South Tour: Chennai, Mahabalipuram & Kanchipuram – More enjoyable in retrospect

18 Nov

Mahabalipuram’s Hotel Sea Breeze, one of the many excellent hotels at which we stayed.

MAHABALIPURAM: On a tour like this, I hate to write of anything that isn’t going well. But I feel more comfortable telling uncomfortable truths than leaving out parts that seem integral – or seem so at the time, at least.

All of us got 4-6 hours of uncomfortable, oft-interrupted sleep as the train rolled towards Chennai. At least three times the train stopped at brightly lit platforms – more a problem when you’re on the bottom bunk and the window by your head won’t close. Old Hindi music from someone’s cell phone woke me before sunrise, although given the noise we’d made the night before, we had no right to complain.

These were all minor troubles though – likely products of our inexperience with train travel.

The Chennai railway station, though modern, was hot, crowded, and an exhausting station to run through. Our free breakfast, however, was large and appetizing.

The bus ride was worse than our train ride. Several bags, including mine, were placed on the roof, and we stopped at least twice for string and tarp. (We’d soon get used to this placement of our bags, and mine arrived in Nagpur unharmed and intact.) The stops were unwelcome, since without AC, we relied on the breeze from the windows to keep us cool.

By the time we arrived at a crocodile park, we were hot, sweaty, stiff, and barely awake. I was in no mood to pay the additional camera fee to take pictures inside.

All this did was make the beaches of Mahabalipuram much more welcome.

After checking in at our hotel, most of us went straight to the beach, which was devoid of almost anyone but our group. The waves were the highest I’d ever swum in, but as the tallest contingent in the water, I didn’t struggle as much as the other to stay afloat. Save the taste of saltwater in my mouth as we left, the beach and our ensuing trip to the hotel pool were the highlights of the day.

The rest of the day – for the first time on the tour – was free.

We spent much of the evening shopping in small groups – although bartering proved to be a challenge for some of us. In the hotel, Sebastian [Colombia] somehow managed to lock a bathroom door from the outside, providing an entertaining attempt by the hotel staff to ram it open. We decided to cap our day by building a campfire with assorted sticks and logs by the beach.

In retrospect, we definitely chose the wrong materials for building our fire.

The campfire itself was fun once it actually grew large enough to become a fire. Starting it was a challenge, but once we had enough sticks, branches, newspapers and nail polish remover, the small sparks grew into a blazing fire in spite of the persistent sea breeze. It took a lot of effort to keep the fire going, but we enjoyed it.

A small group of fisherman, however, did not. As we prepared to leave, we were cornered, and they demanded we apologize and pay them.

Apologize for what? Pay for what?

We’d taken three large logs for our fire, each apparently abandoned and unused. Two we’d used as benches, but one was crossed over the fire, where it failed to burn, but blackened considerably. That “damage” was enough for them to demand Rs. 3000 from RK, our tour guide the next morning, despite serious questions about the validity of their claim on the logs. They settled on Rs 1000. (Getting us out of that “fishy” situation was just one of the many things RK did on this tour to help us out.)

The mood was unusually somber that night as we shuttled back to the hotel.

19 Nov

The Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, a beautiful temple on the shore of the Bay of Bengal

CHENNAI-BANGALORE: Most of today followed this pattern:

1- Take bus to tourist destination.
2- Take pictures.
3- Return to bus.
4- Repeat.

My camera, at 125 pictures, has no memory left. That seems like a lot until considering many of the others snap about that many each day. I guess I need a better memory card.

(Kudos to Jordan [Oregon, USA] for giving me a 4 MB memory card the next day, which more than satisfied my picture requirements for the remainder of the tour.)

It’s odd being a foreigner who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. Mahabalipuram (more so than Kanchipuram) is a tourist town, and we found foreigners on every street, snapping pictures of the same stone carvings we were.

Speaking of stone carvings, we saw a lot of them today. In Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram alike, we shuttled from monument to monument, shutters clicking at each one. At each destination, peddlers were unafraid to do whatever it took to sell us ornaments, postcards and necklaces, none which I was tempted to buy. For some reason, I didn’t feel as inspired by the carvings as I’d have liked to. I tried to keep myself from growing numb, to stand back and just enjoy the monuments.

Besides visiting the monuments and a silk sari factory, we did little more than travel. We spent at least 6 hours on buses today, and we’re now on an 8-hour train ride to Bangalore. I did, however, eat my first legitimate South Indian meal, and Nikolas and I spent some time further familiarizing ourselves with the Chennai rail station.

I’m glad to be leaving Chennai, even though I didn’t spend enough time there, admittedly, to get an accurate impression. Even in mid-November, the heat is unbearable. Whatever the city has to offer, I didn’t see much of it.


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3 Responses to “South Tour: Chennai, Mahabalipuram & Kanchipuram – More enjoyable in retrospect”

  1. pyoder Says:

    What did you personally do in the situation with the three men? How did RK interact with them? In other words, what worked (besides money): charm, humor, remorse, physical presence?

    PS Look in front compartment of blue camera bag for extra memory chip. Consider packing diminutive Lilly/ICOS fan in fanny pack. Always take duffel bag on such trips because you can carry it on your back using straps when wheels are broken.

  2. John Says:

    Chris these stories are wonderful and rich 🙂
    I agree, the worst I’ve ever felt (which is probably incomparable to your bus ride) while on the go is to be jammed into a crowded, hot vehicle.

    The beach sounds like a nice way to relax after though, and the story of your friend getting stuck in the room reminded me of Kevin (li) @ a math camp locking himself in a piano practice room [from the inside]… he has to call the police to get himself out!

    These are wonderful snapshots of what you are doing, and it’s great that you are taking time to write them out.

    PS too bad about you having fun–> free money for old codgers :p

  3. pyoder Says:

    John Vaughn or John Hadley?

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