Nov. 12 2019: Houseboating in Alleppy, India. Alright, it is finally hot. Up at 7:30 am, luggage-pick-up at 8 am, breakfast at 8 am, the bus leaves at 9 am. We drove to Alleppy, an important port on the Indian Ocean. Along the way, we stopped at a coconut-hair-rope co-op factory. The factory was the weirdest place. The best I could figure out was the workers made yarn out of coconut hair. The yarn is then woven into a crude mat using wooden foot-powered weaving machines. The facility was primitive, the old guys worked half-naked wearing only a lungi, and the resultant mats were coarse. The actual factory is basically shut down, but these guys formed a workers’ coop, so whenever there was an order, they came in to weave the product.
The highlight of this day was spending the afternoon and night on a houseboat. Alleppy has a vast network of backwater channels that extend for miles. We arrived in Alleppy an hour early, so our guide created a stop at a silk, cashmere, and high-end antique shop. (I am certain our guide gets a kickback on anything sold.) While there, the shop owner gave us a lecture on silk and cashmere. He taught us about the various grades of each, and how to spot fakes. For silk, if you try to light a piece of genuine silk with a Bic lighter, it won’t burn. Fakes, like a polyester or cotton blend, will.
They did have some insanely incredible silk rugs that sure seemed like the real deal but didn’t cost like the real deal - $1,700 for a large throw rug. Expensive, but Diane pointed out that a genuine handmade silk rug would cost at least $15,000. I didn’t have a Bic on me so that I couldn’t test it for authenticity. There was a fabulous hand-carved porch swing that we could have had shipped home for $5000. We don’t have a porch, so we passed.
It looked like quite a few of our bus-mates were buying stuff — the tour guide left with a smile on his face.
At 1 pm, we arrived at the houseboats. We didn’t know what to expect, so we were pleasantly surprised when the boats turned out to be cool. Better yet, the area advertised as pristine indeed was clean and scenic.
The boats were huge thatch-roofed working boats. A few years back, these boats were no longer useful. Then an entrepreneur decided to restore and rent them has houseboats. Success! There must have been 50 of these plying the vastness of the backwaters. Many were single-story boats with friendly patios on the front. Some were two stories with cabins on the lower floor and a large patio on top. Our boat was a true double-decker with cabins on both decks and a small ballroom on the top. The boat captain sat way upfront on a pedestal chair with a big wheel and two giant steel shifting and throttle pipes that he moves according to his needs. It was a grand antique palace reminding me of the old Mississippi paddle wheels.
The backwater channels are lined with rice paddies and easily flooded when planted and quickly drained when harvested. We saw vast areas flooded and vast areas harvested. The gathered rice is put into large burlap bags and loaded into long narrow floating skiffs. Once loaded, these skiffs sat dangerously low in the water. Any wave would swamp it, but the river traffic did not produce any wakes. That seemed odd to me, but these houseboats are very slow. There is a lot of rice continually going up and down the channels.
The food onboard was the usual terrific Indian food, served buffet style like in the hotels. No beer or wine was available, as alcohol is tough to get in India. It’s for the best, as I had plenty of beer in Germany and we will be back there soon enough.
Our floating hotel slowly navigated up the river for several miles past a handful of tranquil villages. River life lacked the hectic pace of the cities; an occasional fisher would be dangling a line in the water. A few women were washing their clothes in the water. Rice laden skiffs were slowly making their way with loud rat-a-tat engines. The most laborious work witnessed was the loading of the skiffs - the large sacks of rice looked heavy.
Around 6 pm, we turned around and headed back a short distance. By 6:30 pm, we moored at a tiny river village. We had hoped to walk around the village, but just as the boats were tied up, the sky opened up. Our gorgeous hot sunny day turned dark and angry. As night arrived, the lightning show began.
At 7 pm, a young man set up a Karaoke speaker. He played some incredible Indian pop music and performed for us. He wasn’t half bad, hitting many of those melodic Indian quarter tones. After a 45 minute performance that I enjoyed, it was dinner time.
It was a great day of houseboating on the tranquil and pristine backwaters of Alleppey.
November 13, 2019. Thekkady, India.
A very pleasant sunrise over the backwaters greeted us this morning. The boat shoved off at 6:30 am. Last night's rain scrubbed the air crisp and clear. Breakfast was spartan, just hard-boiled eggs, toast, jam, and coffee. The boat docked around 9:30 am, and the bus was ready for us.
Once loaded, the bus headed for Thekkady, another mountain city 138 kilometers away (86 miles). We google-mapped it when we started. We were shocked to see that it would take over 4 hours to reach. That meant steep mountain roads with tight switchbacks for the day.
Before we reached the mountains, we drove through the extensive backwaters area. The road paralleled many channels that fed miles of rice fields. Village after village lined the channels. Life continued to look laid-back in this area.
We made tea, toilrt, and rubber tree plantation stops along the way. The Masala Tea wasn't nearly as potent as what Arule made for us a few days back. I believe today was the instant tea version. The bathrooms had western toilets - one of the best we've run across in India. The rubber trees were impressive with spiral grooves carved where the light beige sap dribbled downward into a small collection bowl. It must take thousands of trees just to get a pound of rubber. We took a little sap out of one of the collection bowls. It quickly dried into an elastic string. When I pressed the opposite ends together, it transformed into a rubber band. The trees produce for seven years before they are cut down and used for many things, including to make charcoal.
The mountain road on this stretch was more rugged than the mountain roads around Ooty - and that is saying a lot. With stunning vistas and a hair-raising switchback turns, it was another terrific ride. The interior region around Thekkady has discovered tourism, and the extra tourist dollars made a noticeable dent. The mountain towns and villages are a step up from what we have seen so far.
