Chennai, India

May 3 - 5

My photos of Chennai can be viewed here.

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All my India photos can be viewed here.


I arrived in Chennai (Madras) around 11pm. Swine Flu. First glimpse of the mess of bureaucracy one must deal with in India. All of us got in line for customs, but as we finally got up to the front, we were told we first needed to go to a desk to get a stamp. The stamp basically said “checked and cleared” which we weren’t - but I guess they just have to feel like they’re doing something. You’d think someone would just stand up and make an announcement to everyone all at once…but that’s not the way things work in India.

Went to prepaid taxi stand. Had to deal with taxi driver trying to grab me before making it to the stand. Showing me his ID to prove he was an approved taxi driver, then trying to take me for about twice as much as it’s supposed to cost. A lesson - if someone is too eager to do anything for you, it’s a bad sign. Luckily McKay told me exactly how much it should cost. Sometimes it’s easier to go along with things….and although I was exhausted at this point, I’m glad I stood my ground. Climbed into a fancy, old fashioned car. Taxi river was mad at me for not falling for his games. In the end he was nice - stopping every few blocks so I could get out and find a street light from which to read the next set of directions.

Stayed with McKay (CSer working for organization called Hand in Hand). Met Lydia working for women NGO in the south. Stayed up until about 3am talking. Next day, Lydia and I walked around. Walked to the market and looked at clothes. Giant multistory buildings with ready mades and fabric so you can pick out what you want made and have it tailored. Some shops had big containers of purified water and even some AC. Market clogged with women in brightly colored saris, long braids, and tough barefeet. Went to Amethyst Cafe (nice wifi, prettty garden, nice juices and coffee but bad Western food, not India). Guys hanging off sides of buses. One guy really struggling to stay on and my rickshaw almost sidewiped him as we sped by.

Next day, Met Andrea (working for Acting school in Kanchipuram). Ate lots of wonderful food at fancy restaurant.

Sensory overload. Too overwhelmed to take lots of pictures.

Tourist seasons, monsoons, heat

Funny formal English: “Can I have your email identification? “Basically madam, what is your good name?” “Native place?” or “Coming from?”

Head wiggle (not quite yes, not no. something like “I’m acknowledging that you’re speaking.” Similar to a hmmmm. Subtulties in the way the head wiggles, seems to mean a definite yes rather than a vague one, but youi’d probably have to be in INdia a long time to master this nonverbal communication.

Hotels and elaborate forms with passport photocopies. They have to do it because the police do frequent raids and threaten to shut down their business if they don’t have all their guests documented.

When you go to India, you can expect that even the most basic tasks will take ages to complete. A perfect example of this is mailing a package at the post office. If I had read my guide book ahead of time (which mentions the post office in great length), I would have probably decided NOT to mail my sleeping bag back home and instead just carried the extra weight or given it away to someone. But since I had just arrived in India, I had no idea how many hoops I would have to jump through in order to make this happen. It’s a crazy process! I first showed up to the post office without a box. I figured they’d have one there and would just charge me a little bit extra to buy it. But when I got to the front of the line, the woman turned me away and said I needed to get my own box first. Luckily I came  across a wine shop almost immediately and talked them into giving me one of their boxes and helping me package it with tape (for a fee of 6 rupees). As I walked back to the post office, I was proud of myself for managing to get that done so quickly. This time there was a long line and it wasn’t moving because all the post office employees were eating lunch on the floor and ignoring us. The woman glanced at me with my box, but didn’t say anything. After about 30 minutes, I got up to the front of the line and she was very angry. She said “No!” Not that box! This can be opened easily! It needs special wrapping! You must go to the main post office!” I had her write down directions to the main post office and got an auto rickshaw driver to take me there and wait for me outside. I thought it would just be a quick thing, but I was in for a big surprise. Mailing a package in India involves an elaborate process of customs inspections, sewing cloth covers, signing papers, filling out multiple documents and photocopying them, paying various fees, and lots and lots of waiting (while periodically reminding them that you are still there and not going away). I wanted to scream and pull my hair out…or just leave and forget the whole thing. But I had already invested so much time, I figured I should see it through to the end. And based on the fact that none of the locals seemed at all perturbed by this process, I realized that this must be how most things work in India. So the moral of the story is, if you have to mail something out of India (which I hope you never do), there are clear steps that need to be followed and it’s best to know them in advance. Otherwise you will waste a lot of time! And when things take forever, just be amused with it. Getting frustrated won’t speed anything up. I’m sure the packaging process varies quite a bit in each post office/city/state of India, but this is what I experienced:

1.) Go to the post office and show them your item to have it cleared by customs. If your package is already wrapped at this point, they will have to unwrap it. So show up with your items unwrapped.

2.) Take the parcel to a tailor and pay to have it wrapped in cheap cotton cloth. If you’re at a major post office, they may have a wrapping service there, saving you the trouble of finding a tailor. Either way, you’ll have to pay a small fee for the wrapping job. And you may have to sit around a while while you watch the workers engage in the tedious process of stitching packages with a needle and thread, often stopping mid stitch to do something else for a while, then finally going back to stitching your package. And if you are unlucky enough to get a worker who is new, expect to wait twice as long. Because then you get to listen to all the other workers argue with her about the correct way to do things, making her redo stitches if it isn’t perfect. And she’ll probably be so self conscious and timid about her wrapping job, that she’ll glance up after each stitch to approval before continuing on to the next one.

3.) Take your parcel back to the post office and fill in all the customs forms. It’s easiest just to mark the box that says “gift” so you can avoid dealing with an even bigger bureaucratic mess. Usually they’ll need to make several photocopies of these forms - and they’ll send you down the street to the photocopy place to get this done yourself.

4.) Use a marker to write the to/from addresses on your parcel, along with the weight (after they weigh your package), the shipping method, and various other notes. It’s best to wait to fill this out when there is someone to prompt you. Because if you don’t do it correctly, you may have to start the whole wrapping process over again - a nightmare!)

5.) Give your package back to the post office workers. They’ll stick some stickers, stamps, and wrap some plastic bands around it. This may take a while depending on how many other customers they’re dealing with simultaneously, how many employees they’re chatting with, how many times they drop the pen in between the counter and the wall, and how much they like you. Take a deep breath, because now you’re almost finished!

6.) Transfer your package to the actual post office counter and pay (finally).

7.) Pray that your package makes it to its intended destination intact.

2 Responses to “Chennai, India”

  1. [...] Follow this link: Chennai, India | Circle Our Earth [...]

  2. Yes; you’ve hit the nail on the head with your post office description!!!!

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