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Clare’s Travel Diary

Friday, 14 Dec 2007

Location: Madurai, India

MapHello everyone!

sorry its been a while since my last update, things have slowed down a bit on the once in a lifetime experience front and I'm more into the process of travelling around now. Chris and I (my current travelling companion) have been in Southern India now for almost 3 weeks and have really packed it in over that time!

In a sentence, I flew into Delhi, pit-stopped and flew down to Bombay, met Chris, took the night train to Goa for a couple days, flew to Chennai and then trained it south through Mamallapuram, Pondicherry & Madurai down to the Keralan coastal town of Varkala where we chilled for a while. We are now in Cochin as Chris flies back to Bombay from here on the 21st. Its been a bit of a whistle stop tour so far, and Chris has had to battle some sickness (still finishing antibiotics) but we're all good and have really enjoyed it.

Delhi was a real experience, I stupidly thought In would get a taste of the 'real' Delhi and stayed in Chandi Chowk in Old Delhi, right next to the Red Fort, but it was a pretty big change to adapt to coming from being in a little group in Africa, to being on my own in India! It was fine though, I was only there a day really and did some much needed shopping at Connaught Place - took a ride down there on Delhi's brand new, beautiful, air conditioned, wonderful metro - if only they had rooms to rent!

Once I made it down to Bombay I settled in a bit and really enjoyed being there - I'm quite looking forward to going back in February to pick up Lizzie. Chris arrived and we did some city sightseeing, saw the Gateway of India and the Taj hotel, did a boat trip in the harbour, went to see a Bollywwod movie in the cinema - Om Shanti Om, well worth seeing if you get the chance! and wandered around Ghandi's house, Colaba, Chowpatty Beach and Marine Drive. We ate alot in Leopold's Cafe (you should know it if you've read Shantaram) and met lots of other travellers all passing through going in different directions.

We joined up with some of them to get the night train down to Goa. The trains are really full at this time of year with the Hindu's on pilgrimages to Kerala and the tourists heading to the beaches for xmas so we had to pay extra to secure our ticket - this meant the 12 hour journey in a sleeper cost us the princely sum of GBP5!

Once in Arambol (north Goa) we had a lovely couple of days on the beach - Amy we went to Terekol fort again! and then realised that again all the trains were full going south so we had to revise our original plan to go via Gokarna to Kerala and instead flew to Chennai (Madras) and decided to work backwards to Cochin. Turned out to be a really good thing as we got off the heavily beaten trail onto a slightly less beaten one as we went down the East coast through a little town called Mamallapuram - famous for stone carvings and having the oldest temple ruins and bas-reliefs in India. Unfortunately Chris got ill that day and spent the next few trying to keep food inside her. I had an Ayurvedic massage and started my nursing duties!

The place we were staying was really lovely though and they helped Chris to feel better by giving her some arrowroot soupy stuff (she swears it helped!). I also got the chance to practice being on my own while sightseeing and and eating while still having a friend safety net (chained to the bathroom!) Chris felt much better after a couple days and we headed south again to Pondicherry - formerly a French colonial property. I actually really liked it, the bit of town closest to the sea has been preserved and is lovely and quiet, with little cafes and restaurants where you can get fresh coffee (oh god how I miss that!) and I spent a day cycling around on an old fashioned bike with a basket getting provisions and sorting out how to move on from there. Chris had a bit of a relapse but we got some medication and she was much better almost as soon as she started on them.

From there we took a terrifying bus ride, where we duelled for space on the road with Bullock carts, motorcyles and big, big trucks to the mainline train station at Villapuram. The people on the station were enchanted to have some native english speakers to chat to and looked after us while we waited for the train. They thought my water bottle was a small portable fire extinguisher! While we were at the station we became aware of a gathering noise and suddenly about 200-300 people burst onto the station all wearing red and orange Saris and shirts and clambered down across the tracks to cross to another platform where they hung red banners and Saris and started singing. The station engineers told us that they were all going on a pilgrimage to a temple in Kerala (we were in Tamil Nadu at the time) in honour of Devi - this happens alot at this time of year. We had been talking to some of the guys working in Mamallapuram who were fasting for 48 days, wearing lungis, no shoes, no contact with women and going to the temple twice a day all as a run up to another of these pilgrimages. They are for luck and finish with a big party when you get back to where you live after the final temple visit.

Anyway, tangent over, we got the train and went straight to the temple town of Madurai - its the second biggest city in Tamil Nadu and has one of the biggest temple complexes in Southern India. We got there that night and found our hotel, amazingly they had the roof room free which meant we got this dramatic panoramiic view over the temple complex and its soaring Gopurams (towers). It was dark but still amazing and we had dinner up there with a celebratory beer - not quite able to believe our luck!

Next day it has started raining but we headed down to the temple where we were quickly recruited by a temple guide (you'd think it should be the other way round, but really, its not!) We checked in our shoes - hmmmm suddenly the rain was less romantic, more annoying! - and started exploring. It was actually really amazing and we spent hours in there just pottering around. Once I upload the pictures take a look because it was so atmospheric and peaceful. We also had an amazing lunchtime Thali in a pure veg restaurant (which means no meat, eggs or alcohol is served). A thali comes on a Banana leaf tray with rice, poppadom, Chapatti and lots of little pots of different curries and chutneys - delicious!

The story continues down on the beach....