About 3/4 of the way up the mountains, we stopped off at a popular waterfall. There were plenty of Indian tourists taking selfies. A small group of makeshift booths seemed busy selling snacks and trinkets. The waterfalls were impressive; however, a cruddy old sign between two strands of the falls kind of detracted a bit.
We also stopped at a plot of land that had samples of local spice plants. Several black pepper plants grew about 20 feet tall in the shape of a narrow column. The peppers were still green, but when you bit into one, it tasted like black pepper, and it was hot. There were, nutmeg trees, cinnamon trees, coffee trees, along with cardamom and turmeric plants. The tour ended at, you guessed it, the gift shop. I had to buy some fresh curry, and Wanda picked up some ginger candy. Now I just have to figure out how to cook with curry.
In our estimation, Thekkady was the cutest town that we have seen so far. There is a huge forest reserve, Periyar National Park, nearby, which Thekkady is decently promoting for eco-tourism. There were many group tours, and decent hotels in the area. We even saw several completed two and three-story commercial buildings. Most taller buildings in India never get finished. The street-level might have makeshift shops, but the upper levels were crumbling columns of bare cement and rebar. Sometimes squatters took up residence in these crumbling upper levels. So, it was uplifting when we passed through a more intact city.
After settling in at the Tree Top Hotel, it was time to play. Wanda and I signed up for the Jeep Safari. We all thought that the name implied a Jeep ride through the protected forest. Later we found out that only government buses are allowed in the forest. Instead, we got a pretty cool ATV-like ride up-and-down steep mountain trails in a four-wheel Jeep, well, actually a Jeep-like Mahindra. Although the trails were actually roads, they were trails in every sense of the word. We had about a half dozen stops to check various sights and mountain vistas. The best sight was a river literally falling off a cliff. We got to view it from the top, where it cascaded off the cliff.
Right after that, I went to a martial arts performance. Again, this was different than advertised. It was a series of acrobatic Cirque du Soleil style skits with a martial arts theme. That was a pleasant surprise. I loved it. In one skit, an attacker with a knife went after a defender with a scarf. After many cleverly choreographed parries, the defender, in a nanosecond, tied up the attacker like a calf in a rodeo. Another performer had to come out and untie the subdued attacker. A solo performance featured a big burly contortionist twisting into knots, nearly kicking the overhead lights out with karate high-kicks, and performing crazy somersaults. My favorite was another choreographed attack. This time two attackers with knives went after a defender with a 6-foot long wooden pole. The coup de grace came when the defender, again in a flash, wrapped both attackers' arms and legs around the pole, completely immobilizing them. Think about that - hey were immobilized by a pole! They also had to be released by another person. During these skits, dramatic eastern martial arts music played, with liberal use of tabla-sounding drums and gongs. The finale involved a guy diving through burning hoops. It was a glorious performance.
Wanda skipped the martial arts performance. Instead, she went to a massage and steam bath. The steam bath was like the old "I Love Lucy" TV episode where Lucy was cooked in a giant tub with only her head sticking out. Wanda loved the massage but stated that she preferred the European saunas and steam rooms.
November 14, 2019. Madurai, India.
The morning started at 5:45 am. We were going boating on the reservoir in the Periyar National Park. As we learned last evening, only government buses are allowed in the park, so, at 6:30 am, we took a pre-arranged ride to the government bus parking to board the official bus to the park. The drive through the pristine park was reassuring. Our guide purchased the boat ride tickets and the camera permit for us.
The reservoir looked spectacular nestled in the tall, rugged hills. Five or six tour boats were bobbing in the water at the loading docks. We were stoked.
Things went south once we stepped onto the boat. It was a double-decker. Of course, we wanted the upper deck for maximum viewing and photo shooting opportunities. But, there were those pesky seat assignments. Our seats, complete with gigantic Dolly-Parton life preservers, were buried in the middle of the boat on the first floor. We could barely see a thing and certainly couldn’t shoot photos. No problem - we’ll switch to Plan B - once the boat gets going, we’ll just roam around and find a spot by the railing.
WRONG! An instructional sign laid out the boat rules: 1) It is compulsory to wear your life jacket. 2) Boating is not allowed without a life jacket. (They really nailed that life jacket rule down with two rules. 3) Smoking and alcohol consumption is prohibited. (OK, I'll just quickly down the beer before we get going - lol.) 4) Standing and walking are not allowed while boating. (There goes Plan B.) 5) Maintain silence while boating (Silence? Are you kidding me?) 5) Obey instructions of the boat crew.
And the crew was ready to enforce the rules. One person in our group balked at wearing the clunky Dolly Parton life jacket. The boat wouldn’t leave the dock until he put it on. On the bright side, the scenery was stunning. The reservoir was truly a pristine oasis in a sea of litter and crumbling infrastructure, set in an untouched forest surrounded by majestic mountains. Even with the limited viewing opportunity, I soaked it all in, bathed in it, rubbed it all over, and squeezed as much joy out of this rare but magnificent isolation. in India
There was one last odd thing to report about the boat. It was worn. Not beat up, but naturally worn, as if it was 20 years old. The railings looked like it weathered a couple-of-million hand touches and many rainy seasons. All the glass had cracks and chips. There was 20 years of grime ground into all of the surfaces. On the way off the boat, I noticed a manufacturer’s plaque that read: Year Built: 2017. Do things weather that quickly in this tropical climate?
The last three days have been fun. The group was feeling pretty chipper. We loaded up the bus after we returned from the boat ride around 10 am, and took off for the temple city of Madurai. It was another 138 kilometers as per google maps.
The first quarter of the trip was picking our way down the mountains. I will never get tired of these rides, as long as I am not the driver. My nerves would be frazzled in 10 minutes, but riding with a competent driver was pure carnie-ride joy.
