Category Archives: Travel in Southern India

Munnar, Mysore, Bangalore and home.

Standard

It was wonderful and scary and breathtaking to climb by coach up the often perilous roads high into the mountains to Munnar.   The roads are not tarmac`d and there are frequent rockfalls and mudslides but it was exciting!   In Munnar there are many tea plantations and of course lots of British influence from when we colonised India in the early part of the nineteenth century.  As you gaze up the mountainsides, your eyes fall upon beautiful white mansions surrounded by stunning views and set in a most temperate part of the country, so it is always a pleasant climate.  It was so refreshing to be out of the heat!

We took the opportunity to hire a guide who was lovely and spoke fluent English, he drove us to lots of great vantage points where we could drink in the fabulous scenery and witness amazing sights, such as a bull elephant (huge, with massive tusks) strolling through some fields with his wife and baby walking alongside of him.  Absolutely magic.  We had already visited an elephant sanctuary while in Kerala and scrubbed the elephants in the river with coconut shells, and ridden one without a cushion which I wouldn`t recommend!  Elephants have hairy necks and the hair is like sitting on needles and extremely uncomfortable, but they are so lovely and some of them are bonkers and have been driven mad by having been made to stand day after day, outside temples, doing nothing and slowly losing their mind.  Their keepers, who are called mahouts told us that every year at least one of them is killed by the animal they are caring for.  Nevertheless, the elephants are loved and revered and I loved them too.

Our guide took us to see some pretty spectacular waterfalls and while we were there, he picked me a bunch of flowers which I pressed and still have.  I had no idea how important and valuable this plant is until he explained to me that it only flowers once every twelve years.  I was mortified that he had picked it but then he picked a whole load more as he said he could sell it in the town for quite a profit.  It`s called the Neelakurinji and it has very pretty, small purple flowers and I guess you have to make a living somehow.  When we said goodbye to him I gave him my silver Buddhist Om ring which he particularly liked.  He asked us to take him back with us to England as he wanted to work there and support his family and send money back home to them but of course we couldn`t.

We also visited one of the tea plantations which was really interesting, I hadn`t realised that the tea bush is from the Camellia family and so tea blossom is heavily scented, I love it and picked some and crushed it to perfume my rucksack.

We stayed for five days in Munnar and then bused it to Mysore, which is famous for its Sandalwood soap.  We went to see a hotel room where the bed was so filthy it was almost walking away on its own and hastily found somewhere else.  I met the tallest man in India while I was stopping at Mysore, I am 5` 2” and he is 7`6”.  He has his picture taken with visitors and you pay him, I understand he is comfortably off and good for him, he was awfully nice.  I also remember lots of cows wandering around the streets not only in Mysore but in all the towns and cities I visited.  They lie sunning themselves in the roads, sometimes blocking them but no-one minds as they are after all sacred animals and are fed and nurtured by the public.  I bought sandalwood soap for all my friends in Mysore and my travelling companion bought me a beautiful mauve Salwarkameez which in fact I never wore as in the end it was too small, but it was a chiffon tunic and trousers and it went to Oxfam.

On the last part of our trip, we stayed at Bangalore which is famous for its scenic gardens.  I didn`t much like Bangalore, the streets were rammed with mostly men which is unusual and for the first time in India I felt out of place and not very safe.  A taxi driver told us horrible tales of women being duped by bogus drivers and then assaulted, we passed by a man lying bleeding from a head wound on a street corner, no-one seemed to be helping him, it was too much for me and after three days I was glad to leave Bangalore to make our way back to Chennai and catch a flight home.  I didn`t want to go home but I knew that I had to and my companion boarded a separate flight back to his home in Australia.  Our trip to India was the last time we were to travel together but that as they say, is another story.

My son had spent a long time in India and Pakistan prior to my going and he told me that India weaves a sort of magic around you that makes you want to go back.  He is right and I do!  When I got home I burst into tears.  I had no words then to describe all of the sights, the vibrant colours, the poverty, the extreme wealth, the sounds and the assaults that India makes upon all of your senses.  Now I have been able to write about it and I have very much enjoyed my recollections.  I have wanted to go back from the moment I came home and my son also told me that I would!  Next time, I shall do the north………..

Advertisements

Kerala and Kochi

Standard

My enduring memory of leaving the French influence of Pondicherry is as we were walking through the railway station, a group of Indian boys, dressed like English schoolboys in white shirts and grey shorts, thought they would trick me.  They called out to me as I was boarding the train,  “au revoir mademoiselle!”  Then burst into fits of giggles when I called back,  “au revoir mes petits choux!”

The train journey to Kerala was great, through some stunning rural areas where I saw field upon field of sunflowers swaying in the gentle breeze it was absolutely beautiful.  We passed through lots of very pretty villages and several areas where there was obviously a lot of wealth with impressive mansion sized houses and villas surrounded by high walls and metal security gates.  Kerala is a favourite tourist destination because it has some of the loveliest beaches in the world, with endless stretches of soft white sand edged with palm and coconut trees.  It also has an immense system of waterways and back waters where you can take a seat on house boats that look a bit like they have been built from straw, with roofs that keep you out of the sun.  The boats take you through the backwaters and stop so that you can witness some lithe bloke shimmy up a coconut tree and knock four or five down to the ground.  We drank the fresh milk and sliced off small pieces of sweet coconut for the fish which clamoured around the boat, their generous mouths already open, waiting for the feast. 

