Just when I Fort I’d seen it all…

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Our next pit stop after an over-night bus journey from hell was Jaisalmer, all the way out in the desert and not far from the Pakistan border. To the un-trained (or over-trained eye) it’s just another Rajasthani city with a different colour scheme – it’s known as the Golden City as literally every single building is made of sandstone. Most magnificent of these sand sculptures is the vast sandstone fort atop a sandy hill; the nucleus of the Jaisalmer action and main attraction for the travelling hordes. Entered through a slowly sloping and spiralling walkway lined with huge sandstone walls; centuries ago you might have had to fear being shot down by an archer from the lofty battlements whilst on this approach. But nowadays all you have to fear is being pulled into one of the alluring textile shops and leaving with your arms full of throws and pockets significantly lighter. It reminded me of a medieval castle made of sand, but filled with eateries, stalls, temples and beautiful (sandstone) havelis.

However, when I think of Jaisalmer what comes to the forefront of my mind are the many people we met in this wonderful city. And for me, Jaisalmer is completely set apart from its stately brothers by the mood of the place.

One of our first acquaintances was a bleary-eyed, tangle-haired young gentleman dressed head to toe in black; Abu. Self-proclaimed Prince of the desert, founder, MC and social secretary of the hotel appropriately named “Abu Safari.” At first he was softly-spoken, shy even, all of his words carefully chosen, but little-by-little it sunk in that he was not the shy and retiring type. Whether it was for linguistic ease or not, but an exuberant “MAMMA MIA” or “CRAZY LIFE” would suffice in nearly every situation. His hostel-world reputation was certainly deserved, as he was one of the most extraordinary characters we met in India. His rags to riches story, tells of how he earned a living as a humble camel guide, after being abandoned by his parents at a young age. He charmed his beloved “tourists” with his crazy sayings, non-sensical songs and refreshing open-mindedness, eventually saving up his tips to buy his first camel. This was the start of his own camel-tour company “Abu Safari” the success of which grew and word of this legendary camel guide spread. Naturally the next stage was to expand from the desert into the hospitality business and he started up the aforementioned hostel, where he today employs his band of merry desert-brothers.

My experience in Jaisalmer is admittedly restricted to the action within the fort and inside the yellow painted walls of Abu Safari, but if I were to draw some universal characteristics of the people of Jaisalmer, I would say they are highly unlike their somewhat austere and tighter lipped Rajasthani brothers. Maybe it’s their proximity to the desert, paradoxically their life source, that has led to their breaking from convention. Growing up amongst the sand dunes, belonging to neither India nor Pakistan, they expressed no care in where these borders were drawn in the sand; freeing them from the pressure to subscribe to a certain way of being, or to care about social and political correctness. There was no use for all of that out here so far away from civilization, and perhaps conventions and traditions never even really made it out here – India’s very own Wild West. Or to take a more cynical approach; if you want to succeed in such a tourist-reliant way of life, the more original you are the better, as nothing draws in the tourists like a crazily charismatic camel-guide. Either way, it seems all the sand and heat has loosened the inhabitants of Jaisalmer up, freeing their unique personalities and fixing their faces with grins breezy enough to penetrate the seemingly inescapable heat.

Each day melted by so quickly it was near impossible to leave. Drawn in by Abu and his mad employees, we spent day after day playing “Karim” (a counter-flicking type game that drew football match like support and cheers) and meeting the constant stream of characters from all over the world that would arrive and depart daily. We trekked into the desert on camels and slept under the stars (we slept under some tarpaulin actually because it conveniently decided to rain in the desert for apparently the first time in 30 years whilst we were there). And so you could look at our time in Jaisalmer and think, what lazy bastards, but I’m more inclined to look back and think how lucky I am to have met such interesting and unusual people.

