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Monday
Feb222010

India again...CONTINUED

Heathrow Terminal FIVE. (cont).

....anyway, so there you are, after having had a good night’s sleep, mainly as a result of breaking the wooden spine of most of the other matches in the matchbox, wandering around this extremely high tech Terminal Five. OK, what you are actually doing is wandering around going ‘Where the flip is my bag’ every 15 seconds, before, every 20 seconds, remembering that you that you left it at one of the 100,000  BA ‘bag drops’. Then you ask yourself questions along the lines of ‘What odds would Paddy Power give against the likelihood of both me, and that bag, arriving in Chennai simultaneously, give or take, 24 hours . We are programmed to believe that BA are a failing airline, and it ain’t necessarily true. Well, they are failing, actually, and I know exactly why, but it has nothing to do with Terminal FIVE where they are the undisputed guv’nors, and have 75% of their entire workforce applying a scarcely noticeable film of petroleum jelly to any recalcitrant ‘customer’ that is a little slow to slither through the system..

Anyway, I am getting a little ahead. (I wish). One of the very, very, very,  naughty things that men do, when they find themselves ‘airside’ at 7.51 in the morning, is to have a pint. It may well taste like , say SH51 TTT, but it is one of  those things that has to be done. A bit like standing up for God save the Queen, or sitting down to have a wee at 2.08am on a Sunday morning. As I said, it’s a man thing, leave it. So I had a very expensive pint of Guinness substitute. I think it was called Murphys but much of the following logic applied. You are a bloke. It is 7.51 on a Friday morning. We are an airside airport bar. You are going to have to do the bloke thing. You are going to want a pint. Here is a pint of pretend Guinness that I am going to make a lot of money on, and you are going to wonder why you bothered. OK, you are right. The marketing plan worked. But next time I use Terminal FIVE, I shall bring a Thermos of perfectly cooled Guinness, and I shall stand right outside your bar, and drink it with relish. No, not that kind of relish, the enjoyment kind of relish.

Then the flight gets called, Surprise, surprise, even at this state of the art terminal, we were still bussed out to the aircraft. Never mind, these things happen. I just wasn’t expecting it to happen at Terminal Five.

A little ahead of myself - but a view of my hotel, outside, in daylight.

The Flight

Technically, the flight was excellent. Nothing ever leaves Heathrow on time, but we were only half an hour late into the air. It was non-stop to Chennai, and it took nine hours and twenty minutes which is pretty good bearing in mind that you have to get from London to the South East corner of India. We arrived at 12.50am, Indian time and were, in fact, 10 minutes early. Not only that, but the flight crew also skilfully managed to keep the fuel from freezing in our Boeing 777, and we landed on the runway at Chennai, as opposed to 400 metres short.

Now my friend has got a sympathetic view of British Airways cabin crew. We have to agree to differ, because I don’t. I first disliked them a number of years ago travelling Business Class from New York to London. Business class is quite an expensive option and is justified by the fact that you get a more comfortable seat, and more leg room. More important than this, on most airlines, you get treated as a valued customer. ‘Are you comfortable, Sir?’, ‘Is there anything I can get you’, seems a small service price to pay for the fact that you have paid about £300 per hour of the flight MORE than the sensible people in Economy. Or ‘Coach’ as the Americans call it, or ‘World Traveller’ as BA currently brand it. It’s a fact that nobody, not even Oliver Reed in his heyday, can drink £300 worth of champagne every hour for a seven hour flight. Therefore, it seems to me, that it makes economic sense to cuddle the customer a little bit. Most airlines do just that, but in my experience, BA cabin crew can’t be bothered to bother.

I understand that BA cabin crew are trying to go on strike. I have no idea if their case is valid, or not. What I do know, is that if you are going to go on strike, one of the most important factors in achieving a favourable outcome is the depth of the well of public sympathy that your cause attracts. Based on my experience, the goodwill well that attaches to BA cabin crew is scarcely teaspoon deep. The consumer is not bothered about the technical aspect of a flight. Well, OK, they are bothered if it crashes a bit, but the only noise they can make about the situation tends to be while they are talking to each other, standing in the queue, hoping not to get kicked out of God’s waiting room. Even the internet can’t get there. YET.

