Chicago - Chennai - Mahaballipuram


Well, our journey has gotten off to a nice start. We got to the airport pretty early, so they put us on standby for a 12:30 flight to Chicago, which would make our layover about 6 hours, but we figured we'd rather just get there.
The flight to Chicago was a little over an hour, which was very nice. Since Grace and Steve and I were on standby, we weren't seated together, but Grace was across the aisle from me. Steve was somewhere in the back.
We got into O'Hare and set off to explore. I knew I wanted to see if there was a lounge that had outlets and Ethernet ports so I could post an update, so I asked a guy at the information counter about it. He directed me to "Laptop Lane," down a tunnel and off to the right. The tunnel turned out to be a big thing with tons of florescent lights strewn across the ceiling and crazy Science Museum-style music playing. It was apparent as we approached "Laptop Lane" that it was going to cost money, which I was specifically looking to avoid. A sign out front said they charged 65 per minute, so we decided to move on.
We began following signs directing us to the international terminal, #5. It turns out that this terminal is in a totally different section of the airport and requires first going to the tram station, which can only be accessed from our section of the airport via a single elevator car that was probably the smallest one I've ever been in. We got to the international terminal and saw that the Air India counter didn't open until 4:00, so we hung around, got some food, and exchanged some rupees. The exchange charge was just $3 on top of whatever you exchanged, so it seemed pretty nice. It's very satisfying to trade in $20 and get 700 Rupees back.
We got in line and waited for the counter to open (although the line just grew and grew until they ACTUALLY opened at 4:16). It was very interesting to be in the international terminal, since most of the people you saw were not Americans. We had two British guys waiting behind us who were fun to listen to. It was really nice not to have any luggage to check, since it probably would have been about a half-hour longer in line. Everyone checking in had TONS of luggage, which made the counter a very crowded and hectic situation. The woman was able to get us seats together, which is nice since we'll be on this plane for about 15 hours.
We then went through customs, which I thought was going to be a big deal, but it was pretty much the same as regular security. After we got to the gate and had been sitting down for awhile, a woman with Air India came around telling people they needed to have their boarding passes stamped at a nearby table. We needed to be wanded, which didn't really make sense to me since we all just came through security, but we got an "Air India Security Cleared" stamp on our boarding passes. We spent the rest of the time until departure waiting in and walking around the international terminal. The Scottish guys who had been behind us in line sat near us and we talked to them for a bit.
Thus far the experience hasn't been very different from any other flights we've taken, so we're all getting excited for the big flight overseas. It's still kind of hard to grasp that on Thursday we're going to be in India, but I think it will become more real once we leave the United States. This plane will take us to London, but it's just a stop over and then the plane continues to India, so we probably won't get to walk around the airport at all, which is a disappointment. It is now 5:45, and we have about 3 more hours until the big flight leaves...
The flight to London was very long, and a little scary since none of us had ever flown over the ocean. It was overnight, though, so it was dark enough not to be able to see anything, and we just tried to sleep, which didn't work out very well. I think I got about three hours, which was more than Grace or Steve managed to get.
We weren't sure if we were going to be allowed off the plane during the layover, so we were really excited when we were told that everyone would be exiting. That excitement didn't last, though, because it turned out that everyone who was going to be on the plane had to wait in one little closed off gate of the London Heathrow airport while they cleaned out the plane, and if you wanted to go to the bathroom you would need to exit security and then come back through customs, which happened to be extremely busy at that time. This was especially frustrating because the airport was set up in such a way that the bathroom was just across the hall outside the gate and couldn't have been more than 30 feet away from us, but that was still a different section of security. People still kept lining up to leave, though, and no one seemed to understand the issue of returning through customs, so they had to keep announcing it. We decided to make a go of it since we'd rather at least move around than just sit in the really crowded gate, but when we got to the end of the line, the woman told us that customs was really busy, and by that time we'd practically have to leave and come right back in. She was very nice and sympathetic, though, and said some funny British thing to Grace like "I know, cause it's just right across the way, idn' it." We ended up just staying in the gate until they boarded for our flight to Mumbai.
