Southern India

January 29, 2024

Technically Varanasi is in the North, but since it was the start of our time in India without Intrepid, we're including it here.  Airports in India have to have the most crazy level of security imaginable (or maybe it's just a make jobs program).  Before we could even get in the terminal, we had 3 people check our passports and boarding passes, had our picture taken for facial recognition, and had to take out not only all our electronics and liquids, but all our cords as well.

The rest of the flight, though, was without incident and we arrived in Varanasi safely.  Varanasi is one of the most sacred cities in India with many temples and is one of the most sacred places to bathe in the Ganges or to cremate a loved one.

We're staying at the Dwivedi Palace on Steps.  The hotel sits right above the water in old town.  Most of old town is inaccessible to cars since the streets are no bigger than to allow two people to pass by each other.  The cab dropped us off about a kilometer away from our hotel and we had to walk the rest of the way.  The same issues of walking in the street other places are here as well, but because the lanes are so narrow, they're harder to avoid...  Cows take up the entire width as they walk by.  Stephen managed to step in another cow paddy again, and Eli was concerned that we were dragging our luggage through what was hard to tell as dirt or cow/dog sh*t. 

We made it to the hotel, safely, though.  The hotel has everything from super-basic rooms to rooms with a bit more luxury.  We're staying in a fairly basic room but it was clean (although it could stand a paint job) and we have our own private patio overlooking the Ganges and the ghats (or steps down to the water) along the river.  Well, actually, we share our patio with some monkeys. Stephen was going to leave his boots just outside the door because of the crap on them and was warned by the porter that they were not safe due to the local monkeys.

We surveyed the view from our patio a bit, napped for a while, and then headed out to dinner at the Brown Bread Bakery.  They do Indian classical music at 7:30 every night, so we thought we'd enjoy that while eating dinner.  The bakery/restaurant is also a guest house and non-profit social service agency.  We ordered chicken schnitzel sandwiches (it was nice to have some relatively bland food for a change), and sat and listened to the sitar player for a while.

We got to bed early as we're going to do a sunrise tour and boat ride.

January 30, 2024

We're up at 4:45 to meet our guide at 5:15 to do a morning tour and boat ride.  Unfortunately the typical fog at this time of year is even worse than normal.  We can't really see much of anything.  Although our experience in Delhi would have said that things start late in India, according to our guide, 4:30 is the waking hour of the gods, so we saw a lot more activity than we expected at 5:15.

We start by walking to Assi ghat where the ceremony to the sun god is performed daily.  It started with some girls from the local Vedic school chanting.  Then the priests performed a ritual with the blowing of the conch shell and a bunch of burning oil lamps in the shape of a Christmas tree.  In the next stage they invited attendees to a bonfire and they threw herbs (what to us smelled like rosemary) on the fire as a purification ritual.  Also, there were some women scattering marigold petals over people's heads.

In the next stage, a musical group performed a series of melodies.  Apparently there are different melodies prescribed for each season and within each season.  The scale and minor key reminded us of Jewish and Arabic music and even more to flamenco, which was a mix of Arab and Roma (gypsy) influences.  The next step of the morning ritual is yoga, but we skipped that.  We were going to head out on the boat, but the conditions meant that we wouldn't really be able to see anything anyway, so our guide took us around town a bit and then to the local university campus.  He joked that Varanasi is known as the city of "learn and burn," a reference to the cremations performed there, but also the number of universities in the city.

We stopped in at one of the temples at the main university and we talked about some of the Hindu mythology associated with the temple here.  It was dedicated to Shiva, and in addition to the main temple, there is a smaller shrine to Nandi, Shiva's bull and executive secretary, for lack of a better description.  Students would go up to the bull and whisper a request in it's ear.  It is thought that Nandi would then pass on the message to Shiva and hopefully put their request higher on Shiva's agenda.  We also learned that being a Hindu priest is not a full-time job for most.  Priests are anyone who has completed a set of formal education requirements in the rites and rituals, and then they might typically volunteer a few hours a week to perform sacraments or other responsibilities at a local temple/shrine.  There are priests who are doctors, lawyers, accountants, tour leaders. etc.  

Around town we had been seeing signs that read Banarasi instead of Varanasi, so we were wondering if the British had mangled the name of the town and it was originally Banarasi and the British called it Varanasi (like Bombay for Mumbai).  In fact, the opposite is true and Varanasi is the true and original name of the city.  However, the mangled British "Banarasi" actually has a meaning in Hindi (it means mixed juice).  The nickname stuck and has been adopted by the local population who will refer to themselves as Banaras.

We took a break and had breakfast and then picked back up for the rest our our tour. On our way to meet our guide again, we were passing through the lanes of the old city when we came upon a grieving family in the street.  Their loved one was on a stretcher swathed in Indian fabric and surrounded by marigolds.  There wasn't a lot of room to pass, but we had to walk passed to get to our meeting point.  We walked quickly and a nice man from the family helped us squeeze through on the outside of the group.

