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Chennai Story
By Mikey
Monday, 20th December 2004 23:25

Our final train journey was actually more comfortable than most of the others as for once the train didn't run overnight at any point during its route. That meant that we had actual seats to sit on rather than padded benches. It was interesting though that despite having allocated seats in the carriage, it took a long time to get everyone seated after each stop. Fortunately for us the train started at Bangalore and finished at Chennai and so we managed to avoid most of the chaos.

In Chennai station there were all of the usual people waiting to greet us. Porters rushed on to the train determined to carry someone's bags and looked disappointed as we loaded ourselves up in front of them. Taxi drivers and auto-wallahs were waiting on the platform to try and grab passengers as they got off the train and they all made for us as we emerged. We rudely ignored them all as a nice man on the train had told us where the pre-paid taxi stand was, meaning that we wouldn't have to negotiate with anyone. On our way there one driver guessed that we weren't pushovers and tried a new and interesting tack, guiding us to the pre-paid taxi stand. Now it's possible that he was just being nice but I was suspicious and hoped that by ignoring him, he'd go away. Unfortunately he didn't though and we ended up with him as our driver. I started to feel guilty for doubting him as we drew up in front of our chosen hotel but then he showed his true colours. Unable to get us for an extortionate fare he then tried to guide us to the hotel of his choice, just next door to the one we had picked and had a reservation for. We told him that we wanted the Paradise Guesthouse and he told us to follow him. I pointed out that surely the door behind us was the entrance and he again tried to get me to follow him. I took a brief look at where he was pointing and saw another hotel called Broadlands and then I reminded him that we had a reservation at the Paradise hotel. He said that Paradise had a water problem and that I should follow him. Instead we ignored him and went into the Paradise. There was a brief exchange between the man in the hotel and the taxi driver, who had followed us in, as the driver possibly tried to convince him that we were in the wrong place or that a commission was in order. The man in reception was a bit grumpy but smiled as we explained that we had a reservation, that would surely mean no chance of commission. Our driver tried one final tack for a few extra rupees: would we like to tip him, he asked.

In India the words "Paradise Guesthouse" are an oxymoron. Our room would not be described as paradise using any dictionary I'd allow in my house. It's only for a few days though so I'm sure we'll survive and it'll make going home that much more pleasant (not that there's any danger that it won't be). We've also stayed in some worse places than this so we just got settled in and tried to go to sleep. Sleep didn't come though as we both had consumed a lot of caffeine that day and we're not used to it.

The next morning we awoke tired and grumpy and very hungry. We got dressed and set out in search of an internet connection to check our mail and maybe look up the location of a Subway. Fortunately there was one and it was not too far from the British Airways office where we planned to confirm our flights home. We dropped off ten of Claire's films for developing and found the BA office and took a number. They had a few Christmas decorations up, our first this year. It's so nice when Christmas doesn't start until December. It feels wrong and greedy when shops in England start gearing up for Christmas in August. Anyway, it turned out to be a good job that we confirmed our seats as BA had no record of us being on the flight even though we had the tickets in our hands. This was the first flight that we'd ever bothered to confirm and I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn't been able to get on it. Fortunately the flight wasn't full and we're definitely on it now.

Subway was next. My favourite Subway sandwich is the club but in India two of the ingredients are not available. Beef is out because Hindus don't eat it and ham is taboo for Muslims, of which there are a significant number. So instead I had a turkey and chicken-ham sandwich (footlong because we were very hungry) with all of the usual salad bits. It was nice and a welcome respite from Indian food but it wasn't quite a club. I like Indian food but after several weeks of it, and a few not so nicely prepared dishes, I'm starting to tire of it and I don't want to put myself off. We ate too quickly of course and felt fat afterwards but very, very satisfied. We then decided to wander around the rest of the shopping centre that we were in. There were a large number of curio shops and random clothing shops and we were approached by people from each and every shop as we passed, all wanting us to come in and have a look. The thing is, my eyes work and I use them. I can see what they're selling and I know what does and doesn't interest me and most things didn't. So it's more than a little irritating being singled out from the other people by every store owner and having your conversation interrupted. I just don't get why they bother - the harder they try to get me in their shops, the less likely they are to succeed.

We picked up Claire's photos and and a local paper to see if we could find out about some cinema times. The paper wasn't too clear so we decided to try and find some more dead Upshons. We got an auto to take us to St Mary's church and then found the church office. The Father there pointed us to another church somewhere further up the road called St Roques. We decided to leave that until the following day and instead went back to our room for some water and a break. The break turned out to be four hours long and ended at 7.30 when we decided that we were hungry again. We found a nice sounding restaurant in our guide book and set out on foot to find it. Ninety minutes later we were hot, bothered and not hungry any more. We'd had no luck finding the restaurant and had walked through some quite seedy areas in search of it. We gave up and went to bed.

