Thursday 27th November
My train arrives in Mysore at 9.30 am and I meet Julia on the platform and we set off to find the hotel I have already booked. Fortunately, there is also a room for her so having dumped our bags and freshened up we meet in the lobby and go in search of breakfast. We find a place nearby which specialises in South Indian food and peruse the menu. I hope to have a masala dosa, a thin rice flour pancake stuffed with spiced potato, peas and onion but for some reason i can't fathom they stop serving dosas between 11.30 am and 4.00 pm and it is now nearly twelve. We make do with idly, a tasteless rice flour cake which we dip in a curry sauce, and then make our way to Mysore Palace, the former home of the Maharaja of Mysore. The palace was built in 1912, after a fire destroyed the former one, and was designed by an Englishman, Henry Irwin. Henry had probably never heard of minimalism and the concept is as far from his vision as it is possible to get. The palace is ornate and gaudy and it would seem that even the decorations are decorated. Photography of the interior is banned but I manage to sneak a few photos while the attendants, who shrilly blow their whistles at every real or imagined indiscretion of the tourists, are otherwise occupied.
More by luck than judgement we have arrived in Mysore on a Sunday, one of the days along with holidays, when the palace is illuminated by nearly 100,000 light bulbs. We return that evening and at precisely 7.00 pm the lights are switched on. The sight, though undeniably kitsch, is impressive and I feel I have been suddenly transported to Disneyland.
Mysore Palace at night
The next morning we visit the bazaar, billed as one of the best in India. Every few metres we are stopped by a stallholder who insists we smell his perfumes or watch an incense stick rolling demonstration. We manage to resist their entreaties and come away having bought nothing but with our arms covered in perfume and our cameras full of images of the vegetable and flowerstalls.
Devaraja Market, Mysore
We catch a brand new bus, in itself a bit of a rarity as nearly every bus I've seen or travelled on so far looks like a beaten up old wreck: it even has a digital display announcing the next stop, and make the 30 minute winding ascent to the top of Chamundi Hill and The Sri Chamundeswari Temple. It seems to be some kind of special day and there are large crowds including many pilgrims in gold fringed black lungis ( a south indian sarong) milling around and entering the temple. We deposit our sandals in a carrier bag and hand them over to the shoe-keeper for safe keeping and join the slow moving queue to take darshan from the goddess. Darshan is the gaining of spiritual merit by being in the presence of a God or a special person such as Mahatma Gandhi and counts towards improving one’s position in the next life. By some mystical means some of their special qualities are supposed to rub off on you. After queuing for nearly half an hour we are granted just a few seconds in the presence of the goddess, an indistinct golden blur in the depths of a dark and mysterious sanctum, before being hurried out to make room for other, far more ardent worshippers. It is a relief to get out of the crush and we reclaim our shoes, having handed over four rupees. Neither of us feel particularly spiritually enriched but the waiting has enhanced our hunger so we find a roadside dabbha for puris and Coca-Cola.
Our next stop is Mysore Zoo. An Indian man I met in Hampi described it as the best zoo in the world. Having seen the amazing zoo in Singapore, I have my doubts, which prove to be well founded, but I am glad to see that the extensive gardens have large enclosures for the animals, although due to a lack of rain they seem dry and dusty.
Later that evening we dine on banana leaf thalis before saying our goodbyes. I have enjoyed Julia's company over the last two days and Mysore has been a pleasure, not least because of its people who have been the the most friendly and helpful I've ever encountered in India. I have also managed to boost my cash reserves as all the ATMS seem to have money in them and the queues are short.
Julia and banana leaf thalis
I am in the hotel lobby at 6.30 the next morning waiting for a minibus to take me to Ootacumund. It finally arrives at 7.30 and I cram myself into the back window seat for 5 hours of torture as the minibus climbs high into the hills over a multitude of speed bumps and around 33 hairpin bends (according to the Lonely Planet guide). On the way we speed through a wildlife sanctuary and I peer hopefully into the bushes knowing that the chances of spotting a tiger are almost non-existent. But there are groups of spotted sambar deer which graze close to the road, so just maybe? It is more likely, though, that the deer have learnt that being in close proximity to passing traffic is the safest place to be. The minibus dumps me some two kilometres from the town centre so hoisting my pack on my shoulders I set of to walk into Ooty, gladly noting that it so much cooler up here at altitude.
During the days of the British Raj Ootacumund, the "queen of hill stations", was where the Madras administration decamped to in order to escape the unbearable heat of the summer months, loading all the paraphernalia of government onto the narrow gauge train which still claws its way up the hillsides to cooler climes. Now, however, besides the railway, street names such as Charing Cross, a few colonial style bungalows, a lemon-washed church and the graves of many servants of the Raj in its neglected and overgrown cemetery and a surprisingly well maintained botanical garden, there is little to evoke memories of "Snooty Ooty" as it was known. Instead, uncontrolled and unplanned, the town has sprawled across the hillsides and the views for which it was famed have disappeared. India is very keen on roadside slogans which exhort the populace to improve their behaviour. For example, "Be part of the solution, not the pollution", or "Be alert, accidents hurt". One of my favourites, seen in Ooty, is, "Find a bin, put it in". Unfortunately, one may need to walk a couple of miles or more in order to follow this advice and so Ooty is just as litter strewn as many Indian towns and worse than many. On the plus side though, it has introduced a number of mobile lavatories in various parts of town meaning the stench of urine is not as pervasive as in some towns.
St Steven's Church, Ooty
Ooty street scene
Disappointed with Ooty, I decide to cut short my stay and go to the station to reserve a ticket on the toy train. The bored woman bend the grille at the ticket office informs me that it is fully booked and has no interest in helping me with alternatives. As I turn away she slams down the metal shutter with a resounding crash. A fitting comment on my stay in Ooty.
