Southern India - Part 2
Like birds fleeing the nest for the first time, Maria and I left the protective custody of Amy and John's apartment and got driver Arul to drive us out to the domestic air terminal at Chennai to nervously board a Jet Airways flight to Mumbai (aka Bombay). Surprisingly, the domestic terminal is very modern compared to the old International terminal with the only similarity being the heavy handed security provisions just to enter the terminal building let alone to get through to one's departure gate. Domestic airfares are also very cheap and the 2hr flight to Mumbai only cost A$85 each.
If Chennai is one of India's main manufacturing cities, Mumbai with a much larger population (21 million) is the nation's financial centre. Unlike Chennai, Mumbai has a very westernised CBD and a much more orderly traffic system governed by many highly visible police armed with no more than a pair of white gloves and a very shrill pea whistle. Even the buses and truck traffic appear to obey police instructions and the traffic lights. However, the noise from the construction work associated with a new city metro system proved quite a distraction while sight seeing on foot. Our hotel (The Residency - www.residencyhotel.com) in the Central Fort area turned out to be an excellent choice in terms of its location (100m from the Central Railway Station) and its quality. However, its breakfast room was frequently overcrowded and one needed to get in early.
Marvellous Mumbai did not let me down and I was able to identify many of the iconic places of interest mentioned by Salman Rushdie in his novels....Marine Drive, the now snooty suburb of Malabar Hill, Chowpatty Beach, Crawford Market
Quite apart from the vehicular traffic in the CBD, one has to contend with very congested pedestrian traffic on the footpaths, especially during peak business hours. On our first night we decided to take a 30min walk to our chosen restaurant (The Samrat) not realising at first that it was vegetarian. However it also sold beer (bloody Fosters do you mind). We had a fine meal of two vegetable curries one based on red capsicum and chick peas the other on Beans and lentils, parathas plus a couple beers....excellent.
What a difference a real ‘english speaker’ car driver makes. Sreejith Travels (mobile 09821357855) was fantastic and even had some amusing political attitude – 'all politicians in India were in it for themselves.. as for religion it has caused and is responsible for all the current tensions in the country'. We paid him A$60 to take us around the must see tourist spots of Mumbai:
· Marine Drive and Chowpatty Beach
Cricket practice on Chowpatty Beach and later at the Maidan Oval
He also recommended the Hotel Gokul for lunch where we were able to enjoy a popular local dish of chicken tikka marsala. We had previously tried the famous Leopold Café but found it chock-a-block with young and loud tourists in their loafers and chinos. We returned on another occasion for a T shirt.
While one can do a tour of the Bollywood film studios we simply could not fit in.
We later walked over to the Mumbai Cricket Club hoping for a cold drink but were told at the gate that it was members only. It was interesting to observe the amount of backyard cricket games being played in every side street and alley way. We also did a little more shopping and eventually found ourselves down at the Gateway of India with loads of other families sharing the same idea this Sunday morning.
We visited Mahatma Ghandi's house and Museum which was quite an eerie experience. I had not realised that he had been friends with the poet Rabindranath Tagore whose writings had made an early impression on me while as a schoolboy; not least because of the length of his beard!
Our driver also took us down to the historic fish markets at Sassoon Docks where we saw hundreds of fishing trawlers being re-vitaled with provisions and ice as well as fish being unloaded and women processing prawns and squid - a very busy place indeed but surprisingly was not particularly smelly:
Icing the trawler holds and the mid-air basket of fish
We also visited Mumbai's famous outdoor laundry which must process tonnes of linen and clothes everyday which, unlike the fish markets, was indeed a very smelly place.
We also made a special expedition on our own to the Central Railway Terminus to establish the departure time of our train the next day and to identify the nuances of using this vast complex and check out the variety of food stuffs available to purchase for our journey.
We got an early morning phone call at 0545 hrs and a taxi to the Central Railway station. The massive station’s floors were covered in sleeping commuters but we were able to pick our way through the bodies to Platform 12 where our one km long “express” train was already waiting for us with a departure time of 0615am.
Prior to leaving home I had become a registered foreign user of the Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation (IRCTC Ltd) and had booked etickets for all of our journeys. This involved a great deal of study of their train schedules, an understanding of the various classes of seats on offer on the various classes of trains, as well as a rail map of India and of course the price schedules (which are ridiculously cheap).
85% of this trains' carriages were 3rd Class used by local commuters with only barred window spaces, the rest of the carriages on this day train were 2nd Class air-conditioned ones which I had chosen. The seats here were rather battered vinyl covered airline types but reasonably comfortable. There were each type of toilet in each carriage which were kept clean by the staff for the entire journey. One could order hot meals for breakfast and again for lunch from the steward consisting of omelettes and sambals and rice. Then railway staff cruise up down selling chai or terribly sweat coffee and snacks of various kinds. However, I had taken precautions and sourced a French bakery and purchased some back-up pastries - just in case.
All aboard the Tapovan Express (7hrs @ A$20 each) - we appeared to be the only westerners on the train
While it was labelled an express train service it appeared to stop at over 50% of the stations passed. Once clear of outer Mumbai the train passed through essentially rural farmlands and villages growing paddy, corn, cotton and then grapevines appeared this turned out to be the home of that Sula wine we had drunk the night before. Unfortunately the train's windows were too dirty to enable worthwhile photography to be undertaken. Nevertheless, a naturally occurring 'yellowy' heat haze appeared to hang over the much of the passing countryside.
It was also interesting to note that the train gauge here in India is a massive 5ft 6inches (Australia's National Standard gauge is 4ft 8.5 inches). The 7hr journey was comfortable enough just tiring and we were concerned about the amount of coughing and sneezing that went on. Arriving in Aurangabad (estimated pop 1.5m) we were quickly picked up in the throng of departing passengers by a taxi driver who got us to our hotel and en route tried to convince us to hire him for the next two days to take us to the two archaeological sites around here. His price was high and we deferred taking up his offer until we had been able to compare it with what our hotel could offer – the latter quoted a price almost 30% cheaper.
Our 3 star hotel room proved to be typical of what we would experience throughout our trip ie: no fridge, dodgy shower plumbing, no English language TV stations but worst of all is the poor level of English language skills on the front desk – we had stumbled into an Indian businessman’s hotel but it did later prove to have an excellent restaurant serving veg and non-veg items plus alcohol.
As a consequence we were forced to rely on a Tuk tuk driver to get us to a private bus company to arrange for a ticket out of the town in 3 days time. The hotel desk could not direct us to a working ATM – I tried three nearby without success. This town has a population of over 3 million with a sizeable Muslim minority. The river running through the centre is really an evil smelling sewer. I thought given the world heritage status of the nearby sites that the town would be a little more tourist orientated – not so – we appear to be on our own. We have accepted the front desk’s offer of a car and an English speaking driver for two days at a cost of A$65.
