From the oven to the cooler
31.12.2016 - 05.01.2017 15 °C
Day 14 - Saturday 31/12/16 - Pondicherry - New Years Eve
Today was a real test of our Indian 'two wheeler' skills.
The plan was to flit across to the bus station, get tickets to Madurai for a nice, daytime, a/c coach ride. Then we would take a walk through the botanic gardens (hoping for a sighting of Pi or Richard Parker), grab some lunch at the Chateau and pop out to Auroville to be back in time to drop the scooter off and retrieve my licence and the R250 deposit.
In reality it went more like this:
Firstly, the occasional lack of road name signs had us believing that the bus station was constantly relocating itself.
When we finally found it and had walked past every food and beverage vendor and every other ticket vending window, we found that the one for Madurai was vacant and had the following somewhat enigmatic sign in front of it - "No a/c Volvo back at 2:30".
It was already 2:00pm. Only having to wait half an hour is actually not bad for India so we found a seat and waited.
Bus stations are always interesting places - this one was no exception. One young guy kept on jumping out and and loudly greeting passers-by as if they were old friends and trying to drag them away. I thought it was some kind of scam at first but in fact, he was just a spruiker for a nearby fast food vendor - just doing his job.
Being westerners, we are constantly being harassed by beggars. The bus station is obviously a great place to waylay westerners and other relatively affluent marks. Outside coffee shops, restaurants and other tourist attractions are other obvious haunts.
They are usually women, sometimes old sometimes young with babes in arms. They are painfully thin, shabbily dressed and the older ones are often bent over either from some genuine spinal condition or for effect. You feel desperately sorry for them but, if you falter and engage with them, they will never let you go and you become a magnet for a swarm of their companions.
Being a coward, I basically ignore them and try to walk away.
So 2:30pm rolls by and there is still nobody to sell us a ticket although the "queue" was growing. I say "queue" but the term doesn't mean much. Everybody just stands in a tight mob and they just push in whenever there is any sign of action. Actually they basically drive that way as well.
Carol checks with the tourist office, which now has an attendant, and he tells her that 2:30pm really means 3:00pm! Non essential activities like going to Auroville have now dropped off the radar and so have the Botanic Gardens, although we did manage to see the entry gate.
3:00pm arrives and the ticket window opens to a ferocious mob. Carol is the most ferocious and gives the ticket man and our fellow queuers a good piece of her mind. The language was colourful to say the least. I'll leave it at that as I wouldn't want to scandalise any of our younger readers, if we have any. Carol apologised to me afterwards but I told her how much I enjoyed it and that it had served to clear the air and let off a bit of steam so to speak!
The ticket man, to give him credit, remained completely calm, but it became clear that he couldn't, or wouldn't sell us tickets until we had filled out one of those biographical forms similar to what we had to fill out for train tickets last time we were here. They are printed on very flimsy poor quality newsprint type paper and you now have to pay R1 to get one. Suddenly we understood why everybody was throwing R1 coins into the window and demanding one of the forms. We got ours and found another seat and carefully filled out the required information, dotting all 'i's and crossing all 't's as required and double checking for size and neatness of letters, correctness of spelling and clarity of signature.
Fortunately you didn't need to provide a photograph or send the application off by registered post. The spectre of our rejected first visa applications arose in our minds. A repetition of that rejection would be soul destroying.
Back to the window with the completed form and the ticket man accepted it first among all comers.
"What time did we want to leave?"
"We would like to travel in daylight please"
"No, the buses only run in the evening and overnight"
"5:30pm, 7:30pm and 9:31pm"
"Ok. An a/c sleeper at 5:30pm"
"No a/c and no sleeper buses (Just Volvos)"
"Take the later bus otherwise you will arrive in the middle of the night!" This from one of our fellow queuers, all of whom have become our friends!
We give in, take his advice and purchase our ticket. We leave Pondicherry on Monday night at 9:31pm. The fare is R530 for the two of us. That's about $6.50 Oz, each for a 300km, 8 hour trip. Unfortunately no seniors discount as far as we are aware although the form did ask for our ages. Still it's not bad.
