distinguished guest at a wedding

A Most Distinguished Guest

I’m told by my team mates that there are plenty of advantages of being a foreigner in India. For example, they claim that whenever we go out for dinner together, they get better service in restaurants. Now that’s not for me to comment on because I’ve got nothing to compare it against. I’m friendly to waiting staff and they mostly seem to be friendly to me.

However, there are times I do notice the little extra attention such as the case a few months ago when we went to a wedding. Don’t ask me whose wedding it was. Wedding invites come in by the dozen in India and you can kind of pick and choose. The great thing about going to Indian weddings is you get good food, and I’m not a person who can easily say no to good food that’s free.

So anyway. We were invited to a wedding. It was the sister of my wife’s ex-colleague, neither of whom I had met. The ex-colleague of my wife was insistent that we come and it was taking place in the city so we agreed. In no small part because it had the benefit of taking care of our Saturday night dinner.

I opened my wardrobe and fished out my wedding shirt. I have three shirts in life. One is my date-night shirt when I take my wife out for dinner, one is the client-investor shirt for when clients or investors come to our office and the third is for weddings, including my own wedding two years ago.

My wife put on an elegant pinkish-red silk saree. For many married Indian men reading this, they will know that the wife putting on a saree invariably means standing still and being ready to hold pleats, handing over pins, and making encouraging noises about how beautiful everything looks.

Glammed up, me in my wedding shirt, we headed to the wedding. Except of course it wasn’t the actual wedding. Weddings in India take place at times deemed to be auspicious which usually turn out to be 4:30 in the morning. What we were attending was the reception, which is held at a much more convenient hour: Dinner time to be exact.

Upon arrival we realized we might have over done it a little on the glam quotient. I was the only gentleman in formal attire and my wife was the only one with makeup and her hair all done up. We got out the car and started walking through the crowd of guests. It was like a scene from a clichéd Western film when the guy walks into a saloon, the piano stops and everyone turns to stare.

turning up to an indian wedding over dressed

Fortunately my wife’s ex-colleague arrived on the scene and whisked us away before any revolvers were drawn.

“Come” he instructed and led us up to the stage where his sister and her new husband stood. We followed him up onto the stage, murmured our congratulations and posed for the photographs. Incidentally, I’m the guy that ruins all the photographs in India as I grin like a Cheshire Cat the moment the camera is pointed at me.

As the photographs were being taken there was a little commotion behind me. This was a wedding, commotion is to be expected, so I ignored it. That was, until someone touched my arm. I looked around and saw a man holding up a gold shawl and saying something in Tamil.

Yes, I know I’ve been in India for eight years now, and I know it’s a total disgrace that I haven’t learned the local language.

The man continued in Tamil and was now holding open the shawl. In panic, I turned around to my wife. We didn’t know the people getting married and I was pretty sure he was demanding to know who we were and why we were coming to eat the food he had paid for.

My wife was chuckling.

Whether it was my panicked expression or what the man was saying, I didn’t know. The ‘help me’ plea look on my face didn’t get the response I was looking for. I was certain we had been busted and were about to be frog-marched out of the venue for gate-crashing the wedding for which we had no formal invite.

In fear, I looked back and forth between my wife and the man on stage, desperate for some kind of explanation about what was going on. After toying with me for a few seconds, my wife finally came to my rescue. “Pete, he wants to put that shawl around your shoulders.”

Huh? I have been to many weddings in Chennai (formally invited, of course). I’ve never experienced or even seen this before.

“Why?”

My wife was still grinning. “Shawls are given to distinguished guests. You seem to have made the cut.”

Oblivious to the fact that we were having a private conversation in front of the happy couple, oblivious to the queue of well-wishers that was starting to build up and waiting for us to leave, I continued the conversation with my wife.

“But we don’t even know these people.” My wife’s grin gave way to a glare that every husband knows means ‘oh you are in so much trouble’. I ran that line through my head again. Realization dawned.

Oh, God.

I turned to the bride and groom. “I mean, sorry, err, I know my wife knows, err, umm…” I couldn’t for the life of me recall the name of her ex-colleague. I risked a glance at my wife, she offered nothing, curious to see how I was going to get myself out of this one. “…her ex-colleague, and you are his sister” I gestured to the bride. “and obviously you are the groom.” And err, sorry. We did get an invite though. Sort of. It came on whatsapp.”

I wasn’t doing much to help my role as a distinguished guest.

Finally the groom smiled and decided to put me out of my misery. “Please don’t worry about it” he said with an American accent, “we don’t know you guys either, or many others that have come, but you are both very welcome and we are happy you came. This is my Father.” he gestured to the man who still had an expectant look and holding out the golden shawl. “He would like to put it around your shoulders to show his appreciation for you coming to our wedding.”

“Oh.” Part mortified, but mostly thoroughly embarrassed, the blood rushed to my cheeks and I turned deep shade of red. The bright camera lights illuminating the stage felt like they were directed specifically at me. The sweat formed on my head and started dripping down my temples. “OK”.

The father came forward and with a certain amount of ceremony draped the shawl around my shoulders. “Thank you.” I mumbled. We turned our attention back to the camera crew. “Say cheese.” the photographer shouted.

golden shawl at a wedding

Red faced, sweat streaming from my hair, I breathed in and grinned like the happiest distinguished guest in the history of Indian weddings.

Illustration by Jessie Miller

uluru during the day

The Uluru Outback Adventure

If someone said to you why not spend nearly a thousand pounds to fly four hours into the middle of a desert to look at a rock, you might politely enquire what medication that person is currently taking.

Incidentally, that’s exactly the reaction I got from my wife when I suggested we forgo a trip the Great Barrier Reef and go to Uluru instead while on our Australia holiday.

Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock as it’s also called, is a great mountain of red rock in the middle of Australia. Set in the desert plains, it invokes a sense of mystery and wonder on how it got there. Unsurprisingly, for the local aboriginal population, Uluru holds a huge amount of spiritual significance.

uluru morning panorama

Getting to Uluru isn’t easy, and perhaps that’s part of the allure for the 400,000+ tourists that visit every year. You are visiting a place that is world-famous yet seen by so few. We took one of the daily Jetstar flights out of Sydney. Be careful how you pack though because there’s no checked-in baggage included and you’re only allowed 7KG of carry-on luggage which they are really strict about as an unfortunate Chinese family that were ahead of us in the queue found out. You could drive but only if you like spending 24 hours looking at nothing but the horizon.

uluru airport and resort from the air

Landing at the airport is like arriving at the entrance to a Disney World attraction. It’s comically small and oh so quaint. We walked from the plane to the arrival gate and watched the baggage handlers on the outside load our luggage on to the carousel and picked up our bags on the other side.

uluru airport

We wanted to have the freedom to explore the national park so had booked a hire car many months ago and it was a good job too, there were plenty of people who were turned away as there are only so many vehicles available.

Accommodation

outback hotel uluru

There is only one resort to choose from and it has different levels of accommodation. My cub scout days are over so although staying in a tent without electricity would have been easy on my wallet at AUD$36 per night, I refused. The Outback Pioneer hotel offers hostel type accommodation with communal ablutions and cooking facilities but my sister was resolute that ‘ain’t nobody got no time for sharing showers with strangers.

I was inclined to agree.

The other ‘low cost’ option was a more familiar motel style accommodation, the rooms sleep upto four people although sharing a room with my parents was one compromise too far.

Weather

Uluru weather

There is a precedent in my family that where ever we go, the rains will follow. Every year on our annual family holiday we would hear the same old line while huddled under an umbrella, determined to have a good time: “oh, you should have come last week, the weather was glorious!”.

Uluru doesn’t get much rain, when we went there hadn’t been much for the last few months. However, it didn’t take long after we had touched down before the storm clouds moved on in. Local workers stared in disbelief as the rain lashed down. We, on the other hand wondered why we had been so foolish as to only pack warm weather gear. For the remaining days, the weather was typical of a desert climate, hot in the day, cooler at night with clear skies throughout.

Food

outback hotel bar

As any vegetarian who has been to Australia will tell you, vegetarian options are limited and this is even more acute in Uluru. My wife was shocked to discover that a kebab made up of just capsicum, onion and mushrooms cost almost 1,000 rupees! To add salt to the wound, she would have to cook it herself as we had opted for the do-it-yourself barbecue at the hotel.

For carnivores, Uluru offers a plethora of eating options including kangaroo, crocodile and emu. For the record, crocodile can only be described as tasting like fishy-chicken. There’s also a supermarket in the resort so provisions can be purchased and cooked in the communal kitchens in the campsite and Outback Pioneer lodge.

Experiencing the Sunrise

Uluru during the morning

The biggest problem with visiting Uluru is that all the good stuff happens so early in the morning. My sister, who isn’t as concerned with early mornings as she is with communal showers, bullied all of us in to agreeing to be ready to leave the resort by 4:30am the following morning.

We had to drive into the national park and experience the sun rise which would occur at 6am. Since we had a car it was easy enough to drive to the park and pay the AUD$25 per person fee to enter when it opened at 5am. For people without a car, they had to pay AUD$69 for the bus trip plus the park entrance fee.

morning uluru panorama

We made our way to the sun rise viewing area – you’re not allowed to stop anywhere on the roads, no matter how good the view might be and joined a forest of cameras mounted atop tripods. As the day broke, a shadowy mountain looms out of the darkness. Before long we are witness to a magical light show as the sun’s rays dance across the red rock, changing its colour and appearance with each passing minute. The rising sun is also a cue for the flies to wake up. No one tells you about the flies in the Uluru travel guides so I will.

The flies will stick to you like glue.

Kata Tjuta

kata tjuta

About 50KM from Uluru is another rock formation called Kata Tjuta. Less famous than its larger brother, Kata Tjuta is no less impressive. Having experienced the flies from the night before and in the morning, my wife and I decided to buy fly nets which you slip over your hat. As my father helpfully pointed out, we looked like right twits, but hey, there were no flies on us. At AUD$15 for two, the fly nets were possibly the best thing we purchased on our entire trip.

fly nets in uluru are essential

Kata Tjuta has many different trails that you can take but the easiest one takes about an hour as you walk between the rocks and across the red landscape. It feels like you are on the set from The Martian and Matt Damon might step out at any minute.

kata tjuta walk

From far away the rocks look like one giant boulder but as you get closer you realise that it’s made up of billions of stones cemented together over time.

The Sounds of Silence

To be fair, there is never complete silence around Uluru. You’re never more than a few seconds away from the camera click of another tourist taking a photo. However, the Sounds of Silence dinner does come pretty close. At AUD$195 per person it doesn’t come cheap but it offers four hours of an unforgettable experience.

sounds of silence dinner in uluru

Fortunately for us, this was a treat from my parents – one of the great advantages of travelling with family! You get to experience the sun setting over Kata Tjuta in the distance while the dying rays paint new pictures across Uluru every second. We were seated on tables of ten which we were to be sharing with a German family. English and Germans together on the same table for three hours, what could go wrong? Just don’t mention the war.

digeridoo man at uluru

The wine flowed as we got up time and again to help ourselves from the extensive buffet that had been rustled up in the outback. My vegetarian wife shed a tear or three when she found out there was rice on the buffet, something she had been missing since we had left India 8 days ago. As the sun went down the stars came out and what a sight it was to behold.

uluru at sunset

Never before had I seen the night sky lit up by so many stars. It was so clear that we could pick out each constellation, multiple planets, far off galaxies and even our own Milky Way, just to put things into perspective.

