Thursday, December 28, 2006

(This is our 2nd try at this post, the 1st got deleted... the joys of international internetting...)

We last left you in Kodaikanal, though we said that we were probably going to stay there for another night, while we actually ended up leaving the next afternoon, because we were able to find a very cheap taxi ride down the mountain. While slightly more costly than the bus, our 250 rupee taxi ride took at least 2 hours less, was much more comfortable, and didn't involve constant stopping for more passengers, so the additional 75 rupees or so was definitely well spent! Our ultimate goal from Kodai was the hill station town of Ooty, but we first had to go to Coimbatore, an industrial stopping point where we could catch a mountain-bound bus, and then we were aiming to take an old-fashioned steam-engine train from the town of Mettupalayam (at the base of the Nilgiri Mountain range) all the way up to Ooty.
So after around a four hour taxi ride, mostly a steep winding descent, during which we got to see many amazing views, including a waterfall panorama at one point, though the curves were so exciting for Liz that her motion-sickness took over (for the 2nd time) and we had to pull over for a puke break! The Indians all had a good laugh about that, and soon enough we ended up in Coimbatore, though unfortunately we were dropped off on the far side of town, meaning that we had to ride a very cramped city bus across town to the bus station we needed to go to Mettupalayam. Cramped doesn't quite describe it, as this was without a doubt our worst Indian bus experience yet, as it was hot, humid, sweaty, smelly, and of course we were carrying all of our possessions on our back, while jammed from every side by an ever-increasing number of Indian bus-riders. When buses here start to fill up, you constantly think that no more people could possibly fit on board, and then at the next stop another 10 people get on board, while none get off! But of course we made it, and dirty, polluted city air had never tasted so fresh, and while our next bus to Mettupalayam was also packed, the fact that we at least had seats made it quite tolerable, though the utter lack of legroom meant that the 45-minute ride simply couldn't pass fast enough.
The steam-engine train runs up the mountain once a day, in the off-season (which it thankfully is), at 7:10 from Mettupalayam, and it takes around 6 hours to climb up the mountain, though the distance is only 36 km, but the ascent is so steep, a 1:12 grade incline at certain points, which is why the specially-designed old-fashioned train is still in existence, since replacing the track is clearly far too costly. However, upon our arrival, we quickly learned that our plans had to change, since the train was not running currently, due to landslides which had wiped out the track quite severely, such that the train wouldn't be running until around January 15. So after a quick "team meeting" we decided we might as well head to Ooty, because although the train might be running part of the line (from Coonoor to Ooty), we couldn't get a clear answer from anyone and would rather end up at our ultimate destination than stuck somewhere in the middle. After a quick, and fortunately amazingly delicious dinner, we then got to endure several hours of the biggest run-around imaginable, as no one, fellow travelers and bus station employees alike, could determine when or where the next bus for Ooty would be appearing. After well over an hour one did show up, but was conveniently full (or at least full for us foreigners, since we have never seen an Indian not get on board a bus, regardless of how full it may be), and so after waiting so long that Anderson started playing football in the parking lot - which turned out to be hilarious as a rather-untalented Indian man tried to play for a while, sending the ball all over the place, amidst the cows, goats, dogs, and even the one she-donkey that was there. Around 10 pm, a woman and her son who were also waiting to go to Ooty, where they live, rushed over to us and said that there was a microbus heading to Coonoor that we could take, for 50 rupees each, that was leaving soon and filling fast, so we rushed over and grabbed seats on the packed bus, which was partially our fault since our huge bags consumed much of the aisle, but there really wasn't anywhere else for them to go. The two-hour mountain ride passed quickly, as nighttime means the roads are far less busy, though at the price of absolutely no scenery, but since this was our 3rd mountain ascent we didn't feel like we were missing out on too much.
