I worked for several years for a company, a banking software provider, that like many others has a significant presence in this south east Indian city on the Bay of Bengal, but in all that time I never visited the place. In fact I’m probably one of the few people who worked for the company for more than about 6 months who didn’t make the trip.
Many of my friends did, multiple times in some cases, so I had heard conflicting stories about it – many good, most bad. I came close once, when I was confirmed on a training course there, but by the time it came around some months later, budget cuts cancelled the trip a few weeks before I was due to leave. I left the company the following year.
So there is a kind of irony that my client bank now chose to send me to my old employer’s office for some software testing. The bank is a major user of the system I spent 13 globetrotting years supporting, and are adding a lot more functionality to cover new business lines that happen to fall under my speciality (which is why it recruited me in the first place, to work on the system build). So when the vendor scheduled a weeks’ worth of testing I agreed to attend from the bank-side (colleagues from Amsterdam and Singapore agreed to join by conference call but refused to travel).
Fine by me – while not an ambition particularly to visit, I’m always happy to go somewhere new and without question India is an interesting destination. It stood no higher on my personal Travel To Do list than did the Lebanon, say, or Kazakhstan and Chile, but regular readers will know I’ve been to all three and had a great time in each. And in any case, the trip itself was short, only 6 days – which is actually half the time it took to obtain my 6 month multi-entry visa.
So off I went, early one Saturday morning.
I needed the early start just to get to the airport. I had been staying at my sister’s place in North Norfolk (see a post of that name from a couple of weeks ago if you’re remotely interested), so faced a near two hour train journey, then tube and the Heathrow Express to get there. I needed to be at Terminal 5 by 10 to check my bag for a lunchtime flight (a bit earlier than strictly necessary perhaps, but it is the peak holiday season after all, and I do hate arriving out of breath and sweating at my departure gate) so had to drive into King’s Lynn for a train before 7.
But it was worth it really, travelling (as I was) Business Class for the first time in nearly 4 years – since Chile in fact. This gave me Lounge access (again for the first time since then) so I wanted time there for some breakfast and The Independent before boarding. It was my first visit to the BA Lounge in T5, and I have to say I preferred the old one in T1 that I used to haunt back in the day when Business Class travel was standard for my old employer, before the accountants took over from the entrepreneurs that ran it when I first joined. There seemed a smaller selection of food and drinks available than I remembered, and at the coffee machine I managed to get the last clean cup for my cappuccino (no saucer though, I had to use the second last sandwich plate). Perhaps I just arrived at a bad time. But the armchair was comfortable enough, the food and coffee tasty enough and the paper was, well, the paper.
My flight to Chennai turned out to be on a brand new 787 Dreamliner, and very nice that airplane is too. Admittedly flying Business ensured that, but the Economy section that I looked into when I boarded seemed spacier than most. The windows are a good bit bigger, as Boeing never cease to publicise as if it’s a major advance in the design and construction of airliners, so for those who like me enjoy the view on any journey, especially to a new location, it is indeed better, but all the company’s song-and-dance about it is a bit over the top. The seating is of course very comfortable as you would expect at the pointy end, but not significantly better than it was on my Chile flight back in 2011 on a BA 747 (which in turn was less comfortable than the huge armchair LAN Chile provided me with on the Sao Paulo – Santiago – Sao Paulo flights). But still – a huge improvement on my normal LOT Economy, WizzAir or EasyJet seat.
The service was excellent (two glasses of champagne before we taxied out, a very pleasant dinner and a tasty English breakfast) with cabin crew who were under 65 years of age, smiled and were happy to serve me. There was also a very good selection of music and movies on the InFlight entertainment service, a decent sized screen to watch them on and a good noise-reduction headset for audio. So no complaints there. I even managed to sleep for about three hours on my fully reclined (but not quite flat) bed, which is highly unusual for me and certainly eased the 10 hour haul considerably.
So a big thanks to BA. They may no longer be The World’s Favourite Airline (no matter what their advertising may proclaim) but they remain mine.
My lunchtime flight dumped me in the airport in the middle of a hot and steamy Chennai night: at the tail end of the monsoon season it was muggy a 28C. Another advantage to Business: quick exit from the plane means a much smaller queue at passport control, at least at 3 a.m. I was through and in the baggage hall within 15 minutes of the doors opening.
