I had reached the southernmost point on the Indian subcontinent at Kanyakumari… I knew my final destination (Katmandu, Nepal) and when I should be there (April 7th, the day my friend Ben arrives), but, as I’m sure all of you can guess, I really hadn’t planned out exactly how I was going to make it from point A to point B. I mean, India’s a big country with a million things to do and places to see… and, even given my above time and distance constraints, I still had more options than I could count. Luckily, fate, via my friend Duretti, intervened… she and another friend of hers were on vacation in India, and would be arriving in Kerala on the 6th of March (Kerala being one of the two southernmost states in India, on the west coast). They were planning on doing the very same activity I was hoping to do in Kerala… house-boating on the backwaters… and they invited me along (it’s great when the stars align like this). Now, it’s currently March 4th (the day I watched the sunrise over the water in Kanyakumari, described in the previous post). To meet them before the cruise, I have to get myself to Cochin sometime on the 6th (as they are flying in from Delhi and land on the evening), which means I can likely see one more thing/place/event in the general area before I have to get myself over to Cochin. I consult my very handy Rough Guide to India to find that #21 of their suggested 35 Things Not to Miss is the city of Madurai, which is located in Tamil Nadu (the other southernmost state in India, and where I happened to be at the moment as well) and is a short 5.5 hour mini-bus ride away from Kanyakumari (short being a relative term of course). I do a quick search to make sure I have plenty of options for getting myself to Cochin from Madurai, and once satisfied that it can be done, I book a hotel room online and get myself a bus ticket. So, at 2(ish) PM on March 4th, I’m off to Madurai…
I arrive around 7:30ish, and the mini-bus driver ends up (nicely) dropping me off at my hotel. I reach in my pocket for a tip, but he drives off pretty much as soon as I’m out the door. I get settled in my room and head off to the train station (two blocks away) to try and book a ticket for the overnight train to Cochin (leaving tomorrow night). Now, as you might imagine, an Indian train station is generally a very hectic place… and the reservation office is no exception. I manage to find the reservation office, look about, notice the huge queue, the forms I need to fill out, my lack of a pen and decide that I’m just not prepared to deal with this place at the moment (this being India, just inquiring about a ticket requires a requisition form detailing the train number, departure time, station names, etc… information I don’t have handy). I leave and head back to the hotel, but as I’m turning a corner I see a sign advertising a travel agent that does rail bookings. Now, dealing with travel agents in India can be frustrating as they have a tendency to steer one towards higher commission paying options (i.e. lie about availability or even the existence of certain trains and/or buses), and they also have a tendency to tack on surcharges that are so ridiculous they’d make their own mother blush… but I decide to take a chance as overnight train bookings can often be sold out (and they are a much preferable option to taking the bus). This guy turns out to be great, I tell him what I want (to get on the overnight train to Cochin tomorrow) and he lays out the potential cabin options, availability and costs without me having to walk him through question by question. I pay him for a sleeper class ticket that I’ll pick up tomorrow before I leave (at 4:30 PM). I find some dinner and hit the hay pretty early as I’m tired from the bus ride and need to get up early in the manana.
Now the only reason to come through Madurai (in my opinion) is to see the giant temple… and when I say giant… I’m talking absolutely massive… several acres at least… 20-story towers at each end…hpefully google images can help one get a sense of it. I get up early (6:30 AM) to get in and outta there before the day heats up (southern India is gets pretty sweltering in the middle of the day this time of year). I go inside and wander around for about two hours… the place is beautiful, and kind of what you might expect from a Hindu temple… various deities and shrines, people in prayer, ritual music, offerings and my favorite, the temple elephant. I did try and find someone to let me climb one of the towers, but to no avail. Some interesting notes, everyone has to leave their shoes outside and walk around the whole place barefoot, there’s butter pretty much everywhere and I, as a non-Hindu, was not allowed in several of the inner shrines (how could they tell I wonder?). Some photos:
