Posts Tagged ‘india’

Negombo: Going Deaf?

Jan 9-11, 2011: The first thing I noticed about Sri Lanka, being driven from Colombo airport to the tourist enclave of Negombo, was the quiet. Was it possible that my comfortable car was sound-proofed? Was I going deaf? Well, no. I quickly realized that the Sri Lankan drivers maintained lane discipline, and didn’t drive with one hand on the horn. But after six weeks in India, I had grown so accustomed to the continuous honking that accompanied any car trip on urban roads, that the quiet seemed almost eerie.

Just as my ears were no longer assaulted by the sounds of India, my eyes were spared the trash that fouled the streets of almost every Indian city. I had seen Sri Lanka described as India-lite. At first sight it was certainly India-clean and quiet. It seemed amazing that traveling such a short distance could have produced such a noticeable change. It surely also invalidated the excuses I heard for the dirt and chaos in India. True, Sri Lanka was a smaller country, but it had only just ended a vicious and long-lasting civil war.

Traditional boat off the coast at Negombo

About the car and driver – I had wound up planning for Sri Lanka over Christmas, with internet but without a guidebook, and finally took the line of least resistance and booked with Boutique Sri Lanka. Instead of taking trains and buses I would have a car and driver for the whole trip, plus they arranged all my hotels. While I certainly wasn’t staying at luxurious places like Tea Trails, I was definitely blowing my budget

Visitors to Sri Lanka are generally advised to spend their first night in Negombo, rather than tackling Colombo. In fact, they’re often advised to avoid the capital altogether. Since I wanted to see Colombo (my father had been stationed there during WWII) I had decided to start in Negombo and finish in Colombo. When I couldn’t get a reservation for the accommodation I wanted in Yala National Park, I added an extra night to Negombo.

Even though I had been prepared for Negombo to be touristy, the continuous row of cafes and souvenir shops still suprised me. My hotel, the Villa Araliya, was down an alley at the far end of the strip. My room, while a good size, was unexpected. The one double and one single bed were built from concrete, and just one single top sheet was provided. While the shower itself was fine, no hot water was available from the tap beneath the shower or at the sink. I fought a consistently losing battle with the door lock. I saw no sign of the supposedly welcoming owners when I arrived, and when I went down in search of coffee and internet and information, I assumed the woman who helped me locate coffee was another guest. Not until they greeted an arriving couple did I identify my hosts. I did not feel welcome.

Concrete beds

At breakfast I met a couple of long-term travelers – a Canadian and her NRI husband – starting their fifth year on the road. We shared a rickshaw down the street to the Ice Bear, a popular budget guesthouse, for lunch. The food was fine, but took forever to arrive, and while the place was on the water it looked pretty basic. I ate rather better in the evenings: a good Wiener schnitzel and fries at Bijou the first night, and an excellent sampler of Sri Lankan dishes at pricey Lords the second. The lobster, pear and lemongrass soup was a little tasteless, but I loved the spicy prawn curry, and enjoyed the dal and spinach, and pea and cashew curries. Between the wine with the meal, the Cointreau I treated myself to with coffee, and the free apple schnaps that arrived with the bill, I had something of a hangover the next morning!

January in Sri Lanka is still high season, one reason I had booked through an agency, and I should have been met by blue skies and bright sunshine. Instead, most of the time I was in Negombo it rained, and the Cultural Triangle area, my next stop, had been suffering from floods. Not an auspicious beginning.

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Devarajaswami, detail

Jan 8-9, 2011: If I had known that many people headed straight to Chennai airport from Pondy, instead of stopping off in the city, I would have followed their example. I wasn’t wild about Chennai the first time I visited, and even less so this time. I would have avoided one last tussle with an Indian driver, and being booted from my comfortable-sounding hotel to an isolated annex.

I had the driver, rather than taking a bus, because I wanted to stop on the way in Kanchipuram to visit a few more temples. And I have to say that the wonderful carving in Devarajaswami was worth the detour. Kailasanatha is much older, dating back to the 7th century, but it was Devarajaswami that captivated me. Unfortunately, the day just went down hill from there.

Lunch was an uninspiring buffet and the drive to Chennai took longer than I

Devarajaswami, detail

had expected, through flat and boring scenery. I had already had a couple of fights with my driver – no, I wasn’t going to the airport, no, we were going the wrong way to get to the temple I wanted to see – and now he had no idea where to find my hotel, and I had trouble finding where I had written down the phone number. Yelling at me didn’t speed the search, but did significantly reduce his tip.

