The “Joys” of Chennai

The world in which we live today is awash in positivity. That is to say, any time we turn on the TV, open Facebook, or talk to a friend or colleague, we only get half the story – the good half: newborns and new homes, thoughtful articles and funny memes, and inspiring pictures or tales from far-flung travels. What we’re spared is the mundane, depressing, or disappointing. For all those smile-inducing pictures and memes, there are just as many negative things that go unposted or unsaid. What follows here is such a story. My aim is not to whine about an experience I can only be described as lucky to be having, nor is it to cast aspersions on a place and time that turned out to be informative, if nothing else. My intention here is to describe our time in Chennai, India, in as true a light as possible so that those reading can be reminded, as I remind myself, that, like the rest of life, travel isn’t always the triumphant summit poses and indelible smiles it’s nearly always made out to be.

By the time we reached Chennai, we’d been traveling five months, ten days, 14 hours, and some odd minutes. To say we were looking forward to some stasis after many months on the move would be an understatement. Jenna was excited about starting a month of volunteering with Unite for Sight and I was amped to see what kind of work I could manufacture on the fly in Chennai. We didn’t choose Chennai, it chose us, and to put it kindly, the place doesn’t have a lot going on, especially for the biggest city in southern India – the second biggest country (by population) in the world. But we were buoyed by the news that we’d be able to live together at her volunteer placement, a fact that didn’t seem possible until just days before we arrived. This was really the saving grace to a month that started off enthusiastically, but was dealt many a blow, and by the time we finally moved on, we were left feeling like a bruised and battered fighter who’d survived all 12 rounds, if only barely. Most of our destinations so far have had their share of disappointments, but this last month in Chennai was nothing short of excruciating.   

Our time in a suburb of the city formerly known as Madras, certainly began in a painful way – dull, unrelenting, something is seriously wrong in my body pain, that is. I woke up on our first day there with some of the most severe neck pain in memory, apparently at the hands of a pillow that was closer to a pancake than a cloud. Being nearly incapacitated for two weeks was the most appropriate way to start this sufferfest in South India. This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such pain – five years earlier, I awoke to a pain so severe that I went to the most reputable clinic in Pohnpei (grain of salt for reputable…this was Pohnpei, after all) to have a CAT scan and X-rays taken. They found nothing conclusive and suggested I had minor bone spurs in my neck, prescribing a healthy dose of neck rolls and more neck rolls. Faced with a similar level of discomfort here, I employed said rolls and was rewarded with the most modest of incremental gains to my pain such that, two weeks later, I was able to move my head 30 degrees with tolerable pain…much better than the 0 degrees of movement with which I was blessed when I awoke that fateful first morn. Yet the physical pain was but a flesh wound compared to the emotional turmoil that would follow the very next day.

Again, it was the morning. Not just any morning – the morning of November 9th. I awoke to a BBC push notification that early signs were pointing to a closer than expected election. I went back to sleep, assuming the headline to be only an attention grab. By the time I woke up a couple hours later, all shit had hit the fan and the pixelated faces I watched streaming ever-haltingly on my chromebook via NBC News were in full-on freakout mode. The shock I felt was significant, but I had been following the campaign close enough to know that the chances of this happening were real – maybe 2:1. Still, the knowledge that it could happen did little to allay my despair when it did happen. All those phases of grief: the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, will likely take a full four years to work through and will harden my resolve to work my tail off educating the future of our nation to be more empathetic, tolerant, articulate, respectful, humble, and basically everything the president-elect is not. If nothing else, trump’s electoral college victory pried open my eyes to the world that exists as it is, in all of its ugliness, rather than the world my privilege had allowed me to believe in. However, this was little consolation for the disappointment and disillusionment and disgust and straight up dis to our world view that engulfed us and helped to defined our time in Chennai.  

Already beleaguered by a physical pain pulsing from my upper back to the base of my skull, and by a type of emotional pain that threw my view of the entire universe into question, I walked out the door to begin my volunteering in Chennai only to be saddled with yet another sort of pain: financial pain. Walking up to the auto (tuktuk style taxi) driver, he just shook his head no, when I tried to hand him a 500 rupee note. As it turns out, the day after we had arrived, the “controversial” and “polarising” prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, took 90% of the country’s cash (all 1000 and 500 rupee notes) out of circulation. The demonetization was done for the purposes of ridding the country of its “dark money problem” (black market money) that is supposedly a part of the reason India has had such trouble developing. Despite the good intentions behind this, it made the 20,000 rupees ($300 USD) we had taken out the bank just days earlier obsolete. We went to every local bank we could find, waiting in line for many hours at a time, only to be told time and again that we could not change our money. First, there was a problem with the computer system, then another bank said I couldn’t change money using a tourist visa; those two trips alone took seven total hours and caused me to miss my first day of volunteering…for nothing. We weren’t the only ones afflicted by this, as all billion+ Indians the subcontinent over had to wait countless hours in line to change a maximum of 4000 rupees (only $60!) per day. At one point, we were down to having less than 300 rupees ($5) to work with. After much searching and many credit card denials, we ended up finding a grocery store and restaurant that accepted our credit card (so we could eat) and had the doctor Jenna was working with change some of our money for us (so I could commute to and from my volunteering).

After a month of utter discomfort, our final hurdle to escaping the Alcatraz of Chennai was one final painful forestaller: the pain of death. The death of the recently elected chief minister (similar to a state governor) on the day we planned to board a train the F outta dodge caused a closure of all state run services (and most private services, as well), thereby yanking the e-brake just as we were about to floor it to the next province over. We ended up waiting an extra day in purgatory – eating two meals of Maggi (Ramen) noodles, paying 67% more for our tickets than we should have, and were rewarded with the hardest wooden plank seats in history for this 8-hour train to Bangalore. But…we out! We’d made it!! The month was over and the world was now our oyster, once again!!!

This isn’t to say that our month in Chennai didn’t have a few silver linings and favorite moments. Like that time Jenna and I each killed a mosquito at the same time. That was awesome. Or that time I grabbed a mosquito out of the air with my bare hand, left handed, mind you, Mr. Miyagi style. All my practicing paid off with that one. Or that one night, when we managed to actually keep the ninja-sneaky mosquitoes out of the bedroom. Wow, I must have slept for at least four hours straight. I jest, because my volunteering, despite having its share of snafus, turned out to be a pleasant surprise and left me wishing I could have done more of it. I met some really friendly and interesting people there and would definitely recommend volunteering with Chennai Volunteers if you’re ever in the area. And a few days before leaving, in what was undoubtedly the most fun we had there, we met up with our trekking friends from Nepal, Thomasz and Aga. Wandering the city’s main temple with them and then going to a speakeasy for drinks turned our bleak time in South India a rosier shade of disappointing.

So that’s my report. I wouldn’t recommend trying to recreate this part of our round the world trip, what with the crippling neck pain, the election of a 4-year old to lead the free world, the crumbling of the Indian financial system, and a government shutdown the day we were trying to leave, and all. There were more things I could add to the list, many more (overpriced tuk tuks, getting lost every time I went to a new school to volunteer, sky high rent, Jenna’s oftentimes boring volunteering, her developing a severe and persistent cough that I eventually also caught, I could go on…), but I’ll leave that for another day. After a 12-day vacation (yes, it felt like a vacation from our…um, vacation) in beautiful Oman, we’re already back in India and are now adept at avoiding cow shit in the streets, telling the touts to bugger off, and ignoring the squaller that’s ubiquitous in this country that we, for whatever reason, decided to spend another month in. Northern India, here we come!  

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