Perhaps we could credit ourselves with getting past the tourist mask that seasoned hospitality professionals put on. To stop and have a chance to get to know working Indians, rather than have them entertain us in the brief snatches between sight-seeing and then moving on again was a rare treat; for both sides I think. And it’s a sign of the impression that these guys made on us, that I’ve spoken more about them than the absolutely beautiful, sleepily-enchanting city itself. Or, at least I’ll use our Jaisalmer family as an excuse for staying there for nearly two weeks…

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The flicky counter game Karim

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Abu himself

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Lost in the desert

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Udai-perfect


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When people asked me why I chose to go to India, I would often answer, “why, I was fascinated by the socio-political landscape of such a fast developing and conflict-ridden country,” or maybe, “to seek spiritual enlightenment amongst India’s many religions.” Or there’s another, perhaps more accurate answer; because I wanted to see all of the colourful bazaars and beautiful palaces. I wanted to buy more embellished textiles than I could ever possibly need and sit atop sun-bleached rooftops eating curries and deep-fried fancies. My motivations for travel aside, Udaipur embodied everything I desired from India and more, and was just as romantic and full of character as the often hyperbolic guide books promised.

Days were spent wandering around the narrow winding streets, flattening ourselves against walls to let bull and carts pass by, and ducking in and out of shops exploding with brightly coloured fabrics. If you can trust yourself enough to look upwards (you might stand in cow poo which isn’t funny if you’re wearing flip-flops) then you can see the iconic curved archways and glittering mosaic windows atop almost every building. It’s the norm to take in the higgledy piggledy sky-line, dashed with multi-levelled palaces, havelis and washing lines slung with colourful saris from roof-tops that can only be reached by climbing endless stairs and battling a mild asthma attack. Udaipuris know how to please the tourists and milk this exotic imagery to its full, by scattering the floors of these roof-tops with huge deep red cushions and ornately carved low tables. It’s all about imagining how the place was hundreds of years ago, and it’s really not that hard to do that here.

The dreamiest part is the fact all of this lazily trundling chaos and crumbling-ly beautiful architecture is set around a lake. Now I know what you’re thinking, shame the lake was filled with cola bottles and long lost flip flops, but you’d be wrong. The water is absolutely sparkling clean – and in the hazy golden light of a sunset, perfectly reflects the butter-coloured jumble of buildings that stand on its edge – like an upside down watercolour. The buildings slowly increase in height until your eye meets the city palace; beautifully striking but looking perfectly in place amongst the other buildings hustling for attention on the horizon. The floating palace in the middle of the lake adds yet another level of decadence to the scene. At night, lit up with the light of a million rich people’s dollars – the scene is quite the eastern fairytale, or anyone’s fairytale for that matter. The only way to get to the Lake Palace is via boat, and comes at the cost of a few hundred per night (pounds not rupees unfortunately). And if I told you there was another island and another palace then you’d surely think I was exaggerating but again you’d be wrong, there are around 5 palaces in Udaipur, and we only managed to visit one…

Unfortunately this is where the dreaded lurgy (as Dave calls it) caught up with both Sam and myself. After 5 months of uninterupted health (apart from the odd hospital visit) the stomach bugs got us both bad. Our energy for sight-seeing was heavily compromised and the Udaipur dream trundled to a shaking and sweating halt. However for some reason, when I cast my mind back to Udaipur I only have positive memories, which is certainly saying something considering I felt just as bad as I did when I ended up in A&E with gastroenteritis.

Getting in the tuk tuk to the bus stop that would take us away from Udaipur, through the less touristy streets on the ouskirts of the city, I got the distinct impression that I hadn’t experienced even a tenth of the atmosphere and potential this city had to offer. It manages to stay friendly yet traditional, and chaotic but relaxed. Udaipur, you live up to every inch of your reputation – now when can I go back?

Farewell to Southern India

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Tiruvannamalai is an important Hindu pilgrimage sight, as it is said to be where Shiva appeared as a lingam of fire, atop mount Arunachalam. I had being using the word lingam for four months, with no idea what it meant, until I learnt here that it is a phallus that people often pray to for fertility (it must be working in India) and this slightly altered my perception of a lingam of fire and the pilgrimage Hindus make here.

