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South India Part Two

6th Apr 2010

Fri 19th March - Madurai/Kodaikanal

We wake at 6.30am and decide to leave Madurai as soon as we've checked out the temple. We've both had enough of big indian cities and want to head to the cool air of the hills quicker than a herd of wildebeast. The streets are gloriously quiet as we head out via a chai in the Bombay sweets shop. The tea is passed through a sock like strainer before colossal amounts of sugar are added to two glasses followed by frothy milk. After our sugar rush we head to the Sri Meenakshi Sundareshwarer temple.

The temple is a large fortified complex dominated by giant coloured gates on each side. We desposit our footwear and enter through the east side into the dark cavernous 8 Goddess Hallway which is flanked by large sculpted pillars and decorated with colourful ceiling murals. To each side small market stalls sell Puja offerings and souvenirs. We head through another gateway, pass the rather subdued looking temple elephant and then enter into the large central area where Hindus are praying on the floor in front of the central shrine. The sanctuary is a hive of activity, young Brahmin boys under religious instruction on the Vedas hurry past us, women light candles and a few musicians create soothing music.

We light a few candles as offerings and walk around the central area, as non-hindus we are not permitted to enter the main shrine so we head off round the main complex through more giant corridors passing sleeping bats. As we step out into the bright sunlight of the outer complex we gaze in awe at the brightly coloured towers covered with a profusion of gaily painted stucco gods and demons. We walk around past groups of monks meditating until we reach the Golden Lotus Tank where worshippers are supposed to bathe prior to worship, the water levels are non-existent though. To our left worshippers daub white powder on their faces, large colourfully dressed families sit sharing food while school children tuck into packed lunches. Its an engaging place and we both rate this as our favourite temple in India. On leaving the temple, a young woman devotee yells and shakes uncontrollably as if in the throws of a mad episode. She finishes by dropping to her knees in adolation of a small shrine just outside the main area.

Odie purchases a nice silk scarf while I fend off countless offers to 'see good temple views from the top of my shop' which can be translated as 'come and buy something from my shop you mug'. We head to the old market are to the side of the temple and find a bustling fruit and veg market that looks like it has been transported from Medieval times. It is a riot of colour, noise and smell. The floor is a carpet of old vegetables while women and men sit surrounded by huge piles of produce. Men bustle past with large sacks on their heads while an entrepreneurial cow tries to steal carrots from a large box. Produce is weighed out on antiquated old scales as traders barter prices.

After a cheap but not necessary cheerful breakfast in a hotel restaurant perfect for dead people we take a rickshaw to the bus station. Its a 45 minute wait before we are directed to the 'deluxe' 'express' bus complete with ear splitting Bollywood music video system. For 20R our bags are pounded into a luggage compartment half the size of our backpacks. It turns out to be a pleasant journey and 2 hours later after a brief stop we begin the steep climb to Kodaikanal. The scenery is jaw dropping as the bus lurches precariously from side to side on a spring suspension passing steep drops. Its a 1.5 hour climb to Kodaikanal reminiscent more of Nepal than India. The air is much cooler and everything seems less hectic. We still have the usual rabble of touts and taxi drivers sticking to us like glue as we depart the bus but we soon lose them and head out of town towards Greenlands Youth Hostel. It is a 20 minute struggle up a steep country road, a group of Westerners passing us throw us a frisbee which Odie successfully catches before returning it to them.

Fortunately for us the hostel has one room left, its a basic hovel room seemingly overpriced at 500R but the stunning mountain views more than make up for it. We immediately make friends with Vivek, a friendly Indian-Canadian who has been in Kodai for 3 months and an Austrian guy called Christian who has been here 4 weeks recovering from an ankle injury. We are soon joined by a French guy who has just come up from Auroville and the rest of the afternoon is spent chatting and enjoying the stunning views.

That evening wrapped up in fleeces we head into town with a group from the hostel for some dinner at a vegetarian restaurant before returning for a few drinks on the terrace with a view of the cosmos. We retire to our rock like bed dressed in all our clothes and wrapped in 4 blankets.

