Indian Travel Diary Chapter 6: Chennai
February 11th, Chennai (a.k.a. Madras)
I wake several times during the night's train journey from Bhubaneshwar, but otherwise sleep OK. We get up around 8 a.m. I eat some biscuits and eventually a man comes along with cups of coffee.
The man from Calcutta and his wife start playing cards, even before they have breakfast. It looks like rummy, played with two packs. Together with the son-in-law they spend most of the day playing this game.
The family is on the way to Mahabalipuram and eventually Kodaikanal in South India, on a holiday. The daughter is quite pretty; looks like she's in her twenties. I don't ask about family relations but I guess that the other man is her husband, unless he's her uncle. She tells me she has "completed her graduation", which probably means she's graduated from university. On her return to Calcutta she'll start work as a receptionist in a nursing home. Probably a waste of talent, but jobs are hard to find in India. India turns out graduates in huge numbers, but doesn't know what to do with them. Some of them find work in call centers, a dead-end job.
I sleep some, but mostly read the Rough Guide and William Bramley's The Gods of Eden (which I read once before, seven years ago). It's an interesting interpretation of history (the story of "the Brotherhood", originally founded by a good ET, Enki, but soon corrupted by the bad ETs, Enlil and others, thereafter to foment discord among humans and wars between nations for the purpose of keeping humans in a state of enslavement). It's quite plausible, but since the entities at the top of the hierarchy never reveal themselves directly it has to rely on indirect evidence, but as a theory it's as good as others which purport to provide an all-encompassing interpretation of history, and better than some, and certainly fits the facts. Currently, in the light of this theory, we can say that the Brotherhood is on a roll, with the international banking elite, acting through the governments of the Axis of Evil (the U.S., Britain and Israel) being its main instruments for instigating a state of perpetual war and in advancing the cause of universal human enslavement.
At 5:45 p.m. we arrive at the Central Station in Chennai, just as the sun is setting. I've been studying the Rough Guide as regards hotel choices. 6 p.m. is not the best time for finding a room in Chennai, so I figure I'll stay overnight in the railway retiring room if there's a vacancy. I lug my rucksack upstairs to where the "matron" has her desk. She's not there, but I see that Room 5 is free. I also see that Room 5 costs 600 rupees. No way. So I decide to go to the cabins offering phone calls (for a small fee) in the station to call some hotels. But trying to use the phone is hopeless, and I give up. I decide to leave my rucksack at the left luggage office and take an auto rickshaw to look for a hotel in my preferred area of Chennai. But, since the train's just arrived, there's a queue of fifty or so people lined up to deposit their luggage, so that's out.
So I just head out of the station, turn left and go down the street beside the railway tracks where there are lots of cheap hotels. I find one the Rough Guide describes as "the best of a generally ropy bunch around Central Station". Looks OK, but they want 360 rupees for a room. Problem is, I'm down to my last 440 rupees, and I need to change money tomorrow. In addition to my hotel I have to get dinner tonight and then an auto-rickshaw tomorrow to a money-changer. So I figure 360 rupees would leave me with perilously little, so I go out and walk down a side street looking for a cheaper hotel. Some places are full. Eventually I find a hotel with a decent room (suitable for one night, and it has a 24-hour checkout) for 250 rupees (though they want an extra 50 rupees as deposit). I take it.
I take a shower (no hot water, of course) then go out for dinner. I find a decent restaurant and get a tasty chicken biryani for 45 rupees. I go back to the station and walk around on the off chance that there might be a tourist information booth with a map of Chennai, but although there are plenty of other things (including a fast internet place for use by businessmen for 30 rupees an hour) there's no such booth. Passengers waiting for their trains are seated in a large area in front of a giant TV screen, or maybe it's a video.
I walk back to the hotel. This area is not dangerous, but not particularly appealing.
February 12th, Chennai
I sleep OK and get up at 8:45 a.m. The main things to do now are to change money and find a new hotel in a more congenial part of Chennai.
I get a cup of coffee, then an auto rickshaw to the money changer. They're helpful and I change US$400 with no problems or delay.
I go to Kennet Lane and check out the hotels. I look at a few rooms which are cheap but uninspiring, and enquire at a couple of hotels which are too expensive. Finally I find the Travellers Lodge; they have decent rooms for a bit over 300 rupees (US$7). No hot water, but available in buckets.
I'd like to eat something, since I've had nothing today. I find a restaurant, but the only thing on the menu that looks appealing is pineapple juice, which I get and it's good.
