Jaipur – Is it Desert Yet?

30 Jul

(the answer is no, by the way)

I got to Jaipur that morning from Delhi, around 10 or so. I was bedraggled beyond belief due to the little sleep I had gotten. Although it didn’t stop me from looking out the window expecting to see signs of Rajisthan’s famed desert lands, as I have never seen one before, to little success.

I got a very nice hotel towards the center of town and researched a place to soothe the hunger pains in my belly. I set out walking to a place recommended by my guide. My mood was  bad from the previous night and the fact that I hadn’t eaten in an eternity wasn’t helping nor was the oppressive heat. I waved off driver after driver until one pulled up next to me, “Do you need a ride?” I shook my head and ignored him, my usual response but he kept driving alongside me insisting that I talk to him. I motioned that I wanted nothing to do with him until he pulled over, got out of his vehicle and came after me. I think he could tell he startled me because he followed up with a, “Don’t be scared I just want to talk.” He was tall, had a gold earring on each lobe, a mop of curly black hair crowned his head and a scratchy looking stubble covered his jaw and upper lip. His smile was friendly and his stance unthreatening. However, the first thing that I noticed were his eyes, a starting blue/green/brown mix that looked catlike when reflected in the sun. (Disclaimer: I am not coming back with an Indian husband, this isn’t one of THOSE stories)

I dismissed him one more time, thanking him for his concern but I really didn’t want to talk to anyone. He asked where I was from, I sighed and answered America. “Ah Americans, they are so snobby,” he retorted. Well, if I didn’t want to talk to him then I sure didn’t now. I kept walking.

I thought I had lost him, but he sidled alongside of me, still chatting away, and finally I stopped and asked him his name. “Gopal,” he replied. I said listen, Gopal, I’m starving and tired. I just need to eat something. I’m in no mood to talk until I do. “Okay, where are you going?” Niro’s. ” Niro’s is expensive, I”ll take you somewhere to eat and I won’t charge you.” Exasperated, I said alright. At the very least I could say goodbye afterwards.

We had lunch and chatted. He turned out to be a cool guy. When he mentioned my plan for the day was to go shopping he “graciously” offered to take me to the shop his brother worked at seeing that he knew they had shoes there. The shop was quite large, it was a craft emporium of sorts with many different types of items for sale from linens to rugs to scarves. I came for the shoes but walked away with more (of course). But they were really nice at the shop and even showed me how to wear a sari.

After he took me to a good place to eat and we arranged a tour tomorrow. He’s a nice enough guy and told me he’d give me a discount.

The next day he picked me up in the morning and we set out for an exciting day of sightseeing. Jaipur, being quite a large city, has much offer by way of attractions. We first made a quick stop in front of the beautiful stained glass windows of the city palace, the area where I inferred that the Maharajah’s harem was due to the anecdote that Gopal gave me about ladies waving out the window.

The next stop was the White Marble Temple, dedicated to Laxmi. It was a newer temple, startlingly clean and pristine, with stained glass windows depicting Hindu stories on the inside and representatives from other world religions and philosophies on the outside. After, we went to the hill-top monkey temple. Ever since the horror stories about Nepal’s vicious temple monkeys I am wary of all primates regardless of country of origin. I selected a monkey bodyguard, of sorts, from the barrage of boys that swarmed the rickshaw. I got a bag of peanuts as well. My monkey guard assured me that there was nothing to worry about because he is some sort of figure that strikes fear into their hearts. He showed me that feeding the monkeys peanuts was pretty safe, so after much chiding I have them some damn nuts.

Then we went to the Royal Gator, which is the burial place for the Maharajahs (and family) of Jaipur past. It was a quiet little place with beautiful onion domed marble structures that was fun to explore. When finished it was on to the jewel of Jaipur, the Amber Fort
.

The fort is a large palace complex at the top of a not too distant hill that is a very popular place to explore. The creamy stone buildings dotted with a plethora of arched windows, turrets, and domes sit majestically on the side of the hill. I was left to explore for a while, and despite the heat I excitedly made my way up the cobbled hill to the palace. One of the two well-tended palaces I have seen so far, the place was pretty full of tourists but not so much that I could escape the others and live my trapped Indian princess fantasies without much embarrassment. The main parts of the palace had lovely sculpted hedge gardens, boasted an impressive  area in the main courtyard, which was a huge glass mosaic that was for the reception of guests. With the entry ticket you’re largely given free rein to explore the many rooms and pockets of the palace. The view below was magical, especially when seen through the ornately “screened” windows. I went up and down steep stairs and ramps, attempting to get a feel from the former residents, to imagine the lavish lives they lead in the isolated hill palace. I felt like a kid exploring a new playground, darting from this room to that room, in this turret or that balcony, curious to explore every crevasse.

