Southern India day 10 – Royal Enfield and Kerala houseboat

14 Oct 2017. Sorry for the delay. This post was written days ago, but then it deleted itself somehow. I am rewriting it after having kept up with other posts after it.

I woke up in a dreadful mood after an unpleasant night first in the train and then in the filthy guesthouse. Matt was running interference and I was trying not to talk to anyone too much. Our host wanted us to agree to use his friend’s houseboat for our overnight trip, and I wasn’t feeling very trusting that it would be adequate, so when we learned that only one of us would be able to go view it, I volunteered. The reason for that was that Jay, the friend, had a motorcycle, and one person could ride on the back. So that person was me.

I perked up pretty well when I saw that it was a Royal Enfield. In case you don’t know what one is, here is the Wikipedia link: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Enfield

Jay was a pretty fast driver, which I enjoyed, and we whizzed across town, across intersections where I momentarily feared for my life and down narrow flooded alleys. The houseboat seemed pretty ok to me. I turned on everything and made sure it worked. The showers were pretty bad, but they assured me that the pressure would be better once we were underway (this turned out to be a lie).

We rode back the way we came, Jay pointing out a few things around town, and then when we pulled up in front of the guesthouse, asked if I’d like to take it for a spin. Did I ever! So off I went down the road in the other direction. I only went about 10 minutes, maybe 15, because I had no sense of the area’s layout and I didn’t want Jay to worry. Matt snapped a few photos of me returning.

Jay left and we all had breakfast. Then a tuktuk was there to take us all to the boat. I was in a good enough mood from the motorcycle ride that when I fell in the mud trying to get my suitcase through the flooded walkway up to our dock, I only laughed and apologized to the man I almost brought with me into the mud when I went. He was laughing too, so that was alright.

We settled in and met on the upper deck. All the houseboats leave at the same time, and we enjoyed the queue to get out to the lake. I’ve heard that in popular months it can be a real drag, but in our case it was really ok. That first part of the trip was really pleasant, and we were served lunch as well.

Once we reached the lake, we were taken to a fish market on a peninsula or maybe an island (it was hard to tell), where Matt and I selected a couple of large crayfish to supplement our dinner. There was a bird of prey casually hanging out waiting for scraps there.

We enjoyed all this part of the day, but in the evening we docked in an area where loud and obnoxious poppy music was playing over speakers mounted in coconut trees. It was loud enough to make casual conversation difficult. We were invited to take a walk until dinnertime, which we did.

The area is all developed into canals that may or may not have started out with natural banks, but now have stone and sometimes concrete embankments. Every so many meters they have steps down into them, where people can bathe and wash their clothes and dishes. We were surprised at how quickly the water was flowing.

We walked back and made it to the boat just as darkness fell. The music was still blaring, and we asked when it would stop. The boat staff said 20:30. It was 17:30 or so. Matt and Abbie and I attempted to play card games while we waited for dinner to be served. Derek enjoyed his book.

Dinner was far too much food, but wonderful. And the neighborhood’s power went out, so the music stopped early, thank goodness. We drank beers, played some more games, and eventually everyone hit the sack.

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Southern India day 9 – train travel around the southern tip

13 Oct 2017, Friday. We had a nice and reasonable start to the day on Friday the 13th, enjoying the hotel breakfast then making use of the hotel’s 24-hours from check-in policy. I went out to find a few things I needed while Matt relaxed. I came back with a box of sweets that made the hotel staff laugh. Apparently, Madurai is famous for its milk halvas. Yes, my lactose intolerance is a problem. Yes, I’m suffering for my sweet tooth. Lactase tablets will only get you so far.

Matt and Abbie went out while Derek and I researched hotels and transportation. Derek is rocking the transportation planning, and I found us a nice way to end the trip, which I think you’ll find out in a few days.

Finally, at 14:00 we checked out. We left our luggage in the lobby and went for lunch at one of the small places around the corner, across from the train station. It was delicious, of course. Nearly everything is. We also shared a fresh paratha at this street stall.

After lunch it was time to get over to the station. Derek had managed not only to figure out the train tickets online (quite a feat if you’ve never looked at the SEVERAL national rail websites), but also to order food for train delivery.

I admit that I thought we were traveling 1st class, so when we found our seats, and I saw that I was supposed to climb into an upper bunk that was definitely not clean, I had a few moments of panic. Luckily, Abbie didn’t mind that we use the seats of the lower bunk instead, and she was willing to climb into it later (I did find a train employee to bring us a fresh sheet set) when she was ready to sleep. Abbie is very gracious. Thank goodness. I was nauseous enough sitting.

