Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My experiences in Chennai, India

In just seven short days I traveled over 18,000 miles roundtrip to Chennai, India from MSP (18,289 to be exact). I love that the Delta planes and Air France have the TV monitors in the back of every seat with the GPS maps. This is one of my favorite pictures!

My association was invited by the Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre to provide training to Indian Neurologists on how to incorporate evidence-based concepts into their daily medical practice. Though the program is only offered to neurology residency program directors in the United States at this time, you can learn more about the program at this link.

So it's no exaggeration that life in the United States and life in India is quite different. Take the traffic for example. Here you see three lanes on the road, yet I've seen over 60 motorcycles jammed in between dozens of cars, a few pedestrians, and some public transit buses. Though the roads are dirty, overcrowded, filled with trash, and busy all the time, there are relatively few accidents. I will even venture to say that the drivers in India are the most attentive drivers that I've ever experienced. You'll see that everyone is centimeters from everyone and completely aware of their surroundings.

Another difference is the food. American food can't even compare to the spices that Indians use in their cuisine. Though I avoided fresh fruit, salads, uncooked vegetables, and meat for health, sanitary and safety reasons, I enjoyed many delicious meals. See some of the pictures below.

If it's one thing that I learned about the culture is that the Indians are a thankful and ingratiating people. There were at least three points in the conference where official ceremonies and thanks were offered to me, my co-worker, and our physicians. It was a wonderful experience to share this thanks and kindness, not to mention the honors, accolades, and gifts.

As you might expect, I didn't have much time to see and experience the country outside of our resort since this was a seven day trip. But what I did see was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Immediately after the conference ended and goodbyes were shared, I jumped into a hotel car and rode off to St. Thomas' Basilica and drove around the city.

Then our final day included a whirlwind tour of Mahalabra seeing temples and carvings honoring the Hindu religion. Many of these carvings were made over two generations of craftsmen and out of single stones of granite over 1,400 years ago.

You'll also see in this next photo that it was raining, a lot! December is the tail end of monsoon season in India and we were not exempt from it this time. Streets and parking lots were flooded, water ran all over the side walks and walkways, and filled parking lots. Within a 30 minute period, I was soaked from head to toe, pants completely soaked, socks and shoes drenched from walking through standing water, but still determined to finish the tour. Our final tourist destination was the shone temple. Seven temples were buried under water for hundreds of years since a monsoon. However, one temple appeared after some water receded, so rocks and stones were used to build a retaining wall to keep it from going under.

This truly was a trip of a lifetime and something I hope you are able to experience. I will admit that India wasn't on my top 10 places in the world to travel, but after experiencing this, I hope I have the opportunity to return and take my family with me. If you do go, I have the following advice to share.
  • Change currency before you get to the country. I tried twice in the MSP and Paris airports but was unsuccessful. By the time I landed in Mumbai I was so tired I wanted to grab my bags and get to the hotel for a few hours to refresh before the last leg of the trip. This caused much frustration to the bag handlers and cab drivers, and also caused me delays when I did exchange the currency. Also let your credit card company know if you're traveling internationally. My Visa card was denied, assumingly because I didn't let them know. However, I was able to get rupees from an ATM and use my work credit card (MasterCard) without problems.
  • Get your immunizations and get mosquito repellent with DEET. I got my shots for Hepatitis A, malaria, and typhoid a week before I went and I'm glad I did. Also get the medication to take in the event you get travelers diarrhea. I can't imagine being ill in a foreign country and requiring medical attention or being laid up for a few days, especially on a plane. I almost didn't get the immunizations since I was only there for 5 days but looking back, I'm glad I did.
  • Everyone speaks and understands English at varying levels. If possible, have a translator with you, preferably someone that you know and trust, or a recommendation from your hotel. In the event that you get blank stares when you ask questions they will come in handy. And when you ask questions, keep them short and ask one question, not a string of them.
  • Be very careful what you eat and drink. It was recommended by my US immunization clinic that you be careful about eating meat, fresh fruit and vegetables (you don't know if it has been washed), and what you drink. I only drank bottled water, brushed my teeth with bottled water, ate cooked vegetables and food, didn't eat anything at room temperature, and still got a flavor for the cuisine. Another tip is that you can ask the waitstaff or chef to make your food less spicy, if you can't take the heat; they won't be offended. I ordered a curry the first day I was in the hotel and cried for about 30 minutes. Don't get me wrong, it was delicious, but hot on the tongue.
  • Be assertive with the bag handlers, attendants, and merchants. I realize there is a fine line between being assertive and being rude, especially when it comes to money. I have some guilt peddling with the merchants for deals (the exchange rate between USD and rupees changed daily but hovered somewhere between 42-45 rupees per $1 USD), but was reassured by our driver that they expect it and enjoy the bartering and conversation with the foreigners. When you're taking your bags from the airport to your car and to your hotel, don't let them out of your sight. Push your own cart and ensure that everything is in your possession. It's common sense for seasoned travelers but it's hard to push away a persistent handler who wants to help you. However, it's hard to get them away without a tip.
  • Finally, bring a video camera and capture the culture and the spontaneous moments. I've provided a video of traffic congestion but also got the sounds of the bikes, cars, buses, people, and horn honking. Within minutes of getting into our car, all my senses were immediately on high alert and taking everything in.
I hope that someday you have the opportunity to travel to India and experience the culture and everything this country has to offer. I hope to go again in the future and bring my wife and son along to share these amazing experiences. Dahn ya vad!

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