Before I knew it was time to meet up with Gopal again and the both of us hungry we had lunch at one of his favorite places, KFC. It was strange walking in because when you do, at this one, the entire counter staff waved jovially at us, which hasn’t ever happened to me before.

Gopal and I went to a really great museum in a beautiful building that had all sorts of art from the area from pottery to paintings to musical instruments and textiles. We were becoming great friends to the point that since it was low tourist season he offered to show me around to a few places in Rajisthan that I was going to visit anyway, in his car, for a discounted rate. I agreed and we arranged a time for me to be picked up in the morning for more adventures.

North and South

26 Jul

Sunday the 15th was my last day in Mysore, and I still had things on my list to see. I left home in the morning (after being instructed by Hesham to be back for lunch, a guideline I was too happy to oblige) intending to see the temple at the top of Chamundi Hill, but after the driver demanded a ridic amount of money I bypassed it and opted to take a tour of Mysore Palace.

The palace is the former home of the maharaja who stayed in power throughout colonial times from the 1700’s to 1947. The palace that I toured was relatively recently built at the turn of the 20th century, due to damage caused by a major fire that burned down most of the palace except for the on-site temple.

The grounds of the palace are quite large. The gardens weren’t too impressive but the building itself certainly was. The outside is partially Islamic inspired with arches and domes everywhere, while the inside is opulent to the max. Having been built during Victorian times there is a real east meets west dynamic to the decor. While the familiar motifs such as elephants, peacocks and depictions from the Ramayana adorn each of the main rooms, there is still a vaguely Euro/Versailles feel in the chosen colors and pillars. It was a really beautiful place, the main reception hall was incredibly impressive with hits open wall to the courtyard, bright colors and paintings. It was well wroth the visit, just a shame pictures inside were not allowed.

After I headed to an art gallery, housed in a former palace nearby. It was really a great museum. The curation of it was very Indian slapdashed, cluttered and had no real flow. However, the pieces that they had were fantastic. It ranged from colonial art and furniture to more modern stuff all by Indian artists. I really enjoyed it.

I went home for lunch and Hesham had spaghetti ready. I was quite amused by how it was served, baked in the bread that was served with it. Then later that evening Addy took a bunch of us to the palace to see the nightly light display. There was a decent crowd present and the lights lining every window and arch of the palace gates and the temple created a real sense of magic. I know if I was a kid visiting I would have been incredibly happy running around the palace grounds imagining I was some daughter of the maharaja. Hell, I still sort of did that. Dinner that night was Iranian BBQ skewers and grilled tomatoes. It was divine. I contributed fried Oreos for dessert, to add a bit of America to the meal.

I quite enjoyed my time in Mysore, not just for the sights, but also the hospitality and friendship that came along with it. Everyone was so lovely to me and I really liked spending time with them. They even fed me delicious food the entire time, so who wouldn’t be happy? A tale of American and Iranian roommates sounds sitcom-y but it works in real life.

On the 17th I flew from Bangalore to Delhi, marking the end of my time in south India. I left the land of many moustaches to Delhi to kick off the second half of my trip Rajisthan. It was hard to believe I had made it that far. I was halfway through, and only 2 weeks of it has any serious traveling/moving around. India and I have had our ups and downs but that day I was caught off guard and once again India and I had quite  a row.

I left Bangalore on a noon flight. Things went smoothly enough in that regard. Even though I had technically been to Delhi twice before, this was my first time leaving the airport. Speaking of which, I was kind of interested in taking the metro into town. I like seeing the subways in other cities, and I heard Delhi has a great one. Unfortunately, the airport station/line was closed due to repairs so I had to hop in a taxi.

I had a hotel and area of the city in mind. I wanted to stay close to the train station seeing that I had a 4:30am train to Jaipur to get on. I intended to stay at a cheap place by the Jama Masjid, a crazy large/famous mosque that can allegedly hold some 25,000 people. My taxi driver was an irritating sort of chatty, trying to convince me to go to a different place/area instead, but I was having none of it. Then when I got to the hotel, check in took at least half han hour, which also ground my gears. I decided to get some sightseeing in despite the intense heat of the day. Delhi was positively scorching, between the actual hot temperature, the concrete that insulates it, the exhaust from all the traffic that adds to it, and the incredible crowding it’s no wonder.

Delhi, I think, was the first place here in India where I was blown away by the amount of people in it. The fact that this city could hold so many was kind of overwhelming. More people meant more blank emotionless serial killer like staring, which further tested my nerves. I was in no state to be gazed at either as I sweated from every open pore.