Here’s everyone sitting in the quad of bunks where Derek’s was located. Matt’s was in the next quad over, and Abbie and I were in a two-seater across from Derek.

It was a difficult night. I think Abbie and Matt each slept a little, but two of the other guys in Derek’s quad were HEAVY snorers, so Derek didn’t get any rest even with earbuds in, and I wasn’t able to sleep because I was either coughing (yes, I’m in the final chest-cough stages of this damn cold I’ve had since Marrakech) or nauseous.

We arrived in Allepey, on the southwestern side of the subcontinent, around 03:00. Our promised transport was not there (that’s 3 for 3 of arranged transports not showing up), so we climbed into two tuktuks and went to our guest house.

Our room was filthy, which did NOT improve my mood. I learned the next day that although they used to have a washing machine, it had broken, and they’d been (like nearly everyone else in the villages), handwashing in the muddy river. So our sheets were brown and stained and full of holes, and they smelled rank as well. The shower was cold, and the floors were filthy. I felt like I got even dirtier. I didn’t sleep well.

Southern India day 8 – bathing ghats and Madurai

12 Oct 2017. Derek and Abbie headed out to see the rock temple this morning, since they’d done other things yesterday. Meanwhile, Matt and I had a relaxing morning breakfasting and just puttering around. We packed all the bags into our new car at 10:00 and headed to the Amma Mandapam bathing ghats.

Since we aren’t traveling much further north, and therefore won’t see, for example, people bathing in the Ganges, I was really interested in seeing and maybe experiencing the bathing ghats. And it WAS really interesting: very practical and very much the sense of daily life happening. As we entered, there were entry points for men and women separately, so I went to the women’s side and Matt went to the men’s. At first, I thought the water looked really sketchy, and then I realized that the “scum” on the water was soap suds from women doing their laundry.

Although it was fully visible to the men’s side, this was the only area where women were bathing wrapped only in sarongs. I assume that allowed them more access to fully wash themselves in public. They were also doing the practical work of their laundry. I waded in, and Matt took a picture of me, but I decided against going all the way in for the simple reason that I’d then have to change somewhere into dry clothes for our drive. I’d worn fisherman pants and flipflops to make a shallow wade easy.

After, we walked over to the mixed-gender area, where entire families and gatherings of friends were playing and swimming and washing. Here, the women wore saris and were more fully clad, although the children and men were pretty scantily attired.

There’s a small temple onsite, and offerings were being made (and an elephant, of course)

Off to one side, there were barbers cutting hair and shaving faces. One was kind enough to unnecessarily turn his client around for a picture (yes, I asked first).

In general, however, I think this was one of the few places that my camera wasn’t very welcome, so we gawked at the activities a few minutes longer then headed out.

Derek and Abbie had already been waiting there for us, so we all piled into the latest Toyota Innova for the drive to Madurai.

Madurai has a very different feel to it than Trichy. Somehow it seems a little friendlier, although it’s also very dirty. Our hotel is near the main temple, and there is a lot of activity at all hours. The streets around here are varying sizes, from larger thoroughfare to alley. All of them are teeming with traffic and people, although I realize you wouldn’t guess it from these rather calm photos.

The alleys are often organized by specialty, for example, the spice sellers or the electronics shops. There was an entire alley of garlic, but I didn’t get a picture.

The first thing we did after checking into our hotel was to have lunch, which was scrumptious, in the hotel restaurant. We are finding more and more delicious things we like eating. We already knew about most northern Indian cuisine (as far as I can tell from that part of the menus), although it is frequently somewhat different than we are used to in terms of flavor (and delicious!!). Southern Indian cuisine is delicious, but aside from dosai (a dosa is a thin pancake, sometimes with a filling, sometimes plain, always with various sauces or just one at breakfast), and thali (a set lunch menu served on a large plate with various sauces), we don’t know most of the words. New to me is idly, sometimes spelled idaly, which is a thick white bread which reminds me of dry knedlicky (Czech bread dumplings). It’s a little less substantial, though. I prefer eating my food with naan, paratha, dosa, or just rice. Pooris (a puffed fried bread) are not super convenient for me, although I love the presentation. Again, I will try to add a picture or two of food later. I’m usually too busy eating.

After lunch, Matt and I raced over to the Gandhi Museum in a tuktuk. The museum is housed in a beautiful mansion near the university (also near an amusement park we were tempted by).

