From January - July 2010, we are roaming the Indian Subcontinent (and beyond, as it turned out)...

...during that period, this blog page is the temporary home of

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Nadudes and Juggernauts

[Rebecca typing...]
After spending three days exploring Pondicherry, we hopped on a public bus to our next stop, Mamallapuram. Our first impressions of the place weren't brilliant since the place was teeming with buses filled with Indian tourists. However, we found a hotel, dumped our gear and set about seeing a few of the sights which included some impressive rock carvings.

We had originally planned to spend three nights in Mamallapuram but instead, we decided to cut our time there short and so we headed off again on another bus the next day to Tiruvanamalai. We were so glad we bothered - the city was ace! It seemed to come alive more at night when things had cooled down a little and I enjoyed wondering around the shops, exploring the temple, waking early to hike 9 miles around the holy mountain, and drinking chai at the little street vendor down the road from our hotel.

We left Tiru after a couple of nights and headed up to Chennai to meet a prebooked (but waitlisted) train up to Puri. We got a few chores out of the way while we anxiously waited to see if we would get a seat on the train that was departing late that night. At 9pm we were told we didn't have seats and were forced to take a retiring room at the train station to spend the night. Luckily, we were able to get on the same train the following evening; we spent another day killing time in the city before boarding the train later that night. I was pretty glad to see the back of Chennai railway station after having my first minor meltdown on the platform when we sat down on seats close to a raised floor tile with rats and coackroaches pouring out. Ick! Brian rescued the situation by moving me away and feeding me bournville choccie biscuits and a cup of chai!

After spending a long 20 or so hours on the train, we arrived in Puri after midnight. We spent three days in the town and made the most of the abundance of sweet shops! Another overnight train later, we landed in Calcutta and got straight out on another local train to Mayapur where we ended up staying three nights at a Hare Krishna centre. There was a large festival going on at the time; pilgrims that had arrived here from all around the world to celebrate the festival. People were super friendly.

We left Mayapur yesterday heading for Darjeeling. We arrived a few hours ago. It's hard to believe that this is the same country because the people look quite different here. I am enjoying the cooler climate and our very first hotel with hot water.

[Brian writing...]
Rebecca said most everything, so I'll just fill in some pieces. As I think we said before, we loved Pondicherry. Back then, we were in the state of Tamil Nadu, still deep in the south of India. They call themselves Tamils there, but I personally like the term Na-dudes better and hope it catches on.

Since leaving there, our last two weeks have comprised a slow, steady journey up the east side of India. There have been a few overnight railway journeys, which for the most part, we're both enjoying, even though we tend towards the lowest/cheapest sleeper carriages (last night's voyage was about 12 hrs for 230 rupees each ($5.50, just over 3 quid).

The temples in Tamil Nadu (Pondicherry, Tiruvanamalai) and Puri were fantastic. The places are teeming with mystery and elephants and colorful people. Puri's was called Jagannath - the place was f-ing massive. Every time a local referred to it, it sounded like "Juggernaut," leaving me to wonder if this is where we got the English term from?

Chennai was notable for a street-corner cheese-egg-curry grilled sandwich. And Rebecca's near-meltdown at the railway station late one night.

We continue to pick winners for our stops. Puri was a great example. Our guidebook described it as a 70's hippy hotspot, long-faded and past its glory days - not too appealing. The reality: the beach was filthy, our midnight arrival (and being followed by shady characters) sucked, but the place overall was fantastic. We watched sunsets on said dirty beach, saw a wedding procession, a thousand wandering cows (noticeably more prevalent as we've gone north, slowly replacing goats, gives me something to moo at), got robbed by monkeys, saw the fabulous Sun Temple at nearby Konark, and gaped at pilgrims as we meandered through crowded streets in search of fruits and delicious Indian sweets.

Calcutta we skipped. As Rebecca stated, we headed north immediately on the first train out of the city, some two hours after arrival. The journey was brutal - one of those train carriages with limbs and bodies hanging out of windows and doors, and people stacked on top of each other, and police physically pulling people out who want to disembark at a given stop - but our reward: a town with no motorized traffic, a peaceful ashram (nice place, but don't think we'll be joining), and a great spot to do some errands [our tally one day: four ferry journeys across the river, two clothing alterations at a tailor, one large clay pot of chilled curd, four cups of tea, six parothas with curry, one blue pen, and seven bananas - all for about 80 rupees - $1.75, just over a bob].

