Category Archives: Chennai

A Journey to India

OK so I stole the title of this post. It was an excellent movie and I will try to write something worthy of it.

At the moment Mary Ann and I are at 35,000 feet in an Air Arabia A320. We are the only white people. That includes the Pilots and the cabin crew.

The plane we were supposed to fly didn’t work. With 178 brown people, Mary Ann and I had to march across the airport from our gate to another. This was 45 minutes after our scheduled departure time. We loaded up on busses and they took us out to a plane out at the edge of civilization. We all boarded plane that had not been swamped out after it arrived from Jeddah earlier that day. It had not been refueled either. It takes a long time to fuel up an A320. There was no air conditioning. It was a cool night but 180 people in an aluminum tube can really build up the BTUs. It got hotter and hotter. People started to push that little button to call the stewardess all about the same time. Ding ding. Ding ding ding. Somehow she recognized that if we did not get the air cooled down, this situation could replace Thahir Sq. on AlJazeera. So, about the time I was about to strip down to my BVDs, the air came on. But we were still sitting there. I went up front to get a glass of water and I looked into the cockpit. I wish I had not. Two ground techs and the pilot were in an argument. They were each holding some sort of manual and pointing at stuff, busily turning pages. None of this bothered me, I was starting a journey to India!

We took off at 11:30 instead of 9:30 p,m. I felt sorry for the driver in Chennai who was supposed to meet us at 3:00 a.m. and would now have to wait until 5. However, we are big tippers.

Along the way a thought came back to me that I get every time I fly. I do not think there is a single airline left on the planet that allows smoking on-board. Yet Airbus and Boeing continue to build aircraft with a no smoking lamp over every row of seats.

Why install these lights?

These lamps glow all night annoying light sleepers. They also serve as a perverse reminder that I cannot have a cig, which I would love to do while I pondered why the pilot had to read the manual before the flight.  The simple cost of including no smoking lamps in a new airplane should be something the cost accountants would red flag. Also, as new models of planes get launched, someone is paid to design a snazzy new version of a red X over a burning Marlboro. Then, there is the cost of maintaining them when invariably the little light bulb burns out. And what IF it burned out? I for one would take advantage of it and light up. This would of course cause a confrontation with the cabin crew.

“Sir, Sir, you cannot smoke!’

“But the captain turned off my no smoking sign, didn’t he?”

The ground crew guy back in Sharjah must have provided excellent tech support because we landed safe and sound in Chennai Intl. One neon sign said Chennai Intl, another said Madras Intl. It made me think that change just might come slowly to India. It has only been ten years since India rebranded many of it’s cities. Madras became Chennai, Bombay became Mumbai while Old and New Delhi just became Delhi. I am sure there countless other towns and villages that shrugged off the last vestige of colonization and changed a name like SmytheTown to Rakamannaroil. When you are in a struggle to supply meaningful employment to a billion people, employing a few thousand cartographers and highway sign painters to celebrate your nationalistic pride cannot hurt. Now if they would only learn to drive on the right side of the road.

The reason I decided to cop the title of this post that my favorite scene in that movie is when they board the train to go to the caves. They have enough luggage for a circus. Every time I leave the Sharjah airport I am amazed at the amount of luggage the Indians take with them. Here is a photo taken at the luggage carousel in Chennai.

Almost every person going to India from the UAE has four or five huge bags and a television set!

 

That covers it for the journey. The next post will be my first impressions of India. I’ll give you a preview. A close friend of mine, whose talent with a quill I can only envy, who can humor me with colorful descriptions of a grey wall, went to India last year. When he got back I asked him “how was the trip?”

“The flight was fine. When you get off the plane, you are in India.”

That’s it. That is all a man who gets paid by the word to write for journals could come up with. I am beginning to think he nailed it.

But I won’t let you off so easy so stay tuned, tell a friend and make a comment.

 

Will We Get Lost in India?

Mary Ann and I were lamenting the fact that we had not gone anywhere in January. I actually like January in the Arabian Desert, it is very temperate. We have not had the air conditioner on for almost two months. Mary Ann thinks it is freezing. (Folks, it is between 65 and 80 f) She started looking for someplace warm to go in February. We were looking at Istanbul, Sri Lanka and the like. Then, like warm a wind off the desert, we got an invitation!

