Tamil Nadu

Kanyakumari: The Seas At The Edge Of India

After realising trains from Madurai to Kanyakumari only left at ridiculous hours of the morning, we visited Madurai's famous Meenakshi Amman Temple at 8pm the night before we left. It was beautifully-carved, with tiny rooms and alcoves where miniature deities stood decorated in fabric and trinkets, with Hindu's gathering around each one to give offerings and worship their gods.

It has been kind of amazing to see just how many Indian tourists are in Tamil Nadu – they come from miles around, with school groups or families, to see these ancient structures and pay tribute. Because they tend to travel for religious reasons, whenever we tell an Indian person we're visiting their country for the sake of tourism, they generally don't understand.

Q: "Why did you come to India?"
A: "We're interested n exploring the country."
Q: "But why did you come?"
A: "Tourism, that kind of thing."
Q: "Do you study here?"
A: "No."
Q: "You don't study here?"
A: "No."
Q: "So...what do you do?"

Tourism for the sake of tourism doesn't appear to be something Indians generally do on an international scale, but none of the functioning temples we've seen so far have any non-Indian tourists, so it was a bit of a surprise when we got to Meenakshi Amman to find a large (Swedish?) group, two Americans, and a few Spaniards. The American pair told us there was some amazing congregation happening at 9pm, so we stuck around, and sure enough, some amazing congregation happened at 9pm.

A very loud instrument started. I'm sure I'm offending millions, but I want to call it an oboe – it looked like one, but sounded like bagpipes...or a kazoo...I'm going to call it 'loud instrument'. Loud instrument was followed by some kind of hand-held chariot adorned with flowers and incense, carried by the priests of the temple.

There were many people following the chariot around the giant stone pillars of the temple, and it would have been incredible to watch, had I not just reached the climax of my illness. I'm unsure as to whether this next part actually happened, or if I passed out, hit my head too hard and dreamed it, but here's how I think it went down:

Loads of people followed loud instrument to an in-temple lake where they started burning and fanning leaves, or incense, or both. I remember an older man seemed to want my head on a pike because, from what I gather, my skin wasn't covered enough (the only skin showing was the very top part of my chest, my neck, face, and fingers... but even so, I had a very obvious fever at that point so, had I been wearing a scarf,  it would have come off pretty fast).

Everything got very smoky. I nearly passed out. Chris looked concerned. Loud instrument played on. More things were burned. Whatever was in the chariot was brought out. Hindus and tourists moved around the chariot. I sat down. People smiled at me. Chris looked concerned. I got sicker. There was more smoke. I nearly threw up. Loud instrument stopped. People dispersed. Chris looked concerned.

I threw up.

The temple closed.

The next thing I really remember is checking out of the hotel around 5am, then watching the sunrise on Madurai train station waiting for the 6:35am train to Kanyakumari.

Madurai Train Station
Madurai Train Station

The train trip was long and somehow, amid the screaming babies, mothers, food vendors, and the unforgettably monotone voice of a man shouting "coffee" every five-minutes, I fell asleep and woke up three-hours later to a very inquisitive family of cricket-enthusiasts.

"Where is your place?"
"Australia."
"Ricky Ponting!"

The youngest of the family then started reciting some kind of cricket transcript, as he was coaxed into remembering the English version by his very enthusiastic father.

They seemed to enjoy practising their English on us, and were generally interested in Australia as a place. They were particularly in how much things cost, so we finally managed to effectively communicate to someone in this country how not all Australians are rich, and why that is the case. Saying something as simple as a kilo of rice can be up to 300INR (5.50AUD) put things in perspective, and we kept going until they were kind of bewildered at how simple things (like lunch at 1,000INR) can come at such a great expense.

They gave us some advice on India (beware of liars, thieves, ect), said they'd been on trains since Kolkata to get to Kanyakumari, and how they were planning on venturing around Kerala for two weeks, until the train finally stopped at 11:40am and we parted ways.

