India, Step 1 – Setting Ivor Free

Day 131 – Monday, September 2nd 2013

Finally we touched down in that most exotic and exciting of destinations – India. For us the country would be the turning point from which we would start the return leg of our journey, and it also represented the greatest unknown. Travel writers love to romanticise it, backpackers embellish wild stories about it, and people at our work back home shudder at the thought of returning to it, but with our feet now firmly on Indian soil it was time for us to make our own call…

First impressions were good, the harassment of taxi drivers had been avoided nicely with a pre-paid taxi rank, but any sense of organisation were put to one side once we hit the roads. Chaos, as a word, is not really sufficient to describe the Chennai road network, but it will have to do for now – they’ll be plenty of chances to come up with something better during the rest of our trip.

Thankfully we had also pre-booked a hotel, and after arrival it was not long before we were tucked up in bed – a long day had been preceded by all too short a night of sleep in the hostel in Malaysia

Day 132 – Tuesday, September 3nd 2013

After a lazy start to the day it was time to start getting our act together. But as we all know, Rome was not built in a day, and neither was it built on an empty stomach – after stopping in at a street vender for a delicious chicken biryani and some local ghee candies (butter and sugar combined in a way that only the Indians can manage), our first job was to arrange a local SIM card for our phone so that we could start trying to arrange Ivor’s freedom – who, as you may recall, was at the time incarcerated within a shipping container, and who would soon be trapped within the Indian customs system.

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As we would soon learn, things here are not as simple as they may seem. In almost every other country where we had needed one, pre-pay SIM cards are handed out from any corner store that you come across. In India you have to go to the Vodaphone store, you need 2 passport photos, and you must obtain a signed statement from a guarantor (a task kindly performed by our auto-rickshaw driver). Of course, finding this all out took a fair bit of time and effort, but we got there in the end.

After failing to get in touch with any shipping agents, who we would need to help set Ivor free, we went to a vegetarian restaurant (the most common type in southern India), and were served the most delicious cashew pullau, a gobi masala, all mopped up with a butter naan. Everybody eats with their hands in this area, and now would be our time to learn – Vaughan had a particularly hard time of it being a lefty, since local custom dictated he had to learn this new skill with his right hand alone. With most of the food remnants cleaned off of Vaughan, we headed back to the hotel and had a fairly early night.

Day 133 – Wednesday, September 4th 2013

We finally managed to arrange a meeting with potential shipping agents, and mid-morning Malaichamy and Ajit showed up at our hotel. If they were going to be capable of smoothing Ivor’s path onto the roads of India, they were keeping it well hidden, and answered almost each question that we had with the damn head wobble that can mean “Yes”, “No”, or “Go and find another shipping agent”. Still, at least they had shown up, and they did at least want the work. The rest of the day was filled with blogging, internet work, and yet more stunning veggie curries.

Day 134 – Thursday, September 5th 2013

We took an exciting auto-rickshaw ride from our hotel by the airport to one that was closer to the centre of town. After getting settled we caught the train towards the port to meet another potential agent – the train was typically overloaded, with people squeezed in just about wherever they would fit, and others hanging off the edge around the open doors.

The other agents were vastly professional compared to those of the previous day, but of course provided a quote to match it.

Back near our hotel we headed out for another superb veggie dinner (don’t worry, we won’t repeat this every day, but this one really was good and is worth the mention) – a great combo of a chick pea curry and a paneer dish. Yum yum yum yum yum.

Sunset from our Chennai Hotel

Sunset from our Chennai Hotel

Day 135 – Friday, September 6th 2013

Crossing our fingers, we decided to go for the cheap and cheerful agent to get Ivor settled in India. With that decision made he could at least set the wheels in motion to start getting the (immense amounts of) paperwork in order.

It dawned on us gradually that we would soon(ish), be getting back on the road – so it was high time we worked out where the flip we were going to go. The day was spent planning the rest of our time in India, which meant sitting at the computer until our eyes could take it no longer.

Day 136 – Saturday, September 7th 2013

With nothing to do but wait for some customs nonsense, we made our escape from Chennai for the weekend. We’d been told Mamallapuram was a good spot, and not too far outside town so we ditched the most part of our luggage at the hotel and hailed an auto-rickshaw to the tourist information place in town where a hop-on hop-off bus was due to depart. The bus advertised on the tourist information website had its schedule reduced from ‘one every 30 mins until midday’ to ‘one at 9am, if you miss it you’re screwed’ – thank you India, nice try, but we were beginning to get used to your little jokes by now.

Another rickshaw to the town bus station, and we were on our way in no time. On arrival in the tourist trap that is Mamallapuram, another rickshaw ride was haggled to our hotel. The beauty of rickshaws in India is that they are all on the scam, so you don’t have to feel bad about haggling over the price to the point of ridicule – and even when you do lose out on the deal, it only ends up being to the tune of a few pennies by the time you convert it back to the money of home.