The flight to Mumbai was long and tiring, but we got a really good dinner. They played lots of fun videos from some Hindi TV network. They also showed "National Treasure," which was juvenile but fun, and a Hindi movie about (surprise) a love triangle. It got sort of messed up when the husband who we thought was blind turned out to be the one who had killed his wife and was trying to frame his friend, who had been in love with her before she met her former husband, who was thought to have had no knowledge of their relationship. Weird.
The Mumbai airport was a little scary. It was sort of run-down and there were guards with big rifles standing at the gates and security, so it was a little intimidating. Also, we were pretty much the only Americans we saw, which was a strange feeling (There was some flight on a Russian airline that had been calling for the boarding of its last passengers pretty much the entire time we were there, so, we being the only Caucasians around, some airline guy came by and asked us if we were going on the flight to Russia.  I said "no," wishing afterwards I had had the quick thinking to have said something in Russian). We were alone in a foreign country in a scary airport in the middle of the night, and we really didn't know what was going on. Also, Mumbai smells BAD. It started off like a sort of formaldehyde or something, and then when we were getting on the connecting flight to Chennai, the really hot and muggy hallway smelled strongly of outhouses.
The plane taking us to Chennai was pretty normal-sized, which was sort of refreshing after taking the 90-row monster from Chicago to Mumbai. The flight was only about two hours, and it went by pretty fast. The snack was a sandwich on white bread with the crusts removed and cut diagonally. One half had tiny slices of tomato and cucumber, and the other had what appeared to be a half-slice of American cheese and butter. I sort of regretted eating it after having done so, but I just tried to sleep so the flight would go faster.
We got into Chennai on schedule. Upon entering the airport I decided it was nicer and safer than the Mumbai airport (and it also didn't smell). We had to go through customs, which all went fine. It was very satisfying having all of our VISA stuff put to use and function properly.
We got to the baggage claim and found all our bags immediately. We then waited in line for the airport information to ask about a shuttle to the Ramada, and they told us that we would find the hotel representative outside. We exited the airport into the sweltering 6 a.m. heat looking for some sort of airport representative. There was a small office for booking hotels, so we tried to call through the window to the man inside who was slumped over on his desk and must have been severely intoxicated or dead, because he didn't flinch.
We kept walking and a guy approached us asking if we needed a ride. We asked how much it would cost to get to the Ramada, and he said 350 rupees (about $10), which we repeated several times to make sure we had an understanding. We then got into the car for what was to be the most frightening automotive experience of any of our lives.
Our driver began by cruising across the parking lot, horn sounding as we approached a car backing out of the entrance. He barely slowed down and soared past, honking at pedestrians and other motorists. The streets in India are covered with small buses and small cars, and lots of people riding motorcycles. There are road markings and traffic lights that seem to exist purely for the sake of tradition, as no one pays any attention to them. Our driver was zipping through traffic, using his horn both to signify "I'm here, don't switch lanes" and "speed up/switch lanes." I think his horn sounded about every 3 seconds. He weaved in and out of traffic wherever the space between other cars or motorcycles was at least as long as his car, and would come up on the tails of braking buses and bikes alike. There were many times when I actually thought I or one of the unfortunate Indians in our path, who cross the street casually between cars with more guts than I think I will ever have, would be killed. About half way through the ride I just started praying, begging that everything would turn out okay.
Although I was terrified for my life, the drive was actually very interesting. There were several cool things, like a guy biking along with his cart of melons, and a man crossing the street with a cow. The whole drive was through fairly impoverished areas, and many streets I would not have felt comfortable walking. It occurred to me at some point that this driver, who had been joking with other drivers in Tamil as we left and made us rather uncomfortable, really had no incentive to take us to the hotel if he didn't want to, as we were stupid Americans with little more than a clue as to where we were going, but I just kept saying my Hail Mary's and we eventually got to the hotel.
We got out and I got out four 100 rupee bills to pay the driver. He then told us he had no change, which may or may not have been true and I suppose I should have expected, since I'm sure he knew I would only have large bills. I gave him the bills and said "Alright, you can keep the change" perhaps more rudely than I should have, but I'm not sure how much of the tension from the ride and then from his swindling showed on the outside.