There is a huge ceremony here every full moon, where people walk around the mountain bare foot, and people surge into this small town from across India to take part. Sam and I rocked up with no idea just how popular the place would be with pilgrims and travellers alike. Every single guesthouse we tried was fully booked; each of them stranger than the last. The buildings themselves were elaborate and unusual, and not in the Indian architecture style you would imagine – they were bright orange, blue, pink – with weird steel barred-balconies and staircases seemingly growing out of the sides of walls. And if I thought the buildings were weird, that was nothing on the people. (We found a place to stay eventually, it was crap, full of mosquitoes and really far out).

Pilgrims aside, the vast population of travellers had the average age of 60 and I only had to sit in a cafe to overhear some of the weirdest conversations I had heard in my life. These ranged from a relatively ordinary comparison of the virtues of different gurus, to full blown madness. I heard a lady tell her friends that her guru had told her that as her thumbs were such and such a shape, this was a sign of an interior struggle and a willingness to be used as a doormat. She clearly thought she had been given an insight with which she would have been unable to live her life without. Oh wise guru. I walked past a pair giving each other a deeply meaningful hug on the way to dinner, ate my meal, had a drink and then passed the same two locked in an embrace on the way back out. There was some serious spiritual affirmation going on.

Needless to say I hated it there and demanded to leave immediately. The agreement was that I could be released from this insanity after the full moon and if we moved somewhere nicer in the meantime. Sam took part in the pilgrimage barefoot alongside Sadhus (holy men who have renounced material life to get closer to god) and other Hindus (see picture of his feet below). Whilst he was having this meaningful experience, I had locked myself in our hotel room as small children had instigated a stake-out outside the room as they were demanding pens in high squeaky voices, and I wasn’t giving up my one gel ink roller ball that easily, but couldn’t face my own selfishness.

I didn’t find anything of appeal to me in Tiruvannmalai, despite the pilgrimage sounding like an excellent experience and so I eagerly awaited our next destination Mamallapuram – which was 2 bus journeys away. One catch was that the first bus ejected us in the middle of the motorway without giving us a clue as to where we where, and we had to pay a tuk tuk driver exorbitant amounts to get us out of this pickle (always a good laugh).

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Mamallapuram
I’ll keep this one brief, as the place just served as a base for nearby Chennai where we would be getting our flight back up North. As we were sick to death of temples and the beach was pretty rubbish, there was nothing to do but drink coffee, go shopping and twiddle our thumbs expectantly for Rajasthan. But on the upside, I had sandals tailor made by a lovely charismatic cobbler called Mittu. Speaking to him and his wife was often the highlight of my day and made me truly sad to be leaving to friendly and relaxed folk of the South.

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Auroville, I’m Speechless (almost)

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Sometimes I wish, and I’m certain a lot of people are with me on this one, that all nationalities, genders, religions etc. etc. could all live together in harmony as equals. Especially if in that society jobs are shared fairly and there’s some sort of sense of community and care between everyone. And so, on paper Auroville (named after Aurobindo…) sounds like a bit of a dream to be honest. A community which aims to fulfill all of the above. But there’s just one problem. One giant golden ball shaped problem…

The chaps that brought us the ashram in Pondicherry and set up this ‘utopia’ may have had their croissants spiked with something, because they seem to think that as part of achieving this dream, there must be a HUGE hollow ball made of real gold (called the ‘Matra Mandir’) for people to meditate within. Inside there is a huge crystal in the centre that’s supposed to reflect light and induce spiritual experiences whilst everyone sits in enforced silence and wonders why the hell anyone who wanted to make a society of equals would think that this was a good idea. But don’t worry, I hear there’s plans to make a moat around the thing, so it can only be approached from bridges from the outside. Thank goodness, I thought the credibility and proper functioning of the Matra Mandir would have been compromised without a moat surrounding it.

Now it may sound like I am making all of this up, and I kind of wish I was, because I find it very depressing that the nearest we can get to a society with ideals that many of us desire, is this ridiculous farce of a place. Where instead of efforts being expended upon creating a society that works and the philanthropic activity that apparently goes on, god only knows how much money is being spent on giant gold balls with crystals inside them. Not to mention the rumour that fees to become a member of this utopia are stacked so high that only the elite can afford to join. You might wonder where all the money goes, until you pay a visit to the golden ball…No matter how good the ideals behind the society are, it is completely overshadowed by the reality of Auroville, for which the only explanation I can find is that it is all a big publicity stunt or everyone here is insane or deluded.

