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A couple of days in Chennai, and the flight home……

Again, for me, a wrong decision.  I don’t particularly like big cities in the UK, and I am therefore not going to be predisposed to like Indian ones. Particularly Chennai. It’s not Chennai’s fault, it is just that I transited Chennai Airport a total of six times during my five week trip. Most of the transits were pretty good, but the way I tend to handle any kind of bureaucracy is to switch myself into an almost catatonic mental state, and go with the flow. Thus I unfairly associate Chennai with being in a self induced ‘numb-brain’ condition.

View across the road from my (eventual) hotel in Chennai

Upon arrival, I had to make a decision about what hotel arrangements I was going to need. I  arrived in Chennai before 10.00am on the 25th March. My flight, to England, was scheduled to depart Chennai at 4.00am on 27th March. This meant that I really needed one-and-a-half nights accommodation.  Obviously you can’t do that, so I resigned myself to two nights at the New Woodlands Hotel despite the fact that I would be checking out at midnight on the second night.

I mentioned, in an earlier post, that I really liked the New Woodlands Hotel, and I did. It is enormous, and laid out rather like a prototype of the Cellular Jail at Port Blair, but the rooms feel comfortable, and secure.  The only problem I had was that I found the reception staff snotty and aloof, and I think that they thought that I was a long-haired degenerate westerner. Not to worry, I thought, I can handle that, I don’t have to deal with them other than checking in and out. So, I got a taxi from Chennai Airport to the New Woodlands. I arrived at about 10.30am, to be greeted by Mr Very Extremely Exceptional Snottiness Perfected and Personified (Mr VEESP&P) in the form of the head receptionist. He told me that he couldn’t even consider my ‘application’ for a room until 12.00 mid-day, which was official changeover time. ‘Fair enough’ I thought, I was half expecting that anyway, and it would ensure that there were no problems over exactly how many days I had stayed. I left my bag with the porter, and went to the business centre to do some internetting.

I returned to reception at about 12.15. Mr VEESP&P drew himself up to his full 5’7” and peered at me down his nine mile nose. He then told me that they didn’t have any rooms available. Now, I don’t know if they did have rooms, or they didn’t. To be fair, I should have booked in advance. It is academic really because the New Woodlands Hotel is definitely off any future agenda, from both our points of view. Mine, because I wouldn’t go there again, and Mr VEESP&P’s because I told him that he was a total twat, and that he had wasted two hours of my time. I don’t know what it was about the 25th March. I had spent five weeks in India in perfect harmony with the environment, and the population, and yet on this particular day I seem to be falling out with everyone I meet.

So, the wrong decision I referred to at the beginning of this post. I should have followed my instincts about Chennai, and returned to Mammalapuram, which I did like, and would have been worth revisiting even if only for a day and a half.

So, by now, Chennai is on a hiding to nothing as far as I am concerned. It wouldn’t matter if it transformed itself into an idyllic tropical paradise complete with grass skirted dancers, and endless daiquiri cocktails, I wasn’t going to like it. It’s not Chennai’s fault, it’s me. Once I make my mind up there is very little less than a full bore atomic bomb will change it.

I did get a hotel, via the tried and trusted auto-rickshaw driver recommendation. It was fine, in fact the room was quite comfortable. But, it was in a very run-down part of Chennai, and trust me, an area has to be seriously downmarket to be classified as run -down in Chennai.

My hotel room in Chennai. It was fine

In the afternoon, I did make an effort, and got another auto-rickshaw to give me a bit of a tour, to include the beach. But (see my remarks above) my heart wasn’t really in it, so it all went by in a bit of a blur.

I did have a very funny experience that evening. I had spent the rest of the afternoon, and early evening, sulking in my room and reading my book. I decided that what I really needed to cheer me up was a couple of beers and some proper food. This is not quite as easy as might first appear. Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu which used to be a completely dry (alcohol free) state. Plus, the predominant diet in Chennai is vegetarian. Nowadays, you can find a ‘bar’ but they are interesting places, as the following tale will tell.