Inside, the only fee is for the camera. Although there wasn’t much that makes a good photo, I never avoid paying these fees. I see it as a way to support the museum. Since I’d paid it, of course I found a couple of things to capture.

The museum is well-arranged. A concise history of Britain’s involvement in India is presented in a series of panels, with pictures and vignettes into lives affected. The story continues in a numbered route through several rooms, with occasional objects of relevance as well, continuing on while Gandhi is introduced, from his youth and experiences as a barrister and living abroad, to his return and a detailed description of his involvements and works in India. Eventually, the path winds you around to his death. This cloth is bloodstained, and I admit I felt just a bit horrible taking a picture of it.

The rooms after that had his letters and small objects from his life. I really enjoyed the letters, but I also took a photo of one of his pairs of glasses.

When finished, I went into the attached bookstore, where I bought two small volumes, again partially just to support the place. Together they cost less than a euro, so it wasn’t much support. With the camera fee, it added up to about a whole euro.

Anyway, as we finished up, we got adopted by a friendly yellow bitch with a torn nipple. She was pretty mangy, but really really wanted Matt to pet her. He scritched her forehead for a while. Abbie and Derek, who had walked, arrived as we were leaving.

A tuktuk drove us back to the neighborhood around the temple (also the neighborhood of our hotel), and we walked around for an hour or two through very lively streets before heading back to the hotel, where we met Derek and Abbie and discussed plans to see the procession in the temple later, after a rest.

We didn’t really know what was going on in the temple, but we checked our shoes and our cameras in the entrance and went on in. This temple had a particularly lovely water reservoir.

A colorful character took it upon himself to take Abbie (and hence the rest of us) to see something in a back corner. I’m still not quite sure what he was trying to show us, but we could hear the music starting up elsewhere, so we made our excuses and headed that way.

Video would have captured this better, but I got a few pictures. First, something happened inside the part of the temple where only Hindus can go, then a few men filed out with torches and hauling boxes, which they stacked out of the way. The musicians started making more noise. Some Hindus came out all at once, but they all went separate directions with intent, and none of the tour groups went after them, so we stayed too.

Finally, men came out carrying a gold and red palanquin. There was more energy to the music, and everyone joined in to follow it around the corridors. Sometimes we stopped and the musicians played more music while the bearers chatted.

At what became the end point, near another entrance into the Hindus-only core, the palanquin was set down, and all non-Hindus were herded into a semi-circle of viewing. The musicians played, and people made offerings both to the palanquin and to an older bearded man in a green lungi who sat on the floor near it.

My favorite were two young women, in their late teens or early twenties. They were dressed for the occasion, and had flower offerings ready to go, but seemed really uncertain, and were hanging back with all the western tourists. When the man in the green lungi sat down, some of the other Hindus handed him offerings of money and flowers, so one of the young women worked up her nerve, egged on by her friend, and selected a flower from her arrangement. She came up behind him and tapped him gently on the shoulder with the flower. He didn’t seem to notice. She did it again, and someone he was facing gestured, and he turned and took her flower. This brought the two girls more prominently to the attention of the people in charge, and they tried to encourage them to walk around where they could properly make their offerings at the palanquin. This took a lot of “help.” The young women were so shy and uncertain, but eventually they got their offerings made and backed away nervously but smiling.

And that was pretty much everything. The musicians played, then the bearers picked up the palanquin and took it inside. And everyone just left.

Derek almost got one of the very shy temple kitties to let him pet it. Ten more minutes and he might have succeeded.

Things were much quieter when we exited the temple. We went back to the hotel, to the rooftop restaurant, where we had some of the most deliciously succulent food I’ve had yet and a great view.

Southern India day 7 – Trichy

11 Oct 2017. We tried to revolt against temples, we really did. After yesterday, we didn’t really want to see anymore temples, or at least to visit them in detail. Matt and I slept late, missing the buffet breakfast, then took a tuktuk to a coffee shop that supposedly had wifi, where we breakfasted and enjoyed some internet time.

We hailed another tuktuk to return to the bazaar area. It was a busy area of streets surrounding the rock temple (more soon), dominated by “India’s largest textile showroom.” Here is a view of it from above, which we took later.

Most of the wares on the street were tat, or normal household wares that we didn’t have any interest in. We suddenly found ourselves at the entrance to the temple. The very temple we’d said we weren’t going to visit. But hey. It wasn’t very hot, and there wasn’t much else to do, so we headed up.

