Qatar to Chennai, India on a flying virus farm; Chennai light city; The wrong decision about which part of town to visit; Everything is more difficult in India; Never thought I'd be sleeping at the Salvation Army; Meeting our host in Santhome; Tapas in India?

The second leg of our journey from Africa to India was from Doha, Qatar to Chennai. I have to admit that I had a little less confidence in our pilot on this flight - while we were taxiing from the gate to the runway he stalled the plane. No, really - my hand to God, he stalled the plane. All the lights and engines shut off and they had to start the plane up again. Needless to say I figured it would be a miracle if we got to Chennai alive.

It was only a four or five-hour flight this time, on a smaller and much less luxurious plane than the first leg. Our body clocks were already messed up from sleeping all day, and we knew it would only get worse - India is 3.5 hours ahead of Cape Town and we’d be flying through the night a second time and arriving, very tired, at about 4 in the morning. Neither of us was able to sleep for a second on the flight - people were constantly streaming up and down the aisle. The whole plane was a giant flying box of germs, too - I think we were the only people on the flight who weren’t constantly sneezing, sniffing or blowing our noses. Only a matter of time until we come down with colds, I reckon.

It was early enough when we arrived in Chennai that the airport was nearly empty. We breezed through passport control, baggage retrieval and customs barely breaking stride, which was a really nice change of pace. Our first task was to find some money - we’d gambled on there being an ATM in the airport and hadn’t exchanged any South African rand for Indian rupees before leaving Cape Town. We left the international terminal into the humid, misty night, aiming for the domestic terminal where I’d heard an ATM existed. The first one we tried didn’t like our cards, and that old sinking feeling started to show up. The second one worked fine, though, and we were delighted to see Mahatma Gandhi’s face on all the banknotes. Back out into the hot, floodlight night, weaving our way between all the men sleeping on the concrete and past the taxi rank with its old-fashioned-looking, rounded, tan and black cabs.

It was 5 in the morning by this time. We knew we had a place to stay in the city - we’d arranged to stay with a man named Sujit through couchsurfing.com, but we hadn’t had his reply email with directions to his house before we left Doha, and we couldn’t find an internet connection anywhere in the airport. I did find a power outlet on the outside of the building, which surprised me a lot - it was the first one I can remember seeing in all our travels. It worked, too, although it wasn’t well attached to the wall and I sort of broke it when I pulled the computer’s plug out. So all we had was Sujit’s phone number and instructions to call after 7. He’d said we could drop our bags at his house in the morning and come back after a day out in the city, but we were exhausted and seriously rethinking that plan. All we wanted to do was find a cheap room for the day and sleep, and then go out to his house in the evening. We weren’t sure if this would seem rude to him or not, but to be honest we had no real choice - we were dead on our feet.

This left us with two hours to kill before we could call Sujit to tell him our change of plan. What we should have done was to just stay at the airport and call him from there. We didn’t, though. We’d been accosted earlier by a man who we thought was a well-dressed hustler, but who turned out to be an airport agent tasked with helping tourists. He couldn’t quite grasp the concept that we didn’t even know which area of the city we wanted to go to, but we looked in our guidebook for the area with the highest concentration of cheap hotels and told him we wanted to go there. The area we chose was called Egmore, and was right beside one of the city’s main train stations (also called Egmore), so it would be easy enough to get to, we reckoned. So it turned out - he directed us away from the airport to the commuter train which would take us downtown. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds, though - first, he told us to take the subway to get to the train, and second, we thought he was talking about some “tourist train”. Now, where I come from, a “subway” is a train, but here it’s a walkway that goes under a street - so that was a bit confusing. And the “tourist train” was just stupid - his English was thickly accented, and he was saying “Tirusalam”, the name of the train station. We felt more than a bit stupid, but we did find the station in the end.

It cost us 6 rupees each for the 18km trip downtown - that’s about CAD$0.12). The train station was dirty and crumbling, but we didn’t care - we were in India, finally! Our enthusiasm carried us up the flight of stairs to the train platform. Even at this early hour there were fifty or so people waiting on the platform. Older men in lungis and younger guys in western clothes, and all the women in saris. A sign hanging down above the platform advised us that we were standing in the area for the Ladies’ and First Class car, so we moved down a bit - Sheryl ain’t no lady and I sure ain’t first class.