Sat 20th March - Kodaikanal

We awake early to beautiful views, the hostel seems unwilling to serve us breakfast so we head into town via a frisbie tournament. An over excited American woman dressed in a cowboy outfit screams like a deranged hyena from a mic keeping score. Despite the cowboy/hyena entertainment, the frisbie event fails to keep us interested for long and we head in search of a decent place for breakfast. We end up in a bland plastic cafeteria eating bland unhealthy curried pasties.

For some reason we spend the next 2 hours walking around the unmissable part of Kodaikanal town trying to purchase a few items before taking some lunch at a tiny outside cafe. We return to the hostel via the lake where hundreds of Indian tourists are either enjoying horserides or paddling small yellow boats on the water, for some reason this really irritates me so we leave.

After another afternoon of enjoying the terrace views we head to a Tibetan restaurant with Rachel from Canada and a friendly Israeli guy who happens to be participating in the Frisbie tournament. On the way we bump into Erik and Marion and then Mark and his wife swelling our numbers to eight. After some tasty Momos and fried rice its back to the hostel where Erik conjures up some strong beers. We all admire the night sky and a distant fire that begins to resemble a large glowing snake on the mountainside.

Sun 21st March - Kodaikanal

Erik and Marion join us for a small trek to Dolphin Nose Point just past the village of Vattarkannal. We stop for a tasty breakfast of omlette and bread washed down with chai at a roadside stall. Its a nice stroll along a winding country road before we turn down a track just past a church. Its a pleasant 15 minute walk to the small settlement of Vattarkannal where a few disinterested tourists laze around drinking tea. From there after some directions from a frazzled expat we take a trek down a steep rocky path before turning right through a pine forest.

Dolphin Nose Point does not disappoint with stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountains softened in the morning haze. The actual point juts over a precipitous drop, Marion and Erik both venture onto the edge for photos, we stay well back! Its a strenouos climb back up to the road where we encounter a mass crowd of churchgoers hauling a big wooden cross up the hill. A distorted loudspeaker carries what is presumably the Palm Sunday message as they proceed upwards. We extract ourselves from the crowd and head back to Greenfields where we bid farewell to Erik and Marion.

The afternoon is spent visiting a vibrant local market where locals shop for after shave, pots and pans and T-Shirts. Further down, fruit and veg sellers add a touch of colour and noise. After purchasing some beer we head back to the hostel and relax for the rest of the afternoon. Its another tasty curry for dinner followed by more interesting conversation with the influx of new guests.

Mon 22nd March - Kodaikanal

After our first warm shower (albeit from a bucket) in weeks we elect to have a lazy day. The plan of riding bikes is shelved for a pleasant walk around the lake, more relaxing at the hostel before a curry that evening.

Tues 23rd March - Kodaikanal to Kumily

After breakfast we arrive at the bus station where we are directed on a bus that we're told will connect with a bus to Kumily. Its a one and three quarter hour journey down the mountain with more stunning views. As we level out passing coffee and banana plantations our bus is almost full and Odie has to endure a magnitude of armpits and groins from the aisle. We arrive at the bus station to discover that we actually need one more bus to connect with the Kumily bus, so its off again on a full bus to Theni with our backpacks blocking the aisle. Its a bumpy suicidially fast journey before we are deposited half an hour later in the centre of Theni. After asking around we discover our bus round the corner and there is just enough time to buy some samosas and water before we head off again.

After 2 hours we arrive in a place called Cumbum where the driver takes a quick 5 minute rest before we continue on with a stunning climb up to Kumily. We are dropped by the side of the road and a 'friendly' tout immediately begins working on us. When its clear we will not be using his services he is still decent enough to point us in the right direction.

The road leading to our homestay seems blocked by a rope, after ignoring a ranting man I go under the rope only to discover it is wet tar just laid on the surface of the road. Unfortunately it seems nearly everyone is ignoring the rope and also walking on the still to dry road. Our homestay is set next to jungle and we decide to splash out a bit more to get a deluxe room after the lack of comfort we've had the last week. 700R gets us a large expansive room with the most comfortable bed thus far, the only downside is the sound of the jungle is masked by the roadworks going on outside. The crickets though give a good bash at trying to outsing the generator at one point.

