Chennai and Mamallapuram
January 30th – February 11th
The journey to the airport at 4am through Cochin was a delight – no traffic, no mad drivers, no horns....and we made it in just under an hour. My short flight across to Chennai (capital of Tamil Nadu and formerly known as Madras) was equally stress free – and unlike the buses in India, thankfully the planes do have glass in the windows!
Sadly, my state of inner calm came to a crashing halt once I left the airport. I had arranged to meet up with Mo and Ernesto in the international arrivals hall, only to find I was not permitted to re-enter the airport without a ticket. So caught in the no-man's land between the terminal building and the heaving crowds behind the huge barriers outside, I patiently waited for their Emirates flight to disgorge. The wait was worthwhile and after a warm re-union, we set off in a taxi into the depths of "hell"!
The worst traffic excesses of Cambodia, Vietnam, Bolivia and Peru did nothing to prepare me for this huge Indian city. With seemingly no road rules other than it being compulsory to cut in front of every other vehicle at every opportunity, whilst honking your horn incessantly, the traffic clogged journey into the centre took the best part of an hour. I tried distracting myself by chatting to Mo in the back, but having no seatbelts in a taxi whose brake pedal was being used with equal enthusiasm as the accelerator and the horn, was pretty scary. The pollution was unbearable, so with no air conditioning and being reluctant to open the windows, we arrived at Mo’s hotel feeling slightly dishevelled. Having been travelling for over 24 hours, M & E were even more exhausted than I was, but after I found a reasonable hotel close to theirs, we decided to head out for something to eat.
The area we were staying was called Pondy Bazaar and was a labyrinth of streets containing shops and stalls selling everything from strange looking vegetables to cheap toys. Bizarrely enough, there were one or two very upmarket clothes shops which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Oxford Street, surrounded by the dirt and grime of the market. This place made Kerala seem clean and I felt that I was going through the culture shock all over again. After lunch in a kind of an “Indian Vegetarian McDonalds”, and much haggling with the rickshaw driver (this became quite tedious after a few days – we know the price we should pay, they double it, you end up somewhere in between and in the end no one ends up happy!), we set off for a stroll along the famous Marina Beach.
One of the largest (and certainly the most polluted) urban beaches in the world, stretching 14km long and almost 500m wide in places, this massive expanse of sand is home to thousands of food and market stalls and is enjoyed by most of the city’s population on this Sunday afternoon, if our visit was anything to go by. Arriving in the heat of the midday sun was probably not a good idea, and after a quick drink under one of the few shady spots, we retired back to our hotels for a rest. We returned later that afternoon when it had cooled down to a balmy 25 degrees, and discovered that dirty and crowded as it was, it did have it’s charms.
Apart from the stalls selling chai, barbecued corn on the cob, and seafood and some very basic fairground rides, the throngs kept themselves entertained by paddling in the extremely rough waves, taking horse rides and much to our amusement, having their photos taken standing next to cardboard cut-outs. These comprised of a background of somewhere like the Taj Mahal, or even a western style house, while posing with arms draped around a tiger or the cast of a Bollywood film. We felt we could have earnt a small fortune hiring ourselves out as we were treated like film stars by groups of youngsters wanting their photos taken with us! They obviously didn’t get to see too many tourists here.
The following couple of days were spent wandering around the markets and side streets, stumbling upon temples and old colonial buildings, demonstrations and street parties - and trying not to get mowed down, ripped off or worn out. M & E had stayed briefly in Chennai last year, so were eager to explore, and I have to admit it was often a funny, fascinating and eye-opening experience being immersed in the middle of a real Indian city (complete with cows wandering nonchalantly amongst the cars, rickshaws and lorries). However, after a while, the dirt and extreme pollution along with traffic and searing heat got to me, and I began to dream of being somewhere quieter, calmer and less hectic and exhausting.
We had arranged a car to take us out of Chennai, an hour or so down the coast to the tourist town Mamallapuram, which would be our base for the coming weeks. My plan for this part of the trip, was to join M & E in trying to find somewhere we could spend a meaningful few weeks volunteering, and last year they had met a Belgian lady who had become involved in helping out in a local village here. I was relieved to find that the town itself was a fraction of the size of Chennai, had a beach (even though the pollution and the waves made it too dangerous to swim) and therefore a sea breeze, and several half decent restaurants – including an internet cafe which served beer! Oh – and there were some pretty awesome temples too.
