taking the bus around the south of India

24-Feb-2002

There I was, sitting in a shop in Kochi (Cochin) the other day eating some yummy Amul ice-cream when I realized that I haven't sent out a real travelogue update to y'all for quite some time. So here you go. No long story today about either food or hemmerhoids. This is the real shit.

My last update found me in the city of Mysore, recovering from things that I shall no longer discuss. I stayed only four days until I met Sax from Belgium who wanted to see some real wildlife in the nearby national parks. We left the next day for Bandipur National Park by bus, arriving in late morning... taking the government bus tour around the park we managed to see some wild elephants, all sorts of wild monkeys of every shape and variety, and lots and lots of spotted deer. The tour was only an hour and then when we got back we determined that the hotels in the park were extremely expensive, and we had already missed the last bus out...

So Sax, his Indian friend from Mysore and I managed to hitchhike on a Tata Lorry truck to get to the next town. Being in the middle of the south Indian mountains in a 10,000 kg lorry was fun, despite our maximum speed of about 20 km/h. No kidding. Indian roads are pitted and potholed in the best of times and they are especially bad and narrow in the mountains.

Next stop: Ooty. In the state of Tamil Nadu. It's a hill station high up in the mountains (well, high for south India that is), elevation about 8100 feet from sea level. Hot during the day, quite cold at night. The three of us took an all-day tour around town and saw the great big tea plantations that grow all along the steep hills and mountains. I sampled some of the best tea I've ever had and was just about to buy a bag of it to ship home when a local came up to me and told me not to buy the tea. Why? Well, the tea they serve and the tea they sell are apparently two completely different things. It's things like this that have afforded me use of the phrase, "only in India."

It might be of interest to note that the single worst hotel room that I've stayed in India was in Ooty. I'm not going to tell you which one (as actually, I forget), but it was right next door to the first and most popular one that the Lonely Planet recommended. Too bad that one was full. There was a smell of death that permeated the room but that didn't bother me so much... it was the rats scratching under the wooden box beneath my bed that I didn't like, plus the bed bugs and the few giant mosquitos. Plus there was some interesting graffiti on the wall that made me think that I was in, say, on the wrong side of the tracks in New York City instead in a remote hill station in southern India, but it was entertainment nonetheless. I slept with the light on and under my bug net. I read somewhere once that if you leave the light on the rats won't come out of hiding much at all.

After Ooty we headed to Mudumali Wildlife Santuary with the hopes of seeing more animals than just a few wild elephants. Here we hired a professional guide, as well as having our local friend from Mysore with us as well. We were set. It was quite beautiful. The first day we took a nice walk to bathe in a waterfall, then a long safari drive (where we saw, unfortunately, not much at all), and then a 4-hour trek where I saw some huge piles of elephant shit. Those animals can really shit, you know. I'm impressed. I think if you really want to see wild animals in a wildlife park you'd need to spend at least a week, and spend much time sleeping in the treehouse-like structures that are built high up in the trees. We saw two of these lookout points and it would have been nice to sit and wait a few days for some elephants, lions, zeebra, giraphes (sounds like a Zoodles noodle commercial doesn't it?) but I decided it was time to go and keep traveling and I was off to see the wizard...

I left Ooty on the local bus, headed for Pondicherry on the far eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. It was a long, exhausting trip. Three buses and two trains and about 36 hours of non-stop excitement found me in Pondicherry, a former French colony on the southeast coast of India.

To me, Pondicherry was fine. I stayed there only one night as I wanted to be near the beach and Pondicherry did not have that nice of a beach. Yet nearby was this place called Auroville, which had a really strange write-up in the Lonely Planet guidebook so I just had to check it out.

Auroville is a commune of about 1500 people living and working (and presumably, sleeping) together in perfect harmony. Or so the brochure says. I'm not so sure about that but I shall not say anything bad. In the end I left because I didn't like the rain.

