Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Southern Exposure

MYSORE: To the south, to the south. The monsoon had ended (or so we thought) and it was time to take in the south. We have dipped our toes into the Dravidian cultures of South India like taking a dip in the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea. The surf has been rough at times, but we have drip-dried off and experienced another side of India.

The tip of the sub-continent was reached and like a yo-yo we are now we are winding our way back up. It has been a long trip to get, here passing from the foothills of the Himalayas, across mystical flat broad and brown rivers, to the temple strewn and palm fringed east coast. Once we hit the coast at Orissa in the north-east we hugged it through to Madras and then all the way southward to as far as we could go.

The journey by boat, bus and long distance trains has not been without its moments. Fortunately they have been little things and for most of the time we have enjoyed the coast and have watched the sun rise or set over it, discovering the scenery of cliff-lined shores, flat broad beaches, still inland waterways and canals of the backwaters and the historical monuments left behind by coastal empires that have flourished and gone.

But unfortunately for you the reader because I am lazy I have not done a major write up of this section of our journey so you will have to contend with the following spotlight on some of the highlights and lowlights, listed in no particular order from the past three weeks...

* Taking a dip in both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea beside fully clothed Kolkatans in the former and bikini clad westeners in the latter.

* A couple of near-24 hour train rides to get to the coast and the south in the first place; getting woken at four in the morning by someone insisting your are in their bunk, then watching for hours as the train passes through rice paddies and coconut palm groves.

* Visiting the fabulous 800 year old Sun Temple in Orissa and wandering around (with lots of local tourists) the gigantic structure, getting up close to massive wall carvings of sun dials/chariot wheels and risque raunchy scenes.

* Visiting the equally impressive and older carvings covering a rocky hilllock at Mamallapuram (just south of Chennai) and wondering about the lost empire that created them.

* Being a tight arse and not paying the “foreigner price” to visit the famous Shore Temple at Mamallapuram and instead looking at it through the cyclone fencing on the beach.

* Having to dodge the squatting local fishermen at Mamallapuram who insist on taking their morning abultions almost in front of you on the beach as you try to get some dawn photos of the Shore Temple through the fence.

* Visiting the city of Madurai with one of the world's largest Hindu temples, which is surrounded by a dozen massive gompuras (technocoloured pyramid shaped towers covered in statues of hindu gods and deities) - only to find that all the gompuras are covered in equally massive scaffolding and palm fronds – and you can't see a thing.

* Swapping curry and rice for aubergine gratin and ratatoui, and roti and naan for croissants, in Pondicherry.

* Being introduced to a whole new cuisine – southern style; steamed rice cakes, lentil pancakes and lots of spicey sauces – the best (and cheapest) eating of the trip.

* Cruising up the coconut tree lined, almost black, backwaters of Kerala for eight hours while watching fishermen lay nets and punt canoes with nearby eagles, kingfishers and egrets also going about their business.

* Reaching the tip of the sub-continent and discovering that there is a massive statue erected offshore on an island which is viewable from our cheap hotel room; sunrise was good.

* Loving the fact that the monsoon has ended only to discover that southern India also experiences a north-west monsoon directly after the south-east has finished; nobody told us!

* Getting more rain than we bargined for again while a cyclone parks itself off the coast and causes major rain in Kerala.

* Observing Indians and their crowd control behavior and being frightened at the way they will barge onto to transport before you have a chance to get off it; you learn to push back and realise why there are numerous human crushings at temples here.

* Watching the sunset over the ocean from a clifftop restaurant at Varkala and eating cheap fresh whole grilled tuna and snapper.

* Seeing two rare white tigers gnawing on their meaty dinner (unfortunately not in the wild but whilst taking a visit to a zoo in Orissa).

* Wandering around the photogenic old French quarter in Pondi. French colonial architecture in India! Another surprise.

* Discovering further colonialisation in the Catholic dominated ex-Portugese Fort Cochin – huge churches, and a loud Sunday sing-along.

* Watching at night from the vantage point of a cycle rickshaw, throngs of thousands of devotees to the Mother Godess Durga congreate and celebrate.

* Taking the slow bus to Mysore and arriving at 10pm over some of the worst roads we have experienced on the trip; who puts a series of speed humps in the middle of nowhere – but at least we made it safely, albeit with tyre puncture as an interval.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Oh the Humanity

VARANASI: I saw the man hover around, standing nearby and moving when we did. This was not unusual in the busiest ghat of the city. Touts and hawkers continually pestered tourists while pilgrims gathered on the steps and awaited instructions from their guides, and local dwellers and the saffron clad sadhus bathed and washed in the holy water, oblivious to everyone else surrounding.

Walking away, the man held out his hand to shake mine. I complied as I thought it was a harmless enough activity. I had shaken hands with many Indians while travelling through the country and it usually ends with that, just a hand shake. Immediately though the man grabbed my upper arm and with very strong hands proceeded to almost Chinese burn it in an intense massage that followed down the length to my hand.

For a few minutes I was stuck, not able to get away, but at the same time given the most painful and enjoyable massage of my life. It ended with him cracking not just my fingers but my whole hand and saying for 10 rupees he would do my head neck and shoulders for five minutes. With a prolonged “thanks but no thanks” we eventually managed to keep moving in the hot morning sun.

Welcome the dawn 2
Life on the ghats

The famous ghats of Varanasi were explored throughout the morning. We walked up and down the steps leading to the Ganges, passing the temples to Shiva, Vishnu, Kali and just about all the other gods and watching the bathers wash in the holy water, until the heat of the day became too much. We returned to the area when the sun had dropped and the temperature had cooled, to only be greeted by the same smiling masseuse from the morning.

“Ten rupees, head, neck and shoulders”. This time I complied and amidst the crowds of pilgrims, tourists and wallahs enjoying the evening on the steps of the ghat, he laid down a cloth and got me sit on it. What followed was one of those bizarre travel moments that you just have to go with. With Indians staring and tourists surely bemused I was given a full body massage from fingers to toes while laying on my back and then my front. It didn't bother me and cost more than 10 rupees in the end but it was a serene experience as I gazed over the dusky Ganges and my muscles were given a massive pounding.

Yes we are back in India and in the holy city of Varanasi and travel life is back into a more hectic and frenetic pace. But how can you not enjoy all the sights, experiences and frustration that entails. It is never boring.

Life exists everywhere here. The crammed old city swarms not only with the clamour of people densely packed in, but coexists with the revered monkeys and cows that happily bound along the rooftops and lazily wander the narrow alleys feeding on the scraps. Occasionally a bull will block access and bellow or a squabble will erupt between the simians but on the whole they all exist in the same space.

Death is not far away here either. The charred corpses on top of the pyre at the burning ghats are a very visible reminder that the Ganges is not only revered for the living but for the afterlife as well. Then there are scenes of a bloated cow's body stuck in a eddy behind a moored boat and not far away is a man gargling the river water.

Human existence takes on an almost collective cohesion. The masses of pilgrims all piling into a boat for a trip along the holy river. The jostling of the crowds as they are forced to thin down to fit through the narrow alleys. Passing the sadhus with their baskets containing cobras or, most beautifully, how the city's rooftops become the playground of the boys.

With ground space a premium, kites are launched from rooftops and with skillful pull strokes allowed to gain altitude. There is an art to flying these simple homemade paper and stick contraptions, but it seems just about every boy in the city has mastered it. We watched from the rooftop of our guesthouse an endless dusky sky full of kites bobbing. Travelling certainly has its special moments and this along with getting my public pummeling were some of them.