The Morning Walk

sunrise at uluru

Determined to make sure that we all got the most from our time in Uluru, my sister enforced another 5am start so that we could walk around the base of the rock. The 12KM trek started at 6am just as the sun was rising so we had the light and had time before it got too hot to be outside. The travel guides recommend you take 3 to 4 hours to walk around the base of Uluru but my family seemed to take that as a challenge. Everyone else set off at warp speed, batting flies from their faces, leaving me and my wife straggling behind, fly nets on but with the opportunity to appreciate our surroundings.

just another uluru photo

As the sun rises, the light changes the way the rock appears with every second. When we looked back behind us, we got a whole new perspective on the place. By the time we had finished the walk at 8:15am, the sun was already making its presence felt and the temperature was rising.

uluru by day

My wife, who had subsisted on cheese and grilled vegetables since we arrived in Australia, was famished after the walk. She decided that it was worth paying AUD$35 for the buffet breakfast and wolfed down three plates of eggs, beans, pancakes, hash browns and mushrooms.

Top Tips:

Accommodation: Visit the ayersrockresort.com.au website to find accommodation – there are no other accommodation options in Uluru so no amount of searching on Expedia is going to help you!

Food: Plenty of eating options available, including communal kitchens if you want to cook yourself. Vegetarians will struggle though unless your hunger is satiated by grilled veggies.

Travel: Visit jetstar.com for daily flights to Uluru starting at AUD$380 return. You can rely on the tour buses but the cost is high and they are not flexible. Hiring a car is more cost-effective.

Packing: The weather is nearly always dry and very hot. Pack a jumper for the evenings when it can cool off.

Advice: Buy fly nets to slip over your hat. Ensure you have sun cream because the harsh sun light doesn’t spare anyone, regardless of skin colour. Drink plenty of water, refill instead of throwing away your bottles.

Uluru from the air

A version of this article first appeared in the New Indian Express Indulge magazine on 4th December.

a big red rock new indian express article

Chennai Cleanup

Chennai Rising – What Happened After the Floods

It’s been a couple of weeks since my blog post on what happened before, during and immediately after the Chennai rains. What was meant as an update for family and friends on what was going on (OK, mostly to reassure my Mum, who does worry so), seemed to have captured the attention of Chennaites around the world.

There has been no let up in the relief efforts of people all across Chennai. While now we can say that with a very few exceptions, most people have been rescued from their homes or the water has receded far enough for them to get out, rehabilitation is in full swing.

Everyone Likes to Point Fingers

There has been a huge amount of discussion on the news, on social media and at coffee shops about what went wrong, why did the city flood so badly?

Because it rained, duh.

It wasn’t just ordinary rain though. It was like mother nature was making a determined effort to relocate the Bay of Bengal a few dozen kilometers to the West. There was so much of it. In November, Chennai saw over one metre of rainfall. To give that some kind of perspective, the UK, known for its dreary grey skies, receives an average of 0.85 metres of rain per year.

Added to that, on December 2nd, parts of the city recorded 0.47 metres of rain. That’s 47cm in just 24 hours. I don’t know if there’s any city in the world that can cope with that much rain having just come off the back of a period that saw over one metre of rain.

There’s also lot of discussion about a lack of urban planning and a flagrant disregard for the environment and water bodies when it comes to the city development. However, given the amount of rain that the city received, I don’t know how different the situation could have been.

Why The City Flooded

One of the main causes of the flooding was when water was released from the reservoirs around the city. With the rain alone, the city suffered but the release of the water from the reservoirs was final nail in the coffin for the city.

The Adyar river, which was already swollen from the inflow saw an additional 30,000 cusecs of water being released into it. To most of us, 30,000 cusecs of water has no meaning but one Google calculator tells me that this is 850,000 litres of water every single second.

In other words enough water to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool was being released every 3 seconds.

The Rivers Burst Their Banks

Many people report going to bed on the 2nd December with the streets flooded but the rain easing up. When they woke up in the morning, the flooding had reached many parts of the city. The release of the water and the overflowing of the Adyar river meant storm water channels were unable to discharge and so the water just kept backing up, flooding all the areas.

Chennai flooding map(As well as showing the direction of the flood water, the map above proves I wasn’t hired for my Photoshop skills)

The map above shows the two reservoirs that released the water in to the two rivers that run through Chennai. The reservoir in the top left is called Poondi reservoir and the media has reported that it released over 34,500 cusecs of water in to the River Cooum. The reservoir in the lower middle part of the map is the Chembarambakkam reservoir and it flows into the River Adyar. The media reported that this reservoir released around 30,000 cusecs of water. The red highlighted areas show the path of the two rivers and the areas of the city that flooded as a result (although not all areas along the rivers flooded and many other areas in the city also flooded). See how Chennai airport is built right on top of the Adyar river.

Some reports in the media state that the decision to release all this water from the reservoirs was made at 10pm, too late to put out any warning to the people in the flood danger zones. Had they released water at a lower rate starting earlier in the day, no doubt the city would still have seen the level of flooding it did, but perhaps there would have been more time for an evacuation.

However, the Chief Secratary of Tamil Nadu (not to be confused with Amma, the Chief Minister of TN!) categorically denies any reports of incompetence and stated that in fact 30,000 people were evacuated from the low-lying areas.

The People’s Rescue

In my previous Chennai floods blog post, I wrote about how the people of Chennai came together as a makeshift citizen rescue force. Curious as to how the city reacted when the city last flooded in 2005, I asked my local friends what the response was like back then. They all said that it was the Government that provided all the relief. They didn’t know how they could help even if they wanted to. There was little to no information about citizens getting involved in supplying help and aid – although I’m sure there were.

At the very end of 2004, the tsunami decimated the coastline of Tamil Nadu. Again, the relief efforts were exclusively provided by Government agencies and large NGOs.

chennai tsunami marina beachThe Tsunami that hit in 2004 caused large-scale destruction along the coast.
Photo Credit: Reuters/Babu

This time around, there were people sitting in other cities, even in other countries that were helping to aid relief efforts. The difference is that the penetration of mobile Internet and in particular social media, has made sharing information almost seamless. It came together to form the People’s Rescue of Chennai.

If there’s any argument for speeding up and ensuring every citizen of India has access to the Internet, surely this is it. If a city can help itself with the current levels of Internet access, imagine what it could do when everyone is online and sharing information.

Getting The City Back on its Feet

Two weeks on and with all the urgent and immediate help given to those affected by the floods, the aid requirements turn to rehabilitation.

Chennai CleanupFallen trees, stagnant water, broken pavements, garbage and sludge everywhere. It all had to be cleaned up.

The city itself is also getting back on its feet. There is still a lot of standing water in some neighbourhoods. Either the drains are blocked or there’s just nowhere for the water to flow to. One of the main roads in the city, TTK road, was completely dug up as temporary channels were made for the water to drain away. Along the Adyar river, a trail of destruction has been left. The belongings of countless thousands of people are strewn along its banks, not to mention all the garbage washed out by the fast flowing waters.

During the floods, there were countless reports on social media about schools, orphanages, refuge centres and other institutions being cut off and in dire need of assistance. Aid and supplies were distributed to these places and people even rescued by boat if needed.

Now though, these organizations need to take stock of the damage caused by the flooding. Since many of them relied on the charitable donations of businesses and individuals, any losses are going to be sorely felt.

One unforeseen yet entirely good outcome of all this sharing on social media is an awareness among people of just how many charitable organizations might be in their local area.

In the last two weeks I found out that there is an orphanage that I pass every day to the office and a school for under-privileged girls that are deaf, blind or mute just minutes from where I live.

One Story Amongst Thousands

It was this school that I was asked to visit by a colleague sitting in Coimbatore. He had been coordinating relief efforts, putting people in touch with others, and rallying the people of Coimbatore to make supply runs on rented trucks. He had heard about this school in Nungambakkam and spoken to the principal about the damage.

During the flood, the grounds and ground floor classrooms were all completely submerged. The 600 or so girls were safe but fast running out of supplies – until the citizen rescue force turned up with aid.

As the water receded, the damage became clear. Classrooms with specialized equipment needed to be replaced, wooden furniture had to be thrown out, text books that were on the lower level shelves were ruined.

The worst affected were the sound proof rooms constructed for the deaf girls. These rooms used lots of padding to absorb all the sound. Unfortunately it absorbed all the water as well and all the rooms need to be gutted and rebuilt. All the sensory gardens were also completely ruined.

Where the flood water didn’t cause damage, rain water leaking into the buildings did. Computers, projectors and other classroom equipment all suffered from water damage.

The damage wasn’t just to equipment and furniture. Any building that flooded in Chennai saw massive amounts of grime and dirt left behind by the water. Across the city, a dark black mold is taking hold on the walls of buildings suffering from damp inside and out. All this creates extra work to ensure it’s removed before the students can be let back into the classrooms.

To get the school back on its feet, it needs around Rs 700,000 to Rs 1,000,000 (around $12,000 to $16,000). Since it’s a charity, it’s reliant upon the donations of the public and businesses to make this happen.

Of course, this is just one of many, perhaps hundreds of organizations that were affected by the floods. They all need help with rehabilitation.

Then there’s those individuals that need all the help they can get. One of the housekeepers in our office has pretty much lost everything. As the rain continued on the 2nd December, she diligently made sure they had plenty of supplies, buying a huge bag of rice. She also ensured everything was stored high up on shelves in case water entered her home. However, none of that was enough.

The water virtually submerged her home, ruining everything in it. Clothes, vital paperwork, home appliances, cooking equipment. Everything was damaged and had to be thrown out.

Again, this is by no means a unique story. It has been played out across all the areas that saw the most flooding. Insurance for your home is a luxury few can afford and even fewer take, so the cost of replacing anything that was damaged has to be met by the individual – or rely on the kindness of strangers.

Hope and Moving Forward

There’s still a lot of relief required. People already living on the breadline have lost homes and livelihoods. It’s also clear that with the distribution of money as aid, the Government needs to take a long hard look at itself as the distributor of alcohol in the state.

Fortunately, despite so much loss and anguish, I’m very positive about the outlook of the organizations and individuals that have been so badly affected. The people of Chennai will always step up to help those in need.

flooding in seetha nagar

As Chennai Sank, Humanity Rose in its Place

I don’t think November and December of 2015 are going to be two months that I forget for the rest of my life. Every year in Chennai, the Northeast Monsoon (NEM) pours rain all over the city. When I first arrived in Chennai in 2008, I remember that like clockwork the rains would come during the night and then clear up by morning. The last few years, the rains have been erratic and last year it was as if the NEM didn’t even happen.