Off to the Ajanta Caves situated just over 100km Nth East of Aurangabad. These 27 caves which are set in a horseshoe bend of a steep ravine and date from 200BC to the 6th Century AD when they were abandoned in favour of the monastic settlements of Ellora. They were established as a monastic refuge for Buddhist monks but were later adopted by the Hindu orders who later conquered the area. They are renowned for their frescoes (temperas) depicting everyday life at the time and are remarkably well preserved. They were not re-discovered until a colonial hunting party stumbled across them in the early 1800s on a tiger expedition. In addition to the frescos are the elaborate carvings within the cave as well as the architectural merit of the caves themselves.
The varying light conditions made it virtually impossible to photograph the richly adorned temperas on the ceilings and grottoes within the caves - far better to appreciate them in person
This place can be overrun with tourists but today was only inundated by a number of very excited primary school groups from various local regional schools plus a Japanese tour group. Maria had her climbing legs tested yet again by the entrance steps but managed to do it without the aid of either a porter or one of the decadent sedan chair lifts on offer.
Once again a beautiful archaeological site is compromised by the young and their addiction to their need to take selfies in front of them.
Later that afternoon we discovered that our hotel boasted an al fresco dining garden and bar in front of their chef’s kitchen with two tandoor charcoal fired ovens. We watched thrilled as the staff did their thing with these ovens and no more so than when they prepared and cooked our Naan and Roti Breads in them.
The next day we toured the second of the archaeological sites at Ellora…this time without all the steps and only 30kms from town.
This site is quite different in that they were established much later and were inspired by 3 religious systems viz Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism ranging from 500-700AD. There are 30 odd caves each different but all decorated with images of Buddhist and early Hindu gods. There remain a few of the temperas which once adorned the walls and ceilings of theses vast caves. While the Ajanta caves are noted for their paintings, Ellora's caves are remarkable for their elaborate sculptures.
These two photos have been lifted from the guide book to illustrate the enormity of some of the caves
The size of the caves plus the poor visibility in lots of them make it extremely difficult to take a balanced photographic record of the site. However, we did try.
Our inspection of the caves was again sorely tested by the hundreds of school groups also choosing this day to inspect these heritage sites. When the students are not taking selfies of themselves in front of classical compositions they were pestering us to be included in their selfie binge. Teenage boys would also tear through the caves with loud whistles. Proved a little intimidating for Maria especially when encountering these boisterous groups in narrow steep passageways. We encountered only a handful of western tourists at these two archaeological sites.
After lunch and on the way back our driver stopped at the village of Daulatabad to inspect the majestic 12th Century fortress known as Deogiri. Its ruins remain impressive despite having been involved in many battles and sieges. Once again the site was overrun with excited school groups.
We also visited the much heralded Bibi-qu-Maqbara, a mausoleum built in 1679 for a regional prince’s mother and which was modelled on the much grander Taj Mahal in Agra – hence its belittling title of the 'Poor Man’s Taj'. Rather than marble, much of the building is covered in rendered white plaster.
We were supposed to have caught a bus to Pune, but the bus we booked from a roadside travel agent (recommended by a Tuk Tuk driver) failed to materialise and instead the Agent arranged for us to be bundled into a non-taxi registered station wagon which was filled with four other punters plus driver and driven recklessly at 100+kph down a three lane highway through villages and passing every other vehicle on the road.
Arriving at Pune in early afternoon we were able to establish that there were no daytime buses to Hampi and that our only option was to upgrade our third class sleeper rail ticket. Rather than do it online I decided foolishly to do it in person at the very crowded station. By doing this I was forced to go on to a waiting list for the up-grade. We did not know the result of the up-grade until 2200hrs on the next night when we were scheduled to travel. The lessons to be learnt here is to make sure you pre-book all night train travel at least one month in advance. And to do so at Class 2AC - do not think about general sleeper class.
Pune is a big city (est population 5m) with some serious manufacturing going on eg LG ie no longer the quaint hill station town I had read about. However, the reason for coming here was simply to connect to a train service which would get us to the town of Hampi. Our pre-booked Samrat Hotel was located just in front of the huge railway station and was designed around an atrium. We have a nice balcony to offset the usual tiny single beds, bung A/C, chipped tiles and dated plumbing fixtures, Once again we are the only westerners in residence – they are not set up for tourists. However the hotel has one redeeming feature - a much valued “Permit Room -Beer Bar” to allow it to sell alcohol.
After a sleep in we had a leisurely breakfast and developed a schedule of activities for the rest of the day. First a pharmacy to purchase some Imodium (anti-diarrhoea) Tabs for the train trip tonight then some sightseeing. While reading on our balcony I was pecked by a low flying hawk – just like a Magpie attack back home – gave me a real fright.
Then we contracted another kamikaze style Tuk Tuk driver to take us 10kms north across the river to the Aga Khan Palace. The fourth Aga Khan donated this palace and 6.5 hectares of gardens to the Indian Government in 1969 to provide a permanent memorial to Mahatma Ghandi and his wife (Kasturba) who were both imprisoned in the palace during the 1940s – his wife also died there.
At 2200 hrs we received advice that our upgrade was now confirmed and so we wheeled our luggage over to the by now teeming station to nervously watch the electronic departure board to see when and from which platform our train would be leaving. While it was scheduled to leave at 0150hrs it was running late and did not leave until nearly o330hrs. Boarding a Sleeper Carriage in the middle of the night would normally cause a little unrest amongst the occupants - not so in India and we had to struggle in the dark to find our allotted bunks. It was a very long night. We found that we had been allocated the skinnier sleeping berths (700mm wide) which run parallel to the carriage isle I took a lower one while Maria battled bravely up to a top bunk. We are again the only westerners on the train.
Just got to sleep when ticket collector drew my curtain back to check our tickets and then at about 0500hrs the Chai Wallers started their mournful cries up and down our carriage. These were soon joined by chaps selling all manner of breakfast snacks eg Samosa, Idly, Roti and various Sambals and Chilli.. Nothing for it but to get up and go about finding the western style toilet in our carriage and brush my teeth.
Came back from ablutes to find a middle-aged Indian lady sitting on my bunk (she had been in the top bunk. She showed me how to fold up the bunk to form two quite comfortable chairs. Maria meanwhile slept until well after 0900hrs but her lower bunk companion, while awake, decided not to get up and similarly convert her bunk so as to give Maria a seat. I noticed this practise was adopted by a lot of Indian women in our carriage who just wanted to rest and, as not interested in the countryside, kept their window blinds shut.
As we passed through villages there were plenty of irrigated crops of rice, sugar cane, vegetables, maize and cotton. But for the rest of the time we passed through flat dry and dusty bushland. Lamentably, one sees a lot of rubbish around train lines especially at the stations. I even saw our carriage cleaners sweeping the rubbish left on the floor straight out the door. However, I also noticed ladies at the same station walking along the tracks picking up the accumulated rubbish....everyone has a job!
Cotton and Rice Paddies
'Differently Abled' Carriage and Familiar Freight cloth
These signs or similar became a regular feature in and around Indian towns which all seemed universally to be ignored
Our “express” made many stops en route and arrived at our destination Guntakal Junction 100mins late. Fortunately our connecting train was running similarly late so it did not matter.
