December 2016 – Deaths, Disaster, Documents…and Delights.

December continued what the previous months had started. As if it wasn’t hard enough to have no cash, to worry if you could pay for a pint of milk or half a dozen eggs, then we – Chennai and Tamil Nadu state – were hit with two major events that were to exacerbate those problems.

Death of the Chief Minister

jayaSadly, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the head of the Tamil Nadu state government, died on the evening of 5th December. Jayalalithaa Jayaram – Jaya – was only 69, and was a hugely revered person here, respected by many for her efforts to help the poor. She had been in hospital since September: posters of her were all over the place wishing her a speedy recovery, so it was a huge surprise when she had a sudden cardiac arrest.

We had been told the night before that she had suffered a setback and, on the Monday morning in the office, we were told to be prepared. We had no concept of what to be prepared for, to be honest. Eventually, we were told to go home early because, if she died, there might be civil unrest.  There was wall to wall news of her health, with all expecting her to die – She died at midnight that night. It was said that the announcement was deliberately timed to allow minimum disruption that day but, the next day, it was the strangest of places.

Jaya had been CM five times, in and out of that office over a period of 25 years. In her early life, she was a hugely popular dancer and a major film star but turned to politics over 40 years ago encouraged by a former co-star. Her reputation among Tamils was that of a mother – she was known as Amma, for mother – but it was not without controversy as she had been jailed a couple of times over asset disputes and corruption but still remained hugely popular and highly respected. Her death not only was national news here, but globally reported. Her successor has also generated some tensions…but that’s for later. 

It may be difficult to appreciate in the UK but the huge reverence and respect for her here was such that, after her death was announced, everything closed down for two days – everything. There was a 7-day period of mourning and a massive public display of grief. We stayed out of the office for those two days.

Chennai, where we never see traffic slow down or vendors stop selling, was a ghost town, with no cars, no shops open, and few people in the street. It Stopped, such was the influence and respect that Amma had on her people here. The unrest never really came to pass but there were skirmishes over her legacy. Despite the respect, there are many divisions in how she governed and her supporters and opponents expressed their views.  

At a  reverential, spiritual and religious level, men committed suicide, women shaved their hair off and grief was plainly visible everywhere. The memorial by Marina Beach where she is buried was so busy that it blocked the main road. Difficult to appreciate – the only time I’ve seen that kind of grief was when Diana died 20 years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly for 21st century Britain, the UK’s first woman leader’s death brought celebration.

Cyclone Vardah.

baybengal

After the curfew, we got back to work by the Thursday but that weekend brought yet more potential upheaval. The news reported that there was a cyclone – called Vardah –  in the Bay of Bengal. Since I’d arrived in India in October, there had been a number of them, to be honest, and all were expected to bring the monsoon rains. None of them ever did. This one did, and it came with just a slightly bigger punch… 

Texts and emails proliferated from colleagues on the Sunday night to say that the cyclone was due to land over Chennai. I took it with a pinch of salt and, on the Monday morning went to work. It was very, very windy, and there was rain but, as I said, I just thought that this was the monsoon arriving and it’d be over in an hour or so. (Insert huge icon of hilarious and incredulous laughter here, such is this blogger’s ignorance!). When I got to work there were very few people there and texts were sent to say for me to get back home immediately – so I left. The first indication that this was going to be really bad was when I was leaving the office campus and saw a woman blown over. (Oh, I know I should have got out but I blame her umbrella)

I was back home by 11 and the rains, by then, were really heavy – the streets were flooded already and many branches were littering them. I felt sorry for my driver who was taking his motorbike home but it turned out it was better that he left then rather than delay. I then had an opportunity to view the gathering storm from my balconies, from and back of the apartment. Within a couple of hours, the large trees outside were bending sideways but seemed to be ok. This was yet another incorrect assumption. Flashes, bangs and booms proliferated where power cables were broken by falling trees, leaving the street without mains power – the backup generators then kicked in…but not for long. I live five minutes from the beach and was keen (and stupid enough) to want to go and see the storm there but my mind was changed when I heard huge cracks over the howling wind and saw that the trees front and back of my apartment were suddenly no longer there. They were big strong trees and the wind had snapped them like matchsticks, such was the storm’s force. I looked down the street from the safety of my balcony to see that many other trees had also fallen. The leafy street was beginning to look very bare of any foliage and any trees still upright were bound to land on me if I ventured out. I braved going downstairs to at least get a view from ground level. The wind was like an express train – it was incredibly noisy.

This was no simple storm, though: For the uninitiated, a cyclone is exactly the same as a hurricane or typhoon…it just depends on the part of the world you’re in. (Thanks to Kris Surtees for that valuable nugget of information when he was here) Cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons 

A number of pictures and videos of the cyclone are here as is the wiki to Cyclone Vardah.

Some stats: The cyclone claimed over 18 lives; uprooted 12,000 trees in Chennai; over 10,000 electricity poles were destroyed; 800 electricity transformers were damaged; 77 dead cows were found afloat in a lake; as many as 224 roads were blocked.

The winds died down by about 5pm and, later that night, with the wind now a slight breeze, it seemed that nothing had happened – the evidence was plainly obvious, though, as almost every other tree in my street had been brought down or damaged. It was quite sobering to see the amount of destruction that can happen so quickly.

