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India - South

INDIA | Wednesday, 16 June 2010 | Views [2561]

Today is Sunday, 25 April, 2010 and that means two things - we move from Sri Lanka to India, but the most important is birth of my second grandson Elliot in Australia. Hurray!! Another backpacker is born. Chennai, the 7 million capital of Tamil Nadu is just another big busy city and with all its noise, smell and chaos it is not a place we would like to stay any longer then necessary. Catching a local bus from airport to city is challenge of its own, even locals can’t agree on spot where we should wave at bus driver … getting first lessons about India. Nothing is static, everything constantly changes and we’d better get used to it quickly. Once on bus we notice all women sitting on the left while all men take seats on right hand side of the bus. Hmm, hope foreigners are excused from all those local specialties. Any attempts to sit next to an Indian lady would result in her standing up rather then sharing the same seat with me. Arriving to pre-booked hotel Aspni Inn we are somewhat disappointed, the reality does not match presentation on Hostel World and for $35/night this small shabby room is not one of the best deals. Anyway, location is not so bad, and as we discover next day, finding an alternative would be very difficult. Large cities seem to offer much less for money, Colombo in Sri Lanka was similar. Tomorrow we’d like to visit Marina Beach, a favored sandy stretch for locals… we wonder how do locals bath? Wow! Females of all ages get their saris dripping wet while boys strip down to underwear before jumping to water. They are having great fun, we can not resist to stay and watch taking many snapshots … with some targets being shy, others posing for my camera. Strolling through T Nagar markets fills the rest of afternoon; Iva buys a pair of small gold earrings. Almost every woman is dressed in brightly colored silk sari, fluttering lightly in breeze making local female population very elegant. Gentle scent of white fresh jasmine flowers woven into their long black hair makes them truly feminine. Men are dressed in much simpler style, the most would wear light colored shirt, always clean and pressed, with long pants or traditional lungies. 

First 24 hours in India have gone and one thing is certain … over one billion population is very visible on every street, sometimes it feels almost claustrophobic. On Tuesday morning we leave Chennai by local bus, only half full so at least we can sit for next two hours on the way south to coastal village Mamallapuram. Wind air-condition (WAC) works well only when bus moves, luckily many windows can not be closed and I cool my head with wet bandana to cope with >40C heat. Instantly relaxed, Mamallapuram’s slow pace has positive effect and over next few days we wind down from hectic Chennai. Simple and clean room at Sri Harul GH with beech front private balcony is a perfect spot just for that. Roof top Good Luck Café has become our dining - living room where discussions with Diva (local owner) and Jack (French borne semi-local) helped us to understand few aspects of life in India. Arranged marriages was one of quite interesting topics, we can not believe Diva’s claim that up to 80% of couples are selected by parents where new weds do not know each other until the wedding day. Apart from sitting and talking we also explore local ruins and temples, occasionally dip into Bengal Sea waters and taste Indian cuisine available in many places across the town. Four days here passed quickly and on Saturday morning we catch a 2-hour bus to Poducherry, known for its French orientation. We did not expect Poducherry be chocked with Chennai residents coming here every weekend for shopping, French cuisine and tax free alcohol. Consequently all hotels were booked out and two hours search for decent accommodation proved to be almost fruitless. Finally we settle for one small dark room in a French owned home-stay, hoping to move tomorrow to Park GH with sea front rooms at $15/night. Excellent food at Bamboos Garden restaurant, served amongst palms and tropical plants has so far been the best dining experience in India. As many Chennai weekenders check out on Sunday morning we are lucky to score spotlessly clean sunny room at third floor with sweeping sea views. The Park guest-house strictly run by religious ashram impose few tough rules (no smoking, no alcohol, back home by 10pm, no miniskirts… sounds like mum’s place?) which are easy to respect and cause only negligible inconvenience compared to its perfect presentation. Following Jack’s suggestions the next stop is Thanjavur, a historical in-land town with Brihadishwara temple built in 1010 AD. Inside the temple is a 25 tons statue of Shiva’s bull Nandi carved from single rock - the largest in India. Visiting Royal Palace and Museum consumes the rest of day. More and more we discover nice nature of local people - we receive lots of smiles and “welcome to India” comments. Especially youngsters seem to be amused with our presence and often ask for joint photos to be taken with their mobiles. Shaking hands and frequent questions of type “Where are you from?” and “What is your name?” seem endless but all that makes our travel very relaxed and safe. Next day four hours on WAC bus (you remember?... Wind-Air-Conditioning) to Madurai is hard to cope with – air temp must be well over 40C and bus seats are very narrow. I sit sideways leaving my long legs in isle while Iva is squashed between two not so skinny Indian ladies. For the first time we decide to get a room with proper air-conditioning to avoid complete exhaustion - $35/night is over our daily budget but we need to cool down tonight. Madurai is known for colorful Sri Meenakshi temple and we are truly impressed with hundreds of carvings of gods, goddesses, heroes and demons. Professional guide talks not only about ancient history linked to the temple but also reveals few dark sides of modern life, such as young females being bluntly asked for sex by their bosses in order to secure good job prospect within company. We can’t get rid of feelings that money is much more important then love when it comes to relationships amongst young Indian people. In meantime, subtle smell of jasmine flowers mixed with foul smell of piss on street walls add to complexity of Indian experience…