Once we cleared the mountains, the roads took another turn for the absurd. We entered these crazy stretches of four-lane highways. At the entry, we had to go through a set of toll booths that were crumbling. No one was collecting tolls. So, was it clear sailing down the Indian expressway, right? Well, not exactly. About every half kilometer, they erected goofy offset gates, squeezing the traffic down to one lane, forcing the vehicles to slow down to a crawl. The way the gates were offset, required the driver to violently swerve to get through the gates, even going slowly. Apparently, the gates were there to slow vehicles down, much like speed bumps. That begs the question, why slow the speed down to nothing on an expressway? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?
These four-lane stretches were only about 5 miles long. Then it was back to the scary narrow two-lane roads. This region of India fell in love with placing these offset gates on all roads, narrow or wide. On the positive side, there weren’t any speed bumps.
The scenery turned to vast stretches of lush green rice paddies with majestic mountains in the background. During the ride, I perused an Indian newspaper. Most of it was in a strange language, but there was a smattering of English, especially in the personal want ads. The personals were a hoot to read. These were parents looking for “alliances” for their unwed kids, although some were the “kids” themselves looking for marriage. A typical one went like:
Aarav (name), boy (they were always boy or girl no matter how old), 37 (age), 167c (height in centimeters), IT grad, financially stable, pleasant appearance, looking for alliance (never marriage or relationship).
There was also a section specifically for divorced people. They were still boys and girls, but they added the words: “no issues” or “issueless” to their ads. (Divorced issueless, of course, is an oxymoron).
Just when India was looking good with pristine forest preserves, idyllic backwaters life, and adrenaline-rush mountain drives, our hearts started to sink the closer we got to Madurai. The villages were getting more decrepit and trashier. We were blown away when we entered Madurai. The weather turned sour - accentuating the effect. At one point, the road paralleled a small river that was choked with refuge. The single-story shops and buildings lining the road were, without exception, crumbling and squalid. The drive through the city center was also an eye-opening experience witnessing conditions that make one cry. Where would you start to fix this?
The hotel, the Star Regency, had more than the usual maintenance issues. The elevators worked intermittently. Diane and Heinrich's room didn't have air conditioning. The thin sheets were about a 3-count thread weave. They provided a robe in Diane's room that felt so harsh that I was sure it was made from coconut hair fibers. Power outages were frequent. However, the staff was friendly and changed our rooms without question. Oh, and the food was terrific!
Once settled in, most of the group tried to go for a walk and quickly returned to the hotel. Heinrich caught Diane's cold, so we walked across the street to an open-air pharmacy. The hotel seemed to be in a medical area, including a BS Dental Clinic (I hope the name isn't indicative of the quality), an orthopedic medical clinic, a hospital, an eye clinic, and the pharmacy. For the total price of 152 rupees ($2.12 USD) Heinrich got, without a prescription, a 5-day supply of Amoxicillin, a nighttime capsule to relieve cold symptoms, and a daytime remedy to relieve cold symptoms during the day without the drowsiness. That made him feel better even before taking any of it. Oh, and by the way, Diane fully recovered. She had been sick for nearly four weeks. Say what you want about the sanitary conditions in India, it cured Diane. I guess it is true, kids who play in the dirt get inoculated.
Since we were out, we decided to walk around. Wow, it was terrible! The streets and sidewalks were rubble. The food shops set up in the rubble were primitive. The buses were battered, dirty, and crowded. But the vitality of the city was frenetic. People, bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, buses, trucks, dogs, cows, goats, street vendors, and markets packed the streets in a loud horn-blaring cacophony.
Many shops in India made homemade potato chips, so when we happened upon a potato chip shop, we bought a couple of different baggies. One was plain, one was a ruffled version that looked like they were cheese covered, and one was sweet and sour banana chips. One block down, we came across Xerox alley where ten small corrugated rusted shacks had a photocopier. Another service they provided besides photocopying was duplicating plastic cards like drivers' licenses and government ID cards. Now, why would you need to duplicate those items?
With the crush of vehicles everywhere, it was fun to check out the makes. Piaggio and Mahindra have the tuk-tuk market sewed up. Hero, an Indian manufacturer, is the predominant motorcycle manufacturer, although we have seen a handful of good looking Royal Enfield bikes. I love the model names for the Hero bikes: Pleasure, Passion Pro, Maestro, Spendor, Destiny. A typical 125cc bike costs around $800 new. I did not see any new Hero bikes on the streets.
Royal Enfield bikes have an interesting history. Enfield, a British firm, made guns. More specifically, the Enfield-rifled musket was a mainstay for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 1901, they started building motorbikes. Their motto was, and still is - Made Like a Gun. I'm not sure how that is a good slogan, but what the hey. Anyway, In 1955, Royal Enfield bikes started to be made in India. They are top-end bikes for India, and they are far more expensive. Consequently, you don't see many, and the ones you see are usually in better condition.
Mahindra, Force, Ashok Leyland, and Tata are the four leading car and truck manufacturers in India. Ta Ta, my favorite name in vehicles, makes a $2500 four-door hatchback car, called the Tata Nano. It's a cute and tiny car for the price. I remember hearing rumors about Tata exporting the Nano to the US, but it never happened.
The mud and rubble forced us to cut our Madurai walking tour short. After supper, Diane bought Kingfisher Select beer to take up to our rooms. Kingfisher, "The King of Good Times," is a good news/bad news beer. The good news is that it comes in a large 650 ml bottle (22 ounces). The bad news is that it was very bitter, like an extreme pale ale. However, it was cold. As I have previously noted, most drinks in India are served room temperature. The chips we bought turned out not to be crisp or tasty; instead, they were soggy and greasy.