Travelling through India at night on this passenger train with all windows and doors open was a thrilling experience as you got to better appreciate the country. We eventually arrived at 2030hrs – some 3hrs late – we had been travelling close to 24hrs with very little sleep and feeling a little jaded.
Then our journey took on a further twist. On leaving the train we were accosted by what I thought was a very sly Tuk Tuk driver who explained that on 12 December 2017 UNESCO persuaded the government to close and or pull down a number of guesthouses and restaurants in the old Bazaar area of Hampi as they were infringing on the World Heritage site. Our chosen accommodation had been closed in this move. He advised that the remaining accommodation places were fully booked and that we should stay put in Hospete (est population 200 000) and he would take us on a full day tour of all the sites the next day
Well this was news we didn’t need but he soon found us a beaut hotel grandly titled the Hotel Hampi International very close to the station where an air-conditioned double room only cost A$50. While lacking fridges in the rooms it did boast a great restaurant (Veg & Non-Veg) and a full bar. Not surprisingly we had a quick dinner and early (?2200hrs) night.
Later learned that the hotel was owned by local iron ore mine which helped explain the reason for Hospete having a constant stream of very long ore trains passing thru.
The next day our helpful Tuk Tuk driver from the previous night (firstname.lastname@example.org) (Mobile +91 9481664743) had arranged for his brother to show us around the sites all day for a very reasonable A$40. His brother spoke reasonable English which also helped a lot.
As it turned out the sites (over 3000) were a little like the archaeological site in Ankor Wat in Cambodia except the buildings only date from the 12th Century AD. They are set out over a 36 km2 site. Splendid sculptured columns and frescoes – truly impressed. However, western travellers need to get to the area early to avoid the incessant humbugging for selfies by locals –it got me mad when trying to take a photograph of some 700 year old antiquity to find it surrounded by locals taking “selfies” in front of it. Whoever allowed mobile phones to incorporate cameras should be strung-up. Removing the mobile selfie brigade would reduce the problem by 75%.
The Palace's Elephant stables
Vishnu's Chariot in the Vittala Temple - a very hot 2km shadeless walk from the parking area
(This photo took over 45mins to take while waiting for a break in the local 'selfie brigade')
Our chosen day to tour Hampi was also a local Hindu holiday which exacerbated the crowds of families who used the holiday to view the sites after their required religious observances. This area (Vijayanagar) was chosen as a Hindu palace in the early 1300s and continued to grow and prosper until 1565 when it was sacked by group of Deccan sultanates (Moguls) it never recovered. Many of the larger temple sites offered cool refuge from the sun and so what does any Indian visitor do but lie down in them and sleep - same as they do in railway stations.
After nearly 8hrs visiting the sites we called it a day and returned to our hotel for showers and then to take possession of the empty Beer Garden for a couple very cold Kingfisher Lager 650ml bottles and then had a bottle of the local Sula Chenin Banc at the standard expensive Indian price of (A$30) but it was consumed with an excellent Indian dinner.
We had an early morning appointment at the railway station to catch the 0620hr train to Goa. Like good organised travellers that we are we got their at 0600hrs only to once again wait until 0800hrs for the train to arrive. Confusingly, our train had been given another number and was now scheduled to deliver us to go to Vasco De Gama Station even though we only have a ticket to the nearer Goa station at Madgoan. The station at Hospete is quite modern and on the platform it has an electronic notice board showing the individual carriage positions for each train arriving – thereby giving passengers time assemble in the right position on the platform – making for quicker turnaround times. We did see similar facilities later in other stations.
This time we were joined by a dozen or so western tourists (European and British) who all appeared to have been booked into the third last 2AC carriage - which meant competition for use of the highly-prized western toilet. Certainly there would be none from the locals who prefer to do their travelling on their backs and our carriage was full of sleeping Indians hidden behind the privacy curtains including the one opposite us – this effectively blocks your view of the countryside on the other side of the train. The train journey proceeded uneventfully albeit slowly across the agricultural lands of Karnataka where endless crops of sugarcane, maize, sorghum and rice paddies could be seen and fields still being tilled by man and beast.
However, the journey for the last two hours proved spectacular as our train wound its way around and through tunnels to get over the Western Ghats (“Steps”) – India’s second largest mountain range after the Himalayas extending 1400kms down the west coast and rising to a height of 6500m. On the border with Goa we got fantastic glimpses of one of India’s highest waterfalls – the Dudhsagar Falls which plummet 600m down the side of the Western Ghats.
Inattentive commuter prefers to read the Hindu Times rather than take in the views from the train window
At last we get over the Western Ghats into a relatively lush climate and leave the dry Deccan Plateau behind us
When we finally reached our Goan station of Madgoan (3 hrs late) all the westerners were told to get off and sort out taxis or buses for the rest of their journey either to Panjim like us or to one of the beach resorts north and south of the capital. Panjim was 35kms away and a taxi tout quickly picked us up we agreed to a fixed fee of A$20 for him to take us to our hotel….it was 1730hrs by the time he dropped us off – again we had ‘been on the road’ for 12 hours and were not only buggered but Maria’s cold/flu symptoms appeared to be worsening – we had been coughing for most of the way across in the train.
Our hotel Alfonso Guesthouse in the old Fontainhas Mala district of Panjim was a little quirky. Its situated in an old Portuguese villa, has sparse and small rooms on both levels but serves breakfast from its idyllic rooftop retreat.
After a restless night with coughing, Maria took herself off to a local doctor who advised her to continue with the Anti-biotic tablet we had brought with us. As we did not have enough we had to source a pharmacy willing go dispense some more to us. We got em plus some urgently needed cough mixture – got to stop this pox from getting into her chest.
Next we had to find a laundry that was open which we found after 0930hrs So with all the housekeeping taken care of we decided on a small lunch snack of Chicken Pakoras and Iced coffee. Then we found the Goa Tourism Office buried away in a government office complex and received some excellent tourist maps and information as to how best to use our available time here. En route to the tourism office I stumbled across a butchers shop which was selling fresh goat and chicken and also selling beef and pork out the back. However, the owner he got very excited over the suggestion of me photographing this latter offering. Obviously its alright to sell such meat here in Goa but not to advertise the fact too prominently.
Then we caught a taxi to the Old Goa township where there are a number of significant historical Portuguese RC churches established after the arrival of Francis Xavier - the 16thC missionary sent out to convert the heathen of India. (the Apostle of the Indies) The town was finally abandoned on account of an outbreak of Cholera and Malaria during the early 1800s.
Remains of the once grand Monastery of St Augustine which was abandoned in the mid-1800s and left to crumble.
The Basilica Bom Jesus which houses the remains of St Francis Xavier which dates from the early 1600s.
Then we strolled over to the Se’ Cathedral which is the largest church in Asia and which was completed a little later on, While quite plain on the outside, inside its massive vaulted ceiling is magnificent – its golden bell was rung during sessions of the Inquisition to announce the gruesome fate that awaited many a supposed heretic. The front of this Cathedral bears a remarkable similarity to the façade of St Paul’s Cathedral in Macau.
