The berth on the overnight train from Coimbatore was shared with a woman and her two young children. The kids wanted to sleep almost immediately after departing Coimbatore which meant that we had to take our positions in the two top bunks. This gave us some time to ourselves. Jan stuck her headphones in and nodded off to some garage tunes and I caught up on some reading, the book is Red Legs by John Greene and it's a cracker.
We arrived at Chennai at around 7am, I slept pretty well, my only concern was falling out the top bunk, whereas Jan had a fitful night's sleep, her concerns were being chloroformed and strangled by the family below and falling out the top bunk.
As we stepped out of the station, the barrage of auto and taxi drivers touting for fares begins again, only this was different. At the time, we couldn't put our finger on it, but since, we realised what made the difference. It was the complete lack of smiles. The touts were not only not smiling, they were actually quite aggressive.
We hailed an auto and after the obligatory haggling, which in all honesty I'm tiring of, we were on our way to the hotel. We were joined in the rickshaw by 50 or 60 mosquitos that seemed to have been disturbed when we dumped our bags in the back. Somehow, we both escaped without a single bite.
The journey to the hotel was another eye opener, the poverty was more than equal to anything we saw in Mumbai, generations of families sat destitute on the pavements, the look of complete resignation on their faces wrenches in our chests. There are countless people with injury or illness lining the streets, either having just woken up or simply being unable to move on. Our wishes to acknowledge these forgotten people directly conflicting with our ability to actually do so. Much of the 20 minute journey is spend with our eyes down and in silence.
We arrived at the hotel and the receptionist had to be woken up. After not too long, we were shown to the room, we freshened up and went down for breakfast, the memories of our journey to the hotel seemingly washed away with the shower water.
We are in a pretty busy part of town, and on our initial venture out we discovered that we were surrounded by chaotic roads, shopping malls, colleges, schools and the beach.
The day was extraordinarily humid, the dark grey sky held on to the rain that would have brought us some relief and the 10km walk felt more like 20 on the dusty roads. We stopped at the Central Mall for a fresh melon and sweet lime juice and from the roof of the mall we could see the sea.
We decided to make for the coast just to see the second longest beach in India but we weren't expecting much. Another kilometre or so and we were stood at Chennai beach and actually it looked pretty good. The golden sand stretched in both directions as far as we could see, at the far left were the docks and to the right was more and more beach.
The sea in the Bay of Bengal was perfectly calm and grey under the heavy sky. Hulking cargo ships dominated the view out to sea.
The beach was busy, families, couples and groups of friends walked, sat and played, each with plenty of space around them to feel free and without intrusion.
Rows and rows of food stalls line up to make corridors across the sand, most of those we saw were in our opinion, a little too risky for our constitution. The smell of burgers and onions was so nearly our downfall.
We walked along the road parallel to the beach for some time, the grassy areas between the road and beach are home to hundreds of seemingly homeless people. Many were sleeping in the shade, some were eating coconuts or out of cans, some looked at the passersby emotionless, no begging, no imploring looks.
The atmosphere in Chennai is so different to anywhere else in India that we have visited, it's cheerless. The people generally seem more abrupt, more 'down to business' than elsewhere. Our smiles are rarely returned, no one wants to chat. I'm sure some wistful comparison could be made between how we have found the the ambience of Chennai and the flatness of the sea but we're not going to make it.
For 10 days or so we have had one eye on getting to Kerala our Indian Nirvana, which if we could have got the trains we wanted we would have been there for 6 days now. The detour has most certainly taken our eye off the ball and we've had a few too many days drifting rather than doing.
A 16 hour train ride to Trivandrum awaits us tonight. Kerala, you beauty, here we come.