Chennai sits on India’s east coast in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The city was known as Madras until its name changed to Chennai in 1996. It is a major commercial center known for its strong automotive and IT sectors, and continues to experience rapid growth. Chennai’s Marina Beach is the longest urban beach in the world. It made Lonely Planet’s Top 10 travel destinations for 2015, so come visit! We live in Raja Annamalai Puram, south of central Chennai and close to the Adyar River and the beach.
Huge mango and nut trees provide plenty of shade in our yard, and the area is full of old-growth trees. The trees in Chennai caught my attention early on. Not just their prevalence and beauty, but the fact that development seems to work around – and not through – the trees. Giant trees remain on the edge of the road, sometimes painted with reflection paint or preceded by a company-sponsored metal sign ‘tree ahead.’ Given the size of the trees, those warnings are definitely more for the benefit of the motorist than the tree, which would come away from a collision largely unscathed. Large branches form arches over the roadway. I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s like being in the forest, the endless rows of multi-story apartments and office buildings with storefronts – biryani, computer repair, grain milling, cut fruit, meter coffee, welding, produce stands, flatscreen televisions, clothes, spas, and more – never let you forget you are in the city.
Back to the neighborhood. Produce markets and a grocery shop are within walking distance although honestly we usually don’t walk. Sometimes I walk from the gym to the produce market but that’s only a one-block walk. My favorite local produce shop is Lakshmi, smaller than most U.S. convenience stores but packed full of fresh tropical fruits and vegetables. Interesting food trivia: the onions here are almost exclusively red onions. On very rare occasion I have seen white onions, and never yellow ones. Tomatoes sell for the equivalent of about $.25 per pound.
Our neighborhood restaurant is Sangeetha, which serves good vegetarian fare including a variety of fabulous dosas as well as satisfying filter coffee. Sangeetha just opened a U.S. location in Sunnyvale, CA. Relative to other parts of the city this is a decent walking area, but the roads are narrow and there are no sidewalks. Unfortunately there just isn’t that much walking in our lives anymore, something we did on almost a daily basis in Austin. But we do have in-home yoga class every day for an hour so that helps make up for it.
To the south Eliot’s Beach is about a fifteen minute drive away. It is a pretty beach and the Bay of Bengal water feels refreshing, but you cannot swim – the drop off from the shore is nearly immediate and steep, and the tides are ferocious. The fish market, adjacent to the beach but to the north instead of south, takes about twenty-five minutes by car.
Travel by car takes time because of traffic, not distance. Since the floods the roads have worsened with painfully large potholes, and the driving has slowed even more. Of course the driving is on the left (we couldn’t bring our car even if we wanted to because the steering column is on the left-hand side). Drivers are generally friendly and cooperative, there is a lot of honking but the honking is to convey ‘here I am,’ not ‘get out of my way.’ It is a necessary part of driving because even when there are painted lanes, there are no lanes to speak of here.
Shortly before a major investor conference which was heavily promoted by the state government almost all of the major roads between the airport and conference center were re-paved with a nice blacktop and new, fresh painted lines. I laughed out loud watching the drivers completely disregard these lines and lanes. Apparently that is just not how driving is done here. I have described driving in Chennai as a scrum, others liken it to a go-kart race. You stake out your position and hold it until you need to turn, your side mirror may get popped in by someone who comes to close, but that is all part of the deal. Note that this is a second-hand passenger account – we have a driver and to her credit my wife drives. I do not have my license and am okay with that. Major intersections have traffic lights, others do not and even though there is an understood right-of-way at some intersections it is just worked out informally at others. And then there are the motorcycles. They are everywhere. Motorcycles with families of five (three is the legal limit), motorcycles transporting huge pieces of merchandise being held by the guy on the back, motorcycles everywhere.
The predominant language here is Tamil. Many people speak some English, and I am told that it is a point of regional pride that few here speak Hindi. Between the complexity of Tamil – a Dravidian language that has been around for thousands of years – and the ability to get by without it, I have not gotten far in learning the language. Chennai has a rich history that is predominantly Tamil but also has a significant colonial influence. The Cholas inhabited the area from the beginning of the Common Era through around 1200 and Tamil culture flourished under the Chola dynasty. The Christian apostle St. Thomas is said to have been here beginning in 52 CE, and St. Thomas Basilica in Chennai is one of three basilicas in the world claimed to be built over the tomb of an apostle (two others being St. Peter in Rome and St. James in Spain). There is a sizable Catholic population here in Chennai.
The area’s jagged colonial history began with arrival of the Portuguese in 1522. The Dutch settled north of Chennai in 1612. On August 22, 1639, the British East India Company purchased a tract of land in the fishing village of Madraspatnam and soon after built Fort St. George, which formed the center of Madras and still sits at the center of present day Chennai. In 1746 the French captured and held Madras for three years, then it stayed largely under British control until independence in 1947. Just three hours by car to the south is Pondicherry, a former French settlement with a wealth of French influence and architecture, along with fantastic markets and good restaurants. But that is another post.
Chennai is a quiet city. It does not have the glitz or nightlife scene of Mumbai, although there are a handful of bars and clubs here. To serve alcohol an establishment must be connected to a hotel and those tend to be much more expensive than the stand-alone restaurants. We tend to go on weekend outings during the day, to lunch, the beach, the fabric store, and spend most evenings at home either with friends or on our own. I have opportunities to explore the city during the week. As an attorney I used to travel an average of almost two weeks a month and thoroughly enjoyed fabulous American bars and restaurants and very comfortable hotels in the course of my work. I am enjoying this new way of life in Chennai.
My last comment for this page is about the people of Chennai. They have been friendly and welcoming. There are always exceptions and no place is perfect. The people here generally try to communicate through the language barrier. The people we interact with daily, the people we see regularly at the markets, they are nice people. And everywhere we go people embrace children. More than once here we have been at a restaurant when a child was ready to leave, and the waiters have come to take them back to the kitchen or otherwise entertain them to make them feel better. Being from Texas my standard for judging “friendly” is very high (just kidding, mostly, I find people across the U.S. to be friendly overall) and it is nice that we feel like we are in a relatively relaxed atmosphere here in Chennai.
So that is the view from 10,000 feet, so to speak, of Chennai.
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¡Hola! My name is Patrick. I was a lifelong Texan until 2014 when I moved from Austin, Texas to Chennai, India. We are now back in Arlington, Texas, enjoying the beautiful autumn weather and preparing for our next destination: Mexico Distrito Federal, or Ciudad de Mexico. I worked as an attorney before moving to India. Austin was hard to leave and every good thing you have heard about it is probably true – amazing people, beautiful scenery, delicious food. And all those adjectives are interchangeable.
I have a real passion for food and drink. I love to travel. I enjoy cooking and entertaining, and one of my favorite ways to explore new places is to visit the local food markets and of course try out the restaurants. While in India I returned to brewing my own beer and experimented with making cheese, bitters and fermented foods. I also did my best to learn how to prepare many local and regional dishes.
Even though I lived in Austin, for about the last ten years my work had been just about everywhere in the country except Texas. So I’ve had the benefit of spending a good deal of time in some wonderful places across the USA. Now I’ve had the good fortune to have visited many parts of India, southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Looking ahead, I move to Mexico in the spring of 2017 and am thrilled at the thought of exploring the streets and country there. My goal on this site is to share a unique perspective on what I have seen and learned during my travels. Thank you for spending some time on this journey.