Evidence for deludeness can be found in the on site gift shop (yes there is a gift shop, right opposite the cinema where people are brainwashed) they were trying to sell clothes of average quality for about 500% more than any, much better designed clothes I have seen throughout the rest of India. I’m not quite sure who these Aurovillian tailors think they are, but they certainly aren’t Donatella Versace. And this gives you a sense of the vanity project, on full display throughout Auroville. Throw in a few polished exhibitions with freaky life models of the city structure and some breathy, echoing voice overs and a montage of stars and galaxies on the documentary and you have a spiritual Disneyland of weirdness.

Maybe if they’d shown some kind of footage of people who lived there and what life was like, rather than all of this breathy-spiritual-golden-balled-gift-shop-nonsense then they could convince someone that this place wasn’t a joke, but something to be taken seriously, and in my opinion the place gives a bad reputation to an ideal I deeply agree with – and it seems to me like people come for a bit of a laugh rather than a glimpse into a utopian society. It is all scarily reminiscent of stories you hear of the tourist excursions into North Korea, where you are carefully exposed and escorted around a ghost village and watch shallow displays of propaganda, wondering what goes on behind the scenes and what kind of lives the people really lead. Maybe they have a gift shop there too…

I’ll hop right back on that tourist golf caddy, zoom past the many signs designating areas for peace (because of course, people are incapable of finding them themselves) and get myself right back to Pondicherry and hope that this was all a bad dream. Oh Auroville. Oh humanity.

Of Croissants and Colonialism (and Gurus)

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The Road to Pondy
The trail from Thanjavur to Pondicherry offered multiple temple complexes as pit-stops, and our driver even found us a mini-backwaters trip that took us through mangroves, canals and eventually straight through a fisherman’s net that very nearly met it’s end at the propellers of our boat (none of us were driving I might add).

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Pondicherry
Ever since reading about this little bit of France in India, I’d been incredibly excited to visit Pondicherry; France’s colonial capital in India and an excellent effort at recreating French culture and personality in this unfortunately popular country. You may wonder why on Earth I would travel India and get excited over a few croissants, but after enduring various forms of curry for breakfast for months, you have to allow me this small luxury. And whilst I don’t advocate these attempts to force western culture upon India, these many and varied different cultures have been absorbed and become a part of modern India today.

And Pondicherry really is almost incomparable to traditional India; with gridded streets lined with trees and colonial houses, pretty cafés and shops – painted in a colour code of sunflower yellow to indicate French ownership and a powdery grey to show they were ashram-owned (we’ll come to this later). I sampled some of the baked goods from a French patisserie and I can report they were the real deal (and about a tenth of the price).

We stayed at Le Dupleix, a restored colonial mansion, with the most beautiful leafy courtyard and elegant features such as a tarnished bronze four poster bed, and a waterfall built into the staircase – which of course no guesthouse would be complete without. The place had the immediate effect of making Sam and I wash our hair and put on our smartest clothes, inbetween celebrating and then disguising our jubilation behind a persona of one who stays in these sort of places every day…

Morning brought a new guide and a new outlook on Pondy, as beneath the mansions and French accents lay a not very well hidden secret – the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. An ashram is a sort of spiritual community, often inspired or led by a guru (in this case Aurobindo). All of the grey painted buildings were owned by the ashram, and there were a lot of grey buildings (most of the guesthouses were owned by the ashram and set up for visitors). Our tour focussed upon telling us about the ashram’s history, which is something about some lady who came from France (they called her “The Mother”), met the guru and felt something spiritual and decided to dedicate her life to imposing her views on others. The whole thing unnerved me, as inside an ashram building, we watched people praying at the founders graves, speaking in hushed tones and floating around ethereally with bare feet. Our guide explained some of the virtues the Mother decided underpinned her ‘philosophy’ one of which is youth, which I think is wildly unfair to the less youthful of us, who can still be virtuous. The reverence with which our guide held the ashram made me uneasy, and after sensing this, she took a bit of a disliking to me, which only heightened on our trip to Auroville, just outside Pondy – which I will write about in the next post.

