Martin Cooke
June 10, 2006

Chennai --
Women in vibrant saris and sauntering cows with brightly
painted horns seem perfectly natural in a ballet accompanied by the
discordant symphony of beeping, honking and the putt-puttering of
two-stroke, three wheel tuk-tuks that pass, pirouette and
disappear. Everything about this place is alive, from the intense
scent that you can almost taste to the blinding blur of people that
seem to cover every square inch of available space.  Chennai is a
balancing act between chaos and confusion.  More than a dozen
different languages and people who will always offer an answer or
the ubiquitous noncommittal head bobble, regardless of if they
understand you or know the answer to the question you're asking. 
Combine this with heat and humidity so heavy that it's hard to
fight off a zombie dream-like delirium that can only be broken by a
bus passing inches from your face, and you have a glimpse of

Rachel was offered a two week rotation in the Consulate and she
jumped at the chance for a new experience.  Ten hour days of visa
interviews!  The high rate of fraud and rejections made this a very
long two weeks indeed.  If this was her first post in the foreign
service, my updates would be from regular visits to the asylum;
where everyday I would be interviewed anew and bid adieu with, "I'am
sorry sir, but you don't qualify for a visa."  The light at end of
the tunnel was from a Sri Lankan beach, which by the end of the
second day, seemed as far away as Christmas to a five-year-old.

It didn't take us long to realize that Chennai has no city center,
no place to walk down the street and just explore.  You'll find
plenty of nice shops, but they are scattered about the dusty and
overcrowded streets of this vast city.  Traffic is like a school of
fish, unabashed leering and beggars who follow you around -- my my,
is it hard to get used to.  I can see now why I was told that "you
just don't walk in Chennai", when I asked about good places to just
wander around.  And so we ventured out of the city in search of
other interesting and exotic places.

Though only 36 miles south of Chennai, Mamallapuram was a world
away. The birth place of Tamil art and culture - Hindu gods,
goddess, cobras, elephants and countless others gaze through the
eyes of stone carvings that are thousands of years old.  Temples
carved from solid stone, connect a solid past with a fleshy and
fleeting present. The art of stone carving is alive and well and
the craftsmen from Mamallapuram travel India and the world to do
the carving for Hindu temples.  With a couple of rented bicycles,
Rae and I toured the nearby countryside, stopping at a temple to
takes pictures of a group of boys swimming in its sacred pool and
again at a sparsely furnished, three room cinder block house to
have lunch on a plate of banana leaves, under a shrine to Arnold

The following day we continued our way south to the port city of
Pondicherry.  The French set up house here in 1673 and it changed
hands to the Dutch and then the British and after being kicked
around like a hacky-sak, ended up back in the hands of France in
1814, where it remained until 1954.  You see a strong French
influence in Pondicherry.  Great restaurants on streets filled with
bright flowers overflowing white washed walls around beautiful
houses.  We ate amazing meals and stayed in a room with a high
cathedral ceiling and filled with ornate antiques.  It came
complete with its own private garden where Rae and I would have
breakfast and afternoon tea, while we talked about the geckos in
our fake French accents.  Our respite was short-lived and then we
were back for another month long week of ambiguous work and good
Indian food.

Saying good-bye to Chennai was not hard, though it was a rich and
memorable experience.

Our plane touched down in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the early afternoon
where we were met my our driver for what was to be a long journey
to our beach getaway.  It was beautiful and heartbreaking as we
meandered down the coastline.  Remains of houses and boats were a
strong reminder of the tsunami and countless small graveyards along
the roadside, of the 30,000 who died.  A trip that should have been
three hours was eight because of the construction.  Fortunately the
jagged fairy-tale like coastline, dotted with small islands, made
the drive enjoyable.  We reached our beach side retreat near the
town of Tangalla on southern tip of the island in the early
evening.  Our guesthouse had everything we needed, a saltwater
infinity pool with a view of the ocean and an air-conditioned room
to sleep in. Blissful days lounging by the pool and boogie-boarding
in the ocean made our week in Sri Lanka pass much too quickly. 
With the exception of a few military checkpoints and the heavily
armed soldiers that would just seem to appear every now and again,
you would never know that the country was involved in a conflict. 
The Sri Lankans seem to have a closer kinship with Jamaicans than
with their neighbors in India.  Laid back and friendly, the biggest
problem we had to deal with was rousing the waiter from his hammock
to get a menu.

Our timing was perfect -- giant sea turtles were just starting to
come up to the beach to lay their eggs on the week of our arrival.
So, on a moonless night to the sound of crashing waves, we were
treated to the sight of two sea turtles digging nests just above
the high tide mark.  A non-profit organization has hired those that
were involved in the killing of the turtles and the selling of
their eggs, to protect them and guard the nest sites around the
clock.  The nest watchers are now like proud parents explaining
turtle conservation to tourists and dutifully keeping people a good
distance from their charges during critical stages of the nesting
process.  The green turtle does not even start to nest until it's
mature at about 30 years old.  What a night.

For our trip back to Colombo we deciding to forgo the long drive
and instead opted for a short hop in a sea plane.  Even though the
flight was two hours late landing in the lagoon to pick us up, it
was still far better than the bone jarring drive back up the coast. 
Our final night was spent in the Colombo Taj airport garden hotel. 
In the restaurant we must have been mistaken for VIPs.  The meal
was flawless and besides our waiter and other extra servers, the
manager stopped by our table many times to check on us, chat, and
bring complementary soups, appetizers and deserts; the chef also
peaked out a few times to see how we were getting along -- the
other patrons, not getting this attention, must have wondered who
this couple in shorts, sandals and Hawaiian shirts, were -- It was
a wonderfully surreal end to our adventure.