Did I mention that my palace suite in Ooty had a fireplace and a jacuzzi? The Residency Towers room in Chennai has neither, it’s more like an economy version of a Western Grand Hotel with lots of marble and columns. But it has a pool. Chennai (formerly Madras) itself is not very attractive; there are a few scattered temples with colorful statues piled high on the roof (the picture shows a small detail), and also a Ramakrishna temple with white columns with pink trim around a swami statue gaily hung with purple flower garlands.
It’s 42 degrees and humid in Chennai. I really can’t stand the heat, the humidity, the pollution, the garbage, the traffic and the incessant honking, the tenacious beggars, the slums, and the barefoot poverty anymore. I feel very tired of southern India, and I suspect I would even if it were 20 degrees cooler. I am told that the weather will stay unchanged for another two weeks, and then the monsoon rains begin.
So I have decided to take a vacation from my vacation and return to Berlin for a while. My flight leaves on Sunday. It’s the wrong time of the year to forge ahead here in the tropics; Indonesia will still be there in the fall and much more pleasant. For many years my year was centered on the Siggraph convention; it’s a nice thought to center this one on the monsoon season instead.
Also, my brain is full. I had a fantastic time during these two months, seeing so many places in China, Tibet, Nepal, and India, and I will surely return.
So, this blog will hibernate for a while until I return. Thanks for following me, and I’ll be happy to answer questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you all later!
Made an excursion into the hills around Ooty. Wonderful views of the valley and the hills stretching to the horizon. There are many tea plantations. It’s another warm sunny summer day, but I am told that in two weeks the monsoon will bring lots of snow, in June!
Took a local bus to Mettupalayam, a village at the bottom of the hills where my train to Chennai will depart. The bus is a decrepit wheezing dinosaur with flapping metal sheets that have come loose outside, dirty seats and dirtier windows, and it’s packed with people. Seven of us squeezed into the back row, and when an eighth wanted to squeeze in, I suffered a momentarily lapse of understanding English and just smiled daftly. Tourists usually get away with that. The ride took two and a half hours for 51 kilometers and cost 17 rupees (27 euro cents).
The express train was one of those magnificent Indian trains that look like prison transports with barred windows. I got a 3AC bunk very similar to the one to Kunming in China; six bunks per compartment, which is open to the aisle. It’s less modern than the Chinese one, but very few people in India smoke or spit, and nobody did on the train. It arrived in Chennai at 4:30 in the morning as the sun started to rise.
Amazing. I actually got a train ticket to Chennai tomorrow. Not the slightest bit sold out. The narrow-gauge mountain train, which somehow got Unesco World Heritage status, is booked solid well into June though.
You don’t rush from one temple to the next in Ooty. It’s too relaxed for that, and besides there aren’t any temples. I spent most of the day in the botanical garden and the rose garden, watching people. Most Chinese women, who tend to wear practical Western clothes (they are all made there, after all), would look gorgeous in these brightly colored two-part saris popular here. But a large number of the Indian women wearing them look like boiled dumplings burst open in the middle. Not the lady in the picture though.
The rose garden is organized very methodically, but the botanical garden just drops lots of pretty flowers everywhere and leaves people to enjoy them.
The Maharaja of Mysore and I agree that Mysore is too hot in the summer. He owns another palace in Ooty, a hill station 100 km south at 2200m, where it is dry and cool. I like Ooty’s palace much better than the one in Mysore – it’s older, but a lot more cozy; everything is wood-paneled, lots of antiques, and a 45-acre garden around it. I like it so much that I got a suite there; the Maharaja owns the place but has turned it into a luxury hotel two years ago. It’s hugely expensive in rupees and a steal in euros. The Maharaja can’t join me today but a minister is here.
It’s so good to walk around Ooty’s lake in the cool dry air, smelling the pine forests and the flowers. There are absolutely no sights here besides the palace and the hill scenery, which suits me just fine.
The photo shows the palace’s modest little salon.
Mysore’s palace was rebuilt in 1912 after a fire, and it now looks as if they got a Victorian railroad engineer to do it. The steel structure is never completely hidden even though they hung tons of Indian ornamentation on it. It’s grandiose all right, but it doesn’t feel right. Only the throne room is a faithful reconstruction, it’s gilded all over.
