One of my favorite small series on this blog is my travel impressions. For a moment we forget the tips, the advice, and the SEO and hone in on the essence of travel: it’s images, emotions, scents, and memories. For no place could this seem more fitting than chaotic Chennai India.
Chennai (formerly called Madras) is a city in the Tamil Nadu region of southern India. I spent some time here recently for the week-long extravaganza that was my friend Vaish’s wedding. Vaish and I met when we were both international students in England. She is such a special, fiery, talented, and elegant person. Ever since I’ve known her she’s spoken of her wedding in reverent tones, and I’ve dreamed of how magical it would be.
So when Vaish sent me a selfie with her brand new engagement ring last year, I knew I would be heading to India. Better yet, a dozen of our other international student friends would be making the journey to India, too!
So while Chennai itself is not a mega popular tourist destination, this was still one of the best trips of my life. I hope you enjoy these travel impressions of Chennai.
39 hours of travel later, a sweaty visa line, and the face of an old friend a few rows up. The gentle pushing and rushing into that first hug of reunion.
Stepping out the airport doors to an onslaught of dust, heat, horns, heaving people.
That first taxi to the hotel, my eyes drawn out the window to each weaving tuktuk, each four-person-piled motorbike
The tiled hotel lobby, the scent of lemon cleaning fluid, the soon-familiar staff who don’t seem to sleep
Paneer masala for the first meal, spent lazing with Dan, Orsi, and Gabor before our rooms were ready
An instant click back into old friendships, the reunion and lack of pretenses. The earnestness of small talk and big talk and being together again.
Pull of fabric over my head, tight over my chest, loose on the waist. Pinching of skin and pins as the tailors fuss, friends look on. Each outfit bright and new and mine.
Across the city, in a gym, we sit cross legged and sweaty for dance practice. The curve of hips and curl of wrists and stomp of feet and counting beat, beat, beat. Wishing I’d learned the wedding dance earlier, but happy I’m not alone in this regret.
Familiar Lays potato chips, but masala flavoured.
Papayas, watermelon, sour pineapple in the mornings.
The yeasty taste of Idli, the crunch of dosa. Spice, and new names, always on my tongue.
The Nalagu ceremony, lotus flowers floating in copper bowls. The plonk of a photographer’s lens into the bowl – his face drains but across the room, only I seem to notice.
Dangling white flowers, sewn together in strings from floor to ceiling, wrapped in Vaish’s long black hair. The smear of turmeric on her face.
A wooden fan, thankfully.
Scooping curries and lentils and rice from banana leaf to mouth – the best is a sweet coconut milk sipped from a bowl. Alexia and I, conspiratorially, ask for seconds.
A shower, a nap, a dance in my head, bobby pins in my hair, dresses strewn on the hotel floor, makeup again
Mehendi, Vaish sitting like a princess in a deep red gown, henna drawing up her arms
Waiting in the golden hour sunlight for my turn at henna. Stained fingers that move deftly in some unplanned design.
My own henna, sweet-scented.
And tarot cards read in the back yard: You need to write your thoughts to understand them, I’m told. You’re too deep, nobody can find your end. What do you do for a living? Write, I say, and blush.
Vaish’s sister, weaving through dancing crowds, always with test tube shots in her hands. With me! She says. Again and again – fruity and strong.
The night air here: star filled and heavy and floral and like the dust is finally, finally sleeping
A pink and orange sunset from the sixth floor window.
The rooftop pool, and the pigeons that congregate on its edges. The city stretches out, green and jungled and palatial on one side. Expansive and dense and gray and inarticulate until the horizon. And the sea: blue and just out of reach
One evening walking to the beach – weaving between tuktuks and cows and motorbikes, walking in line with Dan, who has done this before, bursts and starts.
And the beach: lined in litter and the scent of old fish, flea-covered dogs lay in ditches, hollowed out people sit on cardboard pieces by the roadside watching us pass- pale and like we shouldn’t be here. And I see what I knew before but it’s different now- this city has another side that doesn’t glitter and gleam but is just as real
The temple that stretches tall into the dimming night, the rows of shoes outside and my knee length dress, too short to enter so instead I watch the entering, and the exiting
Another dance practice, and another, Vaish demonstrating: hips like this, wrists like this.
The crowd of videographers, photographers, like paparazzi and Vaish is not just a bride but a celebrity.
The Sangeeth- the party- Vaish’s silver mirrored dress, our rainbow of lehengas. The adrenaline before the dance, then the stage and Dan’s hands and smiling because how is this not hilarious? Dan whispering “three” in my ear which to him inexplicably means “don’t forget the dip” and for once I actually don’t, and then it’s over and we’re cheering
After dancing comes a buffet of rich paneer masala, poppadams, rice, biryani, aloo gobi, spicy red chutney that makes Dan’s face break out in sweat
And more dancing- this time unchoreographed with more gin involved and more running, more laughing, more hugging, until it’s 3am and we’re drinking water on the floors and somehow eating paneer masala again and still laughing
One evening in a park, Dan and I walk. The sky turns dusty pink and grey, the trees get darker, and what first are birds turn out to be bats: wide winged and swooping low over the city paths. In the back of the park men dressed in slacks and dress shoes play badminton. We watch. It’s Thursday. This is you and I, Dan says – meaning we are not the glittering dance parties and we are not the impoverished seaside, we’re somewhere precariously balanced in between yet witness all three and I know this and it makes me feel terribly sad and terribly immobile.
In the hotel, a charcoal face mask, as if that will fix a week of heavy makeup and late nights and early mornings and chili peppers and fruity mysteriously liquored shots dressed up in test tubes
The wedding morning: 4:45am alarm. I quietly gather my last outfit, the aqua saree Vaish got me that I loved from first sight, and pad down the hall to room 115. Here, an army of bobby pins and safety pins and flowers, two of Vaish’s mothers friends given the responsibility of draping the sarees of a dozen non-Indian women in the span of two hours, and miraculously succeed
Heavy earrings, the pair Vaish gave me 2.5 years ago when we lived a different life together in a seaside town in England. They dangle and drag my ears but they’re beautiful
The wedding itself: pink and ombré and tiny flowers everywhere. You can feel Vaish’s touch, her designer’s eye, in every detail. The procession of first Avi, then Vaish herself dressed in magenta, down the aisle. The drums, the Hindu chanting, and flower garlands and finally the necklace which, followed by a burst of 800 cheers and the toss of turmeric rice, I understand to mean “I do”
Hugs, celebration, gratefulness, see you soons, which won’t be soon at all but hopefully will at least be. Old friends and new friends and colourful goodbyes.
Straight to the airport from the wedding- I’ve changed from saree to sweats. I notice the pointing and Tamil-speaking at the check in counter and remember: my hair wreathed in flowers, the jeweled earrings and makeup, henna up my arms, and worst of all the red crystal bindi on my forehead. It was an Indian woman and a friend who placed it there, but no longer within the bubble of the wedding, am I culturally appropriating? I blush and worry and pass through security into the private curtain of female body pat down. The security agent faces me sternly, then smiles. Why are you so beautiful at the airport? She asks. I laugh and tell her I was at a wedding. Ah, Mehendi, she says looking at my arms. Smiling.
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