Chennai, Vizag to Kolkata
Chennai was very hot and after SL felt very noisy and dirty. Sorry Chennaites but this is one of our least favourite cities in India. I actually read somewhere that Chennai was voted the best city for ex-pats to live in which made my jaw drop! Maybe if you actually live here and have a base it grows on you. Unfortunately staying at the cheap but still overpriced Raj Residency didn't help! We tried to book into the Hotel Regent which we'd stayed in last time but their water problems which had begun a month ago before we left for SL (see last India section of our blog) were still very much in evidence and they were down to 2 higher level room which weren't under water -and those were taken. The RR was more expensive even when negotiated down to 700 rupees ($16) ) and it was fairly grotty being a real haven for mozzies. We were only in Chennai 12 hours and everyone - the agency we organized our train tickets through, the hotel, various tuk tuk drivers - tried to fleece us. Maybe we just had a bad run (not helped by the fact that I'd also managed to pick up some sort of bug along the way and felt really sick) but when we discovered that we could do our registration at the FRRO in Kolkata we decided to just grab the first available train out of Chennai at 6am the next morning.
We nearly didn't make this when our tuk tuk blew a tyre on the way over! In a panic we engaged the services of a Coolie for the first time ever -both to carry our luggage and to guide us through the maze to the right train. These red turbaned guys eke out a living carrying passengers' luggage. Some people we met found the name really offensive when I used it-but that's what they call themselves - no rudeness meant. He was a godsend striding through the crowds of vendors and beggars with Andrew's surf board perched on his head and us trotting along behind! We got to our seats and sat down with minutes to spare. Whew!
We had splashed out on a 2AC carriage (just 4 people sharing a room rather than 6) and once we got going we both went back to bed. I think part of the reason I'd picked up a bug was as I was so tired as the later part of our trip to SL had felt very rushed as we tried to fit everything in before leaving. Getting up early to haul ourselves on and off various public transport, we'd been up at dawn for the last week or so - so maybe we both needed a rest. We both slept solidly for most of the trip - waking up every now and again to have a cuppa from a passing chai wallah and watch the paddy fields speed by. The trains seemed very comfortable and fast compared with those in SL - the only problem was there wasn't much in the way of announcements when you arrived at a station and we had to try and work out where we were. Thus when our train pulled in at Visakhapatnam or Vizag 40 minutes ahead of schedule we almost stayed put and it was a mad scramble to get off.
We headed to the Lodge Konark where we had stayed on the way in and had another good night's sleep. We'd rung Tim who'd very kindly been car minding for us for the last month and arranged to pick up the car on Sunday morning before meeting up at the Park where we stayed last time for breakfast, so this gave us a day to "re-group" a bit and get some much needed washing done. India feels so full on and noisy after SL -and Vizag isn't even one of the bigger cities.
It was incredibly hot so we stayed inside much of the day only venturing out in the afternoon to take a walk up Beach Road.
It was full of weekend traffic with a very holiday atmosphere. The whole of Beach Road is lined with statues, some a bit old and decrepit -like the gorilla and the kitsch mermaids - but a lot of interesting ones of great Indian minds from various disciplines. There was a children's park opened in the 1960s by Indira Gandhi and a very fierce looking Mrs. Thatcher style bust of her as well as a (ugly!) statue of a small child. It all made for an interesting walk!
Next morning Tim's driver Ravi very kindly picked us up and took us back to our car. There she was safe and sound and it felt good to be back home! It also felt good to be back at the Park Hotel one of our better camp spots of all time, where we were greeted very warmly by the staff and allowed to pull up once more under our favourite tree! Actually we'd timed it very well as we'd seen posters all over town for a forthcoming all night Bacardi Breezer party -with DJs the works - probably not the best time to be camping in their car park, and we were relieved to see we'd missed it by a couple of weeks!
The Park does a very good buffet breakfast and we met up with Tim, his wife Guy and their 2 gorgeous children Caitlin and Connor. It was really nice to see Tim again and meet his family and we arranged to meet up for dinner too. We spent much of the day re-jigging the car - though it was pretty hot out in the midday sun so we soon retreated inside into the a/c and did some updating of the website instead! We had a relaxing afternoon before heading to Tim's for dinner where we enjoyed a beautiful meal cooked by Guy and put a big dent in Tim's beer supply! They kindly offered us their spare room that night which was really good as we hadn't got a) our sheets back from the dhobi wallah or b) our water tank filled for showers so it didn't promise to be a very comfortable night in the car! Tim and Guy's apartment was right on the beach front - not far at all from the Park conveniently enough! It had a fantastic view of a passing elephant off the balcony-which made me do a double take as I got up a bit bleary eyed -but it was just one of the many statues! Thanks so much to Tim and Guy for their hospitality, Connor and Caitlin for their entertainment and all at Sandy Bay Seafoods for taking such good care of the car whilst we were away.