Now it's time to post my letters. I go to a nearby post office, but they're closed today; it's a "holiday". I get an auto rickshaw to the main post office. While waiting with some Indians at the counter a young man tells me he's poor and has no job, obviously hoping I'll give him money. Well, there are at least half a billion Indians who are poor, and I have no job either, so he shouldn't expect any sympathy from me. After a half-hour I manage to send my two letters by registered post.
Back to the Central Station. Chennai is quite warm, 32 degrees C. It's certainly a more pleasant city than Calcutta, which is not to say that it is actually pleasant.
I still haven't eaten anything, and I'm thirsty. I step into a stall and notice some bottled drinks in the refrigerated drink compartment. There's something which looks like mango juice, called Maaza, bottled by Coca Cola (India). I get a bottle for ten rupees. Tastes good. If it's not mango juice then it's a bloody good imitation. A street urchin comes in and buys a little plastic bag full of iced water. It costs him one rupee.
I go back to the first hotel (I haven't yet checked out), where I sleep for an hour (I'm pretty tired from recent travelling), then pack my things and get a rickshaw over to the Travellers Lodge.
Low energy. I have had a mild sore throat since the evening before last. I sleep for the rest of the afternoon, then go out for dinner. Just two vegetable samosas, an orange juice and coffee (instant coffee). I go to an internet place across the street in Kennet Lane. At last, a reasonably fast internet connection!
February 13th, Chennai
I sleep poorly. I wake often and have this recurring dream in which I'm going through a list of things (don't recall what of), but can't make much sense of it. I'm travelling in a tram, and the conductress is a delightful young woman. After the tram reaches its destination I watch admiringly as she skips down the street.
Depression. I go out for breakfast. No restaurant around here (opposite the Egmore railway station) serves anything like an omelette, it's all purely South Indian. I'm sitting at a table. An Indian man and his wife come and sit down opposite me, completely ignoring me. They speak hardly a word to each other (this doesn't look much like a happy marriage). They continue to ignore me while they order and eat their breakfast. I order orange juice (which is good), coffee and a dosai, a sort of large, thin pancake which is served on a large leaf with various chutney-like substances. The dosai is unappealing (I don't touch the accompaniments) and I eat no more than a few mouthfuls. The waiter takes it back and, despite my protestations, doesn't charge me for it.
I go back to the hotel. Don't feel like doing much today.
I spend the afternoon trying to figure out how to get by train from Chennai to Goa. Trains at a Glance is poorly organized and not particularly helpful, nor is the fact that many places have two different names.
I go to the internet place for an hour. I access the Southern Railways web site, which claims to offer timetable and train connections info, but that part of the site won't load. I guess the designers didn't consider the probem of scaling up from a dozen users during testing to a few hundred thousand users in practice. That's part of the problem in India: What works in a country of ten million people does not work in a country of a thousand million.
I go to Marine Beach. For a rupee I weigh myself: 80 kg. That means I've lost 5 kg since leaving Singapore five weeks ago, an average of 1 kg per week. Not bad. I should be able to get my weight down to 75 kg by the time I leave India. Based on my experiences 25 years ago I know that the most effective way to lose weight is to travel in India. Maybe I could sell this as a sure-fire weight-loss program. After the client pays I tell them the secret: Just go to India, eat the local food, walk around a lot, and those kilos will melt away!
It's quite a walk from the start of the sand to the ocean. Lots of Indians around, some bathing fully-clothed as is the Indian custom. Lots of stalls selling all kinds of things and various foodstuffs. People flying kites. Various fortune-tellers are sitting around on the sand. Some use shells, others have a parakeet which for five rupees will emerge from a cage and pick a card from a stack which, upon consultation of a manual, will provide the answer to your question. Unfortunately the parakeets do not understand English, so I can't ask my question, and neither do the fortune-tellers, so they're no help either. I decide I'll just have to rely on dumb luck.
As I'm walking back an Indian man comes up, and as always asks what country I'm from. It's usually, "You are coming from which country sir?" After I tell him, the next comment is usually about cricket, such as to name the captain of some cricket team which he thinks I'm interested in, of whom I've never heard and of whom I don't wish to, since I have absolutely no interest in cricket, a supremely boring game which only the English could have invented. Then the usual questions are: Profession? Age? How long in India? First visit to India? Travelling alone? Married? After the fifth or sixth person has asked these questions it tends to become annoying.
The Rough Guide tells me that the Central Station has a tourist reservation counter, where I might be able to find out how to get by train from Chennai to Goa, so I get an auto-rickshaw. The tourist reservation is not actually in the Central Station, but in a tall building next to it. Eventually I find it, and, yes, there's a helpful lady who tells me there are two ways to go by train to Goa; both of them involve a bus ride. It seems there's a station 10 km from Bangalore called Yesvantpur, from where there's a train to Goa. Also from Bangalore one can get a train to Londa, 75 km from the capital of Goa. I can fill in the details from Trains at a Glance.