The consequence of the failed monsoon in 2014 made its presence felt in the middle of 2015, when water wells began to dry up and water from the taps stopped running throughout the day. For the first time I was experiencing water rationing where the water would be turned on for a couple of hours in the morning, and it was a race to get everything you needed to get done in that short amount of time. We live in the centre of the city so for us to face a water shortage was unusual, but for the people living further out of the city, life became intolerable as the daily routine revolved around whether the water tankers would turn up or not.

And so it Began

On 9th November, we returned to Chennai from a trip to Australia. We left what Mashable described as an Apocalyptic Storm that hit Sydney (we happened to be up the tallest building in Sydney when it hit), and arrived to Chennai’s own apocalyptic storm.

Getting anywhere from the Chennai airport is a challenge at the best of times. The nearest railway station is more than half a kilometer walk away, there is no taxi stand with orderly queuing, you have to cross the main pickup road which is teeming with cars to get to the car park, and there is no sign post pointing you to the bus stop (is there even a bus stop?!).

In a sign of things to come, we landed on a Sunday evening when it was pouring with rain. There were no taxis available, not even the Government taxis. It was so late in the night that even the suburban trains would have stopped running so there was no obvious way to get back home. Eventually, the state controlled taxi stand offered to drop us home if we agreed to share the taxi with other passengers. There was very little choice, so we all piled into the car.

From that evening when we landed at Chennai, it was the start of three very long, very tough weeks. The city was inundated with rain. For those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, we did. Some days were better than others, we managed to get to the office, we even managed to have a few nights out on the town. However, the rains were always ready to make a reappearance.

The Floods Begin

Then there was another problem. The reservoirs outside the city, the reservoirs that just a month ago were as dry as a bone, were almost full to capacity. With more inflows expected, the Government had to order the release of water, which would feed into an already swollen Adyar river. The impact of this on the neighbourhoods that lined the river was worse than the rains. The flood waters spared nothing, inundating or even submerging homes, vehicles and temples.

After a weekend of non-stop rain, the weather had cleared up enough to be able to go to the office. On the morning of the 17th, I went by car down my usual route, which takes me over the Adyar river. I could see it had broken its banks and inundated the low lying areas. People were standing on the roof terraces just looking down in disbelief at the river that their homes now stood in. Thankfully it didn’t last for too long and by the end of the week we were all up and running again.

stations flooded

Stations and train tracks flooded, paralyzing the rail network

boats in velachery to rescue people

We joked that boats might be needed for the streets that became rivers, but it became a reality

November 23rd – That’s a Lot of Rain

The last week of November was as bad as we thought it could get. It began innocuously enough with overcast skies on the 23rd November, but no rain. There had been light showers all weekend but we were still all able to make it to the office. Around 2pm it started drizzling again but forecasts, all forecasts, didn’t predict much rain. We knew it was going to be tough to get home but none could have foreseen the scenario that was about to follow.

We had hoped that the rain would clear up. These showers are common during the NEM and last for an hour or two at the most. By 6pm we realized that we needed to get home, raining or not. For some of us, it meant catching the train along the elevated tracks, for others it was a 90 minute bus ride even in good conditions, or a car ride home.

I personally take the train in the evening. There’s no quicker way to get around the city and the amount of people that spill out of the IT parks means you can be sitting in traffic for ages. At the Mandavelli station where I get off, I normally take an Uber cab back home, but the non-stop rain meant that most drivers were staying off the roads. If their car gets damaged, they have to pay for it out of their own pockets, so why would they risk 10,000 rupees of damage for a ride that will net a few hundred rupees?

I flagged down an auto and he asked for 200 rupees to get to Nungambakkam – twice what I would pay for an air conditioned Uber taxi. It had been raining since 2pm and only getting heavier, so I knew the roads were likely to be flooded. What I didn’t know was just how flooded the roads were. Water covered even the main arterial roads. The side streets were even worse with six inches of water flowing through them. Social media was buzzing with people complaining about the rains. It was only 7pm but the entire city from North to South had come to a standstill. Junctions were gridlocked. Everything was stuck, even ambulances couldn’t get through. The city ground to a halt. There was nowhere for cars to go.

There was nowhere for me to go.

Or was there?

Waiting for it to All Blow Over

Inspired by Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead, I realized the safest place to be was sat in a bar with a pint of beer, and hold tight until the whole thing blew over. I called up my wife and explained the situation, throwing in a few words like ‘hopeless’, ‘peril’ and ‘doomed’. Luckily, my wife is awesome and she agreed that the safest place for me at that moment was at a bar. Even more luckily, the auto was right outside a five star hotel, so I was able to hop out and send the driver on his merry way. Or at least he could have been on his merry way if the traffic was actually moving.

park-hotel

The Park Hotel – a great place to be during a tropical thunderstorm in Chennai

The bar itself was empty. Clearly no one else in Chennai had seen Shaun of the Dead or knew about this apocalypse survival technique. The whole plan had come together perfectly. The bar had beer on tap, burgers on the menu and football on the big screen TV. I texted my wife to let her know that I was safe from peril.

I then set about Whatsapping all my colleagues who were trapped inside their vehicles around various parts of the city. I let them know that I had found a safe place at the bar and that they should come and join me. Surprisingly they weren’t too happy that I was sending them photos of my safe house.

bar was so empty that the bar manager rounded up all his staff, and they set about learning how to make new cocktails. Now I don’t want to insinuate that all these drinks were for me, but there was no other customer in the bar. Just sayin’.

cocktails mixed at the leather bar

14 different cocktails, lined up along the bar…

Unfortunately, many of my colleagues, and indeed tens of thousands of other people in the city, had it far worse than me. Some were still in their car four hours after leaving the office. Some didn’t even make it home and had to stay with friends. Information was being shared on social media about the condition of roads, it felt like the city was coming together to get the working population home.

The rain didn’t stop.

For days the rain came. We were all marooned in our little castles in the sky. It was kinda fun. We were all checking up on one another and getting on with our work from home. Our internet was out and we were surviving on tethered 3G connections. Thankfully the power remained with only a few intermittent cuts. Tuesday rolled into Wednesday before the rain finally fizzled out and we could return to the office again.

flooding in seetha nagar

The area around my apartment floods quickly but people still go about their daily lives

For the remainder of the week there was the odd shower but we believed that things were getting back to normal. We even went out bar hopping on the Friday! There were murmurings on the weather sites of heavy rains that would hit over the weekend and plans to see Spectre at the new IMAX were cancelled. Of course, when heavy rains are predicted, the NEM tends to do the exact opposite and it was clear skies all weekend.

30th November – Run, You Fools

The 30th November started like the Monday before. Bright but overcast. People were complaining that they had cancelled so many plans because of the reports of the crazy rains which never materialized. At 3pm, the drizzles started again. Fresh from the horror commute (or in my case, being stuck in a bar for three hours) of the previous week, we fled from the office like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

It was a good call, too. The rains got heavier and heavier and once again, the entire city was pounded throughout the night. Areas that were flooded from the previous week still hadn’t recovered. In the south of the city, the groundwater was so high that the water had no way to percolate into the soil.

saidapet bridge under water

As the Adyar river rose, it spilled over one of the main arterial roads of the city, cutting access to a large part of the city

It was the south of the city that took the brunt of the deluge as well. Overnight, the lakes that surround the city, already full from the past month of rain, burst through dams and dykes, completely flooding entire neighbourhoods. Many areas of southern Chennai are built over lakes that had been filled in. With the water having nowhere else to flow, it gathered and spread amongst the low lying neighbourhoods. The storm water drains were rendered ineffective because they drained into the Adyar and Cooum rivers, and Buckingham canal, all of which were flooded. The water literally had nowhere to go.

chennai airport under water

When the Adyar river burst its banks because of the water released from the reservoirs, nothing was spared, including the international airport

The rain didn’t stop.

As Tuesday morning broke, there was no let up in the rain. For hours it came down. Sometimes hard, sometimes light, but never stopping. As the severity of the floods became clear, the conversation between everyone turned from light hearted to more serious. Suddenly there were friends or relatives that were trapped in their apartments. Over the course of the day, the power to various neighbourhoods either failed or was switched off as a safety precaution – fallen power lines electrocute far too many people in India. The southern part of the city spent most of Tuesday without power.

Dog rescue

Water was waist level or deeper in many places of the city

Chennai Begins to Sink

There was worse to come. Even more water needed to be released from the reservoirs – more than had been released the previous week. Had they not released the water, I’m sure the potential destruction would have been even greater. With lakes and rivers already overflowing, Chennai’s fate was truly sealed. Areas that had never experienced flooding before were suddenly under water. In the houses and apartments bordering the lakes and rivers, the ground floors were once again submerged, but this time even first floor apartments were in danger. Some were even stranded on the terrace roof of their homes.

The rain didn’t stop.

By Tuesday evening, Nungambakkam had miraculously had power for the whole day – I even took conference calls with my boss in New York. “It’s bad, but we’re fine.” I had told him. We even had broadband at that point. A few people from the southern part of the city were posting on Facebook that they were marooned in their homes, apartments were flooded, power had been out and even the mobile networks were beginning to fail. It was disturbing but it seemed localized. The Government rescue teams would help them. As the rains finally eased off we went to sleep.

Southern chennai was badly affected

The southern areas of Chennai suffered greatly

1st December – The Citizen Rescue Force is Mobilized

On Wednesday it was becoming clear how much the city had suffered over the last couple of days. What had been a few requests for assistance the day before, turned into a never ending stream of desperate cries for help. Snakes from nearby waterbodies invaded homes and were forcing people to seek shelter in stairwells, elderly people were running low on essential medicine or oxygen, pregnant ladies were going into labour, hundreds of orphans were stranded without food and drinking water, students in hostels were without power or any means to reach the outside world, hospitals were running out of food to feed their patients. Entire neighbourhoods were cut off. The only way to reach them was by boat – not something that is available or readily transportable through the flooded city streets.

flooding in t-nagar

T-Nagar was inundated with water after water bodies in the area burst their banks

Aghast, we watched the thousands of desperate pleas for help fill our Facebook and Twitter feeds. A feeling of hopelessness came over us. There was nothing we could do but read the ever more frantic rescue requests. But by mid-morning the power finally spluttered and died in our area. A couple of hours later, the mobile networks shut down.

We were going dark.

However, compared to hundreds of thousands of people in the city, we were the lucky ones. We had already stocked up on food in the morning and pre-cooked all our meals along with ensuring we had plenty of drinking water.

Wednesday was a tragic day for a city that was beaten black and blue over the last month. It was also a truly inspiring day for its citizens. While the Government rescue teams used boats and helicopters to rescue people from the worst affected areas, the people of the city mobilized themselves as an unofficial, unsanctioned civilian rescue force. There were tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people that had spent all of Tuesday without power. Food and drinkable water were running low and flood waters were still rising. Although they weren’t in immediate danger, you can only imagine the terrible hardships they were going through. A mother unable to give her daughter a drink of water, a father unable to find out if his son is OK.