The  cyclone damage had a massive impact on Chennai: major power supplies were been knocked out and even the backup generators couldn’t help as they ran out of fuel as they’re only expected to run for short uses; Communications were badly affected: broadband internet services were down and mobile communications were extremely limited as mobile masts had been brought down meaning even basic phone call were difficult to make (I had no internet for three weeks and my mobile was limited to texts and poor voice calls for two weeks); travel was severely affected because of the sheer amount of trees blocking the roads. However, the day after the cyclone, the sun shone, there was barely any wind and most people into the offices because the communications and power supplies were more reliable there. Damage was quite apparent there too where huge panels had been ripped off the side of the buildings and thrown into windows in the buildings opposite. The daily life continued, almost as if the cyclone was just a blip, but the evidence of it lay in the streets where in excess of 12,000 trees were felled, and, for weeks lay at the side of the roads.  Heavy plant equipment was soon deployed to move the felled trees which were then moved to the beaches or parks.

The damage to the communications infrastructure also exacerbated the current cash shortage as even more ATMs were now out of order, and it became difficult to get cash to those that were working. The services were slowly restored but, with all the other events going on in India – cash crisis, deaths, unrests and curfews, this really did seem to be the “Perfect Storm”

As of the start of the year, it is difficult to recognise that Chennai was in the centre of such a devastating storm as the thousands of fallen trees have been removed, the mobile and internet infrastructure – of which almost 90% was destroyed – is almost back to normal. This is solely down to hard working, long, late efforts by many, many people, working all hours to clear the trees and damage. 

More documents.

paper

A late paperwork task after the cyclone was to apply for an Indian bank account. My Indian PAN card (like a national insurance / social security card / Id card) had arrived. Arrangements had been made for a man from the bank actually came to my place to fill in the forms and, as mentioned before, I thought I’d got them all. Ha-ha, no a chance – this is India! Despite him actually being in my apartment he still needed a letter from my employer to say I lived there. “But you’re here, you can see I live here” I tried to reason but he was having none of it. “No sir, we need proof” – and I didn’t have any. A quick phone call to our office in Delhi arranged to have an original – a signed scan wouldn’t do – delivered to me.

Additionally, he also wanted other documents I’d not needed before including a copy of my UK driving license and, this time, my mother’s name was also needed in addition to my father’s; oh, and a copy of the entry stamp on my passport. Just something else different. It never fails to amaze me that the proof I needed to get into the country on a working permit is still insufficient for other things and all of it is on paper, signed in every space blank bit of space on the page. As I mentioned right at the beginning of this entry about the disparities, this country has two faces – the modern and what we’d now call bloody old fashioned. I was assured that the account would be ready for when my son and daughter arrive before Christmas – I’d explained I was taking them on a tour of Tamil Nadu and was concerned that the cards I ‘d been using in Chennai – and which randomly failed to work, with or without cyclones and self-important till assistants – may not work out of the city. “Of course, Sir, it will be ready in 5 days”…5 weeks later it was.

Delights.

 

My Son and Daughter flew to India to stay with me for Christmas. Cash crises, deaths and cyclones would be nothing to them coming over…but that’s another blog.

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November 2016. Trains, planes and automobiles.

The last time I wrote I was preparing to go to North in India for leisure and work. Those weekends started months yet they are still vivid in my mind. However, things in India simply continue to surprise and challenge. This could be a long entry. – NOTE – I created this entry weeks and weeks ago but just forgot to publish it!

Preparation (or lack of it).

The plan for the weekend of 20th November was to fly to Delhi and then catch a train to daddanceAgra, see a wedding, do some sightseeing then fly to Pune for work mid-week. Nothing difficult in that really except that the flight was 6am and I needed to be up at 3.30am. The downside was that I didn’t get to bed until 1am, having spent the night drinking vodka and attempting to (dad-)dance to Billy Joel’s Uptown
Girl, and many various Abba songs. I’d been to a Harley Davidson biker’s event in the city. Read it again: Billy Joel, Abba and Harley riders. What a great bunch of guys though.

bag

I didn’t help myself by taking a holdall which looked ok, but was far too heavy with no wheels or decent shoulder support. Lesson to learn here: don’t pack for 9 days travel at one o’clock in the morning, slightly pissed! Poignantly, though, it was my father’s holdall (25-year-old robust but heavy canvas holdall) so, actually, I took a bit of him back to India where he was stationed at the tail end of the war. Maybe that was worth the effort then. 

Chennai to Delhi.

My flight was pretty uneventful although it’s strange to have to show your boarding pass or some form of ticket proof just to get into the land side part of the airport. If you’re taking friends or family back then it’s even more difficult. Having no working printer I was reliant on all my tickets and documents being on my phone, and I was desperately hoping that the security would accept that. Fortunately, they did. I’d spent a whole evening in the week putting together an itinerary which I could follow and show those who needed to see it. Thank heavens for technology – when there’s an internet connection…more of that later.

