A morning at the sea

Life as a fisherman can’t be all bad.

These men get up before dawn and head out onto the open water while most of us are still asleep. Waking up early is less than appealing for most of us, but with a view like this, I can’t help but envy the fishermen.

The waves of high tide pound the beach as the sun rises, just as it has since the beginning of time. The morning haze still obstructs the sun’s rays while fishing boats cross the horizon and pass under it.

The beach is alive already; people are all over the boardwalk and even at 5.30 in the morning, one can find people jogging, stretching, or just walking to before the encroaching heat of the summer day. The boardwalk is almost packed, but a short trip over the sand and one will find solitude, aside from the fishermen.

As one finds a place on the beach to sit, people tend to gather around. Not necessarily in very close proximity, but near enough to show that when people seek the solitude of the morning beach, they don’t mind having company.

It remains quite serene here, a rarity in the city of Chennai.

As the red sun begins to peer over the haze like a giant orange pendant dangling over the sea, the beach traffic begins to pick up. Businessmen, tourists, and couples walk along the ocean, but there’s still no one here to surf the breakers of this nearly deserted beach, a scene that most surfers would kill for.

A few tourists take pictures at the sunrise and the colorless shapes of barges and cranes of the shipyard in the distance; crows pick at the tumbling garbage.

A fisherman pulls in his line, throwing back all but one small catfish. Photo by Kaleb Warnock

Being near a massive body of water, it’s hard not to stare into its infinity, something that has pulled humankind to explore its vast surface and depths and fueled our inexhaustible ambition to explore.

As the strong breeze blows outward, it’s easy for one to become lost in the waves and to be awed by the ocean’s majesty. Perhaps that’s why people from nearly all walks of life gather here in the morning.

As I pull up my camera to capture the moment, a Tamilian man squats in front of me because nature calls, indifferent to the fact that he was giving me more than I had hoped for in my shot.

I couldn’t tell what they were doing at first, but three fisherman began bring in their line. One of them started reeling in a string and wrapping it around a piece of cardboard. Now he’s working his way down the beach pulling in the line and picking up the fish. The line he uses has hooks every foot or so with some kind of bait on them and a weight at the end. He doesn’t get much, but he still tossed back all but a single catfish.

I wonder who buys these fish.

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Cycling in the city

Photo by Kaleb Warbock

I’m covered with road grit and every time I move even more grit tumbles to the floor. It’s all over my arms and legs, it’s built up at my joints, behind my ears and even lines the band of un-tanned skin under my watch to make a splendid supplement for my horrendous sunburn.As I sit here at the office nursing my wounds, I fight to suppress a smile while thoughts of my experiences bicycling in the city pull me elsewhere.

As the sun rises over the sea, the city streets begin to stir. Barges loom in the distance, and crows case the sand for skittering crabs. It’s 6.30am and I sit on a curb near my bicycle at Marina Beach. There’s nothing better than a morning at the ocean for a farm kid who’s living outside of his landlocked homeland for the first time.

I take Santhome High Road South and the lighthouse slowly peers into view as the ocean speeds by on my left. I zip south of the lighthouse and pass the open fish market as it slowly comes to life while fishing boats lay idly among the nets on the beach after their morning runs. On my right are gutted concrete structures made habitable by tarps and woven palm leaves, and on the left, wooden pallets heavy with the briny aroma of the morning’s catch.It’s quiet, and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s nothing quite like seeing the city by bicycle, especially when it allows you to see the back end, rather than what you can see from the city bus or a taxi. However, I’ve learned some valuable lessons when it comes to traversing the streets of Chennai.

Generally, the people of the city are very friendly. Their usual impression when they meet me is something like “Oh, you’re foreign! You must be lost,” and most of the time, they’re right. I’m obliged to ask them for directions in order to supplement the spectacularly terrible map I’d purchased when I arrived in the city. They’re always happy to help, but as soon as a Chennaite gets behind the wheel of a car, it’s every man for himself.

One thing I’m not use to, being a foreigner, is the constant struggle as automobiles and bicycles vie to fight through the gridlock. Back in the US, there are definite spaces for bikes and for cars, and is mutually understood that bikes have the right of way because of their inferiority in accident recovery technology. However, bikes here have to fight as hard on the streets as cars do, and the bike lanes are usually occupied by pedestrians anyway. Oh, and the occasional motorcycle or car cruising down the wrong side of the road still throws me for a loop.

I had one specific experience that really helped to teach me the importance of taking side streets. One morning, as I made my way south toward Guindy via Jawaharlal Nehru, I noticed that the sidewalks were beginning to disappear, and I was being forced onto the roadway. To make things worse, there were several exit and entrance lanes that I had to avoid to stay on the main road, so I had to make my way into the center lanes. After nearly being sandwiched between a pair of blaring city busses, I realized that because of my evasive manouvres, I was going to be riding into oncoming traffic. I once again commenced pumping my legs as hard as I could and blinging my bell as much as possible in a 50 foot sprint to overtake another bus. After setting a world record for wearing out a bicycle bell, the gravity of the situation finally dawned on me, and I decided that taking side streets from now on might be a good idea.

Now, as I fly down the narrow alleyways on my massive mountain bike, blowing past packs of dogs, cows, and unidentifiable things hanging in shop windows I definitely turn heads and am subject to angry shouts and gestures from workmen or young cricketers as I blow past. I find it hard not to smile. You get to see all sorts of things when you take the back alleys.

