I had a late start in Chennai, enjoying a sleep in in my air conditioned hotel room. I had decided that being the whitest guy in town wasn’t enough, so I made sure I stuck out even more by wearing my brown leather Barmah Stockman’s hat. It has already been admired by many and I’ve received some very curious looks whilst wearing it. My destination was a place called Jolarpettai (pronounced Jo-lar-pet, as I was corrected by a couple of locals – I was pronouncing it Joller-petti). There is nothing special about this place, but I had a special train to catch (surprise, surprise).
I caught the West Coast Express (an impressive and important train of 25 cars – but not my target) from Chennai Central. The train is 1 car of 2AC (2nd class Air Con sleeper), 2 cars of 3AC (3rd class Air Con sleeper) and the rest is non-AC sleepers and 2nd class seats. It connects Chennai with Mangalore, departing at 11:30, and arriving at the horrible time of 04:20 the next morning. Thankfully, my journey was just over 3 hours.
We arrived in Jolarpettai at around 14:45. I left the train at the large station in the very small town, and as Mark Twain once remarked about Maryborough in Victoria, Jolarpettai appears to be “a railway station with a town attached”. I left the station over the massive footbridge, and found a wide, barren street baking in the afternoon sun, and not much else, but I could smell curry, so I knew there must be a restaurant somewhere.
I stepped through a gap in the wall which ran along the road and found myself in a wide laneway which housed a busy market place. It was like one of those moments in a Western movie, when the bad guy walks into the saloon; the piano player stops and everyone turns to look; I don’t think they get many strangers in Jolarpettai, especially not white guys in stockman’s hats! I took off my sunglasses, looked directly at one of the shopkeepers and gave one of my biggest smiles. He didn’t quite know what to make of me, so he got back to what he was doing, as did everyone else, lest they be smiled at too!
All of the restaurant owners invited me to sit and eat as I walked past. I did a complete lap of the market, and chose a small restaurant at random. The owner shooed away a few locals from the table and settled me in. He brought me parothas (thick savoury pancakes) and slopped some veg curry onto a plate. The style of eating in the Chennai area, is to use one’s hands, whatever the dish, so when in Rome… I broke off a bit of the parotha and scooped up some curry with it. I had quite an audience as I scooped and slurped my lunch down, all approvingly watching the strange white guy eat their way. The soft parothas were fresh off the hotplate and the delicious curry was fresh from a big pot on the stove. I downed a plate of curry, and more was brought. When my plate was again empty, it was quickly refilled, until I had to stop them because I was full. I asked how much and was told “40” (just under A$1).
I had a long trip back, so I bought some bananas at another store. The bananas were hanging from the shop ceiling, which I thought a bit odd, until I realized they were still on the branch from the banana tree! I had remembered seeing banana plantations nearby, these must have been fresh from the plantation. The old storekeeper cut the bananas from the branch for me.
I returned to the station, still with about 90 minutes before my train back to Chennai. I spent the time watching some shunting going on in the adjacent goods yard. I was videoing some old electric locos being attached to a goods train, when I heard yelling. The Shunters and guard were all yelling and gesticulating at me and at first I thought they were telling me to stop taking pictures. Suddenly I realized that they wanted me to take their picture. I took a few snaps and got a big cheer and smiles from them all.
The 90 minutes passed quickly, and soon the train I had travelled out to Jolarpettai for approached; the Bengaluru – Chennai Air Conditioned Double Decker Express. The train was hauled by WAP-7 streamlined electric locomotive and had 10 red and yellow double deck cars, all first class seats. The train was full, and I quickly nabbed my window seat upstairs while everyone else was trying to figure out where they were sitting. Much sitting, shifting and rechecking of tickets was done. Shortly after taking off from Jolarpettai, the large man sitting across from me dozed off and started snoring. His snoring became louder, and soon it was so loud that he woke himself up! This continued on and off all the way to Chennai
The inside of the train was scuffed and a little grimy from the hard work that the train had already done during its short working life. The seats are covered in green cloth and are 3 + 2 on top and bottom decks. There were luggage racks (making the already low ceiling of the double deck car feel even lower), power points (1 power point shared by 6 seats) and tray tables (my seat was the one of the centre rows in the car and faced another row over a fixed table). The journey was smooth but cramped, much like being on an aeroplane. The double deck train was impressive, but there’s a lot more space in AC class on the older trains, so I’m glad that’s my only trip on it.
We arrived back into Chennai about 5 minutes early. On the way back to my hotel, I stopped off for dinner. I had no idea what to order, so I asked the waiter what he recommended. He pointed to a menu item and said “this, mix curries”. I said “good, does it come with bread?” he said “no, choose this one”. I agreed, but the result wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I was brought a masala dosa; a large savory pancake, about 50cm in diameter served folded on a palm leaf. Inside was a veggie mash with almonds and spices. There was a plate with 4 small bowls of different veg curries. The waiter imitated breaking the bread and dipping it in the curries. I did this, and it was delicious (and spicy).
By this time, it was well and truly time to head back to my hotel, which was only about 100m up the road.