Everyone thought we were crazy for opting for the train over a quick flight to Chennai... even the locals! But, we really wanted to travel in India for two months without stepping foot on a plane. Plus, we were trying to make up our budget as much as possible (reminder: we were currently $2300 over budget).
Brian and I downloaded a couple Harry Potter movies, stocked up on snacks, and prepared ourselves as much as possible for the next two days. The way the hours worked out, we had two full nights and 1.5 days on the train. Once again, we splurged a bit with booking 2 AC vs 3 AC or sleeper class as we just wanted to make sure our berths were only shared by us and whomever else booked the other two. We will go into detail on how to book rail tickets in India as it was a huge learning curve for us when we start working on our city guides, so you can expect it sometime around 2076.
We ended up sharing our cabin with a wonderful older Indian couple. They spoke as much English as we did Hindi, (so a lot of hello and namastes really) so the only conversation that took place was the exchanging of foods and by exchanging of foods I mean I would offer them some chips and snacks and they would shove homemade digestive goo balls directly into my mouth. I’m not joking. It was like eating pure ginger, turmeric, and lemon with the texture of granular Play-Doh, not delicious and impossible to eat. Supposedly it was good for digestion, but I spent the rest of the evening hoping the opposite didn't occur.
For the most part, everything was smooth sailing. We chained our bags using this pathetic thin bike lock we bought while our bunk mates used industrial strength metal chains, made up our beds and spread out our silk liners, and bunkered down for the next two nights.
Of course, my biggest concern with the train, other than derailing, was food. We decided we felt strong enough to drink the chai offered around the clock by the chai wallas, but not the food. Thankfully, you can now preorder food from various websites (we used www.railrestro.com) and when the train stops at that specific station, someone will hand deliver it to you! It worked two out of the three times we did it, so I would say it was pretty successful. Also, we don't talk about the one time it didn't work. Because as you can imagine and unfortunately for Brian, I went to bed without dinner that night.
Just a quick FYI, we decided going forward we only want bottom bunks as the top bunks feel super cramped, or alternatively we could try to book one top and bottom together so we would have a full side to ourselves. (Note that this is only advised in 1AC and 2AC. In 3AC and sleeper class you always want the top bunk! Always!).
There was one unexpected incident that took place. A couple hours before arriving in Chennai, our friends decided to get a little chatty. They were showing us pictures of their children and asking us if we had any (at least thats what we assumed they were asking us). And then, out of nowhere, the wife took out her brush and asked me to come sit next to her. I didn’t want to be rude, so I obliged and crawled down to her bed. Honestly, I'm not quite sure what happened next, but all of a sudden, I was seated on the floor of the train, between her legs, as she yanked and pulled my hair that was styled with my precious hair gel I was running low on. She used her comb and brushed out all of my hair. Ever last strand. And it was not pleasant. I kept looking up at Brian who was just watching in shock and probably terror because he knew he would have to deal with the aftermath of this tragedy. She proceeded to braid my hair in super tight pigtails (and not even the pretty kind!). Then, she kicked her husband out and closed the curtain behind him (because there are no doors on the train. You can go ahead and throw privacy out the window) as she started to undress me. I must have been in shock because I just continued to let her do all of these things (while Brian nervously observed). She pulled out my saree and dressed me, right there, as I was dripping in sweat, in LAYERS of silk. When she was finished with her makeover project, she called her husband back in, they both give me huge kisses on the cheek and then took twenty selfies with me. While this was, hands down, one of the strangest things I've ever been through, it also felt like one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me and I'll never forget it.
Before I had time to change back into my travel clothes, we arrived at our stop. Walking in a saree when its 90 degrees outside is already a difficult task. Add on a twenty pound backpack, a roller bag, and someone who just endured half her hair getting pulled out with a brush that may or may have been infested with lice, and you’ve got yourself a total sh*t show. I know it sounds silly, but it was all a little traumatizing! But, in the end, it made for a great story and cherished memory.
We only had a couple days in Chennai as we never intended on staying there, but we really enjoyed it. It was lush and tropical, a stark contrast to Northern India. The air was fragrant with jasmine (well a type of jasmine, I believe its called Malli or Mullai) as it is strung beautifully around all the shops. And the best part? All the women wear gorgeous strands of it woven into their hair. I loved it!
Another difference from northern india was the food. Not the type of food (although that was different too) but more the types of restaurants and food stalls. All the top (budget) restaurants we kept reading about turned out to be big cafeteria chains. At first we were a little hesitant, but the price was right and the food was delicious!
It was the first city that actually had sidewalks which was such a welcomed surprise. We walked around the entire city and made a couple poor dining choices when we tried to eat at some of the hip restaurants in Alwarpet. This just reconfirms that there really isn’t any reason to spend a lot of money on food in India.
One of our poor choices. Its not that the food was bad really...it just didn't taste like India. Not enough grease and questionable chutneys in my opinion. Lesson learned: always stick with the local spots!
Chennai was also where we had our next SIM card dilemma. We had topped off in Agra, easy peasy, and figured it wouldn’t be any different here. We went to a local street vendor, bought what we thought was 5GB of data, and ended up walking away with 300 US and Canada talk minutes. Fail. Turns out, since we bought our SIM in Delhi but topped off in Chennai, the tariffs are different. Had we been patient and went to an actual Airtel Store (I swear we will never learn our lesson), they would have looked at our SIM and realized we needed a different tariff. Long story short (yeah right), Airtel is the devil and they wouldn’t do anything to help us. Even though the cost was exactly the same for both, they wouldn’t switch our US and Canada talk minutes (useless) to data. After 3 visits to Airtel and who knows how many frustrated phone calls, we gave up and repurchased the 5GB again. Sometimes, nothing is easy in India.
Our next stop was Pondicherry, a huge vacation destination for locals and tourists and just a short four our bus ride from Chennai!