Friday, April 2, 2010

Because it's there

As we've mentioned before, a lot of our trip has been about visiting places merely for the sake of visiting them. We had very few pre-conceived ideas of where this trip would take us, other than a rough outline of regions we wanted to visit (i.e., Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, etc.). We'd work out the specific places within those regions later.

And so it is with India. Chennai was one specific place we wanted to visit in order to see the development team I worked with in Seattle. But otherwise, we had no real game plan of what to see in India. We're winging it as they say.

India is both a good place and a daunting place to be winging it. Good in the sense that public transportation is incredibly extensive and amazingly cheap. No matter where you want to go, there is a bus or train that goes there. (And if the bus isn't leaving soon enough a rickshaw will take you there.) Essentially our planning goes something along the lines of looking at a map, seeing what towns/cities are nearby and reading about those cities in our guidebook (we're using Lonely Plant's South India guidebook) to see if they sound interesting.

So it went with deciding to go to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India. Just like when we headed to the northernmost point in New Zealand, we looked at the map and thought it would be neat to see what the meeting of multiple seas looks like. In this case, the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea.

We started off on the train from Madurai, where as we mentioned previously we bought second class open seat tickets. The train was a half hour late and when it arrived, people rushed to get aboard, and being that we were wearing our backpacks, we were last to board. This was unfortunate because it meant that all the seats were taken. There were people everywhere, crammed on the benches or sharing two to a seat, even squatting in the luggage racks. Sitting on the floor was not a good option as there were swarms of cockroaches roaming the floor; we didn't even want to set our bags down. For a few minutes at the station we contemplated just bailing and getting off the train, but then a nice older man came to our rescue. He offered Jaimee his seat, and then the man opposite him offered me his seat (he said he was only riding the train for a few more stops).

Our fellow passengers on the train were very friendly. Many wanted pictures with us (almost everyone has a cell phone camera), and we took a few with them too, Jaimee with the female passengers and me with the male passengers. (Indians don't really mingle in groups of both sexes unless it's a family.)

We got into Kanyakumari late at night and wandered around until we found a hotel. It wasn't the nicest place but the price was right (250 rupees, or a little over $5). We explored Kanyakumari the next day, which basically took about five minutes. For an Indian town, it was very small, a few streets and a market with stores selling trinkets, saris and electronics. The real reason to come here is to see the meeting of the seas and visit a couple of neat memorials on two islands a short ferry ride from the jetty. There's a huge memorial to Swami Vivekananda, known at the "Wandering Monk" because of his prabrajya (period of wandering). He seemed like an interesting guy and you can read about him in the given link. The other memorial is a huge 133 foot tall statue dedicated to the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. They call it India's Statue of Liberty and was erected in the year 2000 after requiring the work of over 5,000 sculptors.

The ferry rides were quite an event. Kanyakumari is very popular with Indian tourists and the ferry was packed. They hand out life jackets to each person for the ride, and many passengers acted like they'd never seen a life jacket before. Given the general disregard to passenger safety seen elsewhere on public transport, these life jackets must have represented the epitome of luxury. It was an amazing sight, seeing Indian women with colorful saris and men in proper clothes (Indian men dress very sharply), some with turbans, all strapped up in life vests. This for a five minute ride (literally).

While wandering around the memorials many people wanted to take our picture. It was really weird, but usually we'd oblige. Which led to one funny incident where an Indian woman approached us with her camera. We assumed she wanted a picture with Jaimee, but when Jaimee went to pose with her, she politely said she was from Canada and wanted a picture of herself, and herself alone with the statue in the background. Here are a few pictures while hanging out on Thiruvalluvar's toes:
After seeing the two memorials and a small Gandhi memorial (some of his ashes are entombed here) there wasn't much else to do so we decided to head into the Indian state of Kerala. Kerala is one of the wealthier states of India and gets a lot of tourism to their beaches and water canals. It took three buses (and seven hours) to get to Varkala, about a third of the way up the coast of Kerala. This is a totally different side of India than we'd seen so far. Verkala is a tiny village built along a cliff, with a beautiful beach below. Although technically it's shoulder season (the monsoon is coming soon) there are still quite a few foreign tourists, definitely the most we've seen since arriving in India.

We've been here three nights, probably staying at least one or two more. It's relaxing, as the beach is a short walk from our little bungalow, and there are lots of little restaurants and cafes along the cliff. You can rent umbrellas and lounge chairs on the beach, and so far we've been lounging around relaxing and reading (we both found the book Shutter Island to be a great beach read). The cliff top is technically a road but it is nothing like the normal honking and loud traffic that has been so common elsewhere in India. We're enjoying it here immensely.
See the full set of pictures of Kunymari and our stay in Varkala.

As a side note, some of you might have noticed that our Spot check-ins have been less frequent. Well, apparently, Spot coverage in India is not very good. Not sure why this is, since Spot works off GPS, where the G stands for Global, but you can see on this map from the Spot website (reproduced below as well) that India is an area with only 20% reliability. In other words, many of the Spot check-ins may not come through. We'll still try, but they won't always work. Compounding this is the general lack of free Internet here. Very few hotels have wifi (certainly none of the budget places we've stayed in have had wireless) so we've been using Internet Cafes, which there are plenty of but we don't like to spend our time sitting in Internet cafes when we could be on the beach.

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