It turned out the hotel didn't have the reservation Steve made online, so we just booked some rooms. They let us check in immediately, which was very nice, since we all just wanted to shower, change our clothes, and use a real bathroom. It turned out that the hotel serves breakfast starting at 7, and by the time we were all finished showering it was about 7:30, so we went down. The food was all really good (and complementary), and we were seated and waited on by a man who offered us eggs and omelets in addition to the traditional American and Indian breakfast foods available in the buffet. We're going to spend today resting and hopefully tomorrow get a driver to take us to some sights and some friendlier-looking areas of town.
After breakfast we rested for awhile. In the afternoon we decided to go looking for a shopping mall that the front desk people had told us about. After exchanging for some rupees, we went outside (it was really hot). At the sidewalk by the hotel there were several cab drivers offering their services to us, which we declined.
Walking down the street it seemed like everyone was staring at us, which they probably were, but it may have also been the paranoia of being in a foreign country. We were definitely the only white people we saw, though. It turned out our directions went something like "take a right after 2 kilometers," so we pretty much had to give up on finding the shopping center. We decided to just walk down the street for awhile, and we almost turned back at the first intersection we came to. Crossing the street certainly didn't seem as easy as the Indians made it look, but I figured just go for it, so I started walking. We continued a little farther before deciding to go back to the hotel (there was one weird guy on the sidewalk walking toward us on the way back who, when we were passing him, stopped and held his book behind his back. We couldn't tell if he was being polite or snooty, but it was strange).
Today we decided we would get a driver to take us around and see some sights in Chennai. After breakfast (which was awesome, as it was yesterday), we went to the front desk and arranged everything. When it was time to go, we came back downstairs and our driver met us with a funny little car. I guess it shouldn't have been that funny; it's full-size cars (and by full-size I mean like a Corolla we saw) that really seem out of place on the streets here. I couldn't imagine driving on these streets at all, but the thought of doing it in so much as my little blue Corolla back home terrifies me.
The drive took about an hour, and it in itself was really cool. We went through the streets of Chennai and got to observe things a little more discretely than when we were just walking down the street. Our driver was definitely audacious, but whether it was just more exposure to India streets or just that he was not as crazy as the driver from the airport, this drive didn't worry me nearly as much. We got out of the main area of the city and went down a sort of highway where we could see the ocean. At many areas there were tons of little huts, and our driver said they were houses of people who had lost their homes in the tsunami. These houses were just up the beach from the ocean; it seemed incredible that people living there could have survived at all.
We had to pay a toll and for parking, which amounted to about 50 rupees ($1.10), so that wasn't too bad. There was also one guy where we paid the parking fee who was trying to sell his services as a guide to us, but we weren't interested. As with most of the people we encountered who were trying to sell something, he did not back down easily.
As soon as we got out of the car, we were cruelly reminded of how hot it actually was. says it was 100, and boy was that warm. Remarkably, being out in it at least to me felt strangely bearable. I think it might have just been because there were so many other people out there, too, and they were so used it that it was no big deal. It was really once we got back into the car and sat down that the heat really was apparent, which probably had more to do with the car sitting in the sun, but also just being sedate I think the heat was more noticeable.
Also as soon as we got out of the car, people started flocking to us asking us to by things or saying we needed to hire them as guides. These were also rather persistent, but they didn't give us much trouble.
At the first temple the entrance fee was 10 rupees for Indians (about 4) and 250 rupees for foreigners (about $6). The price wasn't bad, but it was a little bit of a surprise. We entered into a large area with a walkway going around. The temple was at one end, and it seemed newly excavated. I think they said something like the tsunami revealed more of the temple than had originally been discovered.
We walked along the path to the temple. When we got to the entrance, there was a big family getting ready to take a picture. They asked Steve to take it for them, which he did. As soon as it was taken, they all ran across to where we were standing and asked the guard sitting there to take a picture of them with us. It was very funny how interested they were in knowing where we were from.
The temple area was pretty big. There was a lot of excavated area sunk underground, and then the tall temple in the middle a bit above ground level. As we started walking in, an old man there told us where we could go and explained things to us. It was when we started leaving that he started talking about money.