I had booked a studio apartment at the Malles Manotaa through agoda.com. The place looked good on the website, but I never saw an apartment. Instead I was driven to an office building several streets away, which I was surprised to find included a bedroom and bath. It was dark, tired, and isolated. Although the young man detailed to look after me was most solicitous, I was not happy. An expedition to the nearby Pondy Bazaar didn’t help – it really wasn’t worth risking life and limb crossing the roads to get there.

Some old paint remains at Kailasanatha

I didn’t like Chennai any better the next day, although after a poor breakfast delivered to my room the taxi was at least on time. The only bright spot was the Kingfisher Airlines representative, in a red jacket, who met me at the kerb and escorted me through security and up to the correct check-in desk. I had had some doubts about the reports I had read about Kingfisher service, but it was all true. The airport rather let the side down, though, looking older and dingier than I remembered.

Kingfisher served an excellent-for-airlines-lunch, and I had an interesting chat with an Indian woman, married to a Sri Lankan, who had the seat next to me. But as we crossed a narrow coastal strip and descended towards Colombo airport over a broad lagoon, I was more than ready to move on from India.

Love those lions! Reminds me of Cambodia.

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Jan 2 – 4, 2011: South India is known for its temples, and according to the guidebooks, its people are known for their devotion to their gods. I can attest to the magnificence of the temples, but not that south Indians are any more religious than northerners. It is true that the temples weren’t short of people patiently waiting to pray, but I had no way of knowing where they were from, and I still remembered the crushing crowds in Kolkata’s Kali temple during Durga Puja.

Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, including the golden roof of the main shrine

Anyway, I was in Tamil Nadu to see temples, and after my New Year’s Eve diversion in Chettinad I was back on the trail, being driven past flooded fields to Trichy. Sorry, Tiruchirappalli. Really, I have no objection to the Indians erasing the colonial names of their cities, and am careful to write Kolkata and Mumbai, but did they have to come up with so many jaw breakers? And about those floods – not normal for the time of year. Hundreds had died and thousands been made homeless by unusually severe weather.

A flower picture underway inside

A flower picture underway inside Sri Ranganathaswamy

After checking in and eating lunch in Trichy I headed right out to visit the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, which Lonely Planet said would “knock [my] socks off”.  Sorry, Lonely Planet, but Madurai’s Sri Meenakshi Amman had already done that, and Trichy’s temple didn’t quite measure up. It may have been a bit bigger, but its soaring gopuras boasted fewer figures and less paint, and I missed the tank whose stepped walls had provided seating with a view in Madurai. Besides being quieter, the much smaller Sri Jambukeshwara temple I visited the next day also included some excellent carving.

Souvenir stall outside Sri Ranganathaswamy

Of course, there’s more to the temples than impressive buildings and intricate carving – they are a kaleidoscope of color and scents, inside and out.  Stalls selling souvenirs and garlands line the entryways. In Madurai there was even a whole section inside  devoted to stalls. There’s often a temple elephant, a big draw for the kids. Here you find a small group conducting a private ceremony, there a statue swathed in cloth of gold. The great cathedrals of Europe must have hummed with life like this when the pilgrims arrived – some still do (think Santiago, Fatima, Lourdes) but not with the same intensity of color.

Statue outside Sri Ranganathaswamy

When I started booking hotels for India back in August I drew a complete blank for Trichy and neighboring Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore), but when I tried again in early December I found a good price for the Grand Gardenia in Trichy. Although rather out of the center, its halal restaurant seemed a big hit with the locals, and I appreciated the spicy Chettinad cuisine after the rather bland fare at the Bangala. I also appreciated my comfortable room.

The temple elephant at Thanjavur

Because of the hotel problems I hadn’t scheduled a stop in Thanjavur, but I arranged a car and driver for the trip onto Puducherry so that I could stop off and visit the Brihadishwara temple. Wow! A thousand years old, without the paint of the newer temples, and drop-dead gorgeous. It’s easy to see how the later temples evolved from this one, but I thought the older carving much finer. It also reminded me of the Champa carvings in southeast Asia – not surprising given the trading links.

The main shrine at Thanjavur

If you have to choose between Trichy and Thanjavur, go to Thanjavur, not least because for once non-Hindus are allowed in the inner sanctuary. This is apparently because the rajah of Tanjore decreed that “Harijans” (Dalits, “untouchables”) would be allowed in back in 1939, and foreigners counted as untouchables.   A plaque on the wall records both the event and Gandhi’s appreciative comment. Sadly, even though this aspect of the caste system was outlawed in 1950, it’s still an issue. I had just read an article in the local paper about access for untouchables to one of the smaller temples in Trichy.

In Thanjuvar lots of people wanted photos - theirs and mine!

