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Traveling to Madras

A Guide for the Westerner

by Amber Sukumaran

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There are plenty of sites that offer information on popular tourist sites, hotels, and places to eat. This is the "unofficial" guide that provides information that the others might not contain, but information that I consider essential for Westerers traveling to Madras (properly called Chennai). If you have any specific questions, please feel free to contact me and I will try to help you out.

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Welcome to India!

Photographs and films cannot completely capture the sensory overload. Until then, I had always been slightly disappointed to find the foreign countries I visited in some way shadows of what I had imagined. In India that first day I was incredulous.

A journey like this suggests some kind of personal transformation, but I am not sure that people really change their basic character. It is probably true that they simply become more intensely themselves, or what they were meant to be all along. Although I am still learning exactly what my experience in India meant to me, I do know that it transformed much of my thinking.

At the very least, my journey forced me to question assumptions about morality, religion, duty, fate, the way society governs itself and the roles of men and women.

Ultimately, I realized my journey to India was a privilege. Rather than going to the periphery (of the world), I had come to the center.

--Elisabeth Bumiller, author and journalist

Facts and Weather

Click on this map for bigger view of Chennai.

Current Time and Temperature:

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What to Expect:

Expect a culturally rich experience that will change the way you look at the world and its inhabitants. First of all, I absolutely fell in love with the culture and the people. I did not meet a single rude person during my entire visit. Many were willing to bend over backwards to help me.

Everything is very colorful and festive. There are posters and ads everywhere for movies, politicians, etc. Even the cars and trucks are painted and bullock's horns are painted bright, decorative colors. The streets are crowded and fun and I've never seen so many modes of transportation. Everything from bullock carts to bicycles. I thought I would meet an early death when we rode in an autorickshaw the first time (going down the "wrong" side of the street, zipping around larger cars and trucks, stuffed between two concerned aunties), but after awhile it was a lot of fun! For humor on Indian driving, see this page.

The city never seems to go to sleep. The dividing line between poor and not poor is very obvious. In the evenings you will see many families cooking their dinners on the sidewalk and laying out mats to sleep. You'll also see cows standing in the roadway like they own it. Most of these cows have homes and are just sent out during the day to forage for food. They go home at night.

Don't be surprised if native Tamilians don't understand your accent, even if they speak English. I had that problem. The more touristy places should be fine, but make sure you're with someone who speaks Tamil if you are going to take a cab or rickshaw anywhere. The driver may not speak English. My favorite example of that was when I asked the servant in Vinesh's house for an iron. She looked at me like she didn't understand, so I said IRON? and made an ironing motion. Finally, my husband asked in Tamil (which I don't speak at all), "Blah blah blah IRON blah?" and she went right out and got it!

I think that being a minority for the first time in my life was a valuable experience for me. It helped me to understand my husband and future children's experiences in this country. I think if I were just a typical western traveler, I wouldn't have gotten so much attention, but being a blonde lady with an Indian family gathered a lot of stares! Children will stare openly, but they will not be hostile, only curious and friendly. You will probably even get a few friendly smiles.

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Social Customs

As far as manners, travelers are excused from most things because it is expected that they don't know the rules. However, they will be flattered and accepting if you follow a few conventions.

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How to Dress

As a Western visitor, you can wear almost anything and be just fine. There are no laws on clothing there. However, if you want to fit in and be comfortable, follow the advice below.

Wear loose cotton clothes and bring sunscreen (they don't sell it there). Although shorts would be okay if you look like a tourist, the general cultural trend is for women to keep their legs covered and not wear tight clothes. Jeans or slacks would be fine. So would long dresses and skirts. Be careful not to have tight, sleeveless outfits. The looser the clothing, the more comfortable you'll be in the heat. I would recommend getting a couple of Salwar Kameeze outfits (long flowing top and loose one-size-fits-all pants). They are very comfortable in the heat--much more so than jeans.