We actually delayed leaving for a couple more days as Andrew was a bit off colour so I started updating SL on the web and just relaxed at the Park - always a pleasure!
We fitted in a trip to nearby Kailasgiri Hill. You could go up by cable car but we just drove. A hill top park -with a scenic railway around it - this afforded a fantastic view of Tenneti Beach and the city below and the distant hills as a backdrop. There were also giant statues of the god Shiva and his consort Parvati. It was a popular spot for families and courting couples.
Finally getting going (leaving behind our pictured new dog friend very sad!) we did the drive on to Puri in one long day. We stopped at a little road side stall to buy some pom poms for the car. You see these "pimp my ride" stalls everywhere here, Andrew said they'd be useful as mirror cleaners but I think he just liked the look of them! There was a little girl working there. For all the world she looked like she was in playschool -lip bitten in concentration as she was making streamers and pom poms and colouring in ..all for sale in the shop. I guess as child labour goes it could be worse!
We hit a big traffic tail back of trucks as we crossed from Andra Pradesh back into Orissa but other than that easy roads all the way until the last section.
This was a fairly rough road -quite scenic through lots of little villages - when suddenly just 30km short of Puri the car made a really peculiar noise. We stopped at once and Andrew was alarmed that the ball joint had jumped out. This is much more his area of expertise than mine but I could tell it wasn't good! Apparently it is just wear and tear and the old one - an original so 27 years old -had just worn out. We soon had a huge crowd around us and we managed to communicate that we needed a length of wire - which was duly produced - and we lashed it back on and continued on our way. We were concerned that it might not hold so drove very carefully -it was a stressful 30km! Finally we made it to Puri where thankfully we knew exactly where we were going and headed to the Pantha Nivas government hotel. The building site was still going next door and all remained as we'd left it when we camped here a month ago on the way down!
The next day we tracked down a mechanic and Andrew left me working on the website and went off to sort the car out. It rained heavily all day and the roads were soon under water- so I had to roll up my trousers and paddle back to the campsite! Andrew and the mechanic welded a separate piece onto the ball joint and fixed it back together. Whilst it seems very safe we felt it would be a good idea to carry a spare set of the damaged part (tie rods-left and right) so we resolved to try and track these down when we hit the big city of Kolkata. In the meantime there was only one thing we had to do in Puri -track down a nolia or lifeguard.
We walked down onto the beach and quickly found one (along with a few salesmen selling all sorts of tat!) The nolias are usually moonlighting fishermen who eke out a tenuous existence assisting sea bathers. As a few people drown on this dangerous section of coast every year it's no doubt a scary job at times!
There was a small barber's shop (shack!) just next to the hotel and Andrew popped in for a shave and ended up getting the full treatment a cut wash and massage! He was horrified it was so short but it'll be a bit more unruly now! The barber oiled it down Indian style which looked really funny! He was also keen to dye it black -saying that would look good with Andrew's "lovely white skin" but mercifully he managed to avoid that one!
We drove on towards Kolkata -stopping off at Digha an Indian holiday resort 185km out of Kolkata. We initially had problems trying to park - we went to the tourist information and the police and were told this service wasn't on offer. Not many foreigners pass through here and certainly no overlanders so the whole caravan thing was a bit beyond them! They suggested we go to the Sea Hawk -which turned out to be a nice hotel with no parking whatsoever -no bloody help at all! In the end we drove around a bit and spotted the Larica Hotel. They were very happy to let us park, and I really don't think they'd ever had foreign guests - the whole staff took turns to come out and stare at us! The only downer was that the restaurant loos were DIRE!! It is actually a reasonably up market hotel - I guess the guests don't use the restaurant loos and they are kept for the staff - but they really were grim. Even after all this time this aspect of travel (having to use awful toilets) I can't get used to!! Anyway -they helped us out and we're grateful they let us park.
Digha itself was nothing special -lots of concrete on a receding beach front -but full of lots of smiley Indian families having fun which is always nice. We ate at the previously recommended Sea Hawk and had a superb fish curry. The weather was intensely hot but we took advantage of having a secure parking area to finish off our car re-organization. We took off the back wheel to allow access to the underneath storage area and Andrew's surf boards went away again- maybe for the last time this trip!