The flight to Delhi, although for just a few hours, was as uncomfortable as hell – note to self, upgrade for more legroom for a tenner! I could rest in Delhi though…Hah! A very crowded and very hot, but fortunately short, bus trip from the airport to the metro station was followed by an extremely modern air-conditioned train to Delhi railway station. These two journeys reflected India as a country right now – very old and very modern, and mixing somewhat uncomfortably at times.

delhi-station2delhi-station
Nothing really prepared my for Delhi railway station , hough, even more so than my first impression of Chennai. The station is old…very old; And crowded; And hot; And smelly; and noisy; and full of people spitting everywhere and kids trying to sell you things and not taking no for an answer; and hugely lacking in any useful information or of any facilities to sit and have a refreshment or drink. It’s not the India I’d imagined.  

Delhi to Agra.

I’d expected to have to wait just a couple of hours at the station but, as the time arrived, the overly crowded notice board said the 13.30 Agra train was going to be on platform one. So I made my way over there but hadn’t realised that the entrance was by platform 16. Clapham Junction is a small provincial station compared to Delhi and it must have taken me 25 minutes to get to the other side of the station. My dad’s bag was cutting into my shoulder, the direction signs were awful or non-existent, it was hot (beginning to sound like Victoria station here!) and I was worried I’d not know what to do when it got there as it was a 22 carriage train and had no idea where to get on – It actually felt like I’d never been on a train before. When I did eventually get to platform one, the signs for the 13.30 had disappeared. I asked around but nobody seemed to understand and it  a case of language differences – they just didn’t know. However signs for a 14.30 appeared and it looked like I’d actually missed the 13.30 after all that, even though it was only 1pm. Eventually, I realised that my train had been delayed and that the 14.30 was mine.

Time for a sit down then and some food. I went to the platform cafe and osandwichrdered a sandwich which basically consisted of thin white bread, a scraping of coleslaw and a sachet of tomato ketchup…make your own mind up as to what it tasted like.

 

My train turned up at 15.30 and even then never left until gone 4. I  also traindidn’t understand the seating arrangements. I thought I had a seat:
I had the upper part of a bunk bed in a shared carriage. It was actually very comfortable, clean and cool but I saw nothing on my 4-hour journey. I’ll need to do another one sometime.

Agra

The last time I saw Sandeep was a couple of years ago, just before he left for Scotland. We were both hugely pleased to see each other when he met me at Agra Station and he explained what would be happening over the next few days: First, he’d drop me off at my hotel which, apparently, you could see the Taj Mahal from. I had time to shower, change and then go on to the wedding. I decided to put on my Kurta – a long, traditional Indian shirt – as I thought I’d put in the effort as all the other men would be in traditional costume too. Not a bit. All of them were in suit and tie. It was commented how nice it was that I made the effort, though.

The wedding was huge: not just a room but a whole hotel floor, and a courtyard full of food stalls. I was invited to try all the fabulous foods there so I couldn’t help but accept, only to find out that they were just the starters as the main meals were inside and we’d be eating again at midnight. I got to bed at about 2am so I was pretty tired after being on the road for close on 22 hours. “See you at 8” said Sandeep, “we’ll do some sightseeing tomorrow”.

Taj Mahal and all that

I felt surprising ok when I got up at 7, but slightly disappointed to seetajmahal just how much smog there was in Agra, even during the day. Everything looked cloudy and hazy. From my hotel roof terrace I could, indeed, see the Taj Mahal through a cloud of pollution.

 

 

 

The first place we actually went to, though, was called Fatehpur Sikri palace. It was really stunning but it was the first indication of the young kids trying to sell you things who simply would not let it go. We then met up with Sandeep’s family and went to the Taj Mahal. Outside it’s crowded, hot, noisy and irritating – inside the walls, it’s the most beautiful, peaceful place on earth. You have to take a moment to appreciate it. I’ve seen nothing like it before and it may be a while before I do again. I was fortunate in that the temperature was a very pleasant mid-20s and it was relatively quiet compared to the summer when it’s high 40c and heaving with tourists.

Gwalior

The next day was a drive to Gwalior where Sandeep’s family live. We visited The Sun Temple, Jai Vilas Palace and Gwalior Fort which included a night show. I will skip the detail on these except to say that they are all in immaculate condition, and reflect India’s very mixed heritage. I’d had a fantastic few day’s experiences. I also got taken to try local street food – again, so much of it! Paneer kebabs are very nice but the one I’ll skip was a crushed ice drink with what looked like cola poured over it. The best way I can describe it is soya sauce and vinegar mixed with a touch of lemon.

Gwalior to Delhi

I was booked on another very early train at 4.30 to get back to Delhi for my flight to Pune. Standing at the station that early made me realise what a different world it was where people simply walked across the tracks to get to another part of the station or pee directly off the train onto the tracks. Unsurprisingly, the train was almost 2 hours late but, when I checked the timing, I realised that this train was on a 40-hour journey across India.  This train journey was much different to the first one I took to Agra. I was on a 1st class carriage with a 4-bed sleep all to myself and I could look out. Again, the realisation of where I was began to sink in more when, at the station, I was seeing people casually walk along the tracks, sell food, or sleep. The trains are very old technology, but they work – to a point.

Sidenote: Chennai alone  – just Chennai -has over 1,000 train related deaths or injuries a year due to people being on the tracks. A different world indeed to the one I knew where a whole line would be closed down due to suspected trespass and single deaths are unacceptable. 

Delhi to Pune.

