As we prepare for our move to Chennai this July, we look back on our two week visit in April, 2016, and to many of the folks we either glimpsed, connected with briefly, or who became friends. We were fortunate to meet Vinoth Raja, who served as our driver but also became our trusted guide and friend, opening doors to the city, its maze of incredible places, and so many of its millions of lovely people–it’s about the size of Chicago, by the way. He also saved me from dehydration in the smoldering humidity by stopping along the street to buy us a plate of flavorful watermelon to share as we drove on in the intense traffic.
As we explored, Vinoth helped me learn a few words of Tamil and he asked me to teach him American slang. I quickly discovered our American accent is very different from the more British tinted English spoken in Chennai. On my first day out with Vinoth while Sarah was visiting at the school, I noticed a gigantic Burger King sign. Of course, Chennai has most of the familiar western brands, including McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, plus shops like Brooks Brothers, Columbia, and Nike in the new Phoenix Marketplace Mall in Velachery, but I was a bit surprised to see BK with a hunk of chicken draped between the buns.
“Have you ever had a Whopper?” I asked him.
Vinoth turned to me, “What is this Whopper?”
I pointed to the sign, “The Burger King burger, the Whopper.”
“Oh, sir, don’t you know the word ‘who?'” he laughed. “That’s a Whooo-per not a waaahper.”
Well, of course it is! Our language is open to so many whims and riffs of pronunciation that who am I to say what the derivation of that word might be.
Vinoth guided us through two of Chennai’s notable Hindu temples, Kapaleeshwarar and Parthasarathy, where he helped us patiently wait in the long, serpentining lines, to navigate the many carved niches with their hundreds of avatars, to step over the nearly a foot tall lintels, and even giving us a coin so we could receive a blessing from the gurus. I really struggled to pronounce the latter temple’s name, so Vinoth would spring it on me like a quiz as we drove along, “What temple did we see yesterday?” and get a big chuckle when I repeatedly mangled the name.
We were also delighted at the stunning array of colors, especially the women’s saris and kurtas, and we were usually rewarded with an open smile and a bit of a connection when we made eye contact with someone. Well, most of the time, as I’m not sure if this two-wheeler rider is smiling or not, but I realize taking someone’s photo from about four feet away, inside a car while stopped in traffic, and without asking them, isn’t the most polite thing to do. Lesson to learn for my wanderings when we return.
It also paid to be alert as we crawled with the traffic along the narrow streets and lanes, for the surprising detail, the burst of color, or the glimpse like this one along Gandhi Road where a youngster takes advantage of the outdoor hand wash station.
We look forward to finding new connections and making more friends when we return to Chennai. By the way, the header photo for this post: that’s us at the airport at nearly midnight for our return to Indianapolis. Vinoth surprised us as he had managed to get the hotel to let him drive us–after we had said our farewells earlier in the day–instead of their service. We look forward to seeing Vinoth again soon, maybe for lunch at Murugan Idli!