What other conclusion could one draw from the fact that you only ever see them in underwear advertisements?


It’s cliche by now to talk about the starkness of India’s inequality: Everyone knows the country is ridden with indecent displays of affluence right beside the most abject poverty known to this world. That hasn’t taken away its ability to screw with your head.

Conspicuous consumption comes in many forms in Chennai. There are a handful of full-scale malls, from the aging Spencer’s Plaza to the bright and shiny Express Avenue, which has a luxe movie theater on the upper floors. There are also thriving shopping avenues, lined with thousands of jewelry stores; a substantial chunk of the country’s wealth is vested in gold and gems.

But none of those playgrounds for the rich and aspiring carries quite the air of exclusivity that’s settled on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, affectionately known as KNK. That’s where international luxury brands you’d see on any fashionable thoroughfare in Europe or America have set up shop, with palatial custom buildings of the style that haven’t really been constructed since the British Raj (at least in the case of a new Louis Vuitton, pictured).  Read More

The best time of day in Chennai is between the hours of about 3:00 and 5:00 p.m., when the city’s extensive network of primary and secondary schools get out. Many parents come pick up their kids on motorbikes, and others make their way home on their own, filling the streets with adorable uniformed younglings. In a city that can be so inhospitable, it’s beautiful to see so many young shoots still thriving. Read More

As I mentioned before, walking in Chennai is no picnic, on account of poor sidewalks and the never-ending din of traffic. I could only assume that running, a morning habit that I’d have a hard time giving up, would be a nightmare.

But, pleasant surprise! It’s actually manageable just after sunrise, at about 5:30 a.m., when the streets are relatively calm and the heat of the day hasn’t set in. I headed to Marina Beach, purportedly the second-longest in Asia, thinking that I and the fishermen would have it to ourselves.

Actually, it seems like half the city had the same idea. As the sun rises above the eastern ocean, the promenade is thick with people taking their morning exercise: Husbands in workout clothes powerwalking alongside wives in full saris (sometimes with sneakers underneath). Little kids circling around in a roller rink. Groups of young dudes charging alongside each other. Yoga sessions. Boxing lessons. If you’re a cow, there are long patchy lawns to romp on, or simply graze.

Part of the parade carried an air of dutifulness: Diabetes is rampant in Indian cities, where jobs tend to be sedentary. In Chennai, there are sweet shops and bakeries everywhere—not to mention fried street food—and few apparent gyms or fitness clubs where someone with high cholesterol might work it off. So I think it’s a safe bet that many of those morning constitutionals are on doctors’ orders.

More photos after the jump. Read More

It’s Day 3 in Chennai, and I’m on information overload. But blog posts needn’t be! I’m going to try to break things down into bite-sized pieces, starting with the thing I’ve been doing most of: Walking.

Walking in Chennai, to put it mildly, is a challenge. It came in dead last on a ranking of Asian cities for their walkable qualities, on account of the lack of pedestrian footpaths and abysmal traffic. What sidewalks do exist are often uneven or broken, and splotched with feces, dead rats, and humans lying prone. Bicycles, motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, cars, and massive buses rocket through the streets with little regard for those on two legs; stoplights are either non-functional or ignored. I try not to open my eyes too wide, even at the most astonishing sights; the rush of diesel fumes can burn. It takes most of my mental capacity simply to focus on moving forward without getting flattened, which I haven’t yet witnessed, though fatalities happen all the time. (One upside: The closer you cut it with passing vehicles, the more you benefit from the breeze of their passing.)

At the same time, though, people walk. Everywhere. In American cities and suburbs, when roads don’t at least have shoulders, people tend to avoid them. In Chennai, there is no street where even old people, women, and children can’t be seen hustling on their way. The best way to do it is in groups, or at least by attaching yourself to a group: When a critical mass of people builds up on a median in the middle of the road, the traffic is forced to flow around them. On truly impassable roads, the Corporation of Chennai has sometimes installed underpasses, but I’d take my chances on the surface over the smell and darkness underground. The latest idea is skywalks, but it seems that natives might make the same choice, if faced with the prospect of climbing several stories up just to cross the street.

The city makes some provision for people walking around the giant Metro rail construction sites.

To avoid the eye-level unpleasantness, those of modest means may hail an auto-rickshaw, one of the buzzy two-seater mini-taxis that saturate the city. I haven’t done much of that yet—understanding the city on a granular level, and how things relate to each other in space, is still only possible on foot.

Every tourist’s view from the Peak.

Totally by accident, I booked myself a 15-hour layover in Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, it’s been a fascinating start to the trip.

None of my revelations will be news to those who’ve visited this former British colony in the last few years. But while Hong Kong carries elements of other cities, like Cape Town and New York, this has a degree of intensity I’ve never seen before. So for the sake of the uninitiated, an outsider’s take:

Let’s start with the density, because it manifests everywhere you look.

  • There are cars everywhere, but no surface parking lots, and I doubt underground ones; they’re all in  relatively well-disguised garage structures.
  • The residential towers on the hillside are impossibly tall and thin! I have no idea how these rock ledges support that much weight without crumbling.  Read More

Seattle shows well.

Blog for a living long enough, and you start to need the format to process the world. Thus, this two-month employment hiatus will be chronicled, to the extent that I can find wireless internet wandering around India (precise itinerary still TBD).

I’m still in base camp Seattle for a couple days, but should have an honest-to-god update by early next week.