It was early afternoon, so the inner temple itself wasn’t open. Many people were napping and sitting to chat and rest in the shade along the steps. Anytime we stopped (at the top to take in the view or on the way down after buying some water at the snack shop), people wanted to chat with us and take selfies. It was a pleasant afternoon just chilling with other people from the area.

The friezes and sculptures in and around the temples tell stories, and I realize more and more often that I know some of them. It’s been years since I read the Bhagavad Gita or any other classic of India history, religion or myth, but one of my yoga teachers tells tales at the beginning of his classes, and sometimes I see them in the artwork. I would share this one, but I’m missing some of the key details, so I’m embarrassed and won’t. Maybe I’ll come back and edit this post when I find out. Then again, maybe I won’t.

On the way back, we got into a tuktuk with the most amazing driver yet. He wanted to get us to the hotel without going the long way around, so just went against traffic the whole distance instead, horn blaring!! Most of the time, things were too chaotic to snap a picture, so this is the only one I got.

We met up again with Abbie and Derek for some pool time, just in time for the monsoon to hit. Monsoon season, which we are at the end of, is a windy season. The winds come in strong and suddenly, bringing the rains. Abbie and Derek went inside, but Matt and I enjoyed a swim in the pool with torrents of rain coming down on our heads. If I floated on my back and stuck my hands in the air like sails, I could sail around the pool. I sailed around Matt while he sang an interpretation of Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song:” “come sail your Sharons around me…”

After swimming, we went back upstairs and cleaned up. Soon enough, everyone was ready to meet up for dinner, so we braved the rains (which were lighter anyway) and walked out into the night to find a restaurant recommended by the guidebook. It was delicious, and I discovered that paneer butter masala here in southern India is not at all the creamy thing served in Amsterdam or Minneapolis or other places I have been. It was spicy and rich and deep in color, with whole chunks of cinnamon in it. I’m also getting much better at one-handed tearing of breads, as well as just scooping up messes of sauce and rice with the fingertips of my right hand. All restaurants have hand-washing stations for before and after your meal.

I raided the sweet shop at the front of the restaurant, and we sampled several different things that looked good to me. I think our waiter was amused.

A few doors down from the restaurant was the Nice Bar, so we went past the uniformed guard to the 3rd floor, and a dark but not too dismal eyrie of iniquity. There you can consume spirits and tobacco. Matt and Derek had “strong” Kingfisher (8%), and I tried the wine, no further description available. It turned out to be sweetened and spiced, and not at all bad. Abbie wasn’t feeling like a drink. They brought out a ton of snacks for us, all complimentary, but we were all so full from dinner.

As has become customary, it was an early night. I arranged our transport to Madurai for the next day, and we all went to our bedrooms. Matt & I connected to our bluetooth speaker man (a little thing I picked up on a recent ferry trip to England) and had a little taste of home right in our room, listening to great music and laughing a lot.

Southern India day 6 – a long day to Trichy

10 Oct 2017. Our driver was already waiting for us when we trooped to breakfast at 07:30 before setting off on a road laced with temples and ruins. Our hotel host suggested this route:

Our first stop was the temple to the dancing Shiva in Chidambaram. Interestingly, this had not been on our original route plan, as Derek’s guidebook had not suggested it. Two different travel agents we had spoken to at various points had suggested it simply as a must, and they were right. It was a lovely temple.

Things to know about visiting Hindu temples in India:

1. You will be removing your shoes and leaving them either in a pile or checking them. If you check them, it seems to be 20 rupees per pair. If the temple has lots of bare stone, you will very much benefit from packing along a pair of socks to slip on, as the stone gets very very hot.

2. You must cover your shoulders and wear long trousers. Please remove headwear when you enter the temple.

3. You may not take pictures inside the temple itself, so if you are carrying a visible camera, be prepared to have many people tell you, or to put it away inside something so that it’s clear you know the rules.

4. Temples are closed for a long midday break, starting around 12/12:30. This doesn’t mean you can’t visit the temple, but that the areas where active worship are done are closed. So don’t let the time stop you from visiting the usually vibrantly decorated courtyards. There will be many locals there as well, some of them napping or chatting or making out in the shade. This is a good time to join them and to speak to some of them. They will all want selfies with you.

We all climbed back in the car and zoomed off for our next temple, at Gamgaikonda Cholapuram. By the way, the drivers all seem to have a lot of fun trying to get my pronunciation correct. So far I’m not doing too well.

After GC, we rushed to Kumbakonam to see the Darasuram temple.