I am getting really tired of southern India, the inescapable heat and humidity, the chaos, noise, and poverty that seems the same everywhere, and the difficulty of finding good food. I had a pizza today, out of desperation (at least it was a Punjab mutton tikka pizza). I need to get out of here.
Although I wasn’t quite up to exploring Mysore after that 18-hour bus ride from hell, I did walk around town in the evening a little. It’s the usual chaotic south Indian town, without much colonial atmosphere. They have a large partly covered bazaar where I walked for a while, striking up conversations with vendors. Most people speak English and are curious when they see a European face. It’s really amazing how few Europeans I have met in the past two months of travelling.
One hour per week, the huge fairyland Maharaja Palace is lit up with a hundred thousand light bulbs, and today was the day, so I went there as well and watched the crowds.
Can’t really spend time in Goa without hitting the beaches, so I hired a motorcycle driver for an excursion. Fort Aguada and Candolim are a little west of Panaji, looking out on the Arabian Sea. All the things one expects on any beach of that kind are there – beach pubs, huts for rent, white beaches with palm trees, paragliders and jet skis, and a sun so hot that it sends everyone running for cover. The lassis there are very good. What Candolim has and the others don’t is a huge old rusty cargo ship grounded close to the beach.
Panaji’s long-distance bus station is a long dusty strip along the Mumbai-Mangalore road. There are no signs anywhere, buses come and go and it took a while to find the right one late in the evening. I had booked a luxury bus but it turned out to be a fairly decrepit old sleeper bus with 22 body pods and some cramped seats. The motor is screaming at high rpm, and the bunks are too short, but at least is reasonably clean and the windows open. I must have managed to actually sleep a little during the ten hours to Mangalore, some 300km south.
They use a filthy hotel as a rest stop in Mangalore. I declined their offers of breakfast. The toilets – if a reeking hole in the ground in an unlit box deserves that name – are across a large courtyard; the space between the garbage piles is littered with garbage. I had decided that I don’t really want to stay in Mangalore and gave the driver some cash so he’d let me stay on the bus for another eight hours to Mysore, 200km inland.
The scenery between Mangalore and Mysore is very nice, mostly dense forest with very few villages, up and down the hills called the Western Ghats. When I finally arrived in Mysore at 14:00, I felt exhausted and grubby and checked into a nice modern hotel with AC. I’ve had enough Indian atmosphere for today.
Old Goa was a great town once, in the sixteenth century, larger than Lisbon and London. No longer. But the huge elaborate churches, convents, and some ruins are still there, scenically scattered about a very large park with palm trees (one of which tried to drop a huge frond on me but missed), forests, and ponds. Few people live here any more, it’s like a giant theme park for colonial monuments. Some of these churches have seen Christian, Muslim, and Hindu services, but today they are well-preserved museums. No admissions are charged anywhere.
The sun burns down vertically (Goa is solidly tropical) so no walls see any sun and there is little shadow. People move slowly, or sit or sleep in the shadow. Even the few souvenir vendors who have made it out here seem lethargic and easily discouraged. I’ll catch a bus to Mangalore tomorrow, and then I think I’ll escape to the cooler hills.
The picture is from Panaji, a couple of blocks from my hotel. Nice quiet town, hard to believe it’s the capital of Goa.
Goa, on the west coast of the India, surrounded by beaches and old towns that look more Portuguese than Indian, has been known as a 60’s hippy hangout ever since the Beatles found their Baghwan here. The hippies are gone, but this is not the place to rush from one church to the next. This is a place to sit idly in a park, chat with locals, ponder where to have lunch, and generally relaxing. I’ll stay a couple more days here before I take the bus to Mangalore.
(Actually I wanted to take the train, but trains in India are fully booked. All of them. You need to draw a number at the station, at a cost of 10 rupees, fill out a form, wait in line, and get told that there is no way from here to there. They are good with forms here – my hotel needs a passport copy, and while a SIM card in China is handed over when you put enough money on the table, here it takes a passport copy, a photograph, and nine signatures on four forms.)
The hotel breakfast isn’t very good (“continental”, ugh) so I went to Leopold’s. That’s an old institution in Mumbai dating back to the British rajs. It was one of the targets of November’s terror attacks, and the bullet holes are still there. I hope it’s the last bullet hole I’ll encounter on this trip.