Once we got back together with our guide we walked through the local market, stopping to have a local milk treat that is basically whipped  cream with saffron and sugar.  We think dad would have liked this one... the whipped cream was always his thing.

We meandered our way though the market toward Manikarnika ghat, which is one of the most holy sites where they do cremation.  It is the site that is traditionally thought of to be the one that is most likely to end the cycle of reincarnation and to achieve "moksha" (what Buddhists call nirvana).  The men of the family take the body to the ghat, buy the firewood necessary (about 250 kilos is required), carry the body down the the Ganges, submerge it in the water, and then bring it back to be placed on the pyre.  They stay with the body until the cremation is complete.  Since it's not practical for people from afar to bring their loved ones here, often they will be cremated near their home towns and then their ashes will be brought to be scattered on the ghat by a priest hoping to have the same effect.

We stayed briefly and then moved on toward the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple.  We didn't go in (yet), but took some pictures from afar (as you can't take pictures from inside), and then said goodbye to our guide.  We'd got back to the temple later in the day (gods take a siesta between about 12 and 4 as they've been up since 4:30am).  We had booked a the tour with a company recommended in Lonely Planet, but honestly we felt they were overpriced for what we got. We had shied away from booking though our hotel because Lonely Planet said that frequently the guides arranged through hotels are not actually certified.   Brown Bread Bakery also organizes similar tours to the one that we did, though, and we would trust them to provide good tours for a lot cheaper than what we paid.

We headed back to our hotel to rest a bit.  As we were walking up the exterior staircase to our patio and room,  we weren't paying close attention and Stephen had a close encounter with a monkey.  A baby monkey was on the railing and we hadn't noticed it and it reached out and touched his arm.  We looked up and saw a couple older monkeys at the landing at the top of the staircase.  We hightailed it back down and asked the hotel staff to see if they could get the monkeys to move.  They did, and we were able to get to our room for a nap, but the monkeys would continue to be a nuisance.

Later in the afternoon we went back to the Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple.  There are a bunch of rules about how non-Hindus can enter the temple grounds.  You first have to get a ticket from the ticket office by showing your original passport and visa, and then you must be accompanied by a priest from the ticket center to the grounds.  You are only allowed to carry your passport and wallet onto the grounds... no electronics, cellphone, food, water, backpack, etc.  Our priest guide didn't speak much English, but we kind of understood him enough.  He asked to to recite the Shiva mantra and then did a blessing for us.  He was clearly anxious to get back to the ticket center, but we wanted to walk around a bit.  It was an interesting scene with a line out the door of Indians to enter the shrine.  Foreigners get to skip the line.  We get to be shepherded up a side entrance to see the shrine of the temple but we can't enter.  We did learn a bit more about some of the iconography, particularly about the phallic obelisk that represents Shiva and also why there is often the cobra shaped figure over it.

Once we left the grounds we walked along the ghats back to our hotel, stopping for dinner at a place we think made us both a little sick the next morning.  They do another riverside ceremony at 7pm and it is much more crowded than the one we did at 6am.  The 7pm ceremony honors the goddess of the river.  

January 31, 2024

We got to the airport for our flight early since we had to check out of the hotel anyway.  We've scheduled it so that we're not doing anything on travel days other than travel.  Our flight from Varanasi to Chennai on IndiGo airlines was delayed about an hour and by the time we collected our bags, got an Uber, and got to the hotel, it was almost 7pm.   In Chennai there is a metro stop at the airport and about a 10 minute walk from our hotel, but with our bags and not knowing what the condition of sidewalks (or even if there would be sidewalks) was, and the need to transfer metro lines, we decided to uber.

We arrived at our hotel, and were told by the staff that they only had a tiny room for us, not the one we had booked.  They had given our room away since they didn't have a credit card guarantee and we hadn't arrived before check-in.  They claimed they can only hold the room until 4pm at the latest.  Apparently this is a thing at most hotels in India but we haven't had to deal with it since we were on the tour.  Meanwhile, we explained to them that they never communicated any of this to us.  Alas, our protesting was not going to get us the room we had reserved.  They said that they could move us to the room we had reserved the next day.  We acquiesced as we didn't have any other choice.  However, just as we were getting settled, they came to tell us that someone else had cancelled and that we would have our reserved room after all.  With that said, once we got into our correct room, it has been one of the nicest places we've stayed so far.

For dinner, since it was so late, we went to the hotel restaurant.  We did a couple of starters to share as our meal.  Our tripmates in the North who had already done the southern trip talked about season 65 as something special to the South.  They use it in all kinds of dishes.  We ordered fried chicken 65, Madras chicken fingers, and fries.  Stephen also got a lamb broth soup.  The chicken 65 was the best.  It really does deserve the raves it got from James and Xanthia.  It's almost like a Nashville hot dry rub on the fried chicken.  Thanks, guys, for the suggestion!

