Chaos in Chennai

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January 21st 2016
Published: June 26th 2017
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We had two days at sea between Phuket and Chennai. We continued to go to the quizzes and one time we managed a win. It was on a tie-breaker where we were asked to guess the age of our hostess. She is a tiny, French-Canadian called Karoline. I guessed 25, one other guessed 21 and a third 29. She was actually 27 so gave prizes to both myself and the third group. I like the way they always tell us we are competing for fabulously average prizes!! We won a key-ring with a light built in but at least here they give one each.

Fletcher also entered the paper plane competition. The object of this was to make two paper planes and then try to fly them through a hoop held above one of the team's head. Only two men did it with Fletcher's second attempt just going a centimetre too high. He had the direction though! We have also gone to Pub Trivia which is on at 9 or 9-30pm. Again we have been close but no luck so far.

During these two days we had to queue up to show our passports and visas to a group of Indian officials who had got on in Phuket. We were given a time to arrive, then we went to the first desk where our passports were checked by one man then passed to the next who stamped our Shore Pass and signed it. Then it was onto another table where our custom declaration form was again stamped and taken then a woman at the final desk signed off on all and we handed our passports back to the ship official for safekeeping. What a lot of bureaucratic rigamarole.

We arrived in Chennai at 7-30am on Tuesday, Jan 19th.Fletcher had been in email contact with a colleague, Valson, for whom he had run a course back in 2004. Valson had assured us that someone would be waiting to escort us around the city. We had not heard back from him with any firm arrangements in Phuket so before going to breakfast we tried to ring him with no luck. However, after breakfast we were successful in contacting him and were told a driver and guide were waiting for us at the gate. To get from the ship to the gate we had to board a shuttle bus but this entailed queuing for a ticket. We were waiting for our turn when the guide rang us and said he was right next to the ship. We left quickly but still could not see anyone looking for us. After a couple more phone calls we eventually found Mr Sathyan standing with his back to us looking up at the ship. He drove us to the gate where we found the driver and guide who had been unable to come to the dockside.

We got on our way about 10am. We were asked where we wanted to go so our first stop was at St Thomas Basilica. This is supposed to be built over the tomb of the apostle, Thomas, who came to Chennai in 52AD. On our way the traffic was diverted onto a back road which ran along the beach front of Marina Bay. This was a bonus for instead of the wide main road and impressive colonial buildings we saw the "real" India. All along the beach front were shanty towns where women sat offering various sized fish for sale. Opposite the beach were slum dwellings soon to be replaced so we were told, by new government built high rise apartments. This stretched for a couple of kilometres. A fascinating insight to the local conditions.

Of course, the traffic was horrendous. Cars, trucks, motor cycles and tuk tuks all jockeyed for position on the road with the only rules seeming to be who could push their nose further into the line to make the others let them in. Cars drove centimetres apart with no lanes observed. I had to shut my eyes several times as I was sure we were about to hit a cyclist or pedestrian. However, we made it to St Thomas and went into the church. This is a large cathedral with garishly painted statues but an impressive altar and choir section. Traditional stained glass windows look down on rows of pews and memorial plaques. There were a couple of side chapels, one of which was an Eucharistic chapel with the host permanently on display.

We then went around to the back of the main building to visit the chapel which houses the tomb of Thomas. We had to leave our shoes at the desk and then descend a marble staircase into an underground crypt. Here was a small chapel, beautifully maintained, with a reclining statue of Thomas under the altar stone. Nothing much else to see except for the priest keeping vigil who was definitely nodding off!