My Salwar Kameeze is much cooler than my husband's jeans!

Bring a wide-brimmed hat if you are prone to sunburn. Don't forget your sunglasses.

For shoes, bring along a pair of walking shoes, and a pair of sandals. Because of the street litter, it is often better to wear shoes that cover your feet. However, sandals are cooler and would be appropriate if you are just riding the taxis and going from store to store.

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Tamil Nadu has some of the best cooking in the world. It's spicy and full of flavor and variety. While the North uses more breads, Tamil Nadu's staple is rice.

A typical meal will consists of rice, two or three different curries, sambar (soup), finger appetizers, chutney (a dipping sauce), and a cooling dessert, usually milk-based. All are traditionally served on bananna leaves. Traditionally, people eat with their hands. Serve some food onto the plate with your left hand, and mix and eat it with your right hand. Try not to use the left hand for eating.

If the food is too spicy, ask them to put yogurt or curds on the side and mix it into your rice. Drink some milk after your meal to take away the heat, and eat some fruit.

Be careful what you drink! Don't drink out of the tap. Buy only bottled water that has been sealed. Your hotel should sell water for your outings. Don't eat out at small cafes or from street vendors. You can trust your hotel's kitchen, and any name-brand places like Hilton. You'll be fine if you eat at the hotel or tourist spots.

Bring some Pepto-Bismol. They sell it in Chennai, but you don't want to be hunting around for it in the middle of the night.

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Immunizations Needed

While India does not require that people on a traveler's Visa have any immunizations, it's a good idea to play it safe and get them, especially if you plan to visit other countries on the way that may require them. Contact your county Health Department and tell them where you intend to travel. They will direct you to a health professional that can administer the injections (your regular doctor may not have them).

It's a good idea to start on malaria pills before you go and stay on them until you get back. Malaria is not a serious illness if you take medication. It feels very much like the flu and lasts about a week. If you are taking those pills, you won't even know if you had it and you'll be safe. It may be difficult to fill the prescription, so do it several weeks in advance.

Health risks include:

Just to ease your nerves, I only got a bad stomach once, from eating out, and it was not really that bad. Several of my American friends don't even bother with vaccinations anymore. They took the first round and were not worried about contracting anything on their other visits. India is a rich, wonderful place and should not be bypassed for fear of these diseases. I have never actually heard of anyone getting sick traveling to India, even after not taking all the common traveler's advice!

NOTE: You may not donate blood for some months after visiting India or other tropical countries. Also, be sure to get a check-up after you return if you experience any health problems, especially coughing, difficulty breathing, weight loss, rashes, or digetive problems. If you travelled on a common bus or train (not the ones frequented by tourists), check for lice when you get home (although I have never heard of anyone "catching" it, there is a small risk).

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What to Pack

Pack Light. Most Airlines allow two suitcases per person. If you plan to do a lot of shopping, pack a small suitcase inside your larger one so you have room for your goods on the way back. Check airlines for weight limits. We had to leave some things behind for our next visit. You can also ship.

Pack things that are hard to find in India. Includes:

What NOT to bring:

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Registering with the Embassy

It's a good idea to contact the United States (or your country's) Embassy and let them know where you will be traveling and for how long. If a national emergency comes up, they can contact you to give you further instructions. You can do it on-line at:

The main page at has information about Chennai including travel advisories. It's a good idea to read it over before you leave.

They can also be contacted at:

220 Anna Salai
Gemini Circle
Chennai, 600 006

Tel: 91-44-827-3040 Fax: 91-44-826-2538

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Airline Travel Tips

Below are some common tips for airline travel to make the trip easier:

When choosing your airline, pick the one out of the closest international port. On the West coast, it's Singapore Airlines. On the East Coast, it's Lufstansa (spelling?). It's very expensive to fly over land, and cheaper to fly over the sea, so pick your shortest route out of the U.S.

