Chennai: A city where the rivers run a toxic black, where the smell of sewage, pollution, and millions of humans permeates your skin. Overcrowded buses tear through pot holed rat runs, and poverty stares out at you from every street corner, doorway and curbside. A city with few trees and even fewer parks, its the capital of the ancient state of Tamil Nadu, and the staging post for the East India Company’s colonisation of India. Situated on the East Coast, the heaving city sports a beach about 5 miles long, but no one swims here. The sand is littered with mounds of rubbish and human faeces, rats crawl between the stalls offering you ‘fresh’ fish or fried snacks. If there was one place to bring us back to ‘real’ India, after our experiences in the jungle, it was Chennai.
We arrived after an arduous overnight train journey, exhausted and smelly, and even after three months in India, the smell and noise took us aback. We set about hunting for a lodge; our staple accommodation in India. Lodges are effectively cheap doss houses where you pay from 300 rupees-700 rupees ( £3-7) for a roof over you head. Lodges are of varying qualities and standards, but invariably, they are not the kind of place you check into for a relaxing stay. The rooms are NEVER clean, stains from the previous occupants smear the walls, bathrooms (usually squat toilets with a couple of taps) are covered in a layer of grime, sometimes with an added rat to keep you company as you swat hordes of mosquitos from your face. Hot water, if you are lucky, arrives somewhere between 5am and 7am in a bucket delivered by the lodge’s wallah, who does little else all day. Overstaffed, we could see absolutely no reason why these lodges are so filthy, aside from laziness! Alas, they are cheap, and we settled into a windowless room, with clean sheets (a rareity) on a quietish back street.
We were here for one reason, to apply for a Russian visa. In case you had forgotten, amongst all this foreign frolicking, we are in the middle of a cross-Asia motorcycle tour and whilst in India we had a few things to do to enable our next year of travel accross Mongolia to the far East of Russia. We would need to enter Russia at least twice and would need more than the usual 30 days given to tourists-a tricky request. Following advice given by the embassy and a number of tourist agencies, we submitted our forms for checking by Olga, a serious young woman who was definitely not up for banter and who has probably never cracked a smile. Having got the all clear from Olga who meticulously checked and rechecked every letter we had typed in our application over a period of hours (yawn), we were sent to the embassy for an interview with the formidable sounding Mr Denis.
Mr Denis it turns out, was relatively young, and probably having a very serious, boring affair with Olga at the agency. He also took his job VERY seriously. This was a bad thing for us. After interrrogating us individually, and declaring that we presumed he was biased towards us because we were British (which he was), he flat out denied us a visa. To make things worse, he refused to give us back our passports, for two weeks! We tried tears, we tried all the contacts we have, we even tried bribery. But Mr Denis was clearly not Russian enough, and wouldnt accept a few dollars to ease the situation. Probably because he has nothing to spend it on, because he never has fun, or Olga keeps him locked up and they review lengthly documents together. Needless to say, we were pretty fuming. A week in Chennai wasted, $500 down the drain, Eastern Siberia off the cards and another two weeks before we could return to collect our passports.
This meant we had to stay within a days travel of Chennai, a city where two days is enough to last you a life time. But, licking our wounds, we set about trying to make the most of it. You may have noticed so far that we have only been negative about Chennai. This is unfair. If you scratch beneath the surface, there are a few raw diamonds among the dust:
Higginbotham’s writers cafe is such a place. A beautifully presented book shop and cafe with excellent coffee it hides next to a roaring motorway bridge. An oasis of calm, it is a charitable organisation where staff are female burns victims, some of the. Setting fire to your wife is a good way to get rid of her, and is all too common in many rural parts of India. Even the Ramayana, one of India’s most reverred holy texts features the burning of Sita, the beautiful wife of Rama, as a sacrifice. This cultural phenomenon leads to the abuse of many women accross India. However the cafe offers victims a chance to train and earn a living.
The writers cafe was not the only place where good food could be found. Street sellers cook up fabulous stuffed paratha, incredible south Indian curries, steaming chai, lentil dahls and Ryan’s new favourite food…hot chips!