I walk from the Central Station 1.5 km to Egmore Station. The sidewalk consists of crumbling stonework, with holes beneath which effluent runs, if it does not just lie in pools. The occasional rat darts out and looks around furtively before disappearing. People are living on the pavement, or if they are lucky they have a cart or a rickshaw to sleep on which keeps them above ground level. All the walls, and the earth at their bases, show evidence of use as urinals. Indian cities are actually huge open-air urinals, and you see men and boys pissing in the street all the time.
I take my dinner at the Ceylon Restaurant in Kennet Lane. Chicken marsala with rice; not very appealing, but the fruit salad is not bad.
I discover that there's a tour bus that goes every day to from Kennet Lane to Mamallapuram (a.k.a. Mahabalipuram), which I can get one-way for 100 rupees. This sounds better than going to the Broadway bus terminal to catch a public bus.
I spend more hours studying Trains at a Glance, and various maps, trying to decide which itinerary to follow from here. I give up as midnight approaches, and go to bed. I've developed an annoying cough.
Insomnia. Around 4 a.m. I get stomach cramps. Around 5 a.m. I manage to take a shit, which mosty fixes the cramps, but a few more visits to the toilet are needed before I finally get to sleep at 7 a.m.
February 14th, Chennai
I wake at 9 a.m. after just two hours sleep. I go out for breakfast to where I had dinner last night and actually get decent toast and fried eggs. Thank heaven for small mercies.
The Rough Guide mentions that several beaches in Goa are, during the season, full of young Israelis, including many fresh out of the Israeli army. I also noticed a substantial Israeli contingent in Bangkok last time I was there. Probably their holidays are financed via the U.S.'s $3 billion per year "aid" to Israel. Money is taken from the pockets of hardworking tax-paying Americans, who consequently cannot afford holidays in Goa and Thailand, and used partly to pay for holidays in Goa and Thailand for Israeli reservists, as a reward for their participation in Israel's ongoing brutal treatment of the Palestinians. I think these are not the sort of people I want to be spending time with.
I passed up my chance to visit Goa, when it was still unspoilt, back in 1982, fool that I was then. Now, from all reports, it's a place rife with malaria and petty thieves and best avoided, not least because of the corrupt police, who have been known to threaten to plant drugs on Western tourists and frame them (with the likelihood of jail time) if they don't pay large sums of cash.
So after much consultation of timetables and maps I think, after Mahabalipuram (and Kanchipuram) I'll head for Mysore, then go north to Poona.
I go out to Spencer's Plaza to consult a travel agent. Surprise! This is something like the shopping malls of Singapore, though not as impressive as you find in most S. E. Asian capitals. It's still unfinished, too new to have degenerated yet into the usual tattiness of most Indian shopping malls. You can get real (filter) coffee. I get a cup and a piece of Black Forest Cake; it's almost as good as the real thing! There's a good bookshop, Landmark, and I buy a guidebook for Poona. I also buy two books for Chandan, who helped me when I was in Tarapith, a book on C programming and one on HTML, since he and his nephew are learning both of these.
I'm consulting the helpful Lonely Planet guidebook to India when I suddenly realize that I have to shit in a hurry. My intestinal problem of this morning has not entirely disappeared. I can't wait long, so I go out of the bookstore to look for a toilet and fortunately find one. There are three cubicles; OK, but water on the floor in each. I find one where I can hang my shoulder bag and my bag of just-bought books, and take a shit, thank goodness! No toilet paper, of course. There's a tap and a plastic mug which you fill with water to wash your arsehole. Much more hygenic than using toilet paper.
I leave Spencer's Plaza and walk along the road called Anna Salai toward the post office so as to post the books to Chandan. I get a good glass of pineapple juice on the way. I post the books OK. I'm sure Chandan and his nephew will be pleased to receive them (and later I hear that they did).
I'm looking for a pharmacy. I cross a bridge over the River Cooum. It's foul, an open-air sewer. There are shacks along the bank where people live. After wandering on for awhile along a road which consists mainly of motor mechanic workshops. I decide to go back to Spencer's Plaza to see if there's a decent pharmacy there. I hail an auto-rickshaw. The driver, taking what he judges to be a short cut, takes me down a back street, parallel to the river, in the direction of Spencer's Plaza. The people who live in this area are the poorest I've seen in Chennai, dressed in rags. The street is strewn with mud and garbage, water comes from a communal handpump. This is the pits. That humans have to live in these conditions is an absolute disgrace.
