|Hopping around India with a brief layover in Seoul||1 2 3 4 5|
The flight from Jodhpur took us first to Delhi where we had a 1.5 hour layover. While this seemed like sufficient time, we really only made the connection because that flight got delayed by an hour. I think there was a slight delay in the departure time of our first leg and we got into Delhi just as the second flight was supposed to start boarding. This wouldn't normally be an issue, except for two things. First, when you land in Delhi, instead of getting on a jetway leading straight into the terminal, you get on a bus. It takes the bus good 15 minutes to drop you off. Second, it turns out that Air India flies some routes from the international terminal. Possibly we messed up somewhere but following instructions from airport agents, we found ourselves completely outside the domestic terminal, in the arrivals sections. Once outside, you first need to pass through the external security to even get back into the building. These guards were giving us hard time as it was now way past the boarding time printed on the ticket. We had to explain that we are making a connection and are in a hurry. Once we got back in, we found out that there is a special section of the international terminal dedicated to domestic flights. All Air India flights with a big "D" printed on them leave from this section. This involved passing security again. Only once we got through we saw on the departure boards that the flight is delayed and that we still have time to spare.
Chennai (or Madras) is India's fifth largest city and the capitol of the state of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the primary destinations for India's medical tourism. The 10 year old DK Eyewitness Guides India book I was using to research places to visit mentioned that south India is much less westernized that the north but we found exactly the opposite to be true. South India is like a totally different country from the north. I am sure there are modern IT hubs in Delhi but as we stayed in the central part, we didn't get to see any of them. With the exception of Jaipur and the single boutique in Jodhpur, over the previous 10 days in the north, we did not encounter a single western style shop. There were no cafes, no modern fast food joints with places to sit or shops with big store windows. Instead it was a parade of shacks and little shops selling traditional wares. Even in Delhi, there were hardly any buildings taller than 5 stories. Landing in Chennai was like traveling 30 years into the future. The roads were cleaner, there was much less honking, but most importantly, the entire route from the airport to downtown was lined with car dealerships, cafes, and stores advertising their goods with neon lights. There were even many tall buildings. The hotel itself was another story. We were staying in Hotel Clarion. Clarion is a brand owned by the company behind Quality Inn and Econo Lodge. While the common area of the hotel with its large restaurant and a nice lobby was a major step up from those motels, the rooms were something else. The carpet in our room hasn't been vacuumed for a long time, and we found several pieces of hair and what looked like a blood stain on the bed sheets. The coffee table was also dirty with many rings from coffee mugs still showing. It was almost midnight by now and it took a while to get a hold of the receptionist since he apparently walked off for a break. We were given a new room on one of the top floors, but honestly it was not much better. The carpet was still dirty, there was one piece of hair on the bed, but at least there were no longer any blood stains. Yay? This place definitely needs to hire some new cleaning staff!
We didn't have time in our go-go-go itinerary to explore Chennai. Instead after a good breakfast of sambar and other things from the buffet, we got in the car for a one hour drive to Mahabalipuram. This town, which is also knows as Mamallapuram, is primarily famous for the Shore Temple. This single structure is the only one remaining from what used to be seven temples built on the beach overlooking the Bay of Bengal. These temples dates back to 700 AD and were built by king of the Pallava kingdom that was dominant here. This part never came under the Mughal rule. What we didn't know is that Mahabalipuram is also a popular beach destination. The south is so much more tropical than the north and our hotel, Hotel Indeco, was in fact a small resort just a short distance from the beach. After the past 10 days of constant traveling, the idea of relaxing in a tropical setting sounded great. Our driver, looking to make few extra bucks, offered to drive us to Pondicherry, a French colonial town located two hours south, but we declined. Instead we decided to spend the rest of the day, after the sightseeing tour completed, relaxing and exploring the town on our own.