I was prepared for Delhi this time and it was a relatively simple process to get to the airport from the railway station and I barely made my flight due to the train’s lateness. The plane was comfortable though and, when I got to Pune I was keen to start a few days work. If I could get a hotel nearby that is. I’d booked the Hyatt hotel through work but, when I went to book a cab to get there, I realised I’d booked the wrong one, which was on the other side of the city rather than the one next door to the airport and office. I called Hyatt and explained and they were very nice and said they’d deal with it. I left them to it thinking they’d simply switch hotels for me. 25 minutes later they called and seemed happy to tell me that they cancelled my room and I was free to re-book. So I had no hotel at all! On trying to book the closer Hyatt they kindly explained they had rooms for tomorrow but not tonight and did I want to book. I eventually ended up in another hotel.

Thanks to all for a couple of great nights out by the way.

I’ve avoided discussing work in this blog as it’s my personal thoughts but here I’ll make an exception. I last visited the work campus eight years ago on my first trip to India but, this time, I didn’t recognise the place, so much had the place changed with almost a whole town being built around what was a new campus on the outskirts of Pune.

Pune back to Delhi.

I travelled back to Delhi on the Saturday and, by now, I’d been travelling a week. My journey from Delhi was to be a 2-hour taxi to Meerut for a second wedding. Except the taxi took 4 hours, such is the ridiculously dense traffic in Delhi. Come back sleepy Chennai! I was too cowed – or tired – for some reason to ask for the A/C to be switched on so I was somewhat tired when I got to Meerut. The hotel was perfectly ok but Sandeep insisted I change room so that I had one with a shower rather than a bucket of water to pour over me – honestly.

The wedding consisted of two distinct evenings – the engagement where rings were swapped on Saturday and the wedding on the Sunday. I decided to dispense with the kurta on the Saturday and, as with the previous weekend, there was so much food. The Sunday I did put my second kurta on though as I was assured there would be more of a traditional feel to it…yeah right. What an event though and completely the opposite to an English wedding. The dancing took place before the wedding: two hours of leading the groom who was on a white horse, surrounded by the noisiest of drummers and brass, over about 200 meters! The food – lots of it – was then served very late. Another 2am finish and I needed to get another early start for another taxi back to Delhi but this time it only took 3 hours.

 

Delhi to Chennai.

A decent flight back made all the pleasurable when I was upgraded to a seat with lots of legroom. Back to a now familiar and welcoming Chennai.

 

Chennai to Delhi and back…again.

48 hours after getting back from my trip I was off to Delhi again for an overnight stay to visit out supply office. I’ve yet to measure how far I actually travelled in that whole time.

 

Footnote to all these events. My phone was cut off while I was sightseeing in Agra. This was due to an address verification issue. It turns out that proof of address on a formal document is not sufficient: a physical inspection of my place was necessary but I was not aware of this and was at work when they simply turned up. So, basically, they cut me off without notification. Fortunately, I had my old work SIM and was able to keep in contact. When I questioned someone at Vodafone about this they explained I should have understood this as it was in the terms and conditions – all 4 pages of them which I never even saw. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that there is no amount of paperwork you can prepare for when having to apply for things. In India, if you think you’ve got all of your documents, then be prepared to need at least one more that you haven’t got.

 

 

 

Chennai: moments, moves and money (November 15th 2016)

A moment.

I’ve had a big smile on my face tonight. Not that I haven’t smiled since I got here, but just because one particular thing made me so peaceful and feel serene. I am living just a five-minute walk from the sea – the Bay of Bengal. I’ve been to it a number of times since I got here at various places along the coast but, tonight, from the beach by my place, with the moon almost full (I missed the super moon last night!), a slight cloudiness giving it a sparkle, reflecting in the perpetual slowly crashing waves that made barely a whisper against the beach, the warm breeze blowing from the sea, the smell that was the sea, I was truly taken aback. I just stood there on the beach, marvelling in its beauty, tranquillity and distance from my recent reality. From the forever hectic, overcrowded, noisy, metropolitan chaos that the city of Chennai is, to be here, just over 5 km away, it seems a world away. Lovely…

img_20161115_205140769

 

Moving

I moved out of the soulless serviced apartment where I’d been for four weeks on Saturday into this great place called Vaishnavi (named after a Hindu goddess – thanks Beverly H!) in Thiruvanmiyur. My journey to work has now been cut from an average 75 minutes to 35-40 minutes drive. Here’s a map – I’m where the blue dot is. (The stars are places I’ve marked as places to see, eat or shop). Work is a long way south of the map in Siruseri – look it up. My thanks have to go to Joseph who has been very patient showing me so many places and came up with this place.

 

map

 

Demonetisation

The big news is that Prime Minister Modi declared last Tuesday that, at midnight, all 500 rupee (£6) and 1000 rupee (£12) notes would no longer be legal tender. No places could accept them from that point. He gave just four hours notice and guess what denominations most of my cash was in? I’d only just taken Rs 5000 out the day before and most of my cash was in the soon to be worthless money. The banks were to be shut for 24 hours and the ATMs for 48 hours and when opened old money could be exchanged in the banks and a temporary limit of 2000 rupees (£24) per day could be withdrawn from the ATMs. In principle, it was a good idea that would clear out the “Black money” that has been raised through illegal means, but in practice, it has meant queues of 40+ people in the banks or ATMs every hour, every day! Where there are ATMs with no queues it simply means they’ve run out of cash. I was literally down to my last 100 rupees for a couple of days and was buying things that cost almost nothing by card. It obviously wasn’t meant to be like this and, in truth, I haven’t suffered because it’s just a bit inconvenient not to be able to purchase some things but, for others who rely on cash, the implications and repercussions seem to have been awful.