Kanyakumari's only real draw cards are:

a) Tt's right on the southern point of India;
b) Gandhi's ashes were kept there, and
c) the sun rises and sets over three seas.

Otherwise, it's just another touristy, rubbish-clad town with overpriced resorts. They could capitalise on spectacular views, but they choose to build resorts behind other resorts with frosted windows...each to their own.

What could be a really beautiful area is covered in rubbish, bell-ringing fairy floss vendors, wildly-persistent counterfeit sunglasses salesmen, and a vast array of stuff you don't want or need.

This one guy was desperate for me to buy a plastic (and not so attractive) necklaces in pastel pink and white.

Man: "Take these <holds three necklaces> 500 rupees."
Me: "No thanks."
Man: "Ok 400."
Me: "No."
Man: "Ok 300."
Me: "I'm really not interested."
Man: "200."
Me: "No."
Man: "Fine, 100."
Me: "Ok, no, I really don't want to."
Man: "100 is cheap."
Me: "Yes, but I'm not interested."
<second necklace vendor approaches>
Other Man: "You should buy the necklaces. Cheap." <nods>
Me: "...No I really don't want to."
Man: "Come on, buy them. One-hundred, how much do you want them for?"
Me: "It's not about price, I just..."
Man: "Then take them, 100."
Me: "I'm sure there are hundreds of other people here who would love some necklaces, but I really don't."

When we got up to leave they (reluctantly) got the picture, and we got back to staring at the three seas, waiting for the sun to set. I know he was really desperate to sell them, and I felt terrible, but if I bought everything because I felt the vendor needed the cash, my funds would dwindle significantly and I'd have no space in my bag.

Kanyakumari Sunset
Kanyakumari Sunset

If you ignore all the people throwing their rubbish into the ocean like it'll just disappear, it was kind of nice. There's something satisfying about making it to the very tip of the country to watch the sun set over The Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean all at the same time, knowing I'll be at the very top of the country in six-weeks time.


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Kodaikanal: Sick In India

It's day 12 and I'm lying on a bed in a small hotel in Madurai surrounded by juice, muesli bars, and canned fruit, fighting the urge to throw up. Again.

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I feel as though this was inevitable, but I didn't think it would happen this soon...it leaves a whole 14-weeks for it to happen again. Well, damn. Chris was violently ill two-days ago, and we did think it was lunch in Kodaikanal (this sweet yogurt thing we accidentally ordered), but since I now seem to have the exact same thing, we're thinking it was the school children we met later that day.

We'd decided to go sightseeing around Kodaikanal and went to this one lookout that was supposed to be particularly impressive. The second we got there we were surrounded by these kids (age 12?) on a class trip from Kerala, and they were fascinated by us. Overtly fascinated. I still can't really tell you what the view looked like.

All The Children, Kodaikanal
All The Children, Kodaikanal

Chris was immediately surrounded by a thousand boys, and I was fighting my way around a large group of girls, all asking questions like 'what's your father's name?', 'what's your mother's name?', 'do you have sisters or brothers?', 'what are their names?', where is your place?', 'what is your good name?', inching closer and closer with each question until I was right on the edge of the stairs.

Every time I looked up I was surrounded by a hoard of giant brown eyes and big smiling faces beaming at me from all directions, and the teacher seemed just as fascinated. He said they'd never met Australians so it was exciting for all, and asked just as many questions as they did. After a bunch of photographs, he finally shepherded them along, and we tried to leg the two metres to the lookout before being immediately interrupted by a bunch of guys waving their cameras.

"Where are you from?"
"Australia."
"Ricky Ponting!"

That happens a lot, and I can never bring myself to say I'd sooner watch paint dry than a game of cricket, but these guys were really just in it for the photos. I've now starred in more photos in 12-days than I think I have in my entire life.