The ticket is time stamped at 3:11pm. We've been over an hour at the bus station and we are not counting the trip over on the scooter. Travel tends to be a little tedious in India - but oh the colour!
So bus ticket safely stored away, back to the scooter to try for some food or sight seeing or something. But what has happened to our city map? Lost in the confusion at the bus station. Never mind, we have google maps on the phone and we only have to go back the way we came. Well one roundabout with a statue in the middle looks much the same as another and we evidently take the wrong one.
We keep riding and come up behind a procession which appears to celebrating New Years Eve early. There are flowers being strewn along the way trumpets and drums being played and some particularly noisy fireworks being let off. The road is almost blocked but using our newly acquired Indian driving skills we edge past and low and behold it's a funeral procession! No photos.
Off we rode again and we cross a river that we don't remember crossing before. In fact we don't recognise the road at all but that's not unusual. A quick check of google maps indicates that we are heading out of town in the opposite direction to that which we want to go. Looks like the Botanic Gardens are definitely off the roster even if we could find them again.
After a u turn, a ride the wrong way up a one way road, and the need to pass the funeral procession again but in the opposite direction, we force our way onto the right side of the road and we are back on track. I say 'force' but that's a little unfair. Indian drivers might seem aggressive with their constant horn tooting and general bravado, but if they see that you genuinely need to cross 6 lanes of moving traffic they will stop and let you through as long as you are assertive. Try that in Oz and the knives would be out for you.
The rest of the ride was uneventful. And after a late lunch (pizza at Pizza Hut) we dropped the bike bike to Mr Mohan. His look of joy when he saw us was quite beautiful. We are not sure whether he was glad we were still in one piece (each that is), pleased to see the scooter back in a similar condition or just pleased to see us. I suspect, however, that he had run out vehicles to hire and the return of ours got at least one of his waiting customers in the saddle. Happy is the hire man who can't give you Bike because his whole fleet is in motion!
There were NYE celebrations taking place all over White Town. There was a huge crowd watching the traditional dancing near the Ghandi/Nehru statues and lots of noise and light on Beach Road generally.
We have never been NYE celebrators so we came home to bed.
Lots of fireworks during the night.
Day 15 - Sunday 01/01/17 - New Years Day - Pondicherry (Auroville)
Still suffering from flu, especially Carol, we determined to get out today and made it to Auroville. This was a 15km auto ride north of pondi.
It is best described, I suppose, as an international community living and working here.
They say that it is not a religion, but their belief is that humanity is not the final pinnacle of evolution, but just another stage and that the human race will continue to evolve into the next stage which will be superman (no capital 's').
What is very clear is they have turned what was apparently a barren landscape into a green park like contemplative atmosphere, with pleasant tree shaded walking trails and outlooks.
We headed straight back into White Town for dinner at the rooftop restaurant of the the Chateau Hotel.
The food was terrific, (as all food tends to be in India) but we specially enjoyed a glass of Kingfisher - our first beer on this trip.
I don't know what the alcoholic content was but I'm glad we didn't have the extra strong version. We thought we could see elephants on the way home!
Day 16 - Monday 02/01/17 - Pondicherry - Madurai
Apparently, the Queen and Prince Phillip have been suffering from a similar flu to that which we have been combatting. So if your Royal Highnesses are following this blog, which I would expect to be the case, bearing in mind my British heritage and the fact that's it is set in India, a former jewel of the empire, well you will appreciate that you are suffering along with some pretty choice company!
Notwithstanding the royal connection, I think it is starting to leave me (many thanks to the confusion of cold and flu tablets that my kind pharmacist supplied to me in Multhiapet.). Whilst I completely stuffed up his kind instructions as regards taking before, during or after food, and I deliberately reduced the dosage so as to stretch out the cure as long as possible, my symptoms were manageable and have at the time of writing largely gone.
Not so Carol who is still coughing etc. Unfortunately, she just can't take the cold and flu tablets.
