35 degrees – a summer in Chennai

Three weeks after landing in India, we put down our bags with a sigh of relief. We’d made it to our new home for the next 7 weeks; a luxury house sit in Besant Nagar, Chennai. Here’s a photo essay—35 pictures—of the summer we spent in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in India…

Where we stayed

For an Indian family, the space in the apartment would house at least 6 people. It has 3 bedrooms; 2 of which are en-suite. Our host, an Irish/American lady is lucky enough to live in this place on her own, with her furry friend…

A brown and white rabbit lying on a rug
Freya, the house rabbit

Freya was the reason we were able to stay in such a beautiful apartment. Here’s some shots where you can see Freya, as he followed me around.

Freya the bunny is blurred as he jumps on a floor cushion in a spacious lounge
A relaxing lounge

The Dalai Lama has the same rug design in his reception room!

Freya the rabbit sits on one of three rugs in the lounge area of this Indian apartment
Rugs – an unusual sight in Indian homes
A double bed with white linen, Freya the rabbit sits on the floor
The master bedroom is calm and relaxing
A room with full length windows to a balcony. Freya sits on his artificial grass rug.
The bunny room complete with artificial grass rug!
A wicker chair hangs from the ceiling with hall and bunny behind
Best seat in the house – the hanging chair

When you sit in the hanging chair you can see the sea, fishing boats, and the sky. Great for looking at the blue skies in the day and lightning storms by night.

A view of sandy area next to the building, a wall and Elliot's beach beyond
The view when you stand at the window

The breeze from Elliot’s beach was refreshing. The view of men taking a dump on this wasteland was not. I’m fairly glad my eyesight is not 100%.

When we heard drums and trumpets—usually on a Saturday, around 5pm—it was a funeral ritual starting in the area near to the wall. We had a good seat when they came to set fire to the body.

The weather

Monsoon came late this year – it was dry in Chennai until well into July. When it rains during Monsoon, it rains and the thunder and lightning lasts for hours. The climate is always humid in Chennai and May to July sees the hottest temperatures of the year—it reached 35 degrees on most days. We often ran into the comfort of air conditioned shops to escape the heat.

An auto driver holds his phone to take a picture of a sky of deep grey, stall holders et ready for the rain
An auto driver captures a moody sky before the rain

The culture

Religion

Hindu temples are common – we lived very near Ashtalakshmi Temple in Besant Nagar.

Even though the main religion is Hinduism, Christian churches and Islamic mosques are also here. When we were asked which religion we follow, we answered ‘none’. The same person followed with ‘… so which God do you pray to?’. This demonstrated the commonality—everyone is religious here, but you are free to choose which you follow. We were told that missionaries pay people to change their religion in India. I find this absurd.

Getting around

Drivers don’t use maps to navigate around, nor do they generally know street names. Even when travelling by Uber and Ola, we found ourselves navigating our way to destinations we’d never been from the back seat. For this you need a SIM card and data. As a foreign visitor, don’t forget to take your passport and passport photos when you go to buy a SIM in India. You can only go ‘prepay’ (pay as you go) – tourists can’t get phone contracts (there aren’t many rules here, but the rules which do exist are fairly non-sensical).

Autos have meters in Chennai. In Besant Nagar the drivers often use the meter when you ask, but elsewhere, they tend to flatly refuse and offer a price way over the standard rate per kilometre (13 rupees/0.13 GBP per km). If they don’t use the meter, you can expect to be charged between double and quadruple this price. This goes for everyone – not just those of us with a white face. Our Indian friends Rajinder and Sandhya also get this treatment and have to argue the toss every time they travel. Urgh.

Echoes of the past

Mahatma Gandhi—the great leader of the Indian Independence Movement when the British ruled India—was assassinated in 1948. He memory lives on…

Gandhi painting on a wall in Besant Nagar
Gandhi’s image is often seen
Children play around Gandhi's statue in Puducherry
Children play around Gandhi’s statue in Puducherry
A selection of India's bank notes - Gandhi appears on all of them.
Gandhi’s image appears on every bank note of India

Things to do

Go to the beach

It’s common for people to gather on the beach at evenings and weekends. I’ve never seen crowds like it, even in Blackpool. Street stalls sell food and ice cream, and people come to chat, play around in the sea, and enjoy the atmosphere.

People enjoy standing next to the sea on Elliot's beach, Besant Nagar
Hanging around on Elliot’s beach, Besant Nagar

Get historical

We took a day trip along the coast to Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO world heritage site.

An ancient stone monument  next to grass and blue skies
An ancient monument at Mahabalipuram
Stone carving on a wall shows people, some with cow heads and bows and arrows
Stone carving in Mahabalipuram

Get Theosophical

Theosophy is not a religion, but it has been said to underpin all religion.

