From Kanykumari I headed inland to catch Tamil Nadu’s highlights of Madurai and Trichy. Madurai can boast a melee of temples and eight millennia of history. Present day Madurai owes its town planning to the Nayakas who formed the streets in the shape of a lotus flower with the famous Sri Minakshi temple at the centre. The architecture of its temples are typical of those seen throughout Tamil Nadu state and help but remind me of Disneyland. The outrageously baroque temples, with their coloured gourpas are a concoction of gods and demon statues boldly representing Hindu Mythology. To the western eye this may seem a touch garish or edging on kitsch but the Indians always love the kitsch factor and marvel at its greatness in an estimated 10,000 visitors a day. No wonder I ended in a flop house again. As with all tourist touts you are subject to the usual touts in the form of rickshaw wallahs, tailors and guides to name a few. There was no escaping a guide in Madurai so I thought it better to kill one mosquito than spend my day swatting away the rest. Prajab was a modern day Dellboy Trotter who had vigour and an air of confidence about him that sadly wasn’t backed up by any knowledge. An 11 year olds perception of history differs somewhat from mine it seems. Lesson learned.
Christmas eve was spent doing my longest stretch to date at 140km in one day…there was no religious meaning behind this, there was simply no town of note between the two cities. Trichy proved to be a great spot to celebrate Christmas as there was a festival to a Hindu god on at the time and everyone was in party mood. The temples were used as playgrounds with children playing, families picnicking and men dozing. The Hindus are so at ease with there religion as it is an integral part of their daily life, there seems no need for them to get dressed up and put on a stern face in front of their god.
I was scoping out the restaurants in town all morning in an attempt to find something a little bit special for the day in question. My dilemma was quickly solved however when I was invited to join the pilgrims in a temple for a communal dining experience where I was once again required to sit in the lotus position which I can only do badly even with great effort. Then all 150 of us were served at rapid speed on our bananna leaf plate. It was traditional fare of rice, curry and an assortment of accompaniments of curd and vegetables. All washed down with a serving of sweet rice. It’s a far cry from stuffed turkey with all the trimmings but the atmosphere made up for the lack of culinary adventure.
Flower market, Madurai.
Pondicherry was a French enclave until it was handed over to India in 1954. Over 50 years of Indianisation have left it hard to trace its French roots and my dreams of dining on croissants and baguettes over a latte were exactly that, dreams. There was undeniably an air of sophistication of the town, coupled with the party atmosphere along the promenade made for a very enjoyable stay. Accommodation once more was booked out everywhere and I ended up paying to sleep in the large closed courtyard of one hotel together with half the staff and one other guest. Normally sleeping with male company around is utterly out of the question in India but for some reason sleaziness was forsaken for good manners in Pondicherry and I found it a very welcomed change. Next morning I was hoping to negotiate “tosanjam” for breakfast as it was quite a touristic town but everywhere was shut for some reason. My taste buds are a bit lethargic in the morning for curry and as I near the end of my stay in India it seems my aptitude for change in that regard is poor! I settled once more for “Idlis” a bland steamed rice dumpling typical in the south, with my only option being starvation. I did however decline on the curry sauce much to their bemusement. Breakfast wasn’t a total washout as I passed “Le Café” on my way out of town. It was there that I had my first real interpretation of coffee in a long time. If that wasn’t enough it was served on a table with a checked tablecloth and sophisticated napkins and saucer thrown in. You have to go through India the hard way to appreciate the finer things in life!
Chennai previously known as Madras was to be the end of my cycling journey in India. I had been nursing a cough since Madurai and the dusty roads were doing an excellent job at irritating it. Chennai has no real tourist attractions to note and I was quite relieved not to have a sightseeing itinerary to feel guilty about. My main business was to organize a train ticket for Kolkata where I was to fly out from to India. Initially I was to cycle there from Delhi but my change of route led me south. I had intended to change my flight so I could fly from Chennai instead but a miscommunication form Airasia left me taking the 30hr train journey to Kolkata on New Years Eve. I had hopped to spend it with my host Shiva in Chennai but instead it was spend with a lively family who I shared the train compartment with. I toasted the new year in with a cup of “chai” . It wasn’t quite the glass of champagne I’ve come to expect at new Years but there was certainly a kick in the sugar hit!
Riding high on the top of a truck...seatbelts on!
Train journeys in India are a spectacle of Indian life in themselves. The street vendors, beggars and musicians provide the journeys entertainment. There is absolutely no need to leave your bed as all service are brought to you…whether you want them or not. The only exception is the toilet which one tries to avoid unless it’s absolutely necessary! The background music being played is an energetic mix of “Miloooooo, Chhaaaaaiiieee, carfeeeeeee, parattttthha, somossaaaaa, omeeeeelllllettttte” On one occasion a particularly well dressed lady came onboard begging. I was a little sceptical as to why she was so well dressed yet begging. The gentleman beside me gave her a few rupees so I asked him why she was begging. “Because she is impooatant” So I asked him why she was important. He replied “She is she is impooatant” Still not grasping the situation I opted for repetition and asked “But why is she important” Then the penny dropped. She was impotent. Oooops.I never did see the diabetics....