Se (St Catherine's) Cathedral
The facade of St Paul's Cathedral in Macau
We soon realised that many of the locals visiting these churches were doing so to pray and not just gawk as we were. Too much heavy faith swirling in the air so we retired home to our hotel to sit out the compulsory siesta period between 1400-1600hrs.
We have read that much of old Panjim’s houses are painted in such beautiful ochres, pale yellow, green and blues because the Portuguese insisted that every Goan building (except churches which had to be white) should be colour-washed after the monsoons. These colonial style houses really make the town sing.......clicking on the thumbnail snaps below will give you a better appreciation of the colours.
Then there was the beautiful GPO in Panjim
Further artistic flair exhibited within the town
Surely the most 'out there' Brewery Advertisement
House names displayed in these beautiful tiles
A bit of self-promotion and finally a sign I stumbled across around the corner from a quite prominent retail square
We grabbed a Tuk tuk to view the weekly market Anjuna half an hour North of Panjim. Not worth the A$20 Tuk Tuk fare – just like any flea market it was full of touristy and impractical clothing, trinkets and faux artefacts. What we did noticed soon after arrival at the market was the number of Russians there – we later learned they had arrived overnight in a big cruise ship and Vladimir and the Missus were buying up big.
We found the deservedly famous restaurant at the Venite Hotel and had an excellent Goan Fish Curry with Rice. So good we decided on a return visit for dinner on our last night. Its situated on the first floor and the walls are covered in graffiti from past appreciative customers Mains are around A$10-20 with a great selection of local seafood.
I went for an afternoon stroll during the siesta period while Maria took to her bed for further recuperation. Collected the laundry after siesta and had to wait for the normal eating time of 2000hrs for our rendezvous with Hotel Venite.
We had arranged to have a whole snapper cooked for us tonight but the Venite could not procure one and instead offered us up a quite small (250g) Pomfret which they initially served to us on a single plate. When requested to divide it between our two plates the waiter ceremoniously chopped it in half – we just laughed at the sheer pragmatic response!.
Balcony dining added to the general good vibe of this place
Our guesthouse arranged for a taxi to take us the 70 odd kms down south to the beach town of Agonda which took just over two hours and cost A$36. However when requested to turn on the A/C our driver advised that we had only paid for a non-A/C taxi – we had to pay him an extra A$2 to turn it on!.
Simrose Resort (www.simrose-goa.com) turned out to be an excellent choice situated right on the beach with cottages set about a beautiful garden just to the rear of their restaurant and bar which offers great Goan and European food and drinks at very reasonable prices. However, this place is heavily booked and I booked in June for the following January and had to pay a 40% deposit up front at the time.
I was also able to arrange at reception a special birthday surprise by management for Maria’s birthday the next day.
The cottages come each with a private verandah and cabana lounges very large double 4 poster bed, desk, and large ensuite. However, once again, no bar fridge. I have been lugging around a full litre bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the hope drinking it in our cottage Ho hum!
The sea was bright and blue, small surf no dangerous rips and it is even patrolled by a lonely Surf Rescue Unit. Agonda beach is probably 2km long hemmed in by two heavily wooded headlands at each end. At night the beach is populate by village cows who I think get fed on the kitchen scraps from the various restaurants that dot the beach. Our resort also hosts yoga and meditation courses and a group of 16 mixed nationality girls are currently booked into a 4 week course. There are also courses in Ayurveda which is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India.
Our extended stay here in Agonda was always intended as a rest from our otherwise rapid tramp about Southern India. A word of caution is needed here to explain that the accommodation here is fairly basic and not for those hardy travellers who like "roughing it" a la Phuket, Port Douglas or Noosa.
Sunset from the Simrose bar rail
19th January - Maria’s 70th birthday - she was at last able to wear her new ruby ring we had purchased in Colombo.
She celebrated with a morning massage and then a swim and walk along this beautiful beach while I commandeered one of the resort’s cabana lounges and read further chapters of Salman’s: The Golden House under the hot Goan sun..Since we have been here the horizon has never been clear and instead a heat haze blankets the sea and land as it has for the greater part of our Southern Indian odyssey.
Denesh the manager approached me during the day to confirm arrangements for Maria’s birthday dinner – he would reserve a good beach front table for us, arrange for a fine (spicy Goan) snapper to be cooked and a surprise birthday cake to be presented to her.
All good but first a relaxing day had to be enjoyed in and out of the water whose temperature probably exceeded that of Darwin..
The meal turned out to be excellent. Not so the Sula Sparkling Brut! However prior to it being served the restaurant was severely disrupted by a swarm of fling ants which descended on early diners plates by the 1000s. The staff had to turn off all lights for about 10 minutes until they all flew off – quite funny to see the horrified reactions on the Europeans faces who’d never witnessed such a plague at such close quarters before. However, even this pestilence, did not dissuade a lot of the Europeans and Russians in residence from smoking in the restaurant.
John thanking Simrose management
The next day we hired a motor bike – my first inclination was to have a go on one the Indian built 350cc Royal Enfield's but Amy had previously reckoned that they would be too much of a handful with Maria on the back and trying to traverse the rustic coastal roads and tracks. Instead we hired another 125cc scooter which can still get us around at a comfortable 40kph.
We also explored the Southern end of Agonda Beach and discovered a lot more development than we had first realised. However, we remain convinced that Simrose is as good if not better than most of the others. The Northern half of the beach from St Anne’s Church is the least populated while Southern end boasts lots of outrigger boats for charter at A$25 a pop to secluded beaches, fishing trips as well as sunset cruises and dolphin watching. We explored Palolem Beach the town just south of Agonda and one which was developed earlier and more intensively. It gave the appearance of being a little squalid but more hip – perhaps more like Sihanoukville in Cambodia.
Click on snaps for better view
Locals will take you out fishing or just sightseeing also
We found out this morning that all resorts down South close for the monsoon months from late May to end of September. Every year they must resurrect the resorts and repair monsoon damage to buildings and infra-structure. We tried a light lunch at the much heralded White Sands Resort – but were disappointed. We did come across a couple of huge multi-wheeled German registered motor homes parked at one end of the beach with very Nordic looking families in residence - they were a very long way from home.
Our 5 day stay in Agonda was a highlight of our Indian safari - very easy just to relax, read, swim and enjoy the odd drink during the day and then watch the cattle slowly move onto the beach in evenings to eat and eventually sleep...they have disappeared by morning, when farmers come and scavenge the cow pats for their gardens and leave the beach pristine again for the visiting tourists. Simrose offered good Goan food and reasonably priced drinks and excellent Bloody Marys. If one was looking for a more cerebral and meditative stay then they catered for it as well.
Serious early morning activity by some Simrose residents
Another early transfer – this time an early morning taxi back up to Panjim at 0430hr to catch an 0730hr plane to Bangalore and then to catch an afternoon train to Mysore. Just one of those travel days where one just had to put up with unfriendly connections to bridge two different destinations. I did try.