I had thought about stopping at yet another temple, Nataraja in Chidambaram, but after Thanjuvar the skies darkened ominously, and we drove into the town through driving rain. I felt sorry for the people we passed in the countryside, who disappeared indoors or huddled under awnings. Although the rain stopped while I ate lunch, the temple wouldn’t open for another hour or so, and I wasn’t wild about walking around in the floods in bare feet. I chose to keep going. Perhaps I’d seen enough temples for one trip.

Thanjuvar, detail

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Dec 31, 2010 – Jan 2, 2011: India’s amazing diversity fascinates its visitors, although its inhabitants may be less pleased – remember the unhappy northerners I met on the way to Madurai? The people are as varied as the landscape, the food and the languages. In Coorg I had stayed in a B&B run by a proud Kodavu, between Madurai and Trichy I would stay with Chettiars. The Kodavu were warriors, the Chettiars were traders and bankers, whose wealth funded elaborate mansions before their trading routes closed down and their banks were nationalized after World War II.

Entrance of a Chettiar house

The Chettinadu Mansion was full, so I stayed at the Bangala. Still a splurge, and not only because I took a car and driver in and out, and car, driver and guide for an informative tour. But it was New Year’s Eve. My large room, with an excellent bathroom but poor seating, opened onto a fan-cooled terrace facing the open dining room across a grassy courtyard. Part of a French TV crew, filming an historical series, was in residence, and kept to themselves, but I ate my New Year’s Eve dinner with the owner, a charming older woman.

Carving in a Chettiar house

My first afternoon I wandered around Karaikudi on my own, finding several nice buildings in poor shape, some not very antique-looking antiques, and a lively market. But my tour of the Chettinad region the next day was the highlight. My guide told me that the Chettiars had been sent to the region in the early 1900s by the maharajah of Madurai as traders and had done well with trade to Burma. Now some families can’t maintain their houses.

Chettinad palace

Like the Kodavu, the Chettiars built ancestral houses used for special occasions. Well designed for the climate, they featured an elaborate marriage room, and side rooms to hold dowries. I loved the intricately carved teak decorations (from Burma) although the wood was covered by layers of dark polish. We also visited a temple – the Chettiars worship Shiva – where  statues of horses are given to celebrate the birth of a boy. The ranks are moved back each year. I had noticed several temples in Karaikudi, each with its own tank (big, rectangular pool of water), and was interested to learn that each tank was designated for a different purpose – one for drinking, one for bathing, etc.

Horse statues at the Shiva temple

Bathing tank

We finished the tour with a visit to place making tiles, where I was surprised to see how little actual color was used – just a very thin layer. I asked about the fast-drying shower floors I kept seeing, and was told they were granite. I need a new bathroom floor, but it sounds heavy.

Making tiles

After the tour I indulged in a massage which turned out less relaxing than I hoped. The Bangala had just opened a new swimming pool and massage room, and it really wasn’t ready. The room opened right on to the pool, there was nowhere to put anything, no AC (and the fan stopped several times), no hot water and the shower didn’t work… Hopefully things have improved. The pool did look very nice.

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Taking It Easy In Trivandrum

It has occurred to me that since I’m posting well in arrears, I should put in the actual dates – I was in Trivandrum from Dec 22 to Dec 28, 2010.

Major holidays can be difficult for solo travelers (just as they can for singles at home). The last time I spent Christmas in India, a friend flew out to meet me in Kerala, and after a couple of lazy nights on a houseboat, we settled into a boutique hotel in Kochi. We had a great time, but my friend can no longer travel, and I didn’t feel like going back – a lot more people were traveling in December 2010 than December 2001, and I had heard that the handful of houseboats I remembered had exploded into hundreds. I also wasn’t wild about the idea of sharing a beach with a lot of romantic couples or partying groups (the same thoughts that had put me in Laos instead of on a Thai island when the tsunami hit in 2004). Nor did I want to pay inflated holiday prices.

Our houseboat

Kerala fisherman

I decided that what I really needed were rest and a good internet connection – I had done zero planning for Sri Lanka, and my flight to Colombo was just a couple of weeks after Christmas. So I picked a place people were likely to be leaving, Kerala’s state capital Trivandrum (renamed Thiruvananthapuram – what was wrong with Trivandrum?) where I found a good rate for the Keys, part of a budget business chain.

I really liked the Keys. The decor was cooler, the staff more efficient and my room both bigger and more comfortable than at the Ginger. And the wifi was free. While almost any hotel room looks good fresh off a night train, especially when you get to check-in early, I still liked the Keys after six nights. Even the buffets weren’t bad, and no one made a fuss if I ordered off the menu instead (for some reason I developed a sudden taste for french fries!). The staff made a special effort for Christmas, both with the buffet and the decorations, although I was a bit puzzled by the blue and white balloons.

