29 September 2007

Running Fool

In an act that certainly felt more normal than it would have four weeks ago, I went for my first run in Chennai today. I initially woke up to my 6am alarm with the intent to attend a 6:30am martial arts class. But five minutes into my bike ride towards the beach, I realized that it was actually “cool” enough outside to go for a run. *Note to reader: Up until this morning, I have been unable to drag my sorry ass out of bed before 8:30am. Neither construction workers nor honking traffic nor humid, stale air could force me from my cot until the last possible minute. So today’s exception was quite notable!

Besant Nagar (our neighborhood) is an entirely different universe before 7am. My only fellow exercisers were all over 40 years of age: power-walking brahman men with bright white tennis shoes who swarmed about the seaside boardwalk. Cardiac health is practically a new fad here in South India, and one only adopted by retirees and those with enough money to live a healthy lifestyle. Billboards advertise life-after-heart-surgery, cereals and aryuvedic products claim to ensure a healthy heart, and obesity is an oft-discussed disease. (I actually learned a crazy statistic the other day: one in four diabetics on the planet is an Indian.) Here, wealth often manifests itself as obesity – if one has money, one can afford to eat often and much. Also, I’ve never passed a sweet shop that wasn’t swarming with customers. It is both curious and disturbing to watch elements of Indian culture interpret North American and European obesity as a mark of prosperity. There are, of course, many Indians who react against such an interpretation (the power-walkers, the yoga and martial arts practitioners), and like I said, health-consciousness has arrived on the scene in a craze quite like bellbottom jeans or American (Indian) Idol.

Back to my run: I took about forty-five minutes to run to the beach and back. I passed a temple clanging its bells and applying tikka paste to the horns and foreheads of some local cows. I breathed in air pungent with fresh fish, dog feces, cow feces, human feces, and mystery feces. Dressed in sneakers and work-out clothes, the auto rickshaw drivers knew to leave me be. An elderly foreign man who was walking in the opposite direction gave me a stern glare, as if he had hoped to be the only pale-faced outsider that morning. I saw a motorcycle carrying three men and their tennis rackets, dogs sleeping in piles on the beach, and games of frisbee, volley ball, and soccer along the Bay of Bengal. It was so quiet, relatively cool, and I felt as if I was seeing my neighbourhood for the first time…again. I’m so glad to have the chance to renew my love and appreciation for the area, as this week I had begun to feel a bit stuck (I blame the rain on Thursday).

Today we’re working a half-day at Tara (in preparation for our bosses’ departure for the Frankfurt Book Fair next week, and because of the state-wide strike on Monday). Then I’m off to the tailor, the post office, and the grocery store. We’re having a few new friends over for dinner tonight, and I’m finally exposing to the world my newfound love of South Indian cooking. I’ll be sure to post my favourite recipes here soon.

Happy Early Birthday, Gandhi-Ji!

27 September 2007

"Finding roaches in the pot..."

Ari and I have reached an unspoken agreement regarding our particular roles in the household. Should the world’s largest cockroach enter our kitchen or bathroom (such a thing occurs with some regularity), Ari’s task is to either immediately leave the room or climb on the tallest piece of furniture and survey the scene with great dismay and perhaps a groan or two. My responsibility lies first in the panicking, then in the spraying of the world’s largest cockroach with undue amounts of roach killer, and finally in the disposal of the world’s largest cockroach in the dirt outside (Last evening, Nina took over that final step). While these roles hardly seem equal or fair, they are what they are. Ari is a pansy and I am a cold-blooded murderer. Such is life at Old 21/New 8 10th Cross Street.

Update: We do in fact get The Hindu every morning. To use Kovitz’s phrase, “I’m the provider!”

26 September 2007

A cycling blog (4 pockets!) dated 22 Sept. 2007

Cycling in this city is exhilarating! Weaving between people and motorcycles, adding the ring of my bell to the din on the streets, feeling a rush as I pass by the buzzing shopfronts. I rode my bike to the very outskirts of southern Chennai today. I wanted to find the Shivananda Yoga Center (where they hold intensive classes, meditation retreats, etc). It was about a 30 minute bicycle ride, and what a way to see my neighbourhood!I'vebeen fighting a cold all week that came on full-force last night. But following a great deal of Sudafed and some local remedies, I felt at least somewhat capable of taking a day alone, for myself. After I snuck in to the Theosophical Society and hid out in the “Liberal Catholic Church” grounds to write in my journal, I grabbed a few idlys and headed south.