I went outside and found an auto-rickshaw driver that spoke quite good English. I explained that I wanted some food and some beer. A fee of 200 rupees was agreed. Then, a small problem emerged. It turned out that this rickshaw driver was not first in the queue, and he couldn’t take me but he would explain what I wanted to the driver that was. This turned out to be a, stick thin, young man called ‘James’, who didn’t speak English. Hey Ho, never mind.

James and I set off and, sure enough, after about a mile we came across a hotel with a flashing ‘bar’ sign. It actually had two bars. The first one James took me to was a tarty ‘nightclub’ type bar that wanted a 700 rupee entrance fee - half of which would probably have gone back to James. That wasn’t what I wanted, so we went and found the ‘normal’ bar. I have used the word ‘normal’ with some unease. It actually represented a very authentic unintentional copy of an American ‘speakeasy’ from the prohibition era. For a start it was, for India, quite expensive. A large bottle of beer cost 125 rupees (£2) which will be beyond the means of many. This meant that it was populated by a group of Indians who were rather desperately giving off two distinct sets of vibes. Vibe one was, ‘look at me, I am rich, because I am in here drinking this expensive booze’. Vibe two was ‘look at me because I am not only rich, but a bit decadent as well, ‘cos I am at home in a place like this’. The atmosphere was completed by the fact that, because the drink was expensive, there were slickly suited waiters everywhere in a ratio of about 1:1 in relation to the customers.

I then discovered that I had a ‘James’ problem. He was not prepared to let me out of his sight because he was worried that I would bugger off through the back door and he would lose his 200 rupees. I, in turn, was not prepared to pay James, in case he buggered off and left me stuck in this den of iniquity. Trust is a wonderful thing. The result was that I sat in there, drinking my beer and nibbling the nibbles with James sat alongside me, drinking and eating nothing despite my offer, and looking to all the world like my personal manservant. That would make me definitely one-up on all the Indian gentlemen giving off all the above mentioned vibes, none of them had a manservant! It was a surreal experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world, and there is a bit more to the story, but I don’t want to go on and on. Suffice to say, I had two beers, and then James and I went and found me something to eat, and back to my hotel. He was delighted with the two hundred and fifty rupees I gave him. After quite a busy day, I had a good night’s sleep.

Except, the next morning, (26th) I woke up feeling most peculiar. I felt nauseous, and I discovered when I went to the loo, that I had very little sense of balance. It was like being simultaneously inebriated and stoned. Except that I had only had two beers the night before, and I certainly don’t do noxious substances at my age. The feeling persisted all morning and I started to become concerned that I might not be allowed onto my flight. Fortunately, it wore off in the course of the afternoon but it rather wrote off the day because I didn’t feel able to leave my room until about 3.00pm. I have no idea what caused it, but I did start to wonder exactly what had been contained within the nibbles that I had wolfed down in the ‘speakeasy’ the night before.

I have said before that one of the good things about India is that a contract is a contract. You might have to haggle, but once agreement is achieved, whatever has been agreed happens. I had ordered a taxi for midnight to take me to the airport, and it turned up on the dot. For the second time in three days, I thought I was going to have a problem leaving a hotel. The owner conveniently ‘forgot’ that I had paid for the room in advance, and tried to charge me again. Fortunately, I had kept the receipt, so it was only a minor disturbance and I was soon on my way to the airport.

I wasn’t expecting it, but Chennai airport was busier than any time I had ever seen it despite my five recent transits. Bear in mind, this is one o’clock on a Saturday morning. There were queues everywhere. I have to give the most enormous credit to the local British Airways ground staff. They had flooded Chennai Airport searching out their own passengers, directing them to the shortest queues, and generally ensuring that check-in went as smoothly as possible.

My flight left Chennai at 4.30am. The flight was operating during a BA cabin crew strike period and I think a lot of people must have changed their bookings. The plane was half empty, and I had three seats to myself. Sod’s law applied, because I was also within five rows of two screaming infants, so I didn’t get very much sleep. We arrived at Heathrow at about 9.30, and after a 45 min delay waiting for some steps to get off the aircraft, I was back on British soil.