February 1, 2024

Today we headed to a town about 1.5 hours drive from Chennai called Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram).  We had originally thought we would take a public bus there per the suggestion of Lonely Planet, but the bus would have been twice as long.  Instead we had our hotel call us a a cab for the day, which ended up being about 40 bucks to get us there and back and shuttle us between sights (which ended up being further apart than they appeared on the map).

Mamallapuram is known for a series of temples carved out of large granite outcroppings in the 8th century, so these were the oldest structures we've seen so far in India.  Unlike Petra, for example, these temples are sometimes carved all the way out and stand looking like a self-standing structure vs. a cave (although some are built into the stone like a cave as well).  On some of the temples the granite had weathered away so that you lost a lot of the detail of the carving.  Other bas relief carvings were still very detailed.  There was one huge scale mural carving that was spectacular in its detail and intricacy.  This has been one of the highlights of our stay so far in India.

For dinner, we headed to Writer's Cafe to give our taste buds a little rest and order some more Western/fusion food.  We indulged in dessert here as well, including pistacio ice cream and chocolate cake.

February 2, 2024

If you read our Northern India section, you'll know we had to call in a favor from the family of colleague and friend of Eli, Jags.  Jags' family lives in Chennai and Jags' sister, Gayathri, was the one who helped us order some of our tickets to the national parks.  Today we arranged to meet Gayathri for lunch.  We had hoped to meet Jag's parents as well, but they are in Madurai (which is our next stop) for a while.

There was a temple we had wanted to see in the area not too far from where Gayathri lives, so we started there.  The Arulmigu Marundeeswarar Temple is known as a center for healing and so it was quite busy.  The temple complex is made up of a number of smaller shrines, and there was quite a lot of activity with people just hanging about while others were interacting with the shrines and receiving benedictions from the priests.  We had started snapping some photos, but we hadn't seen the signs requesting no photos be taken, so we stopped once we were alerted.  We did remark, though, that the layout and activity of the temple, with lots of different vignettes of different gods and demigods reminded us of how a Catholic church is organized with different alters around the outer walls of a sanctuary for different devotions.

Gayathri met us at the temple and took us to a restaurant in the general vicinity, Munveedu, which had both veg and non-veg options.  We love how here the vegetarian is the default, although we are confirmed omnivores.  Gayathri is vegetarian, though, and so she had to rely on her friends' suggestions for what to order for us for the non-veg section.  And she did a great job; everything we had was really tasty.  We especially liked the lamb meatballs and the sweet milky coconut dessert we had.  She also suggested the anchovies, and Stephen, even with his general aversion to fish, ended up liking them as well (they were fried so they had that going for them).  There are so many different kinds of dishes that we've seen since being here beyond the typical butter chicken, tikka, tandoori, and madras curry that you get at an Indian restaurant in the US; but we often don't remember the names of the interesting things we order because we are so unfamiliar with words in Hindi or Tamil.  Gayathri did us a favor though and sent us a list of everything we had, so we're including them in captions below their images when we have them.

It was great to talk with Gayathri over lunch and learn a little about her interests and what she's working on now.  The conversation turned to politics briefly and we commiserated about the current state of politics in both our nations as we both lurch toward an election in the next few months.  Gayathri shared that Tamil Nadu and Kerala tend to be states where the Hindu Nationalist Party of Narendra Modi is offered some challenge, and so people feel freer here to discuss their concerns with some of the politics of the ruling party that  result in projects like the building of the Ayodha temple (see our North India page) on the site of a mosque destroyed by a mob.    She said that many people here in the South feel it is unsafe to travel to the North, regardless if they are Hindu or Muslim or Christian, given the political climate there and its utter control by the BJP. We shared a bit about the state of discourse in the US, in Florida in particular, and our plans to try to settle somewhere else for 4 years if we end up back with the old administration.  

Gayathri walked with us to a sweets shop next and we picked up some snacky and sweet foods to take with us on our bus ride tomorrow.  From there we said goodbye and headed back toward our hotel, stopping at a few sights along the way.

nethili fry-- anchovies, and Stephen even liked them

mutton kola urundais

elaneer payasam-- tender coconut pieces in sweet milk (delicious and it was worth all the Lactaid Stephen had to take)

February 3, 2024

Today is another transit day.  We're heading to Pondicherry (Puducherry).  We're taking a private bus there.  We got our tickets through, which works with our UPI and does not charge a huge markup like 12goasia.  Nuego is the company, and they run a fleet of electric buses.  They make stops all over town before heading out on the trip.  Once on the road outside of Chennai, the trip was fast and smooth, but with all the stops in town it took longer than it needed to.  We chose the Omni Bus Stand in Koyambedu as our boarding point since it was the closest to our hotel (at about a 20 minute cab ride) and Stephen figured because it was clearly a central bus depot that it would be easy to make sure we were in the right spot to get the bus as you would have thought it would originate there.  Well, no.  They did give a more specific boarding location as in front of the Royal Plaza hotel, and after confirming with a bunch of people that yes, that is where the bus would stop, we felt more comfortable.  Next time we will choose the last stop in town before heading on the road so that we don't have to spend all that time on the bus just sitting in traffic in the city.