The time not spent being shown around the ashram was spent relaxing and shopping with Sam’s parents. We had some delicious farewell meals, whilst Sam and I lamented being separated after having such a wonderful week together; some of the highlights of which were the evenings we spent eating and sharing stories.

And so we went from beautiful French seaside town, to slightly unnerving ashram, to complete madness (see next post) and then to teary farewells. Pondicherry proved to be an emotional, cultural and spiritual roller coaster – hugest thank you to Michele and Dan for giving Sam and I the most amazing week in Nandi and the best possible way to see Tamil Nadu!

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Above is Aurobindo and the Mother in all their glory. This picture was above our bed in the guesthouse we were lucky enough to stay in (ie. we had no other choice). Institutional vibes.

Tamil Tour Part 2

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Cardamom House
On the road in our Nandi, a very spacious minivan for the four of us, we made our way back into the foothills of Western Ghats, to Cardamom House, our next stop on the Tamil Tour.

We stumbled out of the minivan into an explosion of vividly pink flowers, green bushes and all manor of flora and fauna. The shelter of plant-life and the surrounding hills, folded Cardamom House into a comfortable cocoon of rustic bedrooms and patios. Everything about the place was peaceful and relaxing, the cane furniture and beautiful garden, the bright blue pool surrounded by sun loungers – the fact that meals were served to us at regular intervals in the day by charismatic (and at times sassy) waiters (one of whom was aghast that I had repudiated my gender role and not made my bed whilst the gentlemen were out – and wasn’t afraid to tell me). We took walks through the surrounding palm trees and Sam wrongly assumed that throwing a coconut at a peacock would make it show us it’s feathers.

In short, it was the perfect place to celebrate Michele’s birthday, with some deliciously tasty mango juice and rum, that tasted more like Mango than rum and hence more than a few glasses were raised to toast the big day. The waiter made up for his sexist slip by arranging the surprise of a beautiful birthday cake with party poppers to be brought after the meal – Happy Birthday Michele!

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Trichy
Trichy (Tiruchirappalli, hence the short name) is another large city in Tamil Nadu, with temples and the largest textile store in the South. We had a new guide Sudha, who as well as guiding us through the features of the temples, enjoyed snatching our cameras from us to take pictures that only he had the skill to capture. Unfortunately, the temples were covered and under construction, so we had to exercise our imagination as well as our patience with the snap-happy Sudha.

In the afternoon, after a traditional South Indian Thali (little bowls of different local curries with rice), we got lost in the textile store (Sam treated himself a man-sarong) and then climbed to a hill top temple with panoramic views of the city. The day was busy, and at the end we bundled into Nandi to be taken to our next stop Thanjavur, where we would be sleeping for the night.

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Thanjavur
Thanjavur – the home of temples, a palace and lots of chola bronze artefacts. It is also home to Tanjore-Hi, one of the most experimental hotels I have ever been in. It featured dark blue glossed walls and floors, and a futuristic, illuminated, x-Ray vision photo panel , the size of half the roof, suspended above our bed. But they really knew how to serve a good breakfast.

Sudha was back and better than ever, warning us away from the ill intentions of Hindu women that brushed arms with us (?) and single-handedly directing and coordinating a photo shoot, with vision that Mario Testino would have been proud of. The city temple was resplendent with high towers, bare stone carvings and beautifully peaceful gardens.

We visited the city palace and then confused the hell out of waiters in a restaurant by trying to ask if there were nuts in the thali, and just about every vegetable variety, and even cheese was mentioned before we eventually reached an understanding. We were all very relieved.

Thanjavur was a busy but pleasant place to walk around, and we enjoyed sharing our extensive curry knowledge with Sam’s parents over our evening meals and confusing yet more waiters with my nut allergy. After a busy day of tourist activities, we thoroughly enjoyed our company and playing card games together, before turning into our room to sleep under the sky of the glowing blue-light-x-Ray-modern-art and awoke feeling cultured to our very cells.

