. Mrs. "so and so" told us that we couldn't get a permit because we didn't book our trip with them. We protested. After talking to another 3 people, they concluded that yes, they could make and exception and give us this permit. So, 45 minutes later, we were handed a piece of paper that could have been forged by an amateur. But hey, we were able to get into the Sunderbans. Given the sheer number of people in our group (and the very vocal kiddos) and the limited area we were allowed to view, spotting of wildlife was limited in the forest, but we did get to see the diversity of flora that existed with in this protected area. We both agreed that the best part of the trip was meeting the other people on the boat. From the helpful and generous Indian mothers, to the other like-minded travelers, we had some stimulating conversations.
We shed our long sleeves shirts and fleeces for our warm weather clothes and are now in Varkala Beach in the southern state of Kerela. We are here to relax and revive from the last five weeks traipsing around in Northern India. As with everything, getting here was quite an experience.
We left the bustling city of Kolkata and flew to Chennai (formerly Madras) on the Eastern Coast of India. There had been a recent strike among some of the airport workers as the Mumbai and Delhi airports were just privatized
. This threw things out of wack and our flight meant to leave at 3pm was rescheduled to leave at 9pm. We got to the airport after dealing with the last of India's big cities' traffic and found out that our flight was delayed until 12:45am. As the 12:45pm time approached, the flight was further moved up to depart at 2am. With luck on our side, the flight was not cancelled and we arrived in Chennai at 5am. We had a 2pm departure that same day for Cochin, in Kerela. Our original plan was to spend the night in Chennai and poke around the city for a half a day to see what it had to offer. As is the case with travel, one must adopt the go-with-the-flow attitude and we changed our plans. Arriving at the crack of dawn, with little sleep, we assessed our options. We could: (a) pay the $12 round trip taxi ride (a fortune here in India) to go 16 km to town to stay for 6 hours in a hotel and then turn around and again deal with India's traffic; (b) identify a hotel near the airport with the aid of the non-existent airport staff at 5am, at the same time forsaking some friendly Indian advice to wait to go out of the airport until the sun was up; or (c) finally experience what it is like to sleep in a public place where there is no privacy and one can see you drool. Given our exhaustion, collective disillusionment with dealing with India at the moment, and the cost factors, we chose option "c." Sleeping in the airport was actually quieter than some of the hotels we had slept in around India! Surprisingly, no one hassled us or told us we had to move. After a strong cup of Chai, we were rearing to get up and wait for our next flight's departure.
So, after arriving at the airport in Cochin, we hopped on a bus and 2 hours later we were in the town of Allepey where our house boat would take us along the backwaters of Kerela for one night and two half days
. Allepey is a non descript down except that it is the main starting point for these backwater tours. We hired a houseboat, which consists of a cook, a captain and a first mate. All you do during this 22 hour journey is sit and watch the scenery pass by and eat food when it is put in front of you. The scenery is lush green and you can see lots of life taking place. As with everywhere in India, there are not many places we have found that do not have human life. Along the backwaters, you can watch the villagers going on with their daily chores and of course you can see lots of fishing, some of which ended up as our dinner. It was the peace we were hoping for. We docked somewhere in the backwaters by sunset for the night. As Justin and I were enjoying the beauty of the area, we had the sharp reminders that we were in India as a piece of human excrement and a hypodermic needle floated past. Oh well, such is life here.
We are now relaxing on the beach in Varkala, a place that is still quaint, but being built up to accommodate the increasing amount of tourists that have come here. Our friendly hotel manager told us they have dropped the rates this year as the abundance of hotels now available is making the competition greater. After a day of swimming and relaxing on the beach, we eat fresh seafood caught that day at one of the many restaurants that cater to the Western pallet. We are truly relaxing...this is a nice end to our four months in India. We are headed of to Sri Lanka this week to continue our journey.
After peace in the mountains, we returned to Kolkata to arrange a trip to the Sunderbans, the world's largest mangrove forest - a forest that survives in saline conditions. The Sunderbans extends between India and Bangladesh. We went to see the flora and possibly see one of the many tigers that live in the mangroves. We boarded a bus with 30 other happy people and headed for a 3-hour bus ride and a 3-hour boat ride into the heart of the mangrove forest. To get to that point, a foreigner needs to obtain a permit to get in to this protected area. In going to the West Bengal tourism office, we got to experience bureauacracy at its best. We were sent to 5 different people and then told to go "up stairs" to see Mrs. "so and so." Climbing up the stairs was like climbing into a different era. Ledger books blackening and rotting lined the walls from the floor to the 15 ft. ceilings. We're sure that they contained the important information on all the other tourists back to the time of Independence who ever attempted to navigate through the paper trail of obtaining a pass