And so, before sunrise next morning I board a bus for the six hour ride to Coimbatore, where I have to travel by local bus to a different bus terminal (many Indian towns have more than one bus terminal which makes travelling even more difficult and confusing) for another six hour journey to Cochin. I arrive just before sunset, find a very reasonably priced hotel and dine on a very poor version of prawn noodles at a food court in a shopping mall (one more sign of India's growing modernity) before tumbling exhausted onto my bed beneath a whirling and cooling fan.
Friday 2nd December
A four rupee ferry ride the following morning takes me across the harbour to Fort Cochin, just one of the islands that make up the city. I am always amazed at just how cheap it is to travel in India. Transport is heavily subsidised in order to keep it accessible to everyone, including the very poor. So a six hour bus ride costs less than 100 rupees (approx £1.10) and two hours in an unreserved class on the trains can be as little as 30 rupees. Fort Cochin has in turn been controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British and all have left their mark on it with varying styles of architecture which are just one reason that Fort Cochin has become such a draw for tourists. Another attraction are the Chinese fishing nets which are the legacy of Chinese traders some 600 years ago. Large nets, suspended from cantilevered arms are raised and lowered by half a dozen men with the aid of counterbalances in the form of rocks tied to ropes. Sadly, more modern fishing methods mean that the nets are becoming financially unviable, and as I watch the nets raised with little or nothing in them it is easy to see why this is so. My own financial situation is becoming a little more tenuous as well. Almost every ATM is empty and when I do manage to find one in service the maximum amount withdrawals is 2000 rupees (£25). It is possible to keep inserting your credit card and making multiple withdrawals but with a long queue of Indians behind you I think this is inadvisable and of course unfair to those whose need may be greater than mine. I do after all have a supply of dollars that I can cash in if I run out of rupees.
Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin
I was in Cochin 35 years ago when it was just backpackers who visited the city and a tourist infrastructure was non-existent. Over the last few years, however, tourism has boomed, particularly among the newly wealthy Indian middle classes and there are now an abundance of hotels, guesthouses, homestays, restaurants and tourist oriented shops to cater for them. I manage to track down the "hotel" where I stayed in 1981. It is in a non-tourist area and is surrounded by warehouses dealing in the spices and other produce that is grown in Kerala. As such it has missed out on the boom and has fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. It wasn't much in those days, with its hordes of rats running wild in its courtyard after dark, but no-one in their right mind would want to stay here now.
Hotel Akksa, Mattancherry, Cochin
In 1981, with my girlfriend, Barbara, I had visited Munnar because this was where her mother was born and her grandfather had worked on one of the tea estates. It was certainly not on the tourist trail and as we stepped off the bus it seemed that people were surprised to see us. There were only a couple of lodges, a few colonial style bungalows and little else. Stepping off the bus now, I look around for familiar landmarks and other than a church and a mosque which sit proudly on facing hillsides there is nothing I remember. Munnar is now a thriving, noisy, chaotic little town which is the centre of a thriving tourist industry. It's cool dry climate is a welcome relief from the heat and humidity at sea-level and the tea gardens set amid rolling hills and peaks provide an idyllic backdrop. I spend my time walking among tea bushes and climbing ever higher to enjoy the views. Basic accommodation for the tea workers is scattered here and there and on one building I am surprised to see a sign warning that suicide is not only a crime in law but also against God. Looking at the crude conditions in which they live and learning that tea workers earn about 300 rupees a day (£3.30) I reflect on why such a sign is deemed to be necessary.
Thursday 8th December
I am at the bus stand at 6.30 in the morning for the trip to Kumily and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. There are only half a dozen of us on the bus as it leaves Munnar at sunrise, but as we wind our way down the hillsides it soon becomes apparent that this is the school run. At every stop more and more school children, plus the odd adult, climb aboard, girls and women through the front door and boys and men at the back until it seems the bus can hold no more. Yet every now and then three or four more will push their way on to join the masses already crammed into every available square inch of space. I have a window seat but nevertheless am crushed by the ever-growing crowd. Surprisingly, it not too uncomfortable as the restricted space means I am not being hurled from side to side as the bus veers around corners. Eventually we reach a small town and the school children, all neatly uniformed, are disgorged onto the pavement, while those of us who remain, now with room to breathe, continue on our way.
The magic bus from Munnar to Kumily
Kumily is a small town on the edge of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where I sign up for a hike through the forest and a bamboo raft ride on the lake. Our small group is accompanied by two guides, one of whom carries a rifle. He tells me that it is not loaded and in case of emergency he has only one bullet which he keeps in a pocket. Wondering just how much use he will be in the face of a charging tiger, elephant or buffalo, I nevertheless decide to remain close to him. He belongs to one of the local hill tribes which have inhabited this area for many centuries and he is of course a mine of information on the park and it's wildlife. I learn that there are about 46 tigers in the reserve and that there is little or no competition between tigers and humans for living space. This is great news and bears out my recent reading that India's tiger population is slowly increasing. Alas, none of the 46 tigers chooses to put in an appearance but we do see some elephants about 200 metres away and plenty of monkeys and birds.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Travelling through Kerala one could be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is the dominant religion of the state. Large, ornate churches abound and biblical quotes are often to be seen on roadside hoardings or outside Christian schools and missions. Yet Christianity accounts for only about 18% of the population while Hinduism claims some 54%. Despite this majority, any visual evidence of Hinduism is hard to find. Kerala was the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government and it boasts the highest literacy rate in India. It certainly seems to be cleaner and less chaotic than almost anywhere else I've seen in India. I'd love to know why.