We arrived in Coonoor then after midnight, and by the time we got our packs off the bus the Indians from Ooty had disappeared, so our hopes of ride-sharing the last 30 minutes up the mountain were quickly dashed, and after attempting to find an affordable ride (an impossibility at such a late hour), we started to wander around looking for a hotel. Conveniently all were locked up, and the one that a few guys hanging out in the street knew about was around 2 km up the mountain, so given our utter lack of options we decided to sleep in the train station, in the "Resting Room." That means we slept in large chairs, with our bags chained to the legs, though we did manage to get some semblance of sleep, particularly after our ear plugs defined the chorus of barking dogs that all seemed to be residing just outside the window. We still weren't sure if there would be a train in the morning to Ooty, but buses started around 6 am or so, so we figured whenever we awoke transportation would be available, regardless of what form it took.
Fortunately we were in luck, as the Nilgiri Blue Mountain Express (unintentional Indian irony...) was indeed running, and so we splurged on 1st class tickets (75 rupees) so that we could be at the front of the train, since it is pushed, not pulled, up the mountain. However, it was run by bio-diesel, not steam-engine, since the steam section of the line, we learned, was the leg that was closed due to landsliding. Nonetheless, the ride up the mountain was amazing, chock-full of impressive views of small mountain villages, tea plantations, and, as the rather annoying American (we assumed, didn't dare ask) family behind us couldn't stop raving about, plenty of terraces for crops. I'm sure people, whether locals or other travelers, find us obnoxious on occasion, but this family took the cake for bickering about utterly pointless things, and for just being completely lame. We know we're not super-cool or anything, but we certainly felt like it after enduring them for the one hour ride (or so) up to Ooty.
Ooty, therefore, is where we are currently, and where we will remain probably for at least another day, though who really knows, our only schedule at this point is that we need to be in Bangalore the morning of the 4th of January to meet our friend Luke, who is flying from the States to travel with us for around 5 weeks, which we are both quite excited for, since it's been a while since we've seen a familiar face!
Ooty has been fun for the past 4 days though, since it has a lot more to do than the typical Indian town - as a former British summer "resort" it seems to be a bit more developed, and today it is a very popular Indian tourist spot, so most people here are visiting from elsewhere, although they are not exactly foreigners like ourselves. Highlights here have been the Thread Garden (the only exhibit of its kind in the world, of realistic-looking flowers made by hand entirely of thread yet using no needle or equipment of any kind), the Rose Garden (2800 varieties of roses, many beautifully in bloom), an amusement park (which was amusing to us for many more reasons that the typical visitor - the rides were occasionally unsafe, and definitely dated when not broken down), a movie theater (which is playing only one film, "Dhoom 2," a Bollywood film that we have seen twice due to a lack of alternate nightlife entertainment - there is none), and then today we wandered throughout the extensive Botanical Gardens (which again were enjoyable for a multitude of reasons, not just the flora but also the numerous photographs we had to pose for with Indian tourists, we were at moments literally mobbed, and were smiling and holding children throughout our stay).
A note on Bollywood films, of which we have now seen two, "Don" (a remake of a 70s classic) and "Dhoom 2" (a sequel obviously to a very popular/trendy action flick), and although they are mostly in Hindi, there are frequent English phrases, so following what is passed off as a plot is generally easily doable, though occasionally a (usually) pivotal scene will occur where we have no clue what happened in the dialogue, but a scene or two later everything will become clear. There are plenty of dance scenes, that then become music videos for India MTV and the other music channels here; each film has around 6 such sequences, which are definitely the most elaborate parts, though the don't necessarily directly connect to the plot, with at least some sort of fantasy element. That being said, they are certainly the most enjoyable parts of the movies, more so than we really could have ever imagined, and currently we simply cannot get the Dhoom 2 theme song out of our heads, such that we have bought the soundtrack and are trying to rip it into mp3 to upload to our mp3 player, though that is an entirely different (and frustrating) story, as downloading the necessary ripping software is currently taking absolutely forever...
So all is well , our X-Mas was the best ever, just kidding, though we saw "Dhoom 2"" for the first time that night, which was fun, and the definitely non-traditional meals we had were nonetheless absolutely delicious. Hope the holiday season is treating everyone well, best wishes to all for 2007!