I had a weird dream that night. Above some of the big road junctions in Chennai there are little clocks that countdown the number of seconds until the lights change. My dream involved the clock being alive in the same sort of way as the sign in the film LA Story. I remember talking to it for quite a long time about various things and at it said that it wanted a hug (like in the film) but it could understand if I didn't want to because all of the people in the city had urinated on it. Do you think India might be getting to me?

Friday. Our final Friday away. Our last 48 hours in the country. We went back to Subway for breakfast / lunch via the photo place to get some free enlargements done. My footlong sandwich was as good as the one the previous day although I experimented by not having cheese. At first I thought I could taste no difference but there is one, just a subtle one though.

After checking our email we found an auto driver to take us up to St Roques church and he was very friendly and chatty, pointing out various things along the way. At the church we found the office but they only had records back to 1932, too late for us and so we spent twenty minutes or so searching the cemetery with no results. Our auto-wallah was waiting outside for us and instead of dropping us off at the shopping centre again as arranged, we asked him to leave us at a cinema that we thought had a showing that we wanted. He started to quibble about price as it was slightly further and we decided to stick to the original arrangement for the sake of simplicity. He then wanted to take us shopping somewhere that he'd no doubt get commission from. We declined and he asked again and added that we didn't have to buy anything, just look (yeah, right). We kept declining until he got the message and actually started driving. On the way he offered to take us to the airport the following day when he found out that we were leaving. We squashed that idea too but mostly because a 20km journey in an auto with several big, heavy bags would not be pleasant. In the end he dropped us at the cinema anyway.

After much deliberation, as the times were different to the ones we had seen on the internet earlier, we chose a film for later and another for Saturday. Chennai didn't appear to have much in the way of tourist attractions and certainly there were very few that got our attention. One of those though was Fort St George and we decided to go and have a look there for a few hours. The auto that took us out there dropped us off at Chennai Fort railway station and the driver told us we would have to walk over the platforms to get to the fort. We did this and after a short walk we came to a guarded gate that we couldn't get past. A nice man with a gun told us we would have to go back over the railway and follow the road round. (Indian soldiers seem to be amongst the nicest people that we've met in India but perhaps that's just because of the guns.) On our way back over the railway we spotted a promising looking building but it turned out to be a law college and it smelled of urine so we went back to the hotel.

The film we chose to see was The Incredibles, Pixar's latest masterpiece. We both had a pot of corn (the yellow vegetable variety not the popped and salty one) to eat and sat in a pretty good cinema filled with a much nicer bunch of people than the one in Mumbai. There were a few phone calls received during the film but I resisted the urge to snatch the phones and break them aided by the knowledge that in just over 24 hours we'd be at the airport and that's as good as out of the country. Anyway, great film.

Saturday, our last day away from home. We had tickets to see a midday showing of Ocean's Twelve but of course we had to have breakfast first. Not wishing to establish a pattern, I had cheese in my Subway club today. After checking our email we got to the cinema and found our cosy double seat to sit in. Unlike the previous film we saw, Ocean's Twelve was punctuated by mobile phones and people turning up 30 minutes late. Why on earth did they bother? I found it a very confusing film as a result (sort of "Code Red") but at least it passed a few hours away. We spent the rest of the afternoon napping, reading and packing. By 6pm we were more than a little bored and eager to leave.

Chennai airport turned out to be the second worst airport that we've ever seen (Balmaceda in Chile taking top honours). It wasn't much more than a building with people in it and planes parked outside. Annoyingly they wouldn't x-ray our bags until the check-in desk opened even though they were sitting around picking their noses. By 1am we managed to foist our bags on a weary looking BA man and head through India's immigrations desks and officially out of India. Unfortunately India's influence extended slightly further than immigration and stopped somewhere on the plane. We were hungry and bored waiting for our flight to be called but the most we could find to eat in the security zone was crisps and fake chocolate.

Our flight, BA 36, was due to depart at 4.40am but by that time fewer than half of the passengers had taken their seats. Those that had all decided that the best thing for them to do was get up and ask for cups of water. Why couldn't they wait for twenty minutes?!? So we were half an hour late leaving on our packed plane but at least we were heading in the right direction. We flew past Mumbai and thankfully didn't stop. We flew over Dubai and around Iraq, then over some cities I hadn't heard of and towards Isatnbul (not Constantinople!). Finally we passed eastern Europe, gave Vienna a fly-by, Brussels a quick wave and did some loop-the-loops around London before landing via Oxford. What a weird route. A monkey could draw a straighter line!

If we didn't leave India until we had a stamp in our passport to say that we had passed through immigration then the reverse had to be true in England. We weren't there until a bored looking official was definitely behind us. We elbowed our way through the other passengers and reached UK immigration. It was empty except for a lone woman behind a desk designated for British nationals. A quick scan of a passports and we were through. But that wasn't enough. Claire asked for a stamp in her passport at which point I stepped forward too. "Would you like one too?" she asked. Who was I to say no? We had one for every other country that we've been to on this trip.

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