Auroville's beach was okay, it was a bit dirty and somewhat sparse but I can say that the place I stayed, Waves Guesthouse (built as a part of an "Auroville project") was certainly the nicest bamboo beach hut that I've ever stayed in. It was mostly rainproof and with a swing-up door and everything, I really liked the place...

But about Auroville (and Pondicherry too) I must say this: that it game me a special new meaning to that prayer-like sign of appreciation that's held to one's forehead, after I've given them a small bit of change. It seemed really desperate to me, more so than other places in India that I've been thus far, and it made me sad.

Next I took a train ride across the country, all the way to the west coast again in the far southern state of Kerala. I arrived in Kollam and booked my ticket for the popular government-sponsored Keralan backwater cruise that everyone goes on. It was beautiful and quite nice, an 8-hour cruise through the backwaters from Kollam to a small village called Allepey. About 99% of the people on the boat were Westerners and while it was all fine and good I'm glad that I had brought my newspaper along for those moment when you're not snapping pictures...

On the boat ride I met Jon from England and Pia-Maria from Italy, and together we took a bus that evening to the great port city of Kochi (formerlly Cochin) where we spent about a week in the Fort. I had my bamboo flute with me, which I'm trying to teach myself how to play, and Jon plays flute as well and we had much fun playing together as well as me learning some things from him. Pia plays a diggery-doo (sp?) and she also had a small Indian drum, so we spent a few nights jamming on the rooftop in Fort Kochi, enjoying the sunset and the very hot mosquito-infested winter nights.

From there the three of us headed to Munnar after hearing stories about being able to rent a whole house for about 400 Rupees. This was impossible in Munnar of course, but still Munnar was very nice, we found a great cottage run by a very friendly Indian family that was about 6km out of town on the private tea acres and near the big Tata Pullivasal Factory (where they put all the tea into tiny little packets). They made us breakfast and thali meals every day and milk tea (chai) whenever we wanted the whole week, room + food cost me only about $7 Cdn a day. Well worth it for the experience.

In and around Munnar we spent a day climbing up along a great waterfall, as well as several days walking the steep hills of the countryside, surrounded by tea plants, walking and walking and getting lost all the while. What a great way to clear your mind and just enjoy your surroundings...

I had planned to spend only a few days in Munnar and then head even further south to Varkala beach, my original destination (that I had first planned to visit solo) but I liked my company and surroundings enough in Munnar to have written off Varkala entirely.

Leaving Munnar I took the local bus to Kochi again with Pia and booked a subsequent 41-hour train ride to Bombay that left the next morning. Sheesh. You head 41-hours straight north and when you get to Bombay you're still technically in southern India. This is one big country, it feels like the size of Canada but with non-stop people, instead of 30 million people there are 990 million people in an even smaller land mass...

The train ride was surprisingly pleasant. This was the first reserved train ticket I've had in over two months, as I am quite challenged as to planning my departures ahead of time and so I end up taking the local bus everywhere... or else packed like a sardine into the unreserved section of the train, along with my travel pack.

I have just arrived in Pune, about five hours south of Bombay, to visit the famous Osho Commune ashram. "Spiritual healing for the rich." is what Bhagwan Rajneesh (later known as Osho, just Osho) is known for. And also, "using sex as a path to spiritual enlightenment." Ugh, I'm sure I'm misquoting such things and someone will undoubtedly email me a corrections. After the short tour and mandatory AIDS test (guess why!), everyone must wear these maroon-colored robes while on the premises. While I have only just arrived, it's quite odd to see so many almost identically dressed people walking the streets in their maroon-colored clothes. I'll let you know how it goes.

After Pune I plan to spend a couple of days in Goa again, just for the excellent dancy Full Moon Party, before I head north to the 2300 year-old Ajantha Caves, and then north into the vibrant and colourful state of Rajasthan... stay tuned.

BTW my website is down at the moment, but stay tuned as operators are standing by... I'm working on a remote fix to my DNS config shortly... over and out.

k



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