After some wandering about, I went back to my hotel, exercised ate lunch and relaxed until about 2 PM. Then I took an auto-rickshaw over to see the Gandhi Museum, which isn’t interesting for it’s portrayal of Gandhi’s life so much as it is for the in depth story of Indian resistance to British colonialism (the Raj was not all sweetness and benevolence apparently… and obviously). Then back over to the station to get on my train to Cochin and my first train journey on this little odyssey. Now, I booked a sleeper class ticket for this ride, which is 6 bunks to a berth (3 to a side) and two bunks on the far side of the hall… no a/c (only fans and open windows) no curtains, no bedding, no frills… but hey, super cheap. And since it’s that cheap, it’s the way the majority of Indians travel when they’re on overnight trains… so needless to say it was full… and people were much more curious and talkative than they had been on my previous overnight ride down from Delhi (in December). So, for about 2 hours, I hung out with about 15 twelve year old boys on the train as part of a class field trip, then I spent an hour or so talking to a guy who’s the head procurement engineer for the building of India’s first ever aircraft carrier (which will be built in Cochin). In between talking with these folks, I spend some time just staring out the open coach doors and reading… I also went to bed early as the train was scheduled to arrive in Cochin at 3:55 AM… yes, AM… not a typo. I actually slept pretty well… nearly straight through until my alarm went off at 3:45 (the teachers, a rather stern looking bunch, did a very good job keeping the kids quiet at night). Luckily, for me, the train ends up being almost an hour late, and since everyone around me was also getting off at Cochin, I went back to sleep for a bit as someone would be nice enough to wake me up at the proper stop (I think everyone in the train car knew where the only foreigner was getting off… but I woke up before the stop anyhow). Now, even with the extra hour of sleep, when I gt off the train it’s still 4:45 AM. I decide to go Indian-style, and a buy a newspaper, spread it on the platform, lay down and try and sleep (the station is full, and there are people asleep everywhere… in chairs, against walls, on the floor… and in some of the most uncomfortable looking positions… i.e. face-down, arm askew on the concrete type of thing… but you have to hand it to them, as it seems Indians, much like Africans, can sleep soundly pretty much anywhere). Not being Indian, I am not so successful at sleeping on the platform. It’s really not the noise or the fluorescent lights (I’ve got ear plugs in and a scarf wrapped around my face), but the fact that I’m wearing shorts… as after about 15 minutes I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes all over my legs. I give up and head into town to try and find a place to stay that’s open, which I do (one guy was up early), where I plop down and nap until about 9 AM.
I get up, eat, do some research on how I’m going to get out of Cochin after this cruise thing is done, but then I head into town to explore for the afternoon (despite it being really, really hot). Now Cochin is an older colonial town located at the tip of a peninsula (similar to San Francisco in that way)… it’s a pretty touristic place, so there’s lots of nice shops, cafes and restaurants… a lot of the buildings have been fixed up and it has these amazingly large trees everywhere.. it even has a boardwalk along the harbor and ocean. If I could describe it in one word it would be cute (yes… I’m allowed to use that word)… a very nice place to while away a day or two. It also apparently is an arty-type place, as there was pretty nice street art all over, as well as a biennalle going on (India’s first so I’m told). I definitely enjoyed my time wandering around. I went back to my hotel cleaned up and met my friend and friend-to-be at the airport. Fortunately, the friend-to-be is the super planner-type, so she had arranged for the cruise, the hotel and airport pick-ups… the driver even stopped at my hotel to grab me on his way to pick them up at the airport… thank you J-personality traits). A nice 1.5 hour cab ride down to Kumarakom, where we slept in a hotel for the night (the cruise began the next day).
Now, cruising the backwaters of Kerala in a houseboat is pretty much the main-thing to do here… actually, #3 of the 35 Things Not to Miss according to my guidebook. It’s a very simple thing, you board a decked-out houseboat and just cruise around the lakes, rivers and canals that make up the Kerala backwaters for 2-days/2-nights (in our case). You sleep on the boat, the on-board cook does up all your meals, and you spend the day relaxing and watching the world go buy (it’s a tough life sometimes). You can get as fancy, or as simple of a boat as you like… we (and by we, I mean Eliana, as she planned the whole thing) opted for a 2-bedroom version with a/c (did I mention how hot it is down here this time of year yet) and I got to spend some time catching up with an old friend as well as making a new one. We’d make one stop during the day at a fish market to buy crabs or shrimp for dinner in the evening (so, so good) and on our second stay we stopped at a local bar to sample the local Toddy… alcohol made from palm tree sap… which was actually really good (so good that we even bought a couple bottles for that evening). So that was that… just cruising around in a boat enjoying doing nothing. Post-cruise, we all spent one more night down in Kumarakom. Eliana left early the next morning, and Duretti and I headed up and spent the day in Cochin (I pretty much made the same rounds as I did when I was there three days earlier). She had an evening flight, and I stayed in Cochin as I was catching the train to Bangalore bright and early the next morning. A very nice little break before plunging further into India.
March 4th: Mini-Bus from Kanyakumari to Madurai, 5.5 hours, 240 kms.
March 5th: Overnight Train from Madurai to Cochin, 12 hours, 500 kms.
March 6th: Taxi from Cochin to Kumarakom, 1.5 hours, 70 kilometers.
March 10th: Taxi to Kumarakom to Cochin, 1.5 hours, 70 kilometers.
Sub-Total (4th – 10th): 20.5 hours in transit, covering 880 kilometers over 7 days.
Grand Total (3/1 – 3/10): 43 hours of actual transit time over 10 days covering 8,900 kilometers.