This was our last day in Pondi. I think it is a place that neither of us would recommend, leastways not over the Christmas New Year holiday period and definitely not when you are crook.
Anyway, we took a last walk into town and found a nice little 4 storey, family restaurant, De Bussy, for our last repast. The food was delightful, with special mention of Carol's Veg Soup and my Sweet Corn Soup.
And then, after a last cappuccino at our favourite bakery, we wandered back and forward across town to collect our luggage and get to the bus station in time for the 9:31pm bus to Madurai.
As expected, there was no a/c (and we didn't need it). I never did find out if it was a Volvo!
Day 17 - Tuesday 03/01/17 - Pondicherry - Madurai
We arrived in Madurai at about 4:30am. It was quiet and cool. A nice combination.
We were advised by an auto driver that the hotel we had booked was new and naturally not located in its previous central location, in the middle of everything. Thanks Lonely Planet (2002) and Booking.com!
Still it was new and very clean and they let us in early. What. A luxury to be between clean sheets and then to have a proper breakfast in the morning.
The main attraction at Madurai is the Sri Meenakshi Temple.
We got there at 2:00 so naturally it didn't open until 3:30 or4:00, depending on who you asked.
. The very impressive South Gate
We got to the gate and were advised that our knees and shins were a most unwelcome sight and we should either cover them or get lost!
There was no end of vendors prepared to take R100 to provide an oblong of material. And even fit it on for you sir. One enterprising tailor wanted to make me a pair of trousers for the same price. He took one look at me and said 'you are 34 regular aren't you sir? I probably am but I made do with the wrap around skirt. We can cut it up for tea towels when we get home!
I have to say that as Templed out as I am, this was a very impressive one. Everything was on a grand scale with four huge carved gateways and elaborate stone carving both inside and out.
Poor ladies apparently still sell their hair here:
Here is some on sale outside the temple.
(Wow, I just looked out the train window and I saw a highway with just 2 cars on it! Amazing. (I'm writing this on the train, tomorrow).
After the Temple, we were hungry so we asked some locals where you could get a good bit of local nosh. They enthusiastically pointed out Stree Sabarees just across the road and we were not disappointed.
I particularly enjoyed the butter and garlic dhosa and the vegetarian spring rolls, but it was all great.
The spring rolls
We pose with our happy waiters
With carol's cold not improving, we decided we would head for the Nilgiri Hills tomorrow for a bit of R & R. If she doesn't get better soon, we may have to snatch it and head for Chennai airport to fly home. We will see.
Day 18 - Wednesday 04/01/17 - Madurai - Coimbatore
We took the Dadar express towards Coimbatore this morning, our first step to the Hills and hopefully to get carol into some healthier air. The carriage wasn't a/c but we were able to score a whole bench seat each for the whole 5 hour journey (or maybe it was 6 hours). The ticket man on the train advised us to go to Coimbatore as the best staging place to get a train to the hills.
Our routes as as follows: Madurai Junction , Dindigul Junction, Karur Junction, Erode Junction, Tirruper Junction and Coimbatore. Aren't they wonderful names? Especially, Dindigul Junction and Erode.
The countryside was generally very flat and sparsely populated. Occasionally you could make out hills to the north west but I don't think it is the Western Ghats or the Nilgiri Hills yet.
We found the train and the station premises much cleaner than our experience in 2010. They have even started installing sewage tanks under the toilet compartments on many train carriages. They say they are the first such in the world........??
One does miss the weird sensation of watching the sleepers going past as you pull the chain! And when you were using one of the Asian loos, you seemed to be squatting very close to the track!
Nothing is sacred is it?
Seriously though, it all points toward a cleaner India, which will be better for all. But somehow it's not quite the same as it was.
Arriving at Coimbatore, we tried to book tickets for Ooty but you can only book to Mettupalalyam. Then you have to get a separate ticket on the Hill Railway. We need to be back at the booking office at 5:00am with the train leaving at 5:30am (I'll believe that if I see it!) and connecting with the Ooty train if there is one. (It may be stopped by a landslide, the monsoon or just a break down. I hope not, as these little hill railways are a real highlight for me.)
