A Cultural Immersion

You really have to enjoy a place once you finally arrive there to make the torture of “cattle class” air travel worth the agony – and luckily we are loving Southern India. We survived the 7.5 hours of the highly annoying mother of pampered child behind us (hearts sank to our boots when we heard they too were going on to Chennai). This was followed by the 4 hours wandering aimlessly around Singapore airport – although we did enjoy the free cocktail in the Duty Free shop’s bar that was bestowed upon us after buying our supplies of gin and Whisky. And a visit to the butterfly garden in Terminal 3 filled in some more time:

Then there was the 4 hours of the Singapore – Chennai leg. We finally arrived at our accommodation 19 and a half hours after leaving the house. Bloody hell – it looked so much closer on the map!

Our arrival at Chennai airport ran smoothly, despite some dire predictions about the worth of our e-visa. We were fourth in line and the lone Customs chap on the E-Visa desk processed us as quickly as he could, and that allowed us to sail smugly past the long lines queued up at the non E-Visa counters. Mind you, we all met up again at the baggage collection as that was not a speedy operation. Chennai terminal is a large but fairly basic affair – our plans to get rupees from an airport ATM were scuppered when the one and only one we could see was not in operation – so it took no time to spot our ride to the accommodation and we were soon on our way. 

First impressions in the dark. Neon lit entrances to temples.  Lots of roads, twisting up and around like pretzels. Traffic that uses the horn as its main tool for driving. We have since learnt that the horn is used to say all manner of things : I’m here; I’m stopping; I’m coming through; I’m turning; I’m changing lanes; Get out of my way; I’m coming up behind you; I’m passing you; Let me in; I’m arriving at an intersection. So, as you can imagine there is a constant cacophony of sound. Cars, scooters, motorbikes, tuk tuks, buses, trucks – all tooting. Maybe not surprising when you see what is written on the back of their trucks:

We were staying at Footprint B & B, located within an apartment block in one of the better Chennai suburbs. As it was almost midnight the formalities were swift and we were soon in our large, simple but very clean room. Our bathroom was a symphony of pink, including the very efficient hot water service. 

Ah, the joy of being horizontal. Sleep was swift and sound, but short as we had to be up for a 7.30 breakfast and out the door by 8.00 am. Being a tourist can be very hard work at times.

We discover in the morning that the apartment sits in a lovely leafy oasis:

And we also discover that we are big fans of the Indian breakfast of dosa and it’s accompaniments. An excellent way to start the day. 

Our morning is spent in the company of Kaushik from StoryTrails who takes us on the British Blueprints Tour of Chennai – telling us all about the British colonial history and it’s architectural legacy on the city. Kaushik, a retired accountant from one of Chennai’s major companies, is a mine of information – and sly humour. We enjoyed our morning with him, and it was a gentle introduction to the city as we are largely cocooned within the air conditioned car.  It would seem that the city centre is in more chaos than usual thanks to the ongoing works for the city’s new metro system (which has been ongoing for 5 years and no end currently in sight). The architectural highlight is probably the Exams Hall at the Madras University, which looks more Moorish than British, but it is the stories of the early British characters that entrance us more.

We are then handed on to a new guide who accompanied us to Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage site of 7th century bas-reliefs, rock temples, and cave temples. He told us that most of the temples were essentially practice temples, or models – they were trying different styles until they hit on the style they liked.

First off there were monolithic rock temples that were carved from the huge granite rock in situ, from the top down. These are called the Five Rathas, and each is carved from a single rock. Stunning. Even Pete, the non temple lover, was impressed.

Then there were cave temples:

And beautiful bas reliefs, carved into the boulders.  This is called Arjuna’s Penance, and is considered one of India’s greatest art works. The detail is astounding.

This all cumulates in the Shore Temple, which is a rock cut temple (ie a temple built from blocks of rock), one of the most photographed temples in Tamil Nadu apparently, so here’s mine to add to the collection. Why the Shore Temple? Because just behind the vegetation is the beach.

We farewell our lovely guide (who was going to catch the bus back to Chennai!), and head on to Pondicherry with our driver, Rajesh. Turns out that Rajesh loves a chat – he keeps up a constant stream of talk for the 2 hour drive to Pondicherry. We are with him for the whole trip so are hoping his enthusiasm winds down a little over the subsequent days. But, he is a careful driver, and determined that we will enjoy our visit to India.

We arrive at the charming town of Pondicherry around 5 o’clock, weary and in desperate need of a drink. Our hotel, Palais de Mahe, is a welcome sight – a relatively new hotel in the French Quarter, built in heritage style and full of charming staff.

Shower, G&T, dinner on the roof top terrace with the cooling sea breeze and we are new people. So much so that we join the throngs on the beachside promenade for a pre-bed amble:

Our first day in Southern India has been a huge success. We are excited about the days to come.

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