Madras – it’s more than an Indian curry flavour – March 2014

I had a work trip last week to Chennai, India.  Being on business, I travelled without the family for a change. Altho I considered packing 11 month old Owen when he immediately fell asleep in my arms when I took him for a final quick cuddle in the morning.
The journey from Dubai started nicely in the business lounge – after purchasing a small duty free bottle of whisky (for purely sterilization purposes you must understand).
Boarding became a little less glamorous when next to me sat an Indian gentlemen whom I think muttered something about his backside being unwell. He went on to break a few other passenger etiquette points, and I imagined someone bolder than me asking to be moved as the guy doesn’t cover his mouth when sneezing in my direction.

It’s always a little bit of a worry when before the plane takes off for its destination the cabin crew walk through releasing the contents of several cans of fumigating smoke. I held my breath and wished the poisons the best of luck.

Later on it was a relief when my neighbour motioned for me to fill in his declaration form. He clearly knew no English, so he wasn’t talking about his butt afterall.

The flight went quick – being 11 hours quicker than a trip home to Australia,  it’s no surprise it felt quick. I then had a completely pain-free journey through customs and getting my baggage and ride to the hotel.

Outside the airport, I knew I was in India. This was something different to anything I’ve seen before. Even as we were landing it was clear this is a city with lots more people than I’ve ever seen before. As far as the eye could see there were apartment blocks.
I’m probably used to areas with lots of people. This is a complete metropolis of many areas, all with lots and lots of people.  That’s a very different scale.
Outside of the airport you can just hear a rabble. That’s the constant sound of lots of people.
The ride to the hotel was interesting. The paint segregating lanes of traffic were clearly not ambitious enough. On each side we felt squeezed between a constant barrage of cars and scooters and motorbikes with a family of four all on-board. I saw three clearly painted lanes, and to the left and right of our car I counted seven vehicles. And each motorbike probably had an average of 2.9 people. I thought, gee those small kids can really hang on for dear life. Then I sighed as I realised that’s literally what they were doing.

I thought the use of car horns in Dubai was excessive.  It is NOTHING in comparison. From every direction there is constant noise. It’s not surprising, most trucks and buses have signs saying “Sound Horn”. I heard a couple of theories behind these stickers.  One is sound the horn to wake up the driver, in case they have actually fallen asleep.  And the other suggestion is that it’s to inform the driver that there’s someone behind them, so they should consider applying the brake. So it’s saying something like “Please sound horn if you don’t wish me to squash you”.

Work was like work anywhere, more or less.

At lunch time we even called for pizzas delivery. It was just like in any other office pizza lunch, except here the pizzas had just as much chili as any other topping ingredients. Though this was not enough, my colleagues were compelled to still sprinkle several sachets of chili flakes on top. Amazing.

Our hosts drove us out for lunch one day. He talked about the terrible traffic he endures each day, and that he’s considering swapping his fancy car for a bicycle. It was easy to sympathise. His impressive car can travel 0-100km/hr in just over 4 seconds, yet the car’s computer showed his average speed over the car’s lifetime was 29km/hr – even with long drives in the country away from traffic.

Without the family with me, I enjoyed a selfish morning ritual of hitting the gym. But I really wanted to go out for a run, and properly experience the streets of India.  The night before I made a simple Google Map.  I printed two copies – one to carry just in case I took a wrong turn. The other I gave to my colleague in the adjacent room. If I didn’t come back, at least they know where to begin the search. Likewise I gave quite a bit of thought to what identifying information I should carry in case something bad happens.  My colleague was also thinking of the worst, when he shared that at least I was running along a street called “Dr” Kalaignar Karunanidhi Salai.
I started away from the main roads, running through quite rural estates. When running, especially in a new place, some people worry about where to find a bathroom in case something more than a simple stop is required. I figured I may have no problems in this regard, when I casually looked to my right and saw a field full of guys all taking a dump. There was a lesson learned right there, don’t run first thing in the morning.

I finished my water bottle and decided to get another drink from a corner store. The bottled water trick in the movie Slum Dog Millionaire had me a little paranoid, so I got a coke.  The guy behind the counter, I think showing he had a sense of humour, told me in Tamil it’s called “Cocku” – either that or he got away with insulting me.

As per my plan, I made it to the coast and saw the ocean.

Along the way I saw many stray dogs. You could say they all looked like they had character. Another way to say it is they were malnourished, and treated poorly.
I only encountered a couple of humans begging.  I didn’t give them money, though it was a pleasure to buy a few breakfasts with even the small amount of emergency money I carried.
The streets were easy enough to navigate, and I made it safely home without incident. Well, almost without incident. I did see a guy walking towards me looking quite erratic and aggressive to people as they walked past, and here I was heading straight for him. I deviated slightly away, though it wasn’t enough. He jumped in front of me and shouted something, though it was a little comforting that I thought it sounded like “Good Morning”, so I just kept on moving.

While getting ready for the shower it seemed completely unfair that the room I was staying in, all on my own, was larger than some of the homes I saw complete families living in.

My Indian week flew by. Before I knew it we were checking out of the hotel and heading to the airport for the trip home.  I dropped into a souvenir shop, and paid probably way too much for a few items for the kids and wife.  I feel you’ve negotiated poorly when they say with a smile “You drove a hard bargain my friend”.  You’ve done much better when they’re crying, or too angry with you to speak.

The flight home had quite a lot of turbulence, something my colleague’s never experienced on his countless trips to Chennai over the years. I wondered if it was inappropriate earlier to share with him that we were on an identical aircraft to the Malaysian Airlines plane that went missing flying on MH370 a few days earlier.

It probably goes without saying, we did make it home safe and sound.

Thank you beautiful India.  My colleagues made it a very enjoyable trip. I know I’ll be back.