I would highly recommend Singapore Airlines. They are excellent with children, are very comfortable and the service is great. When we almost missed our connecting flight in L.A., they held the plane for us, had a man waiting to escort us when we stepped off our connecting plane. He had a walkie-talkie and I heard him tell the pilot to hold the plane while we got out our passports processed! They have all kinds of things on board like continuous movies (with subtitles), video games, etc. to help with boredom. Snacks like cheese sandwiches and crackers are always available at no cost. So is juice.

Unless you are ready for an adventure, I would recommend asking for vegetarian meals when you buy your ticket. The food they serve depends on the airport where they just landed last. My husband got stuck with steamed eel as his main dish during the Japan portion of the trip, and I had the cheese sandwich!

Singapore Airlines has bassinet seats available for people traveling with babies, plus things like bottles, diapers, and even toys on hand in case of emergencies. The bassinet seats are all situated next to a bathroom with a changing room and next to the kitchen. If you go with SA, call ahead and tell them you're traveling with small children. They'll suggest things for you to pack for the children. We went from LA, up along the seaboard to Japan, then to Singapore for a 12-hour layover (Singapore Airlines booked us a hotel), then on to Chennai. On the way back we went through Taipei. Both trips were pleasant but long.

I have never taken this route, but I've heard that Luftsansa (spelling?) Airlines via Europe is okay, too. It's faster but the flights are more crowded, but still okay. Food is better.

Try to take a direct flight to Chennai with a major airline. The Indian planes are often crowded and hot, though still reliable and safe. I have heard stories of Indian airlines not having people who speak good English, or who don't understand American accents any better than we understand Indian accents!

When you arrive in Chennai, be sure you have some water with you. Buy two bottles for each person at the airport before the India stretch. It's a long, hot wait to get through the gates.

On your way out of Chennai, bring a washcloth to dab your face. Also, bring plenty of water. We nearly suffocated near the flight gate (or felt like it at the time). It's a large aquarium with closed, glass windows and no A-C. The greenhouse effect is very apparent. The fans blow the warm, stuffy air around. It's a toss-up on whether you should get there early to get a seat for the flight or get there later so you don't have to be in that room so long.

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Medical Facilities

If you are staying at a hotel, they can direct you to the best medical facilities. Contrary to popular belief, India has some of the best medical technology in the world--as long as you can afford it. Generally, Indian medical service is much less expensive than in the U.S. You will be in good hands if a medical emergency arises.

As general advice, do not travel under the following conditions: if you have heart trouble, diabeties, or other chronic conditions that could be exacerbated by long travel, dehydration, foreign food, or altitude changes. Do not travel if you are more than four months pregnant, or if your infant is less than five months old.

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Places of Worship

If you decide to step into one of the many temples that line the streets of the city, remove your shoes first and either put them in your bag or leave them outside. Larger temples have a shoe stall where you can rent a space to keep your shoes while you are inside. Step over the threshold with your right foot. This sounds like know-it-all advice, but do not take pictures inside the temple. Also, some temples post "Non-Hindus not Allowed" either at the main entrance or at the entrance to certain sanctums. Many Hindus feel protective of their temples because they were so disrespected in the past. Don't take it personally. I actually had a very good experience that made me respect the Indian people more than I already did. I went to one of these "Non-Hindus Not Allowed" temples and only one person made a big deal about it. As soon as the other worshippers heard the commotion, they all saw that I was wearing traditional clothes and rallied behind me. Not only did I get to stay, but the man making the big stink about it was asked to leave!

If you want to attend Christian services, there are several historic ones in Chennai. Look in the phone book or ask the hotel for listings.

Chennai also has places of worship for Muslims, Jews, and just about every other religion.

If you want to see some beautiful, old trees, be sure to visit the Theosophical Society. The trees are some of the oldest in the city and are cared for like pets.

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Being a Gracious Guest

Staying in someone's home is the best way to get a feel for the culture. With a few tips, you can make yourself a welcome guest that will be invited back again and again.