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Madurai: More than Just a (Huge) Temple

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Sam’s lovely parents came to India for a tour around Tamil Nadu and spoiled us rotten along the way. We managed to cover a lot of ground in 7 days, thanks to our huge white traveller minivan (otherwise known as Nandi – The bull Shiva rode on) and our faithful driver (otherwise known as Ganupatti).

Despite being a busy city, Madurai had the friendliness and authenticity to carry off the typical Indian craziness – unlike most big cities in India (and Madurai was the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, after Chennai(=Madras)). You had the huge fluorescent flashing billboards and huge Sony adverts raised high above the streets, but at ground level you could be pushed along with the crowds through fruit and flower markets, and watch as old Hindu men hitch up their dhotis (essentially a man-sarong, often thin and white) as they pick their way along the pleasantly dirty pavements.

The place felt very alive, much reflected through the huge functioning temple, Meenakshi, that draws more Hindu pilgrims than tourists. Not only are the four towers of the temple some of the tallest and most spectacular I’ve seen, they were also garishly painted multicolours. You are invited to witness the grandeur and spiritual displays of devotion alongside one another – a rarity for temples in India, when one often has to stumble around ruins and only imagine what used to go on inside. Here you could see for yourself women in colourful saris, heads on the stone floor in reverence and priests with bare chests and heads painted fill the cavernous multi-coloured passages with burning incense. In fact, I would never have been able to imagine the nightly ceremony that takes place, in which Shiva and Parvati (Hindu God and Goddess) are put to bed amid much chanting and frantically chasing after a casket, as it is carried through the temple complex and eventually put to bed by the priests. I’m not sure why we ran, but everyone else was running too, so it felt right – there was religious fervour in the air. We were all very much ready to be put to bed afterwards, as the ceremony ended late at night.

I haven’t even begun to describe our bed for the night. The hotel, owned by a famous and decadent Tamil Nadu jewellery chain, featured a towering atrium with a golden elevator rising up the centre, taking you past beautiful artwork and down carpeted corridors to a room thoughtfully decorated, with all the luxuries to make Sam and I forget all about the distant cold and misery of Kodaikanal. It even had a wonderful desk for me to spend most of the next day slaving away in preparation for a video interview and unfortunately missing out on another day in Madurai.

That evening we enjoyed staggering rooftop views of the city and the distant view of the four towers of the temple, mingling within the other high rise buildings comfortably (no buildings are allowed to be taller than the temple) and rounded off the day with a few drinks in an Apollo-13 themed bar. Yes, a bar decorated to look like the inside of a spaceship. When in India…

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A Flop

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It’s been a real effort to motivate myself to write about Kodaikanal, firstly because I’ve half suppressed our dreadful journey there and also as it was a massive flop. And if there’s anything worse than experiencing a flop, it’s dredging up and analysing all of the details of a flop. Especially as a flop doesn’t quite bear the entertainment factor of an event such as a disaster, which I suppose the journey to Kodaikanal might fulfill.

A Blunder
Kodaikanal is a hill station in Tamil Nadu, popular for it’s natural beauty of varying varieties. Due to it’s remote location, we only found one train that took us to Kodaikanal Road station and it got in at midnight – which wasn’t ideal for obvious reasons.

We jumped off the train and onto the miserable, dimly lit platform – where almost every inch of the dirty station floor was covered with sleeping Indians all in lines like sardines, blankets pulled over heads with possessions heaped around them. Bedraggled dogs prowled territorially around us, adding to the overwhelming sensation of being unwelcome. It was like jumping off the train and landing unexpectedly in someone’s bedroom – our natural instinct was to get out.

And so our eyes raked the walls for some sign saying exit, or taxis, but instead met the huge sign reading:

“Kodaikanal City – 80km”

No amount of hopeful eye rubbing, wishing or cursing could will away that small sinister ‘k’ from in front of the ‘m’ – an even more unwelcome guest to this perverse scene upon the platform. It was midnight and we were standing in a lifeless station, 80km away from our hotel. Great.