Aside from food, the people of Chennai are also passionate about cinema. In fact Tamil Cinema has a huge following and people from all over India flock to Chennai to visit the famous film studios outside of the city (think of a Bollywood version of the Harry Potter studios). We went to see ‘Padmavati’, a historical film based on the sultanate of Delhi’s quest to woo a Hindu queen. The film had initially been banned in a number of states and the actors had recieved death theats. But the controversy of the film due to fear of it offending the Hindu community, only made the film more popular. As the most expensive Bollywood movie ever produced, the costumes, music dance were spectacular and we even reckon it was slighly better that ‘The Greatest Showman’ that we had seen the previous night. (Sally Joynes)
But even all the parathas in India could not keep us in Chennai any longer and we scoured the ‘Lonely Planet’ and internet pages to find places of interest nearby. This lead to a mini expedition to Tiruvanamalli. ‘Tiru’ is a place which for centuries has been seen as a place where heaven touches Earth. An ancient Sivite temple sits at the base of a mountain where holy sadus, babas and gurus retreat to caves in order to reach a higher state of being.
After visiting the Arunachaleswara temple we stayed another day in Tiru, deciding to work off a few parathas by climbing the hill. Under a blazing sun, we made it half way before bumping into a British girl Sian. A yoga teacher she had come to Tiru to study at the Ashram that also sits at the bottom of the hill. Sian was our introduction to the Ashram world in India (An Ashram is a place for spiritual instruction and meditation). We knew spirituality played a huge part in indian culture, but had no idea to the exent of Western spiritual tourism in India.
Tiru especially draws a large hordes of Westerners due to the Sri Ramana Ashram. Famous for sitting in a cave and asking ‘who am I?’ Sri Ramana we were told has a ‘face of love’ and his teachings worth a listen. Now call us soulless but we were rather sceptical about the whole thing, especially when we saw Sri Ramana picture. Him in a loin cloth, little boobies hanging out, and a sweet smile on his face. But Sian convinced us there must be something in it, so we checked into a small flat and spent our days attending Darshan (seeing and being seen by a deity or spiritual leader), chanting and meditation. We must be pretty lost, as this first attempt at ‘finding ourselves’, led only to more questions and quite a lot of frustrations. However, we defintiely saw the value in meditation, and vowed to pursue this further later in our trip.
After a few days, we tired of the Ashram experience and hopped on a bus to Gingee, glad to escape the begging sadus and ended up in an otherworldly landscape. Forts over 1200 years old, known by the British as ‘Troy of the East’ are set in triangular formation, protect a fertile village scattered with old ruins and temples. We were wowed by the cleanliness of the area, and after hiking to the top of Gingee fort, drank in the incredible views. Rice paddies and lush green mountains stretched to the horizon, and you could really imagine India as it once was, a paradise on Earth.
With paradise in mind, we set out to our next destination, the former French colony of Pondicherry. On arrival, there could not have been more of a contrast between Chennai and Pondicherry. Where in Chennai we were greeted with litter and stinking sewage, in Pondicherry, we were met with pretty colonial streets and clean air. The seafront, unlike Chennai, was almost potless and each night, locals and tourists alike strolled in the fresh sea breeze along the promenade closed to the usual honking mess of traffic. Instead of a grimy lodge, our accomodation options ranged from a french speaking backpacker hostel to refurbished French colonial mansions.
The French influence in Pondi is still incredibly strong and many locals speak French as a first or second language. It was indeed true that you could breakfast on croissants and coffee and we spent lazy days exploring museums, attending ‘alliance de francais’ events, drinking tax free beer (win) and eating blue cheese pizzas!
Pondi still attracts many French tourists but after a few days in the city, many head to Auroville. We had heard lots of differing opinions about Auroville and were keen to see the place for ourselves. Auroville began as the brain child of ‘The Mother’ whose Ashram is located in the centre of Pondicherry. It is a social experiment with the aim of creating a sustainable, international, money free, spiritual community. Situated on a plot of land, previously a dusty scrubland, Auroville is now an oasis of green, with botanical gardens, rich farm land, an ever increasing forest and a haven for wildlife. Religion is banned in Auroville, instead mindfulness in encouraged. The Matrimandir, a huge golden sphere containing a crystal ball and meditation chambers, is at the heart of Auroville and everyone is encouraged to meditate there.