After the temple, our driver wanted to show us a neighborhood of weavers. They make saris and shawls from dyed silk and silk/cotton blend.

We lunched at a tourbus resort restaurant. It was noisy and full of tourists. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s where our driver brought us.

After that it was on to Thajavur (Tanjore – which makes sense when you hear the locals pronounce it). The museum was extremely boring, as it’s just all the stuff we see at temples, only out of context. I liked the building best, I guess.

The temple was the last in a long day of temples. I didn’t go in, just watched the sunset reflect off the back side. Also, my camera battery died as we entered, so there’s only one photo. The sunset viewing was really nice, and many locals were doing the same as us: lounging on the stones and watching the show. Afterwards, some of them wanted selfies.

Finally, we arrived in Trichy, our destination for 2 nights. We checked in, refreshed slightly, then went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Everyone was tired. I am feeling very done with temples and ruins. I’m glad to be in a city, where I can do some people watching and see more life. I don’t mind the active temples, but the ancient ruins are less interesting to me.

Sometimes it’s hard to find alcohol in Tamil Nadu, so I don’t have an end-of-evening photo with a drink. We’ve really been having early evenings anyway. One drink about does everyone in.

Southern India day 5 – Auroville

9 Oct 2017. We enjoyed another delicious breakfast in our wonderful hotel. They have gotten used to us, and bring us bigger pots of coffee (me and Derek) and masala chai (Abbie and Matt), and sooner in the process. After that, we arranged an appointment with a guide, Gopi, a second generation Aurovilian, to learn about this community of international dreamers near Pondicherry. A taxi driver was arranged, and he got more than he bargained for in the end – as we didn’t just need a return trip but also a lot of driving around the community while we were there. He nearly missed another appointment of his own in the evening, arranging another driver to meet us on the road home and switch places!

I’m not sure how to describe Auroville that will not make it sound like a cultist utopia. I grew up in southwest Washington state, where many figures from my childhood were involved with the cult of Ramtha, an Atlantean warrior supposedly channeled by a middle-aged American woman. Further, my work in and study of Thai traditional medicine and my experiences studying Chi Nei Tsang with Mantak Chia and his Universal Healing Tao organisation have made me very comfortable with the sometimes heavy woo factors in idealist philosophies. So read further with whatever grain of salt level you prefer. For example, did you know that “living water,” which is basically aerated and treated with music and lighting, is essential?

Auroville was founded after a French soul-seeking artist met an Indian teacher and began interpreting his philosophy and teaching herself. She is now simply referred to as the Mother. In a dream, she saw a community laid out on a grid of principles and ideals, a large lotus in the center. I’m simplifying extremely.

The first Aurovilians attempted to create this vision using only their own labors, but almost no progress was made in the first couple of years, until an architect suggested that they incorporate local paid labor into the actualisation. Applying their ideals to the hiring of labor, however, is what makes this community so worthwhile. Everyone working at Auroville, in any capacity, is entitled to eat at the community kitchen for free, and receive health care and education for their families. There are many other ways that Auroville improves the lives of the people in their area. They teach skills and provide an outlet for entrepreneurial endeavors. Each craft workshop is staffed by individual freelancers, who can choose their work and their pace, selling when and where they like, all while receiving the kinds of benefits usually enjoyed by employees.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to the story. We talked to a man laboring onsite who still asked us for money for food, while agreeing that he is fed onsite. But Gopi told us that of the 2nd generation of full Aurovilians who’ve gone away (such as returning to the countries of their parents for college), 80% have returned to make their homes in Auroville. I could see the appeal. They are researching and engineering new techniques for a sustainable community. Part of the science campus:

An arch-building class for architecture students. The frames are removed after the bricks are set.

The spirulina beds:

Aurovilians are still working to realize the dream of the Mother. They have completed the Matremandir, which is a beautiful meditation space and the center of the lotus. There is a pleasant walk to a viewing space, but visits inside are only granted on in-person advance application.

When the location was founded, there was a large banyan tree, and it has been incorporated into the idealistic layout.

To produce the gold segments, they studied the techniques of the Golden Buddha in Bangkok, another monument we have visited. It is truly beautiful in the sunshine.

We saw mongeese (mongooses?) on the walk back, and everyone was tired and impressed by our day during our much quieter taxi ride home to the hotel.

The women’s restroom shows a sari!

The others took a rest in the hotel, but I felt energized. I went for a stroll to see the shore during daylight.

