Thursday, March 25, 2010

Welcome to India

As it turns out, Vietnam was perfect preparation for our visit to India. As readers of our blog know, we didn't find things to be very easy in Vietnam. Buying bus or train tickets was difficult, it was impossible to not get ripped off by taxi drivers, even finding decent, non-touristy food, and getting what we ordered (or wanted) was not always possible. So, the bar of expectations was pretty low when we boarded our flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Chennai, India.

Our flight went through Singapore and we had a wonderful seven hour layover at the Singapore Airport. Wonderful because the airport was clean, we could drink the water from the water fountains, there was cheap food and free wifi. We also visited the post office in the terminal and mailed back 13 pounds of stuff we didn't need to carry around anymore.

We landed in Chennai and passed through customs without a problem (we lucked out being non-Indian as our flight was 90% Indian and "foreigners" had their own customs line at the airport). We had arranged to couchsurf in the southern part of Chennai and after a harrowing ride in an unregistered taxi (at one point I tried rolling the window down and found the door handle instead, but was able to hold on and not fall out) we arrived after midnight.

As usual with couchsurfing, our host is wonderful. She's an American from Connecticut, recently living in Vermont and Colorado before moving to Chennai with her three year old son last year to teach middle school at the American International School. We had fun playing with her son Elijah. Well, at least he had fun. I was mostly a prop (okay, I had fun too):
From Chennai
The reason we started our India tour in Chennai is because when I was working at Keynote Systems in Seattle, I worked closely with a development and support team in Chennai. I'd met two of the people from the Chennai team when they came to Seattle for a visit, but unfortunately one of them was in California for training and the other works in the Bangalore office now. However, I did meet the rest of the team, all of whom I had never met in person.
From Chennai
The office is located in an office park in southern Chennai and illustrates the incredible contrasts that have come to represent modern India. Inside the office park you'd think you were in any other corporate office park in America (complete with security that seems to exist more for show than for real security). Outside, however, is another story. The streets are lined with small shops and run-down buildings and are clogged with rickshaws, motorcycles, cars and buses. Even the train station right next to the office looked abandoned and as if it had been bombed.

About 40% of the people in India live on $1 a day, and wandering around Chennai there is evidence of poverty everywhere. Yesterday we took a walk down to the beach (supposedly the second longest beach in the world) and were amazed at the living conditions of people along the water:
From Chennai
During our three days here (be sure and look at all our pictures to see what we did while here), there have been moments when Chennai seems like a modern, cosmopolitan city, but then we'll pass piles of garbage in the streets or catch the strong whiff of urine to remind us that India is still quite a poor country. It will be interesting to see more of the country and visit some less urbanized areas (although even "small" towns here can have close to one million people). Our planned itinerary is to basically head south along the east coast until we get to the bottom of India, then head north along the west coast through Kerala and Goa until we reach Mumbai. We might also take a detour to Bangalore depending on our time and interest. From Mumbai we'll determine how much further north in India we want to go. Here is a map of southern India which we'll update with the places we stay as we go along:

View World Trip in a larger map
Tomorrow, we're catching a bus to the town of Pondicherry (Puducherry), a seaside town with a strong French influence. The bus station we leave from has its own wikipedia page (found while trying to figure out how to take the bus) which says that at 37 acres it's the largest bus terminal in Asia. In many areas it seems, India is all about extremes.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read "Life of Pi"? It (well, the opening) is set in Pondicherry.

    Interesting photos of Chennai. We talk about the gap between upper and lower classes in the US, but it's nothing compared to what you see there.


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