Day one in Chennai began when it was half over – after our arrival at 6.30am, I set my alarm for midday. We’d arranged to go sightseeing at 2pm, and I was anxious to work out how to use the shower, find something to eat that wouldn’t immediately glue me to the loo for the next three days, and finish the chapter of Harry Potter I was on before I was due in the lobby. Thus it was that I presented myself at The Verandah restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, clean and hungry and sniffling a little about Dumbledore’s untimely demise. Due to lack of space, I was moved outside. The advantage of sitting at the poolside is that in glorious sunshine it is incredibly beautiful – all greenery and sparkling blue water. Unfortunately I also realised that the menu was serving only curry and burgers (not my first choice for breakfast), that now I was sat down I was committed to ordering something from the overeager pool attendant/waiter type, and that the only people familiar enough with Indian business hotels to bring bathing suits are fat, white, Western businessmen.
I ordered a pineapple juice, and got a disapproving stare from the waiter and quite a lecherous one from the dripping whale just emerging from the water. By the time the juice arrived I was overdue for sightseeing and unsure whether the juice was made with forbidden water, so I just pretended to sip it a couple of times then took it with me to my room, where I washed it down the loo. Not a successful episode from any angle, particularly as I was then so flustered and hurried that I brushed my teeth without really thinking about it and froze in the act of washing my mouth with forbidden water from the tap. I might’s well have drunk the pineapple juice and just got the loo-gluing over and done with.
Sightseeing was…interesting. It’s fascinating – even in a car there’s always an explosion of human activity visible from every window, and you watch helplessly with your mouth open – but there are certain physical obstacles to be overcome at the beginning. Firstly, the smell. India smells – and there is no nice way to say this – like sewage. No, not precisely like sewage: like water, mingled with a handful of sewage, stirred round a bit then warmed gently in the sun for a few hours. Which is, of course, roughly the condition of every puddle on every road everywhere. I actually noticed it first on the plane as we landed, but just thought the gentleman whose toilet had ominously flushed four times before he emerged was the culprit (what on earth are you flushing if it takes four tries?). But no, that’s just what the air smells like. It’s the sort of thing you have to get used to or go mad, and I expect in a few days I won’t even notice, but for today my (empty) stomach churned every time we got out of the car.
Then there’s the fact that there’s so much rubbish everywhere. We visited two beaches today, and on both you couldn’t find a square foot of sand that wasn’t fifty per cent bits of plastic, sweet wrappers, and discarded cobs of corn (a surprising number of these – unless they were fruit? I didn’t look too closely). In some places the rubbish had been tidied into a pile, though the pile had not then been removed. I suppose it was just to freshen up the sand for its next dumping.
I am definitely enjoying driving through the streets of Chennai, especially as I’m in a sturdy vehicle I’m not in charge of. The city officials are evidently trying to make the roads safer, with advertising slogans like ‘Don’t drive fast. Unless you have an appointment – with DEATH’ (no, honestly). The city itself is made up of a combination of small, raggedy shops roofed with corrugated iron and peeling paper signs, and larger, business-type buildings, often watched by security guards. In every new vista, every view round the corner, there is more of everything than you’d expect there to be: more shops crammed together into one storefront, more vehicles weaving hypnotisingly close in the next lane, more dirt, more noise, more people.
Our poor driver had to ram his arm through a seething mass of competitors to wave money at the reptile house ticket collector. Queuing is not done at all here, and hence it’s usually the men braving the ticket barrier while the women stand back with the children. We didn’t know whether the tickets he eventually managed to buy were camera-permission tickets or not (cameras have their own entrance fees to these places, and video cameras’ fees are even higher); once we’d gone back and forth a bit and established that our cameras were welcome guests, our driver was so ticked off that he insisted we took photographs of every reptile we visited. The snakes were behind plexiglass, and the crocodiles caged with thick metal wires, so I have twenty four photographs of fence, with something scaly blurred in the background. At least my camera got its money’s worth.
Our last stop of the day was St Thomas’ Mount Shrine, and was located up a windy, bumpy path at the top of a hill. Apparently the apostle Thomas, after his spot of Doubting, made his way over here to evangelise the Indians. I am a bit sceptical about this myself, but the Indian Christians (of whom there are quite a lot, it seems) just love him. The Shrine is on the middle of an observatory platform with magnificent views of the city in every direction. It all looked very wild and green, and the wind was very welcome. Next to an obelisk type decorated with some gold Jesus statues was a little church containing the cross at which Thomas was praying when he was martyred, a piece of his bone he thoughtfully left behind for worshipping purposes, and a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, painted by – wait for it – the Apostle Luke! Did you know he was a bit of a flash artist as well as a documenter of Jesus’ life and works?! On the way out were two creepily life-sized shop mannequin scenes set into glass cases, showing a model Thomas praying and then touching a model Jesus’ wounds. It was a bit like a scene with model Romans or Aztecs you’d find in a museum, only with a religious twist (and a surprisingly buff Jesus – was this appropriate?). I very badly wanted to take a photograph, especially as my camera had already been discovered and forced to pay for its own ticket again, but there were people praying to the model-Thomas (wouldn’t it be AWESOME if the model was rigged up to turn its head and say ‘Your wish is granted’, or similar?) and I didn’t want to be (any more) disrespectful.
End of day. Finally. My second excursion to the Verandah Restaurant was much more successful than the first – we sat inside and had two excellent curries with delicious lime soda. After an hour-long conversation with my dearly missed husband I feel much better about this doing-things-by-yourself lark. And I don’t even appear to be paying for my teeth brushing mistake of this morning, so top marks go to my stomach lining so far. The real work, of course, starts tomorrow. Eek.