With the prospect of these people being stranded for a second day and with the likely scenario of people running out of food and drinking water, the citizens of Chennai swung into action.

Chennai’s Citizens Rescue Themselves

Armed with social media, Whatsapp and Google Docs, thousands of people organized relief efforts across the city. Those that had access to boats or all terrain SUVs made sure people knew how to contact them, online spreadsheets were set up where hundreds of people opened up their homes to any and all that needed it. Many people cooked everything they had and went out on foot, on bikes and in cars to distribute food and water to any one that needed it. People from other countries that had families and friends living in Chennai sought news about their loved ones, and through the social fabric that weaves the people of India together, news and updates were given. Strangers were topping up pre-paid phones of any one that had run out of balance. Some were offering to pay for all medical expenses of any woman that went into labour during this crisis – regardless of the hospital. Others let people know that if they needed money (all the ATMs had shut down), they could help out. Whatever help could be offered, was.

Back in my own country, people talk about the spirit of the Londoners during the Blitz. In the face of so much unimaginable adversity, everyone pulled together and looked out for everyone else. It’s an incredible story of humanity and cooperation. However, it would be narrow-minded and even arrogant to assume that this spirit is limited only to the British. I believe it’s a spirit that is possessed by every human, the desire to do something, to make a difference, to help in any way.

Saidapet bridge

Despite the danger, people came from all over to see the Saidapet bridge submerged under the Adyar river

About a week ago my wife posted a very poignant blog post asking: Where is the love? The Paris attacks had just happened, there was another massacre in the US, the Middle East is just a quagmire of misery, refugees fleeing Syria are clinging to life by the smallest of threads – it’s a fair question. Where is the love?

Well, I found it.

It’s right here in Chennai. In every one of its citizens that went out to do something. Made a difference. Helped in even the smallest of ways.

The ones that opened their homes to those from all walks of life. The ones that shared critical information. The ones that checked on strangers after seeing a request on Facebook. The ones that donated to the relief efforts. The ones that waded through water to distribute food and supplies. The ones that brought the street dogs into their homes. The ones that set up websites, Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups, spreadsheets and maps to help disseminate vital information. The businesses that opened their doors to help people. The ones that were there providing company to those that needed it.


As the rains ease up and the water levels around the city recede, there’s still a lot of people that need help. Facebook is still teeming with requests for help and thousands of people around the city are going above and beyond normal boundaries to make sure they get it.

There’s a lot of love left in this world. In the face of adversity, is when humanity can shine its brightest. Let’s not forget it.

Get well soon, Chennai.

places to go

Floods or not, this cat had things to do, places to go

Note: Photos gathered from around the Internet or shamelessly stolen from my friends that shared their photos on Whatsapp. Some were even taken by me.

chennai-christmas

Where does one go for Christmas in India?

Listen up Internet. Can you help my wife and I? We want to go somewhere for Christmas but we just don’t know where! The only requirement is that it’s in India, we shouldn’t have been there before and there should be some things to do or places to explore.

This will be my fifth year outside of England for Christmas. Last year my wife and I decided to switch things up a little and booked ourselves into the Hilton Colombo. She was working for the Hilton so we got a nice staff rate on the regular price. To top it off, the head chef at Hilton Colombo was British so he laid on the best Christmas dinner I’ve had in a long time.

Christmas in Colombo was fantastic, can we find anything in India to match that experience?

chennai-christmas-dinner

The big hotels in Chennai all lay on a Christmas buffet

In previous years we went to the Taj Connemara for Christmas dinner. It’s a great restaurant, a nice Christmas spread and reasonably priced as well, if you consider how much the other hotels charge for Christmas buffet in Chennai. However, after three straight years it does get a bit samey.

This year we’re scratching our heads over what to do and where to go. The only thing we’ve decided is that we can’t bear the thought of spending another Christmas here. Sorry, Chennai, I love you and everything but I can’t do another Christmas with you.

chennai-christmas-carols

Christmas carols are sung in Chennai

So that brings us back to what to do. Go abroad? Meh, my wife’s passport has less than six months validity on it and we all know how long it takes to get a new passport. Christmas in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur sounds good and we nearly ended up in Bangkok last year after we discovered incredible staff rates at the Conrad Bangkok, but our hands are tied, we need to look for something in India. (Oh, and my wife left the Hilton, so no more staff rates, booo!).

We thought about the North. Neither of us has really ‘done’ the North of India, but I’ve been to Jaipur in February and it was bloody cold then, so I can only imagine how cold it would be in the middle of December. I would love to go to Delhi, but the cold combined with the sky high air pollution at this time of the year puts me off. Besides, are any touristy things going to be open over Christmas? Can you convince me? I wonder if The Claridges hotel will give me a discount because we share the same name?

We could keep things simple, go down to Pondicherry, but, well, there’s nothing to do there. We’ve been, we know. How about Coorg? Up in the mountains. Sure, it’s going to be chilly, but there are so many romantic getaways according to the results on Make My Trip. But oh, wait, there are no flights going out from Chennai to Mysore. Grr. Next!

Ooty and Coonoor are always popular places, but we’ve been to these places so many times there’s nothing new about it. Any way, the one place I want to stay in Coonoor, the Taj Gateway, is fully booked.

Right now we’re thinking Christmas in Hyderabad, which is…great. Yay. It fits our budget, we don’t have spend 8 hours and take two flights to get there, the Taj hotels are pretty reasonable, it appears like there’s some things to see according to Trip Advisor, so yeah.

Oh, I nearly forgot, there’s Goa as well. We spent our Honeymoon in Goa. A truly fabulous place, a little pricey at this time of the year though because every man and his dog wants to escape to Goa for Christmas. If we wanted a cheaper beachy Christmas, we could go to Kovalam and Varkala in Kerala, but as with Ooty and Coonoor: been there, done that.

So, Hyderabad it is. Unless you, the Internet, can come up with any better ideas in the next few days.

puppies were finally rescued

How I Tried To Rescue A Puppy But Ended Up In Hospital

Living in Chennai, one is never too far away from an animal of some kind. Whether it’s a street dog or an animal more common to a farm than a city, the city is teeming with local fauna.

Every day, Darwin’s survival of the fittest plays out as disease, competition for food and danger from other animals all look to weed out the weakest.

In particular, the animals tend to be at their most vulnerable when they have a new born litter to look after.

All this means that for the observant city traveller the opportunity to happen upon newborn puppies and kittens is very high.

My wife and I go on daily walks in the evening and have adopted virtually every dog and cat along the way. About a year ago we were walking down the street as normal when the unmistakable meep of a kitten came from the bushes. Rescuing that kitten turned into the tale about Socks.

DSC_0227

Socks was the first kitten we rescued which involved a midnight trip to the animal shelter

A few months back, we were walking in a similar area and once again, there was the unmistakable call sign of a kitten. This one didn’t need any coaxing out from her hiding place as she dashed out, looked up and implored us to keep her safe. That kitten turned into the tale about White Kitten – which was adopted via an OLX ad.

white kitten in chennai

A great photo can go a long way in increasing the chances the animal will get adopted! (But makes it so much harder to give them away.)

The other week, we had barely left our apartment when a tiny puppy waddled across the road. It was so young it still had trouble walking. The local people, who sit outside the apartments day and night, told us that some kids had taken the puppy from the main road, brought it to the interior road and left it there. That puppy turned into the tale about Waddle.

The point of the above is to illustrate that when it comes to rescuing kittens and puppies, my wife and I create exceptions to Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory because he didn’t account for two people interrupting mother nature.

Although we love both cats and dogs, my wife leans more towards cats and I lean more towards dogs. Despite strong feelings otherwise, we both know that we can never have either in our current circumstances. It has got to the point where my wife has agreed not to bring home a kitten on the condition that I don’t bring a puppy home.

Last Thursday was a Thursday like any other. It was 6pm and the working day was coming to an end. My colleagues and I that take the train were heading to the station, talking about nothing in particular.

As we turned down the dirt track that constitutes the road leading up to the station, my erstwhile team mate and resident crazy-dog lady who has a built in puppy-radar for spotting puppies where no normal human can, shouted “Puppies!”

We turned to look to where she was pointing. We didn’t see anything but that puppy-radar has rarely failed in the past.

Now you know about my soft spot for puppies. If there was even the remote opportunity to pick one up, I would. We got out the car and followed the crazy dog lady.

As I said, day or night, rain or shine, that puppy-radar hardly ever fails.

In a small clearing there were two small puppies, maybe around 5-6 weeks old. It was very clear that all was not well and the smell soon confirmed it. Lying next to them was their dead mother, covered in flies. Rigor mortis had set in and her legs were splayed out. Aside from being dead, she did look healthy and there were no visible injuries so it was difficult to say what she had died from.

The puppies made a feeble attempt to get up when they saw us approach but they were so emaciated that they didn’t get far.

My dog loving team mate is on a one lady mission to adopt all of Chennai’s 170,000 street dogs and was the subject of an earlier post about the dogs of Taramani MRTS station. Every evening she comes to the station with biscuits for her dog pack in the station and she was already opening this packet up for the puppies.

At first they didn’t know what was happening but when they realized their meals on wheels had turned up all wariness was forgotten and they started tucking into the biscuits with relish.

At that point one of their siblings who had been hiding in the bushes decided that the need for food overrode the need to stay hidden. That puppy was joined by a fourth that appeared out of nowhere (a rare failure of that puppy-radar) and soon there were four puppies demolishing a pack of digestive biscuits.

emaciated puppies at taramani station

The malnourished puppies devoured the biscuits within minutes before the crows got them.

It turns out that my team mate has the same weakness as me and my wife in that she has an inability to let nature take its course and allow the young pups to fend for themselves.

It didn’t look like the mother had been dead for too long, yet the puppies were so skinny we had to assume the mother wasn’t able to feed them in the last few days. With all the other dogs around and the fact that they weren’t in a position to forage for food, it was doubtful that they’d last for too long.

Blue Cross is an animal rescue shelter in Chennai that does some sterling work to rescue sick and injured animals. Their Facebook page is constantly updated with various heroic stories of cows, monkeys, dogs and horses being rescued from various ditches, wells and sewers.

We called them up but were told that four young puppies wasn’t enough of an emergency to make them come out and take them back to the shelter.

While the phone call to Blue Cross was going on, my team mate picked up one of the puppies and it immediately proceeded to fall asleep on her arm.

The look on her face was clear, there was no way she was going to leave them here.

“If Blue Cross won’t come to the puppies, I will take the puppies to Blue Cross.” She proclaimed.

It was a silly idea. I’ve had experience taking one very small but very determined kitten to the vets in an auto and here she was talking about taking four frightened puppies by herself. My wife and I could barely keep one kitten contained in a box, one person keeping hold of four scared puppies would be impossible.

However, given the number of animal rescues I’ve been part of, it would have been rather hypocritical of me to try and talk her out of it, no matter how crazy or impossible it was.

