Our first view of Chennai – from the deck of the MV Nancowry – wasn’t inspiring. Clearly following the demolition of some dockside edifice, the jetty was strewn with rubble. We navigated our way down the heaving gangplank onto the shore after three days at sea – in bunk class, no less. The 1980s-Beirut surroundings couldn’t dent our good humour – no more ridiculous ferry journeys! Ever!
Indian officialdom swung into action as we reached the jetty, a guy in standard issue dress shirt & porn star ‘tache asking us to ‘please wait here – immigration’. No problem.
But ‘immigration’ wasn’t the official-looking gruff type we were used to; instead up sauntered a young, slim lady no older than us in a fantastic technicolour sari. She introduced herself: “I am immigration.” We handed over our papers.
With a slightly troubled expression, she asked us in her fair-to-middling English, “How many are you?” We exchanged a brief, puzzled expression other. “Er, two?”
The expression dug in. “No, I mean, how many of…”
Ah. I felt a warm flush of realisation. The poor girl was clearly looking for the right term here, and fully aware that she had just entered a huge international minefield of potential offence. I had a bucketload to hand: Foreign nationals? Tourists? Non-Indians? I even knew the answer – the two of us and a very pleasant French couple. But was I rescuing anyone from this wonderful moment? Was I hell. The pause hung in the air for a delicious few seconds, before Ms. Immigration gingerly placed her weight:
Boom! I couldn’t keep the grin from my face any longer, and I couldn’t keep the laughter out of my voice:
“Us people!?” Ms. Immigration’s eyes flew straight to the floor. I was too ecstatic to sustain any torture here. “Four, here come the others now.”
“Thank you.” She flicked to our Indian Visas and stamps and handed back our papers with a visible flush, but without a trace of eye contact. We slung our rucksacks over our shoulders and headed off for the bus into town, giggling all the way.