On arrival in Bangalore (population 12.5 million) at 0900hrs, we made an on the spot decision to set aside our scheduled 3pm train journey and instead jumped on an intercity A/C bus to Mysore which was leaving the airport carpark at 1030hrs and which would have us at our destination before the train left the station – albeit that the cost was about double at A$30 in lieu of A$14. It should be noted that I purposely ignored bus travel in India only because it could not be readily identified and pre-booked from Australia.
Bangalore looked a little overwhelming from our bus window – it took over an hour to clear the spider web of tangled ring roads and new sanitised industrial suburbs – its one of the fastest growing cities in India and is a centre for IT and international call centres....not a very inviting place.
The bus trip was characterised by numerous toll booths and the less than edifying passage through numerous scruffy towns. We also had a Buddhist monk on board who was suffering from a nasty chest condition which he tried to clear by very loudly hacking and snorting into the on-board toilet for the entire journey....nasty!
We pulled into the central bus station at Mysore at about 1430hrs and found it to be only a 10min walk from our pre-booked hotel where we went through the now usual laborious registration process into yet another essentially businessman's hotel. What is apparent is that budget tourist accommodation costs a lot more in India than the rest of SE Asia ie A$50 does not guarantee working plumbing, tourist friendly front desk, reasonably sized queen sized bed, a desk with two or more chairs, places to rest suit cases off the floor, a bar fridge, reading lights, working ceiling fan and or A/C. Any 3 star holiday hotel in SE Asia would give you this but not here in India – you obviously need to seriously consider 4 star at a cost in excess of A$90….best of luck.
Mysore is quite a beautiful and easy going city of 1 million souls with more parks, spacious squares and gardens than any other Indian city we have visited. The drivers do not seem to honk their horns as much also. There is a large racecourse and golf club in the middle of town which befits such a magisterial place. Through an informative Tuk Tuk driver we found an ideal nearby rooftop restaurant – the New Shilpashri Restaurant and Rooftop Bar just off Ghandi Square where we were able to dine well on several occasions.
The major reason for coming to Mysore is to visit the majestic maharaja’s palace. It was indeed impressive but the crowds made the visit a little tiring...its over the top opulence hard to take in. Successive Maharajahs had very close ties to the British Raj to their obvious mutual benefit.
While the palace was excellent not so the overpriced restaurant and bar associated with the local Radisson hotel nor the scheming sandalwood oil shop our driver took us to and which led Maria to purchasing A$120 worth of the unctuous oils. We also visited the government’s silk factory where we were allowed to inspect first hand (but without camera nor mobile phone), all the steps involved in weaving a pure silk and gold thread sari from beginning to end – these finished garments fetch upwards of A$1500 each!
Our Driver also insisted on a visit to an important Hindu temple where a special ritual was occurring and where all the wandering cows appeared to have been dusted with turmeric to further enhance their revered status
After two nights we took a 2 hour drive back up into the Western Ghats to the Mudumalai Wildlife National Park where we hope to sight an elusive tiger. It was during this road trip that our driver told us to be prepared to pay an extra Karnataka/Tamil Nadu border crossing fee (supposedly to cover the interstate vehicle and its passengers with accident insurance). However, on stopping at the border police station all he had to do was fill out some paper work and no fee was sought.
We stayed at a resort called the Casa Woods Resort. What really surprises us was that this national park was bisected by a busy national road route complete with heavy trucks and buses jostling for position alongside many privately charted vehicles and taxis loaded with tourists hoping to get a glimpse of wildlife and with heavy speed restrictions along its entire route. The park is administered jointly by the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. En route we did sight numerous deer, Langur (black-faced) monkeys and even a few elephants.
We eventually found our hidden mountain resort in amidst the towering Western Ghats at about lunchtime just in time to clean up for an afternoon jeep safari – which has to be paid for separately. The Casa Woods Resort ticked most of the boxes for a wildlife resort except its front desk which possessed few English language skills and instead relied on ambiguously worded suggestion sheets of how to secure an appropriate safari whether it be via government authorised mini bus, jeep into the jungle proper or to take one’s chances with the hundreds of privateer jeep operators who line the park’s road. Then you had a choice of starting points 45mins or 25 mins away…..confusion reigned and so we chose a govt jeep tour 30mins away. Cost A$60 for an hour and a half and our taxi driver cadged a free ride also. We saw a couple of elephants, Indian Gaur (Bison), Deer and some more monkeys; but no tigers, leopards or panthers – not helped by the prattle maintained between our driver and the safari guide throughout the journey.
On safari - sans Tiger
The whole experience here was less than memorable and nothing like we expected and we would advise other visitors to choose more carefully before booking into Indian Wildlife Parks. The accommodation was not cheap at A$85/night plus meals. We did try their special evening Bar B cue of chicken cooked in a segment of bamboo - not bad.
Our driver did not hit it off with the management of our resort and is highly critical both of the management and of the poor condition of the road access – The resort did offer ‘a free 1.5hr guided trek; in the morning’ but on learning that it was only to a temple we passed it up in favour of an early get away to the famous former colonial hill station of the unpronounceable town of Udhagamandalam (more commonly referred to today as Ooty) tomorrow morning.
Picked up at 0830hrs by driver and commenced our exhilarating drive over the Western Ghats yet again – our third journey over this impressive mountain range. This time we pass over them from the relatively arid Eastern side to the tropical rainforests on the Western side. The road up from Masinagudi to the eastern summit is a mass of very tight switchbacks and is supposedly one way for those ascending – with buses and trucks excluded. However, to add some spice to an already scary road we encountered numerous vehicles illegally coming down the mountain early before the traffic police in Tamil Nadu start enforcing the one way rule at about 0900hrs.
Eastern side of the Western Ghats summit
On reaching Ooty we searched out our hotel for the following night and successfully arranged for them to hold our luggage until we returned on the Nilgiri Train at midday the next day.
Once the summit is reached you join a two way national highway on which normal buses and trucks are permitted.. It took a little over an hour to drive the 35kms to Ooty but then 90mins to drive down the 50kms to Mettupalayam. During the downward drive the surrounding hills were just covered in a steaming mist as the tropical jungle oozed its humidity down the green hills. Monkeys were the only persons unconcerned about the virulent downward spiral of angry traffic.
Down the western side of the Ghats
There was an extra-ordinary amount of traffic due to India’s National Day holiday being celebrated tomorrow – making it a long weekend for a lot of people.
Once we identified our hotel in Mettupalayam we made a bee line to the local railway station to verify our status for the train tomorrow morning. Here we ran into a ghastly problem. I had booked our tickets in October 2017 (4 months prior) but had failed to read the fine print indicating that we were only “Wait Listed” and that we would be contacted one month before our scheduled journey to confirm our booking - of course we were already wondering in India at the time and never received the email. Taking pity on us, the Station Master suggested we return at 0400hrs tomorrow morning to secure one of the 80 unallocated/unreserved seats on tomorrow’s train which left at 0710 hrs..
