I wasn’t feeling very well this week so I decide not to travel out of town. I ended up having a fabulous weekend in Chennai anyway. Yesterday, a few friends and I had a leisurely lunch at Cream Centre, a modern and chic vegetarian multi-cuisine restaurant. Although it is a chain restaurant the ambiance is quite pleasant and the service attentive. I had dinner there with a friend last week and when my mobile didn’t work, the waiter didn’t hesitate to give me his phone for me to use. I know that mobile calls are inexpensive in India but I thought it was a nice gesture. The staff did hurry us out when we finished our meals (there were people waiting for a table at 9:30PM!) but I think it’s a good place to get away from the dust and the noise of Chennai. They make a channa bhatura there that makes me laugh every time I see someone getting it. Their “special puri” is as large as a hot air balloon!
After lunch I had a lovely cup of chai at a boutique-restaurant called Anohki on Chamiers Road. The cafe/restaurant upstairs was so quiet and spacious that for a while I forgot that I was in India. The white wicker furniture and the breezy surroundings had me completely fooled! I made a mental note to return next weekend for lunch. The boutique had beautiful textiles, home furnishings, and gorgeous Indian clothes as well as jewelry. I’ve never been a good shopper and since I am not buying anything while I travel, it makes things easier when I walk through stores. Most Indian street shop keepers shout out “just look, just look” to get foreigners into their store. In my case, it really is just looking, just looking.
I had plans to meet a friend from the ayurvedic retreat for dinner and I was looking at some restaurant options when the the yoginis next door suggested that we check out a Malaysian place. They’d read a favorable review in the paper so they called to make a reservation for us. We took a fumed filled auto rickshaw ride to the Express Avenue Mall a bit earlier to see what the shopping scene there was like. I was absolutely amazed to find an America style shopping mall, complete with Marks & Spencer, MAC, Sunglass Hut, a multiplex cinema, and a food court. To our amusement, the Malaysian place turned out not to be a restaurant but one of the food stalls! We couldn’t understand why they took a reservation for us at all and even asked for a contact phone number. I guess the joke was on us. At least it served as an easy and convenient place for my friend to meet me.
We weren’t really dressed well enough to dine at a fancy restaurant (not that I have anything fancy to wear on this trip) but that’s what we did for dinner. The only place I could think of given our location and considering the location of my friend’s hotel, was the Rain Tree restaurant. It took some bargaining and haggling before we got two rickshaws to take the five of us to the Taj Connemara. The rickshaw drivers in Chennai are notorious for not using their meters and ripping you off at every turn. I’d say about one out of three drivers quote me a fair price from the get go. Most of the times I have to negotiate and sometimes, the fare they quote me is so outrageous (more than double what it should be) that I end up having to walk away. For someone who is not used to having to haggle, I find this process one of the more stressful things to do to live here in India. Even though we agreed on the fare before getting into the rickshaw, our driver tried to get more money from us by saying that we were on a one way street and he will have to turn around to get another fare. We practically shoved the money into his hands and walk away. I’ve had that happen to me in Bangalore as well where after reaching my destination, the driver argued that it was farther than he had thought and asked for more money. I try my best to let all these things roll off of me and not dwell…
We had to get out of the rickshaws outside the hotel because the rickshaws were not allowed through the front gates. Apparently the guests at this hotel don’t take rickshaws- no riffraff for the Taj hotel! We walked through a metal detector and the white marble lobby to get to the restaurant. The Rain Tree was set far back from the main hotel building, surrounded by tall trees covered with dark green creeper plants. There were three Indian musicians playing live music on a platform by a reflecting pool and I felt instantly transported to a tranquil garden oasis. We decided to sit outside under the stars to enjoy the beautiful night. I had a delectable watermelon and mint juice to start (still keeping my no alcohol rule for India) and shared a few delightful vegetarian dishes. My dining companions had cosmos, vodka martinis, beers, and lamb dishes, which all looked delicious but off limits for me.
During dinner we all commented on how odd it is to go from the utter chaos of the streets of Chennai to this gorgeous and luxurious place within seconds. You can see a half naked child running on the side of the street barefoot and then walk into a shopping mall where everything seems to be in abundance. Our lovely evening went by in a flash and before we knew it, we were the last ones left in the garden. We, or at least I, took a deep breath to get ready to deal with the rickshaw drivers and the outside world. The first driver said he’d take us home for 200 rupees. We tried to negotiate him down to 150 but he refused. We walked away to find another rickshaw with the first driver now trying to chase and wave us back. Not a happy situation when it’s nearly midnight and there aren’t a lot of rickshaws in the vicinity. But finally one of my clever friends walked down the street and got us a rickshaw for 80 rupees. A fair price and a nice way to finish out the evening that was so pleasant.
New York had its share of difficulties and stressful days, but India? You observe, steady yourself, and take it all in – the good, the bad, the ugly. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile the severe disparity in wealth I witnessed this weekend. I’m processing and taking all parts of India in.