So here we are in Mamallapuram, a small beach-side town just south of Chennai and tomorrow we will be flying home!
We really enjoyed the rest of our time in Southern India. After our short and very chilled stay in Fort Cochin we hired a car to take us down to Aleppey, where we bargained for a houseboat and stayed in the dingiest place by far of all our accommodations in India. However, as it was only one night, and we were looking forward to the house boat the next day, so we put up with it.
The ' Kettuvallam' (former rice barge) houseboat was a one-bedroom plus kitchen number with two oarsmen and a cook. Graham haggled hard and got the price down from the initial 8000 Rs to 5750 Rs, still a bit pricey but the boat was definitely the best of the 7 or so we looked at. We set off at noon, cruising the backwaters, lazing around on the deck and enjoying the view over the canals, little villages and rice paddies. The cook made us gorgeous food - by far the best we had in South India. At around six pm, and shortly before the rain hit, we docked up for the night. It is a rule for the houseboats to get off the canals by this time so the local fishermen can have their turn. It rained most of the night but we were nice and cosy inside the boat. The next morning, to Fran's surprise, Graham proposed and so we got engaged! A very memorable setting and a special day for us.
After breakfast it was back to Alleppey and back on the road, this time on two local buses (1 x change) which took us up into the mountains to a small town on the Kerala/ Tamil Nadu border called Kumily. Here we spent two nights and a whole activity-packed day jungle trekking, visiting the Connemara tea factory, elephant riding (so much fun !!!) and learning about spices (and then shopping for them - vanilla pods are soooo cheap here!!)
Next day we had another big bus-sing day - an eight our trip to Thanjavur. In hindsight we may have been better breaking our journey to Pondy in either Madurai or Trichy, for Thanjavur was quite off the beaten track and apart form the temple (which only took an hour to see) there wasn't much else. But hey - how were we to know, and we'd decided to go with the World Heritage list choice so Thanjavur just ended up being the pick of the day.
After another long bussing day we treated ourselves to some more upmarket accommodation for two nights in Pondycherry. Seeing the french influence in this Union Territory was interesting, and we spent a fair bit of time just walking the streets, doing some Xmas shopping and eating the different food - a nice change from the curries!
In Mamallapuram (just up the coast from Pondy) we are staying in a basic resort-style place in the middle of town. This morning we did a lap of all the awesome rock-carved temples, sweating buckets in the process (Having checked the NZ forecast, 18 degrees there will seem quite chilly compared to the 40 defrees here), before escaping back to the airconditioning.
And so we're nearly at the end of our trip and really really excited about getting back home!!
And India is still as endearing as ever. Our two week tour of Northern India culminated in Varanasi, one of the most spiritually important towns in the country. Varanasi, located on the mighty Ganges river, is a place where you can see every aspect of life, all of which are played out on the ghats along the river. We took dusk and dawn boat rides along the ghats witnessing the pollution, ritual bathing, washing of clothes, pumping of water, arti ceremonies and cremation of the dead.
We found it difficult to comprehend how a river so religiously venerated by the locals has been allowed to become so dirty. If it is true that the water of Ganga will wash away your sins then there must be a lot of sinners bathing in the river. However we have been told that if you believe in its powers the water (despite its bacteria content being way over the acceptable limit) won't harm you and this must be true for the Hindu believers. It's just one of the many contradictions we've come across.
In Varanasi we also took pleasure in seeing the latest bollywood release - 'London Dreams'. Funnily enough it was about an Indian band trying to make it big in London, and it was set there. The drama, exaggeration and unrealistic storyline were amusing but the music and and acting were entertaining.
On Sunday we had our last dinner with Ruby before we hopped on an overnight A/C 3-berth sleeper train to Delhi. It would have been a pleasant experience were it not for what must have been the loudest snorer in India sharing our berth! Still we made it in good time to Delhi to fetch our bags from the hotel and head to the airport. After a three hour flight and 1 hour taxi ride we arrived at our accommodation in Forth Kochin. If the laid-back feel of this town and the yummy two-course silver service meal for the equivalent 10 pounds we had last night is anything to go by we will be having a good time in Southern India!
Today we are shopping around for a Kerala backwater boat cruise from Alleppey to Kumarakom. From there we are aiming for the hill town of Kumily from where we hope to see some of the wildlife at the Periyar National Park. Then it's on to Trivanjur, Pondicherry, Mamallapuram and finally Chennai.
We're both also getting really excited about being back in NZ soon and catching up with everyone!
Well we're officially one week into our tour but it might as well have been a month as we've seen so much and met so many people. After Monday in Delhi it was an early start on Tuesday morning to catch the 'Taj Express' to Agra. 'Express' turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration as we were delayed by three hours. There had been a train crash on the same line earlier that morning, with several fatalities. Policemen were escorting a criminal who, under the pretence of needing to use the toilet, tried to escape and so the policemen ended up pulling the emergency brake. Several minutes later a train behind - which must have missed a signal - crashed into the back killing about 20 civilians. The policemen are in big trouble as you can imagine. Once we were on our way we passed the wreck. By that stage there had been some tidying up but it still looked pretty messy.