Mettupalayam itself is just another scruffy town which just happens to be strategically placed at the southern end of the Nilgiri Mountain Train service. It supports few hotels which cater for western tourists….just hot, dusty and with particularly smelly drains. A place to avoid staying overnight; if at all possible. While walking about the town in the afternoon, Maria was temporarily overcome with the heat and had to pause to recoup her senses – all well after a pause in the shade.
Nilgiri Mountain Train Trip
We returned to the station at 0345hrs only to find about 60 locals already queued to get one of the 80 available 2nd class seats on the train (I reckon some of them had slept at the station). As luck would have it we managed to be 67 & 68 in the queue and therefore scored seats but at a cost of A$10 a little more than I originally paid for my wait-listed Reserve First Class seat. As it turned out there were only two western tourists in the first class carriage and the rest were locals. We were all allocated seats in our carriage and it was obvious at once that had we not stored our large luggage up at Ooty the day before we would not simply have been allowed onto this tiny train.
The Nilgiri steam loco
Our Second Class Carriage gradually filled up with many happy holiday makers
As soon as we left a group of about 10 young men began leading the entire carriage in a series of non-stop Bollywood songs much to our own bewilderment. The conductress even tried to get Maria and I to sing a couple of songs 'from your country'. Then every time the train passed through a tunnel the entire train erupts with ghoulish howls and whistles much to the amusement of all the children on board.
The train certainly passed through some spectacular mountain scenery, across scary high bridges and waterfalls..
Note the winding road below on which we had to travel down the next day
During the first three quarters of the journey the train is pushed up by a small steam locomotive which uses a rack and pinion centre rail to assist its climb up to over 2000m. We made frequent stops so the locomotive could refill its boiler and at these stops all passengers get out and take selfies of each other or snaps of the train or the plentiful monkeys which inhabit these places. But they also use the occasion to drop dreadful amounts of litter – despite government notices threatening fines for littering.
The pleasure of the train journey ends at Coonoor where the steam locomotive is exchanged for a far less romantic diesel loco and all three second class carriages are filled to overcapacity (like Indian 3rd Class) with standing passengers so as to prevent much movement for anyone. At Coonoor you also meet the train headed down and it was full of western tourists – it’s the more popular way to go as at the bottom at Mettupalayam one can link up to other trains headed to either Chennai and Kochi. This is the smarter way to experience the not to be missed: Nilgiri Mountain Railway.
The last section of the journey between Coonoor and Ooty is not anywhere near as interesting as you have already scaled the Western Ghats and instead you are transported through endless manicured tea plantations and market gardening.
As soon as we got into Ooty we grabbed a Tuk tuk and went straight to our pre-booked accommodation at the Meadows Residency (www.meadowsresidency.com) which offers all mod cons for a reasonable A$63…..a far cry from that on offer the previous night at the Hotel Soorrya in Mettupalayam with its torn mattress cover, unmade beds, cold showers and tissue thin curtains and a noisy fan. However, we had overlooked a strategically important fact that 26 January is not only Australia Day but also Republic Day in India where all licensed premises must remain closed. We searched hard and long for an exception on a very hot day without success.
My later research revealed upwards of 32 days a year during which the sale of alcohol is totally or partially forbidden in either one or more states in India. This is in addition to the total alcohol ban on any day an election is being held.
Today we have arranged another taxi ride down the mountain but this time straight through Mettupalayam and on to the town of Coimbatore where we have an appointment with a midday train to take us on a journey across to India’s West coastal town of Kochi (Cochin) in the state of Kerala.
It took just over 3 hours to travel the 150kms to the bustling railway station at Coimbatore – itself a very busy industrial city of 2 million people. Coimbatore is useful to the traveller as an access point to the Nilgiri Mountain Train. One can catch a train from Coimbatore at 0515hrs (Nilgiri Express) which gets you to Mettupalayam in time to catch the Mountain train which departs daily at 0710hrs. But make sure you have a pre-booked reserved seat on the mountain train – best arranged several months in advance to avoid disappointment…do not be content with being ‘wait listed’ as we foolishly did.
I find that every time we approached a new railway station in India, I did so with a deal of trepidation as no two experiences were the same. Here we encountered no lifts or ramps and so had to lug our increasingly heavy suitcases up several steep sets of stairs. That aside, our platform was readily identified as was the carriage order along the platform. We have again booked 2A/C berths which had been used as a sleeping berths earlier. As a first, our train arrived on time at 1200hrs - surprising given it had originated in India’s far northern city of Patna on the Ganges in the state of Bihar; some three days previous. It’s a 3.5hr journey to Ernakulum (Kochi’s main railway station). From there, one has to catch a ferry to the old Fort Cochin area which is actually on an island.
Lunch of Indian snacks whilst guarding the luggage
Immediately following the train crossing into Kerala, one noticed a change in the rural landscape where it was obvious that much of the tilling, sowing and reaping was done with the aid of mechanised tools and not reliant on draught animals. Now the farm houses were made of sturdy white washed brick walls with burnished red tile roofs. The cropped fields also appeared larger and with more regularised irrigation channels criss-crossing them. One thing that did not alter was sadly the amount of rubbish lining the rail corridor across the country – it is a disgrace.
We eventually pulled into Kochi’s Ernakulum station at about 1545hr and then had to negotiate a Tuk Tuk to the main ferry terminus in order to get across to the island on which Fort Cochin was located. The queue for the 20 Indian Rupee (A$0.40) ferry ticket was chaotic made more so by the number of excited local teenager catching the ferry over for a Saturday night out in Kochi…their trip took the form of much squealing and selfie activity. Oh yes and we did not realise at the time that, in good old Indian tradition, there were in fact two queues one for men and the other for women.....Ho hum!
The ferry trip took only 20mins and took one right across the busy harbour dodging cargo ships as we went. Reaching Fort Kochi we then had to negotiate another Tuk Tuk to get to our accommodation at the Old Courtyard Hotel (www.oldcourtyard.com) which is set up in a former colonial Portuguese house in the centre of the old quarter of old Fort Kochi.
As luck would have it we had been allocated their last room which one had to access up a wrought iron spiral staircase. We protested enough to get the man on reception to carry our bags up the staircase. The room itself was fine. However, our man on reception appeared a little disinterested in our queries about booking a houseboat for Monday night. He did say that the woman who usually arranges such things would be off until Monday because Sunday was ‘her holy day’ off.
Feeling a little exasperated and it being almost 1800hrs we went in search of a bar and somewhere easy for dinner. We quickly found out that many of the seafood restaurants lining the streets do not in fact sell alcohol and instead we ended up along sea wall where numerous fishmongers were selling an enormous range of very fresh seafood from giant tuna, to snapper and Pom fret, sardines, octopus, prawns and crab of all descriptions. We arranged with one of them to purchase a fish and some jumbo prawns to marinate and grill for us only to find out that he could not source suitable drinks for us that night and so we decided to defer our feast until the next night.
