ben vandgrift · on living the dream

from the subcontinent

so for the past couple of weeks i've been in sunny chennai, india. sunny, as the avg temperature while i've been here has been 104°.

i don't really know where to start. the thing that most recently occurred to me as i was washing my hands was 'what does it mean to be clean here?'. the water is not drinkable, carrying bacteria which will make me quite ill. when i wash my hands, i transfer them to my hands. someone truly ocd would pull their hair out here.

i haven't had any regular transportation, since you can't rent a motorcycle, there's no way i'm driving a car, and the Madras Club, where i'm staying, is far enough from the nearest taxi stand or auto-gathering corner that walking it is pretty rough. i could call in a car, but after work it's always dark, so there's nothing to see really. i can't go to most nightlife events as i am a single male and won't be allowed admission, and i neither speak the local language or have anyone to show me around the kinds of places i'm likely to want to frequent.

combine this with an illness that befell me a few days after i arrived and is only letting up now that i'm nearly gone.

i'm not trying to complain, just explain why i haven't been out to see the country, or driven down to the temples, or anything of the kind. it's a work trip, and two days off in a row isn't something that actually happened. i've seen quite a lot of the madras club, the lister offices, and the road between the two, but i've done little else.

so if there's a lack of photos, i apologize.

that said, wandering around these places has been interesting. on a couple of days i did quite a bit of walking (dehydrating myself to a dangerous level), and via shopping excursions with vijay, have seen most of the town. i was warned about the culture shock, but i don't feel it. i think if i knew the language and the map i'd get along just fine.

every weekend when i head downtown, at least one bum asks me for money. didn't happen here but once, even though i am clearly a rich foreigner. no one has tried to rip me off, or even really hassled me. indians (at least in this part of the country) are by and large non-committal, and they have solved most of their coordination problems.

a prime example: traffic is a joke. there are lanes, stop lights, stop signs, no u-turn signs, streets, and even sides of the road but on one cares. you just go, and somehow it works. bearing in mind most of these folks are on motorcycles, bicycles, and tiny little cars. the traffic is slow-moving, crazily crowded, and hectic, bit it isn't dangerous. everyone gives everyone else as much space as they can while getting where they're going—it turns out this isn't very much space, but it's enough to make the whole system work.

the roads are shit, and the cars all have little dents, but despite spending probably 20 hours on the road, generally in rush hour and through some really nasty intersections, i didn't see a single traffic accident. coordination.

we think the government in america is corrupt. HAHA HAHAHA HA HAHA HAHAHA.

the food here is good, if not widely varied. it generally consists of some kind of gravy, and some kind of bread. the contents of the gravy vary widely. the bread, not so much. there are also a few rice dishes. the locals eat with their fingers, and rinse their hands in a bowl afterwards, or visit a small washroom—which generally only contains a sink. see earlier question about clean.

you can't drink the water. duh. this adds all kinds of other complication: you can't rinse your toothbrush in the sink. you can't have drinks with ice. you can't open your mouth in the shower. be careful when you shave. etc.

i have never felt so privileged to be able to get clean water out of a tap. that one little thing i will likely never take for granted again.

prices for things are mostly the same. gas is around $4/gal. clothes, phone airtime, etc is all the same. food is a little bit cheaper, but the drinks aren't.

all the women dress the same. this is disconcerting. imagine if every female in lexington always looked like the dress girls, all day, every day. that same look, maybe with a little color variation. either the traditional sari (rare) more more commonly this two-piece dress arrangement i don't know how to describe, with a scarf pinned to it. i never realized how much i tell people apart by their clothing styles.

(i lie .. i saw a few ladies dressed in western clothes, but there less than two dozen that i saw the entire time i was here, and most of those were at the hotel and were clearly foreigners.)

the software developers here (this is actually a work trip) are either fiercely creative, or are afraid to name a variable without help. this is a problem, and one i'm pretty familiar with. we have both kinds. i'm trying to turn the second kind into the first kind, but it's not the kind of thing i can affect in two weeks, three weeks, or even a month. it's cultural, and is quite problematic.

the beach. where to start. far too many clothes, way too much garbage and broken glass. it looks and feels dirty. i didn't want to get into the water. there is no sailing, or really any recreational beach activities at all that i saw. i don't see the point in going to the beach if you're going to go stand around in the swelter. i should've taken a trip to the maldives.

if i come back here, i'm going to resolve two problems: 1) i am going to hire a driver. for the entire time i'm here. if i can't have a driver, i don't want to come back. 2) i'm going to get out of town on the weekends, and go someplace neat. this means coming when it doesn't get dark at 5:30pm, and not only having one weekend day, and most of all NOT GETTING SICK. yeah yeah, things i can't control.

i have some pictures, but not many. i didn't have time or company enough to go on a walking tour of anything except the path between the office and wherever we were eating lunch. i don't want to go wandering around on foot much (even though i really really do, i didn't want to get lost) and there weren't consecutive days to go outside the city. it was a 15 minute walk to the nearest intersection from the club, and i had no idea what was around. a native guide would've been nice. that was generally either vijay or stanley, and i doubt they wanted to give yet another rs employee all of their meager weekend time. i mooched when i could, but didn't want to impose.

anyhow—so there's a lot more to yap about. the short summary is that this was a work trip, felt like a work trip, and i didn't have much fun because of a number of mostly logistical problems, which i will be ready for next time.

written: May 15 2008