Pondicherry was a seaside French colonial city, and it has a section of town with many restored colonial buildings that have been turned into hotels and restaurants.  The section with the most restored buildings is south of Bharathi park, so that's the area to look in to stay if you want some atmosphere.  We're staying in an Airbnb on the north side of the park closer to the modern center of the city.  It's nice after being in hotels for a while to have a little extra space to spread out and to do our own laundry vs. sending it out from a hotel (which feels like a weird thing to be happy about).

The other notable thing about the town besides its cute colonial era buildings is the French food... even pork products and beef, although tonight we went to a South Indian restaurant that was nearby as Stephen had to work.  This time we got cauliflower 65 instead of chicken.

February 4, 2024

We woke up this morning and headed to a French cafe for breakfast/brunch that was recommended by Lonely Planet, Baker Street.  They actually have a few outlets in town.  It was bustling on a Sunday morning, but we were able to secure a table and have some quiche, croissants, sweets, and the best coffee we've had since arriving.  From there we strolled through the historic colonial district and then along the water back to our flat, stopping on the way at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.  The ashram represents a multicultural movement (some would say cult) based in this area.  They also have a commune outside of town called Auroville, but our tripmates who had already done the South said that there really wasn't much to see there as you couldn't go in anything as a non-follower, so we're going to skip.' While we were walking along the beach (they close the road to traffic weekday evenings and all day on the weekends), we ran into a incubator conference/showcase so we stopped in to see what kinds of things they were promoting.  There were lots of drone pilot schools (Stephen had read an article in the NYT about how drone pilots are replacing agricultural workers who used to do spray fertilizer in the fields), and lots of other interesting services.

For dinner, we headed to Sola because their Google entry showed duck confit on the menu.  The current menu doesn't include duck confit anymore, but they do have roast duck and so Stephen got that.  Eli got a Thai dish that was just so-so, although Stephen really liked his duck which was served with a garlic pan sauce.  We shared a fish wrapped in banana leaf as an appetizer which Eli thought was a big overcooked but nicely spicy.  Most strange, though, was the way the manager tried to basically extort us for a positive Google review after our meal, hanging over us and seeing what we were writing.  We hightailed it out of there and had a nice stroll back home.  

Selfie in front of the selfie museum (we didn't go in)

Statue of Mother Theresa.  You can climb steps alongside the statue to touch her.

Statue of Gandhi

February 5, 2024

Since we decided to skip Auroville, we had a quiet day at our flat and spent time planning for Thailand which is coming up in a month (it's hard to believe).  We went to dinner at Rendezvous after having stopped in at the Greasy Tin.  The Greasy Tin looked really cool and had great ambiance (we think it would be a great place to hang out and have a beer), but they only had about 1/4 of their menu available so we decided to venture elsewhere.

Rendezvous is a great open air rooftop restaurant.  We were excited to do some more French food, but it was underwhelming, sadly.  Stephen's coq au vin and Eli's chicken cordon bleu were just so-so.  The barbacue ribs, though, were really tasty and tender.

February 6, 2024

We decided to do a private car hire to get to Madurai as all the bus options for Pondicherry left in the evening and arrived close to midnight.  The other option would have been to cab it to Viluppuram and pick up a train from there to Madurai.  With traffic and not sure how much time we'd have to leave to make it safely to the train, we decided on just taking a car all the way.  We booked through an Indian online booking agency and the total cost was about $60.

When it was time for the car to arrive at 9:30... no car.  We immediately called the booking agency.  They told us to contact the cab (they gave us the driver's telephone number) and we tried on WhatsApp.  No response.  The agency then got a hold of the driver by phone at it would seem that he forgot.  In any case, he said 15 minutes to pick us up.... and an hour later he finally arrived but around the corner from where we were staying.  Through a bunch of no... I'll come to you... No, I'll come to you, we finally found each other and took off.  Stephen and he had a lengthy discussion about the route (and Stephen lost), so the trip based on Google Maps was going to take an hour longer.  Luckily, though, the cab driver was a pretty fast driver so once we got on the 4 lane highway (which is what Stephen wanted him to take the whole way), he made up a lot of time.

We want to a local restaurant just a few blocks from our hotel to have biriyani and then relaxed in the hotel room.

February 7, 2024

We woke up early to head to the Meenakshi Amman Temple.  Temples close between 12ish and 4ish for the gods to rest, so we figured we should be there by 9 (and it gets hotter as the day goes on).  The site has had some form of temple on it since the 6th century, but the buildings we see now are dated to the 12th, 14th, and 17th centuries.  The tallest gateway tower (on the south side) is 170 feet tall.