I went to the mosque, poked around and paid an overpriced entry fee. It was nice despite my feet getting burned on the hot stone, but I’ve seen more impressive mosques. Then I took the subway to Hanuman’s Tomb, a famous archeological site/burial-place for past rulers of Delhi. The main building is actually the inspiration for the Taj Mahal. If it weren’t so hot, and I out of water, I could have easily lazed about and further explored, but I wandered only for a little while before hunger out maneuvered curiosity and I needed to get some dinner.

Feeling homesick for whatever reason that day, I headed to a place recommended in Lonely Planet, an American style diner. I got there and it was like I stepped through some vortex that emptied me into, “generic diner”. The only difference that it was staff and patroned solely by Indians. I sat at the counter and was in luck that it was hot dog month so I tried their special Hawaii dog, a chicken frank topped with pineapples and mangos. The hot dog wasn’t too bad but the fries were appallingly bad. Being a huge fan of diner fries I was incredibly disappointed. I asked for my bill and was very surprised to see four different added taxes to my total: a city tax, VAT, service charge, and airated beverage tax that I had no idea existed. This did not help my mood.

After going the wrong way trying to find the metro, I wandered aimlessly, lost and thankful that this seemed to be a safe residential part of the city. I finally found a metro station and had an argument over the token I had bought at a previous stop that wouldn’t work at this one. There weren’t any notifications saying otherwise so I thought I’d save time by purchasing 2 tokens at once. I lost my temper with the “customer service” man and angrily bought another. When I got off the train I hired a cycle rickshaw back to the hotel, my irritation and exhaustion only heightened by the traffic jam that we had landed in. The car exhaust and the noise gradually made me lose my shit.

I couldn’t even be bothered to explore the delightful looking night market that I sped through on my way back to the hotel. They had a little of everything clothes, shoes, spices, food, kitchen utensils, all lit by overhead lamps and bargained over by locals. I just saw it as another frustrating crowd.

I got to my hotel only to enter a sweaty restless sleep in anticipation of my absurdly early wake up time of 3am. I ended up waking up extra early and even though I disturbed the sleep fo the desk men, they arranged for an auto for me so I didn’t have to tramp about in the early hours of the morning for my own. So I guess one good thing happened that day.

Feeling a Little Mysore

24 Jul

**Back to blogging. I’m just going to continue from where I left off, and hopefully I’ll catch up before the end**

At around 6 in the morning when we had reached Bangalore, I was woken up by the old man in my seat section telling me (after overhearing my need for a ticket extension seeing that my travel agent messed up my ticket) I had to physically get up and find the ticket taker to get it. I groggily complied, but after getting up I realized that  he just wanted to put the bed down so that he and his wife could sit upright. Annoying. I attempted to find the ticket man with no luck and gave up. I figured if he really wanted my freaking money he could come to me directly.

I had another 4 hours before Mysore so I just miserably sat around in the previous day’s clothing and filth, a wee bit wobbly due to my restless night. I arrived in Mysore, freshened up and then followed the directions I was given by my Couch Surf host on how to get to his place.

Luckily, there was a prepaid auto stand at the station, so I got one of my first honest rides in the rickshaw. Syroos met me at the junction of the main road and the one that leads him into his neighborhood. After the standard introductions he hopped in the rickshaw alongside of me and we went to the house. Syroos and his downstairs neighbor, Addy, are hosts/students at the local university. They are from Iran and Tanzania respectively. When I got there we hung out for a while and I met Hesham, another friend from Iran.

The rest of the afternoon was spent chilling. I went to one of the local malls and a store that was kind of like an Indian super Wal-Mart, it was really interesting. They had clothes, home products, and food for purchase. There were these gigundo barrels of different types of rice that left my easily amused self fascinated. The mall was pretty standard, it was relatively new so there were a lot of empty stores that hadn’t been opened yet. We bought tickets to see The Amazing Spiderman in 3D, for later as well.

When it was movie time there was a whole big group of us. It was so reminiscent of hanging out with friends at home that it was super comforting. The movie was pretty good, I adore Emma Stone, but I’ve found that watching films set in NYC makes me homesick. Afterwards the 4 Iranians and I went out to eat, and I had my first “late night” in India since Chennai. It was really nice to have built-in friends in Mysore especially since I have largely been by myself for most of the trip. The whole group was incredibly welcoming and their dynamic reminded me of me and my bros at home.

The next day, master chef Hesham promised to cook some homemade falafel, and not being one to pass that up I kind of just hung around the house with the boys until lunch. My time in Mysore was turning into a (needed) vacation from my vacation. I read, wrote, got some comedy work done that I had meaning to get to but hadn’t had the time, energy or funny to do it.

The falafel was perfect, I’m pretty sure it was the best I’ve ever had. It was an appealing shade of golden brown and wasnt’ dense at all. Sarnaz came over and we all chowed down with vigor. Afterwards I wanted to go out and see some things and to do a little shopping. Mysore is famous for its silks and I figured I should treat myself to a scarf.