 

 queue

 

Next steps.

Things are going to get busy socially very soon. I’m flying to Delhi on Sunday morning (6.35am – ouch!), then taking a train to Agra to meet up with my dear friend Sandeep and his family. We’re off to a wedding and then I’ve been told I get the grand tour to see the Taj Mahal. On Wednesday I’m leaving Agra and off to Pune for a 3-day work visit and then, from Pune, I’m back off to Delhi again for another wedding!

My kids, Josh & Lily, are now booked to fly over from Singapore and London, to stay with me over Christmas (So excited but I hope they don’t expect turkey!) and my old buddy Pinky (if you know me, you know him!) is coming over at the end of January.

I’ve yet to book the train journeys for next week (Sandeep take note!) because the website won’t accept international credit cards. I only found this out after a web registration journey of an hour where, yet again, my father’s name was required! I think I’ve worked this out as it’s simply an extension or full version of your name and very much a part of who you are…I think. So I need to think of how to actually obtain the train ticket.

I’ve also managed to obtain a mobile SIM (“father’s name again please sir”) as there were issues with the ones allocated by work (like revoking them at very short notice but we’ll not go into that but thanks to Nikki who managed to extend this revocation giving us time to obtain new numbers).

 

Monsoon or Drought?

The Monsoon has still to arrive. Oh, we’ve had a bit of rain as I mentioned when we went surfing, but since then only a couple of overnight showers. It seems we’ve had less than 5% of the expected rainfall of up to 60cm by now and people are starting to get worried as crops are spoiling and there won’t be enough fresh water for the next year. Consequently, the temperature is 5-6 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year. So, when I finally got some cash today but had to queue in the midday sun for a very long time. It was a relief to get to the ATM and I got back to work feeling like I needed a shower – and this is the cool part of the year!

 

Tomorrow

We’re still stuck with the ATM limit of 2000 rupees so I will need to queue again- I need to pay cash for the bottled gas in my apartment!

 

Post-script. 

I had my ironing done by a man in the street across from where I live. He uses a coal iron – i.e. it has hot coals IN the iron. He wanted 7 rupees a shirt so I tried to barter and said 6. He simply shook his head and said 7. Who am I to argue at that rate?

 

 

 

Chennai: memories, change and contrasts, November 3rd 2016

Today is the 30th anniversary of my mother’s death at 58: She would have been 88 this year. She was a lovely woman, but cut down and deprived of many years to enjoy and revel in, as we were of her. What she would have been like at 88 if, indeed, she could have survived to that age, I’m not sure but I do know she would have been bemused by India at any age as I still am. She travelled little out of England – Spain and France once or twice as far as I can recall – but she would not have understood this place. Or maybe she would have related to it better than I could imagine. When she died in 1986 Britain was not too long out of the 70s where there were still small corner shops and the technical revolution was still so far away. Some things were relatively cheap compared to today and there were no one-stop-shops where you’d get what you want when you wanted them, not when you actually needed things. There were still massive social divides as Britain sought to understand what it was about, not that long after the war. I’m still very much a novice here but what I see tells me of massive upheaval and change forced on by the pressure of the 21st century, where old cultural ways are clashing with technical advances, but with little time to put in an infrastructure that can cope with the sudden changes.

The cars and buildings are the obvious things. So many cars, everywhere, all the time. I’ve been through this in other posts but you’ll never get over it. What looks like chaos, ill-disciplined. disorganised and disordered is quite calm, polite, understood by all and it works – almost. Every day I see cars pull out of junctions with no effort to give way and every day the traffic heading towards these mad people slows down, lets them in, and then just continues. Little anger is displayed – just the constant sound of horns, to make people aware of where you are, not to berate or castigate for daring to take up an inch too much or your road. I know there are actually thousands of deaths on the road in India, way too high, but it’s a complete dichotomy that the vast number of cars – and motorbikes – still manage to live side-by-side with the barrows, bikes, people, goats, dogs and cows. The buildings are as big a contrast too – modern skyscrapers, glass fronted shops with modern fashionable goods for sale, sitting next door to the corrugated iron shacks selling screws, services or just a few coconuts. After three weeks in Chennai, things have begun to become normalised but I’m not sure the contrasts will. Perhaps they don’t need to become normalised for me but they will change nevertheless, just as London’s Eastend where my mother was born, lived and worked also changed due to outside demands.

 

Success at last! After viewing countless properties, I have finally found an apartment to live in. It also is a contrast: modern inside, but in a street that I pass through every day to and from work where there’s an amazing hustle and bustle of life and work, where I am already getting excited about walking around and exploring (It’s quite nice that it’s only five minutes from the beach). At the moment, in the serviced apartment I live in, it just feels like I’m living in a hotel: hopefully, in a week or two I will have a proper address and be properly able to say “I LIVE in India!”.