Its all about the fresh seafood in Kochi
Instead we ourselves in a well-lit restaurant had a couple of beers and a fish curry with some rice. The place rapidly filled with a bus load of touring westerners including a couple of very loud 20 something year old Americans who spent their meal time loudly Skype their friends back home – charming dinner partners! While there were virtually no westerners at the railway station when we arrived, the old quarter was teaming with them and I was a little curious as to how they all got here….more snooping required.
We were determined to look over the old heritage parts of this former Portuguese colony and then have our fresh seafood meal down by the Chinese fisherman’s nets nearby. As our hotel’s reception desk proved hopeless, we sought the assistance of the Kochi Tourist Information Centre to organise our 24hr overnight houseboat from the town of Alleppey some 30kms to our South – cost A$150 including meals. This was roughly the average going rate –we’ll see.
We took a Tuk Tuk tour of a spice market and a local palace but more importantly gained some useful time-saving tips as to how to get to Alleppey tomorrow without having to use the ferry system again.
At 1800hrs we returned to the fishmongers market and ordered some snapper, bugs and tiger prawns which were then marinated in a "Hot" Kerala Marsala sauce and barbecued to perfection plus a couple of beers which all up cost less than A$40.
Dinner selected and furtive beers out of paper cups
Dinner on the beachfront barbecue
Retired to bed at 2200hrs ready for the next day's adventure on our houseboat on the famous Kerala Backwaters.
We rose early in order to catch our KSFTC bus at Kochi to Alappuzha aka Alleppey at 0830hr at a cost of A$1 each for a two hr most uncomfortable ride on the rear seats. We were then taken by our host to our Houseboat which was actually a four berth one (they go up to 8 berth for groups of 16 people – its most luxurious with plenty of fans and an Aircon that operates at night. The ensuite was very smart and we think the A$150 was well spent. It should be noted that these prices more than double over the Xmas/New Year period. These boats can be secured from www.welcomecruise.com or on +91 9846032606. However there are plenty of other companies hiring out these boats
We nominated the non veg menu for our stay aboard. We could have bought our own beer aboard at A$3.50/650ml bottle of Kingfisher Premium (our favourite) or pay them A$4 to drink from their own supply. What we did not realise was that their beer supply had been purchased warm and that they only had limited ice supply essentially for the food they were carrying. Therefore one should clearly establish whether or not your boat has dedicated refrigeration for drinks. However, we did at last have an opportunity to crack open the 1lt bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin I have been carrying around for two months. In anticipation, we purchased a number of cans of tonic water and half a dozen limes….we were going to be well and truly ready for this unique experience.
Our lunch was a sumptuous feast of grilled fresh water fish, sambal, bean and onion salad, grated fresh coconut and cabbage, steamed rice and fluffy pappadams. Dinner a chicken curry, Dhal, rice and vegetable curry and chapatti. One certainly could not complain about the quality of the meals prepared.
Sights on the Backwaters (just click on individual images)
Hundreds of houseboats moored in front of this ritzy tourist hotel
There were hundreds of boats on the Backwaters but many of them were day-trippers as well as the local ferries and work boats. Over the Xmas period over 1000 boats are charted out of Alleppey. Must be mayhem.
Some guide books advise chartering one’s houseboat from the more southerly town of Kollam in order to secure a less commercial experience (there being only about 100 boats based there). However, when I questioned our skipper he scorned the idea saying there was very little water down there in which to operate. This needs to be further investigated. I would also insist next time of getting the skipper to show you on the chart of his proposed route around the Backwaters for I fear one maybe taken for a "ride' around this maze of canals.
After a good sleep on board rose to find only a trickle of cold water coming out of the shower fixture. On querying the reason the skipper merely shrugged and said that’s the way it was! So be it – but punters would be strongly advised to test their houseboat’s plumbing before signing up.
Most houseboats discharge their passengers back at the launching dock at around 0900hrs the next morning giving them plenty of time to catch the KSTRC (Red) bus back to (the New Bridge) Kochi and then a Tuk back to Fort Kochi…..takes about two hours.
Our next challenge was to secure the best possible price for a taxi to take us the 275kms back across the Western Ghats to the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai – we heard that there would be some taxes to be paid at the border
It was during our final day in Kochi that we learnt to our dismay that it was Martyr's Day (anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination) and that bloody Kerala had joined the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands in declaring an Alcohol prohibition day...we had been caught out twice!
The following day our cab collected us at 0700hrs for our 7.5hr trip. The driver had only minimal English and therefore general conversation during our 7.45hr trip was negligible and this proved a little disconcerting at the end when his tripmeter had registered 319km while my Google GPS only registered 277kms – he tried to explain that he had been forced to take a longer route in order to find an open Transport Police office at which to pay our Transport Tax at the border which cost us all of A$6. We eventually agreed to split the difference and paid him for 300kms which worked out at A$170 – a little over what we had budgeted – but he should have mentioned the issue at the time – we are getting a little weary of anomalous Indian accounting methods.
Along the way we drove through a series of mountain towns; many brazenly declaring their allegiance to Kerala's popular communist party.
This time our crossing of the Western Ghats was nowhere near as impressive as we had experienced around Ooty. However, we did come across a number of wealthy house compounds belonging to families made rich on the once lucrative rubber plantations - many of these lie abandoned and as the owners have gone to the cities in search of new sources of wealth.
Now on arrival at the flash Madurai Residency Hotel we were matter of factly advised that we would be welcome to dine at their rooftop restaurant that evening and to enjoy their ground floor bar – BUT ONLY AFTER 1800hrs on account of another Hindu festival being celebrated today here in the town. – after yesterday’s event this was beyond the pale – so we tried to get Room Service to deliver us a cold beer – they couldn’t do it.
Instead we went for a walk to view the main attraction in town – the massive Meenakshi Amman (Hindu) Temple, but you guessed it – it was closed until 2100hrs tonight for religious reasons mainly associated with a full eclipse of the moon by the earth. Hindus believe any lunar eclipse is unpure and temples must be closed for the duration and then cleansed afterwards.
So here we are in a city we came to view a particular sight only to find it closed until the next day and where the bars are not allowed to open until 1800hrs – a particularly resourceful Tuk Tuk driver insisted on taking us to an up-market silk and craft gallery so as he got his commission but we also were permitted onto the Gallery’s 4th floor rooftop and photograph the temple across the road.
We elected to dine on our hotel’s rooftop restaurant in order to catch the blood red moon eclipsed by the earth (once every 35 yrs or so) – which was barely discernible through the city’s heat haze. We’ll try and view the temple tomorrow morning prior to catching our train.
That 'Blood Red Moon' being eclipsed by the Earth
At 0600hrs I got up, showered and set off for the Meenakshi Amman (Hindu) Temple (only about a kilometre away) and managed to reach it without a single Tuk tuk or Cyclo driver bothering me. However, I had to circumnavigate the whole temple complex go find the correct (East) Gate for foreigners to enter. Then I had to check in my sandals at a shoe waller and the security discovered my camera (but not my mobile phone) in my trousers and that had to be handed in to a locker waller and then I was permitted to enter this holy Hindu shrine along with hundreds of other local pilgrims’ who were attending for far more legitimate reasons than I. Only Hindu adherents are permitted to enter the inner sanctum of this temple - I did not qualify.