The train was a steampunk monstrosity that lumbered into the station with its doors wide open. It was hugely wide with carbon-streaked aluminum walls and a double row of giant fans on the ceiling running the length of the car. It wasn’t crowded, though we did have to stand. The breeze from the fans and the open doors was very welcome - it was hot even so early in the morning. As we rode I looked out into the humid night and saw that the air was nearly glowing - all the orange sodium lights lit the mist from inside and made the atmosphere luminous and beautiful. By turns we were assaulted by the vilest stench imaginable - it came and went, making us hold our breath and clench our teeth against nausea. We were later to find out that the smell came from the river, each time the train crossed over the water.
Egmore was incredibly crowded and busy even so early, and incredibly filthy even in the dark. Little yellow three-wheeled vehicles called autorickshaws swerved and honked madly on the road. There were drifts of rotting trash in every corner and piled in the street. The pavement was cracked and heaped into rubble piles. Skinny, unhealthy-looking stray dogs slunk around the trash piles, and autorickshaw drivers were pissing against any wall they could find. We walked up and down the street, propelled by forward momentum, confidence and a certain sense of unreality, first one way and then the other, finally finding the side street we were looking for.

Once off the main road the noise quieted, but the ravens and then the hustlers began to swarm. Every one of them knew a cheap room somewhere - Three hundred! Three hundred rupees room! Three hundred!. We waved them all off and kept on walking, aiming for the hotel we’d picked out from the book. Once found, it was - naturally - full. A bit disheartened by the prospect of carrying the packs around from full hotel to full hotel, and even more so by following any of the hustlers to whatever dirtbag he was touting for, we plopped our packs down and sat on them to think about what to do. We immediately got shooed off by the doorstep’s owner - he’d put out a pile of food to feed the ravens, and we were scaring them away. I’d seen it, but to be honest I thought it was just another pile of garbage on the ground.

Still an hour to go before we could call Sujit, but at least the sun was starting to come up. We nosed around until we found a quiet spot tucked away in a back-street that the hustlers didn’t seem to know about. There were a couple of hotels there, but they were too expensive (Rs750) and, in the words of one irate English woman, one of only two other Westerners around, a shithole. I can’t say for myself, as I didn’t see the room - but I’m prepared to believe it.

Finally, though, we’d waited long enough and it was time to call Sujit. There was a call-shop by the station where I could make local calls. Happily, Indian phone numbers are easy to dial and I didn’t have to fool around adding extra zeroes or area codes to the number he’d given us and got through to him the first time. I explained our change of plan, and he didn’t seem offended and said we could come after 5:30 that evening. He gave us directions to his place, but it was so loud in the call shop and the phone was so tinny that I couldn’t hear him very well and had to ask him to repeat himself a couple of times. The directions seemed straightforward enough, though. He suggested we take a cab rather than try to negotiate the train, because there wasn’t a train station close to him, and that sounded like a good idea to me. Extravagant, but I’d been carrying my pack for a couple of hours by this time, had had a taste of getting around Chennai , and didn’t really mind the idea of a door-to-door taxi ride.

That left trying to find a hotel for the day. I called one after another, sometimes encountering good English and sometimes just the phrase no room, but coming up blank for each place until I called the very last, very cheapest place on the list - the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House. Never in my life did I think I’d be staying at a Salvation Army flophouse, but we were so jet-lagged and desperate to sleep that when they said they had a room for Rs350 (about CAD$8.75) I jumped at it. It was a hot twenty-minute walk through heavy traffic to get to the place. It wasn’t difficult to find, but the walking itself was hard. The sidewalks are very high in Chennai, and broken every ten meters or so by side streets or driveways, so you have to nearly jump down from them and then heave yourself back up the other side - or do what the locals do and what we finally resorted to doing, which is to walk on the road. This means that the traffic goes blaring and swerving past about ten centimeters from your elbow, though, but negotiating the high curbs had wreaked havoc on the knee that Sheryl had injured climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town, so the road it was.