Christmas Day crowds at Trivandrum zoo

Lord of the jungle?

I was still recovering from the chicken disaster in Coonoor, and I found the humidity level way high, so I didn’t do a lot of sightseeing. Along with a great many locals I took a look at the zoo, which I found rather sad, and I wasn’t impressed by the over-developed beach at Kovalam. An expedition to visit the wooden palace at Padmanabhapuram gave me a good look at crowded roads and last-minute shoppers, but the palace itself was closed for the day. A prominent Kerala politician had just died, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the day of mourning would affect a palace in Tamil Nadu.

I did get a rest, I did get my trip to Sri Lanka planned, despite the holidays, and I Skyped friends and family with Christmas greetings. I also got my hair hennaed and my toes painted, and did a little shopping. I had a trouble finding deodorant, and failed altogether to find dental floss and small plastic bags – interesting cultural differences you don’t notice on shorter trips. I also bought the first souvenir of the trip – a pashima shawl. I bought at the government store, the SMSM Institute, so no bargaining.

Kovalam beach

St. Josephs Cathedral

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The Coonoor Chicken

All the guidebooks tell you that the way to arrive in Ooty is on the mountain railway from Mettupalayam, but that’s south of Ooty, and in Mysore I was well north. While I was sorry to miss the train ride, I have to say that the trip up by road wasn’t too shabby, either. My tour bus took the scenic route, scaling the mountain by way of 36 hairpin bends – at each bend a signboard listed the number still to go. I enjoyed the views of mountains and waterfalls, but wasn’t too impressed with Ooty when we finally arrived.

But then I only got a glimpse of the town, and a slightly longer look at the touristy lake area, before I left for Coonoor. The drive down the mountain was a bit more hair-raising than the drive up, as we quickly descended into thick mist. I was splurging on the Gateway Hotel, formerly the Taj Garden Retreat, and was welcomed with a flower garland and the news that I had been upgraded to a suite in one of the cottages. With a sitting room, bedroom, dressing area and bathroom I had the biggest quarters of the whole trip, but it was rather dark and far enough from the main building that the expensive wifi only worked in the sitting room. The Gateway didn’t really deliver the colonial-era ambiance I had expected – it was nothing like the Windamere in Darjeeling, although I did get hot water bottles in the evening.

Cottage at the Gateway Hotel

High season in the hills is April to June, when people go up to escape the lowland heat. There seemed to be plenty of people about in December, but the weather wasn’t great, with afternoon mist hiding the view and one day of heavy rain. Fortunately the morning was clear the day I had a car and driver for a visit to the nearby viewpoints, although I had yet another (male) Indian driver who didn’t want to listen to his (female) passenger’s instructions, and it took a call to the hotel to get me to the tea “factory” I wanted to see.

Tea plantation overlooking Conoor

Not that there was any shortage of tea – all the gentler slopes near Coonoor were blanketed by an apparently smooth layer of vivid green bushes. I had visited a tea factory in Darjeeling and seen the leaves being processed, so here I just wanted a shot of the ordered slopes backed by the steeper, forested hills in the distance, while the operation my driver favored was too close to town. I really preferred the views of the craggy hills and of the Catherine Falls across the valley to the regular rows of close-cropped tea bushes, and I did get to enjoy those in sunshine.

The Nilgiri Hills

The Catherine Falls

That afternoon I indulged in a massage in the Gateway’s spa, so by dinner time I was feeling pretty good. The Coonoor Gateway had the same menu as the one in Mangalore, but they also had a big buffet, and they REALLY wanted you  to eat that. But I hate buffets – the food is never as good when it’s been sitting around, I always eat too much, and even so I never feel that I’ve eaten enough to justify the price. I discovered that if I wanted to order off the menu, the hotel would like me to call the order in from my room, and then come down in half an hour to eat.

So I ordered chicken curry and dal makhani and rice, and waited half an hour before wrapping up for my walk to the dining room. The curry tasted fine, but I noticed it wasn’t as hot as could have been.  You know where this is going, don’t you? That night I got really sick.

Now I rarely, rarely get sick when I travel – I have fragile feet but a tough digestive system – but luckily I was carrying an antibiotic just in case. Even so, I spent the entire next day in bed, subsisting on toast and pineapple and listening to my iPod. I had intended to try for a seat on the mountain train up to Ooty (unlike the Darjeeling train it turns out that you can, and should, book tickets) and was only somewhat mollified by the pouring rain that might have kept me indoors anyway.  I will say that the hotel staff showed appropriate concern, wanting to call a doctor and giving me extra time in the room before I left the next day.