You're not allowed to take cellphones inside, so we were unable to get photos, but we did take pictures of each of the towers from the outside.  The carvings on the towers are polychromed, which is typical in the temples here in the South that are currently in use, and the ceilings were painted with designs in bright colors.  We did notice some remnants of color on the ceilings of some of the temples at Mahabalipuram, so it's possible the bas relief carvings we saw there would have been colored as well.  However, the carvings on the columns and other ones at eye level in this temple didn't have any color.  Aesthetically, we're accustomed to seeing things just in stone or marble and that's how we think of ancient civilizations like the Mayans, Greeks, Romans, etc.  However, most of their buildings would have been polychromed too.  I think the classical romanticism of the Renaissance and neo-classicism of the 19th century have affected our taste on this.

The two main shrines to the goddess Meenakshi and lord Sundareshwarar were not open to non-Hindus so we couldn't see those.  We were disappointed that we couldn't enter, although understanding; this is a working temple after all.  With that said, what we could see was interesting, but not as elaborate as some of the carvings we saw in the granite temples in Mahabalipuram.  The hall of 1000 pillars had some interesting carvings and statuary, but we felt like we had seen everything in about 40 minutes.  The most interesting part to view was the hall with the golden flag pole, which is the entrance to the temple for Shiva.

We saw a sign that said that the ministry of tourism offered tours from the North Gate starting at 9am, but the sign we saw was at the East Gate.  When we saw it, it was 2 minutes after 9am, and the staff that was milling about near the sign said in very broken English that we should just wait here for a while as they might start at 9:30ish (again, we were at the EAST gate).  We decided we wouldn't wait around.  In any case, the tour didn't look like it would get us in to either of the shrines we were barred from anyway.

A fellow traveler Eli was chatting with on Instagram said that he liked the Dharasuram Airavatesvara and Brihadeeswara Temples that are about half way between Pondicherry and Madurai, although you have to take an alternate route that is not the highway to get there and it would add about 2.5 hours onto the journey between.  These are now historic sites and not working temples, so you may get more freedom to explore and take photos.

We headed back to the hotel for a rest and then ventured out to the Gandhi Memorial Museum.  When we arrived, though, the main exhibit hall was closed for renovation.  They had a small exhibit hall open that gave a basic timeline of the development of British rule and resistance to it, highlighting many of the freedom fighters beyond Gandhi.  It's amazing though, how the British East India Company, when they took over governing the nation as opposed to just trading with it, made quick work of impoverishing a vibrant culture in about 30 years.  It took another 100 years to get them to leave.  India is still working its way back from that.

From the museum we headed to Kumar Mess for a late lunch.  It's a traditional place that is welcoming to foreigners (they serve on a banana leaf and don't have silverware).  We ordered food that didn't require rice (we're still not adept at scooping it up with our hands as is the practice here).  We had some of the Southern food that we had with Gayathri, and some other dishes as well.  It was a bit more expensive that other places we've eaten ($18 for our meal in total), but it was worth it.

February 8, 2024

Today we're heading to Kumily which is the town right on the edge of the entrance to Periyar National Park.  This time we're taking a public bus (with no aircon).  Gratefully, this ride is only 3.5 hours and we're doing it early in the morning.  They cram a lot of seats in the bus in a 2-3 formation, so when we booked we bought 3 tickets so we would have some extra space for ourselves (or for our luggage if there wasn't anywhere else to put it.  In total we spent $7 for the tickets total.  Taking a cab from our hotel to the bus station was almost twice the cost of the bus fare.

Upon arrival at the bus station it was busy with out much signage.  There there all kinds of buses in the field of the depot, so much so that when we arrived we couldn't actually see that there was a depot.  We were getting touted a bit and so when another tuk-tuk driver approached us we were skeptical again.  We kept walking and found the terminal... all the time this tuk-tuk driver following us.  We asked at one of the shops and he pointed in the direction further in to the depot.  Once we got further in we could see platform numbers and then we figured out on our ticket that pf1 meant platform 1.  Once we got to the right platform there were stops for about 30 buses and we weren't sure which one was the right one.  By that time the tuktuk driver had disappeared and so we asked again and they said our bus is all the way down at the end.  We trekked that way and there was a representative from the state transportation company of Kerala (where we were crossing into with this trip) and he confirmed we were in the right space.

We boarded the bus and, as we expected, there wasn't a formal place to put our luggage other than in the tiny overhead lockers.  Fortunately the driver allowed us to stack our luggage in the empty area next to his seat.  The vibe reminded us of the second class train we took in the north... kind of prison industrial chic (hardly).

We were one of 6 people on the bus when it left, but as we moved along we would pick up and drop off people until the buss was about 3/4 full.  When people would get off he would slow but not stop and they would basically jump off.  We were hoping that wouldn't have to be us.