It was hard not to notice that the town was full of Indian people, predominantly women, dressed in red saris. They were pilgrims on their way to a nearby temple that is an important site in their particular form of Hinduism. It is customary for them to stop along the way for a dip in the ocean. Looks like Sandra got the dress code memo as she was also coincidentally wearing red today. We started by visiting the Shore Temple which was a walking distance from the hotel. Next we drove for a short distance to view the Five Rathas (Pancha Rathas), a group of five temples carved into rock and each exhibiting styles typical of different religions. Next we saw additional temples carved into a rock and finally ended the tour by visiting a city park built around Krishna's Butterball. This is an enormous boulder resting precipitously on an incline. Hopefully it stays put, as the slope it's sitting on would make it roll across town all the way to the ocean. According to Hindu legends, Krishna (one of the avatars of Vishnu) would steal freshly made butter from his girlfriends known as gopis. Perhaps one of the butter balls fell from heaven and turned into rock. We completed the tour by grabbing lunch at a seafood restaurant overlooking the beach. We got ripped off on the price of the fresh fish, but the food was delicious. I got a kick from watching cows casually stroll on the beach. Later in the evening we walked to the beach near our hotel. It's a shame, but the beach was full of trash. There is so much plastic waste intermixed with the sand everywhere. We walked past cows and horses to observe the many groups of women pilgrims taking a dip in the ocean. I think this was the first time for many of them to ever be in an ocean water as there was a lot of shrieking all around. Walking in India is an interesting experience as you need to watch out for speeding motorbikes and cars zipping by just inches away from you. Being on the beach was no different, but now it was galloping horses we had to pay attention to. Locals looking to make money would offer the girls a ride up and down the beach at full speed, other beach goers be damned. From the beach we went for a stroll through town and ended up having gelato ("Healthy Mediterranean food" according to the sign) for dinner. After coming back, a group of Indian guys staying in our hotel on a company retreat started chatting with us. Indians are very friendly but also very curious of foreigners. We must be very exotic to them, probably the same way Indian culture is exotic to us.
Early next morning we got back into the car and headed back north to Chennai. We went straight to the airport to catch a flight to Madurai. Madurai is home to the famous ornate Meenakshi Temple. This temple which contains multiple towers full of miniature painted figurines is dedicated to Meenakshi, a form of Shiva's wife Parvati. While Vishnu has 10 different physical avatars, Parvati has around 100 manifestations based on her mood and her role. Meenakshi is one of these. Instead of worshiping Parvati directly, Hindus worship one of her forms depending on what role they care about. But before heading to this temple, we first visited the 17th century Thirumalai Nayak Palace. This place is a famous backdrop for Bollywood movies. We were happy to see that our tour guide for today was a woman. She ended up being one of our favorite tour guides of the whole trip, along with Mr. Cool from Jaisalmer. From the palace we headed to the temple but first we walked through a bazar containing kitchen tools and wedding ornaments. We stayed that night in GRT Regency. This was a western style hotel similar to the Clarion from Chennai, with the difference that it was clean.
From Madurai we traveled by car to Thekkady, a town at the entrance to the Periyar national park. This journey took about 4 hours which we spent chatting with the driver (the one with snacks) and checking out the scenery. For the first time we were starting to see some mountains. The India we have seen so far, with the exception of the tiny hills on which the Rajasthan forts were built, was flat as a pancake. We saw people making bricks by hand to build a house and later stopped in a vineyard. I did not even know that grapes grow in India. In Thekkady, we were staying in a hotel called Coffee Routes (despite not actually seeing any coffee plants on the property). This was a very nice place nestled in the jungle. I could totally see myself spending few days here, relaxing. The room had an interesting design with the bathroom containing a large window into the bedroom.
Periyar is home to tigers and elephants so I was very much looking forward to this part of the trip. The park is one giant lake that is explored from a boat. There are also night jungle walks. I would have loved to take one of those but there were no open slots for the night we were there. We didn't know about these walks, otherwise we would have signed up ahead of time. The original itinerary had us take the boat ride early the next morning before leaving for our next destination, Kochi in Kerala. Our driver however suggested it would be better to visit Periayr once we arrive in Thekkady as the drive to Kochi is long and there was nothing planned for the rest of the day. While time management wise this definitely made sense, I am not sure if us agreeing to the change was smart. We started on the boat at 3:30 in the afternoon while it was still warm. I suspect many animals were hiding from the heat and we honestly didn't see much wildlife. We probably saw more animals just walking the streets of Varanasi. There was one bull, a herd of deer and several different birds. I also spotted one elephant through the telephoto lens on my camera, but it was so far away, I couldn't even tell if it was real. Maybe it was just a statue placed there to placate tourists! Back at the boat landing we saw many monkeys. Some of them had broken legs or missing tails. According to the ranger, the different packs fight among each other so these are injuries. Instead of waiting for the park bus to take us back to the car parking lot, we opted to walk to town. It was a nice walk only about 2.5 miles long.
The next morning we got up early to go for a walk to town. We ran into our driver on the way as he was on his way to grab breakfast in a nearby shack. Initially we assumed that our drivers end up taking a room in some cheaper hotels, but that is not the case. It seems they all just sleep in their cars, in parking lots provided by hotels or the city. These lots seem to cater specifically to drivers as they usually have washing facilities. In the morning, the drivers wash up and then clean the car before returning to pick up their clients. We left after breakfast consisting of yet more sambar.
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