I took a rickshaw into the city and was dropped off by the palace. I went looking for the Government Silk Factory that is in Lonely Planet because besides having tax-free scarves, they had a place where you can see the fabric being made and this titillated the fashion student still living inside of me, and the excitement caused by textiles very much confused my surf hosts, I think.

Upon arrival I wasn’t sure where to go since the auto driver did not know where the silk place was. I took a chance and asked for directions which is never a sure thing in this country, I don’t know how it happens but sometimes it seems most Indians don’t bother getting to know the city that they live in at all. Eventually I made it and despite the factory part being closed (sad days) I had a perfectly lovely time shopping after having such a long period without buying anything. I deserve a medal for my self-control during this trip. It will make up for the ulcer I probably have by now from resisting my deepest urges to buy all the pretty things I see every day. My last couple days in Delhi I’m simply going to go mad at the markets, like a person who has been starving in the wilderness for months and has just been brought to a Chinese buffet.

Anyway, I bought a gorgeous pure silk scarf for a decent price, definitely less expensive than it would have been in the states. On a shopping high of sorts, I was anxious to poke around more shops and Mysore’s primary bazaar was not very far, so I made an attempt to get there myself. Someone’s lost white girl senses were tingling because before I knew it a young-ish man began talking to me asking if I needed help. Wary of his proposal I asked him for directions, and he said he would gladly take me for 20 rupees seeing that he had “his brother’s” rickshaw for the day. I said okay, and when we headed to his parking place he went into this long story about how I can’t go to the bazaar until after 5:30 because it is a festival day and lots of men are hanging around getting drunk and he’d gladly show me other places around town for only 20 rupees because he, “Doesn’t believe in money, only Karma.” Yeah fucking right. I thought about it and rationalized, okay, he’s going to try to bring me places that will sell me stuff so he gets a commission (I’ve read about things like this in the guides). Part of me was annoyed that he was probably lying to my face about the bazaar, but I had planned on buying things anyway so I may as well get a ride to cool places I may not have found otherwise, so I said ok.

The first thing Saleem and I did was he treated me to a chai. Then upon passing the Indira Gandhi Handicraft Museum, I asked if we could stop because it was something I wanted to see anyway. He happily obliged while I toured the tiny museum as he waited outside for me. I was the only person in Mysore at the time interested in Indian crafts, so I had the place to myself. To put a sub-continental spin on the experience the power was out so upon entering I was given a large torch to see the museum, which I found hilarious. It’s a very nice little place with traditional crafts from all around India. Some of the carvings and paintings were lovely. There was also a collection of terra-cotta figures on the front lawn ranging from animals to gods and other mythical figures.

On the way to a local market we were driving along some back streets and while chatting Saleem casually asked me if I would like to try driving the rickshaw. After overcoming my feelings of disbelief, imagine, “Really? Really? REALLY?”  getting squeakier and squeakier, I giddily slid in the driver’s seat beside him and grabbed onto the handlebars. I slowly turned the accelerator towards me and with all the speed of a tortoise amputee we were off. I was squealing with delight as we crawled along. Once Saleem assured me that he had a sure foot on the brake, I sped up a wee bit. I think all parties involved were amusing, this including curious Indian pedestrians watching the wild eyed foreigner grin madly as she drove down the street.

We got to the  market where they had vegetables, spices, powders, and other items. He kindly bough me a jasmine garland for my hair and told me I could help myself to a tikka. The next stop was where he really began to “work”. It was an oil/fragrance shop that also made its own incense,  which I had the opportunity to watch the making of. Saleem gave me his best sales pitch and I got suckered into buying the smallest  bottle possible fo black jasmine, but I got some free incense as well. He then took me to a handicraft emporium of sorts and I ended up buying a bracelet and another scarf. They’re just so damn reasonable here, and the print was gorgeous, red with elephants because if there’s anything I don’t have enough of it’s shit with elephants on it.

Saleem ended up dropping me off at the bazaar as I originally requested and I ventured out into the covered market to take in the various fruits and vegetables, blocks of honey covered in bees, powders, oils, and jewelry in stalls that lined the winding aisles full of locals and tourists alike. I wasted time wandering around and by the time I had explored all areas it was time to head home because we were all going out to a party that evening.

 

TBC

Delays

18 Jul

OkbyeMay is currently experiencing travel related difficulties. I.e. things have been to hectic to blog. I’m okay (Mother). I have not been kidnapped by any Hindu demons ala the Ramayana. I have many adventures in Mysore, Delhi, and Jaipur to update you with soon, so stay tuned!