Tea, au naturel

Fortunately by then I no longer needed instant access to a bathroom, but I arranged a car and driver for the trip down to Coimbatore instead of taking a bus. The mist held off and I loved the scenery, but I was concerned about the four or five hours I would have to kill before boarding the night train to Trivandrum. My driver left me outside a restaurant near the station, and I nursed a big lassi for an hour before gingerly tackling some rice and channa (chick peas). Then I carted my pack over to the station – to find a minor miracle.

A sign by the electronic departure board just inside the entrance pointed the way to the AC waiting room. Not only was it open, it was clean, quiet, and provided with deep leatherette arm chairs and sofas flanking glass-topped coffee tables, with racks for luggage at one end, and not quite so clean but acceptable toilets at the other. Only a handful of passengers shared a room that could easily hold twenty. The explanation for this miracle? Entry cost 15 rupees an hour. About 30 cents. I had no hesitation in handing over 45 rupees and settling in!

The afternoon mists

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In December 2001 I spent several luxurious-for-me nights in Mysore in a former palace, the Green Hotel. Admittedly, it bore little resemblance to the main palace, an Indo-Saracenic extravaganza in the middle of town, and I had the cheapest room in the house (avoid the motel-like building in the grounds), but I loved the palace, the gardens, and the food. (Not to mention the library of English-language books!)

The Green Hotel, aka Chittaranjan Palace

So why was I staying in the Ginger Hotel this time? Partly because I thought the Green was too far out of town – I got tired of the perpetual fights with rickshaw drivers who flatly refused to use their meters. Partly because I wanted to check out Tata’s new chain of budget business hotels.

I should have stayed at the Green. Initially I thought the Ginger stark but functional. Then I discovered the downsides: no free wifi, a useless  shower curtain, a hair dryer with a plug that didn’t fit the sockets, a rapacious travel desk, no food options aside from a boring buffet, and a headache-inducing band pounding drums in the lobby my last night.  And I still needed a rickshaw to get into the center of town.

Hoysala temple

Hoysala temple, detail

Mysore itself charmed me for a second time. Cleaner, greener, and with more interesting buildings than most Indian towns its size, I found it a welcome oasis in the wilds of Karnataka. It is also a comfortable base for visiting the exquisite Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid, but I chose not to make the day-long trip a second time. Instead, I revisited the once-fortified island town of Srirangapatnam, capital of Tipu Sultan’s empire in the late 1700s and site of his final defeat at the hands of the British. Besides wandering among the towering columns of the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, and lingering over the detailed frescoes adorning the walls of Tipu’s summer palace (no photos allowed), I went down to the river bank, where I found a number of alfresco religious ceremonies in progress.

Tipu Sultans summer palace

Naturally, I revisited the main palace, built for the Wodeyar dynasty at the turn of the 20th century. Again, no photos are allowed inside, which is a pity, as the lavishly-turreted exterior only hints at the over-the-top decoration inside. The Wodeyar’s signature peacocks are everywhere, from mosaic floors to  stained-glass ceilings, solid silver doors confront the visitor outside the durbar hall, used for public audiences, and the ceiling of the hall itself, 155 by 42 feet, is supported by a dizzying array  of oddly chubby columns. Foreigners are eligible for a free audio guide, although that hasn’t deterred the would-be guides at the gate.

The approach to the palace

Mysore Palace

Mysore is a shoppers’ mecca, known for its silk and sandalwood. I already owned three delicate sandalwood deities (Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati), but I did embark on an unsuccessful search for a salwar suit. I had more fun at the huge Devaraja market, where I was especially taken by the stalls selling religious paraphernalia and those heaped with blossoms, which are sold by weight for crafting garlands.

Potions and powders in the market

My next stop was Coonoor, up in the Nilgiri Hills, which I hoped would


have cooler temperatures and good scenery. Finding the quotes for a car and driver rather high, I signed up for a day tour by mini-bus to better-known Ooty (now renamed, by some sadistic bureaucrat, Udhagamandalam). A short ride down the mountain would then get me to Coonoor.

The tour was cheap enough I had no expectation that the sight-seeing would be worthwhile – how many wild animals can one realistically expect to see from a noisy bus driving through a National Park? – but I had hoped for a better bus and a faster departure from Mysore. I should have asked more specific questions, as the bus I was shown on booking bore little resemblance to the one I rode out of town, and although my pick-up was scheduled for 7:30 (actual time after 8:00) we didn’t leave town, with me crammed into the backseat, until 9:15. But we did get to Ooty, and the guide did arrange a car to take me on to Coonoor, and the bus ride only cost me 250 rupees.

Dont mess with the Wodeyars!

