Trip Start Jan 15, 2002
9Trip End Apr 12, 2002
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i guess it's been a while since i paused to chuck words at the void...since arriving in chennai (and south india) two different things started happening at the same time: i was both starting to really get into traveling and getting travel weary. it might sound contradictory, but i think it takes several weeks before the type of lifestyle involved in backpacking feels normal...but it can start to weigh as well. anyway, in the ensuing metaphysical chaos, i forgot to write. a little while ago though, the weariness started to fade as i realized how my slightly-less-than-a-month-left would disappear rather quickly...the knowledge that i'll be finding myself back on a plane before i know it is both comforting and distressing, but it leaves little time for being tired. in general, the most remarkable things in south india are the food and the landscapes. so far there have been less places where i'm thoroughly amazed at what's before me, but the region as a whole leaves a much more marked impression than north india (or the parts of north india that i've seen). and i could eat the food forever...masala dosa for breakfast (lentil crepe with curried potatoes inside), the seemingly infinite varieties of thali (or meal, often served on banana leaves and involving a lot of rice, various vegetable dishes, and pappads, which are delicious lentil chips sometimes also made with tapioca...everything mixed together and eaten by hand, something that i've become much more proficient at) for lunch or dinner. and fresh juice and fruit...mango season has only just started, which i'll be sure to take advantage of, but i've discovered mosembi (i've seen it spelled a variety of different ways in english) in the meantime...it's sweet lime and it looks like a greenish orange. it has a similar taste too, but better, like a hug is better than a slap in the face. i've been to so many places since i last wrote so maybe i'll just try to describe things piece by piece.
mamallapuram: about a two hour bus ride south of chennai...the bus ride itself was great because the road runs right along the coast of the bay of bengal...lots of palm trees but also lots of sand dunes with small shrubs edging the ocean. i think that there are more tourists at any one time in mamallapuram than indians...it's very popular and has suffered slightly environmentally as a result...as do most heavily touristed areas. there are tons of ruins here, the most famous being the shore temple which is small but beautiful and right on the ocean. there's a fence around the complex and they charge a ridiculous amount of money to get in, but you can get close enough to enjoy it without going into the temple area. there's a beach here too that lots of tourists seemed to think was great...but it's mostly used by the fishermen and there's garbage everywhere. it gets better the further away from town you go...the beach looks like it stretches all the way to chennai...and it probably does.
pondicherry: i was disappointed by 'pondy' as the locals call it. i don't know what i was expecting really...maybe i put too much stock in its frenchness. because it's not very french at all, apart from being able to find baguettes. and while some areas are quaint, it's pretty dull. it's right on the water but the entire water front is a large rock wall to protect the nearby road. it wasn't bad or anything, just unremarkable.
madurai: the town itself is a busy indian town...i don't know how to describe that concept really...but after a while you start to get a sense of the similar current that runs through busy indian cities...the noise, the pollution, the chaos. there's a sameness in large towns throughout india in that sense. but the sri meenakshi temple (spelled various ways in english, that being one of them) is a wondrous place. it's a huge hindu temple compound with 12 gopurams (towers) the largest being at the north, east, south, and west entrances...around 50m high. the towers are completely covered in thousands and thousands of painted statues of hindu gods, it's hard to take in all at once. the temple complex itself is a maze of halls and passageways where it's easy to get temporarily lost...there are thousands of carved pillars throughout the halls and there's a large water tank in the middle. it's easily the most amazing temple i've been to so far.
kanyakumari: the most southern point in india (about 7 degrees above the equator)...the bay of bengal, the indian ocean, and the arabian sea all meet here. but if the town itself were anywhere but on that point of land it would be relatively uninteresting. still, it was great to watch the sunset over all three oceans with hundreds of indian tourists and pilgrims (and some other western tourists too).
trivandrum (actually it's now called thiruvananthapuram): the capital of kerala...not the most exciting place, a bit chaotic, but i still managed to enjoy myself and i ended up spending three days here. i think what happened was that i really liked my hotel and i needed a bit of a break from moving around so much. i met a brit named jim in my hotel who taught me the rudiments of cricket (finally!!!) and some new card games. he also repeatedly demolished me in chess. i find cricket more interesting than baseball, which i can't help but compare it to, but i think that that's possibly because it's so new to me. but now when someone says that the score is 156 for 3 after 17 overs i sort of know what they're talking about.
varkala: a beach and accompanying red stone cliff just north of trivandrum. when i first arrived i was a bit dismayed at the amount of development...the entire cliff is covered in all manner of hotels, shops, travel agencies, internet cafes, restaurants...it just stretches on and on. the beach is nice and the waves are quite high, so playing in the water was fun. but varkala really shines at night with the sunset from the cliff followed by all the restaurants lighting the tables (which are all open air and facing the ocean) with candles. the atmosphere changes quite drastically. and i realized that i kept seeing the same people over and over again...so there were less people there than i thought. i liked it much more by the time i left than when i arrived.
keralan backwaters: there are many salt water lakes and rivers in kerala (due to the types of landforms on the ocean shore) as well as fresh water ones...there are actually locks to keep the two separated. keralan forests, at least in the southern half, are almost entirely various kinds of palm trees...and the backwaters are extremely lush. i took a boat cruise from kollam to alappuzha, an 8 1/2 hour trip, the first half in salt water, the second half in fresh water. i liked the fresh water better for the vegetation, but the salt water had more interesting animal life (jellyfish, so many jellyfish, and normal fish that dance across the top of the water on their tails!) the cruise i took is the most popular for tourists...it's possible to explore less traveled backwaters and even rent a houseboat that's built to look like a traditional rice barge...but it can be quite expensive.
kochi: an interesting mix of bustling, westernized indian town and old portuguese, dutch, and jewish settlements. the different areas in kochi are on different points of land and islands...there are regular ferries that go between them all. ernakulam is the main city and is a seemingly wealthy place for india...the main strip has clothes stores that are almost indistinguishable from upmarket western versions of the same thing. fort kochi is where all the interesting stuff is...it's such a change to go there from ernakulam...it's so much more laid back and quiet. unfortunately, tourism is yet again making a mess of things by slowly turning this historic charming place into a traveler's den. but it's still really interesting. the mixture of portuguese, dutch, and indian architecture makes for some strange sights...maybe not strange exactly...just out of place somehow. i visited jewtown as well...an old jewish community that came from (or more likely fled) europe with (i think) the portuguese colonizers. the famous pardesi synagogue was closed (my luck to be there on a saturday) but the area was still fascinating with all its spice shops (that's why the portuguese, quickly followed by the dutch, came in the first place...pepper!)
and now, after a long arduous journey (15 hours on an overnight train, followed by three hours on two separate buses) i'm 750 km further north in gokarna...a series of beaches near a town in the north of the state of karnataka, just south of goa. it's quite lovely, but maybe i'll leave it to write about some other time.