HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Checking out Chennai

The four of us woke up at dawn and the train wasn't moving, but we had no idea where we were, except that there was no station outside. After sitting around for a bit Ryan wandered into the corridor and asked:
"Is this Chennai?"
Indian person: "Yes."
"So we're here?"
"10 minutes. Well, maybe 15."

After waiting for another hour the train started moving again and we soon pulled into Chennai's putrid main station around 7am. Chennai is India's fourth-largest city in terms of metro population, with over 9 million people living in the area. Formerly the administrative capital of British India under the name Madras, Chennai lacks the name recognition and major sights of the only Indian cities bigger than it: Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata. As a result it doesn't get many tourists, meaning that many of the usual annoyances of heavily-traveled parts of the country are nowhere to be found.

We were staying at the exceedingly classy Taj Connemara and were looking forward to two nights of luxury at the end of a great, but very tiring, trip.

all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet = win!
The room Kevin and I stayed in had a door leading to the pool. As a result travel time from bed to water was roughly 10 seconds.
The only thing bothering me at this point was a three week-old beard that had become insanely itchy. Kevin worked in Chennai for three weeks last year for Shell Oil, so he had a bunch of local friends. We met up with them for a meaty lunch at a place called BBQ Nation, though I wasn't able to eat much because I had gorged at the hotel buffet as soon as we checked in. By the time we got back to our rooms after lunch we were exhausted, so nothing worth mentioning happened the rest of that day.

I had gone to bed feeling a little funky, and when I woke up the next morning things hadn't really improved. I ate breakfast but when lunchtime rolled around I wasn't hungry at all, an odd thing for me considering how voracious my appetite usually is. It appeared that my iron stomach, strengthened by nearly two years in Southeast Asia, was starting to falter for the first time. I still wanted to see what I could of the city though, and Kevin and I headed out to do some exploring.

Our first stop was the the St. Thomas Basilica (also known as San Thome when it was first built by the Portuguese in 1504), which is home to something you wouldn't expect to find in India. Thomas the Apostle (he of Doubting Thomas fame) was martyred in India in 72 AD, and his remains are held in a tomb below the church, making this one of only three churches in the world that contains the remains of an apostle - the other two are the Vatican and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. As I've mentioned before religion plays no role in my life, but it's still pretty thought-provoking to visit such a place. In the marble tomb room believers knelt before Thomas' body and briefly touched the glass that protects it. One woman's cell phone interrupted her prayer.

Afterwards we moved on to Little Mount, where rumor has it that St. Thomas lived in hiding before his death. It was kinda weird.

Surprisingly traffic in the city wasn't that bad. I was expecting it to be apocalyptic after seeing what a mess Bangalore was, but our taxi moved pretty smoothly. It was clear that a lot was going on in the city: construction sites were all over the place, and lines of the under-construction metro snaked above thoroughfares and in between buildings.

Finally we visited St. Thomas Mount, a hill where the apostle was believed to have been martyred. There is a church containing a number of religious relics at the peak, but I was more interested in the views afforded from that height: the approach to the airport was nearby, and you could see how massively sprawled out Chennai is. As I was taking these pictures I noticed a rotund 10 year-old boy unabashedly displaying his penis as his mother re-wrapped a dhoti around his legs. There was also a sign on the hill indicating the spot where Pope John Paul II spoke during his visit to Chennai in a year that I don't remember.

a highway runs horizontally, while the metro line runs vertically

The neighborhood at the foot of the hill was dirty and hardscrabble, and there were nearly as many wandering animals as people. I felt a little bad traveling through it in an air-conditioned car, and recalled that Kevin had told me that the Taj (which is the Indian equivalent of America's Hilton hotel chain) trains its drivers to avoid certain areas of the city so that wealthy customers are 'protected' from having to see slums and mind-blowing poverty.

We returned to the hotel and relaxed for a bit before meeting back up with Jobie and Ryan for dinner at Raintree, the Taj's premier restaurant, considered one of the best in Tamil Nadu. I had intentionally not touched a morsel of food since breakfast to make sure that I was hungry for this meal.
For an appetizer I got a lamb brain dish, the first time I've ever had that. It was delicious, and quite spicy.

Ryan's thali meal
My main course was a phenomenal fish curry
Kevin's friend Prabhu had joined us for the awesome dinner, and after sorting out the bill we piled into the car of another co-worker named Jai, who had his 3 year-old son Sedhvik with him. We had gotten tickets to go see a movie, a comedy to be specific, so we headed to the mall where the cinema was. Movies are massively popular in India, and western-caliber cinemas are new to the country, so even films showing late at night (like ours) regularly sell out. While everyone in the west has heard of Bollywood, there are actually at least three major film centers in India: Mumbai's Bollywood (the B is for Bombay, Mumbai's colonial name); Kolkata's Kollywood; and Chennai's Tollywood, where the T stands for Tamil Nadu. India's massive linguistic diversity means that huge tracts of the population don't speak Hindi, the most well-known language outside of India, and the films made in Chennai are in Tamil, one of the world's oldest languages. There are, however, Hindi subtitles.

We arrived at the mall, which was so new it wasn't actually even finished, and settled into our comfy seats in the packed theater. Obviously I couldn't understand anything that was being said, but I got the gist of the plotline, and the musical numbers were pretty entertaining. Overall it would be hard to say the movie was that great, especially when you're used to Hollywood's cutting-edge editing and cinematography, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours. And little Sedhvik sure laughed a lot.

It was after midnight by now and we were all pooped, so went straight to bed after returning to the hotel. We had just one day left in India.

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