November 15, 2019. Madurai #2
We were a little apprehensive about the day's tour. Madurai is GRITTY! The itinerary listed a lot of free time, which means walking around GRITTY streets. Wanda and I are gung-ho about walking just about any place, under just about any condition. However, with the animal feces mixed in the mud and no place to walk except in the filthy streets, jammed with traffic and more debris, we were concerned. Let's say the tour turned out to be a lot nicer than we expected.
The first stop-and-drop-off was at the Tirumalai Naicker Palace. Built-in 1636 by Tirumalai Naicker, the king at the time, the Palace was huge and ornate. Only about a quarter of the original structure remains. The central Palace plaza was a large open area ringed by a tall-columned wall with fantastic Indian-style toothy gargoyles on each column. The next building was the royal dance hall - also lined with gargoyles. Sadly, the residence quarters for guests and servants, armory, and harem buildings were gone. What remains is in good shape for being 500 years old; however, it could use a thorough scrubbing.
At the entrance to the Palace, an elderly lady was selling colorful purses and handbags at a great price. Everyone in the tour grabbed a couple, including Wanda and Diane. The smaller purses will make terrific pouches for keeping a smartphone within easy reach and for packing socks and underwear for Thailand. We got 4 for 100 rupees (.78 USD). Wanda got two large bags for 100 rupees each.
Next, we all got into bicycle-powered rickshaws for a city-wide ride. These bikes turned out to be the perfect vehicle for a bike-tour through a city like Madurai. It was open enough and slow enough to see everything. It also made an excellent platform for shooting photos. The older-wiry gentleman that rode our bike tuk-tuk was strong and passed up several slower rickshaws. We got a thorough look-see of the city zig-zagging in the same manner that we usually walk new cities. The city was full of life and vigor with distinct shopping areas. The bright sunshine even took the smudgy edge off the city.
As I stated in an earlier paragraph, we happened upon a Xerox area. Today we saw a long series of onion shops. Each shack had bags and bags of tiny red onions, small red onions, medium red onions, large red onions - all things red onions. Another area strictly had veggies. Another area had mostly clothing.
The tour ended at the amazing Sri Meenakshi Temple, an important Hindu temple complex. Cameras, backpacks, and shoes were not allowed in the temple grounds. We dropped our bags and our shoes off at a high-end antique shop across the street from the temple entrance. The group also took advantage of the store's western toilets before entering the temple. I am catching on. All of the tour guide's toilet stops are at high-end emporiums.
Security at the entrance was typical Indian. We were herded through a metal detector that was totally ignored as it beeped loudly as we all entered. This time, however, a guard gave us an intimate pat-down before waving us through. One guy in our tour party had a camera battery. That was verboten. He had to check it with the guard office and pay 2 rupees to retrieve after the visit.
A temple has occupied this spot since 1600 BC. The current version of the temple started in the early 1200s and went through several additions, renovations, and restorations. The structure was housed within a giant square wall that takes up several city blocks. There are four main towers ornately adorned with colorful and fanciful Hindu statues, many with multiple arms, women with large naked breasts, and some with elephant heads. (unfortunately, we were part of a German tour with a tour guide who basically only spoke German. The meanings and history of the statues and temples were for us to Google search - eventually.)
Hindus inside the temple grounds were devout. Many shrines were set up throughout the grounds consisting of small stone carvings and figures I couldn't make out. People would pour milk or water over the tops of the figures and place bits of food around the figures. There were also small containers of colored powders placed next to the figures. After saying a prayer and pouring the liquid, people would put a dab of the powder on their forehead. Some people had several multi-colored dabs in specific designs.
Inside the main building were large cavern-like halls held up by a thousand of stone columns. The building was called "The Thousand Column Hall." The stone statues, many incorporated into the columns and the ceiling, were more fanciful mash-ups of animals and humans. Hindus had great imaginations. There were Women, elephants, lions, fish, snakes, dragons, stallions with huge phallic, all mixed to form odd creatures with great big teeth.
There was a massive section in the building that only Hindus were allowed in. The line of people waiting to get in was jaw-dropping. Worse than any airport security line or line for a Disneyland ride, it twisted through many long back and forth mazes, down a long hallway, out the door, and around the extensive temple grounds. I estimated a 3-hour wait. So, what was worth all of that waiting? I am not sure, but I believe there was an important shrine deep inside the building. Many people in line brought small amounts of foods to sacrifice to the hidden-to-us shrine.
Some women were re-painting intricate but worn patterns on the floor with white paint. A couple of the lesser shrines inside the building were being scrubbed to remove the dried-on food bits left by worshippers. This was interesting. Water was poured on the shrine and the floor in front. A guy would swish an Indian broom around the wetted area producing a dirty muddy froth on the stony floor. A woman did her best to scoop up the dirty water with a dustpan. Not very efficient. A wet-vac might have worked better.
Observation: India has a strange mix of strict safety, cultural rules, security rules and a laissez-faire, anything goes attitude. A case in point was the trains; most passenger trains had safety bars or fencing on the windows - can't have anyone hanging out the windows, they could get hurt. But they allow passengers to hang out the doorways even when the train is at full speed.
Another example; there are many security checkpoints with metal detectors at museums, hotels, and temple entrances where everyone is carefully herded through, severely slowing down the entry process. However, without exception, all of the detectors beep incessantly but were all ignored.
Even more examples of the strange mix of regulations we have encountered in Thailand: there are the lengthy procedures we went through to buy a cellphone sim data card. Then the crazy boat rules we were faced with at the National Park. We had to buy photo permits at all tourist sites. There were speed bumps and speed gates on all roads, even the express ways. Of course, there is the cultural requirement of taking off shoes at all shrines and temples.
