A Walk in a Chennai, India Neighborhood

Immersing ourselves in our Chennai neighborhood has been made more interesting by the onset of the Northeast Monsoon. We dodged the main monsoon in the far north and the west of India, well most of it, but didn’t even know there was a monsoon on the east side. It started with a cyclone, which missed us, but the rains have come hard, making walking the muddy, cow shit and trash strewn streets a bit of a challenge.

People here take it in stride, they have to, they know the drill, keep to the less dirty narrow pavement as much as buses, trucks, cars and motos allow, wade the mud and poop when you have to, rinse your sandaled feet in the least muddy water you find, carry an umbrella at all times; it’s a hard rain that falls brother.

Claire’s Walk in Chennai

We followed blogs of many independent travelers in India, cyclists and non, and many of them cut their trips short because of the intensity of the experience: crowds everywhere, no personal space, gastric illnesses, noise and filth. Some very experienced travelers have not been able to take it, and left early. There were times that tested our resolve, or reason for being here, but as is often the case, when one of us is down, the other bucks them up and we soldier on until we feel comfortable.

Mostly we avoided large cities in favor of villages and agricultural districts. But now we are¬†embracing the Indian urban experience of huge Chennai with some measure of enthusiasm, enjoying the cacophony of street noise, the color and relaxed intensity (yes, I meant those words to go together) of the people. We’re even used to getting ripped off (rarely) because each instance is made up for by a dozen smiles and small gestures of welcome. Even cow shit between the toes doesn’t bother us anymore.

We fly home soon, and are ready after three months, but we’re enjoying opening our senses and memories to an India we’ll most likely never see again. But as with all of our adventures, we come home with an overflowing storehouse of memories.

Walking in an Indian City: Chennai, India

We got here a few days early, finished packing Zippy for the flight home, and are now “enjoying” a real Indian city, Chennai. It is seven million people and not very well organized.

We’re in an area called Pallavaram, a mix of mostly low end hotels, open markets, mixed businesses, a few beggars, wandering shitting cows, mostly mud streets (the monsoon just hit) and the constant noise of all manner of vehicle horns, and a few bicycle bells.

More to come here later. Here is a sample of a reasonably orderly scene just as school let out.

The Enigma of Tamil Nadu

DSCF9243RThe longer we’re here the less we understand.

When looking up the history of a nearby temple, I was directed to the specific references from the Ramayana related to this site. Rather than when the temple was built and how, this history is how it fits into the Hindu creation story.

When life is seen as cyclical, eternal, what is history?



SAM_2920R“India, the new myth–a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.” – from Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.

As I read, I always look for the sentence that seems to encapsulate the premise of an entire book, and this sentence did it for me. Rushdie loves to mix metaphors, but so far he hasn’t compared describing India to nailing Jell-O to a wall.


The colors of India are beautiful; splatters of yellow pigment splash our door. Three white stripes with a red dot are smeared on cars, trucks, elevators and windows; nearly every place the eye comes to rest. The entryway of most homes and businesses are decorated with white and colored chalk rangolis. After awhile the colors meld into a background brown and a new design is drawn.

We’ve come into the densely templed region of the ancient Chola empire, and a part of India that is devout and fervent in their beliefs. Most temples are brightly painted, a few are dilapidated with vines growing through them. Some appear to be newer temples built over the foundations of old ones.


The people have been gracious, if enigmatic. Not just the indecipherable head wag, but many other gestures, exclamations and attempts at questions continue to mystify us. Though we understand so little, we continue to strive and hope we can at least promote good will. As my Dad says,

“A smile is understood in every language.”

From Tea to Tamil Nadu

Claire: This is India: anything, any day. One day it may be a strike, the next it may be a holiday. Every day, we’re clueless as to why the shops, restaurants, and banks are closed today. On our way up into the Western Ghats, we were enjoying fairly quiet riding with no buses to contend with and a few motos full of boisterous young men. Stopping at a touristy roadside, we wondered why all the stalls were closed. “Stick,” someone said. “Band.” Finally, I recognized “bandh”, the Hindi word for strike. (Probably the first word anyone considering traveling to India should learn.)When we checked into our hotel, we could only order room service, and fried rice was all that was available.