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Mysore was the only place from my 2001 trip that I had chosen to revisit (I don’t count the night I’d need to spend in Chennai before catching a plane to Colombo), but I planned a couple of stops on the way. Although I’d really like to visit Dharamsala, headquarters of the Dalai Lama, this shaped up as a south Indian trip, and I was saving the whole north west for a separate visit (wouldn’t want that ten-year visa to go to waste), but I discovered a Tibetan refugee settlement, Bylakuppe, on the northern route from Coorg. Then I remembered a brief glimpse of the illuminated fountains at Brindavan Gardens, 20 kms outside Mysore, at the end of an exhausting day tour arranged by the local Tourist Development Corporation, and wanted a longer look.

At Bylakuppe

Dilip organized a car and driver for me, although after we set off I had to insist that we were going via Madikeri and Bylakuppe, instead of taking the direct route – why do I keep having trouble with Indian drivers??? Lonely Planet had been dismissive of Madikeri, the largest town in Coorg, and I agreed with the author – not a place to spend longer than it takes to admire the view from the Raja Seat. The main temple at Bylakuppe, on the other hand, is quite impressive, although, obviously, new.

Inside the temple

Commandingly sited at the end of an avenue, with a huge picture of the Dalai Lama dominating the facade, it’s surrounded by accommodation for the monks. The frescoes are crisp, the Buddha statues golden, the decorations elaborate and the marble floors a pleasure to walk on barefoot. The cafe where I ate lunch proved rather less clean and bright, but at least I didn’t get sick. I was interested to see a group of young women in blue saris, escorted by white-clad nuns, also visiting the temple and eating in the same cafe.

Hotel foyer

After lunch we sped towards Mysore on a four-lane divided highway (where I noticed that, just as in North Carolina, slow-moving traffic hogged the fast lane) before turning off onto bad back roads to reach the Royal Orchid Brindavan Gardens. This was a splurge, although less of a one than I feared thanks to an internet special rate. I was very amused by the hotel, where it seemed only two other rooms were taken, and which was all faded elegance and colonial grandeur. I thoroughly enjoyed my balcony overlooking the gardens, my big bed and easy chair, and my well-equipped bathroom, although I was less than happy with the pricey wifi and disastrous breakfast.

The gardens at night

The hotel’s Elephant Bar had plenty of elephant heads (not real ones), but was quite unable to provide me with a gin and tonic. All they had was gin premixed with some kind of orange drink! I took a look at the fountains from the bar, before going down to enjoy them close up. Good thing I hadn’t waited any longer, as the lights were turned off quite early. I suspect that there is a more elaborate display on weekends, which explained my cheap hotel rate, but I was quite happy and feel no need to go back again.

And in daylight

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Coffee and Critters in Coorg

I had booked with Kabbe Holidays based on the recommendation of a chance-met couple from Chennai, and the B&B’s website. And I had paid a sizable deposit. In cash. I didn’t think too much about the deposit, as I had been required to pay cash deposits for both Palolem and Kannur. I’d paid those via Western Union, since the U.S. seems not to have joined the wire transfer system, and it had been more trouble and more expensive than visiting the ICICI bank in Mangalore. However, when Hyacinth decided to call for directions before I left Kannur, and couldn’t get an answer on any of the phone numbers on the website, I did start to wonder… Had I been stupid? Did I need a Plan B? I took another look at the not-very-enticing options in Lonely Planet and crossed my fingers.

Coffee on the vine

Hyacinth had arranged my transfer with the brother of the rickshaw driver she usually employed, and both men went with me. I don’t think they had traveled the route before, and I don’t think they enjoyed it. We climbed up onto the Deccan Plateau, through a Wild Life Reserve, and as we climbed the temperature, not unnaturally, dropped. I welcomed the cooler weather, but these seaside guys clearly missed their accustomed heat and humidity. Then I had to stop them tormenting the monkeys who made their home in the reserve.

And drying on the ground

The road had progressively deteriorated, but after we passed a rubber plantation (apparently within the park) suddenly we were treated to smooth, well-maintained, asphalt. At Virajpet, the southern gateway to Coorg, my driver started asking for directions ad once we reached the village nearest the B&B I was relieved to find that the locals had at least heard of Kabbe Holidays, but the further we went, the narrower the road became, and the fewer buildings we passed. Eventually we were traveling up a country lane, and during the final stretch we lurched over loose stones. But then, on the last coffee plantation before government land began, we found Kabbe Holidays and my deluxe cottage.

My cottage

I hadn’t particularly wanted a deluxe cottage, but the deluxe rooms were occupied by two Indian couples: a brother and sister and their spouses. The sister and her husband were IT employees from Bangalore, and the brother an army officer with an IT specialty based in Kanpur (formerly Cawnpore, another place intimately associated with the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence). As this was a family group, I was pleased when they included me in their conversation at meals (eaten family style on the verandah of the main house) and really enjoyed their company. I enjoyed the food too, plenty of it, and a good variety, and one big advantage to staying on a coffee plantation – really good filter coffee.

