Tuesday 9 January 2007

Chennai: traffic - and dentists

Despite my excessive amount of baggage and some anxiety about the dental problems caused by the temporary crown I received in Brighton last week, I had an amazingly smooth trip to India.

Fellow passengers included the Rough Guide's man in South India, Nick Edwards, whom we all pumped for information. And an Indian woman sitting near me gave me the name of her dentist.

I decided that because my tongue was being lacerated by the temporary crown, I would spend the first day in Chennai, rather than going direct to Mamallapuram as planned.

Well, here I am at the end of the first day, absolutely exhausted. but pain-free. Our plane arrived some time after midnight but it was after 2am before I reached the hotel I had picked out, hoping they would have a spare bed.

The rickshaw journey from the airport made the memories of Indian cities flood
back: the warmth, the noise and the smells (though so far I have not seen any
cows mingling with the traffic).

It took some time for the guys at hotel reception to switch from "we are full" to "follow me". I think they realised that I was ready to sit on the ground in front of the hotel and sleep there till dawn! It turns out to be a good if impersonal hotel (Chandra Park Hotel, near Egmore Station. Most of the other guests are Indian businessmen. I am booked in for tonight as well, and will travel to Mamallapuram tomorrow.

My first task of the day was to get some passport photos (taken by a guy with a small digital camera and then cropped to the right shape on his elderly PC), and to take them across the road to get an Indian sim card for my mobile - needed in order to ring the dentist.

The rest of the morning was taken up with the trip to the dentist, starting with a long hair-raising rickshaw journey. I have come to the conclusion that the traffic here is madder than in Delhi, and the levels of pollution and dust meant that my eyes are stinging with what could turn into conjunctivitis if I am not

'JGHR Total Dental Care' turned out to be a clinic with an evidently middle class Indian clientele. I was treated like an honoured guest by Dr Janakiranaman, the founder of the clinic and he and his sons took me on a guided tour of the consulting rooms - each decorated in a different colour to create the appropriate ambience for the specific treatment. Dr J not only sorted out my rough crown but also took a panoramic xray - and pointed out that I have an infection beneath one of my implants :-( All this for a generous special price of 500 rupees (the equivalent of six quid)! I've spent more than that today on rickshaws.

Jetlag set in after my dental experience and I returned for a quick siesta, overslept and missed the afternoon tourist bus tour of Chennai. So I decided to go to the Government museum on my own.

The main part of the museum, which has a combination of archaeological exhibits and natural history rooms, was fascinating and frustrating. It is in really bad shape: the labelling is old, difficult to read and not informative, the exhibits are badly organised and mainly in very bad shape. Nevertheless, I was impressed by some of the very early sculptures, many dating back to the 2nd century AD. Curiously the natural history section was also quite fun; I particularly liked giant skeletons of an elephant and a whale.

I then moved on to the Chola bronzes, housed in a separate, modern gallery. What a contrast: the exhibits were in extraordinarily good shape and the gallery was well lit and displayed. I overheard a woman giving an excellent explanation of the signficance of the various Shiva figures and tagged on behind her clients (an Indian family from, I guess, the US). I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed these beautiful bronzes, many of which were stolen from temples during the middle ages so that the various marauding armies could smelt them down to make arms - or sell them to buy arms. Definitely the highlight of the day.

I then had another nightmarish experience with a rickshaw driver who got totally lost and then tried to double my fare to cover the extra mileage. So after a quick look at the 10th century catholic cathedral dedicated to St Thomas, who is supposed to have died there, I cut short my trip round the other, somewhat
limited, sights of Chennai and called it a day.

My first supper has been "idly" (?) in a very busy restaurant near my hotel. It seemed to be a couple of balls of some dough stuff, a little bowl of something or other, and three sauces, all perched on a green leaf. Clearly I have to master the southern Indian cuisine vocabulary, but I was proud of myself, eating this all with my right hand. The idly and a lassi came to the princely sum of 62 rupees (about 75 pence).

Final task of the day was to find a local internet post - and it turns out to be my friend with the digital camera. Ancient machines and dodgy keyboard, as per usual, but the luxury of individual cubicles and a fan. Sadly I have discovered the computer is too old to have a usb port, so I cant download any photos.

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