The temple was built in the 17th century and is considered the high point of Hindu architecture and dedicated to the union between Shiva and the beautiful goddess Meenakshi who was so named on account of her ‘beautiful ‘fish eyes’). Now the legend has it that Meenakshi was born with three breasts and that it was not until she joined with Shiva that the additional one disappeared. The temple is visited especially by young couples seeking to enhance their fertility.
The temple is comprised of 12 tall towers encrusted with an array of Hindu gods, demons and heroes. There are 4 colonnaded entrances each stacked with stone carvings of remarkable quality and one cannot help but notice the well polished breasts on any statue within hands reach.
Our last train - the 0955hr Express train arrived 20 minutes late as usual but we were lucky that our A/C 2 reserved seats were in an empty compartment for at least half our six hour journey. I whiled away the time typing notes and reading one of the excellent English language newspapers available all over India – today it was The Times of India (30 pages) wherein one can read a wide array of articles about the nation’s politics, economy, sport as well as a spray of tabloid crime and corruption stories – would put a lot of Murdoch’s papers to shame and they cost a pittance.
All Aboard - for the last time (NB illuminated carriage markers on platform)
En route, I discovered that I had mistakenly booked our ticket to a town nearly 100kms away from Pondicherry instead of one (with a very similarly spelt name) only 40kms distance. We decided to pay for the extended ticket only to find that we were charged an astonishing amount which effectively doubled our original reservation fee of A$28. We bought lunch on this train and were served an excellent hot Chicken Biryani (included ¼ of a chicken – not just a drumstick as experienced some time ago) for A$2 each
Busy commuters (Catching up on notes while Maria suffers from the train's overly efficient Aircon)
Arriving late in the afternoon we had to struggle with our bags up and down stairways to cross over platforms to find a taxi to take us on our final leg and here we could not have chosen a worse cabbie – no English, no GPS, no map, who got lost taking an illegal detour, who never took his hand off the horn and who drove extremely dangerously even by Tamil Nadu standards – we really wanted to get out. When we did get to our hotel it was nearly 1800hrs and the bugger wanted us to pay him more than the A$20 we had originally agreed. We took refuge in our accommodation and left him in the street bleating.
I had had great difficulty securing a booking in an affordable hotel in the French Quarter but finally booked us all into a small place called Le Capucin (www.lecapucinguesthouse.in) primarily because of its fancy French name but far more importantly, because it had a rooftop restaurant and bar. We were amazed at the size of the rooms and bathrooms here albeit rather sparsely furnished. After dumping our bags, placing all of our electronic equipment on charge, we headed straight for the rooftop for drinks and dinner. Unfortunately, the hotel’s menu was not very inspiring and only offered a traditional choice of mainstay/tourist fodder – so we opted for a chicken and a vegetable curry with Indian breads. We intend to find better once Amy and John join us tomorrow.
Today is a free day to explore the delights of the old French Quarter of Puducherry (Pondicherry or just plain Pondy). Pondy, as a former French protective colony until 1954, still retains a real European feel and look. Its architecture is colonial French reminiscent of parts of old Hanoi and Hoi An in Vietnam and the town remains a favourite haunt of bohemian Francophile expats craving European bread, cheeses, coffee, and other gourmet food items. It was established as a centre for the French East India Company in the 1670s. However, it had at various periods after that, come under both Dutch and British rule.
There are many other sights and experiences in this tiny enclave in India; viz:
It boasts innumerable French restaurants/bistros, cafes, bars and bakeries. It also has a good number of boutique fashion and handicraft shops....eg Baker Street.
Another Bread Shop
All streets have their names clearly delineated on blue and white enamel street signage. Once again one of the major roads within the town is good old “MG” (Mahatma Ghandi) Road and his is the major monument in the town.
The Esplanade and Ghandi Memorial (Unfortunately, there are no safe swimmable beaches)
During our pleasant stroll around the shaded streets of the French Quarter, I became increasingly incensed by the insensitive beeping and honking of the passing traffic. So I purchased my own portable horn, from an obliging Tuk Tuk driver, to return the favour to the more irritating beeps and honks of those passing – it’s worked a treat for my sense of humour and is generally applauded by passing drivers – John gets his own back at last!
Beautiful display of bougainvillea
This town has really proved to be a great relaxer for us who were both a little travel weary. in the town. Amy and John left Chennai early (1500hrs) in an attempt to beat the traffic and they were able to join us by 1800hrs. Meanwhile we lunched in a very comfortable courtyard bistro called the Coromandel at 8 Romain Rolland Street, White Town, Pondicherry (they have no website yet) shaded by some mango and flowering pink Bauhinia trees and had some delightful mushroom and chicken fettuccine and some real PARMESAN CHEESE!...delightful . We later took Amy and John there for brunch and it was probably one of our best culinary experiences in the town.
dining room of the Coromandel Restaurant and Cafe
But we preferred to dine in their beautiful tropical courtyard where some of us ordered extremely decadent pancake stacks with poached egg, bacon, mascarpone, beetroot puree, jaggery butter, nuts et al while someone else ordered eggs and sambal
One should also take time to visit Coromandel's fashion and craft boutique up stairs where one can peruse very pricy garments and crafty bits and pieces.
After a brief stop at Pondy's other major attraction a bottle shop where one can purchase wine for about half of what it costs in Chennai, we all piled into Amy and john's car and headed north to Chennai. However, we did make an initial stop at the unusual 'new age' community at Auroville founded in 1968 and which currently is home to about 1500 people of whom one third non-Indian. The community is striving to build a utopian society funded by agriculture, handcrafts and alternate technology and software development. I am sure there is more to it than one can gain from a superficial visit to their community, watching their introductory video and strolling through their expensive boutique shops.........................
Back in Chennai we had 3 days to undertake some last minute souvenir shopping (I craved more brass figures) and then we had to turn our minds to packing.
It is worth mentioning here that I planned to undertake this journey in an anti-clockwise direction simply because I wished to be in Goa on Maria's birthday. Take that consideration out and I feel it would better to do the whole itinerary clockwise and therefore avoid the duplicated route hassles we had to deal with getting to Mettupalayam to catch the Nilgiri Mountain train and then travelling back over the same distance by car to catch a train to Kochi - ah you live and learn!
We had a 'red eye' flight out of Chennai which resulted in a whole day in Singapore before another night flight down to Brisbane. While I tried to book a hotel room at the airport (only A$100/6hours) none were available so we checked our hand luggage in at the airport and caught the MTR service into Bugis Street to stroll around the market and have lunch. The place was very crowded with people preparing for the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations due to be held later in the week.
Arrived back in Brisbane mid morning and after having to unpack our wooden sculptures for Customs clearance we were cleared to taxi back to home - a little weary and glad to be home; notwithstanding we had to handle Settlement on our new house 9 days later and be prepared to pack up and move into it the following week!
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