For dinner, we enjoyed a trendy place with the most delicious spicy cocktails, then a last walk on the beach and back through town. We were adopted as pack by a yellow dog. None of the other dogs we passed liked him, and we defended him from a pack of 10. He followed us all the way home, and howled all night long, lonely outside our window. Poor guy. We never fed him or petted him, but I guess he liked us anyway.

(I forgot to turn off the dramatic tone.)

Southern India day 4 – Pondicherry

8 Oct 2017.

After a sprawling breakfast, today was the day of the Science Fair! We were excited to head over and find out what all the boys of the nearby Catholic school had done for their projects.

In contrast to most European and American educational systems, children in many (I can’t say all, lacking experience) Asian countries are taught recitation and memorisation. So it was really cute to hear tag-team reports, often among the younger classes. As you walked along the presentation, each child would pick up where the last left off, continuing their presentation.

I don’t know if the girls they’d convinced to sit for their displays were their sisters or girls from neighboring schools. We found out that the girls and boys filing through the exhibits in uniformed groups were from other schools.

As ever, many children (and teachers) wanted to take selfies with us, especially while trying to convince us to vote for their entry. šŸ˜€

(these 2 photos courtesy Dr. Abbie Vandivere)

The day became hotter while we were there in the open, and soon we were sweltering under the colorful shade tents. It was definitely time to move on and find lunch!

We ate at a French cafe with the most delicious sourdough baguettes. It was hot in the shade, and another table had placed themselves in front of the only fan, so after lunch, Derek and Abbie returned to the hotel for a cool-down and rest. Abbie’s massage was also scheduled very soon.

Matt and I went shopping! Directly across the street from the cafe was a sweet little design shop from Delhi, a collaborative effort by young designers. They used printed and embroidered patterns in really fresh ways, so I bought a dress and Matt bought a couple of breezy shirts. He’s feeling more equipped for the heat now!

Then it was time for my massage, back at the hotel. The masseuse was the mother of our lovely young hostess, and she was very matter-of-fact. The massage, which was for relaxation, was brisk and not very deep, but effective.

After a break, the group got back together for a wander through town, past an excitingly busy park, where many children were playing. We found the BEST temple, too.

I’m afraid I have to apologize. I found that the “dramatic tone” camera setting is amazingly suited to India. It makes the brightly colored gods and demons and other figures pop, and highlights the ancient carved stone, with its textures, in ways that other settings haven’t. I’m a little addicted. I may be overusing it. So pretty.

and normal:

Some shopping later, we stopped at a south Indian restaurant recommended by our hostess. It was very busy with Indians, and the food was delicious. One thing I really need to improve is my skill at ripping bread one-handed. I’m fine with eating with my fingers, but chewy and crumbly breads are very difficult using only one’s rights hand. Derek and Abbie are better at it than I am, and I didn’t see Matt, since he was next to me versus across. I imagine we’ll get plenty of practice!

After dinner, we walked to a posh European place recommended for its cocktail bar, to finish the evening in style.

