Chennai - Tuesday 17 - Thursday 26 March 2009
Arriving late at night - 11pm but about 2am for us body clock wise we were pretty tired so we just changed some money and got straight into a taxi for the ride to our hotel. On the recommendation of the French Verney family - other overlanders Jeff & Juliet our Belgian friends had put us in touch with - we had already booked a room at the Paradise Guesthouse in Triplicate. Whilst paradise was putting it a bit strong it was perfectly acceptable - a clean room with very friendly staff for 500 rp or $15 Aus and we were pleased to fall into bed.
Next morning we were ready to face the world. We wandered around the streets in a bit of a daze. Words can't really describe your first sight of India - it is a bit like walking onto a bizarre film set - there is so much frenetic activity. We have just watched the excellent movie "Slumdog Millionaire" and it is in no way exaggerated! India is shocking and confronting and absolutely wonderful at the same time.
We went for brunch and had Dosa - thin lentil rice pancake a real Southern Indian staple. I have had it before but never in the form it came in - a towering pyramid. I am struggling a bit with the right hand only rule. As you may well know the left hand (as it performs toilet duties here) is considered unclean so it is not the done thing to pass anything or eat using it. As a left hander I find this hard but am slowly getting the knack! I may get thinner in the process which is all to the good!
We first went to the tourist office and picked up loads of maps and info - after which we planned to catch the train and touch base with our shipping agents. We only made it 100 yards down the road when we were stopped by "Jonny" an auto rickshaw driver who offered to take us around. As it was getting oppressively hot we agreed which turned out to be a very good decision! The number system has been changed so you have both new and old numbers for any given address. These are completely different and the numbering seems totally random -if you are doing a fair bit of tooing and froing as we were you really do need someone who knows the ropes a bit!! When Madras was officially renamed Chennai (1997) a lot of the streets were also renamed - so a confusing mixture of the old and new is used. Jonny whizzed around the roads turning his vehicle on a sixpence!
We have heard so much from other overlanders about the Indian roads and they didn't fail to disappoint! There are cows, motorbikes, crazily overloaded buses cyclo-rickshaws & auto rickshaws everywhere - with chickens/ goats and street kids adding to the obstacles. Somehow the whole thing does seem to meld together and all the near misses you shut your eyes to avoid don't happen. God only knows how!!!
Anyway we eventually found our shipping agent who had sub contracted us elsewhere - so we then found our new agents - first impressions were a bit scary. In the reception area there was an empty desk with the only file - a worryingly full one - labelled "File of Customer Complainings" - however Rajesh our agent seemed on the ball. We were told that the ship was due to dock the next day Thursday 19 - which was good news. In the meantime there wasn't a lot we could do so we kept Jonny on as our guide and did a bit of a tourist round of Chennai.
We are a bit late to hit south India and it is starting to get very hot indeed - a bit like Darwin. We should cope for a month or so before the wet season kicks in but if it gets unbearable we'll hurry up north. Whilst a bit smelly in parts - when you get down wind of the slum areas - the pollution isn't too bad here - certainly nowhere near as bad as Jakarta say. We did the rounds of quite a few temples & churches.
Whilst predominantly Hindu the area also has quite a Catholic presence and some Muslims. The San Thome Cathedrals is one of only 3 in the world that claims to have the remains of one of the original 12 of Jesus' apostles interned here - St Thomas -or doubting Thomas. It was a pretty impressive building.
The Hindu temples were like many we'd seen in SE Asia. Probably more chaotic though with worshippers jostling for room alongside vendors selling all sorts of aids to worship - candles, statues peacock feathers etc. There is a museum dedicated to a famous wandering monk Swami Vivekananda. Having toured the US in 1897 he stayed here for a while & preached to adoring crowds - including a lot of Westerners. One of the earliest spiritual gurus to hit the West the museum has pictures of his life. It was originally an ice house where ice blocks were stored - before refrigeration killed this function off - and is a fairly interesting building in its own right.
A lot of the buildings are very beautiful - several very Victorian looking - the majestic University buildings for example.
What struck us is how near the rich areas were to the poor. Slums were metres away from wealthy housing enclaves. The people are certainly poor but they do seem happy. Where we stay there is a big group of young girls and children who just sleep in the street. God knows how it's so noisy but we pass them every night. We have got to know one girl of 18. She is a pretty girl & seems extremely bright - really good English. Her parents are both dead and she lives with her sister and the kids. The brother in law is a rickshaw driver and they have no home. Their pots/pans they move from doorway to doorway until they bed down. You would think this would be an absolute nightmare but when we pass at night they are all laughing and chatting and playing with the kids and everyone seems quite happy. The truly sad thing is that this life or something like it may well be her entire future and barring a miracle she won't climb out of this sort of poverty. This seems really tragic.
The cyclo- rickshaw drivers are also sad - mostly old men they are way beyond retirement age and yet still cycle around with immense loads. They live and sleep in their rickshaws. Unsurprisingly deaths from TB and other infectious diseases are common and their general health is not good.
We drove down to the main beach - the 13km long Marina beach. There were loads of fishermen - there is a huge slum area opposite where they all live and again it is a bit smelly. You're grateful for lots of clean sea air!
Everywhere there are kids playing cricket - it really is a bit of a national obsession. The slum kids play using wood planks as bats and pretty good they are too! There is a sculpture of Ghandi overlooking the whole thing. This week another Ghandi - a descendant of the 2 former Ghandi PMs (both of whom were assassinated!) who is a potential MP has been in big trouble for allegedly making derogatory remarks about the Muslims. The elections are approaching so much political capital is being made out of this. He claims the tape showing this has been doctored. One way or another the name Ghandi remains very high profile here!!