I hiked to a nearby viewpoint, but I didn't climb the rocks

After two nights the Indian couples left, and I moved into one of the deluxe rooms, although not solely for economic reasons. The second evening of my stay I was horrified to find a large slug on the bathroom trashcan. After I recovered from the shock I scraped it off outside, only to return to see three more comfortably settled in on my washcloth. At this point I called for help, and one of the young men who worked on the property removed them – with some reluctance, I thought – and Dilip, the owner, assured me that they showed up in his bathroom all the time. I can’t imagine how that was supposed to reassure me! When I subsequently found a large spider on the the night stand I was only sorry I couldn’t move that night. When I did move I found the smaller room warmer, and the bed big enough for three. And no unwelcome wildlife!

The second waterfall

In addition to running the coffee plantation and the B&B, Dilip acted as tour guide for his visitors. One morning we all hiked up to a nearby viewpoint (before breakfast!), and another we visited the coffee plantation and Dilip’s parents, who lived in a traditional style house behind the B&B. Initially I enjoyed visiting the plantation, seeing the coffee beans ripening on the waist-high bushes, shaded by silver oaks, but then we took a detour through a damper area infested with leeches. I had met leeches on a previous hike in Laos and had absolutely no interest in seeing them again. Luckily I was wearing boots, but the other two women were in sandals. Even my boots didn’t help too much, as some sections had mesh on the outside and the leeches were able to crawl in, although when defeated by the inner layer they had to crawl out again, and I wasn’t very good at getting them off.

I enjoyed a visit to two nearby waterfalls much more. Of course, I’m always happy to sit, or even stand, mesmerized by falling water, but I would think anyone would enjoy these two. The second, higher, fall could have been a bit of a challenge for me to reach, except that a film crew had improved the access just a week earlier. (I have a hard time imagining how a waterfall could help sell mattresses, though.)

Window at Dilip's ancestral home

My last afternoon Dilip took me to see a rather drab “palace” (Nalakunad), built by a local ruler so he could hide from Tipu Sultan, busy extending his Mysore-based empire. Then we drove to Dilip’s ancestral home – easily the highlight for me. The Kodavu, the warrior people of Coorg (they are still allowed to own guns), are ancestor worshipers, and the tombs of Dilip’s ancestors, and a temple, were outside. Inside, photos dating back to 1840 hung on the wall of a long terrace, with beautiful carving decorating the main door. Every Tuesday, some of the seventy members of the family meet there for food, drink and socializing.

I loved the cooler weather up in the hills, a welcome relief after the steamy conditions down on the coast, but Dilip wasn’t happy when it rained one afternoon, which wasn’t supposed to happen in December. The coffee harvest was drying out in the open, and needed several days with no rain. Mostly I had sun and good views in the morning, and mist, clouds or rain in the afternoon. I had just missed the harvest festival, but barley and five kinds of leaves had been tied to one of the columns in front of the cottages for good luck. Didn’t seem to protect against slugs, though.

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Rails and Ritual

I’m a bit of a train buff. Not obsessively so, but given a choice I’ll take a train rather than a bus, and often a train rather than a plane, and in 2004 I spent seven months traveling 17,000 miles from Scotland to Saigon entirely by train.  So of course I was intrigued to read that the Konkan railway, running down the west coast south from Mumbai, was an engineering triumph with good scenery, and I wanted to ride it in daylight. I did the first leg, from Mumbai to Goa, back in 2001, but having slept badly in Mumbai, I spent much of the train ride asleep and missed the scenery. This time I traveled from Goa to Kannur (formerly Cannanore) breaking the journey part way at Mangalore.

St. Aloysius College Chapel

Maybe I should give up on the Konkan railway. Neither the train ride nor the stopover lived up to expectations. On the Goa to Mangalore leg I had a lower side berth in AC3, and so I had lots of room. What I didn’t have was lots of scenery, as I was on the landward side, and the people in the section opposite me drew their curtains. On the Mangalore to Kannur stretch I had a window seat on the seaward side in AC2, but the angle of the afternoon sun turned the view hazy. I did see stretches of flat, sandy coast with lots of palm trees, interrupted by several wide rivers whose lazy estuaries ended in sand bars. Perhaps the really good scenery is further south…

A school outing to Sultan's Battery

I can’t recommend either the Gateway hotel in Magalore, or the town itself. I thought the frescoes at the St. Aloysius College Chapel far from “brilliant” (perhaps Lonely Planet just meant the colors), and the Sultan’s Battery, a long rickshaw ride north, a sad remnant. In fact, the only reason to visit Sultan’s Battery is to see the river, otherwise obscured by run-down or industrial buildings. For almost the first time in India I drank a correctly-made macchiato in a coffee shop in a mini-mall, but the experience was spoiled by deafeningly loud music and surly service. (Mini-malls, air-conditioned, and often with a western restaurant (likely pizza), are scattered among the usual hole in the wall shops in Indian cities and are recognizable by the tinted glass fronts.)