Friday, December 22, 2006

To continue where we left off last night, after trekking through several kilometers of various terrain, we relaxed on a hilltop for a few minutes, soaking up the view and watching the daily migration of a herd of bison. As the daylight was nearing its end, we then headed back to our treehouse, by way of a slightly different set of paths through the woodlands. We saw a different species of giant squirrel, majestically posing on a treebranch right next to a cliff, and heard more elephants within the brush, though we didn't see anymore. We enjoyed our dinner as heartily as one could, given that it was a very simple (and runny) curry, with warm paratta bread on the side, but since we hadn't really eaten much all day since we were on the bus, any food was certainly vastly superior to no food. We turned in uncharacteristically early then, since our lights were attracting record numbers of mosquitoes, and we had to be up early the next morning for breakfast before catching the bus at 8:30 am.
Our next day was spent almost entirely in transit, as we rode 3 different buses in order to get from Chinnar to our destination, Kodaikanal, a so-called "hill station" high up in the Tamil Nadu mountains. At 2100 meters, it's our highest elevation within the Western Ghats thus far. But first we rode to Udumalpet, where we enjoyed our cheapest Indian meal yet, only 20 rupees for rice and its omnipresent sauce accompaniments. From Udumalpet we traveled on a super-packed bus to Pallani, such that we spent the hour or so with one of packs stretched across our laps - though that didn't seem to phase Liz one bit, as she still managed to fall asleep for almost half the ride! Our longest bus ride, however, was the approximately 3-hour uphill climb to Kodaikanal, winding through the hills, which was quite similar to our ascent to Munnar, though the mist actually meant our views were not quite as impressive.
When arriving in a new town we usually follow the advice of our two guide books, Lonely Planet & Rough Guide, to determine the few hotels in our price range (300 rupees or less, preferrably around 200/night), since wandering about with our heavy packs is far from the most enjoyable part of travelling India. Up until now, there haven't been an abundance of options, so our choice has usually been quite simple, as in the first place we visit is "good enough." However, the first place in Kodaikanal wasn't really what we wanted, since although it had a nice view of the valley below, the room itself was dingy and uninviting, and the bathroom looked like it has been used for a horror movie set at some point previously. Unfortunately, the next three hotels we looked at also weren't quite up to par, even though the tout who we were having a tough time ditching seemed to think they were all quite nice, though we more-than-suspected that that was solely due to his cut of the increased room rate, and not due to our supposed satisfaction. Most towns have touts, who get a 50 rupee payout from the hotels for bringing in guests, so even though they are not at all directly affiliated with any hotels, they fight hard to "help us out," even though we know they aren't in it to assist us at all. So after seeing four shoddy places, we ditched our tout by wandering off in the opposite direction, though by this point that meant we had walked well over two or three kilometers carrying all of our stuff. We decided to check one more hotel, listed in one of the guide books, before stopping at a restaurant to relax and refuel and make our choice. However, that place was closed for renovation, so we were dejectedly heading back up yet another of Kodaikanal's less-than-small hills, when we decided to take up a few workman who had yelled at us on their offer to see their hotel, which was being completely renovated, but apparently still open for business. So needless to say our current hotel, the Hamidia Lodge, besides some minor construction noise in the mornings, is quite nice, and we even got the price we wanted, 200/night, "since we came alone" - so no tout has to get paid...
Given the altitude here, and also the time of year (just after the monsoon season), most every day is overcast, but the air is perfectly clean and when the mist clears the views looking down on the surrounding hills are quite amazing. There is a large (artificial) lake here, so we rented a paddle-boat yesterday and cruised around for a while, and we've walked countless kilometers up and down steep hills to various sites of natural beauty: Bear Shola Falls (a nice waterfall), Croaker's Walk (a 2-rupee-entry walkway at a very scenic overlook), Grant's Park (a well maintained gardens open to the public), and we also walked the full 5-km around the Kodai Lake. The food here is quite good, and rather varied, with several Tibetan places serving thukpa (a hearty noodle soup) and momos (stuffed dumplings), a great Indian restaurant called Hotel Astoria which serves a delicious lunchtime thali (all-you-can-eat rice plate with a vast selection of sauces), and tonight we splurged a bit and ate at a "Western Vegetarian" restaurant, called Manna's Bake, which though well off the beaten path, was worth eating at for its tasty vegetarian pie, and more importantly the amazing apple crumble with custard for dessert. Foolishly we had eaten a full thali mere hours before, so we are currently almost painfully full of food, but since it was all extremely tasty, and we've been walking quite a bit these past few days, we assume our belly pains will be gone quite soon!