We come to roadblock, manned by a policeman. He indicates that we can't go any further, though the road looks OK. No explanation given. The rickshaw driver turns around and goes back to where he picked me up and takes another route.
Back in the comparatively posh environment of Spencer's Plaza I find a good pharmacy, probably the only one like this in the whole of Chennai (outside of the hospitals). I can get some medicines I want: amoxycillin for any future bronchial infection, and the anti-malarial mefloquine (since he has no proguanil, which is what I wanted). I also get some codeine sulphate, which will help me with this damned nighttime cough I've had recently, probably as a result of having to breathe the heavily-polluted air in Chennai these last few days (the pollution resulting mainly from the huge number of cars, buses, auto-rickshaws and motorbikes, all spewing noxious fumes into the air). Fortunately the sore throat that I had on arrival in Chennai has mostly gone.
It's nearly 8 p.m., and I want to eat. No restaurant at Spencer's Plaza, but there's a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop, where chic young Indians linger over sundaes, so I get an overpriced but otherwise OK banana split, which serves as dinner.
I get a rickshaw back to Kennet Lane and make a reservation on the tourist bus to Mamallapuram for the morning after tomorrow. I look forward to getting away from this city.
February 15th, Chennai
I sleep OK, thanks to the codeine, but the bronchial congestion persists. Having to burn mosquito coils each night to discourage Chennai's tiny mosquitoes (fortunately not malarial) doesn't help my lungs.
Breakfast of fried eggs, followed by an hour or so on the internet. I have to make my train reservations today, then I plan to visit the Theosophical Society library in Adyar, in the south of Chennai. The Rough Guide says that it contains 165,000 volumes and "a selection is housed in an exhibition room on the ground floor," and the library is open from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
I get an auto-rickshaw to the Theosophical Society for seventy rupees. It's quite a distance. The driver drops me at the gate at 2:45 p.m., and says "one kilometer", pointing down the road leading from the gate. I walk along, noting the various exotic trees from China and other places. It's quite a tranquil area (actually the Society grounds are said to cover about 270 acres in all), with grazing cows and various weathered stone gates, and hints at the charm that India must once have possessed.
I come to a fork in the road. There are two signs, "Office and information" on the left, "Big Banyan Tree" on the right. I want to go to the library, but there's no sign mentioning a library. I figure the left path is the more likely, so I go down it and come to a large building which has a life-size statue of Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Olcott Steele, the co-founders of the Theosophical Society. On the walls are large panels dedicated to the various religons which Theosophy claims to integrate: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, etc. But no sign of the library. I ask an Indian man, who gestures vaguely off into the distance and says, "Must go to the second gate, library near second gate." So I figure that the auto-rickshaw driver dropped me off at the wrong gate, so I walk back along the road to the gate and out onto the main road, looking for the second gate. I walk along for ten minutes. It's just shops. No sign of a second gate. I walk back to the gate I came from, now thoroughly sweaty in the hot sun. A young man on a motorcycle pulls up besides me and asks, "Are you a Russian?" It must be my short hair. "No!" I reply, "What does it matter?" and I glare at him. He leaves in a huff.
When I reach the gate I ask the guards where the library is. They point down road where I've already been, and say, "Go right". That's the way to the Big Banyan Tree. OK, I'm a bit pissed that the first man said "second gate", when he probably meant "second (i.e., right) road at the place where the road forks." So I walk back along the road and this time go right. I keep walking. No sign of a library, nor any sign mentioning a library, although there's a sign besides a large cactus plant which says "Do not write on the cactus." After a fifteen-minute walk from the main gate I have come to the Big Banyan Tree (it's actually not recognizable as a single tree; it consists mostly of aerial roots, and is otherwise quite unimpressive). there's still no sign of the library. I give up, and walk fifteen minutes back to the main road. So this visit to the Theosophical Society has turned out to be pretty much a total waste of time and effort.
I get an auto-rickshaw back to the Central Station for another seventy rupees, again having to breathe in traffic fumes for a half an hour amidst all the jostling auto-rickshaws on the road. At the station I get a cup of filter coffee, and make my train reservations (Chennai to Mysore to Poona), quickly done with the help of the lady in the tourist reservation office. It's 5 p.m. I seem to have a slight fever. I get a rickshaw back to my hotel where I can find a haven from the chaos of the Chennai street traffic. I take a shower and rest. Thank God I'm leaving this city tomorrow for a beach.
Next: Mamallapuram Contents Serendipity Home Page