Neela had arranged a discount rate at the hotel for us, and we settled into our comfortable and clean rooms for the duration. We even had a balcony, overlooking a car park/cum rubbish tip/cum cow shed!
We spent a restful couple of days exploring the ancient monuments which featured some amazing 7th century stone carvings, dotted around this world heritage town. The highlights were the Five Rathas (a series of chariot shaped monoliths including one of the most perfectly formed stone elephants – finally I get to see an elephant!), Arjuna’s Penance (a huge bas relief on the face of a rock), The Shore temple (stunning location on the edge of the sea) and Krishna’s Butter Ball (a massive rock that looks as though it’s about to roll down the hill, but has been there for centuries). These sights make the town a tourist mecca, which sadly and inevitably means constant hassle from the stall holders and shopkeepers, and make selecting from a very good range of souvenirs and crafts a chore when it should be a pleasure.
Rather more disturbingly, it also makes it a haven for fraudsters preying on visitor’s sympathies, as we all too soon discovered. Walking back from the beach one evening, I came upon a small group of children sitting cross legged in a “class room” which was in reality a shop front, being “taught” by a girl of no more than 9 or 10. My curiosity was aroused and I walked back past later with M & E. This time a teacher came out and explained that this was an orphanage for children who had lost their families in the Tsunami. I suggested we buy the kids a packet of biscuits each and were directed to the stall conveniently located opposite. Seeing these poor little mites sitting there just holding on to their packs of biscuits was very moving and we vowed to come back to visit again. M & E had the opportunity the next evening and actually met the owner of the orphanage, Rev. Bila, who they admitted had left them feeling slightly uneasy. Meanwhile, I had Googled the place, and after sifting through several brief mentions of it, came across a disturbing report from a couple of years ago written by a Swedish journalist. Apparently “Rev. Bila”, set up the orphanage 10 years ago and basically “rents” children from poor villages in the vicinity, sends them off to the local school in the daytime but puts them up in appalling conditions with meagre food rations and has been known to beat and abuse them. The parents think they are being treated well but when the tourist season is over, the older children are sent home, to be replaced with younger, more “tourist friendly” siblings. The good reverend lives very nicely off the not insignificant donations of sympathetic tourists and charities that become involved. We even suspected that the biscuits we bought were sold back to the stall once we walked around the corner.
M & E’s friend Neela was most upset when we told her, as she knew all about the Rev Bila and thought that the “orphanage” had been closed down. She vowed to go to the local Childline office and report it, although Bila’s connections with the local “mafia” would make any action difficult. Feeling very despondent, we wondered if we should leave Mamallapuram and move on to Pondicherry, an old French settlement further down the coast.
Then by chance, the following day, Neela introduced us to Fulvio, an Italian who we discovered had originally been duped big time by the Rev Bila. After he found out about the scam, he took a year out but decided to set up his own small foundation to help genuine and worthy causes in the area. His aim is to carefully seek out individual cases where lives could be vastly improved with a small investment of funds such as supporting a young widow by paying her a small salary to escort the local children to school, and assisting bright young students through bursaries, and even pays for motorbike mechanic courses for young offenders. As his inspiring story unfolded over breakfast, we felt uplifted and re-assured that at least there were some people with a genuine interest in trying to improve the lives of these extremely poor children and young people. We asked if there was anything we could do in practical terms while we were there.
That afternoon, Neela took us to Irula Pakuti, a small village of “untouchables”, the lowest of the castes, that had been sponsored by the trust. This settlement had been fortunate enough to have had their straw huts replaced by a German company who had built brick houses and a small hall which acted as a school room for the younger children. Fulvio’s trust had provided a teacher for the pre-school kids and even a sewing teacher for the mums. Neela was concerned because several of the children had a nasty skin disease, probably caused by the unhygienic sanitary conditions. Fulvio was willing to pay for the children to visit the doctor and get medication but was concerned that the parents would not give them their medicine and also that by allowing the kids to play in the dirty water, they would just continue to get infected.