I snap back into focus briefly to assess what I’d missed of my meeting, but I can’t help but drift back to the street.

Officially Outsourced

I’ve arrived in Chennai. After several months of trying to convince my family and friends that moving from a small farm town in the rural Midwest to a bustling metropolis in southern India was a good idea, I had finally made it. Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the capital of the state Tamil Nadu, India and is home to nearly 5 million people, putting the population density somewhere near 26,903 persons per square kilometer. Despite that fact, the place sounded infinitely exciting and wonderful to a modest farm kid like myself, and a great place to work an internship at a newspaper.

Above: Mogappair in western Chennai where I live and work.

After stepping onto the concourse following my arrival, I was floored by the summer heat, the swath of cab drivers, and the sudden feeling that I was completely alone in an absolutely different world. Fortunately, it was nothing a little Millencolin and mango juice can’t cure.

I was surprised to find that there are no traffic laws in Chennai. Well, not like there are in the United States. It’s wasn’t uncommon to see several motorcycles, an auto rickshaw (similar to a tuk tuk), and the cab in which I was riding trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Fortunately, most people avoid accidents through the consistent exchange of horn bleating which has seemingly replaced using the brakes.

After my first day at the office, I was inadvertently enrolled in a crash course on using the bus system. Amid the pandemonium caused when I tried to communicate to the conductor, my seat neighbor, and every person within an observable distance that I was trying to get home via the “Golden Flat” stop, I finally came to the understanding that there really is a method to using public transportation provided I know exactly where I’m going, and even more importantly how to pronounce it.

I eventually made it home only to find that I was being moved from my original spacious flat to one in which myself and with four strange roommates would be squeezed into two rooms half the size of my previous apartment. The guys seemed nice, but then again, that’s the sort of thing people say before they wake up naked in the desert without their passports or their kidneys…

In spite of my new living arrangements, I decided to take a Saturday to explore the beach.

I hopped on the D27 bus at the recommendation of the Tourism Bureau, and rolled east toward the sea. The bus ride was long, but fortunately I was distracted by the group of children that found me even more interesting as I did them. When I flashed my phone to check to see if I had any messages, they circled around and peered over my arm and shoulders inquiring as to what I could possibly be doing on that tiny little screen. Finally, one introduced himself as Ahmad, and I felt obliged to introduce myself as well. They immediately asked me if I was American, to which I replied affirmatively. It’s interesting that they could identify me as an American when most other people think I’m British. Luckily, I later found out that the kids were getting off at the same place I was and so I just had to watch for their exit to know when to get off. I guess I also could have looked up and seen the Bay of Bengal extending infinitely before me.

Escaping the heat of the city for the slight sea breeze was definitely refreshing, and watching the occasional coconut wash up on the beach didn’t exactly hurt the ambiance either. After walking a few hundred meters to south of the crowd and litter, the beach became spectacularly picturesque. Different shades of sand stretched from the levee at the north to the lighthouse in the south. Barges loomed in the distance as children played in the water and sand crabs scuttled in and out of sight. Young men sat in the sand while hungry crows flew overhead.

I seemed to stick out a little bit more here and was subsequently approached by kids and young men seeking the simple novelty of shaking my hand. Even as I sough refuge on a remote a rock pile reaching out to sea, I attracted a small crowd of locals who, despite a definitive language barrier, managed to communicate to me that they didn’t like my sunglasses, enjoyed cricket, and were later going to the temple.

After concluding that I didn’t like the temple (despite my protests) they left. I took off a few minutes later myself, but not before a rogue wave slammed over the rocks and effectively soaked me and my notebook.

On my way home, I wandered through the bustling seaside bazaar before buying what I later found out to be sugar cane juice. It’s quite a sight, really.  The juice is extracted by a strange machine in which the cane is fed vertically into a conspicuously oversized gear at one end, and squirted out a tube on the other. The whole assembly is powered by a small chugging diesel engine that gives it the overall appearance of something out of a Tim Burton film. The juice tastes spectacularly awful.

After another call to the tourism bureau, I sat at the bus stop waiting for a M37 bus that doesn’t actually exist as far as I could tell for about 30 minutes before I called again. I was transferred to someone else, who, after hearing my question passed me on to another person, who in turn, passed me on again. The process repeated itself three or four times until I finally found a man who told me to take the 21H bus.

I got off at the end of the line, which was nowhere near where I needed to be, and after I wandered around for about 20 minutes I resolved to grab an auto rickshaw and zip the 10 blocks I had remaining to my flat.

I spent most of the rest of the day watching movies and cricket with my roommates. Cricket in India, by the way, is more popular than God and Michael Jackson combined.

I feel like I’m beginning to get the hang of the city. As a matter of fact, I was elated with my great misfortune of getting a spectacularly fresh mango for just  20 rupees. Much to my dismay, I found out that my roommate had just gotten six of them for just 40 rupees.

Anyway, Wandering the streets at night, trying not to be killed by tuk-tuks and motorcyclists, being blasted with dust as trucks roar by and seeing nothing but lights, and people, and movement is nothing short of a sensory overload. Even more, trying to act casual so as not to be completely dumbfounded, distraught or scared out of ones gourd is quite a trick. Some people might be horrified by this place and the proximity, the smells, and the heat, but it’s hard not to find Chennai not only charming, but captivating as well.

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