Adventures in Chennai, Day One

We were allowed to come into work late today – around noon – so that we could catch up on some sleep and some emails before going into the office. So we all met for a late breakfast at around 10:00am this morning.

The breakfast was a buffet. The selection was interesting. Ever get the craving for some good baked beans for breakfast? Well, you could get that here. Also there were all kinds of cereals and yogurts and juices and muffins. I didn’t have the guts to try the Mango Flakes cereal – or any of the cereal for that matter, because I wasn’t 100% sure that it was cow’s milk. :) I ended up eat some good hashbrown potato-like things with some muffins and juice. I also had some rice and potato sauce stuff that was very spicy and more suited for lunch or dinner.

After breakfast, the day got real interesting in a hurry. Our driver wasn’t schedule to pick us up until 11:30am meaning we had about an hour to kill. So Dave and I decided to take a walk around the block. Bad idea. It started out fine. We were walking along some type of sidewalk along this really busy street. Cars, rickshaws, motorcycles and bikes all coming and going buzzing past made it very crazy. We walked along crumbling “sidewalks”, stepping over trash, sleeping dogs and even some downed power lines that only we seemed to be worried about.

The abject poverty is striking. I’ve never seen so much trash and rubbish – its everywhere. It collects in gutters, in bushes and accumulates in large heaps every now and then along sidewalks and sometimes even in the street.

As we continue our walk, we thinking it a good idea to turn off on a less busy street and start heading back toward our hotel, thinking we were going “around the block”. As if there are blocks. :) We walk along and take pictures. I started feeling very awkward with my camera out, so I put it away. I felt like I was intruding into their lives and taking something from them, even if it was just a digital image. I felt like I needed to explain to them that I am not looking down on them, I just want to take a picture to share with my family and friends when I get home so they can see what I saw. Instead I feel like they are thinking that the purpose of me taking a picture is only to have proof that they are poverty-stricken.

It was around this time that I realized that Dave and I are really not blending well with the environment. How could we? I’ve got on my Adobe Creative Suite shirt and jeans and tennis shoes, sunglasses and “orange hair!”. No one else has orange hair, pale skin or even clean clothes. There is no blending in. No ability to be a fly on the wall.

As we take another turn to head back to the hotel, we realize that this street is even smaller and is getting narrower by the step. Its turned into just an alley really. I walked past maybe 30 stray dogs along the way. Stray dogs are everywhere and they all look alike. There seems to only be one breed of dog in this city – except for the police dogs that sniff for car bombs every time we are stopped and inspected as we enter the hotel gates. Yeah, nice.

Back to the alley. More trash. Shanties line up and down both sides of the alley. There is no way these places have electricity or running water. At one point, I walked past an old lady that must have been in her 60’s or 70’s curled up in the fetal position laying right on the ground in front of her shanty. I assumed it was hers, maybe not.

Around this time, I start realizing that we just need to get the heck out of there. Maybe it was my imagination, but I got the distinct feeling that we were not welcome there. One teenage boy, maybe 17 or 18 was riding his bike down the alley and when he saw us coming he stopped and turned his bike sideways in the alley to block our path. As we got closer and he could tell we were going around him, he moved it in front of us again. I had to literally grab his bike tire and move it out of my way. Everything in me was screaming, “Run!” The hamstring I pulled playing football on Thanksgiving day wouldn’t have let me, but I felt the urge for sure.

The odd thing is that all along our walk we have not ventured further than a half mile from our hotel. And we could see it most of the time, just not sure which road or alley way would lead us back there. Finally, Dave spots the main road that goes in front of our hotel. The only problem is that its not really very accessible. There is a small walkway that many people are walking through that would normally be a piece of cake to walk through and get back on the main road. Only because of the many days of rain they had here last week, this little dirt walkway is now a creek. That does not prevent the locals from just sloshing through murky water and mud. But, um, I’m wearing my tennis shoes. I really like these tennis shoes and really don’t want to get them muddy. Dave and I try to traverse the edge of the water where its not muddy but the weeds and reeds are so tall, its impossible.

We had to try both sides of the “creek” and finally make our way through some tall grass without actually walking in water. As we get back out on the main road I realize our shoes are completely muddy and even our pant legs have splatters of mud all over them. So we’re muddy and our feet are wet and its very hot and humid. I’m really trying not to let the muddy shoes thing bother me as we walk back to the hotel. Suddenly, I get this idea in my head that people are saying, “You think you can come to this city and not get dirty? We live in this dirt.” After thinking that, I didn’t worry as much about the muddy shoes and just became very thankful for everything I have.

Keep in mind I haven’t even gone to work yet. My day has only begun. Thankfully, the rest of the day was pretty tame compared to that experience.

We arrived at the Lister Technologies, Inc. offices to meet the people doing all of our offshore development. I’ve talked to some of these people on the phone and have had IM and email conversations with them. It is nice to finally meet them in person. They are very happy to see us. Again, I am surprised by the poor conditions of the building, the restrooms and the cubicle area. We have so much to be thankful for. After a few meetings, lunch, more meetings and working awhile, we finally left work at around 8:00pm.

One of the guys offers to give us a driving tour of the city. So all 5 of us pile into his little hatchback car and he drives us around for over an hour. Its already dark but very interesting to see the sights. I see more stray dogs everywhere and traffic is in peak chaos mode. If I had to drive in this traffic, I know I would cause many accidents. I don’t know how they drive in this traffic and really don’t seem to really be bothered by it all. We also counted at least 5 people that were going to the bathroom right there on the side of the road. Not in a dark alley or in a ditch somewhere, but right out there in the open standing maybe 3 feet from speeding vehicles and thousands of people on foot everywhere.

We were told that Chennai has over 5 million people. I don’t how they ever get an accurate number given that so many people seem to just live on the streets and in little shanties that cannot possibly have addresses – I cannot fathom how they go about getting a census, but I’ll take their word for it. This city is huge, sprawling, crowded, chaotic and dirty.

After driving around the city, we are dropped off at our hotel and can again enter an oasis of marble floors, rich food and clean rooms. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant and then I came up to my room finally at 11:15pm. What a day! Talking to Cori and the kids on the video chat after a day like that was definitely the highlight of the day.

Now I’m ready for bed and Day Two. I think tomorrow I’ll steer clear of those back alleys. :)

2 Comments

  1. Michael Segulja says:

    Wow Chuck, that’s crazy!! I can’t imagine the conditions there but it sure does make one very thankful for what we have here in the US. We’re quick to complain about our ‘first world’ problems, like our cars being too old or our multiple room, 2 story houses being too small, or the food at the restaurant we visit several times a month taking too long to make it’s way to our table, but when we look past ourselves it is amazing how almost all of the rest of the world lives.

    I would definitely stick to the hotel if I were you and not venture out on any alleyways again! I can’t imagine what would have been going through my mind if that were me. I hope you enjoy your time there even considering the conditions and can’t wait to get together with you guys soon so we can hear about the trip.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Wow! So glad you survived, even dealing with the muddy tennis shoes :) We are praying for you & your safety while away from Cori & the kiddos, and hope you continue to enjoy your “vacation”. Like Michael said, we can’t wait to see you guys again soon – and the pictures!!