We are also in "Homemade Chocolate" country, so virtually every shop (and they are pretty much beyond counting) serves a wide variety of fresh chocolates so we have been doing a little sugar-snacking as well. We will probably remain here for another day, before heading north to Coimbatore, though that will just be a stop-off before heading to a triumvirate of hill-stations in the far north of Tamil Nadu, of which Ooty is most definitely the most well known. To get there we are going to ride on India's last remaining steam-engine train, which chugs up steep hills for around 6 hours, and should treat us to some impressive scenery.
In case we don't post again within the next few days, we'd like to wish everyone a Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and of course a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Many things have obviously happened during the last 8 days, as we have traveled a few hundred kilometers and seen some amazing (mostly natural) things. We travelled from Kottayam to Kumily by bus, where the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is located. After a typical tasty Indian meal, at a local hotel (as in not a "restaurant") we followed a tout to a local homestay, which is the preferred method of lodging in Kumily, so as to avoid the overpriced hotels aimed at tourists. So we stayed at a nice place, called Summer Cottage, with our room on the 2nd floor, seperate from the family's living quarters. Our plans to visit Periyar the next day were foiled however, as a state-wide strike halted not just the buses (as we had been led to believe), but also virtually all the restaurants, stores, and even the boats within the Sanctuary. In addition, the prices were not what we expected, instead of 150 rupees for the first day and 50 rupees for subsequent days, it was 300 rupees each and everyday. Our initial plan of seeing Periyar for several days quickly changed then, and we decided we'd do one day only, unless we were simply so amazed that we had to go back. The strike day, therefore, we just laid low, though we did go see a Kathakali performance, a local type of dramatic performance, combining music, dance, drama, and acting, all to tell traditional Indian stories. While interesting, we were glad we'd attended a shortened-for-the-tourists rendition, instead of the normal allnight affair that Kathakali originally was. That also meant that our initial plan of going to Cochi after Periyar was nixed, as other than beaches Kathakali is the main attraction!
Our day at Periyar started later than initially intended, as we were ambitiously going to awake at 5 am to be at the park at 6 am when it opened, but Anderson accidentally mis-reset the clock, resulting in our sleeping until almost 9... but all worked out, as we didn't mind the extra sleep one bit, and we still got to experience the two things we wanted to at Periyar: a guided nature hike through the forest, and the park-sponsored boat-trip through the park's lake. Our 11 am nature hike was very nice, as it was just the two of us and our guide, following dirt paths through the forest for around 4-5 km. The walk took around 2.5 hours, during which we saw a variety of animals. No tigers or elephants, since both are hard to spot, though we did see ample elephant dung and several footprints, indicating that they had been around recently. Periyar is one of India's larger wildlife preserves, so it would seem that the animals would be quite aware of the habits and time schedule of their human visitors. But we did see several species of monkeys, a massive yellow spider, a white frog, and several types of birds. The highlight, however, was without a doubt the two endangered giant squirrels that we saw right before our hike ended - they were quite large (for squirrels), with jet-black bodies and bright red sides, and they calmly sat in the trees just above us, allowing for perfect nature photography! Right afterwards we had to re-cross a river, by bamboo raft, to get out of the main area of the park, at which time Anderson, while itching his leg, noticed that he was bleeding, from where a leech had latched itself one to him! We then tore off our socks and shoes to discover a bunch more, Liz had 6 in her shoes (though none had attached themselves yet), while Anderson had a total of 5 leeches, 3 of which were busy blood-sucking, though all for better-or-worse popped off when the socks were removed, so salt and/or a lighter weren't necessary, though the definitely had done some damage, as all 3 bites bled for quite a while, as leeches secrete an anti-coagulant when they attach themselves, so Anderson ended up with some very bloody socks.
