Ancestral India – 05.08.2013

As we rolled into Ooty in the early, early hours of the morning, we saw scenery like we had never before seen. As the sun began to rise, it revealed to us thousands of tiny, colourful houses dotted and lined throughout the greenest hills at bewildering heights, and closer to the road, shop vendors and tea stall holders began to turn the lights on in their shop fronts. The air was freezing, and when we stepped out onto Ooty’s wet ground just after 5:30am, hawkers selling beanies and scarves surrounded us.

We’d booked accommodation ahead of time at an old, Brittish building complex-turned-guesthouse/hostel.

We walked there as the sun was rising, through the cold air and mist, feeling the refreshing rain drops on our sun burned skin.
On arrival, we were shown to our dormitory my worst nightmare; a tiny space that resembled a prison cell with four metal beds, sinking mattresses, dirty wet  blankets, a dirt floor and tin roof ceiling, gaping holes in the walls and ceiling, a bin that had not been emptied in what I can only assume has been months, a strong smell of damp rot and several mosquitoes – bigger than I have ever seen. As for the bathroom, all I can say is what bathroom? There wasn’t one.

Seeing as it was already raining, and the temperatures here get well down into the very cold range, we thought, amongst some other contributing factors (see above), we might have to decline this room cell, and so were offered another cheapie room, which when they opened the door to reveal another sinking mattress, the smell of paint fumes almost knocked us down. Needless to say, we never removed the packs from our back and decided that we would find somewhere “alternative.”

Marching up the road in the rain, exhausted from little sleep, I imagined we looked like two turtles with heavy shells plodding silently along. The scenery was beautiful and the walk was really lovely; it was so nice to feel cold for just a little while. In town, we hoped a tout would pounce and be able to show us to a room – which they did – but it was another shit-box complete with wet carpet, a swarm of flies and a 60’s porn-star look-a-like manager who was, to say the least, a little off putting. Again, it was time to find an alternative.

Standing at a chai stall more than an hour later after we’d arrived in Ooty, we downed cup after cup of tea alongside a group of tiny smiling school boys, before moving on to find some where suitable. Finally, we let a tuk tuk driver take us to a place that was half decent and reasonably priced, where I spent a shamless half hour sitting under the hot water – my first hot water shower in what feels like forever.

Not that I’m complaining at all though; this place is beautiful and we had all the time in the world to just be here, seeing as we’d arrived here as the sun was rising.

The reason we’d come to Ooty was not only because it’s an incredibly beautiful and quaint little city, unlike other places in India, but also a personal one: Jake’s grandmother grew up and studied at a prestigious school in a small town called Lovedale, just 10km from Ooty city, and it was important we took the opportunity to visit.

We took a tuk tuk out to Lovedale and spent an hour and a half or so at the school. The staff there were unbelievable, they bought out huge hand-written record books that dated back to the 1800’s, and spent their time scouring the names of past students, trying to find Jake’s grandmother.
They were successful in finding her name, and were able to give insight into her history here at the school. We were greeted by the head of the school, deans and head-staff, and given a personal tour of the massive school grounds.
It was very special, and an experience no doubt Jake will hold dear to him forever.

Beautiful Building - 155 years old

Beautiful Building – 155 years old

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

The student record book, dating back to the 1800s

A very special record

A very special record

 

We spent the next few hours exploring the town, which is set amongst hills and mist, colour and a sprawling main strip. We had another dodgy looking late-lunch at a local joint that tasted pretty decent, before heading back late afternoon to our hotel. In the evening we made a futile attempt to get some chai, but the FREEZING weather saw us quickly retreating back to our room.

Needless to say, today has been amazing and exhausting, and we look forward to tomorrow where we can more-fully appreciate this town with a fresh perspective and a good nights sleep behind us.

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Ultra-Deluxe India – 04.08.2013

India sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night; her constant hustle and bustle means that often my mind is left racing to try and catch up with and comprehend the overload that is what my eyes have seen. When I finally drift to sleep at night, I’m frequently still thinking about the culture we’re currently immersed in, and my dreams float through scenes of people-packed bazaars and chaotic, colourful street scenes.

