CHENNAI - MADRAS
Pop - 6.6 million
We left Mamallapuram and travelled for two hours in relative calm and comfort through the busy villages and towns leading to Chennai.
We were only in Chennai on an overnight stay before catching the bus to Bangalore so we didn't have much time to explore. Chennai is such a vast city that given two weeks you would struggle to fully cover the whole area.
Entering Chennai is not unlike entering any big city. You are immediately faced with traffic congestion, the familiar horn and bass rhythm and dust and pollution. We travelled across the length of the city, stopping and starting as we merged into the traffic train, chugging along fumes a plenty while the incandescent colours of daily life buzzed on by.
We were pleasantly suprised by the ray of light streaming through the pollution as we entered what seemed to be another place entirely. Gone were the high rises and potholed streets replaced by a tarmac stretch of promenade beach road that runs parallel to Malibu Beach a little haven surrounded by the Bay of Bengal. A quirky Lighthouse took pride of place along this stretch. It is triangular and 11 storeys high, Half is a functioning lighthouse and half is the meteorological department offices, It is the only lighthouse in India that has an elevator. Love it!
We alighted the bus along this stretch and were pointed vaguely in the direction we needed to take to reach our chosen accommodation Cristal Guest house which had been recommended by the guys (Sam and Jasper) we met in Mamallapuram. We left the fresh (ish) air of the seaside and headed back into the humid smog along back alleys and narrow lanes filled with the usual treasures of India, guest houses, Rubbish in abundance, Rickshaws, beggars and cows (and lots of the by product of cows)!!! We found it with the help of a rickshaw and an inflated fee just outside the Triplicane area. The room was compact and bijoux that just squeezed a double bed and a tiny drawer set with a bonus of a TV set on the wall. The bathroom was considerably more compact with a eastern toilet ( a hole in the floor with foot holes either side) and a shower head with the false promise of hot water (we haven't had a hot shower for a long time!) When all said and done it was basic, clean and cheap and sufficient for One night only.
We decided to fill our limited time in Chennai by going to explore the local area. We navigated our way through the alleys and onto one of the main roads. We were greeted by a dry heat and cloud of smog that bowled us over, it was hard to see 100 yards in front of us and that conjoined with the usual enthralling hum of life, colour and chaos we were drained within ten minutes.
The buildings narrate the history of the city and the change and influence brought by other countries that have dominated the city through the ages. A strong British and Portugese influence remains. The new buildings are also an indication of the future path cut out not just for Chennai but for India as a whole with construction around every corner and shiny new shopping malls and offices springing up but comically no matter the age, design or importance of the building they are all covered in a layer of grime caused by heavy pollution, dust and weather.
Another thing the streets of Chennai cannot get away from is the street beggars. Whole families living, eating, sleeping on the street doing anything they can to survive another day. The level of squalor that they exist in is unimaginable. We have seen a little slice of this everywhere we have travelled over India but more so in Cities. Now we realised that as we said they live on the street but never gave much thought to where they toileted. We naively assumed they must use public conveniences that are dotted sporadically around (although why we thought this when we have witnessed hundreds of men peeing openly in the street is beyond me.) Anyway as we walked the streets of Chennai taking in the sights we were stopped in our tracks by a young boy (about 5) stooping in the middle of the pavement/road trousers around his ankles openly having a poo. Well shocked was not the word but what made it funny was the look of disgust on his face as if to say "Do you mind, I'm having a poo here, walk somewhere else"
Chennai is a major transport hub that boasts a network of good roads, train and bus stations and an airport all in close proximity. The roads are well maintained (still lacking pavements in most places but it's a start) and connect the urban villages making it easy to pass between each area. Following the main road we covered Anna Salai, Egmore and Triplicane although not as in depth as we would of liked. There was a board over one of the main roads that gave details of the humidity and temp and during our visit it was 31.6 deg and 67% humidity.
We needed to take a breather from the barrage of filth that now created an extra layer to our skin and to pick up a few essentials for our onward journey. We headed into a large shopping arcade called Spencers Bazaar it was fantastic and a lot like "Potteries shopping centre" with designer clothes shops mixed in with household essentials and a "Indian kind of Debenhams" that sold everything. Then there was the market area with rows of stalls selling similar wares and services all calling for our business. I got a new pair of pumps (shoes) for 4.50 but only because Rod made me as he was ashamed of me wearing my much loved Grey Primarni ones that stunk to high heaven and had mysteriously acquired a hole in the toe. (I'm sure he sabotaged them ) (We did a little experiment that night and left them outside the hotel ... needless to say they were still there in the morning as even people who had no shoes would not wear them!) The best part of the shopping centre was the food court. We had been struggling with food and it was like all our christmasses had come at once when we discovered KFC!!! It was amazing!!! Tandori popcorn chicken, Zinger burgers, Tikka two piece and real fries with homemade coleslaw that was nicer than home, the only downside was no gravy but you can't have it all!!! To top it all off we found "Cookie Man" that did a bag full of different flavours for 2 quid ... Winner, Winner chicken dinner!!!
Bellies full and shopped out we stepped back in time into darkness and what seemed like a different city and headed through the neon flashes, crowds of people and congested traffic (it was rush hour!) into the familiar path we had trod earlier.
We Passed an amazing cinema/theatre that was illuminated by bright stage lights and great big promotion posters. Film is a big thing here and Chennai is the queen of showbiz!! We would of loved to see a film but with restricted time we had to give it a miss.
We tried to get an early night as we had to be up at 6am to hot foot it across town in time to catch our bus. Not a chance after all we were in a city and as we should know by now India doesn't sleep!
The next morning completely exhausted we managed to drag our packs into the waiting rickshaw and squeeze onto the backseat after arguing the price for the journey. We sat back and covered our faces as we joined the queues of vehicles all trying to get ahead of one another while pumping out black toxic fumes and listened to the driver tell us about his children that had malaria and were in hospital because of the terrible living conditions they had to endure which he pointed out on the way past a particularly smelly back alley and how he made hardly any money as a driver, this was all obviously for a bonus at the end of the trip but could well of been true. We finally reached a Bus stand and we repeated over and over to the driver that we needed the private bus stand he was adamant that this was the place and we had to go inside. There was nobody around that looked scrupulous enough to ask so we went with it against our better judgement but failed to give the driver a tip. Our instincts were right he had had us over, this wasn't the private bus stand it was the public one and we would have to pay another 75p to get to our desired destination. We climbed into another autorickshaw that took us about 100 yards around the corner ... What a Joke ... and then dropped us at a water filled entrance saying that he couldn't go any further so we unloaded and loaded again and muttered and cursed our way after a final scramble to the stand we needed and our place on the luxury coach to take us to Bangalore.
Although our time in Chennai was short we got a feel of the city and the people. Chennai seems more amiable and user friendly than other cities we have visited, the atmosphere is positive and it's in a sense more humble and not so in your face. It is a great place to use as a base for onward travel just watch the rickdrivers that seem to dominate.