Ode to an Unknown City


On my recent trip to India, the first stop was Chennai, a city about 1.500 kilometers from home, where I squeezed in a few days to visit friends and delve into some healthy nostalgia over the city I’d attended college in a few years ago. At that time, it had seemed like the most detestable city I’d ever be in; the food was alien, the language incomprehensible and the culture peculiar.

Of course, xenophobia is a two-way street; it would take me a couple of years to feel somewhat welcome. This time was different though. I knew my way around but at the end of the day, I was a tourist. '10 ways to integrate in Chennai' was not a chapter in my guide-book.

That and the element of nostalgia gave me a different set of eyes. The food tasted heavenly, navigating the unruly traffic had the fluidity of the Night Fox dancing his way over laser beams in Ocean’s Twelve, and a tourist can very well not know the language and still rejoice at his discoveries.

A different set of eyes also brought some different ambitions; I finally overcame my ignorance and bothered to learn and see more of the city and its history, its inaccessible local cinema and literature, and its currently tumultuous politics. I found myself discussing the local heritage, visiting old buildings that had seemed barren and backward before, discovering that the oldest bookstore in the country was right under my nose all this time, and even enjoying a ride on the new metro train whose construction was a nuisance to the traffic when I was studying.

True, the realization is driven partly by the relationships that I could tie to that place, but in my opinion, the change in expectation, and consequentially a change in perspective, made the difference.

So the next time I find myself in a city that seems bizarre and unrelatable, I have a trick that seems to have worked once: Pull out that camera and head out on a walking tour.

Share this article