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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Life in Chennai #2: Seasons change

Winter has arrived here in Chennai. Temperatures have dropped and as in Canada, it is time to don your toque against the chill of 28 degrees. I’m actually being serious. The night watchmen at my building, and he is not alone, now comes to work wearing a thin fleece balaclava. And let me be clear this is 28 degrees C above zero, not below zero like Calgary & Vancouver were getting last week. Some things defy understanding, but I fully assume the night watchmen will be happily comfortable come July’s 45 degrees in the shade when I’m lying with my head in the refrigerator in order to get any sleep. In the mean time perhaps I should offer him my down jacket...

With the coming of winter, the rains have ended and the streets have dried up. I’m hoping they will invest in repairing some of the monster potholes and washboard pavement as most of the autos have only marginal shocks at best. Honestly, it is worse than the Squamish Main gravel after the spring thaw. Without the rains to keep the smog at bay, the pollution index has steadily climbed. I really dislike seeing the dirt that comes out when I blow my nose in the evenings. I’ve been spoiled in Vancouver. I am thinking it isn’t much worse (currently at least) than Toronto in the summer, but it has been too long since I lived in the city to know if this is a fair comparison and I also have never commuted down the Don Valley Parkway in an open-air glorified 3-wheeled golf cart that is likely the direct source for any local particulates I am breathing in. So perhaps it isn’t. Either way, spending an hour and a half in smoggy traffic each day isn’t the most beautiful part of the experience.

But smog or no, there is colour everywhere and it is never boring to watch the world pass by. And right now, India is travelled past me at 30 km/h from the back of an open-air auto-rickshaw. It is a gritty view, like a bad home movie: full of bumps, hard to hear and slight dingy.

The view today is new and unknown. My auto driver appears to know an alternate route around the worst of the traffic, a windy and creative route full of switchbacks and twists through narrow alleys, market streets and illegal scoots up one-way streets. It is just as well – the main roads are congested, polluted and coated in a smothering veneer of advertising large and small. I’m not convinced this route is actually faster, but I’m happy for the diversion and trust that we’ll pop out somewhere I recognize eventually.

Generally, I have found the drivers to be trustworthy, getting me to my destination eventually, if sometimes circuitously, and only occasionally trying to renegotiate the fare once we arrive. They will fully try to milk you with an outrageous opening bid for the fare, especially if you don’t know how much it should be (and the tourist areas are worse for this), but the locals get the same treatment and if you’re willing to do as the locals do and let a few autos go if they are unwilling to negotiate a reasonable fare, then you generally do fine.

So by women garbed in bright yellow, green or purple, by slums and by glass-clad office towers, by shops that spill out onto the road and by people going about their morning routine, I jostle and chatter along and soak in where I am.

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