There were enough people getting off/on in Kumily so that we actually had a real stop.  We're staying at the Woodnote Thekkaddy, which is a bit up a small hill and near the entrance to the park.  It's a much quieter vibe from central Kumily (this part of town is called Thekkaddy which basically surrounds the town of Kumily) which we appreciated.  There are lots of guesthouses and hotels up here.  We went to Tusker Cafe for a late lunch as Stephen had to work tonight.

February 9, 2024

We woke up early today (Stephen got about 3 hours of sleep after work) to go on a daylong bamboo rafting safari and trek.  Since the animals at all the parks are apparently very elusive at this time of year, we decided we'd do something that would be fun in and of itself rather than sitting in a jeep and looking for animals.  We had stopped in the night before to the information desk and they said show up at the shuttle station at 7:30;  we figured we'd try to be there by 7:20.  And it was a good thing as the bus was just pulling out as we were arriving to the station (at 7:20, not 7:30).  In the end we figured out we could have taken the next bus and still gotten there in time to start the rafting.

We're a group of 9 going on the rafting and trekking adventure.  There was an older couple from the Netherlands, an older couple from England, a young couple from Italy, a single woman from Provence in France, and us.  They were all fun people to talk to.  The woman from France was a psychologist so she and Stephen talked for a while.  She was here doing a meditation retreat.  The British couple just finished a cycling tour of India.  We both remarked that that would be, in our opinion, a suicide mission given the way traffic laws are seen as suggestions here.  They said, though, that the routes they were on had not too much traffic.

We trekked for about an hour to get to our rafts.  When we got there we split up across two rafts.  And then they handed us paddles... WHAT?  We thought we were having the paddling done for us.  Oops!  In any case, the paddling wasn't too hard.  It was nice to be on the water and to see the scenery, although we didn't really get close to any wildlife. 

We trekked a bit further and had lunch, then basically headed back the same way we came.

For dinner, we headed to Grandma's cafe on the suggestion of a couple of our members on the rafting trip.  Eli got a beer with dinner, although it wasn't on the menu.  Apparently you need to have a special liquor license to even sell beer or wine at your restaurant so many restaurants here do it discreetly.

February 10, 2024 

We had another day in Kumily so we arranged to visit a spice plantation.  We went to Green Land Spice Garden.  They have a small garden in front of their full plantation that has a sampling of all the things they grow there.  It was a combination of ornamental plants, ayurvedic plants, and spice plants.  We learned all kinds of new stuff about culinary and medicinal plants we already had experience with, and also about wholly new plants as well.  We ended up picking up some ground stevia because Eli has had a hard time finding processed stevia in some countries.  We also got a vanilla bean, some saffron (which, even though not grown in this area of India was still about 1/2 of what it would cost in the US), and some other assorted spices all grown on the property.   

Later in the afternoon we headed to a different hotel to the Shambala Spa for an ayurvedic massage and oil treatment.  They had a spa in our hotel as well, but we had read this blog post from an expat living in the area about how some ayurvedic spas around town are not authentic with the herbs they use in the oil preparation or recycle oil that drips during one of the treatments so it will not supposedly have the same effect (and is somewhat un-hygienic).  This spa was one that the author had recommended.  In total, with tip, our 90 minute treatment for the two of us was $100.

Ayurvedic massage is part spiritual, part physical, and part medicinal.  The idea is that by using specially prepared oils with medicinal herbs, it removes that toxins that are causing your symptoms (like stress, for example).  In addition to the massage, we did a steam bath where, once you've been massaged and oiled up, they sit you down in a box with your head sticking out (like what a magician would use) and steam you for about 15 minutes.  We also had the treatment where medicinal oils are dripped for 15 minutes in different patterns across your forehead.  The team at the spa was wonderful and very professional. 

We had a disappointing dinner at a restaurant that another person on our group recommended.  The only upside was they served beer as well.  Eli had one, but they wrapped it all in newspaper and had him keep it on the chair next to him because they don't have a license to serve. 

February 11, 2024

We had another reservation for our trip to Alleppey today with the same cab booking agency that we used to get from Pondicherry to Madurai, so the day before Stephen called them up to make sure we had the driver's contact information.  We sent him a message but didn't hear anything back, so we were a bit worried.  Sure enough, pickup time came and no cab.  We called the booking agency again and were able to get a new cab dispatched in relatively short order (about 45 minutes after we should have departed).  

We could have taken the same bus we took to get to Kumily to a town called Kottayam and cabbed to Alleppey from there, but we figured at that point why not ride the whole way.

The first part of the ride through the foothills in Kerala was very beautiful.  There are many spice, flower, and tea plantations dotting the hillsides.  Kerala also has the highest percentage of Christians in India, at about 18% so we drove by a number of large and small churches.

We're staying overnight in Alleppey because Stephen had to work, and the following night we will be on a houseboat traveling through the backwaters of Kerala.  We are staying in a hotel that sits on one of the larger bodies of water in the area, although we con't recommend the hotel.  It's a little isolated from town, and we had a few problems with our room.  Luckily it was only for the one night.