But then, so much is totally unregulated; no apparent food sanitation enforcement; no evironmental regulations enforced; traffic safety is up to the individual - load up as many bodies as you can on a motorbike or tuk-tuk, etc.
November 16, 2019. Tanjore
At 8 am sharp, the tour-bus was headed for Tanjore, the site of the largest temple complex in India. We left Madurai with mixed feelings; the Sri Meenakshi Temple complex was magnificent, and the extensive rickshaw tour was intriguing. But the poverty and street filth was hard to witness.
The weather report promised a warming trend. It was hot, hot, and hot, with highs in the low 90s and a good dose of humidity. It could be worse. We could be home with record arctic blasts.
Our first stop on the way to Tanjore was to view a sacred Hindu river site. Hindus cremate their dead loved ones. After a specific time, some of the ashes are brought to certain sacred rivers to send down the current. The most famous river is the Ganges River in northern India. The Karvari River (or Chauvery) is such a river in the south. We visited one of these sites in the city of Tiruchirappalli (or Trichy), and it was surreal. The beach was merely a wide set of concrete steps called ghats, leading into the water. The river was wide with lots of sandbars. A shrine at the ghat entrance, one of many, was manned by a holy man. For a few rupees, you could get blessed. My favorite shrine was a holy man with an elephant. The elephant curled the end of his trunk, and the people tucked some food or rupees in the crease. If it were money, he would drop it on a pile of money on the ground in front of him. If it were food, he’d eat it. In return, the elephant would place the tip of his trunk over the person’s head in a blessing gesture. The elephant-holy man had the biggest crowd around him and seemed to be making money, too.
On the steps down to the water, another strange scene was playing out. Families remembering loved ones, laid out food, a bunch of colored incense powder, and lit a tiny flame in the middle of it all. They said a prayer, walked away and left the food-offering. I don’t know who cleans it all up, but there were many such food-bundles all over the steps. These remembrance ceremonies are usually made at the first anniversary of a death. Nobody sent any ashes down the river while we were there.
Before re-boarding the bus, we fit in a toilet break at another antique and silk emporium. The bathrooms at these stops were usually decent, and some people in the group buy a trinket or two, so I guess it all works out.
When we reached Tanjore, we headed straight for the grand Sri Ranganathaswami Temple, the largest Temple in India. The Temple sits on 156 acres alongside 20 gorgeous colorful tower gopurams and one pure white albino gopuram. Five were very tall. One gopuram, at 13 stories high, is the tallest Hindu gopuram in all of India. There were 49 shrines of all sizes within the complex. At the heart of the complex was a huge gold dome made of tons of the pure gleaming precious metal. It was almost obscene to have such riches in the middle of such poverty.
After muscling our way through two crowed gopuram gates, our first stop at the temple complex was to climb on top of the roof of a temple building to view the whole vast area. Just as we were getting ready to move on, the sun slipped behind a dark cloud, and the sky opened up. None of us brought our umbrellas because it was mostly blue sky when we left the bus. Sadly, that cut our visit short. We didn’t get a close-up view of all that gold.
Tanjore had two big temple complexes. By the time we drove to the next one, the skies cleared. This one reminded me of the Mayan ruins that we visited in Mexico’s Yucatán. It was far less crowded and smaller than the Sri Ranganathaswami Temple, but it was still big. Also, it was set up much different. The Sri Ranganathaswami Temple was more like a crowded city with many temple buildings and shrines, streets, eight separate walled-in areas, and all the towers. The Sri Brihadeswara Temple, meaning “god’s universe,” was more open and spartan. A square wall surrounded a large open courtyard. Within the courtyard stood one temple, one massive shrine housing a giant metal cow statute, and a couple of gopurams. The Temple was made of granite and lacked the vivid color, but that didn’t detract from the grandeur. The Temple was 1000 years old, and the granite weathered those years rather well.
In the middle of the courtyard was a large shrine housing the giant cow statute. A holy man held up a platter of powders to the cow and said some mantras. He then took money from a line of worshippers and blessed each of them with a tiny smear of white powder.
The Hindu religion has scores of cool gods with many imaginative head-and-body shapes. With all those to chose from, I don’t quite understand why or how a simple cow became so central - they are not pretty or even cute. They are cows. I am missing something and will have to do some research.
Next, we visited a tiny old-world bronze fabricating shop. They made bronze Indian figurines and demonstrated the process by creating a multi-armed figure in front of us. First a wax model was made and packed in a clay cocoon. After it dried, a little hole was poked into the bottom of the clay form. Hot molten bronze was poured into the hole. The liquid melted the wax and took its place. After that cooled, the clay was cracked open, and out came a drab looking figurine. Another guy polished it up and VOILA, a brilliant bronze figure. Naturally, there was a gift shop after the demonstration. Can’t fit a hundred pounds of bronze statues in your suitcase? No problem, they ship anywhere in the world.
By this time, it was 5:00 pm. Google maps proclaimed that we had 22 kilometers to our final destination, The Paradise Hotel in Kumbakonam. It took an hour to get there. With a name like Paradise Hotel, we were expecting a lot.
The Paradise Hotel turned out to be great. The hotel was located on a 10-acre compound; the rooms were in separate buildings strewn throughout the tropical-forested landscape. Some buildings housed four or five rooms. Our room was in a house all by itself. So was Diane and Heinrich’s room next door. Because our rooms were a long hike from the reception office, the bell boys used an ox cart to deliver our bags to our rooms. We were scheduled to spend two nights in Paradise. Once unpacked, it was masala, curry, and rice time.
