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Top Ten Reasons I Knew I Wasn’t in Kansas

Reason #10 — Nobody gets in to see the wizard.  My travel buddies Janine, Jaya, and I, woke up to our third day in Chennai, excited because we were getting an expert tour of the city. A really close relation of Jaya’s family—I think it was something like her husband’s nephew’s wife’s sister-in-law’s very close friend—had kindly offered her driver and fabulous huge car for the day.

Her genial driver started by taking us to the Theosophical Society, whose website explained, “the Mission of the Theosophical Society is to serve humanity by cultivating an ever-deepening understanding and realization of the Ageless Wisdom, spiritual self-transformation, and the unity of all life.” Sadly, they must convey that wisdom on a more spiritual plane because the actual campus is closed to visitors, as is their (apparently idyllic) park. But that was okay, because although we had to give up on the unity of all life, we did find a roadside coconut seller, and were able to get our first coconut water of the trip.

[NOTE: unless otherwise indicated, this and all photos are © Jayalashmi Ayyer and Janine Smith, 2023]

Reason #9 — Not nobody, not no how. Refreshed, we went to the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, a 7th century temple dedicated to Shiva (known locally as Kapaleeshwarar). We marvelled at the brightly colored sculptures of the gopurams (gateway towers), before heading inside.

Kapaleeshwarar Temple gateway, (131 feet/40m tall), Chennai.

Janine and I have a simple, foolproof strategy for these trips. We do whatever Jaya suggests, following her around India like a pair of chubby, elderly, imprinted ducklings. It almost always works unless we get separated from her. But we had checked ahead, and were told this temple allowed non-Hindu visitors. Janine and I were respectfully dressed in traditional Indian salwar and kameez (tunic and trousers), and were almost inside when a scary-tall lady pointed a finger at us and screamed “Foreigner!”

Outed as foreign interlopers, Janine and I meekly found a perch in front of the sanctuary entrance where we had a good view while waiting for Jaya to finish her visit. And there was plenty to see. Gorgeously dressed visitors passed on their way to the temple entrance. Intricately carved statues surrounded us and backed to the second gateway. In front of us was a splendid sculpture of the bull deity Nandi, traditionally placed facing the Shiva sanctuary. Janine and I amused ourselves by imagining the scary foreigner-evicting lady with her J’accuse finger flung into the air as if the sculpture was a mechanical bull like the one we’d seen up north on a prior visit.

But as I watched people emerge from the sanctuary, I started to get worried because several had blood on their faces. One man came out, face covered in bloody rivulets. Undeterred (or perhaps in some kind of head trauma induced shock), he beamed at me before turning to go back inside the temple.

“Janine!” I whisper-hissed as I tugged on her sleeve. “We have to find Jaya before she loses too much blood. What’s the India number for 911?” Just then, a smiling Jaya came out and rubbed our foreheads with bhasma (holy ashes). We stared at each other’s faces, realizing her ashy blessing contained sindur, which left red bloody-looking trails.

Janine informed Jaya of her narrow escape from an international blood-related incident, but we decided she didn’t need to know about our plans to enact foreigner-busting revenge by replacing the sacred bull sculpture with a Texas-style challenger.

Reason #8 — Busted Again. We stopped at the delicately shell-pink Ramakrishna Math (a stunning temple where someone was making a fortune supplying the rosy pink paint that covered everything). This time we made it briefly inside before the doors were closed and we were told we had to leave.

Ramakrishna Math

I realize I’m giving a misleading picture of Chennai, especially because our borrowed driver took us on a tour. We passed the waterfront with its beautiful beaches, where the fishermen are still recovering from the devastating tsunami that killed over ten thousand people twenty years ago. We also saw broad avenues of colonial era buildings, ancient temples and palaces, the enormous business district of India’s fifth-largest city, parks, and monuments.

Reason #7 — Can you hear me now? Briefly giving up on temples, we went in search of an Indian SIM card for my phone. Our driver spotted a likely shop, which proved to be the loudest phone store on the planet. Through some reverse-acoustics miracle of shiny sound-reflective floors, walls, and ceilings, everyone in the place had to scream to be heard.  Lots. Then they yelled louder to be heard over each other. Somehow Jaya screamed up a SIM card for my phone, which the phone agent yelled would magically go live in the next four hours, at which time we would need to provide a credit card to pay for it online. (Spoiler: not so much.)

Reason #6 — The food. Hell, yeah. Obviously, the morning’s temple evictions and shouting matches called for food therapy. While we waited for my SIM card to activate, we ate masala papad and a mini thali meal served on banana leaf along with a big bowl of curd rice at Ananda Bhavan.

Of course, there were other food stops during the day, culminating in dinner hosted by Jaya’s husband’s nephew’s wife’s sister-in-law’s very close friend who — not content with providing her car and driver for the day — insisted on taking us to a spectacularly posh restaurant.

I could have happily made a meal of the tiny amuse-bouche dosas and fillings.

Reason #5 — Industrial-Strength Shopping/Phone Surgery. Not for the faint of heart. Still waiting for the SIM card to activate, we tried a visit to the Kalakshetra Art Foundation, where we had been promised a tour. It was, of course, closed. Like most of our failures in India, that was the opening to visit a craft fair we spotted across the street, which happened to have just the block print dress fabric set I was looking for. (And the two more I didn’t know I was looking for.)