The main sights in the area are a selection of Hindu temples, carved out of single pieces of rock. The first that we visited was The Shore Temple. A friendly, yet mildly drunk local guide relieved us of a few rupees in exchange for a slightly slurred tour round the sight. He showed us some of the devastation that had occurred on the site due to the 2004 Tsunami that resulted from a quake in the Indian Ocean – it was hard to believe that it had occurred so recently, particularly when the scale of the disaster is considered – some 650 thousand Indians were displaced from their homes along this coastline.

The next Hindu worship site was altogether more impressive – The 5 Rathas. The Rathas (meaning ‘chariot’) have each been chiselled out of a single gigantic slab of granite. Work began during the 7th century, so the achievement is made all the more incredible.

Returning to the hotel via the two lighthouses (old and new) that seem worryingly far inland to be of any use, we were accosted by a friendly local.

The area is famous for its stone carving, and justly so. It came as no surprise when we were invited to the guy’s home to look at his workshop. “Just looking, no buying”, is the phase that normally accompanies this invite – this normally results in a dejected craftsman being offended that you don’t want to take any one of his tacky (and clearly mass produced) Ganesh statuettes away with you. This guy, to his credit, remained cordial throughout our visit, but it doesn’t always end so well.

One of the more legit, 'Hand Crafting' stone masons

One of the more legit ‘Hand Crafting’ stone masons

Day 137 – Sunday, September 8th 2013

After checking out the beach, which was gorgeous, we rented a scooter for the day and set off to see some other local attractions. When selecting our steed for the day we were given the choice of one with terrible brakes, or another without the throttle cable attached properly. We opted for the former; at least we would be able to get somewhere, even if we wouldn’t be able to actually stop when we got there.

Our tour for the day would take in the Tiger cave and a crocodile sanctuary. The only tigers at the cave were carved out granite, but the area was stunning.

The trip to the croc sanctuary was just plain frightening – it was a good job that the animals are shockingly immobile out of the water, but you couldn’t help think that 3.5 meters of salt water croc that hasn’t been fed for a week could probably mount the 2 foot concrete wall of its enclosure with relative ease. This obviously didn’t faze the keeper, who stood barefoot while handing the monster its weekly chicken.

They also featured several other reptiles, including snakes which were larger than we care to recall. There were several poisonous varieties which the keepers took great pleasure in displaying to a small audience with only a forked stick between them and a certain trip to hospital – should they not suffer paralysis and keel over on the spot of course. They demonstrated the venom extraction too, which involved antagonising the animal before slapping its open mount onto a jar with a cork top – the snake deposits the venom through the fangs into the jar (which is then used to make anti venom). The skill of the handlers was unquestionable, but it’s hard to imagine that it is a long lasting career.

On our way back into town we were lucky to catch part of a procession, whereby a decorated statue of a Hindu god is carried through the town and people come out of their houses to line the streets and bring forward blessed offerings. A band was playing traditional instruments to accompany the march, and men took in turns to perform the honorable task of carrying heavy sunsheilds to protect the Idol.

Our trusty steed for the day

Dropping off our trusty steed for the day

Day 138 – Monday, September 9th 2013

We’d been blissfully ignoring it, but now we really did have to head back to Chennai and get on the case of clearing Ivor’s container. We just left ourselves with enough time to stroll through a park, see a few more grand excavations, disappoint a particularly enthusiastic craftsmen (“All English are liars… Why you not buy anything?”), and catch our bus back to town.

That night we compiled our collection of paperwork for the truck, and munched at a nearby veg restaurant.

Day 139 – Tuesday, September 10th 2013

Today we would meet our shipping agent and accompany him to the customs house, where we would spend the most part of the day sat in a small room normally used for tea breaks while the office workers played ‘guess why the white folk are here’. Occasionally we were required to grace sheets of paper with our signatures, or answer the questions of official looking folk in suits, but really it was our agent’s time to shine running around after forms and certificates that we would never fully understand.

Malaichamy (the agent), treated us to lunch – which included a lesson on how to eat it. We were served a Thali, which is basically a platter with about 10 different dishes on it (all of which feature free refills), and a small clearing, into which butter rice can be heaped. We were shown not only the method of getting the food from platter to mouth without distributing most of it onto your lap, but also the order in which they should be eaten. This was probably the most useful information that we managed to take away from the day.

That night Vaughan’s unsettled stomach, from which he’d been suffering from slightly all day, came into full effect. To protect you, our innocent readers, the details will be spared – but he was in for a night of unrest.

Day 140 – Wednesday, September 11th 2013

Vaughan needed a lazy day, and we had time to kill while the paperwork squiggled on the previous day was processed. The biggest event would be the ordering of Domino’s pizza  – good for those with a delicate tummy.