“How are you going to do this?” I asked.

“Pick them up and give them to me, I’ll hold all of them.” Yeah, it was an insane idea. She turned to our other team mate, “Can you find me an auto to get to Blue Cross?”

I set about coaxing one of the puppies closer so I could pick it up while an auto was being hailed. The puppy was suspicious and backed away. I lunged, the puppy dodged. I stood back, the puppy sat down. I moved in behind it, the puppy eyed me warily. I picked up a twig and moved it about, the puppy gingerly came over to investigate. “Gotcha!” I picked it up where it struggled briefly but after a moment it realized its world hadn’t ended and it settled down.

I handed it over to my team mate who deftly shifted the puppy she was holding to the other arm and embraced the one I was holding. It looked up at its new surroundings, smelt its sibling and the decided it was time to sleep.

While this was going on, the auto driver who agreed to drive to the Blue Cross shelter decided to get involved. The other two puppies, the ones that were originally hiding in the bushes when we first came over, watched their siblings getting kidnapped and decided to bug out and make for the bushes again.

The auto driver stalked them stealthily and managed to separate the two. One puppy ran into a corner where it realized it had no escape so it rolled over on its back and started screaming as the auto driver approached.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a puppy scream but it’s ear piercingly loud. It’s clearly designed to get the mother to come racing back to her litter and fend off whatever danger was there. The auto driver paid no heed and he picked it up and off loaded it on to my team mate. As with the previous pup, its moment of panic subsided, it smelled its siblings, yawned and went to sleep.

The final puppy clearly felt it needed to make a last stand to avoid being kidnapped. It started screaming as we approached and bolted away every time we came close. Emaciated it might have been but it was very determined not to get caught. Up and down the track we ran but the puppy was able to remain just out of grasp.

By this stage, we had started to build an audience as other commuters arrived at the station. Another auto driver came along to offer his assistance too. Cars rolled by with people staring out the window, jaws half open as they took in the scene of three grown men, including a foreigner, running around the dirt track.

chasing-the-puppy

It was becoming increasingly obvious that stalking and grabbing weren’t going to work so one auto driver picked up a big tree branch and tried to pin the puppy down. This sent the screaming to another level and I was convinced that a dog pack was going to arrive on the scene to investigate these puppy botherers.

Eventually the puppy was pinned down by a branch and I moved in, my ears ringing from the shrieking. However, although he was down he was not out of the fight just yet. As I tried this way and that to wrap my hands under him, his head would snap around and try to bite down on me. I knew I had to immobilize his head and made a few deft moves to distract him and dived in to grab its head and jaws.

My ninja skills were weak. I wasn’t quick enough.

Its head snapped back nearly 180 degrees and its teeth, like tiny razor blades, sank in to the index finger on my left hand. I recoiled and the puppy wriggled out from under the branch and set off again making a beeline for freedom. From the sidelines, office workers watched on, perhaps out of amusement, almost certainly knowing that they were going to have a story to tell that evening.

The auto drivers gave chase again and I looked at my hand. Claret began oozing out.

“Umm. Ouch” I said, to no one in particular.

Over to my left, the auto drivers were having more luck than me and they were able to quickly grab the puppy and clamp a hand over its jaws. It wasn’t done though as it contorted its body to try to break free and get away from the driver’s grasp.

As it twisted and turned, the auto driver brought it over to my team mate who was sitting in the auto with the other three puppies. His expression one of concern about whether he should hand over this angry little wolf cub to a young lady.

puppies were finally rescued

“Give.” my team mate commanded, and the auto driver carefully placed the angry puppy on her arm before pulling his hands away with some super human speed. The puppy blinked, sniffed his sleeping brothers and sisters, looked up at my team mate, acted as if he was shrugging his shoulders and then fell asleep.

“Pete, you’re going to have to get that checked out at hospital.” She said, nodding to my bleeding finger.

“Oh. Crap. Yes.”

I know that rabies is present in India, but the street cats and dogs, while not always the healthiest of animals, don’t generally have rabies. It’s never even crossed our mind as we excitedly pick up a new born kitten or puppy or stop to pet a particularly cute street dog.

“Have you had your rabies shots?” She asked.

“Umm.”

“You need to get to the hospital and get the rabies shots now, Peter.”

Something in my brain clicked. “Err, shot-s? Plural?”

“Yep, they need to give you lots of injections for rabies.”

“Oh.” They hadn’t told me this seven years ago when I was getting my vaccinations before I came to India.

I called my wife to inform her that I had just ruined our Thursday evening and that we would be spending the next few hours at a hospital.

We arrived at the hospital and headed for the emergency ward. I was feeling absolutely fine. The puppy’s teeth were like little knifes and had split open the skin from the second joint down to the finger nail. There were a number of other puncture wounds as well but it wasn’t bleeding much and didn’t really hurt. In all honesty, if I’d got this injury some other way I wouldn’t even give it a second thought, just clean it up and put a plaster on it.

Queuing up at the emergency ward, there were many people in far worse condition than I was. Actually, that’s a lie. There was nobody doing better than I was.

“What is the problem?” The head nurse asked, turning to me and then my wife. Clearly neither of us were sick or had any trauma.

I held up my index finger to show off my embarrassingly small wound. “I got bitten by a dog-”

“-Puppy-” My wife interjected.

“-I got bitten by a puppy.”

Before we knew it, a pathway was cleared through the ward between the actual sick and needy people and I was speaking to a doctor within minutes.

He inspected my finger and asked “When did this-”

“-puppy-” my wife supplied, helpfully.

“When did this puppy bite you?” The doctor asked, turning my hand this way and that to see if he had missed something.

“About two hours ago.”

“And why did it bite you?”

“I was bothering it.” I answered, rather sheepishly.

“Did it attack you?” The doctor continued.

“No, I was trying to rescue it.”

“From where?” He’d given up trying to find any more bite marks.

“Umm, from the station in Taramani.” The doctor paused and then glanced up and my wife. He clearly thought there was more to this story. She just nodded her head slightly to confirm my story.

“Why?”

“Because its Mum had died and we were trying to take it to a shelter.”

Somewhat perplexed at my strange hobbies, the doctor moved on to the medical questions. “Have you had rabies vaccinations in the past?”

“Err…maybe?” To be honest, I’d had so many injections seven years ago before I came to Chennai that I couldn’t remember if rabies was on the list.

“If you’ve had the vaccination then I just need to give you one injection and you can leave.” The doctor said.

“And if I haven’t?”

“Then we’ll need to give you immunoglobin now and you need five more follow up injections and it will be very costly.”

There was definitely an incentive to find out if I’d had that rabies vaccination.

I can’t imagine there are many things worse for a mother than to get a frantic phone call one Thursday afternoon from her son who is in a far away land and urgently asked whether he has had a rabies vaccination.

To my Mum’s eternal credit, she took the news quite well but alas, she couldn’t remember if her adult son had had a rabies vaccination.

We went back to the doctor and informed him that we needed the expensive treatment. There was a moment of uncertainty in his eyes, never a good sign when you could be infected with a disease that’s 100% fatal.

“Err, the treatment is, umm, it’s err, rather expensive actually.” He mumbled.

Now I’ve been in India long enough to know that expensive is all relative. I can go to a five star hotel and eat an unlimited buffet with alcohol for £25. I can take a taxi to work every morning for £2.50. My electricity bill is about £20 a month. Expensive is relative so when the doctor said the treatment was expensive, I was thinking by Indian standards.

“That’s fine.” I said, “Just tell us how much and we’ll buy the medicine from the pharmacy.”

The doctor pulled out a calculator. That should have been a sign right there. “How much do you weigh?” He asked and punched that into the calculator as well. “It’s going to come to thirty five thousand rupees.”

I blinked back at him.

“Three, five?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yeah.”

I looked at my wife. “What’s the problem?” She asked.

“Err, it’s just that I had been looking at buying a new camera.”

“So?”

“I’d been saving up for the last few months.”

“And?”

I sighed. “It was about thirty five thousand rupees.”

The doctor could see that my mind was seriously considering whether to risk catching a fatal disease so that I could buy the camera I’d saved up for. He had to guide this foreigner away from making a stupid decision.

“Well, look at it as an investment. If you get this treatment now, you’ll be immune to rabies for life so you can continue, err, you know, rescuing. Puppies and stuff.”

It was a very convincing argument.

I breathed out and resigned myself to a life of mediocre camera phone photos. “OK, fine, let’s do this. Is it going to hurt?”

There was an almost imperceivable glance between the doctor and the nurse.

The doctor swallowed. “Let me explain, you don’t have any immunity against rabies and the vaccine takes seven days to start working. We have to give you immunoglobin which will give you immediate immunity.”

“Oh, OK, so why does that hurt?”

This time there was a definite glance between the doctor and the nurse. The nurse was a lot older than the young doctor and she dipped her head to get him to go on.

“You see, we have to inject the immunoglobin where the wound is. The needle has to go in to each place the skin is broken.”

Until this point I had been fairly calm. Needles and injections don’t faze me at all but the thought of a needle going directly into the wound on my finger started to get my heart racing.

The doctor continued. “Your fingers have a lot of nerve endings, so it’s a very sensitive area.”

“So it’s going to hurt?”

“Yes.”

“A lot.”

“Yes.”

I gulped. “OK, let’s get it over with.” I sat on the bed and the nurse prepared the syringe and needle. It was the biggest needle I’d ever seen, as if they’d called up the local vet and asked if they had any needles they normally used on horses or something.

My heart was now in my throat, my stomach was churning out adrenalin and my hand was involuntarily shaking. I sat on the bed and the nurse clamped my hand down on a side table while the doctor held my finger firmly in place. They weren’t taking any chances.

And so it began.

Getting rabies injections

My Mum reads this blog (Hi Mum!), so I can’t repeat the words I may or may not have used but suffice to say I had to apologize profusely to the doctor and nurse afterwards for my lack of decorum.

The injection did indeed hurt like crazy. Beyond crazy. I could feel the needle inside my finger and the liquid immunoglobin flowing through it. Since there were multiple puncture wounds, the needle had to go into my finger multiple times.

After an eternity, which in reality just two minutes, it was over. It felt like I had the finger hacked off. It was throbbing and swelling up by the second. The bite itself only stung a little, the injections were many, many times worse.

“It’s done. The worst part is over. Now lay on the bed and turn over, I need to give you two more immunoglobin shots.”

Pain was coursing up and down my left hand but his words still made me panic. “Wait, you said the worst part is over?!”

“Yes, these ones won’t hurt.”

“But you need to give injections in my…” was there a proper medical word for it? I don’t know. “…bum?” I’m pretty sure the nurse stifled a laugh.

“Just on the fleshy parts, it won’t hurt like this one.”

“But is it really necessary to have the injection in the, err, bum?”

“Actually it’s your buttocks.”

“Yeah, but do you actually want me to pull down my pants?” More than anything I was concerned that I was wearing rather bright pink boxer shorts.