We did a bit of shopping - not as much as Jonny would have liked! - it is similar to Bangkok here the auto rickshaw drivers get commission from the shops for getting you in - & more if you buy anything, so we had to endure the "hard sell" routine a couple of times before we put our respective feet down ! There are some lovely things for sale - gems, pashmina shawls, silver wear, sandal wood carvings but we really aren't in the market!
I did invest in a sari. Chennai is a real silk centre and I decided to buy one - it was a bit of a faff getting dressed - I think you have to get used to them - so I don't think it'll be part of my regular wardrobe. I also bought a couple of salwar kameez - the trouser/tunic combination most Indian girls wear. This should be useful so I do the right thing dress wise - especially in off the track type of places. The shop sold gorgeous materials - it is obviously renowned as a lot of ladies were buying up piles of saris when we were there. The shop was in Mylapore- a bit more up market than where we stayed. It was Sunday evening when we visited and there was a real bazaar type atmosphere- we saw a few ladies - having their hands painted in intricate henna patterns. This means they are about to marry and this is a sort of part of their wedding outfit.
Rajesh our shipping guy was keeping in touch but there wasn't really much he needed us for so we took a further trip out to AVM film studios. This studio actually apparently makes as many movies as Bollywood in Mumbai though they are mainly in Tamil. It isn't really an organized tour you just turn up and wander around - some studios won't allow photos some will. We saw a talk show - it sounded quite interesting it was about arranged marriages. Apparently a lot of Chennai boys want a wife from the villages as they see careerified City girls as being too dominant! There was a boys vs girls debate set up to discuss the issue. It looked like being an interesting show but it was hours away from starting so we couldn't really hang around. We also saw some sort of quiz show - though not in English so a bit hard to understand!
Compared to most of SE Asia there is nothing here in the way of a supermarket - come back Tesco Lotus! Wi-Fi cafes also don't seem to exist - we lugged our laptop all over Chennai looking for one before we admitted defeat! We went to the largest shopping centre in the area - the Spencer Centre- this was constructed in 3 separate phases and had over 600 shops!
By the end of our first week we felt we'd got to know Chennai fairly well! The people are very friendly and all want their photo taken! In our picture at the petrol station Andrew started to take a picture and all of them stampeded to get in - to the extent that half of them fell over
We were very grateful to Jonny who had been a huge help to us and he was kind enough to invite us to meet his family - his wife Navanitham and son and daughter Ramu & Mahalakshmi. Their house is in a small compound where they share bathroom facilities with a few other families. It was very clean and well maintained but tiny for 4 people. Nearby was a large dobi or laundry. People take clothes there and for a minimum price (4 rp a shirt) they are washed by the dobi workers.
Paradise seems to be a sort of magnet for overlanders - 3 had just left when we arrived - and 2 arrived whilst we were there. Kari & Ulla from Switzerland and Olly & Nina from Sweden (travelling with their 4 children) were both going the other way shipping to Malaysia. We were able to pick their brains about their travel through India Pakistan & Iran which was good. They both loved Pakistan particularly so we really hope we can get visas when the time comes- 6 months is plenty of time for it to settle down.
So, on Monday 24 D day arrived and we headed down to the shipping port. We met Kari and Ulla & Olly there loading up in "exports' whilst we unloaded at "imports"! It was a fairly long day but eventually at 10pm we drove out of the port!! The car was fine and the wheels went on - Andrew got filthy in the process!
We had a bit of a tussle with customs. Whilst the carnet is duty free they still wanted 15,000 rp-(miscellaneous fees - no receipt!) taking the total fees due to 24,500 rp, and we'd already paid 9,200 rp to unload the container off the ship. We did battle and managed to get some off. There were some fees which were receipted - use of cranes storage - Rajesh's fees- which we had no problem with just the bulk of the fee was this 15,000 rp (approx $450 Aus) to customs which was pure "back pocket" money.
To cut a long story short we eventually paid 22,000 rp in total for the whole process - or approximately $650 Aus. This seems to be pretty much par for the course and everyone we know of seems to have paid a similar amount (or even more) but it doesn't make it any easier to take! Had we refused to pay it they'd just create problems which ends up costing more in the long run. It leaves a bit of a bitter taste but what can you do??!!
Chennai has a fairly bad reputation for such things but compared to Surabeya Indonesia they were like choir boys so it could have been worse! In retrospect we think the moral of our Indonesian story is avoid shipping to Surabeya at all costs! Jeff & Juliet entered through Medan with no problems. In hindsight we should have shipped to Dili in East Timor and driven up that way- though at the time we were incorrectly advised this was impossible. Anyway off the soap box - the main thing is we have our lovely car back in one piece!!!
We went the next day to get insurance. This cost 3,000 rp for a 6 month policy. The wonderful agent we found took pains to tell us that the United Indian Insurance Company was "a fully tip top Government company with absolutely no hanky panky" so it's as well to remember the vast majority of Indians (and Indonesians) are very honest!
As I write Andrew is out & about in the car this time with Jonny as navigator getting a few chores (shocks fitted - thanks again to all at Raw4x4 ,water tank filled) completed. Hopefully tomorrow (or at pinch the next day) we should begin the drive south to our next destination Mamallapuram (navigator to note AKA Mahabalipuram!!)
PS A couple of people have asked if they can call or SMS us so for your information we always buy a sim card for each country. Our number for India is +91 917 641 9361 -this number is for our entire time in India. Calls or texts very gratefully received!