Out and about again! This time to South India for a very quick taste of all there is to see and do there. My first trip to India and even after several days back the sight, the sounds, the magic that is South India still remains. We were treated to a whirlwind tour of the varied sights found in this remarkable part of the world.
From Kathmandu we flew to Delhi and then on to Chennai for the first part of our trip. We were met by our representatives and driven some 53 km from the airport to a resort area located in Mahabalipurim at the Indeco Hotel resort. It must be noted that we arrived some 8 hours after our scheduled arrival time due to a cancellation of all flights in and out of
Kathmandu that day. It was 1 A.M. when we drove in and to our surprise the hotel manager and two porters were there with a fruit punch and shell necklaces for us. We were escorted to our rooms and fell into bed for a well-deserved rest after a very hectic travel day!
Up early for a hot shower and breakfast. The hotel manager sat and talked with us about the facility and we were given a tour of the grounds. Then our driver was there for a tour of the area. This pattern would evolve for us as we traveled from Chennai on the Bay of Bengal up to Cochin on the Arabian Sea. Even as I write these words I am pulled back to the sights and sounds of a magical, whirlwind week!
Our first experience with the antiquities came with a visit to sandstone mountain carvings, all dedicated to Lord Shiva. Carved into the mountains and caves this wonderful antiquity from the Palawa kingdom startles the eyes and challenges ones belief of how some of the intricate and beautiful carvings had been done so many years ago. Taken then to the 5 Temples we scrambled among 5 temples with intricate carvings of both human and animal design. A large free standing elephant and a very weathered lion gave one a chance for that fun photo! Our next stop was a temple to Lord Shiva that stood out on a point of land in the Bay of Bengal. It was a long walk to the site but the view of the bay and the surf were worth it.
Next came a highlight for both of us on this trip. Lunch!
We were dropped off at a delightful restaurant that boasted fresh fish and prawns. We ascended a narrow staircase to the rooftop restaurant with a great view of the Bay of Bengal, fishing boats and the many locals trying out the surf. We ordered a beer and were then presented with the local catch of the day, a plate of tiger prawns and regular prawns for us to choose what we would have for lunch. We selected one of the fish and then the regular prawns along with French fries and some additional sides. In very short time we were literally stuffing our faces with the delicious fish and prawns, six each, which had been cooked to perfection. With a very full stomach we turned our attention to a drive into Chennai for the next stop on our trip. Our driver asked if we would like to see the Crocodile Farm, which was located on our way to the city. We decided yes and were soon strolling along the pathways looking at various types of crocodiles from all over the world. In a truly remarkable program these reptiles are being raised and preserved for future generations.
We arrived at rush hour in Chennai and experienced the same frenetic and choking driving that one finds elsewhere in Asia. Honking horns and cars rushing in so many directions it is almost impossible to imagine that so many people have so many places to get to _ QUICKLY! Our hotel, The Apollo, reminded me of a turn-of-the-century dowager. Replete with great, shining slabs of marble on ceiling and floor, rich red, velvet drapery and gold accouterments everywhere. Liveried porters and doormen and reception personnel dressed in dark suits, all combined to suggest great wealth and a smattering of pomp and circumstance lost decades ago in the “Golden Age” of travel. Although we found the staff friendly and certainly ready to make one’s stay pleasant it was a bit of a surprise when we discovered the cracks of age in small ways. The rooms were adequate and nicely furnished but there were some repair jobs needed in the bathroom with cracked caulking and some other repair work a bit sloppy for such a grand old lady. A bar on the roof was delightful until it started to rain and drove the few early patrons inside. There the friendly bar tender offered up a delicious lemon margarita and some peanuts. A nice beginning to start us off for our evening meal. For dinner we wound up in the hotel’s mezzanine Indian restaurant. Friendly staff and good food although I asked for not so hot servings I found that sometimes, and it was the case here, an almost impossible thing to achieve most of the time.
