We flew on yet another airline, IndiGO - what a clever name! It was a short hop from Hyderabad to Chennai (formerly known as Madras) and we took a prepaid taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Himalaya. We found the hotel listed in the mid-range section of the Lonely Planet, but after the homey atmosphere of the guest house, we were rather disappointed with our room. There isn't much of historic interest here in Chennai and there is no city center as such. Chennai grew more as a consolidation of several smaller communities but there is an abundance of highly-regarded educational institutions all over the metropolitan area. The city is known for attracting the region's finest artists and thinkers and has a long history of journalism and publishing. Chennai is now India's fourth largest city and boasts an international airport. It has a robust film industry of it's own and the IT sector is flourishing in spite of being so close to Bangalore. The state of Tamil Nadu is deeply conservative, the men still wear the "lungi" (a cloth wrapped around the legs and folded up to the waist to make walking easier) for the most part.
Our first afternoon, we walked to the nearby State Tourist Office and booked a half-day city tour for the next morning. We've pretty much decided to leave for Mahabalipuram after the tour. It's a quiet place with a World Heritage Site and a laid-back beach. Just what we need after several weeks in large cities. In the evening we headed out to look for a Reliance World internet site and somehow ended up in the tiny back lanes of Triplicane where it appears the transport trucks and their tires are overhauled and serviced. Who would ever have thought that this would we done in what appeared to be an old residential district. As we walked through the lanes we were swarmed by dozens of young children, filthy from playing in the engine-oil soaked streets. I was alarmed for a moment as I thought that they were beggar children and there was no way for us to avoid them there. As I turned to say "go away" I saw they were all extending their hands in greeting and saying "hello". They have probably never had a foreigner wander into their lane before and they all just wanted to shake hands with me. They were so dirty, I just folded my hands in the traditional Indian greeting and they seemed to understand. As we found a narrow side street that took us out of the area, they all waved goodbye.
The tour the next morning turned out to be a good idea. We drove around the city and the tour guide pointed out the government buildings, many of which were built during the British rule. Unfortunately, they do not appear to be carefully maintained and the grounds are mostly neglected. We stopped for a half hour at the Marina Beach - a vast sea of sand that would be impossible to visit during the heat of the day. The road along the beach is lined with statues of famous local and national heroes. We visited a Snake Farm and I hesitated to go in but when I learned that there were other reptiles there, I went to see the crocodiles and lizards. They were fascinating. I gave the snake houses a wide miss.
Our last visit was to the State Museum and it was only going to be a 45 minute stop. They charge foreigners 250 rupees and we decided that after seeing the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, there was not much point in spending so much for such a short visit to a much smaller museum. Instead, we went for lunch across the street with another tourist from Kolkata (Calcutta). She is an English teacher but during the holiday she set out to visit some important temple pilgrimage sites in the South, all on her own. She was an interesting woman and we exchanged email addresses. She invited us to visit her when we come to Calcutta. Her husband is a professor of Physics, nearing retirement himself.
When we returned to the Tamil Nadu Tourist Office, we arranged for a car to take us to Mamallapuram, two hours away south along the coast.