Bring several gifts with you for the occupants of the house, and a few small ones in case you meet someone there and wish to pass something on to them. Although chocolates are always safe, you will be a big hit if you bring unusual things from the U.S. that are difficult to get in India. T-Shirts are a big hit with teens and young adults. My husband and I bought several on road trips to the Grand Canyon and museums. Large-sized shirts are safest. We brought a few caps for the uncles. The Indians one got a few laughs. Gummi Bears were specially requested, as they are difficult to come by. Since we live in the SouthWest, we brought some colorful stones and geodes. Next time we are bringing some catcus seeds for my mother in law. Other suggestions include a jumbo-sized bag of Tootsie Rolls for smaller children, zip-lock bags and tupperware for the kitchen, and a sampling of canned or dried foods. Remember, many families are vegetarian, so be sure to check the ingredients of the food items for meat and eggs. Cheese is not generally well-liked, so steer clear of that. You cannot carry alcohol over international lines unless you buy it at the airport, so steer clear of alcohol.

Upon entering the home, remove your shoes and either leave them outside the door, or carry them into your room. There is usually a shrine room in Hindu homes, which you are welcome to visit for prayers. Just remember to step into the room with your right foot first, and then you can either pray quietly, or can follow what the rest of the family is doing. It is respectful to offer a flower at the foot of the main deity in the shrine room. Many families get up very early and do puja every day. Other families just have the members go in one by one. If you do not feel like worshipping, it's okay. The family will not pressure you to do anything you don't want to do. It's up to each individual. Sometimes the women of the house will fast on a certain day. In the South, it's usually Wednesday or Friday. This does not mean you need to fast. It will not be expected of you.

Many middle-class homes have servants to help clean or cook. They are usually very friendly, but shy. It was a funny feeling for me to have a servant in the house, as it is not common in the U.S. If you are staying with someone who has servants, put some Indian currency into envelopes and give it to them as a thank you gift. The servants at my in-law's home were so generous for our wedding. They both gave gifts that totaled more than a month's wages. We gave them plenty back in return. Although I was tempted to bring them gifts on our upcoming visit, my husband said that they need the money more.

Indian homes either have a washing machine or the servant will hand-wash the clothes. I have never seen a dryer--the clothes are usually hung on a line either inside or outside. If you feel funny about having someone wash your underclothes (like I did), wash them yourself during your bath. Once a week, someone will come around to do ironing. It is amazing to watch these people set up their wheeled table and use a coal-burning cast iron with skill that any drycleaner in the U.S. would envy. Even though I had a few rayon items, they did not get burnt, but were ironed with the same skill as my cotton clothes!

Just as you would in any other house, try to keep your area clean and tidy. Wipe the sink basin and faucet dry. Once a week, strip the bed of the sheets and lay them near your dirty clothes.

Many Indian families in the South either have no air-conditioning, or just one or two window units. It is not uncommon for everyone to sleep in the same room to make use of the air-conditioner, especially in the summer months. Some families also sleep on the porch or the roof under mosquito netting.

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Bring spending money. You will be surprised how far your dollar goes in India. Make plenty of change (40 rupees per dollar).

There are several branches of Bank of American in Chennai, and several ATM machines in malls and popular areas. However, even if you have a B of A account, you may not have access to your money in India. Bring a Visa credit card for extra cash. American Express is not widely accepted, nor is MasterCard. Traveler's checks are accepted at most big stores and malls.

As a general rule, shops will sell items as marked. Street vendors will raise the prices very, very high if you are a foreigher and don't know how much it's worth in Indian currency. It's best to bargain and then walk away. Go back later and bargain again to make your final deal. Better yet, if you are traveling with an Indian person, have him or her go back and buy your item. They will get a better price than any of your bargaining will achieve!