What were our options? The most obvious a. Try and find a nearby hotel to stay in. But where were we? Where on earth was Kodaikanal Road if not in Kodaikanal? Judging by the size of the station and amount of people using it as a bedroom, there wasn’t a town for miles. Which brought us to our next option b. Lie down amongst the Indians, blanket over head and blend in amongst their sleeping ranks until the morning, which would hopefully bring an answer to our whereabouts. Or c. Try to get to Kodaikanal tonight. Easier said than done, as it was obvious we were still in the plains, no taxi driver seemed to be around and would we trust them to drive us up a mountain in near pitch black with potentially treacherous roads?

Fate, or should I say a taxi driver with spiders crawling out of his shirt collar, decided for us. He ambled over from thin air and knew immediately where we wanted to be. A quick assessment of his sanity, levels of anebriation and a sweeping glance at the circling dogs and we opted for the backseat of his car. It smelt good and he’d changed out of his skirt into a pair of trousers. Good, he can better reach the pedals. He told us it was his daughters birthday. Good, maybe that will encourage him to get us all up the mountain alive.

That 80km was the longest 80km of my life. We both desperately stayed awake for the entire journey, in case our driver decided to fall asleep. But fighting off tiredness was slightly easier when you glanced over the edge of the road to see the sheer drop below. Finally, at three in the morning, we made it to our hotel – freezing but jubilant that we’d made it out of this tight spot without squatting in the train station. My thoughts are with those who had to spend the night, and god knows how many more, on that grubby station floor.

Kodaikanal
I’ve always found that arriving in a place at night often makes it seem slightly sinister and scary, and almost always makes it seem much bigger than it is. Arriving in Kodaikanal at night I felt all of this; I assumed the harsh metal scaffolding and grey high rise buildings would simply melt away by morning time as it normally did in this kind of situation.

However, after having our senses assaulted by the megaphone chorus of the bus station from 6am (which was conveniently situated opposite the hotel) and then the pneumatic drilling and hammering chiming in at 7am, I realised that my night-time vision was disappointingly accurate.

We were at constant risk of being run over by beeping jeeps and buses that resembled bomb shelters on wheels – which I imagine were dented from the impact of mowing down unsuspecting tourists. Traffic and pollution is always much more offensive when up in the hills, and no matter whether we were peddling around on a Mickey Mouse boat on the picturesque lake or drinking tea in a garden, it was impossible to escape the sounds of thundering traffic. It was also impossible to escape the freezing cold weather, as the cheap hotel rooms we stayed in were ill prepared to defrost the freezing tourists.

If it hadn’t been for the presence of friends and natural beauty, the place would have been a complete waste of time. And unfortunately the scenery was cloaked in mist most days, so the only activities on offer were traipsing around the busy streets or drinking (coffee or alcohol). The only personality this place really had, were the colourful old farmers, trying to sell you magic mushrooms with a cheeky, toothless grin.

Hostile, disappointing, freezing and slightly tacky – Kodaikanal was a big flop, and without the pleasure of meeting up with some friends, it would have toed the line of a disaster.

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Viva la Varkala

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As I write this, I ask myself why I am not still in Varkala, spending my days relaxing by the beach, eating, meeting new people and shaking maracas around a fire in a bin, whilst a very old German man plays “hallelujah” on guitar.

The introduction to Varkala was perfect. A stroll down the end of the guesthouse garden and our position
atop a staggeringly high cliff was revealed by a sudden steep drop, and then nothing but the blue sea, stretching out in front like a vast infinity pool. The cliff was so high, that even the eagles soared lower, and the only way to see the beach below was to curl your toes over the cliff edge and lean over as far as you dare.

It was a spotlessly clean guesthouse, in which you couldn’t move a chair without permission and the cleaning lady told me off for wearing the same tee shirt everyday. I’d worn it every day for the past month and I wasn’t going to stop for her. Things couldn’t go on like this, so we moved to the livelier end of the cliff; where things much less permissible than wearing the same smelly tee shirt day-in day-out went on.

The North cliff action took place along a path that meandered along the cliff edge. This was lined with pretty good food and the usual pretty crap shops – with some painfully steep steps down to the beach and slightly portly, but endlessly cheery fruit sellers, singing “Hello! Pineapple! Watermelon! Eating eating, nom nom nom nom!”