“That’s the normal way to do it, yes.” I felt the doctor was getting a little impatient so I unbuttoned and duly obliged, presenting my caboose for the first time in my adult life. “Now,” the doctor continued, “you might feel a small prick.”

“Said the vicar to the choir boy.” I mumbled.

“Peter!” Hissed my wife who had been listening into the conversation, “No one understands your British humour!”

“Sorry?” The doctor asked

“Nothing, let’s do this.” I murmured into the pillow.

The doctor was right, you really don’t feel the injections in your bum. There were just two more injections to go; a tetanus shot in the left arm and a rabies vaccine in the right one.

Finally we were done for the day. I felt like a pin cushion with the number of needles that had been stuck in me.

I still need to go back to the hospital another five times to get more injections but at least they are all in the arm and don’t hurt so much.

Having spent so much money on this treatment, I’ve got a good mind throw the deal I have with my wife out the window. I will go to Blue Cross, find the puppy that bit me and adopt it whether it likes it or not. I did pay 35,000 rupees for it after all. I won’t be able to take a photo of it though.

Illustrations by Jessie Miller

Tales From the Taramani MRTS Station

My team mate is known for being the resident crazy dog-lady in the office.

Now somewhere out there is a lady with twenty dogs, dog pictures on the wall, doggie slippers, t-shirts with dogs on, crockery with dog pictures, a poster hanging on the wall that says ’15 reasons why a dog is better than a husband’, and a bumper sticker on her car that says “I ❤ dogs“. This lady would look at my team mate and say “Whoa, steady on, I think you might have a problem”.

According to one estimate, there are 170,000 stray dogs in Chennai. So prolific are these dogs that they make rabbits look positively celibate.

My team mate is on a one-lady mission to adopt all of these dogs.

At the Taramani MRTS station, dog packs have adopted the various levels. At the platform level, the dog pack has been growing consistently over the last three years.

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We’ve seen puppies grow into dogs and then those dogs have puppies. One particular dog had been named Mini. It was appropriate because when she first arrived on the scene she was a young adult and very small. Mini was joined by a second dog called Friend, so called because he just turned up one day with Mini, as if she was saying “See! I told you there were these automated food dispensers”.

Eventually nature took its course and infront of an entire platform of office workers, Friend and Mini started making babies. Both dogs disappeared for some time but then Mini returned with her new puppy, named Peppy, because she was.

Six months later, Peppy had turned in to a clone of her Mum. Another male dog suddenly appeared. He had a skin condition which caused him to chew out all his black fur so he was named Scratchy and he became the alpha dog of Mini and Peppy, with all the rights that conferred.

One day, Friend made a reappearence, conveniently while Scratchy was not around.

My team mate was cheerfully feeding her pack as normal (minus Scratchy) and as usual a few commuters were giving her puzzled looks. However, Friend wasn’t here for the food and suddenly my team mate found herself front and centre of an x-rated show.

“Nononono! Stop it!” she cried as she flailed her arms around. But it was of no use.

In seconds she was in the middle of a rapidly growing circle of office workers from HSBC, Shell, Ford, Cognizant, Amazon and Verizon who all turned to see what the commotion was. Quite how these dogs managed to time their mating rituals when they had the biggest audience is one of nature’s mysteries.

Friend disappeared once more and Mini was pregnant again. Scratchy was busy protecting his pack from other male dogs that were sniffing around her and Peppy. After the normal gestation period, we reached the station one evening and in another act of nature’s mysteries, arrived just in time for the birthing of Mini’s babies. Scratchy was sitting not far away, licking his lips and looking remarkably proud of himself.

In total, five puppies were born. All were the light coloured clones of Mini and Friend. Not a single puppy had black or even dark fur. It was a little awkward, but Scratchy didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. He was as alert as ever, making sure no other dogs came to bother Mini and ‘his’ puppies.

Now, to say Mini was an ambivalent mother is something of an understatement. Normally female dogs will be very protective of their litter. Mini on the other hand, projected an air of indifference around the puppies, as if they were some how inconveniencing her from meeting all the commuters in the evening.

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“What am I supposed to do with this lot?” Mini seems to be saying

In the first few weeks, she was quite happy to let people pick them up. Often when we arrived at the station she’d spot us, get up, look down at the puppies and then wander off, apparently relieved that the babysitters had arrived for their evening duty.

As the puppies grew larger, they’d crawl across the station, right into the pathway of the commuters. Mini? She didn’t seem to care.

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Take a puppy, any puppy. In fact, take them all. Please?

One by one, the puppies start to disappear. We had to hope that it was to various homes rather than the great farm in the sky. Eventually, after about two months, all the puppies had been taken and Mini showed no sign of distress.

Not long after that, another puppy from the ground floor dog pack ventured upstairs to the station level. It was welcomed to the platform dog pack and brought the strength of the pack upto five.

Their entire life seems to revolve around waiting for my dog-crazy team mate turning up at 6pm every day, loaded up with biscuits from the local shop. She has trained them to the point where they’ll stand around in a semi-circle and on the raising of her index finger, they will sit obediently waiting for the biscuits that she hands out. She has the respect and loyalty of the pack.

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Spot the alpha in this pack. Clockwise from the top we have Peppy, Scratchy, Mini, New Dog and Buster.

Now when my team mate doesn’t travel with us there’s a problem. The rest of us never feed the dogs and we most certainly do not have the respect of the pack. However, the dogs know us as being the groupies of the alpha lady and to their mind, perhaps this time she has sent us to them with the daily food.

“Sit!” We’d cry. “No!” We’d snap. “Bad dog!” We’d shout. They don’t listen to us. It’s all a game and the more agitated we become, the more fun it becomes for the dog pack.

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The humans in this photo are definitely not the alphas!

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How I Ended Up In Colombo For Christmas

For the last three years I’ve spent my Christmas in Chennai. Each year we went back to the Taj Connemara for their Christmas brunch, which is pretty good with all the turkey, roast vegetables, pigs in blankets and so on, but to do it again for a fourth year. Just no. Not again.

I told my wife that I couldn’t do a fourth year in Chennai. I didn’t care where we went, but we had to get out of the city. Fortunately she agreed and rather more fortunately, she works for the Hilton, so we fired up the staff rates website, filtered for South East Asia – and then sorted from Low to High. Yeah, whatever, don’t judge me.

Colombo, Sri Lanka topped the list of cheapest places to stay. We ignored it. So yes, apparently I did care a little bit about where we went. Sri Lanka is basically India, right?

We scrolled through to the more interesting destinations like Singapore, Bangkok, Bali, Malaysia and Indonesia, all wonderful places where we could spend a fantastic Christmas. However after checking the flight costs to these countries we realized that it wasn’t going to be the quick and cheap getaway we had hoped for.

Doing all kinds of crazy hacks and tricks on the airline sites didn’t yield any results, the flights were still expensive. Air Asia kept touting 3,000 Rupee tickets to various Asian cities but damned if I could find the one flight where they were actually offering tickets at that price.

We regrouped and looked at the list again. Colombo called out from the top of the list, it sounded a lot like snickering. It knew that it was all we could afford.

If you didn’t pick up it already, Colombo wasn’t my first choice of places to spend Christmas. A beach resort in Bali? Yes. Christmas in Singapore, one of the most metropolitan city states in the world? Absolutely. Christmas in Bangkok? Why hell yeah! Colombo…hmm, isn’t it owned by the Chinese or something?

It turned out that the executive chef at Hilton Colombo used to work at Hilton Chennai. He is British which meant my expectations for a quality Christmas dinner were suddenly raised to Christmas-dinner-cooked-by-my-Mum levels, and that was all I needed to start looking forward to the trip.

Landing at Colombo Airport was like landing at Heathrow in the summer. It was pouring with rain. Sri Lanka asks all tourists to register for a travel permit online prior to arrival, something that the airlines seem to conveniently forget about.

If you come from one of the western countries you are charged $25 for the pleasure. From India? That’ll be just $15 please and thank you for topping up our foreign reserves account.

When you get to arrivals it becomes a little bit more apparent why the airlines forget to tell you about the travel permit requirement. Westerners, being westerners, clearly think that it’s visa on arrival in Sri Lanka. It’s not, it’s a slap on the wrist and a small fine on arrival but go on you little scamp, go and enjoy the country and don’t forget, Sri Lanka accepts dollars!

After booking our pre-paid non-a/c taxi, the driver loaded us in to a large mini van big enough to seat seven people. “Why don’t you want air conditioning?” he asked, we’re from Chennai we replied. We didn’t need to say anymore, we got a look from him that basically said “oh, you poor things.”

I was expecting many things from Colombo. Mostly I was expecting it to be like Chennai, it’s only an hours flight away after all and Coimbatore or Madurai are basically like mini-Chennais.

What I didn’t expect was a brand spanking new motorway to take us out of the airport towards Colombo. It was so new that someone had forgotten to tell the locals about it because it was empty. There was also a distinct lack of autos and motorbikes driving the towards the oncoming traffic, no people looking to kill themselves by crossing the motorway and shhh, listen…no car horns.

Hang on a second. I don’t think Sri Lanka is like India. What gives?

The two lane motorway snaked its way through the country side. The signs were British in style and written in English, the road markings were very British, the crash barriers were British in style, hell even the landscaping around the intersections were very British. When did Sri Lanka become Great Britain? What happened to China?

“There will be terrible traffic.” the taxi driver told us as we neared the city. We slumped in our seats, it was getting late and we wanted the perfect Serenity beds of the Hilton. And beer.

The terrible traffic turned out to be three cars, a bus and a couple of autos…which are correctly called tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka. India, please take note.

Wait, rewind, the three cars were all Toyota Prii (holy cow, Toyota actually had to do a survey to find out what the plural of Prius was…surely they should have known having invented the word?). Hybrids in Sri Lanka? Are we now in San Francisco? Why doesn’t India have any hybrids?

The Hilton Colombo can be described in one word: Spectacular.

As we pulled in to the driveway, fairy lights gleamed from the landscaped grounds. In the lobby a gingerbread house had been crafted, giving off the unmistakable aroma of Christmas. In the bar a live acappella band was in full swing belting out Do They Know it’s Christmas Time (I do! I do!), Winter Wonderland, Rocking Around The Christmas Tree and the old tear jerker, Silent Night. It was finally beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Carols in Hilton Lobby

Feet tapping, beer in hand, the Serenity bed had been relegated to the bottom of my list of things to do that evening. At the bar I ordered a beef burger because, well, I wasn’t in Chennai any more. Oh to eat such good beef after a long time. Thank you, Chef Daniel!

It wasn’t long before the aforementioned Chef Daniel turned up at the bar. He’s British and from Manchester so it was to be expected. He had an older gentleman in tow so while he went off to see to his kitchens and chit chat with the guests, I struck up a conversation with his friend.

I say conversation but that might be stretching the truth somewhat. A train wreck might have been more appropriate. I later had to apologize to my wife on behalf of all British people for the behaviour of this person.