In Australia, people frequently tell me to get a tan, and it's difficult to explain that I don't keep my Frosty The Snowman shade of paste out of choice. I burn within about five-minutes, and it never ends in a tan. I once got sunburnt on an aeroplane. An aeroplane. Tanning just isn't in my genetics, and at home, that's considered kind of weird.

In India, it's almost considered royalty. They aspire to be whiter. Every skin product in their supermarkets has some form of whitening agent in it, and everyone in the media is an unnatural shade of pale. In short, it's the reason for all these photographs.

And it's not just a 'quick snap' (as they say) and we're on our way, everyone has to get a photograph, so you end up standing there for about 15-minutes before the next group comes along and seizes the opportunity. And you have to shake everyone's hand, which is also possibly how we got sick.

After all that, we finally got to the lookout and there were a bunch of monkeys there.

Indian Macaques
Indian Macaques

They look harmless enough, but they steal your stuff, spread rabies, and are generally terrifying, so we had to hang back until they disappeared. In the end, we looked over the edge for two-minutes before deciding to head back for fear of being photographed again.

The Western Ghats, India
The Western Ghats, India

Two hours later, Chris was sick.

Two days later, I'm sick.

And we're now hanging in Madurai for much longer than necessary because last time I tried to venture outside I suddenly felt so ill and overwhelmed I had to go back to my room and sleep for two-hours. We haven't even managed to get to the temple yet (the focal point of Madurai), and the thought of eating curry again makes me want to rip out my spleen.


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Five Days In Tamil Nadu: Temples And Mountains

We have decided to shake things up by travelling to another location daily so we can cram more stuff in to this already gargantuan trip, so I haven’t had a huge amount of time to write. I will fill you in on what we’ve been doing over the last few days, but thought I’d start with where we are now, so until then…Greetings from Kodaikanal! The city on top of the hill.

Yesterday was our first real ‘if we don’t get on the connecting bus we may not find another one for an uncomfortably long period of time’ experience. So we left Trichy after some morning temple viewing, uncertain as to exactly how the day would pan out, somehow found a bus to Dindigul, and sat on it for 2.5-hours feeling kind of worried about the next phase of the trip.

Sri Ranganathaswamy; Trichy; Kodaikanal
Sri Ranganathaswamy; Trichy; Kodaikanal

We stayed up late the night before figuring out how we’d do the Trichy-Kodaikanal-Mumbai-Kanyakumari journey, and it seemed like the logical option do it in that order, given the accessibility of transport from one place to another, but we’d read loads of different things about how to get to Kodaikanal so we just kind of left and hoped for the best. After getting off at Dindigul bus depot, we raced around asking various conductors where our bus left from, vaguely worried they’d laugh and say something like ‘you can’t get to Kodaikanal from here’, but they were very helpful and pointed to an already moving bus.

From the many hours of bus travel I’ve done over the last week, I’ve learned that stopping the bus for passengers is more of an irritating formality, so we jumped on that moving bus and continued on to Kodaikanal with a driver who was itching to kamikaze in to pretty much anything. We were swerving to the right hand side of the road around auto rickshaws, motorcycles, vans, trucks, buses, leaving interestingly small gaps between us and the oncoming traffic, and speeding up wherever possible until we got to the mountains where the bus refused to go beyond about 50km/h up the windy hills, so it took about 3.5-hours in total.

It’s been so hot over the last week that I didn’t even consider it might be cold at the hill station. As we ventured further up the hill, as the sun began to set and air got colder, it became pretty clear the people around me were suffering. There were people in giant coats, scarves, and beanies, wringing their hands together for warmth. Growing up on a set of mountains myself, I thought it was kind of funny. I mean it’s cold, but not that cold. It’s like The Blue Mountains in springtime. So we finally reached the top and got a taxi to our hotel: Hotel Mount View, the land mold and mildew. Now that place was cold. It was awful. So, so awful. We also hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I’m fairly sure that made it worse. I knelt on the bed and my leg was damp. There was one thin blanket.