November 16, 2019. Kumbakonam
I was gaining some unwanted weight eating all the rich Indian foods. I decided to cut back and only ate a hard-boiled egg for breakfast. At 8 am, we loaded up for the Airavadesara Temple.
By now, we were getting used to taking our shoes off to enter the temple grounds, but it still sucks. I wished that they had come up with a different method of showing reverence. The Kumbakonam temple was more in line with the Sri Brihadeswara Temple with a sizeable walled-in courtyard with one main temple building and one central gopuram tower. It was all rock and no color. Again, this style of Indian temple resembled the Mayan ruins.
It was pointed out to us that one carved figure with several arms and one breast was the god-of-money. That seemed apropos.
We then took a short walk to a hand-weaving shop. The loom was an ancient French model that made big bolts of cloth, one thin thread at a time. The designs in the fabric were controlled by a thin-flat piece of wood with holes in it, resembling the old keypunch cards used in early computers. I estimated that it would take months to complete one eight-foot bolt of cloth. The demonstration ended up at the gift shop ), where the proprietor took a volunteer from our group to show how to wear a woman's saree. It was all very elaborate. The robes are just a bolt of cloth about 8 feet long and three-feet wide. Somehow, after wrapping, tucking, folding, and pleating, it turns into a dress that stayed in position.
Lots of men also wear a bolt of cloth, called a lungi. It is an ankle-length skirt-like garment. They have a way of folding it up and tucking the bottom into their waist to turn it into a knee-length skirt. It is quite clever. I heard that lungis are more prevalent in southern India, but that they are spreading throughout Asia. I think these saree and lungi garments make it easier for both sexes to use the Indian-style squat toilets.
There was one more colorful temple to visit before free-time. The tower at the gate was the tall, colorful variety. The figures embedded in the tower included one porno scene of a guy copping-a-feel from a well-endowed woman. That sent our group into a tither.
Like most temple complexes, the main temple building was dark inside and had the monotone" Oooooohhhhhmmmmm" chant repeated over and over along with a droning sitar. The more you were conscious of the chant, especially if you focused on it, it could drive you crazy, but if you let it become subliminal and wash through you, it was quite relaxing.
We completed the day's tour at 1 pm. The city itself was another run down but strangely vibrant city. For a second, we thought of roaming the streets and taking a tuk-tuk back to the hotel - only for a second. Instead, we took our bus back to the hotel compound to lounge. It turned out that the hotel had a very nice outdoor swimming pool - the first hotel on this trip to have one. It was 90º, the pool was in a magnificent tropical setting, and the water was perfect.
My shorts doubled as a swimsuit. Wanda and Diane came up with a makeshift swimsuit with long T-shirts and boy-shorts. Most of the group decided to use the pool, which turned out to be an excellent time to get to know each other. The German and Austrian folks knew a bit of English, and Diane could interpret the rest.
We met Dieter, a fascinating guy. He was just a boy after WWII. Until the Berlin Wall went up, he lived with his grandparents just outside of Berlin in East Germany. Dieter's family farm he grew up in was intact, raising goats for food and milk. His parents who were dirt poor, ended up in West Berlin. As a child, he didn't need to show official papers for travel back and forth between his grandparents from East Berlin and his parents in West Berlin. Once the wall went up, he then had to choose and remained with his parents. As an adult, Deiter is a dental technician. His son has a Japanese wife, and he had many great stories about meeting the in-laws. Nice guy.
Holed up in our tropical paradise at the Paradise Hotel, the afternoon melted away. Supper was excellent, as usual. The topic at the table was about beers. Kingfisher makes three beers; one Kingfisher was in a green bottle and tasted like a bitter pale ale. Another Kingfisher beer came in a clear bottle. The third Kingfisher beer came in an amber bottle. We asked the other Germans in the group drinking from both the clear and the amber bottled beer. They all said that the beers in both bottles were the same. Sure enough, when poured in a glass, both Kingfisher beers looked identical. I would have thought that the amber bottle had a darker beer. Anyway, I ordered the amber bottle. It was cold and decent, but not German beer.
We hit the sack around 10.
November 18, 2019. Puducherry
The ox cart picked up our luggage at 7 am sharp. I had another light breakfast before boarding the bus to our final destination, Puducherry, India.
Our first stop was another "god's universe," Sri Brihadeswara Temple, well out in the country. Once more, we were struck with how similar this temple resembled the Mayan ruins. Wanda did a google search and found that we weren't the only ones to make that comparison. This temple featured the most giant cow statue in India.
Then it was on to Mahabalipuram. This stretch of India was to us the direst part of India we have seen so far - that is saying a lot after spending time in the Madurai area. We drove by villages with people living in rubble, living in thatched-roof shacks with mud floors, and living in thatched lean-tos. We passed village-after-village where every structure was unfinished and crumbling. Trash was everywhere. My heart bled for them.
Along the way, we hit the occasional four-lane highway. This time, those goofy off-set gates, speed bumps, and road construction slowed us down. The road construction was more wishful thinking as we didn't see anyone working on the roads. We didn't even see bulldozers or graders.
On one long stretch, it looked like they were going to expand the two-lane highway into a four-lane. The four land construction meant miles of houses had to be torn down. Here's the thing about tearing down houses in India for road construction; only the front half of the homes are taken down, leaving a pile of rubble in front and a barely-standing structure in the back.
The families continue to live in these rubbled half-houses. Diane speculated that the houses, built so close to the original two-lane highway, were built by squatters. Thus, the road crew chopped off just enough of these houses to fit the new highway, not caring (or caring?) about those that lived in them.