For dinner we went to BayRoute Bistro.  They had a number of Mediterranean and middle-East dishes.  Stephen got a Kerala based dish and Stephen got an Lebanese style spiced grilled chicken which we both agreed was the better of the two.

February 12, 2024

We had breakfast at the hotel and then took a tuk-tuk to the boat landing where the Viator ticket showed we should meet our houseboat, except it was a lot of area and not clear where our boat would be.  Thankfully our tuk-tuk driver asked if he could talk with the boat owner to figure out where he should take us.  We had the company's WhatsApp number so they talked for a while in Malayalam (the predominant language of Kerala, but similar enough to Tamil), and then took us to the boat which was actually about 1km from the place that was on the ticket. 

We have a "premium" boat and there are definitely "luxury" boats out there as well with airconditioned living rooms in addition to the bedrooms, but the one we're on met our style.  There was a small dining table for 2 on the deck along with two wicker recliners where we could watch the scenery go by.  Ther are two staff people on the boat, one drives and the other is our chef.  It's quite a luxurious setup, actually, even for a "premium" boat, to have them taking care of us.  And the food our chef cooked was some of the best we've had since being in the area.  He made a local fish for lunch and even Stephen liked it.    We watched the sunset, had dinner, and then retired to our airconditioned bedroom for a nice night's rest.  

February 13, 2024

We awoke around 7:30 as the boat started moving back to our embarking location while we had breakfast (another great meal) that included what Eli termed an Indian tamale.  We docked at about 9am and then had a cab waiting for us to drive us to Kochi, about an hour north.  We check into our cute hotel, the Napier Heritage, and the tuk-tuked to "Jewtown." This is an officially named area of Kochi.  It is in one of the Dutch neighborhoods on the peninsula.  Jews actually seems to have been present in this area after the destruction of the second temple and the dispersal of Jews around the world.  Another influx came from Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The synagogue is quite a tourist attraction here, although it was not the most interesting of ones that we've seen in unexpected locations. Most interesting was to see the photos of the reunion of descendants of those who worshiped at the synagogue on the 450th anniversary of it's founding.  The photo has quite a diversity of people from all parts of the globe.

The other draw of this part of town is Mattanchery Palace.  It was built by the Portuguese and later occupied by monarchs supported by the Dutch when they took over from the Portuguese in the 17th century.  The best rooms in the palace, the ones with the frescoes on the wall you can't take pictures in, but we were able to snatch a few surreptitiously.

From there we headed to lunch at Ginger House,  which was recommended by our tourmates in the North who had already been here in the South.  It was quite good, and Eli didn't have to have his beer hidden, although it was about double what we would typically spend on a meal.

We came back and Eli had a little nap, Stephen got caught up on blogging, and we headed out just in time to see the sunset over the water.  We walked to Kashi Art Cafe.  Stephen had a roast chicken that was just alright.  Eli had a lasagna that was really good.

February 14, 2024

We relaxed during the day, but headed out in the evening for a typical Valentine's day "dinner and a show." We had dinner at Kochi Kapital Kafe (yes, that's chicken and waffles), and dessert of chocolate french toast and kit kat milkshake at Loafer's Cafe.  We then headed to Kerala Kathakali Center for their music and dance performance.  They do a number of different shows including traditional Indian martial arts and theater, but we thought the music and dance would be more our speed.  Our tripmates from the North who had done the South went to the theater performance, which they described as somewhat like Kabuki said it was interesting and dramatic, but hard to follow.

The musicians this time represented southern musical traditions and included a saraswati veena player (it's like a sitar and named after the goddess of the arts and education), and drummer (different from the drums in the north that we saw at Varanasi), and a tambourine player who got the most incredible and deep sounds from hitting the skin of the tambourine.  The compositions are freestyle and at one point each musician got a chance to "solo" a bit.  The veena player was very accomplished and by far the best string player we've heard since being here.

The dance performance was a single male representing Odissi dance, from the region of Odisha in the north.  Dance was originally a temple activity and dancers would reenact stories from the Hindu texts.  The hand movements are very important in telling the story.  At one point, you could kind of make out that he made a bow and arrow, so we were wondering if he was representing Vishnu or one of the incarnations of Shiva.  The body positions are also very important and some of them practically defied gravity.  He did three different dances, all solo.

When we were in Spain, they said that Flamenco had part of its roots in Indian dance from the Romani who migrated from India and settled in Spain.  We could definitely see that in the hand positions and twists of the wrist present in this dance and in the flamenco performance we saw in Sevilla.

We're including the video that we took of the performances so you can get a taste.  It was definitely worth the $6 a piece per show (you can come to as many of the 4 shows that they do every night as you would like).  

February 15, 2024

We're taking a train today from Kochi to Coimbatore.  We're just going to stay in Coimbatore overnight as we had originally wanted to get to Mettupalayam for the night and the next day catch the mini-train to our goal destination of Ooty, but by the time we got around to getting tickets for the mini-train they were all sold out.  The mini-train is a scenic railway that runs slowly (about 10kph) through the hills up to Ooty.  We'll instead take a bus to Ooty from Coimbatore tomorrow.   

