A Woman Travels Solo to South India
On her first trip to India—to visit a friend in Chennai—a North Carolina woman is looking for guidance on safe solo travel, how to haggle, and what to wear at the beach.
People keep telling me I'll get sick during the trip. Is this because of bad hygiene or exposure to new foods? Is there any way to avoid it? Stomach upsets abroad are most often due to bacteria in the ecosystem that are different from what we encounter at home. Contaminated food is less often to blame. Some doctors believe that pro-biotic dietary supplements, such as yogurt, can help ward off turista, so ask your internist for advice. That said, don't be afraid to try new foods while you're in India. People often make the mistake of assuming it's safer to eat at ultraclean-looking restaurants than to buy food from a street vendor. The truth is, while the restaurant might seem spotless, you can't see the state of the kitchen. But if you pass a guy making fresh samosas in a clean boiling vat on the sidewalk, you can confidently join the line at his stand. Just-cooked hot meals are your safest bets.
I've only had one Indian meal in my life, but I'm excited to experiment. What specialties would you recommend in Chennai and the surrounding area? South India is famous for vegetarian buffets known as "meals," which are usually served in no-frills restaurants (just look for the MEALS READY sign in the window). Grab a seat, and a waiter will dole out rice, roti (bread), pappadams (huge wafer crisps), dhal (stew made with lentils), various curries, pickles, chutney, curd (something like cottage cheese), and salad. Meals are often served on a banana leaf; you mix the various dishes together and eat everything with your hands, using the roti as a utensil. The entire feast generally costs about $1. You'll pay about half that for the perfect fast food, masala dosa, a large crispy pancake that comes with a vegetable stuffing and sides of sambar (stewed tomatoes and lentils) and coconut chutney. Chennai-based chain Hotel Saravana Bhavan is a local favorite for its meals and dosa (011-91/44-2371-2577, saravanabhavan.com, meals from 50¢). Go to Kalyan Bhavan Biryani for the best biryani, a rice stew served with chicken, lamb, or vegetables (424 Pantheon Rd., biryani from 50¢). Fish, such as pomfret and kingfish, are also a south Indian specialty. Dakshin, in the ITC Hotel Park Sheraton & Towers, makes some of the best coconut fish curry around (TTK Rd., 011-91/44-2499-4101, entrées from $5.50).
I'm thinking of taking a day trip or two to the state of Tamil Nadu. What towns do you recommend? Eighty-five miles from Chennai is Pondicherry, a former French colony with a Gallic influence in its architecture and cooking. In Thanjavur, about 190 miles southwest of Chennai, don't miss the Brihadishwara Temple, a standout example of Chola-period architecture, with dancing figures carved into its façade and a tower that's more than 200 feet tall. To the west of Chennai, the town of Kanchipuram has at least five major Hindu temples; it's also known for its bright silk saris and scarves woven with silver and gold threads. Finally, check out the village of Kanadukathan, in Chettinad, a region celebrated for its spicy fare made with whole red chilies, star anise, tamarind, cinnamon, and cloves. In the early 1900s, the area was settled by wealthy traders, many of whom built enormous mansions that are still standing. One of these, Chettinadu Mansion, has been converted into a hotel, so you can get an up-close look at how the glamorous life was once lived in these parts (TKR St., 011-91/45-6527-3080, from $85).