Then we drove through Chimambaram - the town from hell. Here was the Nataraja Temple, a genuinely cultish temple. We were dropped off a couple of blocks away from the temple, requiring a long walk through muck and rubble. On the way, we saw a guy who just hit a couple of young calves with his car, dragging the disemboweled animals off to the side of Main Street. As he dragged the carcasses, the guts spilled out on the road and left. It was an appalling sight.
We were required to take our shoes off at a dingy shop a half block away from the temple. The street to the temple was filthy. About half the group declined and went back to the bus. I soldiered onward. Once past an interesting colored variety gopuram (gate tower), we entered into a frenzied group of worshippers. Inside the sizeable dark temple, a throng of colorfully dressed people swarmed towards the Shiva shrine and the Vishnu shrine. Photography was strictly prohibited and fanatically enforced. Just holding a camera caused an angry stir. Along the hallway to the shrines were many other minor shrines with people stopping, praying, and leaving colored powder. Little fires sprang up here and there, much like at the river ghat where remembrance ceremonies had been held.
As we got closer to the two main shrines, it was every person for themselves as the social mass rushed to each of the shrines. We got tangled up in the frenzy and swept away by the human current. When we were finally spat out of this insanity, we quickly left. The fanaticism clearly shook me. These were not individuals; they were automatons en mass.
On the walk back to the bus, the calf carcasses were still lying on the side of the street. Dogs were dining on them. We couldn't get out of there fast enough for me.
When we reached the ocean town of Puducherry, things had dramatically improved. Puducherry was the nicest city we have seen during our tour. Many buildings were newly painted, the city was clean, and located on the Indian Ocean. We had a short stop at the French Quarters, an area initially built by the French. It was well maintained and vaguely reminded Wanda and me of New Orleans.
After a toilet break in yet another antique and silk shop, we visited a Catholic Church and a spiritual center of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Aurobindo was a famous and influential holy man. The tiny center was beautifully maintained. Silence was strictly enforced while several people meditated in the lotus position. There was a book store with many books explaining Aurobindo's philosophy and methods. One book that promised to solve all personal problems caught my eye. The first chapter zeroed right in on sex, so I left impressed.
Our hotel, Hotel Atithi, in Puducherry, was the most elegant hotel of the trip. It was six stories tall and with an infinity pool on the top floor seeming to flow over the side of the building. The view was significant for two reasons: 1) By Indian standards, the city was picturesque. Buildings were completed, and many were recently painted. 2) The Indian Ocean was just a couple of blocks away. With the sun sagging low over the ocean, it made for a beautiful view.
We decided to walk down to the beach before the sunset. It was a short five-minute walk. The thick mass of vehicles was still haphazardly driving all over the place, still beeping like crazy, but the streets, shops, and sidewalks were relatively clean and free of clutter and rubble and pedestrian-friendly.
Traffic was closed from the road that paralleled the oceanfront. The beach was decent, although not world-class. The sunset just as we got there. Puducherry was a needed and welcome respite from Madurai and Chidambaram.
November 19, 2019. Mahabalipuram - Chennai
It was sad to leave Puducherry and the comfortable Hotel Atithi, but it was our last day in India. It was time to move on. So, it was breakfast at 7 am and board the bus at 8 am.
Our first stop was kind of weird. For a couple of days, our guide talked about seeing some snakes. When the bus pulled off the highway at a dusty spot out in the country, it didn't look like there was anything like a snake ranch nearby, not that any of us had any inkling of what a snake ranch was. About two-thirds of the passengers got off. Those with snake phobias stayed back.
Tourism was only a secondary function of the snake ranch. Its primary purpose was to milk the snakes to make anti-venom. They had 1332 snakes, and five different kinds: Cobra, krait, and three different types of vipers from tiny to medium-sized. Of course, the cobras were the coolest, but the krait was the deadliest -- if untreated, death is nearly guaranteed. The handlers were amazingly "hands-on." I should have asked if any of them have been bitten. We were allowed to touch the snakes and showed how to milk the snakes. I've handled a fair number of snakes before, so it wasn't a big deal for me to touch it. It was a big deal for some of the visitors. A few even declined the invitation.
The next city, Mahabalipuram, was hosting a World Heritage Week. The city had some amazing historical sites, and it was easy to see why the city was chosen to host the celebration. Mahabalipuram was built on a unique granite dome just off the ocean. Giant rounded stone boulders the size of buildings were too tempting for ancient stone carvers to pass up. On the pinnacle of the highest rock stood the Olakkamesvara Temple, built above the Mahishasuramardini Cave. It was a small stone building with a commanding view of the surrounding area, including the ocean. The cave, clawed into the solid rock, had spectacular scenes carved into the resulting sides and back of the cave. These carvings were called "reliefs", as they made a 3D scene in the walls.
A short walk took us to the Vahara Cave. This large 40-foot cave room was 20 feet deep and clawed out of the solid rock. The interior walls had more beautiful figures carved in them, including a detailed scene of a guy milking a cow, a bunch of animals, and some pretty sexy ladies.
My favorite relief was a huge scene carved on the face of a beautiful large granite outside wall and considered the largest relief in the world. It depicts people and animals living in harmony - now there's a happy thought.
A short walk down a walkway, made longer by the searing sun, heat, and humidity, was the Shore Temple. As the name suggests, the Shore Temple sits next to the ocean and where the World Heritage Week celebration was being held.
Back at the parking lot, where our bus was parked, was a small market of booths selling trinkets. The little booth vendors and the street vendors were making desperate sales pitches for the trinkets they were selling. Diane did find an elephant souvenir for her daughter.
However, it's the beggars that got to me. They huddled around the temples, pathetic, feeble, and disfigured. What did they do to deserve their fate? There were 1000s, and I couldn't help them all. If an entire country can't solve the problem, Wanda and I sure weren't going to be able to.