After sitting around for a while, and enjoying some cake that we'd brought as our "lunch," we took the 4 pm boat ride (which cost only 15 rupees each), the last of the day, which was hyped as having the most animals out and about. We saw several herds of deer, some boar, a fairly large lizard, and many species of birds, including a bunch that were nest-bound with their young, on trees in the middle of the lake. So we had a great, full day, though we decided that one day was definitely enough, since we didn't think we'd see many more animals if we returned, even if we did one of the quite pricey (and thus unappealing) nature treks.
From Kumily we headed to Munnar, a mountain town surrounded by giant tea plantations, so our lengthy 5-hour bus ride was mostly spent slowly winding up lush green hills, which was certainly a bit nauseating, as Liz proved by losing her lunch near the top! Even so, the views were immaculate, with endless rows of tea being grown throughout vast valleys. The downside of bus travel is that things always take longer than they ought to, with buses arriving late, taking longer to navigate the bumpy roads, and up in the mountains they frequently stop to allow traffic to pass going the other way, since the road is often not quite wide enough for two vehicles. In addition, sitting on the bus here is much more exhausting than you might think, since the jostling is endless, the turns often force you to grab onto the seat in front of you for support, and without fail every bus is packed to at least capacity. This means no leg room, people pressed up against you for hours on end, and often we are packed in tight with our bags, since the ancient delapidated buses here are certainly not designed for global travellers with large backpacks! That being said, rides are extraordinarily cheap, never more than 40 or 50 rupees for a several hour ride, so although sometimes a bit stressful there is nothing one can rightfully complain about: you get what you pay for.
Munnar itself is accurately described by Lonely Planet as "grubby," but fortunately the surrounding hills are quite beautiful. Our three days there, then, were spent exploring the areas around the town. One afternoon we rented bicycles and rode a ways up one of the hills, which was quite tiring, but the relaxing ride back down, complete with cool mountain winds, made it a worthwhile exchange. That was in the early afternoon, since we needed to waste a little time waiting for the next bus to arrive, so that we could take a short daytrip up to Top Station. Top Station is basically a collection of tea stands high up in the mountains, on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu state border, but the views of the misty mountains were simply amazing. It is also home to the rare-blooming Neela Kurinji flower, which shows its beautiful purple flowers only once every 12 years. Luckily, November 2006 was the first bloom of the new millenium, which meant that even though we arrived a month too late to see purple-coated hills, we were still fortunate enough to see a few late-blooming plants. The ride up was just under 2 hours, so in order to catch the 5:30 (and final) bus back to Munnar, we had to hurry to the actual highpoint of Top Station, and were unable to relax and enjoy a cup of tea, much to the vendor's unhappiness, but at least we got to see the impressive view as well as the rare flowers, which we weren't even expecting to be able to see at all.
The next day we returned to our wildlife watching ways, journeying 9 km up into the hills to Ernavikulam National Park, one of the last remaining homes of the rare Nilgiri Tahr. Essentially a mountain goat, the tahr is ridiculously tame, such that they were hunted virtually into extinction by the British, and even today remain on the endangered species list. Their inherent tameness meant that we not only got to watch them feeding on the mountain steppes, but also were able to get within mere feet for photo opportunities, as a herd of around 20 or 30 tahr were feeding right next to the paved path up the mountain. Touching them is prohibited, obviously, but we were able to stand right next to them, even the young goats and the pregnant mothers (they give birth each January) didn't mind our presence at all. Definitely a drastic change from our experience at Periyar, where we had to keep our fingers crossed just to see the animals!