I felt unmotivated this morning; lethargic and in a not-so-interested-in-temples mood. We hauled our luggage down to the Trichy Junction Bus Station cloak room early in the morning, and paid 100 rupees for a half-naked man to store our only belongings, alongside his graying-underwear and once-white, sweat-stained shirt that was hung neatly from a wall hook. I prayed our bags would still be there when we returned in 12 hours time.

We found a chai vendor and filled our flask with sugary liquid; what has quickly become our morning routine here in India.

Brunch was a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal from some local joint, served, surprisingly, on a banana leaf. The eighty staff members (or there abouts) were keen to watch these two foreigners attempt to eat with their hands, and the majority of our meal was spent with many, many enquiring eyes studying our every mouthful. We questioned the level of safety in eating this food; it was a little cold and dodgy looking, so we quickly bought a coke after the meal, with the hope that the terrible chemicals in coke would kill any nasties before they had the opportunity to flourish and strike us down. Not sure how effective this method of avoiding Dehli-Belly is, but anything goes in this sort of hygienically challenged environment.

Because we were feeling really lazy today, and because we knew we had a long, 8 hour bus ride ahead of us this evening, we took a Tuk tuk to Trichy Old Town area and the main Bazaar.
We saw a very impressive church… and then proceeded to go shopping. Well, not so much shopping as simply walking through the Bazaar; a crowded, hectic, chaotic, overwhelming, polluted, noisy space full of people buying and selling, clothing, watches, baby clothing, sari material, plastic shit, cooking ware, fruit, shoes – always so many shoes… Amidst the normal human crush and pushy motorbike drivers honking their horns, it was so much to take in.

Flustered, frustrated, unable to find the places we wanted to get to, we left the bazaar in search of the Rock temple, which we did see from a distance, as it sat high above us – something like 400 steps above us. Laziness, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, the extreme heat and the fact that non-hindus can’t go into the temples were combining factors in the decision not to climb the rock. We considered climbing it just for the view over Trichy, but it wasn’t that much of an argument since from the ground, Trichy looks like a sprawling mass of buildings set on mountains of dirt and red dust, littered with rubbish and crowded with people, cows, goats, dogs and traffic… and no doubt, also a big cloud of pollution. The stench of urine is really strong here too – although you can’t see it, I imagine it to be a big, yellow blanket of stinky invisible-ness. So, we passed on the climb and the view, and instead took a tuk tuk to another temple about 3km further away.

Hindu  temples are impressive with their large, towering entrances of colour and sculpture, statues and depictions… but it’s hard for us to appreciate them any further really, as we can’t comprehend the spiritual and religious traditions and meanings.

The temple was dark, damp, and full of people either sleeping, eating or begging, and the areas were piling up with rubbish. The stone carvings inside the temple were really quite impressive, but there was a temple elephant wondering near the grounds, with paint covering its face and chains on its feet, and I hate that with a passion; poor animal treatment masked under the name of religion is not something I’m impressed by. For me, this temple was nothing spectacular.

Moving on, we had to get out of the heat and sit down. It seems there is a lack of places to actually just sit, drink some chai and relax… we found a small eatery and had an ice cream, and proceeded to make a rough itinerary/plan for the rest of our trip in India… we were there for a while – a concept that obviously was strange for the locals – but we needed the break.

Finally, we decided to visit the biggest temple here in Trichy, that is also supposedly one of the biggest in India – we figured we should make the effort since we are only here once.

We walked there, and it was a nice stroll past children playing cricket, women in coloured saris carrying large parcels and items on their heads, goats sleeping on the road and cows munching on piles of rubbish.

At the entrance, we were stunned by so many people and such a towering, impressive entrance. People were everywhere.

Shops, market stalls, clothing, foods, chai… we walked the streets through what felt like a small enclosed city to the next main entrance and another impressive tower of colour and sculpture, but decided not to go any further in, again; we’re obviously not hindus and we respect that this is a place of worship.

Instead, we watched the people move around us; a couple of motorcyclists had an argument over who would go through a tiny entrance first, children played, and a massive crowd gathered around an eatery that was frying up delicious smelling food – we’ll try whatever they’re eating. A man helped Jake to order, and he was served a couple of green chilli/bell peppers fried in a spiced lentil four batter, and a couple of other fried lentil things. It was too much food, and we ended up giving some food to a couple of locals who were really appreciative. We never throw food away here; it’s always given to someone who needs it, and that simple act today showed us, again, how much we take for granted.

