Chennai, India

Today, we arrived at our first Indian port, Chennai.

The first order of the day was for everyone to come face-to-face with Indian Immigration.

Voyager staff handed us our three forms and passport as we entered the Lookout Lounge where a row of about half a dozen tables had been set up, each manned by an immigration officer. At the first desk, the officer checked the passport and visa and stamped each form. We then had to go to a second desk, where the forms were stamped again, and a new form – a shore pass – was issued, which, of course, had to be stamped. Finally; at a third desk, our list of electronic equipment was dutifully stamped (they didn’t even ask to look at the equipment).

As if all this wasn’t enough; once we were on the coach and heading out on tour, we had to stop at the port gate for two security officers to board and check that we all had shore passes. I have to say… Indian Immigration makes the Russians seem like lightweights!

The tour I was assigned to escort was to Mahabalipuram, a very old fishing village two-hours south of Chennai. The drive through bustling Chennai city itself was quite interesting; highly colourful and diverse in all respects, and always that manic traffic…

Our first stop, after our two hour coach drive, was at a very posh, modern hotel and restaurant, where lunch was served; a large choice of curries, salads and fried Asian this-and-that. I love Indian food, but I have to say it was all a teensy bit underwhelming for me; the lamb something-or-other just seemed like lots of fatty, gristly bits floating in a sea of gloopy green sauce, and the Fried Asian Chicken, when I bit into it, just disintegrated into a mouthful of bones. Don’t even get me started on the cinnamon soup (I hate cinnamon!).

After lunch, we proceeded to drive into the village of Mahabalipuram, making stops at three of its ancient temple sites.

The first was The Five Rathas…

I don’t know why it’s called that; my guide wasn’t really much cop. The only people that got the benefit of any information were the small group that were stood right next to her. Not only did she not seem to have much to say, but she was a bit rubbish when it came to making sure everyone knew what times we had to meet back, and where.

It being Saturday, everywhere was bursting with local visitors, climbing over all the ancient sandstone relics and wearing them away just a tiny bit at a time; I reckon in 100 years, the temple will just look like smooth round lumps. I also noted that there is a two-tier price structure for their visitor attractions; 30 rupees for Indians; 500 rupees for everyone else.

Our second stop was Arjuna’s Penance…

Again, the guide did very little in the way of actual ‘guiding’, happy for everyone to wonder off in all directions, with no instructions on what time to meet back at the coaches. With the heaving streets and manic, weaving tuk-tuks, it’s a wonder we managed to get everyone back on the coach at all… but we did.

The final stop of the day was a visit to The Shore Temple. As this is the subject of my next watercolour session, I considered it to be the day’s highlight, and the one that I was most looking forward to.

I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. A good 15-minute walk in the hot sun brought us to the site of the temple; its two pyramid-like pagodas rising majestically into the azure blue sky.

As with the other two sites, the carvings on the sandstone structures were spectacularly ornate and quite awesome. We had about thirty minutes to wonder freely about the temple, to take photos and just to bask in its splendour. The only thing that surprised me slightly was that it turned out not to be quite as tall as I had expected.

Everyone seemed satisfied with the tour, and the atmosphere on the two-hour coach trip back to the port was pleasantly quiet and reflectful, like we’d just been in the presence of something quite extraordinary.

Naturally, the guards boarded the coach again as we approached the port and we all had to show our shore passes again.

A good tour… and a very satisfying day (unfortunately, Tracey’s tour wasn’t quite so satisfying… you can read her blog via the link on the left-menu).