I took a detour to search for the news shop that sold the previous Tara interns their subscription to The Hindu, India’s equivalent of The New York or London Times. All I had to go on was a receipt that was taped to our refrigerator and used as a note to eulogize a four-legged, two-anused chicken (don’t ask!).

In Chennai, the addresses are literally composed of lines such as “21/81 Behind the Water Tank, Thiruvanmur, Chennai” or “56 76 K.K. Road, next to Mr. A’s house, Besant Nagar, Chennai.” So everyone has to ask for directions. After several attempts at finding the elusive newstand, a very nice young engineer on a motorcycle informed me that his friend and neighbor owned this shop and he would be happy to take me there! He brought me to a narrow back alley – so narrow, in fact, that I had to leave my bike at the entrance in order to fit between the buildings. After a bit of searching, we found the home of the owner of the newstand. Said owner was out delivering papers. However, his wife and four-year-old son informed me that he would bring over our first Hindu tomorrow and that he would call me in the evening to confirm. The amazing thing is that without having randomly asked the particularly kind engineer, I would never have found the home of the man who sells newspapers from a shop of which nobody knows the address. This is every-day Chennai! And it works! Somehow everyone gets their paper every morning and a man can make a living selling subscriptions to one the most widely circulated newspapers in the world out of his backalley apartment.

So with the newspaper subscription tentatively secure, it was southward-ho! Using a city map left to us by our Tara predecessors (honestly, we could not survive without the various resources they passed along!), I made my way down the coast. To my surprise, I passed through neighborhoods and by an Italian Restaurant (Bella Ciao) that I had thought was quite a bit further away. It was reassuring to discover that friends and food were not as distant as I had been told to believe (there is a strange obscuring of distance within the Chennai expat community that I do not yet understand; some places are actually quite far but articulated as “close-by,” while other areas are “so far away” and yet I can cycle to them without complaint).

Along the ride I passed hoards of dragonflies, grazing cows, fishing villages, Ganesh and goddess temples, women with 100lb bags on concrete on their heads, and countless other people, places, and things. As I left the city proper, the environment grew lusher, more resort-like. I found the Sivananda Center and learned about their various yoga programs, took some time to observe a class, and wandered about the surrounding neighborhood.

The ride home was all the more exciting, as I knew where I was and could focus more on the sights and sounds of the trip home. It was around 6pm and the Saturday evening rushhour had begun. I was competing for road space with auto rickshaws, cars large and small, fellow cyclists, pedestrians, buses, and the occasional animal. I wove in and out of traffic, I rang my bell and yelled at those who brushed past too close for comfort. Almost home, I came to one of the few traffic signals in the area. With the other bicycles, I jockeyed and dodged my way between the cars and motorcycles to get to the front of the pack waiting for the green light. The signal changed, and we all charged forward en-mass, horns and bells ringing our forge ahead. It was thrilling and really made me feel as if I was a part of the chaos instead of merely a witness to it.

As I smiled and rode on, an auto rickshaw driver pulled up next to me and told me that at my speed, I could charge 100 rupees (a lot for an auto) “no problem!” We then raced to my house, bike versus auto, and of course he let me win. It was the funniest moment. It was also the first time an auto driver had interacted with me in a way that did not somehow involve a money transaction – again, another moment of feeling more local than foreign, although I no doubt drew the driver’s attention because of my overt foreignness. Ahh well. It was fun nonetheless. And again I end my day madly in love with India.