The hotel car was a very new BMW 7 series saloon, all plush leather and power everything, with a smiling driver called Joseph in full chauffeur regalia – starched maroon trousers with a black satin stripe down each leg, a cream tunic dripping with gold buttons and braid and a cap to match, and spotless white cotton gloves. Very welcoming he was, and gave me running commentary on the drive in from the airport. He pointed out the Basilica of St.Thomas (one of only three such buildings in the world, he advised, like St.Peter’s in Rome for instance – but he couldn’t remember the other one), and further in, quite close to the hotel, a small chapel that fronts a cave where St. Thomas hid from the Brahmin mob that was trying (ultimately successfully) to martyr him. Apparently on the floor of the cave there is a miraculously preserved footprint of the Saint’s – it’s something I’d like to check out for myself, but that will have to be on another trip – no time on this one. But Joseph made a wonderful change from the usual surly local cabbie, all tobacco stink and sweaty armpits, that tends to transport me to and from airports and hotels the world over.
The hotel was splendid, the most luxurious I’ve ever stayed at (with the possible exception of the Wyndham Grand Regency in Doha that I was quartered in about 18 months ago). There is marble everywhere, highly polished brass (or possibly gold) fittings in the public areas and lifts, very comfortable sofas and armchairs all over the place, a good selection of restaurants and bars, and more staff than I’ve ever seen in a hotel, even at that ungodly hour, all of them smiling and welcoming. My room was equally comfortable and well appointed, with a king sized bed, 40inch flat screen tv showing a good selection of English language channels (including sports channels with EPL football plus good old BBC World News and CNN), a marble bathroom with separate shower and toilet cubicles, and a walk-in wardrobe about the size of my bathroom at home. There was a good-sized balcony too, but unfortunately my room didn’t have a sea view (the place is about 300 yards from the Bay): instead I overlooked a construction site that this time next year should be a Marriott hotel, I’m told. Given the heat of the day a lot of the building work is done at night, so it was not the quietest room either. But you can’t have everything I suppose, and as and when I come back I’ll make sure I’m booked into a better room – in the meantime for a 5 night stay it was more than bearable, especially as someone else is footing the bill.
The grounds are nice, with beautifully maintained gardens overlooking the sea and on the third floor roof above the dining areas, shops and business centre that is adjacent to the main 10 floor accommodation block there is another garden area containing a sun terrace and lovely outdoor swimming pool with kids area. Very impressive it is too, when the sun goes down and lamps are lit. Plenty of sun loungers as well, none of which were loaded with Germans on the evening I used it.
The food is good, with the obligatory Indian cuisine, as well as separate Chinese wok and Japanese sushi outlets and another dining room that offers a good selection of European cooking, including roasts, Italian pizza and pasta dishes. All of it is on offer through room service (or Private Dining as the hotel label it). This restaurant is also the breakfast room, and at this time as well there is a good selection of local, Continental and Full English available. Their omelettes are particularly good, and there is a delicious selection of Berliners, cinnamon sugar ring donuts and other pastries as well. The breads are very tasty too, as is the cappuccino that gets me moving in the morning.
I like this place.
And what of the city?
Well, it’s everything I’d heard and most of what I’d imagined. Bear in mind that I’ve seen very little of the place – basically the area between the hotel and the office – but even that has been quite an eye opener.
The first thing you notice is the traffic. I’ve written before about the chaos in Beirut and Cairo, and the Kubica wannabes in Warsaw. Chennai seems to be a mix of all three. Even on my way in from the airport in the middle of a Saturday night there was a fair bit of traffic on the roads, most of it cabs and hotel limos collecting and dropping guests, but also many private cars. There were also a significant number of trucks, and my driver Joseph explained that this was because a good deal of the construction work goes on at night when it’s cooler. And there is certainly a massive amount of development going on. A new elevated metro system is being built for a start, and there look to be a lot of new buildings – apartment blocks and shopping malls mostly I think – going up too. Add to that the inevitable road works and service delivery vehicles (trash trucks and sewage tankers in particular) and it’s a busy old town.