This gentleman, it turned out, had had a very interesting life, working in all the popular tourist spots in the world like Libya, Iraq, Lebonan, Iran, Burma and of course Sri Lanka. To say he was opinionated about certain things would be like saying the Pope had some thoughts about the whole God thing.

It wasn’t long, maybe just three or four margaritas actually, before he felt he could confide in me that everyone in Sri Lanka was, and I quote “fucking good for nothing lazy morons.” I say confided, but the whole bar heard him telling me how awful Sri Lankans were, ranking them only slightly lower than the “bloody Indians, but at least they work hard” in his list of world’s worst people.

It was at this point that I suddenly had intimate knowledge of what goes on in the mind of a rabbit caught in the headlights. My beer glass froze halfway from the table to my mouth. My brain was replaying what it had just thought it had heard.

Everyone in the bar was staring at us. Knifes were probably being sharpened. If this was a saloon in the wild west, the plinky plonky piano would have stopped playing, there would be the sound of chairs being scraped back and guns being cocked. Someone would then say “you callin’ me yella?” before violently killing us.

My wife, using her womenly intuition, had earlier excused herself to “go to the bathroom” when in fact she had made a beeline for the room, which in hindsight is probably what I should have done. But we all know women are smarter than us men.

I tried in vain to get the gentleman to talk about his admittedly interesting life doing engineering projects in all the developing nations. It didn’t work.

When Chef Daniel came back, the gentleman took a turn for the worse, which I didn’t think was possible. He started laying in to the bar staff about how terrible the margaritas were, telling them that they were all useless and that he’ll get them all fired. He demanded drink after drink, insisting that each one was worse than the last, with the chef getting increasingly agitated with each minute. In short, it was getting tense and I found myself looking for exit routes.

As the chef and the gentleman were arguing about how the staff couldn’t make the perfect margarita I saw my opportunity to bail. I said the first of my apologies on behalf of all British people to the waiting staff, and went to find my Serenity bed. And to say sorry to my wife.

It turns out that Christmas Day in Colombo is a lot like Christmas Day in England. Wet and miserable. It was perfect. As I threw open the curtains in the morning, this was the view that greeted me.

View from Hilton Colombo

We decided to step outside for a bit and work up an appetite for the Christmas lunch that was about to follow. Way back in the day, a British chap decided that the sea front of the city would be complete with a promenade and esplanade like the English sea side towns that he clearly missed.

It was along this promenade that we walked. The attention that my wife received as she walked in her dress was zero, which was in sharp contrast to when she wore the same dress the other week in Chennai and damn near caused carnage on the roads as drivers rubber necked to see the bare naked calves of a woman.

The promenade had plenty of little stalls which sold snacks and soft drinks, but what was most striking was the complete lack of rubbish and litter that these places produced. The entire beach front was free of litter and bins were actually being used. Compare that with India where tourist spots are magnets for litter.

We had been in Sri Lanka for just 18 hours, but already it had seduced my wife. The complete lack of attention she received from the men, the lack of car horns on the road, how well maintained the place was not to mention the pristine pavements that are in sharp contrast to the sad excuses for pavements in Chennai.

Personally, Colombo already won me over with the beef burger and local Lion beer from the night before, but then I’m a little bit easier to please.

Christmas dinner turned out to be everything that I had hoped for. By that I mean there were pigs in blankets, brussel sprouts crunched and to top it off, real Christmas pudding with actual brandy butter. Heaven. Everything else was secondary. The turkey was perfect, there was fantastic roast veggies and more Lion beer came on tap.

yummy brussell sprouts

dessert of your choice

Post lunch, and after a cheeky nap to let the body process all the bland British goodness, we headed over to Chef Daniel’s apartment having received a personal invite the night before. By this time the rain had turned from an English drizzle to a torrential tropical downpour and we turned up at his house looking like a pair of drowned rats.

No problem though, champagne was free flowing in this expat house as was the beer. Christmas abroad is always an interesting time because expats from all over the world come together and this party was no different.

There were Russians, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Americans, Venezuelans, Spanish, Nicaraguans, Indonesians, Sri Lankans and of course the British all getting merry.

I learned from many expats that Sri Lanka is referred to as India Lite.

It made perfect sense. It’s got the same climate as India, it’s a developing nation like India, it shares a lot of culture with colonialism, Buddism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism like India, it’s got great food like India. But it’s not quite like India. If India is the full bodied, red labeled Coca-Cola, Sri Lanka is the Diet Coca-Cola version.

Chef Daniel was the perfect host thanks to his aversion to anyone holding an empty glass. Kids were running around like mad hatters being, well, kids. Nineties indie music blasted from the stereo and took me back to my teenage years.

In the early evening Christmas Dinner part two was laid out, all created by Hilton Colombo’s executive chef. It was so awesome. More turkey, more roast veggies and even Yorkshire pudding, which required a lot of explaining to
non-British people on why it wasn’t a dessert.

More beer and champagne flowed, more classic tunes from the nineties played and more people got completely confused about what I did for a job.

It really was a great Christmas, one that will always be remembered. Thanks, Sri Lanka and sorry for thinking you’ll be exactly like India!

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Tovo Infusions in Chennai Review – Basically it’s an Indian Nandos

Tovo is a fairly new restaurant in Chennai on RK Salai just opposite the Woodlands and Savera hotels. I had the opportunity to check it out one Sunday evening with my wife and our friends. I didn’t read any reviews about the place before hand, I just knew that it was vaguely related to fusion food – whatever that means.

Having dined there, I can tell you that what it actually offers is chicken and it’s basically Indian version of Nandos.

Plenty of effort has gone in to branding and outfitting the restaurant. When you walk in you get the feeling that it’s a quality establishment with a serious amount of capital injected to make it work. Surprisingly then, the food costs were quite a lot lower than I was expecting.


A photo posted by TOVO Infusions (@tovoinfusions) on

The menu isn’t extensive by any means and this is probably a good thing because at first we were all quite confused by what we should be ordering. As it turns out you’ve got 4 main options:

1. A quarter, half or whole chicken
2. A regular chicken wrap or a spicy chicken wrap
3. A chicken burger
4. A couple of south Indian dishes like Dosa

To add to the confusion, Tovo calls wraps as ‘flaps’ (which just sounds oh so wrong) and burgers as ‘buns’. It feels like it’s trying so hard to be different and elevate its brand but the reality is that it falls short as it hasn’t quite nailed it.

With your main dish selected, you then add additional toppings (which are spices, not actually toppings), sauces and seasonings (which adds to the confusion because they don’t mean salt and pepper but how spicy you want it to be).

To begin with we ordered the chicken kebab starter along with the veggie kebab. Originally we were told that no oil was used in the cooking of the chicken but it was clear when the starters came that they were bathed in oil. Upon questioning it the waiter admitted that actually oil is used for the starters.

The chicken really was tasty with all the herbs, spices and marinades doing their job perfectly. However, in a sign of things to come, the veggies kebabs we ordered at the same time took another 5 minutes to arrive. The veggie kebabs were on the spicy side and not everyone in the group could eat them, including my vegetarian wife who was waiting while the rest of us carnivores devoured the chicken.

The waiter then came back to the table to take the main course order. This is where we realized why the menu was kept simple. It took forever for the waiter to take everyone’s order because there were so many combinations of main dish, toppings, spices and seasonings. It then takes 25 minutes to prepare the main dishes.


A photo posted by TOVO Infusions (@tovoinfusions) on

Twenty minutes later two chicken burgers arrived on the table with a promise from the waiter that the others were getting ready. Another 5 minutes later two wraps (or flaps as Tovo has named them) turned up. Another 5 minutes went by and the veggie wrap arrived while the people who were served first were now finishing their meal and there were still two people left to serve.

As we waited for the last people to be served, the veggie in the group (my wife) had discovered that the filling in the wrap was the same as the veggie kebab starter she had ordered earlier. This led to some smart ass (it may have been me) pointing out that the chicken burgers everyone was eating also had the same filling as the chicken kebab starter. Anyway, it turned out that even on Tovo’s low spice setting (which they call seasoning) it was too spicy for her so she gave up and ordered the chocolate pudding surprise to try and salvage what had so far been a disastrous meal out.


A photo posted by TOVO Infusions (@tovoinfusions) on

Eventually, after the others had finished their wraps and burgers the final two plates came. I had opted for the burger with a low spice setting yet it still brought me out in the sweats. No doubt it was tasty, but given the amount of mayonnaise, it made a mockery of the idea that no oil was used. The burgers and wraps don’t come with any sides but unless you have a huge appetite this shouldn’t be a problem as the main dishes are very filling.

When the chocolate pudding surprise did finally arrive it was certainly a surprise to everyone. Expecting some sponge cake or choco lava type thing, it was actually four scoops of ice cream and some crunchy nut sauce – costing the same as a chicken wrap.

For seven people the bill came to Rs 3,650 which worked out to Rs 550 each which I think was very reasonable – I was expecting it to be a lot more. As mentioned the main dishes are very well priced at around 280 rupees, but the sides and starter are also around 250 while the four scoops of ice cream dessert was 220, so you know where Tovo is making the money.

Tovo is clearly a restaurant for meat eaters and spice lovers. Vegetarians like my wife will probably be thoroughly miserable eating here as will people with a low tolerance for spice.

The setting and ambiance of the restaurant is fantastic, the prices of the main dishes are very good and the food is also very good if you can handle the spice. On the flip side, there are a few things that definitely need to be improved on. More veggie options is one, less spicy options is a second, some way to stream line the order process, especially for larger groups, is a third, and bringing the meals together would be helpful.

There are also small things, like it seems they are trying too hard to be cool and unique on the menu. When the restaurant has paid so much attention to the food and decor, the menu (and their Facebook page) seems like an after thought as it’s riddled with spelling errors, sentence case errors and in some cases getting the names of dishes completely wrong, it’s a small thing of course but as a restaurant that wants to project an upmarket, foodie image, why open yourself to ridicule?

Would we go back? I think my wife would say absolutely not due to the spice and lack of veggie options. Would I go back? Well the spice level, even on the low setting, was on my threshold of tolerance, so if someone was organizing to go there as a group I wouldn’t protest but I probably wouldn’t suggest it as an option if it was down to me or if I was to meet a friend somewhere for dinner. This is personal preference of course and while some people in our group were equally annoyed at the order process and time it took for the food to arrive, they really liked the spicy food.

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A Tale About Socks

“Meuw, meuw, meuw, meuw, meuw” came a squeaking noise from the bushes.

“Hey, it’s a little kitten!” my wife exclaimed. “Are you sure? It sounds more like a high pitch chirp from a bird” I replied, confident in my avian chirp recognition. A motorbike zoomed past, its headlight briefly illuminated the bush and silhouetted a tiny black kitten not more than a few weeks old. It punched a big hole in my bird argument so I let it slide.

For the last year my wife and I have been walking/running in the evenings when the temperature gets down to a bearable level. We kid ourselves that it’s to get some exercise in our otherwise sedentary lifestyles, but really I think it’s because we’re both animal people at heart. Almost every street in Chennai will have its local street dogs and cats and the dogs in particular can become quite friendly once they get to know you.