Adyar, Chennai is the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society. We visited the bookshop and walked around the gardens – it houses a 450 year old banyan tree and a whole load of huge furry bats hanging from the trees!

Lyden looking up at huge bats in a tree
The wingspan of these furry beasts made them look like birds of prey in the sky

Go shopping

Open market with lots of vegetables and sacks of grain
A market in Puducherry

Chennai has huge malls, of which Pheonix Marketcity is the largest. You can buy almost anything you need and feel you are in the UK or US while you shop, with prices to match. Spencer Plaza is more of an Indian market experience, and is looking rather tired in comparison.

A sign says 'a shopper's dream' next to closed down shops in a deserted mall
Shabby!

Catch a performance

We saw a performance by ‘Drum Fighters’ at Alliance Francaise of Madras. India’s first professional drummer’s band, they were an entertaining bunch of 3 guys who had ‘drum-offs’ with each other in various different ways. They used drum kits, bongos, congas, and bottles; and played them with sticks, hands and balls! True.

3 men play drums on stage
‘Drum Fighters’ on stage in Chennai

We caught the best of The Stuttgart International Festival of Animated Film 2014 at Goethe Institut whilst we were here.

The food

You can get nasty bacteria whether you’re eating out or home-cooking, so it’s worth taking precautions to stay well. Despite doing that, I ended up in hospital hooked up to a saline drip and antibiotics. I’m still not even sure what made me ill, but I’m glad to stay I’m all better now, and my immunity is on top form!

Eating out

You can buy any food you like to suit any budget. A couple of wraps from a street seller (check the hygiene) for between 40 and 60 rupees each (0.40 – 0.60 GBP), or you can spend 1000 – 1500 on a meal out or takeaway for two (10 – 15 GBP).

You want south Indian food? – no problem. Chinese, American, Italian or Thai – you got it.

Many small pots of food with bread, rice, daal, gravy dishes and curd
‘Thali’ a North Indian delight found here in South India!

This was my favourite meal in Puducherry. ‘Thali’ is the North Indian version of ‘Meals’, which you can read about in First impressions – Hyderabad, India. It included soup as a starter, the main as pictured, and ice cream as dessert. It came to under 200 rupees, or 2 GBP.

On Lyden’s 30th birthday, we splashed out on a meal at the grandest 5 star hotel we could find – ITC Grand Chola. Lyden chose Pan Asian from the 10 available restaurants within the hotel! We spent 5500 rupees (55 GBP) on 2 mains and a starter to share. This sort of cash would feed an average Indian family for a month. They gave us a complementary birthday cake, and another to take home! The experience and service were really excellent.

Home cooking

I enjoyed learning more about Indian cookery from the people we met and tried out a few different dishes. I’ve never seen some of the veg before – so it was often an experiment!

Washed veg ready to be prepared
I bought organic where possible, and soaked the veg with water purification tablets
A plate including rice, paneer (Indian cheese), North Indian okra stir fry, South Indian aloo masala (spicy potatoes)
The first Indian meal I made in India: rice, paneer (Indian cheese), North Indian okra stir-fry and South Indian aloo masala (spicy potatoes)

We had an oven in the apartment, which is quite rare in Indian households (just a gas hob is the usual). I took advantage to bake some brownies. They didn’t last long.

3 slices of chocolate and cashew nut brownies
Chocolate and cashew brownies—I made these!

Drinking, treats, and takeaways

Drinking

If you go to a 5-star hotel, you can order beer and wine. You can’t buy alcohol in shops or local places as Chennai is a ‘dry’ city. We’re not big drinkers, so this wasn’t a problem for us. But when we fancied a tipple…

‘Fizzy apple’ is a natural probiotic drink sold at our favourite shop – Econut. When we left it on the counter for a few days, this naturally probiotic drink continued to ferment into CIDER. At 81 rupees per litre (0.81 GBP), we got pretty tipsy for next to nothing!

2 glasses full, and an empty bottle of 'fizzy apple' drink
Hang on a minute, I’m feeling a bit fuzzy!

Sweet treats

An empty Cadbury Bourneville chocolate wrapper
We got excited when we saw this…

Fancy some chocolate? Yes it says Cadbury’s on the wrapper but this stuff is made in Mumbai, and they haven’t nailed it. Unless you like cheapo Christmas tree chocolate, don’t bother! When in India, go for Indian sweets instead.

A box of pure ghee sweets
Pure ghee sweets – they melt in your mouth but not in your handbag

Takeaways

You can order any cuisine you like here, but it was some weeks before we tired of Indian every meal time!

A plate of delicious looking Indian food
One of our best Indian takeaways – our welcome meal at Cailin’s

We ordered Domino’s pizza thinking that the ‘personal pizzas’ must be so small that we could manage 4 each. It was beyond even our beastly appetites, yet we felt terrible at how much waste this one takeaway meal produced. It really hits home when you see where all the rubbish ends up…

Janine with a tower of 8 pizza boxes
How many pizzas?

