Logistically it would have made more sense and it would have been easier to have put India among our first destinations, but as Jim and I have to India before we had the girls, we remembered all too clearly how challenging traveling in India could be. Yet there’s something about India and you either love or hate it. In our case, we were keen return there and to introduce our kids to this crazy place. We decided that by building our ‘traveling resilience’ through slowly tackling the other countries in SEA first, we may have better success in tackling India as a family. It’s now been just a little over 6 months since we left Australia, we’ve visited 7 countries from Indonesia (Bali) to Sri Lanka and we’ve finally arrived in Chennai, India. But despite our intentions, up until last week we weren’t even sure if we’d make it here!
The High Commission of India strongly recommends that you not book any flights until you have obtained a mandatory Visa in advance and preferably from your country of residence. But this was a problem for us from the onset. Firstly although a 6 month Tourist Visa is available, the validity of the visa itself commences immediately upon approval. As we weren’t planning on being in India for at least 6 months after we left our ‘country of residence’, it meant that we couldn’t apply for our visas 1) in Australia and 2) before we actually booked the flights back in November 2010 during a terrific AirAsia seat sale! We thought we would be able to visit a High Commission while we were in Malaysia or elsewhere in SEA and take care of it there. Wrong.
In April 2010 while we were in Vietnam, we learned through another traveling family that you cannot apply for a Tourist Visa to India in Malaysia if you are not a resident. Bit of panic for us at that point. Also, we began to hear and read stories that many Indian High Commissions throughout SEA would only grant you a 3 month Tourist Visa if you were a non-resident of that country despite you applying for and requiring a 6 month one. As our flights had us in India for 3 months, this potential problem nearly as big a problem as not being able to get one at all! We tossed up what to do, finally accepting that we may not get the visa that we needed for the duration that we needed. It was beginning to look like our trip to India may not actually happen. Nevertheless, we decided to apply while in Sri Lanka, and were advised to try the office in Kandy. After 4 trips totaling 7.5hrs at their office there (not to mention the 6hrs that Jim spent traveling there and back from Colombo for the last trip), we finally received our visa to India on 25 July, 4 days before we were due to fly there! Whew, that was close. And we got a 6 month one too, despite them telling us at the time of application that we would only get 3 months. It’s a huge understatement to say that the process isn’t easy or straightforward, but we got there in the end.
So from Sri Lanka, we flew back to KL for 2 nights, then back across the Indian Ocean again to reach India. Crazy itinerary but at the time, it was cheaper for us to do it this way. (We learned from the Harbour Master in Colombo that a passenger ferry service had just commenced last week from Colombo to Trivandrum in South India: 16hrs, cost $100 USD/Rs6,000 pp including all meals and cabin. The war in Sri Lanka had previously suspended all water travel.) We had another crazy 6:30am flight that saw us off to the airport by 4am, but with the time difference in our favour, we arrived in Chennai with a full day ahead of us. From the airport, we found our way to the 'Tirusulam' Railway Station across the street. The ‘Lonely Planet’ describes it as a ‘MRT’ although the maps only showed a railway line. Sure enough, it was a commuter train and as it was 8:30am on a weekday, it was PACKED. The commuter train was a glorified freight carriage with bench seating along both sides and lots of hand-grips hanging from the ceiling. It was a cattle car and there we were, with the girls and all of our bags. Welcome to India.
|Getting comfortable on the train|
|Chennai Commuter Train from the Airport to the city|
We thought that we would have an easy time after that as we had actually pre-booked a hotel which was located across the street from a train station (Egmore) in town. However, whenever we think ‘it’s going to be an easy day’, it never is! Firstly, Jim and Yasmine had taken a souvenir stomach bug back with them from Sri Lanka and were feeling a bit tender. Secondly, the hotel turned out to be not quite as nice as in its website (surprise surprise) and the only room that they had left was actually a bit small for our needs. So off we went in search of another room, only to find that most hotels in the area were fully booked. On the suggestion of a tuk tuk driver, we made our way to a smaller hotel a bit further away. At first, it seemed like the right place for the right price. Later, we sadly realised that we were in a mosquito den. We didn’t know where the suckers were coming from, but as quickly as we could kill them in our room, as many would appear. In the 24hrs that we were there, Jim and I estimate that we killed close to 50, yet for every one we killed, another took its place! We were baffled as to where they were coming from (no open windows) but in any case, we found a new place to call home the next morning.
In spite of Jim and Yasmine’s tummy troubles (which was better by the next day), we actually found that we’ve handled our first 24hrs in India surprisingly easily. It seems that our strategy of ‘gradual desensitisation’ over the past 6 months had worked and it actually wasn’t that much of a shock at all. Our recent trip to Sri Lanka probably really helped too, given that the two countries, (particularly the South of India) are quite similar—the food, the people, the culture, except that India is a billion times more populated. The kids are even tackling the squat toilets on their own here in their stride! Chennai turned out to be quite a good choice too for a point of entry as the people are very friendly and it is quite orderly, especially compared to the craziness that we encountered in Delhi on our last trip 10yrs ago! For the next 2 days, we walked around some of the city’s busy streets, rode their very convenient bus network, ate some very delicious food, and did a bit of shopping and sightseeing. But in the end we’d had enough of the pollution and the hectic buzz and it was time to move on to our next stop: Mamallapuram.
|Electronics Market in Triplicane District, Chennai|
|A 'Mini-Tiffin Combo Meal' ($1.00 USD/Rs45)|
|Food is served on a banana leaf here instead of plates.|
|Marina Beach, Chennai--very popular, but very dirty too!|
|Traffic in Chennai|
|Local Buses in Chennai--they ride hanging on to the outside!|