That's it.

Now we're in the proper north. Darjeeling, up in West Bengal.

My favorite things at the moment: my industrial-rubber-smelling inflatable pillow (a godsend for these train journeys), Johnson and Johnson Q-tips Rebecca got me for Valentine's Day (if you've used dodgy Indian earbuds, you understand), and dahi sarbat (a questionable but tasty concoction of murky fluids, that skin you peel off the top of full-fat milk/yogurt, mystery powder, and crushed ice).

We're happy to be on the edge of the Himalayas. We plan to stay awhile.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Wild(ing) Time in Kerala

[This is Brian writing because Rebecca doesn't want to right now.] The Wildings (Rebecca's parents) arrived in Trivandrum - their first time ever in a locale as exotic/chaotic as India. We were their "guides" for nine days (and left them to fend for themselves during the last five days of their trip). In a nutshell, our voyage together:

Varkala Beach was the first port of call. A bit touristy (for India anyway), but extremely picturesque: a long, clean (!) beach backed by a dramatic clifftop lined with shops, guesthouses, and restaurants. Then, a train journey to Alleppey, where we spent a night in the city before heading into the Backwaters of Kerala by public ferry. We stayed a pair of nights in a local home - way back in the boondocks, stranded on a small island of rice paddies. No shops here - just simple homes, swaying palms, little canals and footbridges, and the color green. After this relative peace and quiet, a longish, busy day on boats and buses carried us a mile up into the Nilgiri Hills, to Munnar. I led us on an impromptu tour of the area's tea plantations in the steep, terraced land above the village. On Day Nine, Rebecca and I descended to the coast, leaving Ann and Dave to fend for themselves.

They'll be fine. I was amazed at their energy and adventurousness. In Varkala, each morning we walked a mile-plus from the beach into the village proper, escaping the tourists for real Indian breakfasts and to stock up on fresh fruits. Later, we traveled by local train, local bus, and local ferry - taxis, no thanks- once stopping for a half hour on a random roadside before getting wedged into a not-so-comfortable bus. Days were filled with bazaars and walks and cards (and occasionally, a Kingfisher beer - thanks, Dave!) Most meals were at Indian diners, wonderful (and cheap) meals eaten with hands. They left me to order, and happily devoured whatever appeared on the table. Impressive! The four of us had a fantastic time together.


Since then (four days ago), Rebecca and I crossed from the state of Kerala into Tamil Nadu, having caught an overnight train to Tiruchirappalli (thankfully nicknamed Trichy - a bit more manageable).

Our first day in our new surrounds was way more busy than is healthy in India - Trichy's Rock Fort (a temple/fort built atop a massive knob of rock protruding from the plain) and a big temple with a long name, then a train to nearby Thanjavor to explore its Royal Palace and a kick-ass Hindu temple (also called Brihadishwara). If all that means not too much, then just imagine that it was a hell of a lot of chasing around in really hot weather without a cloud in the sky, on incredibly crowded buses and the like, and that we ended (collapsed) in a grotty-ish hotel room and pretty much went into respective comas until the next day. FN: it was all worthwhile, mainly due to a mind-blowing cashewnut rava dosa for breakfast (oh, so crispy and wonderful!) and the temples full of pilgrims and elephants and statues and monkeys and smoke and a nice little prasad stand (selling sweeties to the Hindu visitors).

Then, a long bus day onwards to Puducherry (aka Pondicherry), the former French enclave where we exist at the moment. We can see the Bay of Bengal from our hotel, we have a nice garden, there's French colonial architecture, and even peace and quiet (if you look hard), yet all else that India has to offer is just a short distance away. We love it here.

We also love idiappam and idli (Rebecca not so much) and chana masala from a place called Kaarthik and lassis and puttu with bananas and coconut milk - and the aforementioned cashewnut rava dosa which is one of mankind's greatest achievements.

I do wonder how it is generally so lush and green here, and there has been precisely ONE rainfall in the month we've now been in this country.

We are having a lot of fun.