The driving beach

As the tide of development has spread south in Goa, those in search of solitude have fled further south ahead of it. Personally, I’m not opposed to a bit of development – I like a few creature comforts – but I definitely prefer fewer people on my beach. When I looked south my first pick was Gokarna, with a important temple as well as beaches, but then I read about theyyam in Dalrymple’s “Age of Kali”, and realized I would be able to witness the ritual if I stayed around Kannur. Theyyam (see http://www.malayalamresourcecentre.org/Mrc/culture/artforms/theyyam/theyyam.html ) is a religious ritual involving music and dance during which the main performer goes into trance and becomes the deity he or she is portraying.

At first I thought this was a religious symbol...

I picked Ezhara Beach House mostly based on a fodors.com poster’s recommendation for its hostess, and while I certainly enjoyed Hyacinth’s company I should perhaps have paid more attention to descriptions of the house itself. Although it wasn’t especially hot while I was there, it was humid, and I would have been much more comfortable with AC, not so much at night, when things cooled off and a fan helped, but during the day. I quite liked the sound of the waves breaking on the shore coming through a permanently open window, but others might need earplugs.

Each floor has two rooms sharing a basic bathroom – fortunately I was the only guest during my stay, which also allowed me to use the clothesline in the common hall in lieu of the missing wardrobe. My bag lived on the floor. But if you don’t mind the simple accommodation and the mosquitoes Hyacinth is an attentive hostess and an interesting companion, the food was very good, the price was right, and the beach was indeed deserted – although I noticed pollution on the water one beach south and wouldn’t advise swimming.

Keralan Christmas star

One reason it’s deserted may be the distance from Kannur, which turned out to be a much bigger place than I had expected. It took the rickshaw which met my train 30 minutes to reach the beach house, partly through town, and partly through countryside notable for red volcanic soil and a profusion of green trees. The last stretch was through a small village, home to a Muslim community, and I was shocked to see the women wearing black burkhas in Kerala’s heat and humidity.

Hyacinth's beach

Hyacinth took me sight-seeing by rickshaw: a neighboring stretch of beach where vehicles were allowed to drive; the rather disappointing market in Kannur; an ayurvedic lunch (the only difference to a regular thali seemed to me to be the ginger drink), a seaside fort, and a weaving operation using 50-year-old industrial looms to produce towels, tablecloths, mats and the cloth for lungis. And she took me to a temple for a theyyam performance.


Hyacinth stayed with the rickshaw (being ritually impure at the time) and I walked alone down a long street of shops selling religious paraphernalia and souvenirs. Leaving my sandals in an echoing ante-room I entered, a little self-consciously, a big, high-ceilinged room that opened onto water at one end and housed a small wooden building at the other. The edge of the raised sections on either side provided the only seating, and since I was early I was able to claim a prime spot under a fan. On the women’s side: sex segregation was strictly maintained by a middle-aged man in a brown uniform. As the room filled I exchanged smiles with the women near me, but no-one spoke English.

Eventually, the myriad small lamps covering the front of the wooden house were lit, half a dozen men, naked to the waist,  processed in, their hands beating a loud rhythm on their elongated drums, and the performers completed their preparations inside the little building. The senior priest, a gold plaque tied over his forehead, brought out a two-tiered, elaborately decorated, silver headdress, blessing it with fire and flowers. Then the man who would channel the god appeared, painted yellow, with signs on his chest and arms, wearing a long red skirt with a red ruff round his hips, and false white lips. The priest lowered the towering headdress into place, and the two began a slow, stylized, shuffling dance. A sword and a bow appeared at one stage, but although the drumming was continuous, the dance remained stately. Towards the end the “god” went round the room blessing the crowd, some of the men individually, but the women collectively and from a distance.

Unfortunately, although I was very interested in the proceedings, I did not personally get a spiritual vibe from them. Perhaps I should have come later in the season, when some of the rituals take place outside. I imagined the same performers treading the same steps, but on red earth in a clearing in the lush forest, lit only by the flickering lamps and a rising moon. Perhaps then I too would have felt the arrival of a Presence.

Looking out to sea

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