Run the equator: An Indian itinerary

Friday, February 22, 2008

An Indian itinerary

Street celebrations in Kochi
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for other South India pictures

If you look at my recent posts you may get the impression that we are having a horrible time in India. Indeed, many first-time travelers to the subcontinent are so disgusted with their experience they vow never to return. It’s not hard to understand why: in the streets, age-old garbage is piled up in every corner and you run the risk of stepping in open sewers; the budget hotel rooms are, with few exceptions, dingy, unwelcoming and claustrophobic; the traffic is mad; the bathrooms are filthy and toilet paper is a luxury. On top of all that, there are a billion Indians surrounding you: at any time, a few hundreds of millions of them seem to be busy clearing their throats noisily and spitting passionately. From the moment you enter the country you are accompanied by that distinctive half-retch, half-gurgle crescendo followed shortly by the unmistakable suction and release of projectile launch. People are, in general, not very friendly, and even less helpful; anywhere outside restaurants you are asked to pay prices ten times higher than what locals pay; the staring at and harassment of foreigners (mister, madam, what country, give me money, give me a pen, etc…) is constant and the display of poverty is crushing and heartbreaking.

Spiritual enlightenment?

Yet, once you master the arts of looking without seeing and bargaining without losing your cool, once you realize the necessity to adjust your pampered, western-minded habits in order to survive your vacation without going crazy, once you finally surrender to India you will see your surroundings and yourself in a completely different light. I can’t say that you will attain spiritual enlightenment and return home a better and purified being, but you will, at least, have a good time. India is not one of those countries that win you over from the moment you get off the plane. You don’t fall in love with it at first sight. No, India has to grow on you; it gets to you slowly, unseen. Once you move past the foul moment when you want to get out of the country by the first available plane, you are in danger of starting to like it. Then you will soon realize that no matter how you plan your trip, you still have too little time to experience all that India can offer.

Mysore palace - a true jewel

We have worked our way north from the southern tip of India through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Goa all the way to Mumbai. With the exception of Goa, where we got lazy under the palm trees for a full eight days, eating real Italian pizzas and drinking cheap beer, we stayed no more than three or four days in one place. Most times we wished we had left earlier; occasionally we regretted not staying longer. Cities like Trivandrum, Cochin and Chennai weren’t much to look at; they are certainly interesting and unusual but could hardly be called nice, let alone beautiful. Beach towns like Varkala in Kerala, Palolem in Goa and Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu were pretty, low-key and relatively stress-free, but they’re not really representative of India – aren’t all tropical beach villages more or less alike? The highlands of the Western Ghats in Kerala were a good place to run away from the mad crowds and the smothering heat of the coastal plain but the nights were freezing and we weren’t prepared for the cold anymore, nor wishing it. On top of that, the promised wildlife experience doesn’t stand up to your expectations once you’ve been in Africa. Mysore, the famous one-time capital of the prosperous kingdom with the same name, had a pleasant highland climate, hot and dry during the day and cool at night; it boasts the beautiful palace of the bygone maharajas but little else to hold us for more than a couple of days.

Hangin' out

We haven’t made many friends – you can’t really, when you move that fast – but we have met Mark and Sarah from Zurich on a local bus to Kumily and we’ve run into them again in Ernakulam, Mysore and finally in Goa, sometimes by chance, sometimes by plan. They, like us, are travelling around the world for a year but their trip is only at the beginning. Beside a few dinners, lunches and visits to museums, their company has materialized into a memorable night of drinking in Ernakulam, when Mark and I visited the raunchiest dimly-lit bars in town, where only men go for a drink, and ended up having beers on the beach surrounded by a handful of boys who kept asking us in a respectful tone (“sir”) to give them money so they can bring us more beer, drugs or women. We didn’t give, they didn’t bring…

Stone chariot
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for the Hampi set

The one destination I wished we had allowed ourselves more time to enjoy was Hampi. This hamlet in the hills of Northern Karnataka is home of the most awe-inspiring landscape of ruins I have ever seen: the glorious ancient imperial capital of Vijayanagara. Acres of rocky land sprinkled with piles of giant boulders lie in front of the intrepid explored, brave enough to defy the terrifying afternoon sun. At every turn of the dusty winding path, behind each sun-burned hillside hides a revered Hindu temple, mysterious, cold and cavernous, or the four shabby stone walls of the ghost of a crumbling workshop. Some are barely worth a close look – structures the size of a small house, rough stone slabs put together hastily and held in place by the indifference of time; others beckon you like irresistible temptations – they are vast, artistically elaborate, well preserved temple complexes, looming large ahead of your camera lens, imposing, beautiful.

Follow the light
You cannot help but marvel at the perfection and complexity of the stone work. You walk around along the high walls in the square courtyards, you carefully tread into the dark innermost chambers - the now-empty shrines where the sacred statues of Vishnu and other deities of the Hindu pantheon used to be guarded and worshipped, you walk up and down the stairs polished by millennia of stomping feet, and when all has been photographed from all angles you can still revel in the music of the singing pillars – the tall stalks of stone which adorn the columns that support the temple ceiling and produce musical notes when knocked.

Picture of me please!!!

And when you decide to take a break from so much stone beauty, you will likely end up having to deal with a riotous mob of Indian school children on a field trip who want to have their picture taken with the conspicuous and obviously expensive SLR camera hanging around your neck. They call you “sir” and “madam” and above all, want to know which country you are from. It doesn’t matter what your answer is, they will giggle and run and shove one another in front of you and ask you again and again… Later, when you are tired of wandering through the hills like an overexcited archaeology student you can sit down and spend some time watching the boulders. It’s peaceful.

Published from Agra, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal

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