We were initially going to next head to the mountain town of Kodaikanal, in Tamil Nadu state, but we decided on a whim to check out Munnar's Forest Department Office, which had information on additional national parks, and after reading up about the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, we decided to go there for a night, since it was on our way, but relatively off the beaten tourist trail. It is also home to numerous rare species of animals, from leopards and tigers to elephants and white bison. In addition, the had an overnight treehouse lodging option, for the low price of 1000 rupees per night, including meals. While 1000 rupees is technically over our daily budget, we figured staying the night in a national park was a worthwhile splurge, as well as a slightly-early Christmas present to ourselves... and it was definitely worth it!
The next day then, after spending a few hours winding through, and up and down, the tea-filled hills, we arrived at Chinnar just in time for our 2 pm check-in. After a bit of confusion about our reservation, which meant we were surrouned by 9 wildlife officials, all trying to determine whether "Anderson" was the same as "Andrews" or whatever scribbled writing they had written down as the reservation, we headed to our treehouse. The 1 km trek, with our huge bags in tow, wasn't all that bad, as fortunately our excitement enabled us to ignore the weight of our packs. Our lodging was indeed literally a house in a tree, accessible solely by a rope ladder, which then took a bit of maneuvering to climb with our 20 kg packs. But we made it, slowly but surely, and after a moment to relax, we headed off with our guide into the wilderness for an evening nature trek.
We quickly learned the difference between hiking and treking, as during our 3-hour journey we were never really on much of a path, instead we climbed up crumbling hills, cut through brambles and brush that needed to be hacked down first by our guide's everpresent machette, such that we were soon quickly covered in sweat and short of breath. It was all most definitely worth it, as we soon heard noises from the bushes, "ele-pants," we were assured. Then the most amazing thing yet, at least in India thus far, happened: as we rounded a corner, we got to see a huge male bull elephant, a "tusker," heading right for us! Our guide literally turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction, yelling at us "come, come, dangerous," so although National Geographic may never quite forgive us, we followed suit rather than stop to take pictures. Male elephants are definitely potentially dangerous though, as they can move quite quickly, are simply enormous, and since they are often leading other elephants, will not hesitate to attack anything that might be deemed a threat, which intruding Western tourists would certainly qualify as. The key to photographically hunting elephants, then, is to be far enough away that they cannot see you, but that you and your camera lens can safely see them. So, after quickly hiding in the nearby brush, we worked our way up a steep mountain slope, which was surprisingly covered with elephant tracks and droppings. The terrain seemed more suited to the tahr, which also live in Chinnar though we didn't see any, but it seems that elephants can travel through the hills more easily than we humans. After walking several kilometers, we worked our way up to a lookout point, high above the valley where we sighted the elephant. From above we were able to see numerous elephants, around seven or eight total, in two different groups, one feeding in a clearing and the other wandering across the hillside. It was really quite spectacular, as we had no expectations of seeing any elephants at all, since they are unfortunately getting more and more rare in the wild. We continued treking for a while longer, and while resting on another rocky hilltop we were able to see numerous bison, including one rare (and lucky) white bison, all wandering through the park to their sleeping places.

We're currently closing down this internet cafe, so we will continue our adventures soon, hopefully tomorrow...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

We're now back to our traveling ways, having departed Varkala 3 days ago, and though we are currently in Kottayam, near the backwaters, tomorrow when we wake we head to the Periyar Wildlife Preserve to the east. Regarded as south India's best place to see wild elephants, we're hoping that we can at least see some of them, and though the odds are against it we obviously are hoping to see a wild tiger. Even if we don't see either, plenty of other animals should be around, from spotted deer to wild boar, so we should have some exciting wild animal photos regardless! We'll probably take a 4-5km guided hike, to get further into the park, though a boat tour is a possibility as well. It's four hours there by bus, so we'll hopefully leave Kottayam early enough tomorrow morning that we have time to take a tour or something tomorrow afternoon before the park closes at 6 pm.