 

<3May

I Got Hos in Different Area Kodaikanals

14 Jul

I lost my original notebook, like a chump, so this post is a wee bit delayed until I got a new one. For those not in the know, I write down my thoughts the day of, and then I just re-type it here on the interwebz for you all to enjoy.

Anyway, on Tuesday I left Kanyakumari in the evening on an overnight bus to Kodaikanal, one of Tamil Nadu’s hill stations up in the small mountain range that divides that state from its neighbor, Kerala. I was quite excited of being in the mountains again, even though it meant I would be leaving my beloved seaside.

The night bus was my only option, which left me a wee bit nervous. I think it’s a residual fear from the way things are done in Nepal. There, taking long distance overnight buses are a real no-no. Their roads are so windy and dangerous that the chance that you’ll be involved in some kind of accident is way higher. There are enough during the daytime. On the other hand, India is not Nepal. The roads here are mostly flat and are in just a better state of repair, in general. So, it was definitely an adventure, if not an extreme test of nerves. I ended up getting 2 seats to myself and while I was pretty comfortable, I”m not a transportation sleeper by any means, but I managed to get in a few hours.

By the time we got to the familiar curves common to hillside infrastructure, the sun began to rise and I was lucky enough to be awake to watch they day peek shyly over the forested hills changing them from black to green. When it was completely light we were on the edge of town and the first thing that struck me is how developed the area was. I’m used to hillside towns being a few worn buildings clustered on either side of a dusty path with farm animals and old wrinkly ladies strewn about outside of them. Here, there were many modern buildings both residential and commercial alike. The contrast was a bit startling. I reasoned that the differences sprang from India being a wealthier country as well as the fact that they have more people , and they all simply have to go somewhere.

We arrived at the bus park around 6:30 in the morning and luckily the hotel I was looking to stay in was right next door. However, thanks to the 24 hour checkout rule, if I got a room right then I would have to be out of there by the same time the next morning. My stubbornness won out over my exhaustion so I sat in the lobby until about 8 and promptly crashed into my stereotypical mountain lodge decorated room, for a couple of hours.

As what tends to happen when I nap, I woke up feeling groggier than before, but I figured due to my short time there I should get a move on the sights as well as book my transportation out of there. I learned, after going to see a travel agent, the only way from Kodai to Mysore was an overnight train from a station 2 hours away. Fab. I had no choice but to book that train and from there I went about sightseeing.

Due to some misdirection I ended up at the beginning of Coaker’s Walk, a twee little path on the mountainside with lovely views of the valley below. Despite the day not being very clear, the soupy white clouds oozing over the hillside was actually quite beautiful. At one point the entire path became shrouded in a lovely mist that looked almost magical.

The one ting that did make my walk unpleasant, was as I was strolling along there was a large group of young guys staring, which although annoying, I’m kind of used to by now. What I didn’t appreciate is that one was holding up his cell phone, pointing it directly at me, blatantly trying to get a photo like I’m Angelina Jolie or something. I walked by a little faster and as I passed they told me to, “Hold still for one moment,” in a tone that was almost commanding. I told them absolutely not and kept walking. It’s not a new thing to have strangers take photos of me, normally if they ask I will oblige, making a silly face and whatnot. But just taking photos without permission is uncool. I’m not a tourist attraction. Even when I snap photos of local people I always ask first because they’re not here for my amusement.

Anyway, rant over.

I journeyed down to the deceptively large lake that looks kind of compact due to its strange amoeba like shape. In reality if you walk around the entire thing it comes to a distance of about 5-6km. The lake was lovely and full have happy boaters in a wide range of water transport. There were colorful canoes, swan paddleboats, and romantic looking rowboats. I continued my mini-trek to Bear Shola Falls, a small waterfall 2km away, with a clearly marked path, down through the town and a charming little trail lined with lush greenery, crowded and clustered wall-like on either side of the path separating you from the lapping stream and gnarly trees. It was incredibly quiet, so much that I began to question if I was still in India or not. The “waterfall” itself wasn’t anything special, really just a small stream of water dribbling down a rock face, but the walk was nice at least.

I went back to town to poke around the many cool little shops, including a couple of fair trade stores that made me regret that I have so little room in my bag. An interesting and incredibly dangerous thing about Kodai is that there are a huge amount of homemade chocolate shops. They dominate the two main shopping drags of the town like an international branch of the Wonka factory. The sight alone would make Wilford Brimley’s sugar catapult into the danger zone. However, as enticing as these chocolates are I learned later on that they weren’t as tasty as they looked.

By the late afternoon I was positively bedraggled, so I opted for some chill time and went to dinner at a place called Cloud Street that had good western food, according to Lonely Planet. The statement proved to be true and I even chatted with the owner, Marc, quickly after and he was so friendly I decided to go back for breakfast the next day. On Thursday I had an entire unanticipated day to waste due to my train leaving so late in the evening. I went back to the restaurant for breakfast and just chilled talking to Marc for most of the morning as well as a group of lovely girls from Scotland.