While Ernesto was discussing ways to improve the water and sewerage supply, Mo and I were enraptured by the kids, who began to lose their shyness and began to adopt us! In the absence of any toys, we entertained them by singing all the playgroup songs we could remember and making up the words to those we couldn’t! Mo had brought a load of clothes from Italy and it was very humbling watching the delight on these little one’s faces being given a new t-shirt or a dress.
On our return, we all agreed we’d felt an instant bond, and decided to stay on in Mamallapuran for a while. After speaking to Fulvio, we made a trip back to Chennai to buy some more toys and puzzles, and Ernesto helped organise the trip to the doctors.
Over the next week, we spend each morning or afternoon visiting and playing with the children, teaching them (and the teacher) how to put together a jigsaw puzzle, and made a display of all the photos we’d taken of them, which they were enthralled with! Mo and I even relived our youth by showing them how to play hopscotch and all the skipping games we could remember from school, and I thought we did pretty well for an almost 50 and an almost 60 year old! I’m not sure who got the most out of our visits, them or us!
M & E had started to feel settled here and were happy to stay on for the next 3 – 4 weeks before spending the last couple of weeks of their trip doing a little sightseeing. As inspired as I felt about the work that Fulvio was doing, I felt torn, as my original plan was to spend 2 months in India, including a month volunteering, and then and I wanted to travel up to Mumbai. But now I found myself feeling quite unsettled and distracted, and speaking to Mark on the phone every day, made me miss him even more. I finally made the decision to return to Perth, but to keep in touch with Fulvio and try to offer him some practical help with updating the website, gaining some publicity for the trust and hopefully find him some more sponsors for the young people he supported.
I had enjoyed my time in Kerala and Mamallapuram. Kerala was somewhere I had always wanted to visit and must be one of the most beautiful parts of India. It was great catching up with Mo and Ernesto and spending some time with them. The experiences we shared with the children of Irula Pakuti I will never forget. We were even invited to dinner (twice!) by our local laundry man, who lived in a 3 room house with his 4 charming daughters (two of Neela was sponsoring through university in Chennai, where they spent 4 hours travelling to on the bus every day!). We ate before the family (they would eat later!) on rush mats on the concrete floor in the bedroom that the girls shared. They had a TV and mobile phones, but very little else in the way of luxuries. Yet they seemed happy and Sanju was immensely proud of his family.
It is sad that many Indian people don’t understand the concept of helping each other – they always seem to expect something back in return for doing someone a favour. As a tourist, and a westerner, you feel that you are constantly being ripped off or scammed. Nothing here is straightforward or efficient and everything seems designed to frustrate, but the idiosyncrasies often put a smile on my face. Despite being one of the poorest nations on earth, most people were hard-working and strived to better themselves and I had the privilege of meeting some wonderful, warm, hospitable and inspiring and people.
Like the last time I visited India – truly the “Land of Contrasts” – I was relieved to be leaving, but somehow I looked forward to returning one day.
For more information on Fulvio’s work with the Malar Trust:
No, Please Don't...
Marina Beach, Chennai
Tea Time - Marina Beach
John Travolta Eat Your Heart Out!
Arjuna's Penance, Mamallapuran
Does My Bum Look Big???
Deya gets a new dress
Our New Friends
Children, Marina Beach
Dinner time at Sanju's
Food Seller Marina Beach
Funfair Ride Marina Beach
University Building Chennai
My Fan Club, Marina Beach
Little Boy, Chennai
Hindu Temple, Chennai
Meditation Centre, Chennai
Street Art, Chennai
Anjuna's Penance, Mamallapuran
More Fan Club Members!
With Mo and Ernesto by the tank temple
Who You Looking At????
I spot and elephant!
Temples Everywhere! Mamallapuran
Mo and I Feel Boulder...
Local stonemasons, Mamallapuran
Ganesh joins Facebook!
I get over my elephant fixation...
My Darling Areli... I want one!
Balaji, Pappi and Danush...bless!
Cows on the beach
Dinner at Sanju's- yum
I re-live my youth!