We head out for some dinner, back down the rapidly drying road past loudpspeakers blaring out loud distorted Hindi music. Dinner is at Chrissies which does a tasty lasagne. When we get back the owner shows us some photos of the different animals he has spotted near the guesthouse: barking deer, black monkey, squirrel, porcupine and even elephants. As we bid him goodnight we are treated to a procession of wild boar stumbling through the forest as we head to bed.

Wed 24th March - Kumily

We meet our rickshaw driver who has to divert down a narrow alley due to the road resurfacing, at one point we almost get stuck in the end a bit of paintwork is left on a wall. We leave Kumily behind and climb through lush tea plantations and banana crops. Our destination is Connemara Tea Factory named by an Irishman where we join a group of 10 for a guided tour. We are given a brief history of the place before our guide goes onto explain the tea collecting and then the making process. We are then given a tour of the factory where we can see the tea in different stages of evolution. At the end there is a tea tasting session, the strong tea wins hands down!

After our tea education we head to Deepa Spice Farm where we are given an informative tour of the grounds. We are shown a variety of different plants and spices used in Ayurvedic medicine. Our tour inevitably ends in a shop where our guides' 'sales' pitch works and we spend about £15 on spices, tea and coffee.

After heading back to Kumily and a fine lunch at Chrissies we return to the homestay for a few hours to rest. We head out early evening through a forest to a roadside temple where we have been tipped off that there will be a festival tonight. There does not seem to be too many people although there are some very big loudspeakers and few people lingering on walls. We take up seats on the opposite side of the road as large trucks and buses thunder past. Gradually more and more people arrive on the scene including a wild looking man in a white robe who comes over to us and invites us to come and take a closer look. I note that he seems to be lurching from side to side and his breath smells of cheap whiskey.

It turns out his son is participating in the festival, the part of which includes body mutilation. Unlike the Thai Vegetarian Festival we witnessed in Phuket it seems that a professional will insert sharp 'kebab' like swords into their faces. The son and 2 other participants are covered in white powder and oil before they begin. Our new 'friend' seems keen for me to be his sons official photographer and we are soon introduced to his whole family who do not seem to be impressed. As more and more people arrive people on drums start to play and the traffic is now second fiddle to the proceedings. Crazy women shake uncontrollably while the mutilation starts. I'm grabbed by the arm and pushed in front of a crowd of people so I can get some close up pictures.  Unfortunately a combination of a lens problem, the fact that is dark and that I'm also being jostled means I'm unlikely to get any stunning shots.

As we crowd around, helpers insert the metal kebab stakes through their cheeks while smaller pins are attached to their faces and chests. The participants faces show amazing restraint to begin with before seemingly passing out. Once finished they are led limply over to the temple shrine amid crowds of people. There seems to be very little order in place, more women wobble uncontrollably, drunk men stagger about. Eventually everybody starts the 3km walk up the road, our 'man' finds us. He starts trying to drag us up the road, we say we're just going to take some photos before heading back the other way and back through the forest making our escape. Its a dark walk partially lit by a mobile phone screen before we make it back to our homestay. We have dinner again at Chrissies before walking back through the back streets where open doors give us glimpses of Keralan life.

Thu 25th March - Bus to Varkala

Our bus to Kottayam leaves at 8 and is suitably shabby. Nevertheless, we are soon careering down steep roads between tea plantations a patchwork of green on either side. As we dip and dive through the valleys it becomes clear our driver is on a suicide mission and wants to take down a few pedestrians along the way. Fortunately, three hours later, hot and parched we arrive at the 'charming' Kottayan KTSC bus garage which is basically a concrete bunker of horror. I attempt to ask a uniformed man how we can get a connecting bus to Varkala, I even point at the map. Even after 2.5 minutes he seems certain we actually want to go in the opposite direction to  Munnar! I eventually learn that the best option would be to jump on a bus to Trivandrum and then hop off enroute near Varkala.

Due to the inadequacies of our help we immediately have to jump on the Trivandrum bus leaving no time for water or food. It means a dinner of Mango Tic Tacs and about a thimble of warm water which we both savour with disappointment. This bus is just as hot but at least the driver seems less intent on killing us all. There is a half way stop where I manage to buy some water, bananas and some unidentifiable vegetable fried thing served in filthy newspaper. The toilet in this bus station gets the award as Indias' worst toilet, one cubicle being about 1 foot deep in shit.