I wonder what my mum would have made of just the fact that I’m here?

Chennai, Diwali weekend 28-29-30 October 2016

 

This has been Diwali weekend and it’s been a very varied weekend for me with early starts again. To be honest, I was hoping to have a lie in this weekend as I’ve been up before 7am every day since I got here two weeks ago (two weeks -where did that go?).

On the way home from work on Friday my driver Suresh invited me to come to his house on Saturday morning to meet his family and have a meal to celebrate Diwali. I was really pleased and excited to be asked. So, Saturday morning he picked me up and took me to a place south of the city. It was a bit of an eye-opener again – I’m having a lot of these to be honest, such has my so-called broad, varied and experienced life failed to teach me – but it has made me realise the vast differences that exist in this city, and probably in most of India.

Suresh has small place – i.e. one small room with one bed, a small table, two plastic chairs and a fridge, and a small kitchen. Fit a family of four adults in this place and you begin to question your own moans and troubles. Small is an adjective that needs to be applied to our own first world issues and, writing this, I have to avoid being patronising but try to describe how lovely this family and the experience that it was. The place was clean and a home to five generous, kind and lovely people who could not do enough to please me.  I was asked to sit and offered snacks of deep fried type of spaghetti (made from rice flour which, to be honest, most of the staple foods are made of: Idli, vada, dosa, they are all rice based). I wasn’t sure of whether this was to be shared so offered it around but it was declined by everyone so I nibbled on the snacks slightly overawed. I was then shown a blessing to the Indian god Ganesh (and all of his mates, who number more than the Roman, Greek and Norse gods put together. The lovely thing about these Gods, though, is that each one represents a way of living a good life, not just a way of restricting life). I had sandalwood daubed on my forehead and then it was time to eat…on my own again. I asked if they were eating with me and they said that they would eat later.

I was asked to sit at the table where it was covered with a large banana leaf and food was then placed on that. I was given delicious mutton curry, vada, dal, honey bananas, rice, and masala spiced chicken. My regret was that I’d eaten breakfast earlier and I simply wouldn’t be able to eat it all. However I persevered – and thoroughly enjoyed it – and managed to finish most of it. I didn’t even have the option of putting anything in my pockets as they watched me eat it all!

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We took a number of photos before I left giving my sincere thanks for what, to be honest, was a very humbling but wonderful experience for me.

 

Contrast that to Saturday evening when I went to my first Indian football match between Chennaiyin FC v Kerala Blasters. It’s a brilliant stadium, it has a great atmosphere, and fantastic vocal supporters on both sides who numbered over 23,000 and sat together in a shining example of harmony, clapping and cheering at every attempt (despite there not being many)! It was just a shame that it was a dire 0-0 draw! CFC are managed by the Italian great Materazzi and, Kerala managed by the even greater (to me) Steve Coppell who used to play for Manchester United in the ‘70s! I even wore my United football shirt and got a few handshakes for that and stood out when the cameras picked me up on the big screen!

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I’m going to make the football a regular event: at Rs550 rupees (£6) for a top price ticket it’s a no brainer night out. The chicken burgers weren’t that bad too at Rs80 each! Slight confusion when I bought it as I thought the choice was chees or no-cheese when it was in fact veg or non-veg. I can’t imagine veggie pies at Old Trafford.

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Travel to and from the stadium was by an auto-rickshaw (Tuk Tuk!) which is an experience in itself. Rs200 to see the city as you’ll never see in an air conditioned, noise and safety isolated car. The rickshaw is a 3-wheeled, lpg powered, vehicle steered with handle bars, and is probably no wider than a large motor bike with panniers! Sitting three guys in the back was a challenge but great fun: you just had to remember that you couldn’t stick your elbows out, so close did it come to other traffic, getting though gaps that bikes would struggle to get through, and at a speed that kept up with all the cars. It’s by far the quickest way into and around the city. I was laughing all the way there and back and couldn’t understand why it didn’t topple over like Jeremy Clarkson’s Reliant Robin!

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Added to the rickshaw experience were the fire crackers exploding underneath it making even the driver jump. Diwali fireworks have now been going off continuously since Friday night (It’s Sunday now). When I say continuously I do not exaggerate: Every hour, every place, day and night, crackers are going off in the streets, in alleys, in the busy roads, on the beach, outside houses, underneath rickshaws and in hotel car parks. During the day you can see the incredible amount of debris left over from them. Guy Fawkes Night and July 4th celebrations are nothing compared to this. I fully expect this to continue until Monday when most people here have the day off. If this was in London they’d have most of the streets closed down so loud are some of the explosions.

 

Today (Sunday) I went surfing in a place called (I think) Fisherman’s Cove. It’s a lovely little place which wasn’t spoilt by the complete lack of sun. It had rained overnight but it was still a very pleasant 29-30 degrees.

It’s been a long time since I surfed (the “drowning” incident in ’79 where I swam out way too far from a Newquay beach, in cold tumbling water, with no wet suit and took ages to reach the beach exhausted). Ok. Maybe it wasn’t that bad but it has stuck in my mind all that time and I was slightly worried about today. I shouldn’t have been because it was huge fun. The sea temperature was perfect which meant we could stay in without getting cold.  I think it will be a while before I try it again because I’m bloody rubbish at it (as I was in ’79). I managed to stand a few times but the rest of the time I tumbled, fell or got thrown off the board. At one time I managed a back flip (accidentally) off the board which then dragged me along underwater for a while. To be honest, there was nothing to be worried about as, even 100 odd meters out the water was only up to my chest. I’d forgotten just how much fun it is to chase the waves, jump with them, dive into them or simply get battered by them; they weren’t small!