In theory the project sounds like paradise, and for many it is. However, many Indian people resent the project. It is expensive to take part in, meaning local people cannot afford land within its boundaries. Local all resent the regular grants it still recieves from the Indian government, despite the project being fifty years old. On the otherhand, Auroville’s outreach projects stretch across India, and have empowered many local communities. For example by training women as dentists, and teachers and in the art of weaving. We really wanted to get to the heart of Auroville, but without volunteering there for a few months it seems many people were reluctant to open up their views or projects to us.
And so in a haze of historical binging, croissant munching and spiritual questioning, our two weeks were nearly up and we began to head back North to Chennai to reclaim our passports from Mr Denis. The ‘Lonely Planet India’ books make out that the one ‘not to miss’ sporting activity on the East coast is surfing. We had planned to use our final days in Mamallapuram, a backpacker hang out and surf spot fifty kilometres south of Chennai. On arrival we treated ourselves to a stunning room in a beautiful hotel where we opened our windows to the fresh sea breeze.
The surf scene however was less of a highlight. Seduced into the sea for a swim by the clear looking water, and the opportunity to splash in the surf, we exited the sea to discover a dead sea turtle near our beach towels. On strolling down the beach we encountered a further two dead turtles, a dead dog, a dead snake, numerous dead fish, lots of human poo and various other disgusting flotsam. We were shocked at the extent of the environmental damage clearly being caused by pollution and the fishing industry, and were confused as to the negligence of the Indian tourists who happily picnicked and bathed alongside the filth.
That was our last swim in the sea, and we retreated to our nice rooftop and made plans to avoid the beach the next day and instead of perusing dead animals on the beach, to visit some living animals at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Set up by Brit Romulus Whittikar, we felt we had to visit just to pay tribute to such a fabulous name. Expecting some mangy reptiles in small cages, we encountered a huge park stuffed with crocodiles and snakes. Local snake catchers collect poisonous snakes from villages and bring them to the bank to harvest their venom for bite antidotes. In a typically Indian display of health and safety, cobras and vipers were left loose in a pit surorunded by tourists as the poison extraction was demonstated. One particular cobra was waved in Lottie’s face, but luckily she avoided becoming snake food!
The crocodiles were also awesome. But the park is quickly runnning out of space. When it first opened, the aim was to return most crocs to the wild. However, due to the pollution in India’s rivers, this is now an impossibility, and some enclosures at the park are bursting at the seams.
Our small jaunt in the Chennai area had certainly given us a lot of food for thought. From reflecting on how best to respond to the abject poverty in Chennai, to spiritual questioning in Tiru, and witnessing the scale of pollution and environmental destruction even in this small area we were left confused as to just how the Indian government can solve such difficult problems. With a population over 1.3 billion, and rapidly increasing, we could not see how any of these problems could be solved with India in its current state. Radical reforms in the areas of pollution and waste, would help curb environmental damage, but is money better spent on trying to allieviate the enourmous human poverty? Are the two intertwined? Can education solve the problem, will it be too late by the time the current school children hold the power in their country? Whatever you think about President Modi, he is a man with a task definitely not to be envied.
Back in Chennai, we told Mr Denis and Olga what we thought of them, vowing to seek revenge, probably destroying Russian-British relations even further, and headed to our final appointment in the city-hospital.
Lottie had been suffering for over a month from severe tummy cramps, random bouts of diarrhoea, nausea and weight loss. Despite this situation halving our daily living costs due to her lack of appetite, it was time to sort it out. We found a hospital with a GP, and with fellow patients, the nurses and cleaners crowding round, Lottie was examined, a poo specimin analysed, and it was declared to the whole hospital that she had worms. Well more specifically, worms up to 45cm long! Ryan and the doctor took great delight in discussing the fact that these gigantic worms would have to be pooed out, a discussion that left Lottie terrified each time she entered the bathroom. A grand total of $5 saw Lottie leave with a bag full of drugs that would obliterate the worms over the coming days. And with that, our confinement in Chennai and its environs came to an end. Passports in hand, revenge in our heads and death rumbling in Lottie’s belly, we boarded a bus due south to the heart of Tamil Nadu, one of the most ancient cultures on Earth.
Written in memory of Lottie’s worms