The next segment of our trip had us up at 4A.M. to be picked up at 4:30 A.M. for our flight to Madurai! A real chore for us, as we were beginning to feel the affects of all the travel. However, we were picked up on time and got through the rigors of the pre-flight. Security checks and found our way to our Gate to await departure. We went through with our boarding pass and started for the plane. Half way down the ramp was another checkpoint! I was stopped and told to step aside and the man called for a supervisor. I had no choice but to let the other people board. The man who was checking the boarding passes could neither speak nor read English. Not a very smart idea by Air India officials when English is almost a must to travel internationally. The problem was resolved, a stamp had been overlooked, and I was finally allowed to board the plane. A comment should be made here concerning Air India. Since I had never flown this carrier I came on board with no preconceived ideas. After several flights on this carrier during our whirlwind trip I came to several conclusions. Not once, on several flights, did we leave on time. They must have an appalling on time record! The stewardesses are beautifully dressed in black and red saris and hair and makeup well done. But, as I was to find on most flights, these women lacked any personality. Rarely smiling they efficiently swung “vegetable” or “non-vegetable” trays down and pulled them away later with a brusqueness that had my business partner say something about it and the woman did apologize. Shouldn’t have happened in the first place. A small water bottle is served with your “vegetable” or “non-vegetable” tray and one cup of coffee. I first thought this was because the flight was a short one, but even on a three-hour flight one cup seemed the norm. All in all I was not overly impressed, although the flights were smooth and nearly always full.
Our plane touched down in Madurai after 7 A.M. and another phase of our whirlwind trip was about to begin.
Even though we were early, we were graciously received by the GRT Regency staff. A very nice Jet Airways flight brought us to Madurai. Because we were so early, the hotel was nice enough to allow us to have breakfast before they could register us.
Breakfast was buffet and it hit the spot after our early morning start. I would later learn that the hotel has a microbiologist on staff in the kitchen and each day’s produce is fresh. As well as being a wonderful place to stay, the hotel has its own bakery, so that the breads and morning pastries are always fresh!
We got our room early, submitted much needed laundry to the hotel and began our tour in Madurai. Our driver, Santosh, took us through the busy streets of Madurai to the Nayakar Palace. Here a massive building with huge pillars and carved lintels held our attention and gave us a chance for some wonderful pictures.
Winding through busy streets filled with handcarts piled with goods, people scurrying along the narrow byways, plus trucks, cows, dogs and chickens we slowly made our way to a small crowded street. We were let out and after he parked the car, Santosh accompanied us toward the Meenakshi Temple. The walk along this street was rather long and we came to an intersection and turned right toward the temple. I have traveled many places but nothing prepared me for the sight of this magnificent tribute to man’s faith and devotion. It soars skyward in a great burst of myriad colors and thousands of hand carved figures and animals. This magnificent structure is the “south” entrance to the city and includes a large interior and massive outdoor complex. It is a must for travelers to South India.
We next visited the wonderful Gandhi Museum. It is done with great care and the history of India and it’s clashes with outside nations until Independence is well-done and informative. My one regret is that they had not put together a booklet with all of the information panels of the museum for people to take with them.
We checked out of the GRT Regency the next morning. The hotel staff here was really accommodating and I highly recommend this hotel. Obviously designed with travelers in mind it is a great choice when in Madurai. We left after breakfast and began a 6 and half hour drive, eventually leaving the state of Tamilnadu behind and entering the beautiful state of Kerala on the west coast of India along the Arabian Sea. Initially we sped along a two lane freeway that melted the kilometers away. We eventually ran out of freeway and turned inland for some wonderful sites at Kanyakumari. After a rather desultory lunch, the fish was dry and overcooked, we were enthralled by the Thiruvalluvar Statue that towers over the harbor and entices visitors not only from India but from all over the world. In addition, the gleaming white Thanumalayan Temple sitting in the middle of a small lake was a delightful contrast to some of the more massive structures we had seen.
Our adventure continued as the brakes on our car gave out. I was first aware of this as Santosh began to pull on the emergency brake and slowed considerably as we came into Kovalam. It as bad enough that we were transferred to another car and much to our disappointment we had to give up a driver who had been so much fun and helpful to us.