There wasn't much else to see there. There were lots of little shops, but our driver had told us not to buy anything here and that they would cheat us. We went back to the car, where the driver was waiting for us. We drove on in this area to another temple. There was an entrance fee, but he drove us up to the side where we could take pictures without having to pay. There was a woman sitting with a bunch of coconuts, and she was yelling at us to buy some. She was all "Hey! Hey! Buy coconuts!" I think she was kind of mad.
We went on and saw some cave type things carved into the side of a mountain. The same people we saw before came over and had their picture taken with us again, this time in from of a big carved wall. I took a picture of the woman taking our picture, too, which they thought was funny.
There was a path up the back of the mountain that led to more stuff carved in the rock. There was a kid who must have been our age or a little younger who met us near the bottom, and started asking all sorts of questions like where we were from and what we were doing. As we started going back down the mountain, he started trying to sell us some little carved things, and he REALLY wouldn't take no for an answer (Steve actually ended up having to push him away from the car door so he could close it when we were leaving). There was another path next to the mountain that led to a bunch of huge rocks. One was sitting kind of on an incline, and it was huge, but perfectly balanced. There were guys sitting under it and they were motioning to me like taking a picture, but I wasn't sure if they wanted a picture of me or if they wanted me to take a picture of them. I figured if they really wanted it they could come ask.
When we left we were way to hot and dehydrated to go onto the next temple. We said we might be interested in shopping, so he told us about some department stores. He was really nice, and told us about where we would get ripped off, and where and on what we should expect to pay fixed rates or be able to bargain. He took us to a department store where we bought some things. After that, we went back to the hotel.
All the employees of this hotel are so polite. When I was leaving my room this morning, a guy happened to be walking by, and he stopped and said "Good morning, sir." I said good morning back, and he asked how I was, so I said "Fine, thank you." I asked him, and he said "Very well, thank you. Have a nice day!" In the dining room, the waiter actually appears to be interested in what we thought was good and what we liked. He was also very on top of clearing dishes and pouring water, which was nice for a complementary breakfast. Everyone is very into holding doors and saying thank you and goodbye, which is nice, since I don't quite feel the same courtesy in situations where we are potential clients for others in this country. I suppose we'd find it in any higher-class place here, but so far this is really the only one we have experienced.
Today is the day that we had been planning to take our bus down to Kumbakonam, where Fr. Antony is. We got the number and tried calling, but neither Steve nor I could understand the man on the other end of the line, and I don't think he really understood us either. I took the number down to the front desk and explained our situation to a woman there, and she was happy to call for me.
The bad new: it turns out that the bus we wanted to take is full. There is another bus leaving at 2 (the first one was at 1), but it doesn't have air conditioning, and I don't think we could do that for 6 hours.
The good news: The woman said that if I gave her a half hour she would start calling around to try to find us a different ride to Kumbakonam. I'm waiting up in my room for her to call, so hopefully she will be able to tell me something good. If not, I guess we will have to take a bus tomorrow, or maybe we'll go for the 2:00 with no A/C.
Well we got a bus ride that leaves at 10pm tonight. I tried to call Fr. Antony at the number he had given me, but it didn't work. Then I tried calling my parents in the US to ask them to call and tell him when we would be getting in, but the international call didn't work either. I called down to the operator to ask for help, and she told me what to do, so I tried that, and it still didn't work. After about an hour of trying different combinations of area codes and phone numbers and calling the front desk a few times, I was thoroughly irked. I went over to the other room to explain the situation to Grace and Steve, hoping they wouldn't be too freaked out that we were scheduled to take a bus ride to another city, upon arrival in which no one would be picking us up and we would be stranded at 4 in the morning. Grace told me to try their phone, and calling Fr. Antony worked on the first try.
I felt very relieved, but also sort of annoyed that I had spend so long trying to figure it out and making the front desk think I'm totally inept when it was just the phone that wasn't letting any calls through. I think it must have something to do with the internet coming to my room. Anyway, it was good to talk to father, and I think we're all just happy to know that he knows we're coming and can pick us up.
We're just finishing cleaning out the rooms now and getting everything ready for the bus ride. I'm not sure how often I'll be posting stuff once we're in Kumbakonam, so this may be the last for awhile.