The trash

Elliot's beach with a fishing boat, rubbish and buildings beyond
No blue flags for this beach, just trash

Rubbish is often burned on street corners or on the beach. The neighbourhood where we lived was affluent. The streets were mainly in good condition and there was less rubbish on the streets than we had seen in either Hyderabad (Telangana) or Puducherry.

Street dogs group round to eat something on a quiet street
The street dogs found something interesting to eat
A puppy eats from a pile of rubbish while his dog Mum has a poo nearby
This poor little mutt feasts on trash while his bitch Mum has a poo nearby

Not many people have dogs as pets here in India; they are owned by the streets and survive on scraps.

A cow eats rubbish off the street
Cows are sacred in India. Here’s one eating rubbish next to an open sewer.

Nothing is sacred.

The people

Lyden and Cailin sit in a cafe with tea and cake
Lyden and our host Cailin before she went on holiday

This picture was taken at Chamiers Cafe.

Cailin was a fabulous host. She showed us all the local places and left us with everything we needed before she took off on her Greek adventure, including contact details for some of her friends. We especially enjoyed the company of Rajinder and Harinder from Punjab – they have invited us to North India, so we have to return!

We met Haresh at our favourite Western diner – Jonah’s, where he’s Assistant Manager. We got on so well that he invited us round to have dinner with him and his family on his only day off.

Haresh and his nephew - baby Rahul
Haresh and his nephew – baby Rahul

We bought a gift for Cailin from this guy. Here he is blowing a sea shell like a trumpet, which he explained Northern Indians and tourists like, and South Indians hate (this method was used to call people to war). We did wonder why he was doing this in South India, but despite this, Murali was one of the most endearing people I’ve met in a long time.

Murali on the beach, blowing a sea shell like a horn
Murali blowing a sea shell like a horn

We got to know the owners of Econut (above) over the weeks. Sandhya and Shrikant have led us onto our next chapter in our Indian adventure…

Shrikant, Sandhya, Lyden and Janine in a family home
Shrikant, Sandhya, Lyden, and Janine

What next?

After we leave Chennai, we envisioned heading for a hill station where we could enjoy a cooler climate and tranquility. Through talks with Haresh, we decided we wanted to go to Kodaikanal—a hill station in the same state, but close to Kerala. It takes an overnight train ride to get there.

When we were shopping in Econut, Sandhya asked where we were going to next. Astonishingly, she and her husband Shrikant own a farmhouse 15km away from Kodaikanal which they planned to rent out. Perfect timing!

We are excited to be leaving for the mountains tonight, where we’ll drink fresh spring water and have a private farmhouse with stunning views of a mountain range. Yee haaaa!

Comments

  1. Rocco says

    Awesome, fantastic write up

    I have to say I am quite envious about your story (unusual for me) and India is one of the countries I would like to explore

    But it’s an amazing read and I am really happy to see everything is going well

  2. says

    Great Fun and good story to read!! Your humor is hysterical…I was laughing out-loud several times… So many things to ask — like the cremations out the window. Was wondering if you got to see those! Vinna gets spooked. And technically it’s illegal (supped to be in a proper cremation house, not on the beach). But who can stop the renegade fishing villagers. The old ways often win over new health standards. You’ve collected a great visual record of the mundane and profound that you see around here. Keep photographing.

    Love how the bunny is hiding in all the house pictures. You both were the best houses sitters and pet carers– especially when poor little rabbit had surgery on the giant lump on his neck. He’s in great form after your care and I’m excited to hear about your month in kodaikanal hill station. Thank you so much! And will keep in touch to meet one day again in some part of the world!!

    Big hugs to you both,
    Cailin

    • Lyden says

      Hi Cailin,
      Glad you were amused! We remember one of the first questions you asked when we chatted – ‘What will you do if you hate it?”. There was so much to love about our time in Besant Nagar, and not much to hate – just things to be shocked and surprised by. We miss Freya already, especially when we found carrots in Kodaikanal today with huge green tops 🙂
      We will make sure to see you again. Until then, big hugs from us both xx

    • Lyden says

      Thanks Mary. It’s relaxing where we are staying. It’s 15km–a 40 minute bus ride–from the main town. We’re here at an internet cafe in the hustle of it all – and look forward to retreating back to our spot on the mountain side. More will follow in a few weeks! Bye for now 🙂

  3. says

    Hi! Janine,
    I like your post so much.I love your rabbit Freya so cute. Your post is very amazing I am a traveler the way you represent your experience here its very joyful and gives me inspiration to travel more and more again. Thank you so much for this post and keep it up.

    • Janine says

      Thanks very much for taking the time to post a comment. Travel feeds the soul in many ways, even though struggle. The blog was a great way to log our journey, and it’s so nice to hear it inspires you to do more 🙂

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