Dharavi in the middle of Mumbai is Asia’s largest slum, they say. From above it’s a patchwork of gray corrugated metal roofs, packed so densely that there are hardly any gaps, and none wide enough that they could be called streets. They actually run sightseeing tours through the slum, but I was content with the edges, it would feel like a zoo otherwise.
The interesting part of Mumbai, where nearly all the sights are, is a peninsula between the harbor in the east, and Back Bay in the west. Another, much narrower, peninsula wraps around the other side of Back Bay, and that’s where I went today. They have a few very nice parks (where “straineous exercise” is not allowed), and a large rectangular pool with stairs leading down on all four sides. People sit there and talk, or perform religious rites involving offerings, incense, and washing. There are many small shrines around it, and a large area where Mumbai’s clothes are washed. Back Bay is open to the Arabian Sea, but that side of the peninsula is very filthy.
Walked to Chowpatty Beach next. This part of town is nice, and I had a great lunch with a monumental chocolate sundae there, but the beach is not. There is an abandoned amusement park, huts made from bamboo and plastic tarp, with an open sewer running down to the water, and children are playing in the dirty water. They came out, smiling excitedly, to shake my hand and earnestly pronouncing their few English sentences, then ran back into the water giggling.
Also walked to the Chor Bazaar, a large part of town crammed with food and clothing stalls, and the ubiquitous cellphone repairmen. Chickens are killed, plucked in plastic buckets, and sold here. It’s quite dirty and slippery. There are many women I call Black Ravens – muslims with full-body burkhas and only an eye slit. One lifted her veil to spit on the ground.
Watched the sundown at the Gateway of India, and soon attracted the photo crowd again. I should consider a career as a model.
The bottom photo is from the Chor Bazaar area, and the top is from the Colaba area of town, the back side of the block my hotel is in. Mumbai is a city of contrasts.
The original idea was to take the bus to Varanasi in India, but that would have meant about three full days in buses in places that aren’t very safe (they still have communist rebels in the Terai and in northeastern India), and it’s difficult to go south from Varanasi too, so I reversed my schedule and flew to Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I am now writing this post. Not much to report.
Kathmandu is only one of three royal cities in Nepal. The other two are Bakhtapur and Patan, each of which has a Durbar Square similar to Kathmandu’s. Smaller, but much less commercial, and there are few tourists. (I seem to be fairly lucky on this front so far.) The Bakhtapur temple complex contains an Erotic Elephant Temple.
In Patan, the Machhendranath Festival is on, which involves carting an icon around for a month in two huge temple chariots with two-meter wooden wheels, and a huge tilting tree-like thing on top. It looks thoroughly impractical. They move so slowly that children play under the carts. The purpose of the whole thing is praying for rain, which has a good chance of success because the monsoon rains are approaching around that time of the year anyway.
Returning from Bakhtapur was tricky because two bombs were found on a bus there, and police were rerouting traffic away from the Kathmandu-Bakhtapur road. Rumors flew that an army convoy was blown up, but actually the bombs didn’t explode. So instead of seeing that filthy third-world slum road a third time, the taxi (yes mom, I don’t use local buses in Nepal, I don’t want to get squeezed to death by goats) had to detour through the villages. And they aren’t rich, but clean and pleasant. Maybe my initial impression of Kathmandu’s suburbs really was too negative. We also saw long lines at gas station, they have fuel shortages.
What is Tiger Balm anyway? Half the town sells that stuff.
Got a thunderstorm in Pokhara last night unlike any thunderstorm I have seen before. Strongs wind bent the trees, there is torrential rain, and lightning. At home you can estimate the distance of a lightning flash by timing the delay between flash and thunder. Not so here. There are many flashes per second, far too many to count. The sky flickers like a broken flourescent light.
And it cleared the sky. The next morning I got up at 5:00 and took a taxi up on Sarangkot, and was rewarded with a last view of the Himalayas – the Annapurna range in the background and the holy mountain of Machhapuchhare, shaped like a perfect pyramid, light up in the morning sun. Pokhara is at 800 meters and the peaks rise up to 7000m. As the sun rose, the mountains once again faded into the mists like apparitions. The pictures aren’t sufficiently impressive so I’ll show the sunrise instead.
The bus ride back to Kathmandu took seven hours. Not much to report there; various accidents, huge trucks belching black smoke as they creep up the mountains, and the delight of returning to Thamel’s chaos. I am staying at the Tibetan Peace Hotel again, in the same room overlooking their lovely quiet garden.