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!