You will have gathered that I was not impressed with the BA cabin crew on my flight. That’s not quite true. I was impressed for the first hour, when they did meal one. I was also impressed in the last hour, when they did meal two. It was the intervening seven hours and twenty minutes between the two meals that bothered me a bit when they vanished. Now, exactly what was that issue about staffing levels, and how much they get paid? Pass me an onion!

Chennai Airport

I have written, previously, about Dabolim Airport, in Goa. It’s not very nice. Chennai (Madras) was a pleasant surprise. I can only speak as I find, but it was clean, and by Indian standards, well organised. The only issue, which I have covered  before, is the money exchange which is a comprehensive rip-off. Never mind, change the minimum amount, and move on. I was out of the formalities side of the airport by 2.15am, which is not bad by any international airport standards.

One of the very, very, good ideas that they have at Indian Airports, is the system known as the prepaid taxi booths. You go to the booth, tell them where you want to go, agree a government approved price, pay it, and they issue with a chit that the approved taxi will honour. No trying to get you to stay at his brother-in-law’s hotel, no sideshows, he just takes you where you want to go. No further obligation. Obviously, and providing that the driver hasn’t been drinking too heavily, and manages not to connect with all the unlit, cows, buses, rickshaws et al, you will give him a tip.

In my case, I had to get to Mamallapuram, which is about 60-70 kilometres south of Chennai. My friend, John, who has been travelling India for the last five or six weeks, was staying there and had recommended a hotel. (I know that I should have put AN hotel, but English is a living language, and I think it has moved on enough). Interestingly, the cost for this journey, from the prepaid taxi booth, was 1,000 rupees. This is about £14, so marginally less than the cost of my personal traffic jam between Kings Cross, and Paddington.

The Hotel

After about an hour and a bit, we are talking half past three in the morning here, we arrived on the outskirts of Mamallapuram. As night time Indian taxi journeys go, it was fairly unremarkable. About 20% of the traffic is doing it’s bit towards global warming by travelling unlit. Contrarily, the traffic in the other direction undid all this marvellous effort by travelling with their lights on at full beam. If everyone could just pull together, we would get it right, one day.

The only sign, from the road, that you have the right place

Now my friend, John, and I, have known each other for, I have just realised, getting fairly close to 40 years. We have our good patches, and we have our not so good patches. But over and above all of that, we have our rules. Rule One is, we don’t fuss and fart about anything. So, according to Rule One, and I would be the same the other way around, one would tell the other where we were staying and that’s it, –‘ I’ll see you when you get here’. It works.

So then I came across the Indian address problem. I have mentioned before that Indian addresses tend to be along the lines of ‘The bungalow, near to the tree, where the dogs cock their legs’. And, it’s fine, it works. The postman has lived here all his life and he understands. If he is off sick, his nephew will do the round, and he understands as well. It starts to become a problem if the taxi driver is from Chennai and the hotel is not where it says it is in the camping guide.

The terrace outside my (eventual) room

I felt quite sorry for the taxi driver actually. India rather shuts down by midnight, so he was almost on his own here. There was one Indian gentleman who had consumed a number of drinks. He wasn’t, to his credit, staggering or anything, but speaking seemed to be an issue. Other than that, there were a pack of dogs  who offered no help whatsoever.

Anyway, and all credit to the taxi driver, we found a version of the Hotel Lakshmi, waited till the dogs had barked loud enough to wake up the night watchman, and, excellent news, he had a room available. It wasn’t marvellous, but it had all the required bits, and cost 700 rupees (£10), plus 30 rupees for a bottle of water. It wasn’t that I was particularly tired (then), it was before midnight English time, and I had slept a little on the plane. I put my luggage in the room, and sat on the terrace (it’s 25 degrees at 5.00am in Mamallapuram), drank the water, occasionally fortified from the emergency half bottle of Voddie I had bought at the airport, and watched the sun come up! Eventually, John appeared from one of the rather better rooms on the other side of the hotel and we went for breakfast. Soon after midday, I also changed to one of the better rooms (900 rupees a night) and the visit to India had begun.

 Inside my eventual room