Day 141 – Thursday, September 12th 2013

A repeat of day 140 – with the exception that Vaughan was beginning to feel a bit better, and that today we opted for different toppings.

Day 142 – Friday, September 13th 2013

Now bored of the illness, Vaughan opted for some antibiotics – but at least he was now ready to move away from pizza based meals. We had our agent visit, who had managed to misplace one of the signed documents (idiot), and he announced that we should be able to have the container inspected by customs on Tuesday. We were getting a little impatient to get on the road again – not least because our carefully scheduled plan for visiting the rest of India was looking more and more rushed the longer we sat around waiting for paperwork.

Day 143 – Saturday, September 14th 2013

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

Another eventless day – save a trip to a mall to find DVDs. Though not up to some local sightseeing, Vaughan was at least able to get out and about at last – the infamous Delhi-Belly had hit him bad!

Day 144 – Sunday, September 15th 2013

Finally we got the news we’d been waiting for – the container had been moved to a holding area, customs inspection had been moved forward to the next day, and destuffing (unloading) would be able to start straight after.

Day 145 – Monday, September 16th 2013

The day started by the pioneer of faff (Malaichamy) arriving an hour and a half late, and somehow only managing to get us, along with the customs official, and a man with big bolt croppers to the container for 12:30. Already our time to reassemble Ivor was running low.

With a but of luck, this blue box would contain our vehicle (and home, and worldly possisions)...

With a bit of luck, this blue box would contain our vehicle (and home, and worldly possessions)…

The bolt croppers removed the container seal, and we could start setting Ivor free. Poor communication combined with a preference for brawn over brain made working with the other guys at the container facility a stressful experience – but before long Ivor was out of his box and although some minor damage had been done to some trim, one of the rear light covers was cracked, and the supports for the rear jockey wheels on the hutch had collapsed, we were happy to have him back with us – and without any more significant problems.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon carrying out some maintenance, making the most of Ivor’s undressed state – so we could get access to check all the suspension, living quarter, and water tank mounting bolts that we had attached back in France, all those thousands of bumpy kilometres previously.

The sun would be going down before we had a chance to re-mount the back body, so we decided to leave him where he was for the night and return early in the morning.

Day 146 – Tuesday, September 17th 2013

Back to the container facility, we dragged the rear box into position with the high-lift jack and then started lifting it up onto its legs.

We rolled the truck part back in and had the box lowered onto it just after midday – so we just had to reconnect the electrical cables, water pipes, and the flexible feed through to the cab. We had everything loaded into the body and finally started him up at about 4:30 – just enough time to get back to the hotel before the sun would go down. Unless….

… we got stuck waiting for one more stamped piece of paper before we could be granted an exit pass to leave.

The first rule of overlanding in countries with particularly chaotic roads traffic is ‘DO NOT DRIVE AT NIGHT’. In fact, it would be appropriate to follow Fight Club’s lead, repeating that as the second rule as well.

So there we were, kicked out of the container depot at dusk, with the worst of Chennai’s rush hour traffic to cross in order to get to our hotel. This was surely as bad as overland driving could get?!!

Not so; one thing that could make this situation worse would be the appearance of a fuel problem such that the truck would no longer idle, and that the drivers right foot had to, at all times, be pressing down on the accelerator.

When combined with the fact that Malaichamy’s directions regularly made use of lanes normally reserved for oncoming traffic, it made for quite a stressful drive home.

This all came to a head at a busy intersection in town when Ivor had decided that enough was enough, and that he was no longer even prepared to run, no matter how much the accelerator was depressed. A traffic policemen started pounding on the door, horns all around were blaring, and everyone around was keen to inform us about their displeasure at finding a 4 and a half ton truck blocking their already hectic junction.

Enough strangers were assembled to push the stricken truck across the junction and out of harm’s way – where our agent called for a tow truck. Vaughan was not ready to look at the problem now that it was fully dark, and that a large crowd of locals had assembled. The crowd dispersed, realising that nothing more of interest was going to take place, and as we waited for the tow truck a lady who had been selling bananas at the side of the road took pity on us, and brought some of the fruit over to us – and even though she spoke no English, she made it very clear that we were not to give her any money in exchange.

The truck arrived, and after the spectacular failure in the first attempt at dragging drag us back to the hotel, when a welded towing point was torn from Ivor’s chassis, we were eventually towed back using a solid towing bar attached to a far more integral part of our truck.

Exhausted, we went to bed hoping that we would discover an easy fix to Ivor’s issues in the morning.

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One thought on “India, Step 1 – Setting Ivor Free

  1. Gosh! India sounds like France ++
    Pointless officials, endless delays and duplicated paperwork.
    A silly comparison, of course, but it is nice to think that there is a context in which rush hour on the Toulouse periferique would be a model of order and discipline.
    Keep on truckin!
    Rick & Sheila

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