India is totally full-on Indian flavoured. Within the first two hours we came across rickshaws, dusty streets, beggars, smiles and head wobbles. Busses sport religious iconography depicting the three main religions, even the one that doesn’t believe in iconography, and cows walk placidly among the brutal noise, heat and haste. Immediately we were greeted with inquisition as random strangers asked “What time did you arrive today, what country are you from” and more often than you’d think, “what room number your hotel?” It was also goodbye to any sense of personal space. After a friendly old boy helped us negotiate the manic scrum to board a local bus, my neighbour squished up close, lifted his nearest leg and actually farted on my thigh. He didn’t even say “pardon me”. Well, you don’t go to Holland if you want hills.
Starting in Tamil Nadu we hit the relatively easy going Mamillaparam which was all colour and centuries old temples with small fishing boats battling with surf and catch. Despite being quite a traveller spot beer is in short supply. We managed to ‘score’ a bottle of Kingfisher served from a tea pot under the table. Apparently the new local police chief was ‘too honest’ to take the bribes needed to grant a booze licence. This was also the place to get used to eating with no cutlery – ok if you have a chapatti or naan, but not if you don’t.
A dose of religion next in Tiruvanamalai, the site of a massive ashram where guru Sri Rama Maharashi apparently achieved ‘mukhti’ in 1950 after living in a nearby cave for 17 years. Following our three day meditation course in Bangkok, I now considered myself pretty much ‘at one’, but my idea of going for a quick half hour down the ashram was turned about when it became clear that this was full on chanting, idol worship, scripture style religion, not the fluffy, vaguely existential workshops we’d done in Thailand. Another moment of disenchantment occurred on an early morning mountain trail when a Sidhu made a great show of blessing Rose and I, then demanded 50 rupees. I gave him a banana and we were both disappointed. Later on we visited a shrine where another Sidhu was blessing people with holy water. I tried to get involved but didn’t really know what to do so just copied the man next to me as he put his hands palms together and placed a flower in his pocket, but I had to draw a line when he lay face down on the floor, nose and lips to the dirt, and started doing breast stroke. My brief flirtation with religion and spirituality was now at an end.
After lustily eyeing up all the Royal Enfields, we managed to hire a bike to ride to a nearby fort. Unfortunately it was not a classic, chromed masterpiece, but a disappointingly labelled, ‘Bhaji’. More on Indian traffic later, but suffice to say; might is right, and on the Bhaji we were neither. We rode out to walk to the top of Fort Gingee, an almightily castle 1,000 feet from the desert floor – something like The Eyrie in Game of Thrones. It was a big schlep to the top in the ridiculous midday heat which eventually made us dehydrated and combined nicely with the onset of the inevitable Delhi belly.
Kodaikanal is a hill station popular with Indian tourists. Situated high up and out of the heat, it was not a bad spot for recuperation. Unable to appreciate its mountain charms, we were room bound for about four days, emerging only to ask the hotel staff for green tea and more plain dough balls from Domino’s Pizza. Yes, there really was a Domino’s Pizza, despite the fact there was only patchy running water, constant power cuts, and grime, poverty and sewerage everywhere you looked. This is a town where ‘Hot water available 24 hours’ means someone gets on a moped to fetch some wood, starts a fire to heat the water, then brings it to your room in a bucket. Once on the mend we found some local beauty spots where rich, smartly dressed Indian tourists from the North contrasted with their much poorer local cousins. At several sites, one of which was ‘suicide point’ (a 2,000 foot vertical drop) cute but aggressive monkeys posed and lurked, then jumped out and growled until we handed over our lunch food and walked away feeling slightly embarrassed.
We left Kodai by the scenic route. Mr S took us on a guided walk down the misty mountain, home to lime trees, giant shells of cotton, aloe vera plants, jack fruit, rhododendron, cardamom pods, black pepper, wild buffalo the size of a small truck and a plant that only flowers every 12 years. After a day’s hike we reached a small town where we met with his wife, daughter and our luggage. We missed our connecting transport because Mr S insisted we stay for chai, but his hospitality was a treat. He was a really hard working, lovely guy supporting three kids in college and he gave us a bag of sweets for our onward journey, now three hours longer because we’d missed the bus.
Next stop was Munnar, another hill station, this one home to an endless sea of tea plantations. Here we met an exuberant character on holiday with his wife and kids from Rajasthan where he was in charge of the regional 3G network. (He guaranteed us “internet connectivity 100%”). Excited about our plans do a camel safari when we got to his neck of the woods, he advised us, “The camels in Rajasthan have it the golden coat. In festivals they are dancing. This is a very charming camel! Plus, when you are walking in the desert, he is not asking you for water.” This reminded me of several jokes about Welsh men and sheep, but turns the Rajasthanis are much more respectful of their pachyderms. They have camel fancy dress competitions where they cover them head to hoof in gold and multi-coloured bling for the much coveted title of Mr Desert for which the men also grow enormous moustaches.
Three weeks in India by now felt like three months. Our eyes, ears, noses were overloaded and we had feasted on as many moments of wonder and frustration as we’d had all trip. We headed for Kerala to relax and cruise the backwaters on a houseboat . . .