I learn that from here there is a direct bus to Varkala but not for 3 hours so its back on the bus, where our driver suggests we get off after about another hour so we can catch a direct bus. We arrive at the next bus station to learn that there is no direct bus to Varkala and that we will have to go to Attingal. So its onto our 3rd bus, still hot but seemingly less alarming for a 30 minute journey through the Keralan countryside. Arriving in Attingal we are now told that the direct bus only goes to the village, takes 50 minutes and if we want the beach we will need to catch a rickshaw from the village. By now, Odie has had enough and goes off to enquire about a rickshaw straight from Attingal. It turns out to be only 200R (about £2.80) but is still more than the combined fares of all todays bus travel.

We go with the rickshaw driver and the journey takes over 30 minutes due to our backpacks slowing him down up hills. The story is not yet over though as he drops us off at the wrong place, we needed the north cliff while he drops us off at the south cliff. The result is a tough struggle along the beach and up some steep steps with our backpacks. By now, Odie is not impressed and I  look forward to treating her to a cocktail once we have accommodation.

Fortunately, our first choice place, Bamboo Village has huts at 400R and will do for tonight. In dire need of a drink we head to the Funky Art Cafe and enjoy cheap cocktails and watch a premature sunset over the red cliffs. Overhead, Kites and Eagles soar majestically. I order a Kingfisher beer and due to the Keralan drink laws am allowed to drink it aslong as I hide the bottle under the table. It is not too long before a young girl joins us practising her English, before we know it she has switched the subject to shopping and very conveniently has a bag of goodies to sell. Odie ends up buying a few items to keep her happy before we head off for delicious cocount prawns at Blueberries Cafe.

Fri 26th March - Varkala

After a night with an uncomfortable bed and an ineffective fan we head out for breakfast. We decide to look for another place to stay for the last 3 nights and go on a search of prospective properties. After an hour we find a place for only 100R more but far more luxurious.

We return to our verandah to play cards but get chatting to a very talkative Indian guy called Inesh who works at the huts. It transpires that the french couple opposite us had their bags stolen last night after falling asleep on the hammocks with their hut door open. The bags were located earlier today but minus cash, cards and phones. Inesh goes onto tell us about the criminal underworld that operates in Varkala, the corrupt police that are paid off by the crooks and the violent crime he has witnessed and sometimes been involved in. I get the impression that Inesh has a great dislike for the police and that he is not the only one.

Inesh goes on to tell us that he lost his mother to cancer last year and his best friend's mum sold a silver necklace to finance the funeral arrangements. He then tells us he is dating an American girl and shows us his homemade tattoo with her name on his arm. Our game of cards now definitely out of the question he then tells us of his frustration with the way India is run and how everything is about money here. Inesh is then told off for not working and has to go and water the plants, so we take a cue and get ready for dinner.

We have tasty fish curries set amidst numerous power cuts which interrupt a Beatles soundtrack. Out at sea a dazzling light show signals a nearing storm so we elect to return to our hut before the rains come. As the lightening and thunder get closer we start a card game undercover of our verandah, this is short lived as Inesh reappears to give us more commentary on his life story. He tells us about the relationship with his brother, his views on religion and his loathing for this and that. Inesh leaves us at about 11.30 as the first drops of rain start to fall amid spectacular lightening flashes and cracking thunder.

Back in the hut and rainwater starts dripping on my head directly where I am going to be sleeping. A towel is used to soak up the worst of it although thankfully the heavy rain doesn't last long. Fortunately, the rain has cooled everything down so we only have to endure an uncomfortable bed and not a hot room.

Sat 27th March - Varkala

After moving into our more luxurious hut we take breakfast and watch a squirrel thankfully escape death from a dog by fleeing up a tree. After sustinance, we stroll out along the North Cliff path through the palm trees away from the main drag. We soon find our way blocked by some rope and Keralan fishermen. It appears they are having a tug of war with something in the sea and I'm invited to join in the invisible battle between two odorous Keralan men.

I give them about 5 minutes assistance before we move on and come to another team also hard at work. We hang around to watch them pull their catch of fish out of the sea in a big net. Kites and eagles soar above hopeful of a free feed. Eventually, after a lot of heavo-ho the net is out of the sea and glistening with silver fish that look like sardines. The net is then seived and the fish is then divided up into orange crates before being whizzed away on scooters.

