Chennai, India Report of what it's like to live there - 06/05/10
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, lived in Kyiv, Ukraine July 2005-April 2007, Niamey, Niger March 2004-July 2005, Misawa Japan 1982-1985, Hahn Germany 1970-1974.
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 Fort Smith Arkansas, Long trip, connection AR-Atlanta(2 hrs)-Chicago(2 Hrs)-Delhi(14 hrs)-Chennai (2.5 hrs).
3. How long have you lived here?
Lived there from Sept 2007-August 2009.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Foreign Service Officer.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is spread out in the nice neighborhoods around the city. I lived the farthest from the consulate but closest to the school. It would take be 15 minutes before 830 in the morning to get to work. Then 30 minutes before 600 in the evening. After 600 the commute would take more than an hour. Other housing is much closer to the consulate. Most are homes, single family or duplex. There are nice apartments as well. All concrete construction.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are local markets in every neighborhood. It is all local food and supplies, decent and good prices for the local items. Anything imported is twice as high as what you would pay for the local items. The fresh vegetables and fruits are seasonal but fresh and good. You have to go to several different shops to get all you need but you learn your neighborhood. You can find American items but be prepared to pay double. We learned to just live on the local pasta and sauces and spices. Beef is hard to find as the city is predominately Hindu. Chicken and Fish are plentiful. Pork is very hard to find as well.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
I would ship more Diet Dr Pepper. Other than that, we were happy with what we could get on the local economy.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is Pizza Hut, Dominos, McDonalds, KFC, Subway. The best food is getting out and sampling the local cuisine. At the branded restaurants you will pay America like prices. But I could take my family of 5 to a good local diner and get full for under $20.The hotels have fancy restaurants but the prices are high as well, $10 or more a plate.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots of bugs, mosquitoes abound, little bitty sugar ants in everything, geckos in the house, some quite large but at least they eat the other bugs. My children even named a few of them.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
There is Fedex and Ups in the country. We had pouch privileges at the consulate. It would take 2-3 weeks for mail to arrive from the states.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is plentiful and inexpensive. Under $200 a month for a full time maid/cook. A little more for a full time driver.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Gold's Gym is all over the city. There also gyms in the nicer hotels that allow memberships.
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?
I had no problems using ATMs. It is a cash based society so we paid for everything in cash although the locals would use debit and credit cards even at the grocery store. But all your markets and local stands are cash only and small bills.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are English masses at the Bascillica, Catholic. There are some Christian services available in different neighborhoods. Hindu temples are all over but in the local language or Hindi.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There is satillite TV with a good amount of english stations: BBC,CNN Britian, ESPN (all cricket all the time), Disney Channel, HIstory Channel, Discovery CHannel, Cartoon Network, Starz movie, and some others. There are several local papers in English as well
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I did not learn any of the local language. Most people speak broken english in the markets and all understand money.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
This city is not set up for someone limited to a wheelchair. There are virtually no sidewalks, ramps, and few elevators in most buildings. Even the places where there are sidewalks, they are cracked, broken and uneven making walking difficult. Most people just walk in the street. At least it is level, for the most part.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
The taxis are the auto rickshaws which are safe to take. The buses are scarry. Too many people and leaning to one side, not safe because of pickpocketers too. Travel by train is common and safe especially if you get reserved seating in 1st class (cheaper than it sounds). You have to bargin for your rickshaw ride before you get in but they are very cheap.
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?
There is every kind of car on the road from small to large. The Government does not allow importation of Left hand drive any more and it is difficult to get them fixed and to drive thre anyway. Most people would buy a car from Japan and have it shipped in or just buy one when they arrived. Having some ground clearance is good. I would not take a new car or fancy car as traffic is bumper to bumper to motorcycle to autorickshaw to giant buses to mass of humanity on the roads.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, High-speed and wireless internet access is available. We paid about $50 a month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phone service is all done by sim cards. They are plentiful and easy to get.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are vets, one or two good vets. I don't know about kennels.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
The school again is the place where most expats work. There work agreement laws are different for each country but some spouses were able to work on the local economy. Don't know much else.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code is business/local. It is a hot climate so attire is more laid back. Especially for women, local attire works well and is acceptable. In public, men wear pants and short sleeved shirts, woman - very conservative - most do not wear anything low cut, no short skirts or shorts in public. Children - shorts and t-shirts and sandels.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Chennai is very safe. I never felt threatened in any way. It is one of the safest places in India. That being said, my purse was stolen in another city where we went to see the temples. That was surprising and a hassle. It was just taken off the back of the chair while we were all sitting at the table.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
There is good health care available. There are many health concerns - typical of a developing country, malaria, dengue, girradia, intestial and stomach issues.
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?
For the most part, the air quality in Chennai is moderate. We had no problem. Other cities in India are much worse.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
The climate is hot, hot and wet, then hotter. The monsoons being heavy rain and it cools off to a nice 80 degrees for a couple of months then hits over 100 and very humid in May and June.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There is the American International School of Chennai. We were very happy with the facilities and the experience. I had a high schooler, middle schooler and elementary schooler. All at the same school. The school provided bus service. There is IB and AP.Last year tey had over 800 students. The sports program for the older kids is great - basketball, volleyball, track, swimming team, soccer. All are competitive and travel for tournaments around the region. There are plenty of after school activities for the elementary kids as well. The class sizes are medium size - 15-20.Most classes had teacher aides. The school is building and expanding their facilities. The school is over 50% Korean now with the car copanies moving into Chennai. That has it's challenges in the elementary grades but did not seem to affect the older kids.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
There were several special-needs children in the school. I don't know the specifics on accommodations but it seemed to work out.
3. 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?
I personally did not use preschool but several others used a nice preschool called Parent's Choice and were very happy with it.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
All the sports programs are thru the school and are good - see above under School.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The Expat community is large. THere are consulates from all over the world in Chennai.
2. Morale among expats:
Mostly good. Everything seems to center around the school or the nicer hotels.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Everyone entertained in their homes. That is where the social life centered around. There are several nice hotels with bars and clubs.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Excellent city for families. Not much to do for singles unless they like to travel. It is definitely a family oriented community.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Chennai is very conservative. That being said, there was no outward hostility toward anyone gay or lesbian that I heard of. There is no community for them either on the local economy.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
CHennai is very laid back. Blondes stick out and are stared at (not considered rude in the culture) but we did not experience any racial, religious or gender prejudices. Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Buddists all lived together in the city.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Highlights-traveling to Kerela by plane and taking the houseboat down the backwaters being cooked fresh tiger prawns we bought right off the side of the boat. Traveling to Kolkata for Christmas, walking down the street and seeing all the christmas lights and decorations, almost like NYC.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
San Thom Bascilica is in the city right on the beach. It's claim to fame is having the relics of Saint Thomas. Beautiful and interesting. There is also Saint Thomas Mount on the way to the airport where Saint Thomas was killed. About an hour drive south is Mahaballapuram where there are stone temples that were carved in 754 still standing. Nice drive on a decent road. There are also several resort hotels on the beach in Mahabs where many people would take a weekend get-a-way.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
24 karat gold everything!
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The Indian culture of South India is unlike anywhere else in India. It is very traditional Hindu. The emphasis is on family and vegetarian food.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
winter clothes, your spices, your pasta and rice, your jewelry (because there is so much more to buy!).
3. But don't forget your:
bug spray, sun screen, favorite drink.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
We loved our two years there and will go back if given the opportunity. It is hot, crowded, driving is crazy (yes I drove there), dirty, but the people are open and friendly, the culture is amazing and of all the cities in India, I think it is the easiest to live in.