Down in the dumps

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Jul 17, 2006

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Flag of India  ,
Saturday, October 8, 2005

You can't help but feel sorry for the residents of Mamallapuram, a beach resort just south of Chennai. Once a very popular holiday destination for Indians and foreigners alike, a sense of desperation now pervades the town in the wake of last year's tsunami. Guesthouses and beachside restaurants were badly damaged and in less developed areas whole neighbourhoods were completely swept away, leaving people living in makeshift homes. With the shortage of tourists, business is slow and the desperation manifests itself in the eagerness of the residents to flog you anything and everything, day and night. You have to be careful how you say no, as a "maybe later" may come back to haunt your conscience the next day, and the next. Here, more than anywhere else in India, there was widespread smoking and drinking among the usually abstinent locals, maybe to deal with the hard times more than anything. But given that Sarah and I were coming to the end of our time together, we were determined not to let the Mamallapuram's misfortune get us down and in fact had a very enjoyable stay here.

As well as the beach, the town is famous for its unique collection of stone sculptures left over from its glory days more than 1000 years ago, when it was a major sea port of the Pallava dynasty. One morning we paid a visit to the crocodile bank and snake venom extraction facility down the coast. I was mesmerised watching the playful turtles fooling around in their tanks. They had thousands of crocodiles of all species, and they lay there so still that you almost forgot that they are alive until one of them shifts itself out of the sun or into the water. Once again we were reminded of the total lack of regard for health and safety in India - walls no higher than 4ft were all that separated us from the crocs, despite a sign which clearly stated "beware crocodiles can jump"! Their star attraction was a saltwater crocodile called "Jaws IV" which was more than 6m in length, but unfortunately had chosen to remain hidden underwater for the time that we were there. The venom extraction facility was a memorable experience. It was so exciting to see such deadly snakes being provoked into releasing ther poison by the keepers - needless to say, they got a tip for their brave efforts. Before leaving Mamallapuram I treated myself to a very relaxing Ayurvedic massage, which required me to get completely naked and have oil rubbed all over me. I have to say, having my bum massaged by a man was something I never thought I would experience!

So onto Chennai, for the final chapter in the adventures of what has turned out to be a perfect travelling partnership. Over time we have honed the skill of dealing with persistent touts down to a fine art, preferring the "good cop, bad cop" technique (myself usually taking the former role - you should see how quickly Sarah can get rid of them using her "no-nonsense" voice). We also used Sarah's Indian blood to great effect, brushing off wannabe guides with the line "she's my guide, she's a professor of archaeology at Calcutta university don't you know". "So what did you contribute to this partnership Marcus?" you might well ask. Well, I'm pretty good at reading maps and I have an instinct for finding food at any time of day or night.

Chennai, or Madras as you are more likely to know it, is not a particularly pleasant city. It is busy, noisy, dirty, difficult to get around and very, very smelly. The sewer system is open in many places, giving the city a delightful aroma which is thoughtfully added to by the menfolk of Chennai whose main pastime seems to be urinating in public places. Since there are no real sights to speak of, we spent our time shopping for a sari for Sarah to wear to her cousin's traditional Indian wedding in Malaysia and catching up on the latest Western films at the cinema. The sari shopping was a real experience - each shop has about five floors stacked floor to ceiling with beautifully couloured saris ranging in price from tens of pounds to hundreds of pounds! They say that the pre-wedding season period is frenzied, but the so-called "off season" was frenetic enough for me!

And so it was that I took the train to the airport with Sarah, feeling like I was losing a part of myself as I watched her walk through the gate, and feeling pretty low as I returned to my stinky hotel room, alone.
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