So our trip was off to an exciting start, but we made it safely to Agra. After a nice lunch we headed off to the Red Fort where we joined another Intrepid group for a guided tour. The guide was great - an old chap who'd been showing people round for decades and has even been on telly several times. The architecture was interesting incorporating muslim, christian, hindu, jewish and jain elements. Apparently, the mogul that built it was of the view that all religions should join to worship one god.
Then on we went to the Taj Mahal. The setting is most impressive, overlooking a massive bend in a riverbed, and the use of pearlescent marble and symmetry is amazing. The tomb inside was not quite as interesting but we spent some time just oggling at the outside.
Next day it was another train ride and jeep transfer to get to the remote medieval town of Chanderi. We met a young indian girl - Shilty - and her dad and brother who were on a 24 hour train ride to Mumbai to attend a cousin's wedding. We had to tell her everything about NZ and she took great delight in listening to all the 'western' music on my ipod (particularly Enrique Eglesias)and reading the Lonely Planet. We also learnt about indian weddings, indian cricket and bollywood stars so our four hour train journey went by quickly.
In Chanderi we were greeted by local guide Kalley Bhai. This friendly man showed us around the 'village' (with population 30,000 it would classify as a city in NZ) and into his home where we had dinner on the terrace under the stars. Chanderi was once a large and strategically important city of the muslim Mhoguls who built a fort with numerous karawansereis and mosques in the area. Today there are muslims, jains and hindus living side by side. Even the population exchangs after the Indo-Pak war did not affect this. The next day Khalle Bhai took us for an orientation walk and we got to visit the local school where the pupils asked us about our jobs and it took some time explain what a town planner does. In the afternoon we headed 25km out of the town to look at some prehistoric rock paintings which Kalley Bhai stumbled on about 4 years ago. He has been lobbying the government to protect them (as well as the Mhogul ruins in Chanderi) but until now they have shown little interest in his cause. It was interesting to meet someone so passionate about preserving and promoting his local heritage. The people in Chanderi were amzingly friendly, open and inquisitive because Intrepid groups are pretty much the only tourists which come to this remote area.
The next day we proceeded to Orcha. An even smaller town this place was home of the hindu Bhandela dynasty who built several massive palaces and temples in the area by the Betwa river. Here we got to witness Hindu celebrations down by the ghats and the daily prayer in the Lord Rama temple. We also took a cooking class with a local lady called Vandana. We've got the recipes so we'll be trying them out back home!
Today we had a three hour drive to Kachuraho, again famous for its temples, this time built by the Chandelas from about 900AD. They are famous for their many tantric and erotically themed rock carvings of men and gods practicing various positions from the Kama Sutra,. As our guide put it these carvings were intended to illustrate the union of opposites (men and women) to make a whole. Despite these carvings only constituting about 2% of the temple sculptures, Sex sells and these carvings have certainly put Kachuraho on the tourist map and bought a lot of traffic to the town.
Today we caught up with another traveller - Mike - who we had met back at the Delhi hotel and who was two days ahead of us on the same tour but with another group. Due to illness he sadly has had to discontinue his trip and is heading back to Oz tomorrow. So we caught up with him while Ruby organised a local doctor to see him.
Tomorrow we are heading off to Panna National Park where hopefully we'll be able to go for an elephant ride!
We're staring to feel at home in India and can say with confidence that the people we have met are some of the friendliest we have met anywhere. Many Indians do not have much but they are amazingly hospitable people. We've been treated like celebritys in the smaller towns and at the Taj with many photo requests.
Well here we are in India and still can't quite believe it because we are too busy trying to register all that is going on in this busy, bustling yet ordered chaos! We got here very early morning on Saturday which also happened to be the day after the opening Friday of the Diwali festival - the festival of lights which is celebrated by all Indians regardless of their religion and which features candles, fairy lights and all kinds of fireworks - the louder the better!
So our trip was off with a bang! We met some other Intrepid travellers at our hotel - Mike, Sarah and their leader Karni - and had dinner with them the first two nights and got in the Diwali spirit by lighting some sparklers. On Sunday we took the brand new Delhi metro into the town centre and checked out the national museum, the Rajpath and Connaught Place.
Yesterday we met our leader Ruby who will be our guide for the next two weeks. It turns out that there's just the two of us on this trip but that's probably good for Ruby as it's her first time guiding (although she has done an understudy trip before so knows the places we are going to). It's great getting an insight from a local and we keep bugging her with questions.
Today, via rikshaw bike, we explored the largest mosque in Delhi and then the big Sikh temple which also runs a 24/7 soup kitchen feeding thousands daily. The Jain temple was closed but we had a snoop around the grounds.
Our hotel is in Karol Bagh which is south west of the town centre and a air-conditioned haven which presents a parallel universe to the street reality outside.
Tomorrow it's an early start catching a train and seeing the mighty Taj Mahal which we are really looking forward to.
Not sure what else to report, there are not enough words to describe the many impressions we've had in just three days!