During the day it’s far worse. The construction carries on, so all the night time traffic is still there, but now there are thousands of shabby yellow and black tuk-tuk cabs and buses and cars and motor bikes and scooters and push bikes and cycles and bullock-carts and pedestrians adding to the chaos. Traffic rules and lights seem to be obeyed with reluctance, and mirrors and indicators seem no more than adornments of no practical value. There is a constant cacophony of roaring engines and hooting horns, and a fog of exhaust fumes to rival that in Cairo. Not pleasant, and another place on my list of Places Where Not To Drive.
Then there are the streets themselves. In Beirut and Cairo and even Warsaw, they are generally wide and well laid out, with clear road markings at junctions, sometimes clearly delineated with concrete barriers (especially in Beirut). But in Chennai the only wide road that I’ve seen is the one that runs parallel to the beach, Kamarajar Salah (it says on my map) that took me half way to the office. All the other streets are just a total maze of narrow winding streets in an incomprehensible one-way system that is not infrequently ignored by those travelling on two wheels rather than four. Every journey took a different route as far as I coiuld tell, and I still have no sense of position or bearing at all.
The streets are lined with invariably old, shabby and crumbling buildings, some of them little more than plywood and corrugated iron shacks that house tea stands and street cafes and shops selling all kinds of things at rock-bottom prices – India is still a poor country despite the comparative affluence of the business centres in Mumbai and Delhi and Pune and of course Chennai itself. But the people with any kind of wealth are still very much in the minority even here – the slums and squalor in Mumbai was vividly captured in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire movie a few years back. Rubble and trash and scrap wood and cardboard boxes are piled high everywhere, when not cannibalized to build a home of sorts by the poor.
Even the office blocks look equally shabby – I worked in my old company’s development centre, a 10 floor modern office block, on the edge of the Nungambakkam business district, that is not much more than ten years old but looks three times that, with a dirty courtyard and car park area, a reception and security hall that looks as though it hasn’t seen a paintbrush since it was built, and threadbare carpets and stained wallpaper throughout. Even the Executive Dining Room (it said on the door) on the top floor is poorly furnished and smelly. There are two slow and small lifts, one serving odd numbered floors the other even, so getting in and out from the upper floors can take forever unless you’re prepared to use the stairs (three flights per floor). I wasn’t.
Close to the office is a rather grand looking white colonial style mansion in reasonably well maintained grounds, surrounded by an eight foot high concrete wall topped with broken glass, and protected by security-guarded wrought iron gates. I thought it might be a hotel or Embassy or something of that nature, but no – it’s the Indian Railway Officers Club, South Indian Branch Headquarters. And very nice too – you wouldn’t get that working for Virgin Trains or East Anglian or Network South East. A mile or so away is another high walled compound, this time topped with outward curving wrought iron spikes with wicked looking points. There are concrete barriers maybe 10 yards along either side of the massive hardwood and iron clad gates that are (of courses) closely guarded by armed men. It is, of course, the Embassy of the United States of America. The building itself is a typically utilitarian glass and steel block with myriad aerials on the flat roof (electronic surveillance evidently still an important part of the staff’s duties there). So a typical US Embassy building then (the one in Warsaw is not dissimilar) and guaranteed to draw attention to itself and its occupants.
I didn’t seen anything resembling the shopping malls that I’ve spent time roaming around in every city I’ve ever visited (including Almaty), nor did I spot a Starbucks, a McDonald’s or an Irish pub (or any other kind of pub for that matter), so I was pretty much imprisoned in the five star luxury of the Leela – it’s nice but not really my sort of place to eat and drink I’m afraid, even leaving out the more expensive fare on offer. Nor did I see many more hotels except for a Holiday Inn or Marriott or something like that, close to the airport. There are more 5 star hotels here, according this hotel’s advertising which insists it is the best in town and the “only beach front 5 star hotel in Chennai and the envy of its rivals” but I’ve not spotted one – presumably I was in the wrong neighbourhood (not for the first time). Incidentally, the ads don’t say that the beach it fronts is about 300 yards away and closed to visitors on safety grounds – to get to it you have to walk through the fishing village for which the beach is reserved.