Chris (being highly allergic to mold) started coughing and choking fiercely. We grabbed the owner and pointed out the sheet of mold under the bed and tried to explain how Chris would have difficulty breathing because of it, and he said things like ‘all the rooms are the same’ and ‘it will not affect you’.  So we left and ended up in the Hilltop Hotel – where they have big doonas, coffee making facilities in the room, cable TV, giant windows and heating. It’ expensive, but I’m so comfortable it should be illegal.

It’s now morning one of Kodaikanal, so much exploring will be done later today. The air reminds us of home – crisp and clear, but Indians don’t really do serenity. Chris was imagining something like the Blue Mountains (our hometown in Australia) or some old British town where there’d be cottages with big views, fire places – somewhere honking your horn amid such insatiable peace would warrant a scolding.

I was under no illusions.

They’ve basically tried to cram an entire city on to a mountain. Honking your horn every two-minutes to alert people of your existence is still very much a thing, the cars still have Nokia 3315-style music built in that automatically plays when reversing to alert everyone to the fact that you’re reversing, and people are still burning their rubbish everywhere like they seem to do everywhere. I’m yet to find a place that doesn’t smell like burning plastic.


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Temples Of Mahabalipuram

Apparently Mahabalipuram is one of the biggest temple complexes in the world, and I have to say, it was all kinds of interesting.

We walked up to the Shore Temple to pay the entrance fee when an Indian man came up to us and offered to be our guide for seven different sites. His name was Ali, he was 65, his breath smelled like alcohol, he could speak nine languages, couldn't read or write, said his parents died when he was young so he never went to school, so he picked the languages up from talking to tourists, and his knowledge of the temples was profound.

Ali explained there was a giant tsunami in the 8th Century and many of the temples are still under the sea as a result. In fact, no one had seen them for centuries until the tsunami of 2004 when the tide moved out so far that, not only did they all become visible again, the incoming tide brought missing chunks of ancient, carved statues and shrines to the shore, relics which are now on display at the temple.

Mahabalipuram, India
Mahabalipuram, India

We then went to the Five Rathas. Each of the temples was dedicated to a Hindu god, and is now named after the Pandavas – five hero brothers from the epic Mahabharata who shared one wife, Draupadi (find the story here and here). It's way more complicated than this, but basically there was a contest for Draupadi's hand in marriage, Arjuna's mother had forbidden him to enter, but he did anyway, vowing to never disobey his mother again if he won.

There's a longer tale of strength and triumph in the full version, but the in short version (spoilers!) he won. Arjuna got home and said something like 'look what I brought', and his mother told him to share whatever he won with his brothers so, staying true to his vow, he did. The five of them all accepted her as their wife, and they lived that way forever.

Me: "Was she happy about that?"
Ali: "She was married, of course she was happy!"

Though they look like buildings, they were actually all carved from single rocks in the 7th Century, with makeshift cement so strong it survived two natural disasters, and still stands today. The detail in the carvings is really incredible – if you ever have the option of going to Mahabalipuram, it's definitely worth a visit.

We were pretty happy with Ali as a guide, until he took us to his son's shop. Turns out his son is actually a very talented sculptor, and carves elephants, lamps, oil burners and things out of marble. We were, of course, obliged to buy things, which is where things got tense. Indian shopkeepers tend to see tourists as walking dollar signs.

I completely understand why, the dollar is a great deal more valuable than the rupee, but it's the value of each currency in it's designated country that should be noted, and it's just not. After S tried to tell me all Australians are rich in our bus conversation to Mahabalipuram, I explained that one meal in Australia cost the equivalent of 1,000INR (18.40AUD), and she involuntarily whispered, 'Wow'.

Lunch in India is around 100INR (1.80AUD).

In Ali's sons shop, we were told to 'pick anything, we will give you good a price', so picked out a small, carved elephant, and a painting, and were quoted more than 3,000INR.