20 September 2007

Dawn, etc

My mom called me yesterday. She has been in the hospital since the night of Tuesday, August 14th, and will realistically remain in fulltime care until just before Canadian Thanksgiving (mid-October). She is incredibly strong and upbeat despite her situation – or perhaps, in part, because of her situation. The accident has truly opened my mother’s eyes in a way that is difficult to convey. She now can now witness herself as a vital member of several communities; she is an old friend to many, a fellow business owner, a resident of Muskoka, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and a daughter-in-law. She is a role model for so many of the women that she encounters, and I believe she is beginning to see the deep and meaningful affect she has had in other’s lives. The outpouring of love, support, and aid that my parents continue to receive is overwhelming. Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.

David and I were very fortunate to have a mother who stayed home with us until we left for college. But I believe that it was difficult for my mother to find new routes of meaning and fulfilment once her two children had left the house. So it filled me with a deep joy to hear her on the phone last night talking about writing in a journal for the first time, networking with others in the area, and fighting hard to get well. She has always been our family’s fortitude, and she is now (finally) turning this endurance towards her own needs. My father’s unwavering presence and boundless energy certainly help her to maintain such positivity and progress.


In other, completely unrelated news, I ate a “thousand year old egg” today. Evidently in Taiwan (where Ari stopped on his way to India), they bury eggs underground for an extended period of time, only to unearth them and then eat them as some sort of treat or savoury dessert. In the burying/unearthing process, the eggs turn black, the whites harden into what resembles a cheap plastic, and the yolks turn the colour of a smoker’s lungs. Ari brought some of these delicacies into our home and left them on top of our rather dilapidated refrigerator, where they have sat since mid-August. Tonight he half-jokingly suggested that we finally try one. My motto for this year is to try to be open to every experience, even dirty, centuries-old egg experiences, and so I agreed. It was exactly as I expected. Awful. The worst part was that as I put it in my mouth, I could not help but fixate exactly on what I was eating: a black, chewy egg that had been allowed to rot, ferment, and otherwise metamorphosize under the ground.

I’m going to continue to try not to fantasize about Wasabi Bistro in Seattle, WA.

19 September 2007

Life as a series of anecdotes:

I've had to abandon certain environmental ideals since I've been here. The reality of street garbage, excess packaging (I'm starting to realize that is an Asia-wide phenomenon), and omnipresent air pollution somewhat curb my zeal. And so I am able to appreciate the wonderful manner in which the local juice stand packages a sweet lime soda to-go.

As you can see below, the soda is presented in the same way one might receive a prize carnival goldfish: securely tied in a plastic bag.

This is India in the minutiae. This is the India I encounter every time I open my rust-iron gate and step into the street. Fresh lime, fresh sugar, imported club soda, and enough plastic to kill the street dogs who will surely munch on my trash when my cleaning lady throws it into the street.

18 September 2007

India is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book...without the choice.

A Haiku for my Cleaning Lady

Lovely Nagama,
I hate cleaning pots and pans.
You scrub them for me.

- - - - - -

In case anyone was curious about the world’s worst place to have a hangover, India officially takes the blue ribbon. To begin with, one does not drink as much here as one might back home. Tamil Nadu has particularly strict alcohol laws, and a few beers at the house feels like a party (add a Punjabi Pop mix album to the ambiance and things seem out of control!). So your system isn’t prepared for heavy drinking to begin with. Add a day’s worth of dehydration, salty snack food at the bars, and the most surreal and circus-like clubbing atmosphere you’ve ever encountered, and you’re already headed for a tough morning. But it isn’t until the morning is upon you that India’s reign as the world’s worst hangover hotspot truly becomes apparent. Despite the fact that it is Saturday and the holiday celebrating the god Ganesh’s birthday, the construction workers arrive at your home at 7am. They have made absolutely no visible progress all week; however, today is the day they are hell-bent on finishing their task. Sounds of hammers, chisels, shovels, and shouting bombard you through your windows. An argument breaks out in expressive, exasperated Tamil, only to be drowned out by an auto rickshaw’s sputtering engine. The neighbors begin to blare devotional songs from their home stereos. The landlady scolds one of the workers for moving a pile of dirt to the left of the gate when it should have been relocated to the right. You begin to regret the gin and tonics from the previous evening. You remember those drinks well, double shots glowing neon blue beneath the club’s ambient black lights. Come to think of it, whatever made them glow in the first place is also making your stomach seize now. Stumbling out of your room and into the bathroom, you swat the tropical mosquitoes from the toilet seat and brace yourself against the cold, grainy tile. And then you smile to yourself, softly, because in this moment your hangover is the most familiar element in your whole reality. The pain in your head and the uneasiness in your stomach recall dozens of past hangovers, all ripe with the memories (or lack-thereof) from nights past. You take a deep breath, pour a glass of drinking water, and lie back down on your cot, finding a strange – and slightly nauseating – comfort in your hangover’s universalism. And then you pass out.

