March 22nd, 2005

self portrait

Big update to get you all caught up

Sunday night I was kinda beat from my outing and also needing to go to bed early. So I stayed in the hotel and ate dinner in the restaurant downstairs. I learned from the menu that the hotel is built on the former site of the Gemini film studio. This explains the "Gemini flyover" crossing nearby and the film theme seen in the hallways and rooms.

Speaking of which, let's do that obligatory travelling thing where I take pictures of my room:

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But back to dinner. I toyed with the idea of just ordering room service, but I figured it better to get down where I might bump into my fellow travellers. So I perused the room service menu and was able to decide on what to have before going to the restaurant on the main floor. I started with rasam, a soup in a clear broth that is probably chicken and powerfully spiced with black pepper (and perhaps cumin). I thought it made a good appetizer as the pepper did really wake your mouth up. My main course was a "home style chicken curry" served with appam, a rice-based bread that was kind of bowl-shaped, thick and chewy in the center and thin and crisp on the edges. I have no idea if that's the traditional way of making it, but it served its purpose in being sop for the curry. I also had a plain, buttered nan to go with it as well. I had a salted lassi and a Sand Piper lager for beverages. Beer here is served in 600 ml bottles, which is enough for about two and a half glasses. Quite convenient. Desert was not Indian, but was very nice. It was listed as "brandy snap basket with melange of berries and cream." I expected something like ginger snap cookies and a bowl of mixed berries with cream. What I got was something like a cross between a cookie and one of those parmesan cups made by melting the cheese into a disc and letting cool over a cup so it forms a bowl. It was thin and somewhere between crispy and chewy. It held the expected mix of berries (raspberries and strawberries or something similar that is local, I imagine) and cream in the English sense of the word, that is something sweet and about the consistancy of yoghurt.

All in all a lovely and very stuffing meal. Its only downside was the mother of the English family that sat down next to me. I thought Americans were bad travellers, but this lady took the cake. If she had just been louder, she could have passed as some hick from Kentucky or somesuch. I don't know why she bothered looking at the menu, she knew what she wanted before she sat down and, despite the polite protests of her servers, demanded that it be made for her. Then, when the specially prepared item was brought to her, she complained that the portions were too large! I'm glad I didn't try to strike up a conversation and retreated to my room to sleep the sleep of the python that's swallowed a water-buffalo.

Monday

It was my first day on first shift here in Chennai. Work was particularly slow. It being Sunday night in St. Paul, most of the work needing to be done by Monday morning was already done. I did get a chance to talk to one of of the women who arranges things in the office; she was sure that the travel desk at the office would be able to arrange a trip to Dehli and bus to Agra so I would be able to see the Taj Mahal this upcoming weekend. I'm very excited to be going.

Since it was slow, I was able to take off from work early and hook up with Tom and Mika as a group of people from third shift were taking them to see St. Thomas' Mount. This is the spot on which Thomas, apostle of Christ, was martyred during his travel to India to spread the gospel. The church on the mount is a small, barrel-vaulted structure that was built by the Portugese in the 15th century. It's actually a bit simple for its time and it has been treated to layers of plaster and paint that serve to hide the details of its construction. It is quite nice, however, and, after asking permission (and making a suitable donation), we were allowed to take photographs. I didn't find much that grabbed my eye but dutifully took photos of the cross in which the relics of St. Thomas (three of his finger bones, IIRC) are kept, the painting said to have been brought to India by St. Thomas and painted by St. Luke, and the stone cross that Thomas carved himself and was reportedly praying in front of when stabbed to death with a spear. These latter two seem, to my untrained eye, to be far to sophisticated in their making to be properly dated in the first century after Christ's death but I do not argue with the beliefs of others. The cross is said to have bled at masses on December 18 between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Outside the church, you can get a true feeling for the scope of Chennai. There are very few tall buildings in the city, but it sprawls to the horizon in every direction. To the east you can barely see the ocean from the mount. To the west, some rolling hills begin to rise up. Over most of it's expanse, however, Chennai sits on a relatively flat plain.

Tried to take a few shots on the drive back, but we were either past the things that caught my eye before I could get my camera focused on them, or crowded in among cars, motorcycles and auto-rickshaws at the few stops so that I couldn't really get a good shot of anything. The traffic is the thing that people talk about here, other than the weather (and cricket, I imagine, though no one seems to want to strike up a cricket conversation with me).

The thing about Chennai is that it's a city of about seven million people and it has no freeways. All the streets are lined with buildings and only a few are divided by any kind of structure/median. Top this all of with the reality that there are very few traffic laws in Chennai and only a very loose set of traffic guidelines. And on top of that, throw in the fact that the vehicles travelling these streets range from motorcycles to cars to the auto-rickshaws to the occasional ox cart. The result works surprisingly well. Horns here are used to inform your fellow motorists (and I use that term loosely) of where you are so that, should they need to move in your direction, they will do so slowly enough for you to get out of the way. They are also used to indicate to the vehicle blocking your path that it should speed up or move to the left (they drive on the left here, like England) and allow you to pass. A red light appears to mean, "honk while crossing" unless proceeding would cause you to strike another vehicle, in which case you should stop before you do that.

I've only seen a few traffic cops in Chennai. They have all been on foot and only once seemed to do anything to enforce traffic regulations. Most of the time, they serve as auxilliary signals, directing certain flows of traffic to stop and others to proceed. Most drivers seem to respect the men more than the lights, so that's good. On the way back from St. Thomas' Mount, a freight-carrying cycle (a three-wheeled, pedal-powered affair) made a poor decision about when to cross a street. Its driver and his cargo (a big white pipe-shaped thing of some sort) ended up blocking the traffic that had already started across the intersection. Two cops came up and pulled the guy off his conveyance one of them and a seemingly random pedestrian hustled the thing off the road, allowing vehicles to pass, as the other vigorously explained the nature of the mistake to the driver accompanied by slaps to the back of the head.

After the long afternoon out and the drive back, it was a little after 7:00 by the time I got back to my room. After changing out of my sweaty clothes, I figured I would go ahead and order room service on the theory that I would be better able to get to bed on time for work in the morning. So I ordered up the lamb briyani from room service. It came with two types of bread-like stuff, though the menu only lists onion raita. One was strips of something that had been puffed into a crispy foam, the other was a thin, crisp wafer that was flavored with pepper. Both, again, served their purpose of sopping up the curry. The briyani itself is a rice-based dish that is seasoned with an exotic mix of spices I couldn't identify and was served, and apparently cooked, in a clay pot that had its lid sealed with a strip of dough. Another tasty, filling meal. (I skipped dessert this time, so I would have room for breakfast at work in the morning.)

Tuesday

I awoke early for my second day of work and figured I might as well make an early day of it. I was showered, shaved, dressed and ready to go at 6:00. I checked with the bell stand to see if Tom and Mika, who work third shift, had returned. Since they hadn't I knew they would be tired since they missed their regular sleeping period to go to St. Thomas' Mount the day before. So I scheduled the regular car over to work and had it wait there a half hour so that Tom and Mika could take it back. (Saves time and money; ain't I just the good little worker?)

It was surprisingly busy. Nothing was too rushed but there was plenty of work for everyone to do today, a welcome change from the dead quiet of yesterday.

I also was able to confirm my trip to Delhi and Agra to see the Taj Mahal (and other sites) this upcoming weekend. I need to pay for the flight yet, but all things seem ready to go for me to leave Saturday morning and return Sunday night. Won't miss any work and will have a great time, I'm sure.

And now I'm off to see what I can do about some dinner and perhaps a haircut. I need to do some quick sizing and tweaking of photos so this entry will be updated later with those.
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