I’ve been past it a couple of times in the limo, and I would not consider making the trip any other way – it looks far from safe. It stretches for a mile or so north towards the city centre, and lies on the Bay of Bengal. Fishing boats, fifteen or twenty feet long and powered by sail or man power (no outboards that I could see) are pulled up on the dirty sand, when they are not bobbing about at sea. Then there is an open area for kids to play on and fishermen to swap stories and information and get drunk or something. Then skirting the road that runs parallel to the beach is a succession of what I can only describe as hovels. Made of old scraps of wood and cardboard boxes and old carpets and curtains, these double up for the fishermen’s family homes and business premises. The men catch the fish, then their wives squat on the side of the road, the fish piled up on rickety plywood tables, selling them. There were piles of big prawns, crabs, what looked like big mackerel, and one guy had what I think was a blue tuna a couple of feet long. I lowered the window to take pictures and the stench made my eyes water – the reek of rotting fish mingled with human and animal waste was overpowering. Goats and wild dogs roamed around and carrion crow and gulls circled overhead or hopped along waiting for scraps to fall their way. It’s an awful place, and yet home to hundreds of families, to judge by the number of shelters there. Little kids, four or five years old, dressed in dirty tee-shirts and shorts, were playing amid the junk and filth, older children played football on the sand (a couple of iron goals were erected) and old women (who were probably younger than me but looked as old as Methusalah) washed clothes in a ditch full of dirty-looking water, draping them over lines strung between shacks to dry. There was no sign of toilet or bathing facilities anywhere. And yet – I could see smiling faces and hear laughter all along there. It’s life but as not as I know it……
Reading back through this as I edit, it reads as though I dislike the city, but this is not the case. I don’t know it well enough, nor have I seen enough it, to form any kind of opinion good or bad as yet. There is no doubt that despite the advertising Chennai is not yet a modern or wealthy city, although it is clearly working hard to achieve that. There is still way too much filth and poverty to be anything more than a Third World conurbation that aspires to be something better – but that seems years away. I’m 62 and expect to live for another twenty or more years, and I would be frankly surprised if it achieved that in my lifetime.
The people I’ve met – again a very limited number – have been unfailingly polite and friendly. The guy on the Immigration Desk at the airport set the ball rolling with a warm and welcoming smile and greeting, wishing me a pleasant stay with a handshake – never had that before. The staff at the hotel were astonishingly efficient and unfailingly friendly, and nothing was too much for them to make my stay enjoyable, whether they were security guys on the door, the front desk staff, the wait staff in the restaurant or the guy in the Business Centre who brought a pen-drive to my room so that I could copy my boarding passes and print them for me the day I left.
The limo drivers have been great too, efficient, safe and making sure the air conditioning was comfortably set and the music not intrusive to make my journey most pleasant. They have pointed out landmarks like the various Embassies and monuments and basilicas and temples to Vishnu or Krishna or whichever deity, and suggested places to visit in my spare time (none this trip unfortunately). If there has been an exception it was the guy who drove me back from work on my last day. He was of course polite and attentive to my comfort and well-being, and pointed out a number of landmarks, most of which related to his family life – the temple close to his home he visits regularly, the school and college his children attend, the little hall where he goes to evening classes to improve his English. But when he (like other drivers) asked about my circumstances to prolong the conversation (which is fine for me: it can make the drive more interesting) he didn’t seem to listen to my answers or If he did, not really understand them. This too is fine – his native tongue is Tamil, and English is his third language after the local southern Indian dialect, and that is two more languages than I can speak. But throughout the conversation, he was emphasising how little he was paid, how expensive his wife and kids were, and how this was not important because the needs and safety of his passengers (i.e. me) were paramount, and in any case if he did his job properly and cared for me then God would support him with the help of his guests (i.e. me again).
In other words, GIVE ME TIP AND MAKE IT A GOOD ONE. Well, sorry, pal – no. I sympathise with your probable financial situation – I’ve been around hotels enough and seen sufficient programmes on tv to know that the hotel trade does not pay very well – but I will decide who and when to tip, I do not need or expect to be told this by the driver, or waiter or whoever. Your service was excellent – although I do wish you hadn’t talked so much as it actually disturbed me (had I not been a polite Englishman I would have told you to shut up) – and I would indeed have given you something, but by demanding it like that you changed my mind. Sorry.
The people at the office were great too. Some of them I had worked with on projects years ago, and hadn’t seen since, and I finally got to meet a couple of people that I had co-operated with remotely for a good ten years but never seen before.
So it was an interesting and successful trip. A similar exercise is being planned for November so I might get back there and hopefully for a couple of weeks that will give me a weekend to see more of the extraordinary city.