14 September 2007

12 September 2007

Why I love Miriam Douthit...

I wrote Miriam and told her that I was planning to take two weeks in May or June to go on a yoga retreat. This would involve waking at 5:30 every morning, two-three yoga classes per day, two pure veg meals per day, a couple of hours of daily service to help with the upkeep of the ashram, and back in bed by 10:30pm. It only costs 600 rupees for the whole two weeks (about $15US).

This was the Mirmo's response:

"...Oh and I think your vacation to the yoga thing sounds like smoking crack. Abel-you know I love you! And I love that you are eccentric...I hope one day many many years from now I will know you still and we will meet up and you will have a fresh hena application and way too much stone jewelry and a pamphlet about how to clean toilets for tibetan monks on your next vacation....and I will hug you and remind you then that I love you so and hand you a toilet scrubber. Yoga your ass off sister....do it up. Whatever floats the boat. Personally I would rather go to Vegas and get massages all day and a nice tan."

Oh Miriam, I love you.

11 September 2007

Trial and Error.

It is easy to forget about the belly button. Today I cleaned out my belly button, which I had evidently forgotten to do since my arrival in Chennai. Let’s just say I’ll be doing that much more frequently. Gross. I asked my housemate (or flatmate, as he is called in the local British-borrowed slang) if he had a particularly dirty belly button, and he informed me that stomach hair keeps most of that crap out. Live and learn. Or live, learn, and covet belly hair.

Monday was for failing. But failing can be funny, even enjoyable, when your entire framework is destabilized and you’re adjusting to living in the moment. After an incredibly hot afternoon spent hosting an art workshop at a local school, I returned home determined to make my 6:30pm martial arts class. Ari was coming along for the first time, and we left the house around 6:05pm. Right now we only have one bike (mine), as Ari’s cycle is in shambles and Nina has decided she’s not quite ready for hers yet. So the plan tonight was for us to ride to the class (about 15 minutes away) like the locals: one of us would steer and sit on the seat while the other straddled the back rack. It didn’t take us long to realize that I was horrible at balancing two people on a bike. Ari also felt a bit like I was literally his servant carting him around, so we switched and I straddled the rack. Imagine slowly branding your ass with a rusty composite metal…

Let me just say right now that riding a bike in India can be unnerving. Straddling the metal bike rack, wincing over the slightest bump, and having no control over where you are going…this, this is terrifying! We rode on for quite some time, and then decided to take a short cut that we had seen the rickshaw driver take earlier in the day. And then we got lost. This is the second (!) time I’ve been lost on the way to martial arts, and this time we never made it to the class. We did manage to make it to the post office to mail our days-old letters; however, we were told that unless we wanted speedy post (more than $10US to mail a letter), we had to come back between 9am and 5pm. Strike Two. The final failure was when, as we were walking home because our asses would no longer let us ride pseudo-tandem, we stopped at the new dance studio that opened up just down the road. Their sign announces in pink and black lettering that they offer line dancing, rock and roll, hip hop, jazz, waltz, cha cha, jive, salsa and marangue. But as I was told this evening, you have to start with line dancing and work your way to salsa. The owner told me that if I started classes with him, he’s have me confidently dancing in all sorts of social situations. Evidently he’s unaware of his competition, my much cheaper means of letting loose on the dance floor: gin.

Time to sign off. We’ve made pasta sauce and linguini. Very exciting.

Photo: Cows outside the Tara Office. Here cows are put out to pasture as well; the difference is, the pasture is a neighborhood in a city of 8 million people.

10 September 2007

Two Week Anniversary!

