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Thursday 16th December - Chennai
By Claire
Saturday, 18th December 2004 06:30

I forgot to mention last night that when we opened the door of the taxi a thick blue cloud of incense met us and tried to strangle us all the way to the hotel. In the end even the driver was affected and he threw the burning sticks (that must have been in his car for a couple of hours) out of the window.

Neither of us slept properly last night and I remember having a conversation with Mikey about software we didn't like, at about 2am, which was better than the only English television channel, BBC World, surely designed for foreigners living in places that aren't their own countries with a four-minute attention span. I can take it no more! At 5am there was a party going on outside and by 8 we both decided to give up and find some food. We couldn't be bothered to call for hot water either, so we made do with tepid showers.

We found the internet round the corner and I needed something to get rid of the temperature I still seem to have and the lack of sleep, so I ordered chai, the thick, boiled milk, sugar, tea and cardamom sludge that this morning tasted of grit and earth. It probably was. We located the British Airways office to confirm our flight home and a Subway shop for breakfast, and headed out there.

I dropped my last ten films off to be developed at a nice-looking Konica place just down the road from British Airways. The BA office, in a new tower block with a lift that announced the floor, the time and the current temperature in a slightly surprised voice every time it stopped, was decorated with two Christmas stockings and a gold candy cane on the walls, three glittery sprigs of plastic holly on the desks and a fibre-optic tree. It was the most welcoming sight we've had for ages. BA had no record of our reservation even though we had the tickets in our hands, but it wasn't a problem to book us onto the flight we thought we'd booked in August. The BA lady wished us a Merry Christmas (the first time this year!!!) and refused to upgrade us even in the wake of my womanly charms. This is the only flight we've confirmed, and I'm glad we did.

Subway was just what I wanted, there was no grit or hair in it, and I think the lad making my lunch thoroughly deserved the title Sandwich Artist displayed on his name badge. I can't even complain about the lack of beef here, because it was perfect as it was. Heaven for twenty whole minutes. We traipsed round the shopping centre which was a confusing and annoying mix of bright, clean clothing chains and dingy little market stalls with no windows. We couldn't even pass the latter without being chased by the shopkeepers and their pleas of "Yesss, madam, OK, you buy this now OK?" In fact, we can't look at anything in India, be it a car, a magazine stand, a beggar or a man sitting on the pavement winding string round his toes without someone offering to sell it to us. Mikey found a shop selling Haribo gummy bears and even then the shopkeeper pulled out twenty packets of breakfast cereal and washing powder in case that was what Mikey had wanted all along. It wasn't, though.

Back outside we dodged the rickshaws and the people wanting to know our good country and the men with their skirts up round their waists, genitals in hand, urinating passionately over the pavements, and bought a newspaper that we hoped would have cinema listings in. It sort of did, but there was nothing on today. We waited for my photos to be ready because the shop had airconditioning and the assistants already knew we were buying things so they left us alone, and then I collected and had a look at all ten packs. In a surprising stroke of something unexpectedly good, or serendipity, the lady offered me ten free enlargements. I'd had a similar offer in Australia and managed to trawl through all my negatives to find three pictures that I liked, so now I'd have something interesting to do later. I only had half the negatives with me and none of my old photos, but it'd be a way of passing time.

There was nothing else to do. It was unpleasantly hot and humid today, and I was actually bored. I'm fed up enough with India now not to want to see any more forts or beaches or temples, and the guy in Subway had told me that there was no cricket on this weekend, so we went out to St Mary's Cathedral to see if we could dig up some relatives. The rickshaw driver wiggled his head to let us know he didn't know the way, and again to tell us that he'd take us there anyway. Once he'd asked directions and dropped us at the gate, he wobbled his head to signal that we were there, and another time to thank us for paying him, or to lament the fact that he didn't get a tip because "Auto rickshaw meters in Madras never work, madam."

The church itself is the oldest Anglican church in Asia, and was full of incense and piles of people's shoes. Inside men were praying to, mumbling to and touching statues of saints, all of whom had saffron on their heads, marigold garlands round their necks and little notices to tell their devotees why they should be the object of their affection. In the church office the two women were unfamiliar with the idea of burial records, and the priest in the next room looked grumpy, and told us to write down the information we wanted and they'd see to it. I wrote the list and handed it to one of the women, who went back in to the priest and curtseyed to him again. He said that they didn't have any of these records, they'd be in another church in another part of town and probably wouldn't be there anyway, because they all get dug up when they're old, and then he dismissed us with a flick of his hand.

We didn't know where Royapuram was so we went back to the hotel. It was 4pm. The newspaper said that CSI was on at 8. The television didn't have the right channel. We had nothing to do, and I was, for the first time in months and months, bored. I don't do bored very well, though, I just get cross instead. I put all 360 of my photos into little plastic sleeves, and annotated and dated the negatives and pack covers like I have with all the others, then went through four months of negatives to find ten pictures that I'd like enlarged. I'm going to get a whole bunch done when I'm home anyway, but this was just for fun and because it was free. Then I finished my book, waited for Mikey to finish his so I could read it, and then it was 7pm. We went out to find one of the recommended restaurants nearby for supper.

I wanted to write that we walked through town, but we didn't - we've barely walked anywhere in India. Instead we dodged the uneven pavements, the groping hands, the rusty wire and point-upwards harbingers of tetanus, the sewage channels, the bikes and rickshaws that try to run into our ankles in the hope that that'll make us want to go for a ride with them, the men who think we're looking at their shops and carry on calling to us until we're well out of earshot, the carts of bananas, the children who all want us to smile and wave at them (I didn't), the excrement, the rubbish heaps, the women sitting in the road threading nice-scented flower buds onto string, the overhanging signs at eye-height, the wires and cables positioned to catch ankles and send people tumbling into the nearest foul-smelling puddle of slime, the beggars who crawl under our feet in the hope that by treading on them we'll feel guilty enough to give them money (we didn't), the countless men in skirts holding hands with one another and stroking arms and backs and shoulders, the other men in skirts vigorously stroking noticable bulges, the men with broken mopeds strewn across the roads, the buses that seem to aim for our backs, the building rubble, sand, gravel and concrete blocks with dogs growing out of them, the thick knots of stern-looking men heading into the mosques, the clouds of incence, pleasantly masking less palatable odours, the cockroaches, the sacks of rotting vegetation, the pavement cafes and blasts of old oil and garlic steam, and everything that India has all rolled into a fruitless ninety-minute trek, except cows. I haven't seen a single cow in Madras. I'm not complaining. I was getting angrier at India with every step and by 9pm I wasn't hungry at all. We bought bananas and crisps and had supper in our room. The crisp packets were so filthy we tore open the bags, tipped the contents onto today's paper and washed our hands before we ate. I'm so, so sick of this place and the last two days are going to last forever, I can tell.

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