The drive on to Kolkata was uneventful if very chaotic -it was now Sunday night and Saturday had been a holiday (Gandhi's birthday) so all the holiday traffic was speeding home -including the usual contingent of suicidal bus drivers and herds of cows! Anyway we made it and pulled up back to the Sunflower Guest House which we'd booked a few days earlier.
So…back to hot humid Kolkata. The traffic is still crazy and it's still nigh on impossible to park - though we seem to have snagged a good spot on Royd street in front of the Jewish school amongst the rickshaw wallahs! The poverty here once again shocks. Well -to be fair I think other places we've been -Dhaka Delhi - are worse in this regard - but you really don't have to look far to see people doing it really hard here.
We were approached by a man who said he'd come from Varanasi to look for work a month ago and hadn't found it as no one trusted him as he wasn't local. He had been brought up by nuns in a catholic school (orphanage??) and spoke very good English. Ok ..we've been here long enough to take anything with a pinch of salt but he had his little boy with him - about 5 years old - and both of them were dressed in rags skinny and filthy and the kid had a nasty cough. We bought them some food and a few groceries but it was upsetting that we couldn't do more. Later on we came across them again -going shop to shop still looking for work..still no success. There's no dole and no social security safety net at all here. Meanwhile in Royd Street we have all the cute uniformed kids going to the swish private schools -and it seems so unfair that that kid has such a hard life. It's enough to turn anyone into a raving communist! When we go out to eat in the evenings the street kids are often to be found watching TV through the glass outside the shops. All very humbling.
As we've done the tourist bit here before we're here now just to do various admin matters e.g.) getting our Sikkim permits and registering at the FRRO -Foreigner Regional Registration Office. Actually on this point it turns out we were wrong. In order to use our double entry visa we should have gone to the Indian commission in Colombo SL to get some stamp - so we could legally have been refused entry back into India from SL!! All these Indian visa changes are a constantly moving minefield and the FRRO offices were full of confused foreigners trying to negotiate them. Apparently a lot of discretion is now placed in the hands of individual immigration centres -not sure if that's good or bad! Anyway we were duly stamped so we're legal!
We also had to re-do all our carnet formalities as amazingly it's almost 3 years since we left Australia. So -a big work out for the credit card - insurances, carnet fees, re-registering the car. This latter which we have to do to comply with the carnet's terms, necessitates paying the CTP insurance - $413 - even though it is null and void once the car leaves Australia. We're gone round in circles on that one a few times -as the RTA helpfully said we'll have to take them to court and get the law changed to re-coup our money. Actually as we're likely to be gone from Australia over 10 years it's likely to be worth it. A project for another day though!
We also had to get the car inspected - and we'd organized the Kolkata AA to do this when we visited 6 weeks back. When we showed up they tried to fob us off to their Mumbai office -denying all knowledge though this was what we'd been there 6 weeks ago to sort out. Thankfully we managed to prevent this when I had an unattractive Naomi Campbell type temper tantrum at them! I used to be more placid before I hit Indian bureaucracy I'm sure! After this they immediately said we'd misunderstood and of course they'd do it at once - so not pretty but it worked! The report went fine -all sound and functional -though Andrew was very upset that the car body was described as "shabby"! Maybe to get back at me! It's also renewal time for our website so we're really pleased that Mr. Site has agreed to sponsor us once more. Thanks so much guys we really appreciate it.
Another job we had to deal with was going to Toyota to try and track down the tie rods. As often happens they weren't able to help as the car was so old. This model of car anyway was never sold in India so it can be tricky to track down parts though some of them are compatible with other car makes -it's all a bit trial and error. They did though point us in the direction of a really helpful guy at Everest Autos - who managed to track one down the parts from neighbouring Bangladesh where this car is available, so we're now killing time waiting for this to arrive before heading north.
Whilst in Toyota we met a really nice guy Abby also having his car serviced. He and his friend Ruben took us out last night and treated us to some great West Bengali hospitality. Maybe stemming from the Raj days there is a real club culture here in Kolkata and Ruben signed us in to his private club the Dalhousie which was really nice. Andrew and I were borderline for the dress code (shorts - well not really but ¾ length pants) but thankfully they let us in and we enjoyed a really nice evening having a few beers and the famous Kolkata kathi rolls which were really good. Thanks very much to Abby and Ruben .
Anyway as I write it's Thursday 7 September and we're waiting for the tie rods to turn up tomorrow before heading off first to Darjeeling and then Sikkim. This whole region looks stunning so it's going to be too short a time there before we have to leave India and cross into East Nepal on the 18th October.