First impressions of Chennai through the eyes of a young American

In my short stay so far, Chennai has shown itself to be everything I was told to expect and nothing like it at all.

Just a few months before I was due to leave for Chennai, my aunt from India gave me a heartfelt pep talk, if you can even call it that.

I think maybe a slap in the face and a “wake the hell up” talk would be more appropriate. 

I got the usual spiel: Don’t eat street food. Don’t drink just any water. Mosquitoes? Malaria? You will be covered in a pool of sweat the moment you step outside. Absolutely no walking alone at night, and how the hell are you going to cross the street? 

Towards the end of our phone call, my spirit already feeling very uplifted, she said: “There is nothing I can do to prepare you for the moment you land in Chennai and leave the airport.”

To this I was confused, somewhat taken aback, but I took it to heart knowing her experience with India. 

I knew from past travels that it was always in your best interest to practice lowering your expectations and preparing for the worst. 

After all, many people had already told me to throw everything I thought I knew about the world out the door — as violently as possible like your knowledge is the clothes of the husband who just cheated on you.

“Asia is a different beast,” was everyone’s favourite line to deliver to me on a silver platter and it still rings in my ear. 

So when I heard from my Aunt to expect the worst from my experience of leaving the airport at 3 a.m., I thought, simply put: prepare to be terrified. 

While I may have been kidding myself, in the back of my naive, little American brain, I really did think I had adequately prepared myself for this arrival. I thought: it will be scary, you will panic, but you will be fine. 

Long story short, nothing could have prepared me for that arrival. 


Read more: Why celebrate Chennai?


Landing in Chennai

After a short 30 hours of travel, three delayed planes, four sets of airplane food, and one hell of a headache, I walked out of baggage claim, head in the clouds, dreaming of my hotel bed. 

Only to be hit by a semi-truck of 100 middle-aged Indian men yelling “Taxi madam?!” at me. 

I felt like the kid in the high school movies whose clothes got stolen from them by the bullies. Who also somehow got roped into running out onto the middle of the stage, in front of a packed audience, spotlight on you, butt naked. 

So exposed, so vulnerable. 

I took one look at the security guard to my left. He looked back with a shrug, clearly amused by this dumb American girl who had obviously never been to India before.

He might as well have written “You’re on your own kid” on his forehead. 

So I ran back inside, tail between my legs, and called my mom. 

Since I was arriving at 3 a.m. my hosts from Oorvani had graciously arranged a driver for me. 

I had never had a “driver” before, so, naturally, I had thought, maybe this driver would be waiting inside baggage claim for me? And also maybe they will have a nice warm cup of chai? And maybe they will hold my hand and tell me everything is going to be ok? Tuck me into my hotel bed?

Wrong. 

Obviously, I didn’t expect these things, but I also didn’t expect my driver to be lost in a pool of men that I would have to swim around in while they all observed the very visual distress plastered across my pale white face.

Before leaving, I was told to never look confused or distressed. “You already stick out, people will read you like a book and take advantage of the dumb American.” 

So, naturally, the voice in my head was screaming “Don’t look stupid!!!” 

I thought maybe I would look more natural if I made various pointless phone calls from inside the airport to look busy until I figured out where the heck this guy was standing in the swarm of eager taxi drivers.

My driver wasn’t picking up his phone, and the men through the glass doors were getting a free show every passing minute. Gears turning in their heads, I assumed.

So, I took those steps back outside, found my driver, followed him to the dark and ominous parking garage (in horror movies this is when you get killed), and got in his car. 

He turned out to be a very nice old man, he didn’t speak much English, but he was my knight in shining armour that night. 


Read more: Madras Day celebrations and what it means for the city


Reflections on Chennai

Since that night, I have had endless reflection time, which means many revelations: and these are just a few. 

  1. I was a wimp. 

Yes, to cut myself some slack, for someone who has travelled solo before, but never to Asia, these experiences can be notoriously overwhelming. But, having spent four weeks negotiating with rickshaw drivers, and creating a small life here in Chennai: that airport seems far less daunting. 

  1. Chennai is everything I was told to expect, and nothing like it at all (cheesy I know).

Yes, it’s true that it’s hot here, that street food can make you sick, and that I’ve almost been hit by a car upwards of 50 times (Mom and Dad if you’ve made it this far, let that go in one ear and out the other, I’m fine!). 

Yes, there were probably some men waiting outside that airport who wanted to take advantage of me. 

But, as more time has passed here, I’ve grown to despise my American counterparts, and the rest of the world, for these cautionary tales being the parts of India I was told to expect. 

autorickshaw in Chennai
An autorickshaw ride in Chennai. Pic: Mary Murphy

Nobody told me to expect that a kind man would tell me where the coffee shop was located when my rickshaw dropped me off almost a block away, and I had that oh-so-cliche dumb American look plastered on my face (yet again). Or that a young college woman would offer to help me grab an Ola when I had been waiting outside for my Uber for over 30 minutes. 

Nobody told me that the heat means you also get beautiful palm trees, beaches, and the best mangoes you’ve ever had in your entire life (I buy a minimum 8 a week, and the guy at the grocery store always helps me pick the best ones), or that the heat means when the rain finally comes, it’s the most refreshing and beautiful sight in the world.

Nobody told me that the chaos and traffic meant long rides home where I get to look outside my rickshaw and see beautiful temples, hundreds of people every passing second enjoying their afternoon coffee, or some of the most inspiring street art I’ve ever seen in my life. 

Nobody told me that the risk of getting sick is (very) worth it if you get to try some of the best street food in the entire world. Side note, I am convinced my stomach is made of steel, and I should be tested in labs because I am built differently than other Americans. 

Don’t get me wrong, all of the cautionary tales were completely necessary, but buried far underneath them, was the beauty that is Chennai. And I am forever grateful that I have the privilege of digging it out.

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