We caught a bus back to town as evening was falling – it was so interesting to see the bazaars packed to the walls with people, every different eatery cooking and preparing different foods, chai stalls crowded with people, and families out together. It’s fascinating, every time, to see India in action; night times are wonderful in this country – at least, in the small area we’ve seen. It’s as though India operates during the day, and lives at night.

We had dinner at a local place that was decent; we tried dosai which we will definitely be eating more often now; another Indian food to add to the ‘safe to eat/I-know-what-that-is’ list.

10pm and we picked our back packs up from the cloak room – they were still there, and so was half-naked man and his dirty underwear. Packs on, we walked through the station – very cleverly right past the massive stretch of urinals – as the thousands of staring eyes fell upon us – we’re starting to find this less unnerving and slightly easier to ignore.

We’d reserved an Ultra Deluxe Class, Air Conditioned bus ahead of our overnight journey and were secretly smug with our out-of-chatacter organisation!… but when we arrived, we were directed to a dilapidated and un-roadworthy looking vehicle, with peeling, faded-green paint, several large rusting sections, broken chairs and stuck windows. The air conditioning didn’t work, unless you count the very economical and eco-friendly open windows – which worked a treat for the duration of our journey – except when it rained.
We sat down, wondering when the ultra deluxe part of our journey would commence, then reminded ourselves to stop being such spoiled Westerners. The Indian music started blaring – the beginning of the sound track for our trip to Ooty – people began reclining their seats to uncomfortable levels, and the driver backed out of the madness that is the Trichy Junction bus stand.

Then the music and lights were turned off – the ultra deluxe part began – and silently, we rolled our way up and up and up to Ooty over a period of 8 hours.

At around 1am we stopped for a break: the lights were turned on and the driver screamed out something, of which I simply understood “chai” and “bat-roum.”  I was up.
All of a sudden all these sleeping bodies had risen, and we were all off the bus; I stood laughing at the hilarity of this nonsensical situation.
In the darkness, men dispersed in every angle to urinate freely (literally) whilst the women lined up to pay the toilet guy 3 rupees. Yes; at 2am there’s a guy sitting at a wooden table outside stench-embedded, urine smelling toilets, waiting for buses to arrive and for people to come and use the toilet…I won’t be complaining about my job again, ever.
Someone else (or maybe the same business-smart man?) obviously thought it would be a profitable idea to have a ripped music and DVD shop open for business at this time of night; therefore, nothing could be heard over the blasting speakers, which sat in the dusty open surrounds, filling the late-night air with loud, bad quality Indian music.
I stood in front of our bus and was overcome with laughter: as screeching treble filled my ears – along with much obligatory hocking and spitting – I stared in awe at the absolute dump of a vehicle that was being masked as a bus, titled at the front with some crooked, rusting letters spelling “U  RA D L X” (what would’ve once said Ultra Deluxe, before half of the letters fell off and it became not so ultra).
More to the point, on the side of this magnificent beast was some painted text, which titled this thing a “Highway Airline.” I was almost in tears at this point from laughing; I’ll blame it on exhaustion.

Still, here we were in the cool night air – Indian men doing double takes as they walked past this laughing white girl – traveling in true style on our bus Highway Airline to the hill country town of Ooty, 2240m above sea level. I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the most comfortable 8 hours, but we loved every moment of it, and our dodgy Highway Airline too.

In the early hours of the morning, the bus speed slowed to accommodate for the hair-pin bends, curves and turn as we made our way through the hills and the sun began to rise. We watched, bleary eyed, as scenery rolled past our eyes like we had never before seen, and for a fleeting moment, we forgot we were in India.

French India – 02.08.2013

Bonjour from Pondy: a quirky city with a great deal of French influence, but a strong beating Indian pulse. Also, Happy Birthday to my gorgeous grandmother.