We next drove to the Fort St George. This complex was started in the 1680s by the East India Company as a settlement to trade with the locals for textiles. The fort was expanded over the years and now is the site for the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu, the Indian state of which Chennai is the capital. Chennai was originally called Madras and the Fort Museum contains various relics of the troops and governors who lived and worked here. The display is fairly pedestrian containing aspects of colonial life including uniforms, coins, medals and statues of important men. Upstairs is a portrait gallery with very large paintings of British Kings and Queens as well as Governors of Madras and other important military personnel and their wives. After about 40 minutes there we had seen enough. We then walked through the grounds past many military security guards. It is almost a town within a town. There was a high level of security as we saw some VIPs arrive at the parliament building. We reached St Mary's Church which is the oldest in Chennai being built in the 1680s. This has many memorials to important people in the life of the fort. It is a simple church but holds lots of history. They say that Clive of India was married here. Outside there are some impressive tombstones.

Then it was back to the car. Fletcher asked to go to the Central Railway Station as he said that is where we would find the real India. Our guide was rather perplexed by this but dutifully took us there. We had to buy Platform tickets and then wandered in to this vast building. Thousands of locals were waiting patiently for their trains, many sitting on rows of seats provided but whole families and groups sitting on tarpaulins spread out on the ground. There was a kaleidoscope of colourful saris intermingled with the black robes of Muslim women and men in all kinds of outfits including the Indian version of a “sulu”(I'm sorry Manjul I don't know the correct term) but no man in shorts! The place was remarkably clean and tidy. We walked along one platform with our guide taking us onto the train to view the spartan interior of the Second Class carriages and sleepers. It would be rather uncomfortable for a long trip. This station is for north bound trains while another station we passed later contains all the southbound ones.

By now it was about 1pm so we asked to go somewhere for lunch. Our request was for somewhere reasonable to eat, that had cold beer and free WiFi. Our guide delivered on all counts. We were taken to a small hotel, the Victoria, and ushered in to a dimly lit dining room. We were brought the mandatory cold beer and then ordered a fish and a chicken dish with accompanying rice. We also purloined the password for the WiFi from a somewhat reluctant waiter to whom we had to show our shore passes. We had a good lunch. The fish was spicy and the Chicken Biryani delicious. We managed to check emails, post the blog and book tickets to go to Robben Island when we get to South Africa.

After lunch we were driven to the Government Museum. This was housed in a large impressive looking complex which sprawled over several colonial buildings. We went into the sculpture gallery which housed Buddhist and Hindu carvings from as early as 250 BC. Many were intricately carved and depicted the various gods. Having seen three galleries of these we then wandered into the Natural History section containing many stuffed animals and birds. Having seen much of this before, we asked our guide if he could take us to the Chennai Cricket Ground. He agreed and so we cut short the Museum visit.

The ride to the stadium was the highlight of the day. Our driver took a “shortcut” down a long but narrow street that was lined each side with car wreckers and repairers. Here we sped along, narrowly missing wandering children, weaving in and out between motor cycles and tuk tuks. At one point a tow truck was halfway across the road and our driver tried to squeeze through between it and a stack of car bodies on the side of the street. This time his judgement failed him. He edged forward only for us to hear a scraping sound and the computer voice in the car saying Stop, Stop, Stop!! We were stuck with lots of vehicles directly behind prohibiting backing up and traffic waiting on the other side. The tow truck driver tried to back up, but we were helped by one of the onlookers removing some of the door panels piled up on the edge of the road. What an experience!!

When we got to the Stadium we were first allowed to drive in the gate but as we were getting out for a look the security guard came and we were told to go to another gate. We duly did so but there we were not allowed in. Our guide, I think, was rather embarrassed by his inability to talk his way through so I only had a fleeting glimpse of the oval which looked to be well kept and clean.

Then it was back to the ship. We thanked our guide and driver and Mr Sathyan drove us from the gate to the gangplank. It had been a fascinating day. We went up on deck 14 for the Sailaway party and chatted to some interesting couples. Then, at dinner, we all shared our experiences of the day. At 9-30pm Kay and Trevor came with us to the Pub Trivia quiz, the theme of which was alcohol. Needless to say we won by about 3 points!! Our prize was a bottle of champagne which we will share at dinner tonight. A great end to an unique day.

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21st January 2016

Sounds like an interesting day :o)

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