Since my in-laws live in Egmore, I did most of my shopping there and in downtown Chennai. The best places to shop are given below. They are all in the phone book and will give directions if you call.

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How to Use a South Indian Toilet (and other embarassing things you really ought to know)

Before I left for India, I was very thankful when my well-traveled American friend pulled me aside and whispered these details to me.

Toilets and Toilet Paper (or lack thereof)

Okay, this is something that I would not normally put on a public page, but if you are going to be anywhere outside of a modern hotel, I don't want you to be shown a toilet and then have no idea what to do next! So here it goes!

Modern hotels and houses have traditional Western-shaped toilets (above ground with a flusher). Modern hotels have toilet paper, but the homes may not. To be honest, Indians think that Americans are pretty dirty because they use toilet paper. After learning the "traditional" Indian way of doing my business, I would have to agree, it is much cleaner. Basically, in India people wash themselves with water. If you don't think you can do that, it's okay, but be sure to bring a pack of wet-wipes in your purse or bag, and you'll be fine.

If you do want to learn the traditional way, here's how. You may notice in your hotel bathroom that there is a plastic cup sitting somewhere near the toilet and bathtub. This is to be filled with water. While your right hand pours, the left hand cleans. Then you dry off and go about your business quite refreshed.

Another handy thing that my in-laws have is a flexible sprayer-type thing next to the toilet so you don't have to use a cup. It reminds me of a dish sprayer in a kitchen sink or a detachable shower head.

If you are shown into a bathroom in someone's home and are surprised to find a whole in the ground, don't despair! It will probably be very clean and tidy. Just squat (may have to remove your pants and underclothes first) with one foot on each side and do your job. You'll probably notice a bucket with water and a cup in it, which you will use to pour. Again, use the right hand to pour and the left hand to clean. The squatting toilet is much more friendly to the "wash" method of cleaning. Position the cup over your backside, rim of the cup touching the small of the back, and pour. Cup your left hand under your body and clean. There may or may not be a towel, so just pretend you are camping. This type of toilet does not flush and depends on the water to clean it, so you may have to pour from the bucket when you are done. Be sure to full the bucket with fresh water and hang the cup on the side of it for the next person. See? Wasn't that bad, was it?

As a general rule, do NOT use public bathrooms. They are not well-maintained (to put it politely). You can safely use bathrooms in upper-class hotel lobbies, banks, and other businesses that cater to Westerers. If you feel the urge, the safest thing is to turn right around and go back to your home base.


First let me say that Indians are some of the most hard-working people I have ever met or seen. Unlike many beggars in the United States who are able-bodied and wearing a full set of clothes, most Indian beggars really are desperate for help. There are people with missing limbs, eyes, and teeth who have no other way to make a living. Those who can work, will. I witnessed a group of four women clear a pile of rubble on the street by taking heavy loads of dirt and stones, scraping them into flat, rounded trays with a piece of clay, and then hoisting them onto their heads to be dumped into a truck. There are people who collect rags and string off the sidewalk to sell for a few cents. It is really heart-wrenching. Here in the United States, I am not well-off by any means, but being there made me realize how lucky I am. In the United States, most everyone who works hard can support himself and his or her family. Not so in India. No matter how hard some people work, they will never have enough for a meal at the end of the day.

As a Westerner, you are a target for begging children. It is difficult, but try to walk away. If you give out one coin, you'd better have 50 more to give out to the child's friends! If you want to help out, the best thing is to go to a temple with some rupees and hand them out to the older people sitting near the temple entrance. These people may have no one to care for them in their old age. They don't actively beg, so watch to see if others are giving them money. They are hard to miss. When you get home, look up an organization like ASHA For Education or CRY (Child Relief and You). Both are trustworthy, Indian-based charities that provide essentials to Indian young people. Both have some beautiful products that you can buy over the internet or by mail. We get all of our holiday greeting cards from CRY, and I have an ASHA calendar hanging in my office.

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Tourist Information