By now we’ve probably gained some notoriety with the locals as the oddball couple who want to adopt every dog and cat in sight. A few months ago a litter of ginger kittens appeared next door and the locals couldn’t believe how much interest we showed in them every day, even going as far as taking videos and photos, it was hilarious for the locals, this couple losing their mind on a bunch of kittens.


These kittens were born next door to us earlier this year

In the poorer areas, people tend to sit outside and chat, in the posher areas night-watchmen, in the twilight of their lives, sit outside the apartments on chairs taking it all in. They all watch on in mild amusement as we pet the dogs or try to coax a scared cat out of hiding. We’ve even gone as far as buying dried cat food to win the affection of the local moggies which probably means there’s no hope left for us.

Sometimes I think these locals vie for ringside seats as the nightly entertainment begins: what will this weird couple do next?! There are many times when cats have chased us down the road meowing at the top of their lungs and at the same time trying to prevent the other cats from reaching us. Other times we have to creep by certain houses because we know the local dog will cheerfully follow us all the way home. It must be hugely comical to the onlookers; we should probably start charging.

“Can you pick her up?” my wife asked “She sounds terrified and is probably starving.” Another motorbike sped past giving a few seconds of illumination to a shaking black ball of fur. I stepped up closer to the bush. Behind us there was the sound of chairs scraping across the asphalt as the night-watchmen realized the evening show was about to begin and they needed to get a better view. As delicately as I could but with all the grace and subtly of a charging bull elephant I pushed in to the bushes, the squeaking, already loud, ratcheted up a few notches in volume and intensity. “I think you need to get to the other side in case she runs that way” I whispered.

My wife got in to position like a veteran wicket keeper, crouched down, hands waiting to catch the kitten, should she run that way. Another motorbike approached and lit up the bushes, “I’ve nearly got her!” but as the motorbike passed, the kitten seized the opportunity and bolted past me and in to an even bigger bush, still squeaking but now unseen, she had found her safe place. Somewhat deflated, we left some food and headed off to tend to our other street pets. I mean carry on with our exercise.

Honestly, we thought that would be the last we saw of her. She was three weeks old, four at the most. She wasn’t going to take on the street dogs for food and rodents would be bigger than she was.

The next evening was a wild one. A monsoon storm had parked itself over Chennai and it was having blast. Sheet lightning, crashing thunder, howling winds, rain so heavy it seemed to be coming in every direction at once. It wasn’t a night that any normal person would want to be out.

“Shall we go for…a walk?” my wife suggested at the usual time. “Err, isn’t it raining?” My wife looked outside, “No, it’s stopped. Almost. Do you think the little black kitten will still be there?” she asked, hope in her voice. “Doubtful,” I replied, “you really want to go out in this to check on the kitten?” “Err, no, but I don’t think we should skip our exercise, we don’t do anything else do we?!” No dear.

“Wait!” cried the watchman as we walked downstairs “You can’t go out, it’s raining and flooded!” My wife was about to explain to him how important is was that we got our daily exercise when we heard a squeaking sound.

“Meuw, meuw, meuw, meuw” it was coming from just outside the apartment under a bunch of broken furniture. “Another bird?” my wife asked me sarcastically. “Are you a magnet for kittens or what?” I shot back, “let’s find it.” We grabbed a torch from the watchman and couldn’t believe it: It was the same kitten from last night. Somehow she had walked across several streets and ended up outside our apartment at the exact time we were going for a walk. It might have been a good time to believe in fate.

While my wife distracted her from the front, I went around the back and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and the squeaking stopped instantly. She weighed barely anything and was soaked through but was vibrating like crazy with fear or cold.

“What can we do with her?!” My wife asked as she cradled her in one hand and pinched her scruff with the other, “She’s so scared!” The watchman, possibly not hired for his intellectual prowess, had an idea “Wait here!” he said and ran back inside the apartment. When he returned moments later we could see what his bright idea was: to lead an unneutered ginger tom cat to the kitten. The reaction from the tom was as expected. we’ll probably never know what the watchman thought was going to happen, that the tom would be overcome with paternal emotion and adopt her as his own? The moment he smelled the kitten his back arched and he started hissing like a snake. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” I shouted and whipped out the cat food and rushed to cut him off.

Fortunately the tom cat’s stomach was more important to him than anything else, a trait my wife tells me is common among all males. He forgot all about the kitten and blindly followed me back in to the apartment complex.

“OK, but what are we going to do with her?” my wife asked again when I got back. It was a loaded question.

The kitten was only quiet when her scruff was being pinched, the moment you let go she started shrieking again. Still, we couldn’t hold her neck all night long. “Let me see if I can find a box.” It didn’t answer the question of course, but it delayed making a decision. With a surprising amount of resourcefulness, I located a vegetable box from the grocer next door, “give it back when you’re done with it” he said, which should have made me wonder a little harder about how many other kittens or animals have found temporary shelter in his vegetable boxes and then were returned to their original purpose. “Give it some milk” he called out as I left, I’m not sure if he was hoping to make one last late night sale or if really no one in the street knew how to look after a kitten.

“OK, but what are we going to do with her?” my wife asked again. It appeared I had to make one of those husbandly decisions. “Let’s take her upstairs, dry her off, feed her, give her some water and then figure it out”. We took her upstairs and laid down some food, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a cat make a noise when it eats, but this one sounded exactly like “neow neow neow noew *pause* neow noew neow neow” as she wolfed down the Whiskas. “I think we’ll call you socks.” declared my wife as she scratched the kitten behind the ears.

After a few minutes the kitten’s hunger was satiated and she went back to being the terrified wreck she was before. She raced around the apartment, franticly looking in to every nook and cranny to hide before eventually settling under the coffee table where she watched us suspiciously. Eventually the meuwing subsided to the occasional squeak.


Socks making plenty of noise inside the house

“So, what are we going to do with her?” it was time to face the question. We couldn’t keep her of course, my wife and I had been over this time and again.

The first time was when my brother-in-law turned up at our door with great big grin on his face and a labrador puppy in a cardboard box. He’d bought us a puppy as our wedding gift and was well pleased with himself. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to give back an adorable fluffy labrador puppy but it doesn’t go so well. People judge you. However, we both agreed that it would be unfair on any animal to keep them in the apartment all day, especially when we’re both out at work and don’t have anyone who can look after the pet whenever we go away.

“How about we cover the box with food and water inside and leave it on the balcony overnight, it’ll be much safer than out in the street and we can get Blue Cross to pick her up tomorrow.” The idea was shot down, the kitten’s wailing would surely keep us awake and who would hand the kitten over, can the watchman be trusted.

Socks looking for more food

“I think,” said my wife, coming to a decision “we need to take her now.” “But it’s 11 in the night!” I protested “They won’t even be open and if someone was there surely they wouldn’t open up for a stray kitten?!”

As we argued it over, the kitten had decided that she was no longer in mortal danger. She came out from under the coffee table and cautiously approach my wife, we put down some more food and she gobbled it up. Slowly she started getting her confidence back and was rediscovering how to kitten. A frantic need to hide was replaced by curiosity that only young cats can possess. Suddenly everything needed to be investigated, sniffed and patted all at once. There was no more wailing now and she quickly learned that every time she came near us she got a bit more food. My wife scooped her up with little protest from the kitten, even the shaking had stopped now.

A thought occurred to me “Hey, how do we know she’s a she?” my wife investigated “Oh!” she exclaimed “That figures, Socks is a boy! No wonder he’s becoming all hyper active and boisterous now.” She put him down and he went to investigate the table cloth where he discovered that he could jump up, dig his claws in and start swinging from the fabric. Yep, Socks was a boy.

I looked at my wife who was watching Socks figure out how to climb the back of the sofa, there was a dangerous look in her eye. “Hey, here’s my phone, can you call the taxi?” I asked quickly. We lined the vegetable box with newspaper, put in some food and placed Socks, who had so far climbed half way up the sofa, inside before wrapping the box in an old table cloth. Socks went in to immediate freak out mode trying to escape.

Downstairs the watchman held the gate open for us, “Where are you going at this time of night?” he enquired, “To the animal rescue shelter to drop off the kitten.” He couldn’t quite process that, what a crazy couple, he must have thought. The taxi driver eyed the wrapped box suspiciously, “it’s a fish tank?” he asked hopefully, I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled about the idea of having a scared animal in his car, “no” my wife explained “we found this stray kitten and we’re taking him to the rescue shelter” the reaction of the driver was a mirror image of the watchman, all this for a kitten, what nut jobs!

I was expecting Socks to scream blue murder in the car so I don’t know if it was the darkness or the a/c but as the car started he quickly settled down and was quiet as a mouse. It was a long drive to the Blue Cross shelter and I expected every bump and car horn to freak him out but he was fine…almost until we reached the shelter in fact. About five minutes away I felt him moving around again, a quiet shuffling, nothing frantic, then, a few seconds later the first pungent wave hit, my wife smelt it as well “Socks!” she said under her breath, as I nonchantly rolled down the window. It didn’t take long for the driver to notice the smell either, I was expecting him to complain but to his credit he just shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Sorry!” I said, because I’m British.

The driver had a new urgency to reach the shelter now and it was a relief to turn up at the gates – which were chained shut, it was 11:45 at night after all. We had spoken about this, what if no one was there to take him in? “err, hello?” I called out, “hello?!” I tried again, louder this time, there was the sound of movement from beyond the gates and a watchman appeared. “I’ve got an abandoned kitten” I told him, and on cue Socks let out one of his squeaks. “Wait here” he said, as if we were going to rush the gates to force them to take a kitten. A few minutes later he returned with the night manager, “yes?” he asked, “we have a kitten, he’s been abandoned” I told him. “Is he injured?” “No, just scared and hungry, we’ve watched him the last couple of days, he’s alone”. The manager was doing some thinking, probably along the lines of “oh my days why has this foreigner come and woken me up for a kitten who’s perfectly fine” but he didn’t say anything, just asked the watchman to unlock the gate while he quickly inspected the animal.

“You need to sign one of these release forms” he said, of course, this is India, paperwork is needed for everything, I was surprised they didn’t ask for passport photos as well, maybe the paperwork wasn’t that important.

With Socks officially signed over to the care and duty of Blue Cross we said our goodbyes and headed back home, silently. Our watchman was still awake, waiting for us to return, the forty minutes we were away had given him time to process what had just happened. “You are both very good people, no one here will hire a taxi in the middle of the night to take an animal to the rescue shelter,” he said, “God will bless you both.” It was a simple statement and neither of us are particular about seeking any Gods’ blessings, but it made us feel a lot better about what we had just done.

About Blue Cross of India

Blue Cross is Chennai’s largest animal rescue and shelter organization, similar to the RSPCA in the UK. It picks up injured or mistreated animals from rabbits to horses and will provide shelter for abandoned new born animals. It encourages the adoption of rescue and orphaned animals over buying from breeders.

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