I got on the mini-bus the travel agent booked for me around 4. It would take about 2 hours to get to the station and my train was scheduled to depart at 8:20. It was definitely a local bus and as usual I was quite the curiosity amongst all the other travelers. I talked to a nice young engineering student across teh aisle, and at the rest stop all the other passengers made an attempt at conversation, took photos, and one lady even showered me with hugs, kisses, and some intense old lady face squishing. I’m sure she was some kind of south Asian champion.

I was the sole passenger at my stop, so I waved the bus goodbye as I nervously made my way to the station. Now, at this point I’ve been in India for almost three weeks, and yet I haven’t been on one of their famous iron horses. I have opted for the hop-on/hop-off freedom of the bus. I was helped by the nicest family of Sikhs and they gave me great guidance on train protocol.

I had a sleeper class ticket, which I guess is the best way to get an authentic Indian railway experience. When it pulled up, the key is to hop on quickly and proceed to your assigned car & seat. The train was already pretty full of people, I established which car I got onto and began to maneuver to my awaiting spot. Sleeper class reminds me of what a body storage warehouse would be like. The white walls and cornflour blue beds/seats emit a hospital-like atmosphere, although the occasional whiff of urine contradicts any presumption of sterility. The beds line the walls, stacked in threes. The aisle dividing the car has parallel beds running along one wall while on the other side perpendicular people cubbies create cramped, makeshift tri-walled rooms that have a  small space in the middle, two or three stacked beds on either side and windows on the far wall. The bed/bench on the top stays unfolded over head at all times, while the middle one may fold down flat against the wall, and the bottom bunk doubles as a seat for all the residents of the cubby. I awkwardly joined a large group of men, stashed my backpack under the seat, locked it, and then settled in bracing myself for the miserable night that was sure to come.

People came and went, the train stopped and started, and I in my state of exhaustion simply wanted to get some shut eye, but my assigned spot was the middle bed, so there was the issue of getting everyone else in my area to remove themselves form the bench they were on so that I could sleep. Eventually, when the other passengers saw that I was nodding off they graciously asked if I wanted to sleep, and helped with the bed. With my overstuffed tote bag (not filled with anything soft mind you) as a pillow, I closed my eyes and entered a state of pseudo restful sleep.

Birfday

11 Jul

On Monday I turned 24. While the past 23 years I can remember being incredibly excited every July 9th, this was my first, “Meh, it’s my birthday,” year. A part of growing up possibly. The fact that I really had no one to celebrate it with, probably another factor. It didn’t matter that much in the end. I was at the very tip of the subcontinent, the meeting place of 3 different bodies of water (Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean & Arabian Sea) all mixing together to create the same white foam that beats the rocky coast so mercilessly.

I planned my trip so I would land here for my birthday. I figured if I”m going to most likely be alone, I should do it at a place where I could enjoy myself, no matter what. Cancer girl feels most at home and happy by the water, so this is the perfect place.

Kanyakumari is almost exactly how I pictured/hoped it would be. It’s a town of religious significance, but it is also a happy little beach town that hosts many tourists and pilgrims alike. It is colorful, open, and has the smell of the sea mixed with jasmine, from all the ladies wearing flowers in their hair. It is a most welcome change from the claustrophobic, ugly, polluted cities in the flat center of Tamil Nadu that I have been spending time in lately. On the ride down the geography finally began to  change. Earlier on I had been startled to see how flat the land was here, a side effect from living in the Himalayas for the past 4 months I guess. The terrain began to get more hilly, to my delight, as I have grown fond of the sight of encompassing baby mountains. The palm tree areas became more dense and the whole countryside seemed more green. Despite having the overstuffed ottoman sized ass, of an Indian lady standing on the bus, smushed into my shoulder as her bag whacked me in the head every once and awhile I was downright giddy.

When I arrived I had a hotel in mind and was prepared to splurge on a nice room since the next day was my birthday (I traveled there on the 8th). I got a very nice, spacious, ocean view room with a balcony for a really reasonable rate. The rest of the day I puttered around town, booked my next bus ticket in advance and enjoyed my surroundings. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful except for the chicken masala I had for dinner, which was by far the best I had ever eaten.

The next day I woke up, newly rooted in my “mid-twenties” *gasp*. I sat out on my balcony for a bit and enjoyed the view of the water that was accessorized by a charming coastline dotted with houses and a couple of tall white churches. The day was sort of cloudy and windy, but I was just happy to not be dying of heat and sweating the moment I stepped outside. Actually, later on that evening marked the first time I had ever been cold in weeks. Although a hot weather person by nature, I’ve grown tired of the multiple daily showers and the layer of perspiration that I sported absolutely everywhere.