The overcast day brought a not unexpected surprise of a very heavy downpour of rain. At first, being so wet from the surfing and it being so warm, we thought we’d stick it out on the beach until we realised this heavy rain HURT! It was as painful as being in a hailstorm so we had to go into the sea to avoid it. The nice – but slightly bizarre – thing was how warm it still was while it rained. We felt less warm though when we went to leave and endured another downpour: this time we had to stand in this as we were by the car which we couldn’t get in because one of the instructors had taken the keys. Helping a car out which had buried its front wheels in the sand passed the hour getting wet, listening to the thunder and waiting for the keys to come back.

 

Aside from not surfing for a while, another thing I’ve not done for a while – well two weeks – was to the gym and get some exercise. I finally managed to go, despite it only being on the next floor up from me! I managed a 5km run on a running machine. The life of being driven everywhere is simply not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I now hurt…

 

By the way, I keep getting asked if I have anything to do with the “Waitrose” in Chennai. People are disappointed to find it’s a fake…IMG_20161027_124001260.jpg

Chennai update – Wednesday 26th October 2016

It’s been over a week since I last posted to this blog and people have asked if I’ve given up on it. Nothing of the sort but I don’t want this to be a “dear diary” affair so expect some regular updates but (probably) more irregular.

So, dear diary , what’s been happening then? Well, as to be expected I suppose, I got the DB – Delhi belly, Montezuma’s revenge, the runs, the trots – last week. What caused it? Almost certainly a delivered Dominos Pizza – western food! I’d spent most of the day looking around areas of Chennai for permanent accommodation and – apart from failing to find anywhere to live – I also failed to eat much. Getting back to the apartment I was starving so I thought I’d order a pizza. Dominoes was around the corner so, a few clicks on the web and it was ordered. Pizza here is very different as, like most restaurants, if it’s got meat on it then it’s most likely to be chicken: Chicken ham, chicken salami, chicken sausage, chicken burgers, chicken this and that. Fortunately, I like the BBQ chicken and sweetcorn which – with added mushrooms and tomato – was ordered, and very soon delivered. Admittedly it should have been for four people but, so hungry was I, that I ate most of it. That alone didn’t make me feel too well.

Next morning I felt pretty bad – you know I’m not even going there! I felt fine by the evening and even went round friends for a meal (and beer) but, when I got home I felt dreadful again. The next day, I simply couldn’t get out of bed and called in sick. I actually stayed in bed (watching BakeOff!) until late afternoon. My mate was concerned that it was his food that did it but I had to assure him that it had started well before his food. By Saturday I felt much better but I’m not convinced I’m completely over it. I’m eating regularly but my mornings can be a bit hazardous, like on Monday when I got stuck on the 7th floor lift lobby at work without a pass to open any doors…Enough of that.

Speaking of food though, I’ve actually started cooking some meals in the apartment but they tend to be simple things like omelettes and, today, EGG SANDWICHES! Oh deep joy! I found a very small store across the road from me where I bought a massive bag of about 20 onions (I didn’t have the nerve to ask if I could split the bag), some green peppers, a garlic & ginger paste (5 rupees!), 5 tomatoes and some dried pasta. Very delicious once cooked it was too and lots of it as I used half of the onions (they were small!), peppers and tomatoes – that’ll do me for another night! As it turned out the onions only cost me about 30p, and the tomatoes about the same. Local veg is VERY cheap but imported very expensive: The other night I spent about £4 on a lot of food and half of the cost was on just two pomegranates. Actually, I ate one tonight and when I’d finished it looked like I’d murdered someone as the juice had splattered all over me and the walls.

Events.

Indians are now getting ready for this country’s biggest celebration – Diwali. Everywhere sweets and fireworks are being bought and, in the latter case, set off. It’s this Friday and the expectation is that the town will be massively celebrating. At work it’s a huge thing too with really wonderful, organised displays of costumes in the office. My lovely driver called me back today to give me a Diwali card and some sweets. Hazarding a guess that he won’t like a bowl of cold pasta in return, I’ve gone and bought him some sweets and cakes too.

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This should be a really fun weekend as, apart from Diwali, I’m off to see Chennaiyn FC, the current Indian Super league champions with work colleagues. We’ve had to buy the top price tickets at Rs500 – about £6! I’m then off surfing on Sunday. The sea is definitely warm enough but, whether I’m able enough is another question. The last time I tried was 1979 in Newquay where I nearly drowned.

Last Sunday a number of us went to Pondicherry, a lovely ex-French city about 100 miles south of Chennai. We rented a minibus and driver for the day and had a 2 ½ hour journey there. It may sound slow to do that distance but you have to consider the Indian roads are not that fast, despite seeming to be very scary. We had an interesting enough trip there listening to the driver toot his horn at everything in front of him – not in an aggressive manner because it’s just what everybody does. However, returning back in the evening when the sun had set it made it a wholly different experience. We were on a single carriageway road with cars BOTH ways overtaking trucks and bikes and other unlit vehicles at the same time and no drivers prepared to give way somewhere in the middle of the pitch-black road. The madness was enhanced when at the same time it was realised that cows had decided to sleep for the night in the middle of the road requiring some very heavy braking and gasps from us passengers closing our eyes! Actually, we found it was easier just to shut our eyes all the time.