We went to the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary today, about a 30 minute bus ride (for 6 rupees there, 7.5 back), and even though the foreigner rate was 9 times that of the Indian rate, it was still only 45 rupees to enter the sanctuary, which is actually an island now barely separated from the mainland. Much of the backwaters are similar, in that land and water are well mixed, partially from the extensive rice paddies, partially from land reclamation, and partially from the endless African moss that has taken over, making many parts of the water just look like land. After wandering for a while through the sanctuary, and not really seeing many birds, we decided to take a wooden-boat ride out into the backwaters, which turned out to pretty wonderful, not only for the increase in wildlife, but also because it was very relaxing being alone in a small quiet boat, surrounded by nature, with only the sounds of the birds to disturb us. Our craft was powered by bamboo pole, so unlike the noisy, smoke-spitting engine-powered boats, ours was silent and environmentally sound. Though in a way its rather depressing, knowing that our 200 rupees ($4) will probably feet the boatman and his family for several weeks in a way makes us feel very good...
We did, then, see a good number of birds, though only about 5-10 different species, but nonetheless it was pretty enjoyable seeing them fly all around us, or to look out on the lake and see birds on branches everywhere, and on our return ride to the sanctuary, we got to watch one waterbird dive underwater, fishing, only to surface several meters away, while hardly disturbing the water. There were also a lot of turtles sunning themselves, though they were rather bashful when we approached.
Yesterday we took another day trip, since Kottayam itself is a somewhat dingy and unspectacular city, this time to the nearby town of Ettumanur, home of a large Shiva Temple. It was a little confusing, to be honest, since none of the people working were very helpful, and then they tried to ridiculously overcharge us for our camera pass (1oo rupees versus 20 rupees according to our guide book - such "inflation" doesn't occur to such extremes here, it's merely individual people trying to take advantage of gullible tourists), so we weren't able to take pictures of the semi-famous murals there, which though large and impressive, were rather obscured and dimly lit. Basically they were hardly on display at all, we actually walked past them three times before spotting them, so a photo would've been difficult anyways, so it all worked out. We did walk around the temple, which was completely covered with oil burners soaked in burnt oil, though our walk was quite quick since the concrete was boiling hot to the touch of our bare feet. Shoes aren't allowed in many places in India, not just temples, as many shops also don't allow any sort of footwear.
Our hotel here in Kottayam is pretty standard, though it does have cable TV, so we are watching a bit of CNN and plenty of football (not American) on ESPN and SkySports. It also has a built-in restaurant, which is good though overpriced for its food portions, but is still nice because we can get room service at the same price on any items, which means for once we can actually drink cold water most of the time! There's also a sweet shop in the lobby, which we'll probably take advantage of (again) when we return from the internet cafe.
While we had a fun time in Varkala, we are glad to be moving again, since we were starting to get a bit bored being so stagnant. That being said, we did meet a lot of very nice people, both fellow travelers and locals alike, and the beach there is definitely prime, with 2 meter waves crashing into a sandbar, so you can bodysurf while standing in only about 1 foot of water. Our last day in town was actually a bit of a headache, since we'd stayed an additional day to try and testdrive another motorcycle (the first one, which we almost ignorantly bought, turned out to be a bit of a lemon, with shaky steering and such, but fortunately we were well-advised to steer clear by some folks more knowledgeable than ourselves), but then that one also fell through since the owner refused to let us testdrive it for a day before buying (which obviously means something must've been not quite right). The middleman for the deal, a local mechanic and motorcycle tour-operator offered us another bike, though for several thousand more rupees, but fearing the classic "bait-and-switch" we steered clear; we're going to wait until we're in Mysore where Luke's friends/contacts can assist us in making a more educated purchase, if we're still feeling the desire to travel by motorcycle in another month.