I had a small breakfast at the coffee stand and headed to the ferry to take a ride out to an island not far off the coast where a famous swami meditated and came to some great revelation. Now to impress I could say that I specifically went out there to find the meaning of life and the universe and my purpose etc, but in reality I just like boat rides. This one wasn’t particularly fun considering that I was left standing on the boat, which wasn’t the bad part, the worst was my placement meant all eyes were on me. I’m definitely one  of the very few foreign tourists in Kanyakumari.

Anyway, I walked around to the small, crowded island and picked the most secluded part possible to watch the water. I did end up getting mighty reflective for awhile, but the wind became too much so I headed back. When I got to the mainland I bought some cake for lunch, after all what is a birthday without it? I picked a spot by the ocean, had a few bites and goodness it was awful. I actually had to throw it out. Now, I’m not a very religious person, but I believe it’s a sin to waste cake. That’s how bad it was. Bleh.

I decided to do a little birthday shopping to pick up my spirits. I figure even though I’m going to go hog-wild shopping my last few days,  I reasoned I could get something small. While walking around the marketplace I noticed the great number of shops selling pearls. I ended up buying a beautiful string of black pearls for a disgustingly cheap price. I guess thanks to the exchange rate and the fact that they come form a town not very far away.

After, I went to use the internet and discovered Pernille, my Dansk friend from Trichy, was in Kanyakumari. I was exceedingly happy to see her again and to have a companion for my birthday dinner. I met up with her around 7, and she hadn’t gotten my response back so she was quite surprised/happy to see me show up at her hotel room door. She had to take care of some personal things but then we went to dinner and I had the most delightful prawns tandoori and garlic naan. Birthday meal: a success. We just chilled and chatted until the restaurant began to close up, and made plans to see each other in Delhi.

The next morning I packed away a huge breakfast and headed to the Kumari Devi Temple, for which the town was named. It is a plain, square fortress looking place that is apparently a very important pilgrimage site. The Kumari goddess is an unmarried virgin, who had intended to marry Siva, but her wedding was ruined by a demon.

The temple is very plain and unornamented, compared to the rest of the  ones I had been to recently. The interior had few carvings and was relatively dark and cave like. However, I think in its simplicity it added to the auspiciousness of the place. When entering the temple all men have to remove their shirts. There were many women there to worship as well. It is also one of the only temples where I have gotten to see any actual rituals performed. There was only one small part not available to tourists. People were bowing and praying on their hands and knees in full reverence at certain points. I even got to see the shrine/statue of the smiling Kumari goddess herself, normally I never get to see the shrine of the principal deity of the temple. The carvings were pretty simple but had great movement to them. Unfortunately cameras were forbidden and I actually had to check mine in at the entrance of the temple.

My next stop was the pink frosting colored Gandhi Memorial. I stupidly got suckered into having a guide (my b) I should have just walked by. I was sat down by an old man with startlingly blue eyes with dark whites, that I later learned was a side effect of eye surgery prompted by his witnessing of the 2004 tsunami. If he approached me differently, introducing himself as a guide instead of taking me without words and just beginning his spiel it wouldn’t have been a problem. That and the fact that even though I donated money to him, he still had the balls to ask for more because I’m a “rich” American. I definitely said no to that. He basically spit out everything that was in Lonely Planet, they probably met the same guy. He told me how the memorial is the home of some of Gandhi’s ashes that he wanted to be placed in Kanyakumari, and how the architecture of the building is a composite of building elements from Hindu, Muslim and Christian traditions.

He took me around to see the photos on the wall, which I largely knew what was going on anyway having just been to the museum in Madurai. The part of the memorial that struck me the most was a quote on the wall by Gandhi about his connection to Kanyakumari, “I am writing this at the cape, in front of the sea, where 3 waters meet and furnish a sight unequalled in the world.” This really hit home for me seeing that not half an hour before I had started to write this entry and was doing the exact same thing, watching the waters and writing about its allure. I guess Gandhi and I have something in common besides our love for draping.

The consequences of lethargy

10 Jul

**I took the day off from blogging yesterday, because it was my birthday. So this post is a wee bit behind schedule since I’ve been astounding even myself by keeping it up so regularly**

This was originally written on 7/7 and encompasses that day and the one after.

Today I visited one of the most over stimulating temples so far. Always, when I think I can’t be impressed enough with the ones that I visit, as I get further south, the bar becomes raised. As I write this I am sitting at the Sri Meenakshi temple. It is the uniquely dedicated home to the tri-boobied mer-godess Meenakshi. Touted as one of the most impressive in India, I of course had to see for myself. The place is absolutely huge with several gopurams guarding each direction’s entrance as well as a few in the center where the important shrines are. As recommended, with additional interest in scoping out the bazaar, I headed around to the east entrance. The gopurams are as colorful and crowded as before, like seven crazy parties suddenly were frozen in time and space. There is one bazaar in the temple and another across the street. The one inside the temple is not in the most holiest part, but in the common area where everyone is allowed to go. They sell all sorts of tchatchkes, religious items, paintings, jewelry, bangles, and there are special stalls for offerings as well.