Getting a hotel in Coimbatore was easy. We just walked across the road from the station and took the Hotel Rani's Grand. R2180 a night for a/c, ensuite and window view of building next door either under construction or demolition. It's hard to tell at this stage. There are a couple of workers in thongs using two tables as their ladder. They are either installing or liberating computer wiring. Again, it is hard to tell which!
Before going out for dinner, we took in the view across the road to the station, the town behind and the still far off hills. Carol commented that the brownish haze in the distance looked somewhat ominous. It actually looked a lot like bushfire smoke although, I think it is just the 'blue' haze which gives the Nilgiri its name. (Not quite our own Blue Mountains).
Rani's Grand came supplied with its own restaurant. So we ate there and were not disappointed.
To cap it off a nice lemon tea at the adjacent restaurant and back to the room for a bit of precious shuteye before the train ride in the morning.
Day 19 - Thursday - 05/01/17 - Coimbatore - Ooty
The 4:30 alarm got us to the station booking office by 5:00 and up to platform 3 to await whatever train would take us to Mettapalyum. This turned out to be the Chennai Mettapalyum Express. It's an overnight sleeper and most of the passengers were getting off at Cbe.
We were just settling in to an empty sleeping area when a gentleman called into us words to the effect 'No! No! Splitting.' Not quite sure what he meant we were about to get off when the train began to move. After a mild panic, it stopped again and we able to get off and move up closer to the engine. Sure enough, the train had been split into two sections and the bit we first got into wasn't going anywhere!
The remainder of the Train moved away, with us aboard at a little after 6:00 and arrived at Mettapalyum at about 7:00.
Here we discovered our folly. The little blue steam train was fully booked out. Apparently, the trick is to sleep at Mettapalyum the night before and then get up at 5:00 and queue for the steam train ticket at R30 per seat. If you are really well organised, and you know your travel dates, and you are Indian Railways tech savvy, you can always try and book on line. We might give that a try if we actually decide to leave this little bit of paradise.
Our attempt to dumb it out in an apparently empty compartment was quickly put right by the officious ticket lady and we were back out on the platform, complaining to anybody who would listen (ie nobody apart from some young French backpackers who were as equally organised as us).
Miraculously, at the last minute a couple of seats became available at R280 each. They literally were the last seats on the train. OK it wasn't the A$0.75 that the wise people were paying but let's face it A$7.00 isn't bad for a 46km 4 hour journey on a heritage railway passing through the most glorious scenery and transporting us into a sane climate. We took the seats as offered.
We ended up making friends with the officious fare collecting lady who sat with us for one section of the trip. After giving us our ticket, she gave us an impromptu mini concert in Hindi. Beautiful.
As noted above the trip up was superb. The temperature was slowly dropping and the air became crisper and cleaner. The scenery was lovely especially on the left side of the train. The first 26 km is handled by an old oil fired steam loco which sits at the down hill end of the train.
This first part contains some steep sections and the loco uses a rack traction system. It also uses copies amounts of water and has to make 3 or 4 stops to replenish its tanks. Everybody jumps out to stretch the legs, enjoy the scenery and get a cup of tea which is usually available.
The last 20km is not as steep and is easily handled by a standard narrow gauge diesel.
I checked out our ticket acquisition troubles on the web later on and it would appear that many people had had the same experience and that we were extremely lucky to get seats.
On arrival at Ooty, we took an auto to the tourist information office which is located at the top of a mountain 2 km distant from the station.
They recommended the Tamil Nadu hotel, located right next door and we took a room there for about R2000 a night. We have a big room and big bathroom and our own 1 chair balcony. We love it. There is no a/c or fan and there is a blanket on the bed and two more in the cupboard if required. We have already added a second blanket and are comfortable. This place is very civilised.
We are not leaving until Carol starts to get rid of this flu.
Eating in the hotel dining room, I had the Veg soup and a butter paneer masala and carol had the soup and a veg curry. The food in India continues to be uncompromisingly excellent.