In addition to that, we had a bit of a fiasco involving phone usage, since a local phone shop owner tried to overcharge us by several hundred rupees, resulting in Liz getting into a half-an-hour yelling match with him at his shop, and then more harsh words were exchanged when he came to our hotel to argue more. But nothing came of it, since he was trying to add on a 3 (initially 5) rupee surchage PER MINUTE on our effectively free BSNL phone call - which meant he was asking for over 300 rupees. India has 3 phone networks, depending on the type of call, but BSNL is the one we use, since we have a calling card which we access via a local 800 #, so that we only have to pay 3.5 rupees per call, regardless of length. Obviously that's not very fair to the local operator, since we can (and have) tied up the one phone in a call shop for a few hours before, but that's how the system works, and no one had any issues until this one morning, when we were calling our nephew Isaiah to wish him a happy 9th birthday. So we both got yelled at, though mostly Liz, but our hotel operator Rajesh at least calmed things down a bit, riding his scooter back and forth and talking on his cell phone in Malayalam (the local language) a bunch, with the end result being us not paying anything at all, since we offered the 20 rupees (what we legitimately owed) several times, with him refusing, so that was that...
Despite that one bad experience Varkala was great, but we are really excited for our next few days, where we will be exploring the natural wilderness of India, and then checking out the amazing views that Munnar offers of the Western Ghats (mountainous hills). We have decided not to go to Goa for New Year's, since the prices there will be substantially overinflated, so we will have to wait until late February before hitting the trance-music clubs there, but hopefully the lodging prices will be slightly lower so we can hit the clubs harder!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Not doing much, in the traditional sense, but having a great time relaxing in Varkala, though we are honestly finally just about to leave, to head further north into Kerala. However, we are currently investigating purchasing an Enfield Bullet motorcycle, the quintessential Indian roadbike, and a much freer form of transportation, rather than our current forced reliance on the often rare buses and trains. Motorcycles here are more of a temporary investment, since you can resell them quite easily to other travelers for virtually the same price, and bikes are quite cheap anyway, between $400 and $500 depending. Our bike will need a rack attached to the rear, so we can strap down our packs, but since Liz's pack has ripped a bit , and we don't have tons of stuff, we'd been debating dropping down to only one pack anyway. Having a motorcycle would also enable us to travel much more off the beaten path, as well avoiding the relatively pricey rickshaw rides within towns, that add up quite quickly. Petrol isn't the cheapest in India currently, around 53 rupies/litre, but the bikes get between 20-30 km/litre, so while its more expensive to travel by motorcycle than to solely take trains and buses, with rickshaw rides thrown in, the additional expense is rather marginal. Nevermind that you can't put a price on freedom!
However, we haven't seen the bike we want (good condition, good price, nice seller), so we may be leaving Varkala by train tomorrow if the bike(s) we look at today aren't meant to be, otherwise we'll remain here in town for a day or three longer learning to ride our new method of transportation. We met a guy named Michael from Germany, who has an Enfield (as do many other long-term India travelers) himself, and he gave us some basic lessons on starting and gear-shifting and such, so we are no longer totally in the dark on how to ride a bike. The roads here in India aren't nearly as bad as they are generally described, they are often just crowded making high speeds impossible, which is obviously just fine with us. But traffic is primarily in the cities and towns, so that travel between towns isn't too congested at all. By the time we make it further north where the population is more concentrated we'll be in theory seasoned bike-riding pros, so our south-to-north plan should be benificial in this department as well. Helmets are super cheap here as well, around $10, so getting those won't be a problem either. We don't have our hopes to high for this next bike, since the others we have seen haven't but up to par, but one never knows (particularly not here in India), when things will actually work out!
Michael also taught us an excellent card game, called Skat, pronounced 'Scot' not 'scat,' which is the national pasttime of sorts within Germany. It's meant for three players, though often played with four with the dealer sitting out, but it's really quite fun, like a more challenging euchre, or a more varying bridge. Check it out next time you're bored, it's a bit complicated at first but very fun.
Not much else is going on, just having fun relaxing, eating at Mamma Chompos' Restaurant Once Upon A Time, reading, body surfing in the ocean, etc. The sea today was rather rough, with a strong side-current, but most of the time previously it's been just about perfect. A few days ago we walked along the cliff/beaches here for over an hour, the scenery was quite impressive, as the palms and peaceful sand go on seemingly forever.
However things work with the motorcycle we'll be on our way out of Varkala real soon, just hopefully on two wheels instead of four!