Sheryl gets a new camera; Chennai from St. Thomas' Mount; A very strange Valentine's Day

We didn’t really realize that it was Valentine’s Day until quite late in the afternoon, and by that point it was too late for any kind of meaningful romantic gesture. We settled for a sheepish grin and a shrug. Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean much to either of us anyway - we both resent being told when to be romantic, especially in observance of a fabricated Hallmark Holiday, so we’ve sort of taken a half-hearted stand against it.

Sheryl needed a new camera very badly, since her old one was nearly dead of many injuries sustained in the course of a long and battle-weary career. Chennai has a number of camera shops, and we reckoned that if she didn’t do it now, she wouldn’t have another chance until Mumbai. So Sujit drove us to the largest of Chennai’s many malls, the Spencer Plaza. He wanted to play with cameras himself, so I don’t think we were imposing on him. Spencer Plaza is huge - three wings of three floors each, all crammed with tiny shops. The sheer amount of stuff crammed into one building is somehow awe-inspiring, like a massive termite nest serving as an altar to compulsive acquisition. But it had a cookie shop, so I was happy. Sheryl did get her camera in the end - she settled for the Canon SX100IS, previous model to the current SX110. The first shop wanted Rs14,500 (about CAD$360) which is substantially more than the camera would sell for at home. The second place was as close as Chennai has to a pro shop, though, and they had it for Rs11,500 (about CAD$285), which is about $60 less than she would have paid at home - plus they threw in a case. She’s very happy with the new camera, though unhappy at spending the money. I’m very familiar with the mixed feelings, having just spent a lot of money on a new lens myself.

Later in the evening we all went for a drive up to St. Thomas’ Mount, the highest point of the Chennai area. It got dark as we drove, and since Sujit hadn’t been there in ages and couldn’t quite remember the way, we had to get directions from some guy on a bike. He led us nearly all the way there, which gives you an idea of the speed we were able to drive on the twisting, cramped little pavement-cracked backstreets. There were stray cows everywhere. I had only seen one or two at a time until now, but there were a few on every corner here, mostly eating kitchen scraps from the roadside middens. It’s so strange to see stray cows. Stray dogs, stray cats, yes. But cows seem far too large an animal to be strays - not to mention that I’m used to seeing cows as valuable livestock, feverishly guarded by farmers.

On the way to the Mount we passed St. Patrick’s Church, a vaulted, glowing clean white space with its doors wide open. So many of the Christian churches we’ve seen here in India have been bright white - it must have been a deliberate early design choice to set them apart from the riotous colour and ornamentation of the Hindu temples. St. Patrick, by the way, was something else I hadn’t expected to see in India. Although I’m sure there’s a fake Irish pub somewhere in Chennai, and where the Irish go St. Pat inevitably follows. The top of the Mount had its church too, a modest barrel-ceilinged building with peeling portraits of the saints lining the walls. We went in, taking off our shoes at the door - a curious bleed-through, I thought, though on reflection not so surprising if you think of a church as just another kind of temple. On the way in I caught a rare hostile look from a young guy, which made me wonder if our shoes would still be there when we left. I was uncomfortable inside, as I always am in churches - waiting for the lightning bolt from heaven to strike me, if the truth be told. We stayed for a mercifully brief few minutes constrained by the attendant closing up the church, and retrieved our unmolested footwear on the way out. Outside the church on the Mount were a huge crucifix diorama in gruesome detail, and statues of Mother Theresa and Pope John-Paul II. A third figure lying prone and sheet-covered on the ground we assumed was whatsisname, the new Pope.

Chennai from the Mount is a luminous city. The air is so fraught with dampness that the sodium lights below make it glow. We stood and watched for awhile, and I let Sujit play with my camera and gave him a couple of quick lessons in its controls, since he’s thinking of buying the newer model of mine. He was nearly jumping with excitement, so I don’t think it will be very long at all before he does.

He had an invitation to a Valentine’s Day party, and we told him that if he wanted to go we would certainly not be offended if he dropped us off somewhere. We could even find a hotel for the night, we told him - he didn’t need to feel that he had to stick around and keep us entertained. He said he didn’t want to go, though, and would rather go for a couple of drinks with us and then head home. He said that since it was Saturday and Valentine’s Day besides, that there would be no such thing as a quiet drink to be had anywhere in the city, so he took us to a place called Raintree, which he said might be slightly quieter than other places. We knew it wouldn’t be a cheap place to go, but we were horrified when we got there and there was a 2000 rupee cover per group. That’s $50, and even though it was effectively a drink-minimum since it was applied to the bill afterward, Sheryl and I had been thinking of spending about one-tenth that amount for the evening. A place like that is way too expensive for us even at home, let alone while we’re travelling and have no money to spend. We should have put our foot down right then and there and called a halt to the proceedings, but we waffled too long and Sujit had paid the cover. In the end the bill came to about $80 for three drinks and three pitchers of beer. Sujit paid far more than his share - he really has been far too generous. I know people like to show off the sophistication of their city, but we would have been happy with something much less upscale.

We did have a lot of fun there, though. They’d done the place up nicely with swirly two-tone hearts hanging from the ceiling and some other discreet decorations. The music started loud with cheesy 80s retro when we arrived, and got louder and louder until it had reached eardrum-splitting levels when we left, by which time they’d switched to some kind of thumping Indian House. One awesome song was a harsh crunchy version of the Hare Krishna chant - I have to find it somewhere. Only a few songs in, after we arrived, they started to play that song that goes Play that funky music, white boy, and I looked around the bar, noticed the universal darkness of skin, and thought shit, that’s me! This could have been an issue, since I have a well-known hatred for funk of any kind, but luckily they didn’t make me play any music, funky or otherwise.

At one point I was making origami birds, which is something I do to keep my hands busy. It never fails to entertain people, and this was no exception - a couple of cute Indian girls were all over them. Sheryl was liberal with the sarcasm, but I couldn’t really see how anyone would manage to hook up at this place - there weren’t any single women present. Maybe it would have been different if it hadn’t been Valentine’s Day, I don’t know.

Sujit introduced us to the only other foreigner in the bar, a blonde woman who he says has been working in Chennai for six or seven months, and who introduces herself as being from a different country to everyone she meets. She told us she was Canadian, and from Sault Ste. Marie at that, and that must be the truth because no one not from there would ever have heard of “The Soo”, and definitely no one in their right mind would claim to be from there if they really weren’t. And anyway her accent was right for it. You have to wonder at the kind of person who builds such an easily-toppled house of cards, though. Anyone who travels knows the temptation of re-inventing yourself for an hour or a day or two - but to play that game as an expat? What a weirdo.

Sheryl got up to dance after awhile, and one of the club’s ringers - women who pretend to be guests, but who are really employed by the club and are there for the purpose of working up the crowd - inveigled me into following her. I hadn’t wanted to before, but my mood flipped in an instant and suddenly dancing was the right thing to do. It felt good to move, although strange to be on a dance floor full of women in saris and salwar kameez. I don’t think Chennai has seen my particular style of frenetic, violent industrial dancing before, either, and I don’t think they’ll forget it in a hurry - everyone was most impressed.

Sheryl and I were still jet-lagged, though, and she’d been feeling poorly the day before, so we didn’t have much energy left after we were done dancing. The music had gotten so loud by that point that we couldn’t hear anything except our ears ringing anyway, so we called it an early night and were back at Sujit’s by half-twelve after what was probably the second-strangest Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had (the strangest is a very long story, and best not repeated).


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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