same way.
As an American, the thing that would make it most difficult for me to thrive in Chennai for a long time is the lack of recreational activities. It wasn’t exceptionally easy to travel from the city of Chennai, India to places like Puducherry or Hyderabad for sight-seeing, althought the journey from Chennai to those places was interesting in itself (though not in any way relaxing). The trains were interesting. I totally recommend them! But if I were moving to Chennai for a long time, I’d probably hire a driver to take me from place to place, rather than wrestling with train time tables all the time and the uncertainties of train comfort (although our driver was pretty hard to communicate with and that could also get old). The other thing I’d have to figure out is food. We ate so many potatoes in Chennai that I almost don’t care if I ever eat a potato again. But our family is pretty picky about food. Other people in Chennai could probably enjoy the diversity of food available in India from a different restaurant every night of the week.
In summary, I would say that Chennai reminded me a lot of Nepal, especially Kathmandu. The people in both places were friendly and happy overall and the pace of things was a lot more laid back than in Delhi.