Saying we couldn't afford it didn't go down too well.

At the end of the day, the items were worth the asking price, and we figured if we couldn't pay the amount deserved, we just wouldn't buy anything. We explained that we didn't want to cheat them out of anything, we even offered just to buy one thing, but they wouldn't let us leave without both items. They reluctantly lowered the cost until it was at 500INR, and we finally agreed.

Ali was bitter after that. I actually think he ended the tour early. If you ever go, make sure you say 'no shopping' beforehand.

That evening there was a dance festival on near the temple, so we went along to see what it was all about. When we arrived, there was a group of about six teenage girls dressed up in traditional Indian dance attire, headpieces and all, dancing to 37-minute long Indian compositions detailing different Hindu tales about the gods Shiva and Vishnu.

If nothing else, it was fascinating because we kept comparing it to our high school dance performances where a bunch of 14-year-olds put on some hot pants, crop tops and bright blue mascara and jumped around to Britney Spears for five-minutes. These girls had clearly been training for years. It was incredible to watch.

Mahabalipuram, India
Mahabalipuram, India

Almost everyone I talk to here can speak at least four languages, and studied some kind of engineering. They're incredibly focused, intelligent, and goal oriented, it's been really eye opening. They usually introduce themselves with "Hello, I'm ... , my job is ..., my father's job is..., what is your job?" – it's a big thing. Most people I know can speak English and maybe a bit of something else, in India they're all over it. I feel like I should do more. It's kind of embarrassing to say we only speak English.


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Chennai To Mahabalipuram

The trip from Chennai to Mahabalipuram involved an auto rickshaw, two state buses, and more people than you would ever want to fit on a bus.

The trip from Triplicane (our hotel) to Parrys (bus depot) was painless enough, finding the right bus was wan't too difficult, and finding a seat was surprisingly easy. As soon as you get on, everyone wants to sell something to you, or ask for money, or in our case, just stare at you – that went for a whole 20-minutes before the driver appeared and we left.

It was warm, and there were people standing from the get go, but the whole trip was made much nicer by the girl sitting behind us who's name I can't pronounce, let alone spell, so I'm going to call her 'S'.

A few minutes in to the trip, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to find S and her seven-year-old nephew sitting behind us, staring intently, ready to fire any question they ever had about another culture.

Do you wear shorts?, why aren't you wearing a sari?, you don't have any bangles on, you're not wearing any chains (necklaces), do you have shawls?, do you use dollars?, do you like sweet food?, why don't you use your buttons?, for what purpose have you come to India?, D\do you like talking to me?, and at one point, why is your hair everywhere?

At that one I looked around, and compared to Indian women, realised my hair really was everywhere. 

They really are immaculately groomed with combed hair pulled tightly back, usually into a braid, decorated with living floral clips and flower chains, gold embroided saris, nose rings, multiple earrings, bangles, necklaces, toe rings, and anklets.

She was thoroughly confused by just about everything I said, so when I replied to the hair question with "Um...I don't really know, it just is." She smiled, wobbled her head, and concocted new questions in an attempt to vaguely understand the strange world I come from.

S.jpg

After meeting her entire family at Kovalam Beach where the line ended (which, according to S, is a place famous for knives.

Chris: 'Oh yeah, like cooking knives?'
S: 'No, like <throat slicing action>').

We said goodbye and jumped on the bus to Mahabalipurum – a very different experience.

That bus was full by the time we arrived, and when an Indian bus is full, people are hanging out the doors while the driver carries on driving. It probably would have been ok if we didn't have bags. I'm certain people were annoyed. Every time we made a stop, about five people would get on and we'd have to move down, with 65L backpacks on, with virtually no ventilation.

We must have passed a school because all these teenage girls got on in relatively similar clothes, started chatting with the conductor in Tamil, and giggling at Chris.

After much giggling, the conductor looked at Chris and said 'these girls are very beautiful', to which Chris replied 'Oh, I'm...married?' and they giggled some more.