We leave the fishermen behind and press on further past sporadic resorts and tiny bamboo fishing huts dispersed amongst palm trees. More Kites and Eagles sour effortlessly above our heads as the heat of the midday sun starts to burn. We elect to turn back rather than get burnt alive and head back to Varkala.

Lunch is a beer and salad which has the effect of sending us both to sleep for the afternoon..zzzzzzzzzz.

We visit Cafe Italiano for dinner which is recommended in the Rough Guide, unfortunately the pizza is soggy and the beer served in tea cups which are poured out of a large teapot. Not too dispondent we head to a sports bar for some rare live football and get chatting to a crowd made up of an Italian, Norwegian and a guy from Brixton. Odie befriends a small puppy called Bruno who becomes best friends with the strap of her bag. Its 3 hours of football, cocktails, Kingfisher, Bruno and fun conversation before we roll back to our beds.

Sun 28th March - Varkala

In need of some funds we follow the road out of the helipad to the ATM. Its a long walk which winds around for about 30 minutes, when we arrive the ATM doesn't work so we have to jump in a rickshaw to take us to Varkala village. After finding an ATM that works we head back to Varkala for some lunch.

The afternoon is spent shopping where desperate shopkeepers try to make sales. Unbelievably some are quoting prices double that in Goa, its no wonder they are not selling anything. Then its down to the beach for a dip in the strong sea, excitable life guards blow on whistles keeping bathers out of the strong sections of the sea. Indian men slyly take photos on their mobiles of western women in bikinis before the lifeguards blow them the whistle to move over to the Indian section of the beach over to the left.

That evening its more sensational fish curries and yet more live football where we run into the same crowd as last night. Bruno also makes an appearance and it seems has discovered how to bite aswell. After the game we head to the Chillout Cafe where HB, the Norwegian guy entertains the whole bar with his guitar playing before disappearing without playing his bill! Me and Odie end up at a tacky dance bar where desperate Indian men are trying to pull a group of drunk english girls, I suspect neither got what they wanted.

Mon 29th March - Varkala

Our last day in Varkala which is spent eating and shopping before an Ayurvedic Massage. We are both led into separate rooms where the indian guy asks me to strip. I am then handed a dubious G-string a few sizes too small to 'cover' myself with before he recites a small prayer and anointing some oil on my head. The massage starts with a head rub before I'm moved to the bed for the rest of the massage. It turns out to be a relaxing massage although I think on reflection Thai massages win. Afterwards having extracted myself from the bizarre G-String costume I have the advertised 'steam bath' which turns out to be a normal shower.

Our last night is spent at Clafouti enjoying delicious crab before heading back early to enjoy some Bollywood TV.

Tues 30th March - Back to Mumbai

We catch a taxi at 12.30pm to take us to Trivandrum Airport, I am quite pleased to see that it is an Ambassador and it turns out to be comfy and spacious despite the drivers' erratic driving. At the airport we have a short wait before the world's shortest bus journey to the plane on the tarmac (all of 20m!). The flight is uneventful and we arrive back in Mumbai just after 6pm flying over the slums. Being our last night we have decided to splash out on a posh hotel and so for only the 2nd or 3rd time on this trip we are greeted by a namecard in the Arrivals' Hall (This time my name is spelt correct). Its a 25 minute journey to the Silver Inn through heavy traffic and its' strange to think we will be on our way home tomorrow.

After freshening up in our 'luxury' room we head down to the restaurant where we are joined by our friend Marion who has time to kill before her early morning flight. We share some delicious vegetable curries reminscing about our travels before saying farewell to Marion and heading for an early night.

Wed 31st March - Home

We get to the airport in plenty of time and spend the last of our rupees on a piece of cake and a bottle of water while we await our flight. As we take off I catch a glimpse of a Mumbai as the plane banks and wonder when I will next be back. It has been an amazing adventure, an amazing honeymoon and India has certainly been the highlight enriching us with its ups and downs.

And so its back to England, back to clean streets, drinkable tap water, expensive food and beer... I'll miss the cows, the rickshaws, the touts, the great food, the rubbish, the buses, the .....

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