This is India, just roll with it, everyone else does. We later learned the strike had something to do with corruption.

SAM_2734RThere is so much we don’t understand, here, sometimes life seems much harder than it needs to be. We met a father who was very motivated to speak to us. Very politely, he asked in stilted English, if he could speak with us. Then instead, he pulled out a letter written by his wife in pretty good English. The letter explained that their nine-year old son was hearing impaired and had a cochlear implant. It was a heartening thing to read how the boy had come out of his shell because of it. But then a wire broke and the part is no longer available. Now, the boy will need a replacement/upgrade. We thought the father was asking for money, and though it was only a fraction of what he would need, we were ready to hand some over when he said, “No, no, foundation.” We got the impression he hoped we might know of some aid organization that could fund the $6,000 surgery. We said we would try, and then he shared some coconut, cumin rice dumplings with us. Luckily for us, and for Joseph, we heard a quick response from Beth Alberto and Mickie Burrows. They’re already in action!

The Cardamom Hills, maximum road elevation of 6,000 ft, though still warm, were blissfully cooler than the lowlands. The tea and coffee plantations were very scenic, accentuated with blooming flame trees and bright red poinsettias lining the road. In Munnar, we inquired about heading toward Tamil Nadu and were told we didn’t want to go there. Violence and bus burnings because of a protest against the jailing of Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalithaa for having assets disproportionate to her income (presumed corruption.) The interpretation we heard indicated that she is well liked because of subsidies to food and water.

Within a week, all of India is celebrating Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi’s Birthday on October 2, as an International Day of Non-Violence. Whew, that’s a relief.

So, we’re in Tamil Nadu, approaching the Kaveri River, and we haven’t seen any violence yet. The descent down off the mountains was a beautiful, quiet road through a wildlife sanctuary and tiger preserve. We saw no tigers or elephants, but some impressive elephant poop; it was nice to hear so many jungle birds and a see a couple of nice waterfalls.

Along the agricultural flats, we cruise at a clip quick enough to keep a steady breeze going…and an energizing flow of cheerful waves and enthusiastic exclamations. When we spotted a cricket game in practice, it was too much to resist. We steered up to the edge. Bob said he only wanted to sneak some pictures of the game, but I knew better. As soon as the boys spotted Zippy, the game took a break and we were soon surrounded:

Bob here: I should have known I wouldn’t get to watch a Cricket game; Zippy is a male magnet, particularly young boys. They ran at us yelling who-know’s-what in Tamil and circled us waving Cricket bats and smiling. Claire manged to communicate how much I liked the game of Cricket. (It’s the only English on TV here, and I DO love the complex game), and they invited me to give it a shot. I had never held a cricket bat, and had to feel the ball (smaller and softer than a baseball) before giving it a go. The oldest looking boy was the bowler, and was kind to me with slow deliveries; I still missed two before connecting and being caught out. I finally could connect and hit a boundary, good for four runs in a game. Of course the boundary was set for twelve-year-old boys. Fair enough I guess, for a 70-year-old man.

After the match we tried to answer questions about Zippy, where we are from (everybody knows USA and America) and where we came from in India. Claire handed out Bens Bells “Be Kind” stickers (a Tucson non-profit), and I gave the bowler and the teacher the last of my business cards, just in case they had access to internet (doubtful).

Of course all of this transpired without any common language, just a common love of bicycles and Cricket. What more do I need to have fun half a world away from home?


The Western Ghats are behind us, and in a few days we’ll have crossed the southern part of the Indian subcontinent (no big deal), and spend some time on the Bay of Bengal.

We’re adapting to the heat by riding early, and Claire has developed a great talent for finding us air conditioning every day since we left the mountains. We’re getting soft, winding down.