Southern India day 3 – Tiruvannamalai & arrival Pondicherry

7 Oct 2017. On our first real morning in India (because airports don’t count), we lugged our bags down the colorful stairs, deposited them with the travel agent next door, and breakfasted across the street. A different driver than expected greeted us when we were ready, and we set off. Because I unfortunately suffer from carsickness, I get to enjoy the front seat. This also means negotiating with the driver and sometimes translating (trying to get used to someone’s accent and resay the exact same thing). But it’s fun, because I get to look out the window, which is really necessary since the carsickness makes it impossible to sleep or read. Even though our entire reason for going to Mamallapuram was for the Tiger Cave (the town is otherwise known for its stone carvers, and we did see many representations of this), the timeline just didn’t allow it. Fort Gingee from the road, very imposing. Our driver is from this area. He was also an excellent driver, a perfect combination of aggressive and cautious, avoiding all bumps and discomfort while honking his horn and overtaking almost everyone. The drive to Tiruvannamalai was about 3 hours, and Hindu temples close at 12/12:30 until 15/15:30. We got there in plenty of time. Roads have all kinds of traffic. As tourists, we are only allowed in part of the temple, the entryway. Like with many other temples from other faiths we have visited, shoulders and knees must be covered, and shoes removed. In this case, cameras are additionally forbidden, so we only have the outside of the complex. Within the complex, we were allowed to a certain point, but afterwards you must be Hindu. Abbie is actually officially Hindu, but has no proof and really knows nothing of it, so although it was tempting to try and get her in, it wasn’t very practical. We did pay money to the elephant, who blessed Abbie by tapping her on the head, but apparently my donation was insufficient (I only had 2 rupees on me at the time). We also received blessings at the lingam of Sri Maharsi. I thought lingam was the word for penis, a fertility representation, but I must have remembered wrong, because it was not. We were directed into a basement, where we made donations, and a red bracelet was first wrapped around our right wrists then sealed with white powder that was subsequently placed at our 3rd eye. Unlike the red bracelets I’m used to in SE Asia, this one is red woven nylon, like a shoelace. I’m not sure how long it will take to fall off on its own. Quite a while, I imagine. Our driver’s boss told me that this temple at Tiruvannamalai is a temple to a fire Shiva, in contrast to another one we hope to see later, to a dancing Shiva. This was our first experience with people trying to get things from us, but mostly they wanted to take selfies with us. This was so confusing at first, that we refused the first ones. I feel bad, now, because that first young girl asked very nicely. It’s just that I was still stepping out of the SUV, and it felt very abrupt. I am very taken with the crows here. They have gray heads, and like all crowd, are very clever. I may have been having a little discussion with one earlier the day I wrote this. After the temple, our driver took us to a nearby ashram, where we learned more about Sri Maharsi. This person was a teacher whose story starts at age 16 when he felt, for the first time, the fear of death. This info was being hand-lettered where we received the blessings, but was incomplete. Here it is, now, though, if you would like to read it. The ashram was very peaceful, and was on a route that would have been part of this story had we arrived only 2 days earlier. Every full moon, many hundreds of Hindu walk around the entire mountain. Our driver made a point to drive us along part of the route, where we saw many shrines and monkeys and sadhus (like crazy hermits). I asked him if he’d ever walked it, and he looked surprised and answered no, that it must take very long. But he also had an offering to Buddha on the front of his jeep, so maybe he’s not that much a Hindu. (Things here, like many places which practice some form of Buddhism, are very mixed, so you never really know. He was happy to talk about his small Ganesha statue on the dash and pendant hanging from the rearview mirror, both of which had fresh flower garlands. They must have worked, too, because we certainly encountered no obstacles.) Before leaving town, our driver recommended a lunch place which was wonderful. Delicious momos (small dumplings with various fillings, if you’ve not had them before) and some Indo-Chinese fusion stuff that was excellent. And then we sped onwards towards Pondicherry. We got a little lost coming into Pondicherry, so we passed a school science fair. More on that tomorrow! Our hotel, recommended by a friend of Abbie & Derek, is Les Hibiscus, and it’s exactly the kind of place I love. Colonial furniture, lots of green plants and interesting touches. It is very similar to my favorite hotel in Chiang Mai, where I’ve now stayed 3 times. Similar price range, too. If I ever return to Pondicherry, I would stay here again. We all had a rest, then walked to the boardwalk to get a feel. Like the beach in Mamallapuram, the entire town and all its visitors were there, parading and taking pictures. Many wanted to take selfies with us, so we finally learned to get into it. After a promenade, we went for dinner and drinks at a low-key place near our hotel. It was a lovely day all around! Because Pondicherry was a French colony town, there’s a strong Catholic presence. This was tucked into a tree, but Ganesha was in the next tree.

Southern India Days 1 & 2 – travel and Mamallapuram

Welcome back to my adventures. It’s true: I don’t always remember to blog every trip. For instance, Matt and I traveled to Marrakech last weekend, and although I may belatedly post something about that trip, it wasn’t one of the major exploration trips, which definitely get blogged about. The cast of characters for this 3 week journey: me (Sharon), Matt, and our friends Derek and Abbie. This will be our first trip with them, although all of us are veteran travelers. Oct 5, 2017: Was entirely a travel day. We woke up early, took an Uber to Schiphol airport, then flew via Paris CDG to Bengalaru (Bangalore). We arrived just before midnight, and collected our bags before re-checking them into a domestic flight leaving at 06:30 for Chennai. Derek had purchased us access to a nice travel lounge, so we slept for a few hours on comfortable recliners, before waking for complimentary breakfast then boarding our plane.

