Once at Kolkata International Airport, I started to mentally reboot and restart my mindset. To make the leap from always having pals and a tour leader around you to traveling 100% alone is an intimidating thing in India. But, it was time. I was ready to head south and get off the “nutella pancake trail” for awhile. While I’d been happy to spend the past few weeks following along like a little duckling it felt time to dive into the deep on my own.
I’m not sure why I was so hell bent on traveling to the state of Tamil Nadu (TN) and spending a little time on the Bay of Bengal. Perhaps I read a novel once with a connection to TN that stuck in my mind. Or maybe a fellow VSO/CUSO volunteer had been placed in this region that sparked my curiosity.
To start my journey through TN, I took a quick flight down to Chennai, formally known as Madras and from there made my way down the coast with stops in Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. I really didn’t know what to expect from Chennai. It’s in the top 10 Indian cities by population and I saw it referred to as the “Detroit of India.” Hmmm. When I went to TripAdvisor the top 2-3 recommended activities were movie theaters, which apparently they take very seriously here. Given that, my visit only included 1 full day and I spent a good portion of that day just relaxing at the hotel and catching up on some zzzs.
But, anxious to get out to the Bay of Bengal I did make an afternoon quick journey to check out a small bit of the city and walk along a portion of Marina Beach, an area very popular in the evenings to cool off.
As I made my way down the coast I recognized some pretty distinct differences from the north. For one, it was a culture that felt very familiar to me. Across the Bay lies the western Burmese state of Rakhaine/Arakan, where many of my pals from my Thailand days are from. I could see such a strong resemblance in facial features, clothing styles and in the quantity of paan chewed and spit by the men (beetle nut – kind of like our chewing tobacco). Food, music, clothing all is a bit different. The language is no longer Hindi, and most people here don’t even understand Hindi, only Tamil.
This is also the area of India that bore the brunt of the damage and casualties caused by the 2004 Tsunami. The town of Mahabalipuram looked weathered and old with many of the structures just left damaged after the tsunami ravaged the small town.
A bit further down the coast in the town of Pondicherry, everything had been cleaned up and fixed up and no trace of the tsunami could be seen, at least not by an outsider. Again, people really took advantage of their beautiful boardwalk and coming out in the evening to enjoy the cool air and get a little exercise was a family and friendly affair!
The world’s largest bay did not disappoint this solo traveler and was a good place to start my visit to the southern portion of this massive country.