After another scorching hot day in Madurai we anxiously board a bus to cooler Kumily, small border village between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, located at about 1500m above sea level. Using an old good formula “1C drop per each 100m elevation” we expect dramatic change of daily temps, something like from 45C to 30C, which in South India would be very very comfortable! Kumily did not disappoint in every aspect! Relatively coolish, tons of cheap nice accommodation, great food at Curry Leaf restaurant and scent of fresh spices completes the picture. There is another reason to be here though… nearby Periyar NP allegedly offers abundant wildlife with possibility of tiger sightings. Wow, tigers! Well, remote possibility, I said. Very remote. From over thousand elephants and forty tigers living in NP unfortunately we have seen none … sad, sad. With animals spread out over 770 square kilometers one should not be surprised, especially with lush green vegetation abound. The $50 safari trip including 3-hour jungle hike was not that wasteful after all, black monkeys, large brown squirrels, few bisons and millions of hungry leaches compensate for tigers. Ha,ha, very funny! On way back home we check cardamom plantation – vital ingredient in any masala mix. After having Dosa Masala for breakfast (kind of thin crape stuffed with spiced potatoes) an Ayurvedic massage sounds like perfect ending of Kumily cool vacation and on Tue 11 April we descent again to hot plains of Kerala. Four hours of wild downhill bus ride felt more like motocross race with no winners. As I watch our crazy bus driver trying to regain control of his bus after each curve, my mind drifts away ...                

In India all vehicles drive on left-hand side of road. Well, the most of times. At its gigantic and chaotic complexity the road rules seem to be actually quite simple – larger vehicles have always the right of way over the smaller ones. Always and everywhere! This is the most important rule and consequently the book of Traffic Road Rules could be reduced to a single page. Apart from cows and goats, road users can be placed into one of five categories according to its size – motorcycles, rickshaws, medium sized lorries, trucks and buses:

  1. Motorcyclists are pests and should be eliminated immediately, or as soon as they enter the road. Poor things have no rights whatsoever.
  2. Rickshaw drivers may use the road only if they sway their three-wheelers into gutter as soon as a larger vehicle sounds its horn.  
  3. The right of way for small utes and lorries depends on the load they carry, Heavier the better. Lorries loaded with cement or steel would be in much better position then those empty loaded.

We are still not 100% sure whether buses have a definite right of way over large trucks. While in many instances our bus driver showed nerves of steel and forced oncoming truck into unsealed side of the road I would not bet my life on it … but I guess we do not have any choice.  Sometimes we just look from side windows only wondering why the bus jerks from right to left ten times a minute.  While I find difficult to take my eyes from the windscreen, Iva tries to point my attention to colorfull world outside. …