Today was spent exploring the city by foot, starting from the old French Quarter where we’re staying. We started our morning with masala chai, coffee, and free wifi, and made a ‘plan’ for sight-seeing today, working from our guidebook map. We headed towards the beach, along Gourbet Avenue, but didn’t get too far before we came across a shoe maker along side the road, crafting shoes on the floor of his tiny open shed/shop. Seeing as Jake has size 16 feet that are impossible to find shoes for and his thongs are already wearing through one month into our trip, we’d been on the look out for a shoe maker. 700 rupees ($12.50 AUD) for a pair of custom made, awesome looking leather sandals – ready the same day – how could we not order a pair each?!…

We continued walking along the coast line, looking out along the ocean. The sun was beating down today, but the walk was beautiful and there were several interesting sights, beautiful French architecture and some important monuments (including a statue of Ghandi) along the way to see. We visited a couple of Hindu temples, but the constant begging for us to buy crappy tack that we didn’t need (including creepy framed photos of a close up view of some old dude’s yellowing cataract eyes) meant we left pretty quickly. We went to visit the well known Sri Aurobindo Ashram here, but it was closed to visitors at that point, so we moved along.

We explored the town some more, visited a book shop, a couple of market stalls, explored the massive maze that is the Gourbet Market, and ended up at a vegetarian restaurant where we both ordered thali – a delicious banquet/feast that ended up being our breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The opening to the Gourbet Market

The opening to the Gourbet Market

Kitchen Goods

Kitchen Goods

Gourbet Market

Gourbet Market

The opening to the Gourbet Market

Gourbet Market

Excellent Sales Technique

Excellent Sales Technique

An example of why you shouldn't consume ice in India

An example of why you shouldn’t consume ice in India

Thali is an all-you-can-eat meal (don’t be put off by the dodgy association); traditionally served in several tiny steel bowls, within a larger steel platter. Our thalis came out with about 10 different curries, gravys, watery stocks packed with massive amounts of flavor, a large dried chilli, stock and oil, raita, a dish of sour curd, a little Indian sweet and some spiced, sweet rice. Massive amounts of rice are given, along with a flat bread and pappodams. And if all of this doesn’t make you full, staff are constantly coming around to top up the tiny steel dishes with more steaming [whatever is looking a bit empty]! All this for 150 rupee (under $3 AUD). I managed to get through about half of my thali, with no top ups. I have no idea how the locals can manage to top up two, three, four times before they’re finished…

Thali

Thali

After rolling out the door of the restaurant, we visited another book shop where I bought Eat, Pray, Love – how cliché – but, I’ve finished the obligatory must-read-if-travelling-to-India Shantaram, and missed having a book to read. That should keep me occupied on the five hour bus trip tomorrow!

We walked back along the beach towards our shoe maker, whose name I discovered is Prabu – for anyone who has read Shantaram – awww, Prabu!…  Prabu, along with his uncle, was in the process of putting the various pieces of our shoes together – the bases, the soles and the straps. Watching him and his family member craft our shoes with such patience and ease was a lovely experience, they bought us chai and chatted with us a bit; Prabu explained “I really happy in my job.”  They fitted our shoes several times to our feet, before finally gluing down the straps to fit us perfectly. Prabu’s tiny work space was filled with tools, glues, scraps, materials, shoe bases, photographs, shoes, books, and a beautiful antique-looking Singer sewing machine.

Smiling Shoe Makers

Smiling Shoe Makers

The end result!

The end result!

We took a tuk tuk later that evening to outside the city area, with the intention of booking a private bus for tomorrows five hour trip to Trichy on the advice of some locals – they explained since tomorrow is a Saturday, traveling by the local bus will involve “you not being freely or freeness.” However, the only private buses that run were firstly, only overnight buses, and secondly, really expensive. I guess we’ll take the ‘normal’ bus tomorrow and see how we manage: I hope we get some freeness.

Our short time here in Pondy was wonderful; it didn’t feel as though we were in India at times, and at other times we couldn’t have felt like we were anywhere else… I’m so glad we have had the opportunity to spend a tiny piece of our journey here.

Generous India – 01.08.2013

We can now mark our second dot on the Indian map – we’re in Puducherry (Pondicherry), but I’m just going to do as the locals do and call it Pondy. It’s easier and it sounds cuter.

