Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 05/19/14
Personal Experiences from Chennai, India
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, I have also lived in France and the United States.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Home base is either in U.S. or United Kingdom. Chennai to London direct is about 9.5 hours. Also possible to connect in Frankfurt or Dubai. Chennai to the Eastern United States is about 20 + hours including a layover in Frankfurt.
3. How long have you lived here?
I have been here for 1 year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The government provides both apartments and houses in a central location. Most are happy with their housing assignment. Many of the apartments have balconies. Houses will have a garden, some with fabulous fruit trees! Commute time is 15 - 30 minutes, depending on traffic and where you live.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are many options for groceries. Amma Naana is handy for just about everything you need, but you'll pay a high price for anything which is specifically tempting to the expat - for example parmesan. Gourmei Market (no, that's not a spelling mistake) is similar to Amma Nanna but it's smaller, generally quieter and a more pleasant place to shop. Spencers and Nilgiris (great for staples and cleaning products) are small groceries which you'll find all over town, and can be cheaper than Amma Naana for certain items. There are also some hypermarkets- French-owned Auchan, and a few branches of the Indian hypermarket Big Bazaar. There are also a few specialist shops, such as Nuts n Spices and N2H Nutrition to Health, both of which are excellent for all the staples.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Tinned tomatoes, maple syrup, good cereal, eco-friendly cleaning products, toilet paper, tissues, good quality chocolate, jars of pesto, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, gluten-free flour, chocolate chips, aluminium foil, clingfilm, apple sauce, hand sanitizer wipes, contact lens solution, sulfate/parabens/etc-free shampoo & conditioner, nail polish, natural food colouring, pecans.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Lots of fast food options - Subway, McDonald's, KFC, Pinkberry, Dominos, Pizza Hut. Usually a bit cheaper than in the U.S. or UK. All will offer more choices for vegetarians than in the west - McSpicyPaneer, anyone? If you want really good, affordable and yet somewhat nutritious fast food, Sangeetha (a South Indian diner) is great.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Mosquitoes are a constant pest. Dengue is a risk here, but among our community we have heard of very few cases. Vigilance is key! Ants can be a problem but if you're very careful about food storage and keeping things clean, they will stay out of your home.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We use the diplomatic pouch to receive and send mail. Sometimes we will use India Post for international mailing. It is affordable and, in my limited experience, reliable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Lots of domestic help available - drivers, gardeners, cooks, nannies, cleaners... and all very affordable.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Lots of gyms are available. Costs vary, but you'll find some which are a lot cheaper than gyms in the States or UK. Lots of yoga and dance studios, also of varying cost and quality.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
We use cash most of the time, and sometimes we use credit cards. We are careful about where we use cards. ATMs are generally fine.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Most people speak English, and most signs are in English, so you really don't need any Tamil to get by. That said, if you can learn a few basic words and phrases you will find the locals will really warm to you. I have often been in situations where I've been glad to know some Tamil - when talking to auto drivers or to shop staff, for example.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. Pavements are generally either non-existent, in very bad shape, dirty, clogged by tea/fruit/vegetables/snack stalls or a combination of all these things. Buildings are mostly older and sometimes hard to access even for people without physical difficulties.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Autos and taxis are generally very safe and affordable. The only snag with autos is there is usually a song and dance about fare price, as the driver will claim the meter doesn't work and then quote you the foreigner fare. Sometimes the driver will try to take you to certain shops where he will collect commission for bringing you. All this can be infuriating, so nowadays I personally avoid using autos. However - this is a personal choice - generally you can get around OK. We don't take buses or trains. Uber has recently arrived in Chennai and it appears to be reliable.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
You can't bring a car, so try to think ahead of your move and buy from someone who is leaving. Don't buy a car which you care about keeping pristine - bumps and scrapes are a given here.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. Cost is low - we pay about US$120 a year for pretty good and reliable internet.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
You can bring an unlocked cell phone with you and buy a local SIM. Phones don't seem to be any cheaper here than in the UK or the U.S.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