... Our plan today is to board a public ferry at Kottyam (if we survive this mad downhill race) which suppose to slowly cruise through famous Kerala canals with final stop at Alappuzha. We did survive downhill race and we certainly enjoyed almost four hours of boat ride through seemingly endless network of waterways, fringed with palms and occasional bamboo huts. At Alappuzha we bail out from expensive overnight houseboat trip, the most popular attraction in Kerala … have seen canals from the ferry for a fraction of cost. Not much else to see or do in Alappuzha we leave next day to Fort Kochin, romantic old colonial island with strong Portuguese influence. It is another scorcher, changing buses at mid-day is not funny. My eyes burn as sweat runs all over my face, shirts do not soak any more. Sea breeze does cool because sea water is very warm. Luckily soon we find quiet guesthouse and we can get rid off those heavy backpacks … at this hot weather they seem to gain more weight. For rest of the afternoon we aimlessly wonder through maize of streets in Fort Kochin, suddenly ending at the very tip with many Chinese fishing nets, being here since 1400 AD. Sitting on rocks while sun goes down we watch fisherman moving huge spider-like nets in and out of water every few minutes, using long wooden crane-like structures. “What are we going to have for dinner tonight?” I ask Iva … “Hm, I think we can try some Indian food, ha?” she replies with cheeky spark in her eyes. Ok, Indian again but funny we really like it, even having curry day after day. Visiting Santa Cruz basilica and St Francis church next day concluded our experience with Fort Kochin and on Saturday 15 April we continue our pilgrimage to Mettupalayam. Leaving Fort Kochin at 9am and arriving to Mettupalayam at 7pm this must have been one of the longest travel days with many transfers between including rickshaws, boat and buses. It is another weekend and again local tourists pre-booked all hotels, we have really hard time to find a room with no other choice then to take 2-bedroom executive suite for $30! Pretty expensive but tomorrow we’ll ask to be ‘downgraded’ to a single room. Why did we come to this noisy, annoying and dirty town? Well, since I am psychopathic hunter of all sorts of trains and the Toy Train to Ooty starts here, the answer is clear. All tickets for next few days have been sold out, however station master explained that we can get seats on tomorrow’s train if we come at 5:30am to station and wait in a queue. Very peculiar and hard to understand system. We will see these inexplicable situations again in future when booking more train tickets. Well, we did come at 5:30am to the station. Only few locals were queuing already so we think our chances are pretty high. Two hours later the steam train is docked to our platform and all passengers with pre-booked tickets get seated. The rest of empty seats are filled with people standing in the queue, and we are in! Fully packed train slowly climbs through beautiful hilly landscape, passing many bridges and tunnels, finally reaching Ooty (2240m) fours hours later. Not the most comfortable train, but interesting enough. Dry season is quite apparent with all waterfalls having no single drop of water. Ooty is nice and cool, and with its excessive supply of guesthouses we have no probs to find one we’d like. Preferentially out of noisy centre but not too far from it we settle in Reflections GH. Next few days we enjoy cool climate of this famous hill station, the only negative was my severe stomach upset after having dinner at shabby Kabab Korner. So severe I could not get out of bed for the whole day but luckily recovery came quickly with excessive consumption of home made chocolate found in large varieties in every shop around the town. Few hours visit to local botanical gardens brought yet another lovely experience – we relax sitting on a park bench when two teenage boys asked for a joint photo. As soon as we smiled with an ‘ok’ a large group of people (perhaps few families) appeared out of nowhere and asked for the same. Suddenly with small kids on our laps, grandmas behind and many others around, cameras click from all directions. Quite sweet. Enough of cool and breezy Ooty; it’s time to move on and our next destination is Mysore (700m). Difficult to negotiate warm weather again we walk around the main bus station in search for decent accommodation. After about an hour walking the Guptha Hotel looks reasonable for its money… well, until next morning when we find few nasty bites on our bodies and one blood stain on bed sheet. That is bad news and immediately we suspect presence of bed bugs. Unable to move to another hotel today we need to take serious precautions tonight before going to sleep … but first things first. Booked on a full day city tour next day we leave hotel at 7am – true highlights being fantastic Maharaja’s Palace, Mysore Zoo and Brindavan Water Gardens amongst many other galleries and museums in between. By 9pm the city tour is completed and we head off for nice dinner at Hotel Park Lane to gain real strength in war against bed bugs, waiting in cracks. Two spray cans of Baygon, small bottle of 80% DEET and pure Lemon grass oil are our weapons. We sprayed, we spread, we conquered. It worked! Next day we moved to different hotel Maharaja Inn but to our great disappointment also this hotel was infested with nasty nocturnal creatures. Our defence system is very efficient and we manage to contain crawly nasties to bathroom only. Not even bed bugs could spoil or reduce spectacular décor of majestic Maharaja’s Palace, mind boggling beauty of stained glass interior somewhat reminding Gaudi’s style in Barcelona. Unfortunately our cameras were confiscated during the visit only to be returned upon exit from the palace – no pics! Our first overnight sleeper train will depart Mysore tonight at 6pm, arriving to Hospet at 7:30am. From Hospet another 30 minutes by local bus before magic scenery of Hampi makes us to say ‘Wow!’.  Now we understand why everyone we met said “You must visit Hampi”.  Large boulders sprinkled from sky over miles of rugged terrain blend with multitude of magnificent temples and all that is interwoven with endless greens of palms and banana plantations. This endangered World Heritage site is truly magnificent, we spend days walking through temples and ruins trying to absorb and appreciate this great ancient Hindu empire. A brief encounter with large group of wild monkeys was just another bonus on one of our exploration treks. Across the river from Hampi is small village Anegundi, apparently serving cold beer so after few days of its abstinence it sounds like a good idea as Hampi is strictly vegetarian and alcohol free zone. Beer yes, cold no. Sipping not so refreshing larger at river view garden restaurant we chat with local boys about life and fun. We can not believe what Shiva (about 25) says –  his parents arranged marriage when he was fourteen with four years younger daughter of his own sister. Yes, he married his first cousin! They have been allowed to live together since Shiva turned 19. Together they have one daughter, apparently normal and healthy child. My next obvious question is shockingly answered “Around 25% of all arranged marriages occur inside the family but the number gets progressively smaller as government stepped up public education to eliminate such practices”. We say good-bye and before sunset we catch return boat to Hampi just in time for another pure-veg dish for dinner and pot of lemon tea. As train from Hospet leaves at 7:20am there is no chance for breakfast (nobody is willing to prepare any food before 9) and we leave Hampi with rickshaw well before sunrise, hopping to get some food on the train … and we did. Eight hours later we step out of train at Margao in very hot afternoon … 1km walk to bus stand, few buses, rickshaw and another 1km walk on sandy beach leave us absolutely drained and exhausted. Now we are in Banaulim, a small beach side conglomeration of few bamboo style restaurants and 2** resorts… we like this place from first minutes. Less then 200 meters from beach for $16 per night is pretty good deal, that combined with excellent food at Johncy beach restaurant and tax free beer makes this place the best next to paradise. Two days have passed quicker then a blink of an eye and by 6pm on Friday 28th May we are back on train, this time over night to Mumbay.

… to be continued …


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