The room was a dump, but I wouldn’t have expected otherwise for 350 rupees. Peeling paint, lots of dirt, a bedsheet in the window and linoleum on the floor. It was lit by one fluorescent tube and there was only one sheet on the bed, the expectation being that it’s a very hot place and nobody wants a top sheet. The ceiling fan (standard issue for hotel rooms here) sounded like a jet plane taking off. The washroom was grotty and consisted of a toilet and sink, with a spout coming out of the wall between the two and a bucket underneath. Oh, and a giant dead cockroach squished in the seam where the toilet met the floor. We couldn’t have cared less about any of this. We were in India! And also we were very, very tired. I’m not sure if our mood was buoyed by the excitement of travel or the excitement of impending sleep, but in either case it was enough. We were on the bed and dead asleep in ten minutes, and we slept for six hours straight
Naturally we woke up starving since we hadn’t had a thing to eat since dinner on the plane sixteen or seventeen hours ago. We ventured out in search of food, and settled for samosas from a street-side stall. We were hungry enough for proper food, but they were the best samosas I’ve ever had, except for Mano’s in Mossel Bay in South Africa. Anyway we’d run out of time - it about five and we were due at Sujit’s sometime after 5:30. We hailed an autorickshaw (which is easily accomplished - you just pick one not to say “no” to). The driver told us the fare would be 200 rupees and we agreed, not bothering to bargain. Sujit told us later that it really should have been 100, but we’d had no frame of reference and a five-dollar crosstown taxi ride seemed pretty cheap to us.

Autorickshaws are tiny vehicles - they have three wheels, one and a half seats in front and two in back, with a little space for bags behind the back seats. They weave in and out of traffic (which mostly consists of other autorickshaws) at insane speeds, honking madly every moment. We shoved Sheryl’s pack behind us, mine in between us, and off we went. It’s funny, but even given the traffic and swerving, I didn’t really feel like I was going to die. It felt like a fun amusement park ride.

The directions that Sujit had given us were these: Go to Santhome High Road, get off at a particular bank, and there’s a street beside it called K-something Avenue (as I say, the phone connection wasn’t great and I didn’t get the name of the street very well) - go up two blocks and find the apartment building with a particular name. So no big deal, I thought - that bank isn’t too common, and he said the bank, so there’s probably only one of them. So when we passed it, we stopped the driver and got out. Trying to find K– Avenue proved impossible, though. I walked for an hour everywhere through the neighbourhood, looking. It was a very friendly neighbourhood - everyone smiled and waved. But that didn’t help us find the stupid street. Finally, as it was starting to get really dark and the mosquitoes started to swarm in their bloodthirsty billions, we gave up on trying to find the street and started trying to find a phone. There must be more than one bank, we thought. We didn’t have any better luck finding a phone, though, and finally had to start asking autorickshaw drivers to borrow theirs. Nobody would lend us a phone but Sheryl sweet-talked one of them into at least calling Sujit for us. They somehow worked out directions between them and we jumped into the second autorickshaw of the evening so we could get to the right bank.

Sujit, when we finally met him, turned out to be really nice. We already knew he was hospitable and patient before we’d even met him, but he’s also a bright, talented conversationalist and very generous and welcoming. We were his first couchsurfing guests and he said he’d thought long and hard before accepting our request to stay with him, because we didn’t really seem like his kind of people. He suggested that me might get more positive responses in India if we updated our profiles on the site and replaced our pictures with current ones that didn’t have the purple and pink hair. Our profiles were both sadly out of date anyway, so it was hard to argue with him. Like most of the Indian couchsurfing community, Sujit is in software, so we had a lot of common ground - in fact, he said he had a passing familiarity with one of the open-source projects I’ve worked on. It really is a small world sometimes. Between IT, photography, travel and couchsurfing we had lots of common ground and lots to talk about. Sheryl, the outgoing one of us, has the knack of being instant friends with anyone, but it’s very rare that I click that well with someone so quickly. Normally she takes on most of the social and conversational burden when we meet new people, but this time I think we hardly let her talk at all (which probably suited her - she was very tired).

Sujit very generously took us out for dinner and drinks at, of all things, a tapas bar. A small world indeed, when you can drink Kingfisher and eat very convincing tapas at a slick bar in India, having been a quarter of the way around the world the day before. We’d have been perfectly happy with an Indian place, but we sensed that Sujit had a local’s desire to show off his city’s restaurant scene. We both had a fantastic time, and I think Sujit enjoyed himself as well. By the end of the evening, though, jet-lag had caught up with me and I had a wicked headache besides, so I was quite ready to go back to Sujit’s place and fall on my face. It had been a very long, strange and trying day, but I went to sleep very happy to be in India.

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One Comment on this Dispatch:

March 8th, 2009

dude, that salvation army flophouse looks SO much like the room i stayed in at that disgusting hotel in downtown chicago HAHAHAHA

¬ jeremy
March 12th, 2009

Yeah, there’s something universal about really bad hotels. I’ve stayed in some since then that were even worse though…

¬ Chris
Flourish
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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