Today was the weirdest day yet in India. It was also the most wonderful day. So this is going to be a long blog entry. For those of you who like me to keep it brief, you might just want to skip this entry!

Realities have started to set in: I have a stomach virus that makes eating anything other than plain bread and the occasional orange wholly unappealing. Chennai proper (we, in all honesty, live in a rather green and relatively cushy southern suburb) is polluted and horribly crowded. But the people here are some of the most helpful I’ve ever met. Every stranger we’ve come across has been more than willing to guide us to the right city bus or to negotiate rickshaw fares for us. Chennai citizens are also notorious for carrying cards finely printed with their personal information. Business cards, without the business. Ari and I were thinking we should get some of these printed – hell, we could have them screen printed by hand for less than Office Depot would charge us back home. And then we could distribute our mobile numbers to the world! Or maybe not.

So today Ari and I had resolved – stomach viruses or not – to venture onto the Chennai buses for the first time. It takes 50-60 rupees to get downtown by auto-rickshaw, and only 4 rupees by bus, so we thought we should master public transit as soon as possible. After a bit of stumbling and confused head turning, we found the crowd of people that signifies the local bus stop. While we knew we were looking for the 23C bus, we got incredibly excited when we saw the M23C bus and jumped aboard. Priding ourselves on our excellent bus boarding skills, we soon realized that we were not going the right way. Never fear! Chennai’s concerned citizens were there! We got off the M23C and, after 20 minutes of waiting in the dusty, hot (32C without the humidity) afternoon, we found a bus that would take us into the central city.

One of Chennai’s major landmarks is Spencer Plaza, a three-story shopping mall in the middle of the city. Around this area are several famous bookstores, hotels, restaurants, and mosques. We wanted to find Spencer Plaza in the hopes that we could then find some of these other important locales. After a nearly two hour bus experience (Ari noted, quite observantly, that all forms of transportation here are really thrill rides. No one’s actually in a hurry to get anywhere, they’re merely driving for the near-death thrill), we fled into the air-conditioned labyrinth known as Spencer Plaza’s. What a sociologist’s wet dream! This “mall” is really a series of halls hastily stuck together filled with a combination of overpriced Kashmiri and South Indian souvenirs and American and European brand stores. Reebok, Wrangler, Levi’s, and Music World abut “Sari Land” and “Sri Lankan Tales.” Most of the shoppers are from India’s middle and upper classes. Chennai’s mall rats look just as smug as bored as those in Boca Raton or Portland, but here the fashion is a strange mix from the past four decades. It is so interesting to see what fads made their way over here, and how they must have been distilled by cultural prejudices, time, distance, and language. Men wear acid-washed, extra-tight bell-bottom jeans. Women wear early nineties t-shirts. Heavy Metal, Nirvana, and Chumbawumba are still big here. Needless to say, Spencers Plaza was a mind-fuck…and I mean that in the most culturally sensitive way possible!

We made our way up to the food court, where our weary digestive systems were met with a Subway! With real bread and honey mustard sauce! Keeping in mind that I’ve been experimenting with South Indian cooking and that I bought a South Indian cookbook today, I think I’m allowed to have a weak moment and indulge in Subway. In any event, Ari and I split a foot-long veggie patty sub. While my fellow intern is naturally reserved and hardly what you would call an expressive individual, he seemed thrilled by his good, nearly old-fashioned sandwich. And I have photos to prove it.

After our bland and thereby enjoyable lunch, we wandered about the shops both in and around the store, finally settling in Giggles, a tiny bookstore attached to a five-star hotel near Spencers. Giggles, usually a corridor filled with books, was bursting with titles today (the boy who usually opens and organizes the books had a tooth infection and the store had temporarily slipped into what I can only suspect was further chaos). The storeowner was a lovely bibliophile who knew of Tara Books and our team, and who sold several of our titles (“I am the hen sparrow!”). She talked books and Chennai and cricket with us for a while, and Ari and I took turns standing in the store (it was only big enough for one person to enter at a time). We invited her to the art show opening we are having tomorrow night for one of our books, and she asked that we not tell her whether India or England was winning tonight’s final cricket match. She even gave us her home phone number in case we ever had a dire need for a particular text. It’s nice to know that somewhere in the world there is a 911-ecquivalent for avid readers.