We stopped again in a clearing to walk and were shown pepper trees with pink, green and white peppercorns lying in rows waiting to be harvested.  We watched women weaving rope from the husk of the coconuts and were served hot and spicy fish and vegetables dished up onto a banana leaf, sitting outside on a bench, it was just wonderful.  I saw my first elephant in the wild when we were travelling through Kerala.  I was on a coach, we were driving at night through woods to our next destination and a small elephant crashed out of the trees just ahead of the coach and careered across the road, it was breath taking. Almost everyone but me was asleep.   

We took a boat across the water to arrive in Kochi, waving at whole families standing knee deep at the egde of the water, bathing.  Kochi really surprised me because there is so much of an English influence there, it reminded me of Stratford upon Avon  There are some beautiful churches, it`s very clean, there are lots of fresh fish restaurants and it is famous for its lace making industry.  There are whole streets of shops selling exquisite lace at pretty hefty prices I have to say. 

As you wander down to the ocean, you see fishermen hauling up all sorts of weird and wonderful fish in enormous triangular nets stretched out on wooden frames they are called Chinese fishing nets.  We helped the men to haul them up and in return they gave us some fish!

There are lots of stray dogs in Kochi, some in pretty shocking condition and we met an Indian woman who was working with the government to stop animal cruelty and especially the neglect of dogs, so I was impressed by her efforts. 

We ended our stay there by visiting the theatre to see a performance by the world famous Kathakali dancers.  Renowned for their incredibly colourful costumes and make up these classical dancers take up to twenty years to train.  We stopped to talk to them after their performance and they showed us some of their complex make up techniques including inserting a seed into the corner of the eye which turns the whites of the eye, to red.  Most dramatic!  I totally fell in love with Kochi and was reluctant to leave however, it was extremely hot so we decided to head up into the hill station of Munnar where it is considerably cooler and where we could wander around some beautiful scenery including lots of tea plantations.

Travelling in southern India part 2. Pondicherry and Madurai.

Standard

We stayed in Chennai for a few days and then decided to get a train to Pondicherry.  I had wanted to visit Pondicherry ever since reading a wonderful book, Life of Pi, which begins in that city.  Pondicherry is still heavily influenced by all things French as it was formerly a French colony.  There are lots of very pretty pastel houses in streets with French names and in fact the city is divided into the French quarter and the Indian quarter and lots of people living there speak in French, which was bit disconcerting!  It sits beside the Bay of Bengal and has lovely stretches of clean beaches and plenty of interesting shops.  It`s known as a holiday get away for Indians and we liked it so much we stopped there for several days.  Indian women go paddling in their sari`s and it`s just incredibly rich and colourful to see.  The police, many of them women, wear uniforms of pale and dark blue camouflage.  One time I bought some candy floss from a guy on the beach and a police officer came up to him rapping his knuckle with her baton, she told him to give me more bags and that he had ripped me off, as if I really minded.  The only strange event I witnessed was when a very, very old lady came on to the beach, she was filthy dirty and obviously had some sort of mental health issue.  Smiling and laughing to herself, she slowly twirled around on the sand then gradually lifting her swirling skirts she sank to the beach and poo`d.  Nobody seemed to mind and that`s India for you.

After our stay in Pondicherry, we travelled on to Madurai

Madurai is the third largest city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and has a population of around 1.2 million people so it`s buzzing with activity and is often referred to as `the city that never sleeps.`  My travelling companion particularly wanted to go there as he had been told of a clinic where he could get an Ayurvedic massage.  This ancient Indian therapeutic massage improves the circulation, expels toxins and benefits our emotional well being.  On this occasion it was to be delivered by two clinicians and involved a great deal of sweet smelling oils which are poured on to the forehead and then gradually massaged in to the body, so it sounded really nice. 

India has the finest railway system in the world, it`s easy to book to almost anywhere and cheap.  When you go for your train, a list of all the passenger names are glued to the carriage doors which is great as you always know you are on the right one.  The trains are absolutely rammed and people sleep under the seats and on the overhead travel racks.  When the trains stop, more people come on board begging, it is heart breaking.  You see children with no limbs being pulled along on makeshift trollies, blind people, people with terrible disfigurements often as a result of leprosy, all approach you for money.  At first it is deeply shocking yet in the end, you do become accustomed to the sights.  People have to live but what we decided was that we would take out a certain amount of money each day and give it to those who appeared in the most need, otherwise we realised we would wind up giving all our money away and not even dent the surface. 

The plus side of travelling on trains in India is that a chai (tea) trolley regularly appears so you never get thirsty and on many trains, wonderful Indian food is served at meal times which is delicious and cheap as chips.  Indian people are by nature extremely hospitable, most families will offer to share their food with you, it`s a nice way to be and we shared ours back.  (Tip for anyone travelling solo, don`t accept drinks from strangers as they can be spiked with a sleeping drug.  When you wake up your rucksack and all your belongings, including your passport, have been nicked.)  You just have to be aware and sensible, say you have an upset tummy and then they`ll leave you alone.