On a roll now, we headed to Pondy Bazaar. If there’s something they don’t sell there, I have no idea what it could be. But Jaya promised to show us the massive sari showrooms where Indian brides find their wedding treasures.

Nalli Chinnasami Chetty sari showroom in Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar.

She ushered us through the seemingly endless showrooms of Nalli Chinnasami Chetty, whose vintage wooden shelves are filled with every kind of silk, embroidered, or hand-loomed sari imaginable.  Jaya was trying to point out the different styles of silks when the call we’d been waiting for finally came in, saying my SIM had been activated.

Surrounded by crowds of gorgeously dressed brides and their mothers, Jaya commandeered four chairs in the middle of the silks. She sat us down to do delicate phone surgery, with both my phone and hers open. Jaya was frustrated because she couldn’t remember which of the two SIMS in her phone was actually my new one. I was frustrated because we were swapping them back and forth between our phones, while thousands of shoppers passed on either side. Both of us were frustrated because nothing we tried seemed to get my phone to work with the new SIM. And Janine was most frustrated of all, because she was forced to miss a seemingly endless stream of amazing photo opportunities since she was charged with holding my teensy UK micro SIM while we juggled the new India ones.

After trying every possible permutation of SIMs (each of which required a phone restart), we finally concluded that the new card just didn’t work. (What Janine concluded as she missed one great photo op after another can’t be printed here because of all the trigger-warnings it would require.)

We made our way back to the phone store, where the agent cheerfully screamed that the SIM card they said we couldn’t pay for until it had been activated could not activate because…wait for it... we hadn’t paid for it. I handed over a wad of cash and was rewarded with an activated SIM. I thought it would give us a proper sense of closure if we went back to Nalli Silks to sit down and load the SIMS, but Janine and Jaya were against that for some reason. Weird.

We went back into the Pondy Bazaar streets and found Bobby Store, where we hit the dress fabric jackpot. Janine got a rayon set plus a blue cotton set. I bought the yellow and teal dress fabric of my dreams.

Reason #4 — Whatever Madam Wants, Madam Gets. As I was now the proud possessor of several sets of dress fabric meant as souvenirs for various friends and family, we headed down to the hotel lobby the next morning to ask if the hotel receptionist could recommend a tailor, but the bell captain asked if he could help. He called a tailor who came to the hotel within minutes, took our measurements, and left with orders for seven outfits, promising to return them to the hotel by our return to Chennai.

Don’t judge me. Gorgeous Indian textiles are my kryptonite.

Reason #3: Dance of Bliss and Blissful Parata. After the tailoring delay, we took an Ola (India-style Uber) to the Government Museum. This is a collection that fills many huge buildings, but I only had eyes for two things.

The museum is home to a stunning collection of Nataraja sculptures such as this bronze masterpiece, which dates from the 11th century Chola dynasty. The story involves the god Shiva, who took the form of a beggar (Bhikshatana) in the Tillai forest of Chidambaram in order to expose and humiliate the sages who neglected his proper worship. The sages sent creatures and demons to attack the god, who defeated them and performed his victory “dance of bliss” standing on the back of a vanquished demon.


The museum also hosted this irresistibly adorable sculpture imploring passersby to “Use Me” for their trash—despite being completely open to spillage in the back.

When we reached critical culture overload, Jaya pointed to the restaurants “across the street”. As the street in question was multiple lanes, most torn up by construction, the new overhead transit system, and creative Indian drivers ignoring any pretense of traffic rules and laws, you would think self-preservation would keep us from venturing. You would be wrong. Years of India travel with Jaya simply meant that she grabbed our hands, pulled us into her protective India traffic mojo bubble, and hauled us straight across. Although we wanted to kiss the ground when we arrived, we refrained because it was India and the ground was, well, the ground. And because we spotted the Krisha Lunch Home “Traditional High Class Veg Restaurant”. Inside, we met the Kerala Paratha, and it rocked our world. I mean seriously: imagine the flakiest of croissants, presented pancake style, and piled with savory toppings.

Kerala Paratha (Malabar Paratha)

Reason #2: Art and the Death Bus. Fortified and caffeinated, we headed back to the Government Museum for more culture. Finally, I admitted I couldn’t look at another sculpture. Jaya tried to call for an Ola but before they could arrive, a huge bus full of tiny school children tried to pull into the Government Museum carpark. Attendants yelled and waved their arms, but the bus pulled forward, oblivious to the fact that it had snagged some live electric wires from the building works for the new elevated metro. This potentially lethal disaster didn’t come as a surprise to any of the guys working the gate, who jumped up and climbed to the top of the bus. One man held up the wires with a stick, and walked backward across the roof of the bus as it moved forward. He dropped the wires and the stick several times because he was STANDING ON THE ROOF OF A MOVING BUS FULL OF CHILDREN and HOLDING LIVE WIRES.

Meanwhile, the children who might be gruesomely electrocuted at any moment hung out the bus windows waving at us and screaming with glee. We realized that we didn’t want the last thing they saw to be three elderly tourists, so we sneaked past the bus and onto the main road.

Of course, traffic was backed up completely, including many more buses full of children, each of which waited patiently for the first bus to clear the live wires, before following them and DOING THE SAME THING.

And the Top Reason We Knew We Weren’t In Kansas? It was 0°F/-18C in Kansas. In Chennai, it was so warm, we sat around the hotel pool drinking beer. And even though every mosquito in the greater Chennai area bit me around the ankles, I was pretty sure we were closer to Oz than to Kansas.