To name but two - for animal lovers there is Blue Cross of India, and if you're interested in social welfare, the Overseas Women's Club is very active in that department.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
At work it is semi-formal. In public it is fairly conservative, especially for women, who should dress fairly modestly. No short skirts, shorts or low cut tops.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not particularly, but I feel India is a country where you just never know. If you use your common sense and stay within safe areas of town and don't act flashy or walk the streets late at night, you will be very safe here. I would say that Chennai is one of the safer big cities in India.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
The one major concern is dengue, probably closely followed by food-borne illness. Generally the health care here is good - great dental care and I have seen an opthamologist, but I cannot comment on hospital care. The health unit within our consulate is great.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Moderate. When I take a lot of autos and spend time in traffic I definitely notice it. However, for the most part, the air quality here is fine, especially compared to other large cities in India.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It's a tropical wet and then dry climate. The 'cooler' time of year is from around November to March, but the heat never really lets up. Monsoon season is around October - December, but last year the rainy season was pretty mild.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
AISC is by all accounts a great school.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Several good options for preschool & daycare are available, though I cannot personally comment.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It feels like a fairly large and varied expat community - Americans, Australians, Koreans, British, Japanese... Morale? That's a mixed bag. Like anywhere you'll find people who are unhappy and people who are happy. Others who are unhappy but 'making lemonade.' India is so polarising you will find all kinds of attitudes towards life here.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Eating at great restaurants, drinking at hotel bars (the only places in Chennai which serve alcohol). There are a few good cinemas here, and tickets are cheap. The first IMAX cinema in Chennai just opened in April. There are social events organised by the CHEX (Chennai Expats group).
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a good city for families as there are plenty of good nannies, daycares, schools, and it seems there are a lot of activities geared towards children here. As previously mentioned, families can feel quite safe here. Singles may have a harder time if they are seeking a great nightlife - there isn't much of one here. However there are private members clubs - for example the Madras Club and the Gymkhana Club, and the less-exclusive Madras Hash House Harriers and OWC (Overseas Women's Club), to name but a few. Many in the diplomatic/other expat communities here organise expat events, such as pub quizzes, concerts, etc. For photographers there is the friendly Chennai Photowalk group. It's a good place for couples, particularly if you enjoy trying new restaurants - tons of great places here.
4. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Regional travel. Tailor-made clothing and housewares. South Indian food. Visiting Hindu temples. Visiting a tea plantation in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu - stunning and a great break from the heat and hustle bustle of Chennai.
5. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Walk around the pretty grounds of the Theosophical Society. Take a tour with Storytrails - a great way to get to know the city. Explore the crumbling but charming Government Museum which houses exquisite bronzes and a quirky Zoology department. Visit the ancient stone carvings in nearby Mamallapuram. Hidden gem: go to Ram's Farm for incredible pizza in a unique atmosphere (Google it) - just remember to book ahead.
6. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Silk, cottons - so many beautiful fabrics of any colour you can think of. Scarves - cashmere, embroidered, you name it. Antique wooden furniture. Gold and silver jewellery. Pottery.
7. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Fascinating culture. Delicious food. Lovely Madras filter coffee. Affordable cost of living. Fresh fruit and vegetables, many of which are available year-round. Traveling within the country and region is fairly easy and affordable. Proximity to Singapore, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Andamans and of course all of India. Yes, it's hot and humid in South India, but year-round sunshine is a bonus for many. Shopping is fun here and you can get some great bargains. As an avid reader, I particularly appreciate how affordable books are here. Availability of household help. All kinds of beautiful crafts here - paintings, pottery, silks, etc. As for saving money... it is possible, if you don't spend it all on travel and beautiful Indian things!
8. Can you save money?
Yes, you can definitely do that.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How challenging it would be to get around on foot.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. India has been very, very challenging for me, but it's been a fascinating experience and I've found there's a lot to enjoy here.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
4. But don't forget your:
Sunglasses, mosquito repellent and your appetite.