The Soma Beach Resort was our next stop. Located atop a bluff overlooking the sea its ambience was almost like a movie set. Coconut palms, white sand, easy surf and a resort hotel. Although the hotel’s attractive appearance did belie its rather utile structure the whole idea seemed to be for wet, sandy feet and the idea for this was a hotel for families and sun seekers.
Our room was adequate and the facilities bespoke the utilitarian aspect of the hotel and we found some things really bothered us. No hot water for a shower or shaving in the morning, even though we followed the instructions for the hot water switch.
This followed the previous night’s fumigation for mosquitoes, which really caused us some breathing problems, along with coughing and sneezing.
Yet, with some of the small inconveniences I managed a swim in the pool and we two took a trip to the beach for a walk. We also spent one of the most memorable evenings. When asked if we wanted to eat outside we were both a bit nervous about the mosquitoes. However, we were assured no problems. And so we found ourselves seated at a candlelit table overlooking a darkened sea with the many lights of night fishermen setting their nets winking at us across the black strip of sea. The soft breeze and the pounding of the surf certainly was a delightful respite from our long drive.
The next day loomed with another long 4 hour drive. This turned out to be our most harrowing ride as we had a driver who was either hurrying to get somewhere we knew nothing about or he had an agenda that was entirely unshared by anybody! Speed on a narrow two-lane road was his modus operandi. If any vehicle appeared in front of our car he immediately honked his horn and turned into the next lane or the middle of the road and put the offending vehicle behind us. After several hours of this the speed and the horn became an irritant that literally sat behind one’s eyes and just needled you in the wrong way. I was glad, when after the ride was done, my partner told me he too had the same feeling!
With the ride behind us we turned into our next to last stopping place. And what a place it is! Ripples Backwater Resort. Laid out in long low bungalows, some two stories, it is a wonderful place to rest, relax, and gather your thoughts. We were given an hour boat cruise along the lake and then we each had a neck, head and shoulder massage. Totally relaxed we spent a nice evening; although I was disappointed that dinner was buffet.
The next morning we acquired our last driver, Franklyn. He toured us along the beach resorts and then took us to the most wonderful part of our South India Adventure.
We were given a boat and crew for a 3 and half hour cruise on the lake.
What a relaxing cruise! For the entire time we took pictures, chatted, laughed with our crew and had a wonderful lunch prepared on board for us. A great and wonderful way to look to our last stop: Cochin!
Cochin is a bustling port city that sprawls along the Arabian Sea. Filled with history, Franklyn took us immediately to the old Dutch Cemetery and then to St. Francis Church, one of the first Christian churches in India. One of the most fascinating aspects of the church were great strips of cloth spread on frames over the congregation. Attached to pulleys with ropes these were used as fans to keep the congregation cool during the service. My surprise was that it was for all the congregation, not just a few privileged members.
The old part of Cochin, referred to as Fort Cochi, is filled with old barracks and some warehouses. Although we did not tour any of these we did get the feel for the old city as we moved away from the area to Jew Street. Here, a street filled with shops and small boutiques, leads the way to the Jewish synagogue. Destroyed by the Portuguese and rebuilt courtesy of the Dutch, the building is continually being worked on to restore it to its original glory.
We would return the next day and do some shopping in this fascinating street. We toured the day before as a huge liner was depositing its passengers on shore the next day, filling the streets and taking the cabs of the city.
A most fascinating sight was the giant Chinese Fishing nets scattered along the river and shore. These nets, used twice a day, are a marvel of ingenuity and are certainly a great draw for tourists and citizens of the area as well.
Our stay in Cochin was at the Casino Hotel. It lies away from the noise and clamor of the city in an unusual port section filled with warehouses, container vans and trucks, and was a most interesting approach to a hotel. But once there we had a beautiful room, nice amenities and good service. Breakfast the next morning was buffet and done well in a nicely outfitted dining area. We did our shopping back at Jew Street and then began our search for banana chips!
One of our colleagues in the office requested we bring some back. At the first shop we were told they were all sold out and had not our driver lived in Cochin all of his life we might never have found the shop which was clear across town to fulfill this request. I can highly recommend a trip to this area of the world. Be prepared to be impressed, astounded and amazed as you immerse yourself in this warm, inviting and truly incredible India!