Pondicherry was hotter than Chennai. The air was muggy and walking was hard work requiring stops in cafes for coffee and food: a trip to Paradise beach topped it off with – for me – a paddle in the sea. I understand the mugginess is due to a cyclone in the northern part of the Bay of Bengal. Why am I now giving weather reports on my blog you may well ask? Well, this cyclone is holding up the other big event of the year – the North East Monsoon which happens like clockwork every year, except when there are cyclones in the Northern part of the BofB! Rain – lots of it, enough to flood Chennai severely last year – is due sometime next week…maybe when we’re surfing?

 

I mentioned about accommodation. I’m not getting very far with this due to my simply not knowing where is best to go. As far as settling in here, I’ve now registered as a foreigner and have just one more procedure to complete – a PAN number, rather like an NI / SS number. When this comes I can open a bank account!

Chennai a week and a half in now seem less intimidating as it was.  What was shocking slowly became routine and accepted and at times unnoticed. What seemed dirty and smelly, and things I missed, now seems the norm and simply a way of life where these things don’t seem to matter that much. Except egg sandwiches of course…

Almost bedtime now and – because I don’t want to stay up until gone one – I’ve set up the Bakeoff final to download overnight. The problem will be to avoid hearing the result! No telling please!

 

 

Chennai: first day at work (18th Oct 2016)

So the day arrives where I start work in Chennai…or to put it more accurately, “the first day I went to my office in Chennai”. Up at a reasonable 7am, driver picks me up at 8, and over an hour later I’m at the offices. I intended to stay awake but simply couldn’t look at the traffic anymore so had to shut my eyes (my excuse!). 

As for “the office” – which one though? Sipcot park is an “industrial” park that, from what I understand, is simply an IT park. A bit like the Thames Valley Parkway in Reading – but bigger – much, much bigger! There are all kinds of IT companies out there and even Cognizant had two buildings – I went to the wrong one of course! After calling Arjouth I finally found the correct place and was taken for a tour of it. Pretty standard stuff really, and nothing to brag about. There is a SubWay restaurant though! 

I need an id pass to get, not only into the building, but to various parts of the same floor. Difficult to wander round and explore. Sitting down though I realised just how darned tired I was and, I admit, struggled. I still had to sort out various forms and paperwork, not too much workwise. It was nice to meet the grads out there too. We had a buffet lunch with them and Tom explained how just how sensitive a creature he is in that he missed the first day due to “something he ate”. They all looked well.

I left the office at 5 and saw Chennai for the first time at night – it’s dark by 6 here! – and what a different place it is (hiding most of the rubble and rubbish!). It’s still hugely busy on the roads but the small shops are lit up so you can see inside and the real bustle of the place. When I got back I decided to take a longer walk (at about 8pm when I expected it to be quieter) and explore by foot some of the route I’d been driven along. We’d been advised not to drive in Chennai but walking seems more dangerous! The paths often get blocked by stalls, disappear into the road or are mounted by scooters. I nearly got garrotted by low hanging cables (which are everywhere!). I then wanted to cross a junction -and simply couldn’t. I was standing at a pedestrian crossing for a while but NOTHING stopped. There are NO traffic lights, anywhere and, even if there were, I’m sure they’d be ignored!

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After waiting, because I just didn’t have the courage to expect cars, buses and bikes to stop, I followed a family with small kids and elderly people who did have the nerve. Halfway across I noticed the traffic policeman and, like all the other instances I’d seen he, too, was simply ignored. I managed to get across the rest of the road eventually and walked a distance down a narrow, but still hugely busy street. Again, there was little or no footpath but people were sitting chatting and ignoring the roar of the traffic. I tried to think of where I’d seen all of this before because it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me – I then realised it was like Morocco, Egypt and Turkey all rolled into one. (One difference was that I was not targeted by stall holders to buy anything!). It amazed me to see people with lathes making goods, mixing cement, or sorting out timber, next to shops that sold fabric, phones or fruit. It, I imagine, is how we traded in the UK many, many years ago before we moved our small industries out of our high streets.

Now don’t get me wrong – this is not knocking it or calling it old fashioned. It works for where you need it and it’s needed here as everyone needs to provide for themselves. From the massive IT park (which is called Industrial) the economy reaches down to the level of the smallest and poorest of traders in the smallest of shops (a very, very small room).

I think I’m beginning to philosophise about things that I don’t know too much about but I am beginning to see how a unified community might work, even where the sewers and drainage don’t work too well, and the things we complain about in the UK, like trip hazards, road safety and potholes, they appear to be, here, normal day to days things that are simply tolerated – not necessarily right nor accepted. 

I’m not writing this based simply on what I perceive as the newspaper I’m reading is reporting this everyday – ok, it’s a newspaper, but it seems genuine enough in making things like sewers and roads and transport the important news.

Bedtime – I have accommodation to look at tomorrow.