We were going to a guitar and vina (traditional Indian slide guitar) concert in the hotel in which Giggles was located, but we were over an hour early. So we wandered through the posh locale and found the pool. Sitting under an umbrella beneath palm trees and flowering tropical plants, I could have been in Boca Raton in July. The hotel was really the most ridiculous part of the whole day. Here in the middle of a developing city of 7 million people, in the middle of South India and all that the region connotes, is a luxury hotel (one of many). All of the employees are Indian, all of them address me as “Madam” or “Miss”, and they will not let me open a door or light my own cigarette. Only (white) foreigners stay at such places, giving the hotel an apartheid atmosphere. Several times today, I was very uncomfortable when I was given dramatically different treatment simply because I was not Indian. The residue of the British presence here in Chennai makes me feel dirty; it is a layer of dust the settles on my face and arms whenever I leave the house.

So after a brief sit near the Florida-like pool, we went to the bar and ordered beer! It is really difficult to get beer in Chennai (you must have more than 20 rooms in your establishment in order to serve beer (???) and you cannot buy it anywhere). Domestics – Kingfisher and Blacklabel – and I was so happy to be drinking beer that I didn’t care that Kingfisher tastes like watery MillerLite or that I was spending 225 rupees (over $5) for a beer. Ari and I were the only ones in the bar. We watched the cricket match as the bar staff showered us with various snacks. There was a lot of smiling going on. The bar reminded me of this ritzy skybar I went to in Tokyo with Tesla; while it lacked the gorgeous view of the Tokyo skyline, it was just as absurd and just as welcome in the moment.

We finished off the evening by meeting Nina and attending this guitar/vina concert held by the Alliance Francaise and the French Embassy. A Moroccan guitarist and a local Tamil vina player performed both separately and together, and the music was quite beautiful and often unlike anything I have heard before. After dinner, there was a private party for the guests of this event (we got in for free thanks to the Tara hook-up…I was sorely underdressed…but Dave, now I can say that I’ve worn my Christopher Walken t-shirt to a cultural event in a five-star hotel!). The food and wine were delicious, and while my stomach cramped and moaned all through dinner, I forced myself to ingest meat and bread and a Bailey’s shot. Yum!

A couchsurfing friend drove us home, and now I sit on my cot/bed/irregularly stuffed futon writing this entry. It’s midnight and I’m exhausted. Maybe in the next entry I’ll tell about the never-ending construction going on at the house. Or about my crazy landlady who might take me shopping. Or about her dog who likes to pee on everything, especially people. Or maybe we can discuss my growing concerns about foot fungus. Or my search for a yoga school. Or maybe I’ll just post pictures and let you all sort things out yourselves. XOXO!

06 September 2007

"Quick and Bitter"

The end was quick and bitter.

Slow and sweet was the time between us,

slow and sweet were the nights

when my hands did not touch one another in despair

but with the love of your body

which came between them.

And when I entered into you

it seemed then that great happiness

could be measured with the precision

of sharp pain. Quick and bitter.

Slow and sweet were the nights.

Now is as bitter and grinding as sand –

'We shall be sensible' and similar curses.

And as we stray further from love

we multiply the words,

words and sentences so long and orderly.

Had we remained together

we could have become a silence.

~ Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

translated by Assia Gutmann

05 September 2007


Life here in the Besant Nagar neighborhood of Chennai moves along at a comfortable, leisurely pace. While traffic may brush past with horns honking, very few people actually appear to be in a hurry. The horn is more of a cultural inclination than an effective driving aid. It implies "If you don't move over I'm going to hit you because why would I possibly embrace such notions as right-of-way." India and I are in love.

I've joined a Keralan martial arts (South Indian style of sel
f-defense) class that meets three times per week near the beach. Held the former home of one of India's most talented national dancers, the class is by far the hardest physical activity I've ever engaged in. Imagine kick-boxing combined with yoga in 85 degree weather with 90% humidity - I've never sweat so much in my entire life. We practice in the courtyard of this beautiful Raj-era home. The structure is hundreds of years old, and the stones literally breathe with humidity, mold, and a kind of calm energy. I'm excited to continue the class, if only to meet people (both foreigners and locals) and add a kind of structure to my days.