We are evolving a strategy that still needs a little refining. When we enter a 3rd world country, we need a pot of small bills that we can hand out. The problem is that these societies have vastly devalued currencies, requiring 1000s of rupees or pesos or bahts, so more significant bills are the rule, and smaller bills are hard to come by. I would have liked to have had a fist full of 10-rupee notes in India to hand out to the scores of the genuinely needy. Ten rupees isn't much, but somehow, I liked the idea of giving less to more people, than more to fewer people. We just have to figure out how to get more change when we exchange money. Banks and street currency changers don't, as a rule, give out small bills. Perhaps, that's where we need to learn how to beg.
Things were looking up. Puducherry, Mahabalipuram, and the coastal countryside looked pretty decent and far cleaner than just about anywhere we have been in India, save the genuinely pristine reserves and the backwaters. The next city, Chennai, is our final destination. It too was a surprise. There were tall modern buildings and modern shops. Buildings under construction were using actual cranes and not the rickety wooden or pipe scaffolding we've seen everywhere else. Rubble and trash were down to a minimum.
Then I spotted it, a McDonalds followed by a Pizza Hut, a Dominos, and a few Starbucks. It's the 21st century. OK, maybe the crappiest part of the 21st century, but hey, its something.
An interesting side note is that we have seen a few swastikas painted here and there. I didn't think it had anything to do with Nazism, so we googled it. Sure enough, it was an old Indian symbol of accomplishment and well-being that Hitler highjacked and distorted in his ugly way. How sad. He wrecked a perfectly reasonable and positive symbol.
The bus took a grand tour around the city. The golden sands beach is 14 kilometers long, making it the second-longest continuous stretch of sandy beach in the world, at least according to the guide. Ashok Leyland Motors has an assembly plant here. I'm sure it is a major employer. The more deprived areas were far better than the dire areas we have witnessed thus far. The nicer areas were reasonably modern. There were even some attempts at western-style hotels along some stretches with an ocean coastline.
A little after 3 pm, the bus dropped us off at a Holiday Inn Express with a two-hour time slot for us to freshen up, have supper at 7 pm and depart for the hour drive to the airport around 9:15 pm. Half of our group had departures around 1:30 am. Our plane was scheduled to leave at 4:40 am. Yikes! Talk about boredom.
At 1 am, the Etihad Airline ticket office opened up. First, we waited in a mile-long line to get our check-in bags x-rayed and tagged. Then, there was another mile-long line at the ticket counter to get our paper tickets. Then, another-mile long line to check our passports, visas, and tickets. And yet another mile-long line to go through security. All that took 2 1/2 hours to complete, only to find out that our flight was delayed until 5:23 am. We almost started walking home.
India's tourism motto is: "Incredible India! Mantra to woo tourist." Not tourists. Not tourism. I guess they are looking for that one perfect tourist. As I stated near the beginning of the trip, I wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. It was an eye-opener. I firmly believe that all persons of good fortune should be required to take a tour through India. However, Madurai just beat me down. I was ready to return to a first world country.
India was our first time organized group tour. Typically, we plan each trip ourselves, which takes a lot of preparation. Having an organization do the planning was cool. The planned activities and the sights picked out were well done. Good hotels were not easy to come by in India, so I thought the accommodations were just about as good as it gets for the price we paid. Since it was booked by my Sister, through Germany, it was a German (language) tour and turned out to be a bit more difficult for Wanda and me to mix in with the group. However, by the end, we made a few friends with these pretty seasoned travelers - we have some catching up to do.
By all accounts, what we learned from our first organized tour is that the tour leader is an essential key to the success of the trip. Most group members were not happy with our particular leader. I gave him a B-. My biggest gripe was that he kept promising to add a little English to include us, which would have been especially helpful when gathering directions, setting meetup times, and figurinjg bus schedules. Unfortunately, he kept forgetting and never really followed through with the translation at all. Other-than-that, the snafus here and there were tolerable, although I was told that most leaders have no snafus. But, hey, this is India. It kind of went with the authenticity of the Indian experience.
The uniformity of dress in India surprised me. Women dressed traditional Indian Hindu or conservative Islamic, period. We didn't see modern or western clothing styles. The men also wore a uniform of sorts - either solid-color long pants and a button-down short-sleeve shirt, or the lungi with a shirt. Sandals and flip-flops were the main footwear. All, and I mean all, the women had long black flowing hair. They often wore it up, but we saw no short hair. The guys all had well-trimmed, styled hair. The younger men and kids had very modern haircuts, but nothing remotely wild or counter-culture' ish. No one had colored hair or spiked hair or half-shaved hair -- there wasn't any sign of individual self-expression.
I wondered how much religion plays into India's poverty and backwardness. Hinduism is ubiquitous in India, and the people seem very devout. The Hindu caste system is a cruel system to those in all but the highest caste. Technically, the caste system has no legal standing in the "secular" country, but it is still very much informally practiced. Whenever a religion has such monolithic power and influence in society, it becomes a destructive force. Look at what the Catholic Church did when it had a monopoly on power. It held back progress for 1500 years. Theocracies and theocratic societies tend to do that.
Hardly anyone smoked. There were no liquor stores. Alcohol was non-existent. I guess that's a plus.
Indian advertising was fun. TV ads, billboards, paper ads plastered on walls, were beautiful headshots. It didn't matter what the product was, it usually included a gorgeous young woman laden in jewels in traditional dress, long hair elaborately twisted up, and stunning makeup. If a guy was included, he was young and dashing. What was missing were backgrounds. Backgrounds were either vignetted out or severely blurred. Perhaps it was difficult to find pretty settings in India. Like Bollywood movies, ads depicted a glamour fantasy that didn't exist for the average Indian.