It's often much easier just to say you're married. Marriage is generally an aspiration in India and they don't really understand why you wouldn't be married. They look at you with great confusion when you tried to explain the western culture of dating for years and years.

An hour or so later, we arrived in Mahabalipuram and quickly got a taxi to Lakshmi Cottage – the place where hygiene goes to die. Our room was filthy. Dirt and mold encrusted the front door, the pillows were stained brown, the bathroom door had holes in it, there was a giant black mould patch on the roof where the upstairs bathroom must have been, and mosquitos appeared to have taken up residence long before we got there.

By this point, it was 2pm, Chris hadn't had breakfast yet and was so distraught he didn't know what to do. I gathered everything inside necessary to go out and eat something, and found Chris talking to the owner. In the end, we managed to get one of the upstairs rooms (which we initially didn't get because they're about $30/night) for a discounted price, ate something, and all was well with the world again.

The 'pool' at Lakshmi Cottage, Mahabalipuram

The 'pool' at Lakshmi Cottage, Mahabalipuram

The room still smelled a bit like old socks, the pillows were still gross, and there was more dirt around the door and windows than we'd like, but there's free wifi and it's not awful.


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Day One In India: Chennai

And then we were in India.The plane trip felt like a week-long event. Of the two separate Indian men Chris sat next to on each flight, after hearing all about our virtually plan-less four-month trip, both leaned over and solemnly, with genuine concern, issued the mildly terrifying words of warning: “Be careful”, and proceeded to make it sound as though we were going to be jumped in the street.

Suffice to say, that hasn’t happened. Even after a whole day of fearless meandering. We were stared at a lot, but the only scary thing that happened was the taxi ride from the airport, and that was probably because our driver liked to speed up around cement roadblocks, large vehicles, and pedestrians.

We finally went to sleep at about 1:30am after the terror had worn off (6am Sydney time), woke up at about 6am India time to someone singing very loudly in Hindi, and a ground-breakingly good coffee from the hotel. I don’t know what they used or what they put in it, but it was great. Chris took one sip and said, “It’s like all my breakfasts in one”. So it was probably cocaine.

Coffee.jpg

Then we walked around Chennai for hours. To be honest, it’s a pretty unexciting city. There’s things like museums, temples and the gigantor Marina Beach, but nothing you really feel compelled to stop and look at.

To put it in perspective, we saw some goats chilling in an enclosure near central, and stopped to marvel with the camera. We did see what looked like a mini parade going down the street at one point, complete with music, singing, firecrackers, flowers, and what looked like a giant float.

Turns out it was a funeral and in the ‘float’ was the body.

We stopped marvelling at that one.

Goats, Chennai
Goats, Chennai

It also appears the ‘hotel wifi’ we read about is a myth, so we spent a portion of the day trying to get Chris an Indian sim card – a process which is difficult, to say the least. We were photocopying documents, signing things, getting additional passport photos so officials can approve the pre-paid sim application, which must be submitted with photocopies of all identifying documentation, and passport photos. For Vodafone. After all that we still didn’t have an active sim card because you had to call back at 7pm and quote your address in order for the activation to work.

Security is actually kind of tight. There are armed guards and metal detectors at shopping centres.

Last night, we had our first meal at a random place. We tried to find somewhere locals were eating, and found this tandoori place with a few people in it and decided it would have to do. Turned out to be a great choice – by the time we left locals were piling in. Win.

Kofta, Chennai, India
Kofta, Chennai, India

We’re leaving today for Mahabalipuram, if we can figure out the bus system. We have to catch a public bus to a place called Parrys, and a coach from there to Mahabalipuram. One thing I've learnt is that all times are approximate. Things work, they just won't work quickly, and I think the less annoyed we become things are slow or go wrong, the happier we'll be, so even if this bus thing doesn't work out the way we think it will (my doubts are strong), we'll just have to be ok with it.


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