We have a houseboy. He comes in once a week and does floors and bathrooms, two tasks we do not want to do. He is a young man from India. He is pleasant and works his butt off. A week ago he told us he was getting married and would be leaving for home for about three months. We congratulated him and started thinking about wedding presents.

Then he rocks our world by handing us an invitation to his wedding!  We thought about it for maybe 30 seconds before we said “OK, we’ll be there!” He seemed pleased that two old white folks would come all the way to his home town to see him get married. We were excited to be invited. Indian weddings are supposed to be wondrous events, vividly colorful while saturated in custom. A great photo op for my new camera!

Now the adventure began. I was looking at the invitation and I did not understand a word of it. (Yes, it is in English.) That is not entirely true. I understood that the wedding takes place at 6 a.m. on a Monday. That was curious, but just the start.  I could not figure out where the venue was. I am not surprised that I did not recognize any city names. I started using my old pal Mr. Google. Then panic set in.

The town (at least what I thought was the town) did not exist. I went to Trip Advisor, and no one who uses TA has ever been wherever this is. My next resource was our next door neighbors. They happen to be from India, and the groomn, Kanbarasan if you need his name, also works for them.  I walked next door with the invitation and my best “I’m so confused” face and asked for help. It turns out what I thought was the city was the name of the marriage hall. She pointed out to me the name of the city and the district and told me what state it was in. “Oh thank you thank you thank you.”

I ran back to my computer and used Wikipedia to find out about the city. The name of the city if you insist on knowing is Kattumannarkoil. Wikipedia told me that in the 2001 census it had a population of about 22k. So in 2011, what 40k? That makes it little more than a village in Indian standards. I went back to TA. Nope, no one has ever been there. I checked every hotel website I know of, nope, no hotels.

So I tried to find it on Google Maps. Nope. I started to think we were headed for Terra Incognito…”beyond here lie dragons”. But this is India, not 17th century Africa. I started searching on the state. The name of the state by the way is Tamil Nadu. It is in the south of India on the Eastern side. I found an international airport in a city called Chennai. When I studied things a bit more I found out that Chennai used to be called Madras. All I know about Madras is that Rodney Dangerfield wore madras shorts in Caddy Shack..

Our local airline, Air Arabia, just happens to fly directly from here to Chennai. If you look at a route map for Air Arabia, they have at least twenty destinations in India. The reason for that being all the labor force from India that works in the UAE. The RT airfare is less than US$300. We booked our flight. There is only one flight a day to Chennai and it arrives at 3 a.m.  Oh well.

Now it was time to figure out where to go when we leave the airport in pre dawn hours.  I found the district in Tamil Nadu where this village is supposed to be. It is called Cuddalure. Or Cudalor, or Kuddalore, depending on your source.  There is no train from Chennai to Cuddalure, only busses. A six hour bus ride. And that does not get us to Kattumannnarkoil.

At this point in typing this story, and probably from your perspective of reading it, we are both tired of these multiple syllable unpronounceable names.  OK, Cud and Katt from now on.

Realizing that we would be absolutely lost with a mere three days to find the wedding, I figured out a new approach. I found a bunch of nice hotels in Chennai and emailed them. I said that if they could find a way to get me to Katt, we would stay with them before the wedding and afterwards. When I say a bunch, I mean a bunch. To quote John Lennon “I’VE GOT BLISTUHS ON MY FINGUHS”. No one wrote back. Perhaps they had no damned idea where Katt was either.

Finally, a woman who runs a B&B wrote me back. Things were looking up. Her husband runs the AMEX travel agency in Chennai. He is hooking us up with a car and driver. No folks, I am not about to drive a car in India. I would rather sword fight a ninja.

In our communications he of course offered to provide tourist type activities for the rest of our trip. So, we are hiring him to find flights for us to Delhi, and get us to Agra. In Delhi we will do what can only be described as the Slum Dog Millionaire tour, a walk thru the ghettos with young guides who worked their way out of them. The next day we will take a tour of historical sites relevant to Gandhi. (I watched the movie last night and seems how I am now an expert, it better be a great tour.)

Then we are off to Agra. Agra is of course where the Taj Mahal is. The Taj is one of my bucket list items. We will see it at sunset and sunrise and I expect to really put my new Nikon through its paces.

So, don’t forget to read my next half dozen blogs, if for nothing more than the pictures. Tell a friend, thanks for reading, and please make a comment.

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