We planned to take the bus early this morning from Chennai to Pondy, in order to spend all afternoon exploring, stay just one night here, and then move on to our next destination late tomorrow afternoon… But like I said, that was simply the plan, and travel is no fun if you stick to a plan.

Waking late, we fluffed about, re-packed our backpacks – which we had managed to sprawl over the entire of our tiny room in the three days we were there in Chennai, and filled our canister with chai.
Checking out, the guest house staff told us how we could save a whole hour of travel if we most simply walked 5 minutes to the train station near by, took a train 15 minutes South, and then got down and got a bus to Pondy…So most simple, so quick, cheaper, and so much more convenient sounding…

Firstly, the walk was not 5 minutes and was not most simple either; it was like 30 minutes of walking in the relentless heat and pollution with 20kg on our backs through hectic traffic and hoards of people, past touters galore, and over the bodies of the sleeping homeless.
We finally then arrived at an empty – I repeat – EMPTY – train station… EMPTY! In Chennai! It was scary. We bought a ticket to a train station we didn’t know how to pronounce, with no idea where the platform was, where to go from the station, or how to get to Pondy…Things weren’t feeling that most simple any more…

And then a young man (whose name is Sreeram) walked by us, and was kind enough to show us how to get to the platform, which was ‘hiding’ upstairs. We chatted a bit, and it ended up we were both getting down at the same station, so thankfully he said he’d show us where to go; turns out, knowing which station the train was currently in was really difficult, as the large signs were only in either Hindi or Tamil, with tiny English translations underneath. We spent the duration of the train trip talking, and when we got to the station that we needed to be at, he explained that it was a 20 or so minute walk from the station to the bus stand to catch a bus to Pondy – a walk we soon realised would’ve been very hard for us to navigate on our own. “Get down from train and catch bus to Pondy” wern’t exactly detailed, accurate or most simple directions, Mr. Guest House man!

Sreeram was so generous, he hailed a ‘Rick’ (a rickshaw) – as he called them – and tried to barter with the driver to give us the local price (which should’ve been around 25 rupees). The driver refused anything less than 50 – because of our bags apparently – but it didn’t matter. Sreeram hopped in the seat next to the driver and the drivers friend, so there was three in the front, Jake and I in the back, along with our two bulging backpacks. Sreeram told us “Now you’re getting a real ride in India.” He said the tuk tuk driver would drop us where we needed to go, and that he was going to go a little further to a restaurant he loves here; turns out the food there was the whole reason he was travelling to this area on the outskirts of Chennai. Since it was lunch time, we asked if we could join and he was delighted.

He paid for the tuk tuk, much to our protests and explained we are his guests. At the restaurant, he ordered for us both the local specialty, and we had a wonderful time talking and learning a little more about India, and him and his family.
At the end of the meal, he refused to let us pay, again saying we were his guests – he was really so very generous, we felt really humbled.
Finally, he walked us to the ‘bus stop’ (just a stretch of road much like every other stretch of road) and hailed a bus for us when one quickly drove by.
Our goodbye was quick, but we hope Sreeram knows how appreciative we were of everything he did for us today; without his assistance, we would’ve been very, very lost.

The bus to Pondy was really very civilized! It was full, but not packed, the chairs were comfortable and they reclined, there was no blaring music, the driver drove at a very comfortable speed, and we even had a rest stop break! Very different from what we’d expected!

We arrived in to Pondy late afternoon, around 5pm, and managed to find a decent guest house in the old French Quarter. We booked for two nights here instead of the one we had planned – we got caught up today with other such fun.

The sky blackened quickly and it rained heavily for a little while, so we didn’t venture out until late evening, but it didn’t matter – like Chennai, this place doesn’t sleep early.
The shops and streets were buzzing, and certain areas were blocked off to three and four wheelers (although those vehicles didn’t seem to want to obey the laws and crammed the streets anyway). People were selling, buying, shopping, eating, drinking – it was as hectic as Chennai had been, but it doesn’t really phase us now; already we’ve adjusted to the madness of every day life here in India.

Walking the French influenced, but very hectic Indian streets, we looked through shops and market stalls before heading back late, preparing for a day of exploring tomorrow. It’s been a great, inspiring day; one we will absolutely remember for the rest of our trip, thanks to one very generous stranger.