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Chennai Expat Guide Launched!

I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that the Chennai Expat Guide book has been launched!

The book is the only guide that expats moving to Chennai need to adjust to life in the city. Based on my own eight years of experience living in the city and filled with the funny stories and anecdotes of over 50 contributing expats it covers every aspect of relocating to Chennai.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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Is it time for middle class India to vote?

I’m absolutely fascinated by the Indian general elections, there is so much controversy, so much colour, so much hatred and so much passion from all sides.

Unlike the UK, where the major parties have sort of morphed in to one giant bubble that is either marginally centre-left or centre-right but basically the same, India has over a 1,600 parties at the last count.

These parties represent everything from castes to languages to religions (although it shouldn’t be explicitly stated in the name of the party) to workforces to states to regions within states to marginalised sections of society (there’s even one for the runaway lovers) and finally to political beliefs – although that’s not always necessary.

Indian lovers party

Generally what’s required is for someone to feel aggrieved and oppressed, find a bunch of people who also want to feel aggrieved and oppressed about the same thing and then form a political party that states that its members are aggrieved and oppressed by the people or party currently in power.

This year the elections have become even more fascinating because there is a huge amount of anti-incumbency sentiment surrounding the current coalition – with the Congress party in particular drawing the bulk of the resentment. The BJP, being the only other capable national party, thought it would sweep to power unhindered, but now there is an upstart party called the AAP (that literally expands to “The Common Man’s Party”) which has more than a few politicians worryingly looking over their shoulders and making contingency plans.

Added to this are the multitude of state level parties which have decided not to tie up with any national party and will possibly play a role in being the kingmaker come results day. This will give them some nice ministries to head up, much like the DMK’s A. Raja did for the Telecoms Ministry a few years back.

Traditionally, Indians will tell you that they love to talk politics, and believe me, it’s oh so true. Mention the ‘p’ word and you’ll have countless tales of how this politician or that party needs to be removed from power.

However, when it comes to actually voting, the urban middle class was always found to be missing. The parties understand that the way to power is to please the masses, and the masses live in hundreds of thousands of villages across rural India. Political parties will give away freebies like food grinders, 14 inch colour TVs, desk fans and more – not to the middle class, but to everyone else who actually decides the elections.

I was curious whether this time around, would things will be different? Had the middle class had enough? Was it finally time for them to walk the walk after talking about what’s wrong with this country day and night for the last five years?

To find out I conducted a utterly unscientific survey of friends, colleagues and acquaintances whom I’ve met in my 6 years here. They represent the (mostly) young, urban working professionals – the future of the nation, if you will.

Gender Ratio

I don’t think this was really relevant to the survey, but since I was asking young (ish) working professionals, mostly from the tech and marketing worlds, it does show a massively skewed gender ratio.

Gender Ratio of this survey

So here we are with the questions

1. Will you be voting in the forthcoming elections?

It was very interesting for me to see so many people saying that they would vote. Many of the people who said No felt the need to qualify why they wouldn’t vote with a lot of them living away from the constituency in which they were born.

Percentage of people who will vote

What I also found interesting was while I asked the question, a handful of people wanted to tell me that they were ‘voting’ for Narendra Modi. For those of you who don’t know, Narendra Modi is the Prime Ministerial candidate for the BJP party. No one said they were voting for the BJP, they said they were voting for Modi.

This also brings up the curious question of whether people are so swept up with the Modi wave (that the media likes to call it), do they have any idea about the MP they are actually voting for – or do they even know they are not actually voting for Modi but for someone else who will nominate Modi as the Prime Minister?

Indeed, it seems as if Modi himself has realised this and is now being projected as Modi vs other parties.

Update 10th March: It was pointed out to me that even QZ did an article on how young people are voting for politicians rather than the policies they represent.

The only other response of note was from the poor person who looked blankly at me and asked “what election?” before declaring, at the age of 20, that they were too young to vote anyway. The voting age in India is 18.

2. Do you follow any politician or political party on social media?

A lot is being said about how the political fraternity is embracing social media. What they mean by embrace is that the social networks have turned in to cess pools of venomous vitriolic as supporters of all sides wage social media war against the other.

People who follow politics on social media

Personally I think it’s misguided. People will already have made up their minds who they will vote for and tend not to follow a party they won’t vote for. The election is so polarising that there cannot be too many undecided voters. Added to this, it’s the large national parties that are making the most noise, the state parties and smaller local parties know that ground roots work pays bigger dividends with the masses that actually vote.

That said, one respondent, Krish, co-founder at Chargebee, said that he didn’t follow politicians but did follow influencers, and specifically mentioned Mahesh Murthy. He felt that influencers are playing a bigger role in getting the message of the political parties across to the social media users than the parties themselves.

3. What is the single biggest challenge for a Government of India to solve?

I’ll be honest and say I think I already knew the answer to this question. Corruption is on the minds of everyone. However, I didn’t want to skew the results so I didn’t give anyone a list to choose from, I simply asked them for whatever was top of their mind.

I didn’t expect the range of issues that were raised. Interestingly, only one person, Nidhi Bhasin, said national security was an issue which was surprising since the media has raised so much fuss about Chinese incursions in the last year.

biggest challenges in India

(note: Accountability means Political Accountability – so many politicians get elected but never actually attend parliamentary sessions or have any accountability on what they’ve actually done – which is probably the same the world over!)

Here’s the full infographic, if you’ve got any thoughts or want to add your answers to this survey, please leave a comment below!

Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear what you have to say!

Life in Chennai is Now Uber

Taxi services. Little has changed in the last 50 years. You call up the taxi company, ask for a taxi to pick you up and you wait patiently for them to arrive.

Only it’s not always that simple in Chennai, especially for a foreigner (although I consider myself more of an almost-PIO nowadays).

You call up the call-centre, wait patiently to be connected to an operator, explain where you want to be picked up from, explain where you want to go, request the car type, listen to stupid special offers and finally, the taxi is booked. Then the fun really begins. Under normal circumstances, the driver calls you up 30 – 60 minutes before hand to know from where he needs to pick you up.

This will forever be a mystery to me because you’ve just told the call-centre where you want to be picked up from so how hard can it be to pass this on to the driver? Based on experience, it’s apparently impossible to do.

Taking the time to be the wingman to the hapless driver as you guide him in can be a mild inconvenience in the evening, but if you’ve got a 7am flight to catch, getting a 4:30am phonecall isn’t really what you need – unless you’re the type of person who takes an hour to get ready.

The biggest problem is that explaining the directions to a local driver is nigh on impossible for a foreigner in Chennai. Locals barely see more success. It doesn’t matter if the conversation is in English or Tamil, it always goes a little something like this…

We are in T-Nagar, no tee, tuh, not dee. No T-Nagar, like Pothys and Saravana stores. Yes, Pothys, no no, wait I don’t want you to come to Pothys. T-Nagar, yes, near to Gardenia Hotel…Gar-den-ia, err, oh, the old name is Empire Residency, ok? Good. After Gardenia Hotel…what? Yes Empire Residency, take the third right next to the bike garage, then keep going until you reach the chicken shop and take the next left after that and find the Homely Nest apartment block which is opposite the flower lady. How much time?

It’s always five minutes, so there’s no point in asking. There will be an exchange of three or four more calls as the driver iterates his way ever closer until finally you get the call that he is there and would you mind awfully hurrying up.

Even when you are not the one trying to give the directions, it’s still utterly exhausting just listening in on someone being the wingman. This is why I’m so happy that Chennai has gone Uber over the last month.

Uber is an American company looking to radically change the way we book taxis and give you awesome rides in Mercs, Jags and Beemers for a fraction of the price. Having ubered (yes, I’m verbalizing Uber, move on) to the office a few times and used the service to get around the city, let me tell you: it rocks!

Instead of spending countless phonecalls explaining your location, Uber uses this amazing piece of technology called GPS, which everyone in the world knows about except Chennai taxi companies.

You fire up the Uber app (available on Android and also some fruity phone) and GPS (or cell phone tower triangulation if you are inside) locates your exact position in the city.

Uber Pick Up Location

Of course, if you want to have a different pick up point, you just move the pin to location you want. The process does assume some degree of map reading ability, but I’m not here to point fingers.

Once the pin is set, you can then see the location of all the available Uber cars in the city (err, zoom out if you see no cars) and it tells you how long you need to wait to get your driver (Uber doesn’t call them cabs). If you are happy with everything you tap the confirm button and the driver is alerted.

Now here’s the clever part, Uber drivers are not given fare meters. Wait? What? Shock! Horror! Instead they are given an iPhone with – wait for it – GPS! Hhomygod. Srsly? The innovation we can do nowadays with 40 year old technology, it clearly baffles the minds of Chennai’s current crop of taxi companies.

The location of the pick up (ie. you) is marked on the driver’s map so they simply drive to the pin and you are told exactly how many minutes away the car is on your phone.

uber driver coming

Once picked up, a quick tap on the driver’s phone app tells Uber that the meter has started and GPS tracks the route along with the time.

Now after the base fare of Rs 50 (with a Rs 100 minimum fare), Uber charges just 15 rupees per km which is really cheap compared to the other taxis in the city, even compared to autos! There is a small catch though, they charge 2 rupees per minute so if you are gridlocked at Gemini Flyover or at the Tidel Park junction, you might feel the pinch, but hey, you’re in a frickking Jag so quit your whining already.

The pricing structure means I can take a Mercedes car home from office and pay less than what I would for an Indigo from NTL. Clearly there are massive cost savings from not having a call centre and all the staff that are required to run it 24 hours a day. If I was any of the traditional taxi companies I would be petrified of my business becoming irrelevant like, right now.

At the end of the journey, the driver taps his app again and the meter is stopped. There is no exchange of money, your credit card (which you entered earlier) is charged automatically and off you go on your happy little way.

For corporates, a full email invoice is sent with the route shown on a map, the number of minutes used and the distance travelled. For data nerds like myself it’s a little bit of nirvana from your ride home.

Uber Receipt

Uber Chennai is finally a taxi service that any expat can use and at a price point that beats regular taxis.

Hello Uber, good bye NTL, Milliondots, Fastrack (and Calltrack, and Taxitrack, and Metrotrack, and every other taxi service in Chennai that thinks ‘track’ means taxi or something).

There are of course a few limitations with the service. Uber is an on-demand service. You can’t pre-book a taxi to pick you up at a specific time and there are no package deals available. In addition, during times of great demand, like after Dublin or Pasha kicks out on a Saturday night, Uber employs what’s known as price surging where the fare can be double or triple the normal cost (you are informed about this before hand though).

Shameless plug: Listen in, if you want to try out Uber for yourself, use this promo code when you book your first Uber and you’ll get Rs 300 credited to your account: 4sk9w (I also get Rs 300 credited to my account if you use it, just so you know!).