But back  to the temple itself. The inside is definitely the most colorful/acid-trippy temple that I have seen yet. As described in my guidebook this is a “newer” temple, meaning it was built in the 15-16th century, also considering how old Madurai is (they used to trade with the Romans) then yes I guess this place would qualify as recent. I’m not sure if it’s the money that probably pours into this place, being a main tourist attraction, or its age but all of the carvings look as fresh and polished as if they were done yesterday. Out fo the many pillars, shiny granite figures of varying ferocity leap out you from the stone. From the wild-eyed male guardians and composite animal guards to docile voluptuous yakshis, the rather large figures stand out even amongst the brightly colored ceiling. The ceilings are covered with flowery optical illusions, in some areas, that as you’re walking move in a way that would make anyone believe they’re about to encounter something divine. Other parts have paintings of various gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon. Everything is bright and lively, enough to make you think you wandered into a cartoon, but only in the best way possible. You can tell how popular this place is because it has one of the biggest crowds that I’ve seen yet at any temple.

One of the more interesting pieces of art is the story of the mer-goddess wh is the authority of this temple. Her tale is frescoed on one of the walls. I haven’t seen this type of thing in mural from anywhere else, yet. There are numerous areas of the temple to explore, and while before I was afraid most of it would be off-limits I largely got free reign. Another element that I haven’t seen in any other temple is that there are mantras playing on the speakers, all over which I think adds to the general business of the place. It’s not stone silent (pun intended) like many of the others. I quite like the social atmosphere as well, it’s a good place to people watch. It’s probably the first time I’m scoping ut everyone else just as much as they are looking at me.

My second day in Madurai started with a cup of local coffee. In Madurai there are coffee stalls absolutely everywhere, my kind of town. The freshly brewed small glass cups are about 9 rupees. Some stalls do only coffee and others sell street snacks like dosas, idyllis, and sweets. In the morning many of the local men were gathered around these stalls chowing down on some breakfast. The glass that I had definitely has to be one of my favorite cups that I’ve ever had. The guy was definitely a master of putting in the correct milk to sugar ratio as well. This gives Madurai major points on my favorite places in India list.

When iw as sufficiently caffeinated, I hired a rickshaw to take me to the Gandhi Museum. The museum is in a large white Mughal style building. Half of the exhibition tell s the story of India’s independence, from the first landing of, “whiteman” in th 1600’s to the 1947 independence date. The first couple hundred years until the time of Gandhi was full of oppression and bloodshed. There were many revolts led by locals against the British East India Company and later on the British Empire itself. The museum stresses these violent clashes and struggles of India’s people. It was a well put together exhibition and the information and original art accompanying the displays were excellent.

The second half was about the man himself, Gandhi. It chronicled his life through photos, quotes, huge biographical plaques of information, and artifacts. This was also very well done. This museum is also the home of the blood stained cloth that Gandhi was wearing the day he was assassinated. The sight of it was quite jarring, especially after going though the museum, learning about his life and philosophies as well as the trials of his people. Other items of his included a pair fo his round rimmed glasses, books, and yarn that he had spun himself. This is probably the best museum I’ve been to yet and I quite enjoyed it.

The next place I wanted to visit was the Tirumala Nayak Palace, former home of the rulers of Madurai. South India is apparently the place to be for empty, cavernous, decaying palaces. That being said the impressive entry hall had yellow painted walls, high ceilings, some areas painted with arabesque style flowers and patterns. There are a few of the original molding/sculptures on the border of the wall and roof. A giant center courtyard dominated the space, which was meant for the gathering of many people, although nowadays it’s only a large group of empty chairs in the center. There was a small archeological museum with some very old sculptures. Other than that there wasn’t much to see, but it was a pleasant place to hang out. According to the brief description fo te history of the palace it was once a much larger place and this was only one part of it. There used to be gardens, temples, housing, harems and recreational areas on the premises.

Not having eaten all day I got super hungry. I was craving fries so at Lonely Planet’s suggestion I went to British Bakery, a snack shop that had what I required. I ordered a veg burger and fires and I got more out fo the meal than I expected. It was definitely the best veg burger I’ve ever had, and I’ve been eating them a lot lately. The bun was really good, the patty as not heavily breaded and it was topped with a really fantastic onion/mayo sauce that was exceptional. I was quite the happy girl.

 

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