Photos: Fishmarket at night. Nina and I at a nearby Indian restaurant. Me and my shiny face trying to correctly pour South Indian coffee (which, by the way, is the only way anyone in this wide world should prepare the coffee bean. Lots of milk and lots of sugar...brewed fresh for every cup).

03 September 2007

No need to go to San Francisco

You can wear flowers in your hair in Chennai! There is fresh jasmine for sale all over the city, particularly during festivals and on temple holidays. You buy it from local vendors who sit at the side of the road. It is incredibly uplifting to wander about smelling of jasmine, and I imagine this will become a new habit of mine.

An entry dated 29 August 2007

What an absolutely incredible day. So much has happened, so much of Chennai has revealed itself, and yet this is only my third full day here.

I will start from where my current energetic high comes from. Tonight at about 8:30pm, an American woman and a German man pulled up in a tiny Korean compact car to pick Ari and I up and take us to dinner. Ari had met this girl on Facebook (it’s everywhere!) – they went to the same university but had never met before last Sunday. She has introduced him to around 15 Europeans (mostly Germans…Germans are running Chennai from a business perspective...more on this later) and they invited us to come out tonight.

We originally planned to go to dinner and then to a club, but a torrential thunderstorm stopped us from leaving the restaurant. So we just ended up staying at this “Italian” restaurant on the beach. It took us quite a long time to get to the place, as Chennai has been steeped in festivities for the past three days (although no one can seem to tell us why everyone is celebrating). Also, driving in this city is terrifying, and I was so glad that someone else with nine months experience was at the wheel. Basically, as the Germans explain, once you forget about any road rules or prior driving habits, you will be fine. Just honk your horn, expect to hit a car or two, and don’t worry about which side of the road you drive on. Finally, we arrived at this “Italian” restaurant just south of the city. I felt quite ambiguous about the establishment, as it was obviously an upscale resort hotel that catered only to the expats and visiting Westerners. It was, however, beautiful, and reminded me of the villas in Key West. There were so many people, and while I think I remember only two or three names, it was a good first glimpse of the foreign community in Chennai.

We spent the evening drinking French wine (which is incredibly expensive in the province of Tamil Nadu), smoking cheap cigarettes, and hearing about the others’ experiences of the city and of India. Most of the Europeans were very surprised that Ari and I would stay here for 12 months without returning home (Europe often being a direct flight away), and such comments made me even more appreciative of Thailand in January. It seems as if there will be numerous people to meet and activities to participate in (beach volleyball, bowling, yoga) –I will have to simply get over my unathletic tendencies in order to engage the community at large.

The night concluded with a very rainy drive home; however, the sounds of the storm and any remaining traffic were drowned out by the deep bass of Euro trance blaring from the car stereo. As the techno beat on, I stared out the window at a Chennai fast asleep, my thoughts drifting to memories of Thursday nights at Parking in Montreal.

I am so grateful for this opportunity at this stage in my life. Three years ago, my experience in Nepal was slightly tainted by a lack of self-confidence and a fear of how others might perceive me. Tonight, I was eager to meet the larger community, but completely unconcerned by their perceptions of who I was. In 2004, I think I would have been paralyzed by the size and scope of this year abroad. But at least for tonight, I found myself able to let go of any doubts, any misgivings, and simply appreciate the moment in the present. I believe this current, confident attitude is largely in thanks to the love and support I have found over the last twelve months. I have had more reassurance, more connections, and more cheerleading in the past 365 days than ever before. So thank you to the family, friends, and even passing acquaintances who have reaffirmed that this was the best decision for my stage of life.

I recognize that I am on a travel high at the moment. Who wouldn’t be after such an international evening?! But I also want to recall tonight for when, three months from now, I begin to lose perspective and start to scream for a break. I came here to have once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The difficult thing to sustain will be the understanding that here in Chennai, every day offers such opportunities.

Sweet Dreams, loves of my life!