(lounge photo credit Matt)

We arrived to Chennai around 07:30, but our arranged transport was not there. In the end, we took an Uber to Mamallapura, where we’d be staying the first night in order to see the Tiger Cave in the morning. It was a long drive, but pleasant, and we checked into our budget guesthouse with no problem. Matt and Abbie went for food while Derek and I took naps. My favorite thing about our guesthouse, which shared a courtyard with another guesthouse, was the stairway. Everything is so colorful here, and usually hand-painted and -lettered, although occasionally you will see stencils as well. After a nap, we headed out, first for some late lunch at a friendly but mediocre cafe nearby, then for Matt and me to get sim cards. Unfortunately, there were some problems with the sim, so it took much longer to do than it should have. Abbie and Derek headed to Shore Temple without us, but we took a tuk tuk and joined them at the 5 Chariots temple. On the walk back, we stopped in at another closed monument, but took pictures from outside. The sun had already set, but it was beautiful. Considering how long of a day it was, we were pretty pleased at all we’d accomplished thus far. We went out for dinner at another friendly and mediocre place (this is really a middle-of-nowhere town, not really a culinary hot spot) and discussed our plans for the evening and next day. Abbie and I went to negotiate a driver for our next day adventures; Matt went to get help with his still-malfunctioning sim card; Derek went for an early night, since he’d been unsuccessful with napping earlier. Errands run, the three of us remaining found the entire town camped out on the beach enjoying the breeze. We didn’t manage to finish our enormous beers.

Chiang Mai Day 6: Elephants!

I’ve been delaying writing this post for 2 reasons. First, the photos from the day were almost entirely taken by the tour operator, so I need to sort them and choose a few to use. Second, and more importantly, I was still feeling that we had once againĀ been irresponsible tourists.

The very first time Matt and I were in Thailand, I had researched a company specializing in personalized tours of hill tribe villages. I had worked for so long with Hmong colleagues and students in St. Paul, Minnesota, that I wanted to put together stories they’d told me about their families and villages in the mountains of SE Asia with reality. Unfortunately, although the company I chose was very good via email, the man who actually takes people on tours had other ideas. Before we set out into the hills, he took us to Tiger Kingdom and one of the big elephant parks near Chiang Mai. I had to speak to his wife on the phone and she had to convey more strongly to him our wishes before we could get out of tourist attractions.

At that park, in 2010 or whenever it was, there were lots of elephants, and you rode in big wooden contraptions on them. They rode a prescribed route through the nearby countryside, and probably did it more than once a day. Yes, we rode the elephants, and yes, it was fun. But I doubt it was a good environment for the elephants.

So this time, when Jennifer said she really wanted to visit elephants, I insisted that if we do that, she and Matt needed to actually research ethical elephant tourism. They did, and the sanctuary that they most wanted to visit was fully booked for the day. They did more research, and discovered another elephant “sanctuary” that was closer to town (only an hour or so drive) and said there was no riding of the elephants. I agreed to join them.

It was a really fun day. It’s true. There were only a few elephants, including a couple of babies. They were a family group without the bulls, because apparently the bulls are dangerous for the females sometimes (I’m just repeating what I was told there). The bulls are sometimes there as well, we are told.IMG_7693.JPG

There were 5 of us tourists. A father and daughter from Madrid, and the 3 of us. We were 2 to an elephant, so sometimes Jennifer was alone and sometimes I was. First we fed the elephants and learned about their individual backgrounds and personalities. img_7696

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Then the mahouts took them into the river for a bath. img_7752

Then we learned some words for using with the elephants and had lunch. img_7786

Then we fed the elephants some sugar cane and practiced getting on and off of them. img_7789

Then we rode them across the river and through the woods a very short way along a circular route. img_7800img_7812

Then we took a break while the elephants drank and played in the mud. Then we rode a bit further, back to the river, where we washed the elephants (and ourselves; we were really muddy). img_7879img_7889

Then we rode back to the camp.img_7899img_7904img_7906

It wasn’t a lot of riding. Maybe a total through the whole day of less than 45Ā minutes on their backs. This was a full day program, so the elephants were not going to be doing it again that day. A lot of the day was spent posing for pictures for the photographer, who directed us constantly on where to stand and when to smile (yes, it was annoying). But they had in fact advertised no riding (to my knowledge, based on what Matt told me, although Jennifer had asked the hotel staff to make the arrangements, so who knows), and then we rode. Everyone was respectful and cautious. The elephant that Matt and I were on in the first part threw a little fit at a patch of brush, and trumpeted and trumpeted, refusing to move for a while. The mahouts told us that she frequently does that at that patch, but they didn’t use anything but words and guiding her by hand to try to move her along. They were calm and so we were calm.

We enjoyed learning the command words, too. And everyone at the camp seemed very amused when I pulled out bamboo sticky rice to share after the ride.