When we arrived in Madurai, I couldn`t believe how different it was to Pondicherry. Madurai is a very industrialised city and pollution, mostly from the rubber industry, hangs heavy in the air, it made me feel nauseous.  We found a hotel but it was bland and impersonal.  A river flows through Madurai called the Vaigai and where we were staying it was absolutely filthy and heaving with all sorts of rubbish, it would be hard to believe that any fish could survive in such conditions.  We only stayed one night.  He had his massage, which he enjoyed but we quickly left to avoid the pollution and made our way across the southern tip of India, to visit Kerala.

Travelling across southern India. Part 1. Chennai.

Standard

In 2006 I travelled across a large part of southern India. I always meant to write down some of my experiences and then I never got around to it, until today! Hurrah! So, I shall begin with the beginning where I landed in Chennai, which used to be known as Madras. I had already had quite an exciting time getting there as my plane had to be grounded for three days in Sri Lanka, so I was able to stay free of charge in a top notch hotel, not very far from a beach which was hit by the 2004 Tsunami. I strolled the length of this beach where many hundreds of people had lost their lives and tried to imagine how it must have been. The Sri Lankan people are diminutive in stature, polite, attractive and extremely welcoming so although my brief visit was poignant, it was also very nice.

I met my then partner at Chennai airport which was milling with thousands of people. Having never travelled to a country like India before, there was a lot for me to learn about how to behave and what to do to try and avoid being ripped off or at the very least being hassled to buy things we didn’t want or need. We had already back packed together in south America so we were quite seasoned travelling companions. We made good travelling companions, it was just a pity much of the rest of it didn’t work. Anyway, we always took our Bible with us, the Lonely Planet guide and identified a hotel which looked reasonable. All the small hotels in Indian cities are very basic with showers that are often tepid, beds that bewilderingly, have woollen blankets in such astonishing heat and which are commonly damp because of the humidity but we didn’t care. We were so enthralled with just being there, we booked in and went out walking to explore. Here’s a travel tip; it is possible to book and pay for your taxi in many parts of India at a sort of pay station, it’s a good way to avoid being conned and also, when you ask a taxi to take you somewhere, make sure before you drive that they are absolutely clear about your destination otherwise you will almost certainly wind up at a hotel which is paying them to take you there and not the hotel of your choice. Then they generally tell you to come in anyway as it is their brothers’/cousins’/uncles’ hotel and it can sometimes feel a bit churlish to say no.

When we went out walking, we were immediately surrounded by lots of very small children who followed us for some time giggling and chattering to one another. We were holding hands and although it’s customary for two men to hold hands in many parts of India, or two women, we even saw two female police officers strolling along holding hands, it is not acceptable for a man and a woman to hold hands. It produced a lot of staring and some disapproving looks so we quickly realised and gave up on that one.

Chennai is a large, bustling city. There are loads of interesting shops and ancient architecture, markets packed with all sorts of colourful produce and of course, tailors’ shops. India is famous for its tailors and often when you visit, you will be stopped in the streets by a man or woman speaking perfect English, inviting you to come and visit their brothers’/cousins’/uncles’ clothes shop. As a general rule, I became very polite at striding in a forward direction and saying, “no thank you.”

On the streets are people selling many different types of food and delicious things to drink. My favourite drink was barley sugar juice, so refreshing on a hot day. The long fronds of barley sugar are put through a mangle and the juice dribbles into a glass. Chai, which is a spiced Indian tea, is also delicious and only a few pennies a glass. When we stopped to drink or eat, people often asked us about our cameras and mobile phones. It became clear that what we had paid for our mobiles was often more than twelve months’ wages to the street vendors. Our very favourite thing to eat was a ball of puffed up bread called Poori, about the size of a small balloon, when you break it open it is filled with hot, spiced potato and is absolutely heavenly even for breakfast. We sat eating them many an early morning while the mossies tried to get around the mosquito coils and have their own feast courtesy of our ankles.

India assaults you on all sides, it is extremely shocking sometimes, I had never seen such levels of poverty, such a poor infrastructure, for example, open sewers running down the middle of main streets and so many people, some with appalling disabilities and diseases, especially leprosy, begging on the streets.  India is also immensely colourful, vibrant, beautiful, and wondrous it is without a doubt, my favourite place.  In Chennai, the main stretch of water running through the city is known as the Buckingham Canal, it is a fabulous breeding ground for Malaria and all along it`s banks are tiny huts made from sticks and mud and sheets of old cardboard, where entire families live.  It is almost unimaginable how they find enough food to survive. At night, when it has gone dark, homeless families begin to take up residency actually on the streets, they fill up the pavements in family groups and light small fires to cook by.  Naked babies sleep under the stars on banana leaves while their families eat and play around them on the pavement.  In the morning, they are gone.    

You can see pictures of my travels in southern India by visiting my photo’s page on Myspace.   http://www.myspace.com/nellypitt