CMB to MAA
Our number and visa were up in Ceylon and it was time to turn over the next page. Our four month route in India was set to be one month into temple rich Tamil Nadu, starting with Chennai, before moving southwards to Kerala and gradually working our way back a northwards a little into Goa. A big jump up to Ladakh in Kashmir before coming back out to join the start of the England cricket tour in India, at Rajkot, Gujarat and a smattering of other northern Indian provinces. So with me being me, and the past me also being me, I had booked the cheapest flight out of Colombo to Chennai (Madras) that I could possibly find. This flight turned out to be at a convenient 2:45am local time and would allow us a pleasant 1h45 of improbable sleep on our journey into one of the largest and busiest cities in southern India. Knowing the waking stint that lay before us, we attempted to eke out as much time as we possibly could at our last hotel in Negombo, near to the airport in Sri Lanka. We lazily checked out at midday and found ourselves wasting the hours in cafes, browsing air conditioned bookshops, sitting on benches, ambling down the road towards bus stops and taking the local stopping buses to maximise time on our arses. We eventually arrived into the airport and had managed to smash a ‘massive’ five hours off of our 15 hour wait time and so we had a ‘paltry’ ten hours to kill in Colombo airport; I’ll save the digression of the ten hours as we’ve all waited in a dull airport before. The moment finally came to board what I thought would be a quiet flight, y’know 2:45am on a weekend, who could possibly be bothered about this one apart from other skinflint backpackers? Well apparently enough Indian and Sri Lankan people to fill the flight entirely, cheap flights are cheap flights I guess.
Now, India, let’s talk about her for a minute. Every traveller we have encountered, in some fashion, whether through personal experience or friend of a friend, has told us a story. The kind of story that makes you wince, cringe, want to bleach yourself clean, or just sit in awe and so we’ve been building a mixed bag of feelings towards it and gradually building a mental barrier against what we are expecting to be one of the most culturally shocking, disturbing and hectic places that we are going to visit. So with this laid down, let me set the scene: We are arriving into Chennai, a sprawling, industrial city, and attempting to navigate our way out using some of the most dangerous and chaotic public transport in the world, at rush hour (weekdays/weekends don’t matter here), all the while being shit out of sleep.
Let’s rejoin the tale at when the rubber bits of the flying metal thing touched the hard asphalt bit of the place with the stuff, MAA (Chennai airport); The landing was smooth as you like, a prop plane of reasonable proportions had carried us quickly into India without much fuss. We made it through immigration fine, something I wasn’t sure of as India can be funny about visas if you don’t have a flight booked back out, and we had to demonstrate our intention of crossing into Nepal by bus in four months time. My apprehensions of leaving the airport and being drowned by tuk tuk drivers and touts were quashed immediately, we strolled out to a moderate crowd who gave us a little attention but nothing like the hassle I was expecting. A short stop for a black coffee and a tray of sweet biscuits our blood sugar perked up again and we were on our way to the bus stop. Locals lined the two stops and so we were quick to check as to which bus we needed exactly to get us into the main bus station of Chennai. Naturally we were in luck and nobody was a local who could give us a clear cut answer. After being falsely ushered towards one bus by an older gent, and summarily ushered back by the conductor on the bus, we waxed and waned towards every bus that passed by with parrot calls of “Parry’s corner? Parry’s corner?” before landing on the money with the correct interpretation of a head wobble from the driver. Just a quick side note for those unaware, the head wobble can mean: ‘Yes’, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘No’. So nice and clear cut for those needing information. So far, bus count: 1.
Another messy affair once we reached the central bus station and we stood waiting for around quarter of an hour for a bus that would never come, as we were a good 15 mins from where we actually needed to be. Sifting through some more irrelevant local misinformation we pinned our next departure point and jumped on a local stopper that dropped us where we needed to be, bus count: 2. We lapped the bus station a couple of times looking for a bus number that the Lonely Planet said would get us into Mamallapuram (our target town) to no avail. Asking some local officials again yielded no clear cut answer and we eventually sifted from the shitformation that we’d need to change at Kovalam and then wait a while there to switch to the final leg into Mamallapuram. This was all a pleasure and a breeze, being now almost a full 24 hours awake. Boarding our bus to Kovalam, bus count: 3, we learnt our first trick, the nice and cheap 50 rupee day ticket exists, that’s a whole 55p! That’s going to be a saver! Using our dayrider for the second bus that brought us to our final bus count: 4. The total time to travel a paltry 80km was around 3h30, something which our lovely Sri Lanka would’ve smashed out in one direct bus taking a mere 1h30, pointed out first time by a local. Looks like the tone had been set for our attempts at moving around using the buses. All of this could’ve been avoided if we’d wanted to pay 10 times the bus fare in tuk tuk prices, but as always with us: on a scale of: ‘1’ to ‘Fuck that’ we sit, happily at around a ‘9’.
We arrived at the hotel, somewhat fatigued at 9:30am and in no way expecting our room to be ready, but praying to all of the new deities this country supplies that it would be. Naturally, India had other plans and the couple that were ‘checking out’ that morning were still farting around at midday, probably looking up bus timetables to a town 20km away and having a seizure. Luckily we had a small comfort in getting eggs back on our breakfast menu, something which was proving a little tricky to do consistently in Sri Lanka. Two huge fried eggs, toast, tea and a large but watery-thin bowl of porridge kept us in moderate energy until the room finally became available. As soon as the clean sheets hit the bed, so did we, dozing away as the temperatures outside shot up into the blazing mid 40’s and our fan cooled room, settled to somewhere around an ambient 35. Having spent our past two weeks in the 20 degrees of Sri Lankan hill country, it was a pleasant ‘Welcome back’ to sweaty sleeping.
Our next two weeks or so will be spent pottering around, touching on temples, and getting a feel for how this place works, as so far, we’re not as overwhelmed as we’d expected to be. Either Sri Lanka has eased us in, or India is holding back. Come at me bro.