Asides from the normal beach routine, Varkala was the perfect environment for rest and introspection; rather than racing around India trying to tick as many boxes as possible. The only box that mattered here was the one between your ears, and everyone here was exploring different ways to be kind to themselves – and this might have meant having oil dripped on your forehead, meditating in public places or else seeking the help of a guru. The focus on inner goals meant that no one cared what apparent fools people were making of themselves outwardly – at first, I was aghast at the sight of people bursting into spontaneous yoga positions on the beach. Coming from such a self concious society, where people constantly worry about how they look, or whether they are being looked at enough, I found the approach of people here quite liberating. The less time I spent snickering at others, the more I was able to pursue what pleased me. However, fortunately for me, this didn’t warrant public displays of spirituality. It did involve attending a jam session, where you are handed a musical instrument at the doorstep and permitted to wreak havoc with it, alongside your own tuneless vocal chords, to the sound of an amateur guitarist and amidst scenes of people quite literally letting their hair down and wafting it and their limbs about all over the place.

We were quickly welcomed into the fold of longer term residents, and I was amazed at the wide range of interesting characters – most of them slightly lost in life, but all of them incredibly open. The orchestrator of many a meet cute was our hostess Vanessa; who tore around introducing everyone and creating the kind of environment which I now closely associate with Varkala – one that evaporates inhibitions and engenders relaxation for the over active mind.

I felt like a huge weight, probably imposed by the demands of living and working in London, lift from my shoulders and learnt the important life lesson, that the less you worry about what other people are doing, the more free you are to be happy yourself. Most importantly you should never let fear of how you might look, deter you from doing something you want to do, because someone probably thinks you look stupid no matter what you do (and you could be missing out on hours of maraca-shaking). Even without the aid of a guru, finding fulfilment in Varkala was incredibly easy and I hope I get to return one day.

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Sam and Steph’s Halfway Top 5

Now we are halfway through our 5/6 months in India (or at least the blog is, as I am a month behind) Sam and I have ruthlessly selected our 5 favourite places. We’ll check back at the end to see how/if things have changed.

Sam’s Top 5 (by Sam)

5. Rishikesh
Probably the best place to enjoy the Ganges. Although Rishikesh was a sort of spiritual circus and my poor health didn’t afford me the opportunity to partake; the care free atmosphere, natural beauty of its foot-hilled surrounds and saddhu-lined streets bade me forget the horrors of Delhi.

4. Kolkata
Unlike Mumbai it’s a city that hasn’t lost its old-world feel and social integrity (I’m thinking slums) at the expense of economic progress. Lots of students, book shops and weird Indian coffee houses. Kolkata exudes a very dignified and honest charisma.

3. Orchha
This place should be more popular. It’s got it all: an easy going small-town Indian atmosphere, staggeringly beautiful palaces and temples, and a tranquil riverside setting, where you can join most of Orchha’s inhabitants for a laze about in the afternoon heat.

2. Darjeeling
The mystic smiles of the Tibetan people and the simple way of mountain life reminded me that it can all be rather easy.

1. Varanasi
Still coming to terms with the fact that a place like this can exist. But paradoxically, I left Varanasi with a new lease of life; vowing to return to have another shot at comprehending this incomrephensible city.

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Steph’s Top 5

5. Kochi
The place has a lovely, welcoming feel, with lots of places to top up on home comforts and immerse yourself in the arty/modern side of India – heightened by the slightly crumbly and colonial mansion lined streets.

4. Mumbai
So much to see and do; such as being an extra in a Bollywood movie. More diverse than most countries; this modern city is fascinating and also pretty fun.

3. Orchha
I had so much fun clambering round the ruins like I was in a fun house. People watching by the river, with ancient towers beside me was the first day I actually started to enjoy travelling India.

2. Darjeeling
The jolliness of the Tibetan and Nepali inhabitants mixes well with the beauty of the mountains. Every day is like Christmas, but instead of Turkey you get momos.

1. Varkala
A lovely sense of community and a beautiful beach with a fully functioning (holy) Indian town attached. Secretly Sam’s favourite too and the next place on the blog.

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Namaste