We got to the station super-early to make sure there were no problems, and who should we run into boarding the same train car we're in, but an Intrepid group doing the South tour.  We had an enjoyable train ride chatting with Jackie and Julia, who were with the tour (they're not together, but Jackie decided she wanted to sit apart from her husband for a change for once... we can identify with that feeling on occasion).  Julia has just embarked on a bunch of solo travel, and is popping back to the US for holiday visits on a similar schedule to ours, and she's also got a camper van stored in England that she's using to explore there and in Europe.

It was actually a good thing that they were on the train with us.  The group leader came over to us and let us know that the train would be bypassing the station we were planning on disembarking at, and we would need to get off instead at the suburban station before town.  It was a little bit of a hassle finding a way to get to our hotel from the suburban station.  Apparently all the cabs had been spoken for and called.  Uber didn't work in the area, so we finally asked a cab driver that was waiting for his ride what to do and we called the dispatch to get ourselves a cab.

Julia, who we were talking to on the train in the foreground, and Usha, the Intrepid guide in the midground.  She helped us not miss our (new) stop.

February 16, 2024

We reached out to the bus company via WhatsApp the night before to see if they could give us any specific directions about where the bus would be parked at the bus stand since that had been a concern for us in our other experiences with buses, and they sent a message that the bus had been canceled.  Ugh!  Eli got into motion and secured us a private cab, so we'll be doing the ride to Ooty in a car and not a bus.  The refund to our UPI for the canceled bus was instant, so that was good.  In the end it'll cost us about 2.5 times what we would have paid for the bus, but it's fine.

The drive up to Ooty was pretty beautiful (even if we weren't on the toy train).  Lots of green space, tall trees, and deep valleys.  At one point we got as high as 6,800 feet before descending again toward Ooty.  Ooty is the "resort" town with the closest access to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, so most tours that we're copying on our route stay here.  We're staying at 643 Homestay, which is up on the hill a bit above town, which is actually quite nice since town is very busy.  It's nice and quiet up here.  The guesthouse is run by Abdul and his family (extended) live on the property.  Abdul's wife made dinner for us tonight.  Home cooked Indian food is quite a bit lighter than what we typically get in the restaurants, so we were grateful for the change.

We checked out a couple of the "sights" of Ooty.  They have a few botanical gardens and arboretums in town and the town is set on a small lake where you can go paddleboating, etc.  As we checked out some of the green spaces in town, we noted how few and far between we had seen this in the big cities (and even the small towns).  

We stopped in for a late lunch at Sugar Dribble Cafe in town.  The have quite a selection of French style sweets, but we got sandwiches that were really tasty.

February 17, 2024

We had an early morning wake up to drive the additional 1.5 hours to Mudumalai park.  Mudumalai is in a string of 3 national parks that contain the largest concentration of tigers in India.  However, the odds were not with us again.  On our 1 hour and ten minute "gypsy" jeep "safari" we got to see a few wild elephants (and a few being cared for in the sanctuary), but no tiger.  The closest we got was a footprint that had clearly been from a day or so ago.  Of the offerings the gypsy safari is the one that is likeliest to net you a tiger view.  The others and the private safaris have to stick to the main road, so you're unlikely to see tigers.  Based on our experience in the 3 parks that are most common for tourists to visit, we felt like Ranthambore was where you'd be most likely to get a sighting.  They assign you to a sector that has a tiger territory, and you seem to have more ability to move within the sector even though you're staying on the dirt roads.

On the way back from the park, our driver took us to Pykara falls (which would have been impressive if we weren't there at the very end of the dry season), and the pine forest.  We both remarked at how locals seemed to wonder at these sights, even though they were quite ordinary for us.  

That's all we got to see of a tiger.

February 19, 2024

After a 5 hour state bus ride (with aircon) yesterday from Ooty to Mysuru (Mysore) we went to check out the two big sights here, the Sri Chamundeswari Temple high on the hill overlooking town, and the Mysore Palace.

The Sri Chamundeswari Temple is deceptively far away.  We had originally hailed an Uber, but then the driver wanted to renegotiate the rate for double what the fare showed plus charge us that again for waiting for us.  In the end, we got an autorickshaw and paid what the Uber had wanted because it's so far out there.  The temple was originally built in the 12th century, and you can see evidence of that in the granite pillars and walls, but the tower, painted yellow, was constructed in the 17th century.  There were lots of pilgrims today, even though it was a Monday, and lots of crowding trying to get to the shrine.  Part of that might be because the temple is considered to be patron temple of the state of Karnataka, so people from all over the state come here.  We did see lots of tour buses in the parking lot up on the hill.

From there we headed to the Mysore Palace, which was built during the British period by a local royal family.  It's got an interesting mix of Mughal, Hindu, and European architecture.