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Thursdaysd's South Asian Sojourn

Old Feb 21st, 2011, 03:56 AM
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Status - well, I didn't intend such a long hiatus, but my muse seems to have stayed in India, plus I'm now in SEA, where there are used bookshops... It doesn't help that the "n" on my keyboard is sticking, and I have to keep going back and fixing things.

I'm currently in cold and misty Sapa, after one of the worst night trains I've ever taken. Will be taking it back to Hanoi tomorrow... I've given up on Tunisia for early March, replacing it with London and Lisbon.

Dec 10 - 14 - Coffee and Critters in Coorg

I had booked with Kabbe Holidays (http://www.kabbeholidays.com/) based on the recommendation of a chance-met couple from Chennai, and the B&B's website. And I had paid a sizable deposit. In cash. I didn't think too much about the deposit, as I had been required to pay cash deposits for both Palolem and Kannur. I'd paid those via Western Union, since the U.S. seems not to have joined the wire transfer system, and it had been more trouble and more expensive than visiting the ICICI bank in Mangalore. However, when Hyacinth decided to call for directions before I left Kannur, and couldn't get an answer on any of the phone numbers on the website, I did start to wonder... Had I been stupid? Did I need a Plan B? I took another look at the not-very-enticing options in Lonely Planet and crossed my fingers.

Hyacinth had arranged my transfer with the brother of the rickshaw driver she usually employed, and both men went with me. I don't think they had traveled the route before, and I don't think they enjoyed it. We climbed up onto the Deccan Plateau, through a Wild Life Reserve, and as we climbed the temperature, not unnaturally, dropped. I welcomed the cooler weather, but these seaside guys clearly missed their accustomed heat and humidity. Then I had to stop them tormenting the monkeys who made their home in the reserve.

The road had progressively deteriorated, but after we passed a rubber plantation (apparently within the park) suddenly we were treated to smooth, well-maintained, asphalt. At Virajpet, the southern gateway to Coorg, my driver started asking for directions ad once we reached the village nearest the B&B I was relieved to find that the locals had at least heard of Kabbe Holidays, but the further we went, the narrower the road became, and the fewer buildings we passed. Eventually we were traveling up a country lane, and during the final stretch we lurched over loose stones. But then, on the last coffee plantation before government land began, we found Kabbe Holidays and my deluxe cottage.

I hadn't particularly wanted a deluxe cottage, but the deluxe rooms were occupied by two Indian couples: a brother and sister and their spouses. The sister and her husband were IT employees from Bangalore, and the brother an army officer with an IT specialty based in Kanpur (formerly Cawnpore, another place intimately associated with the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence). As this was a family group, I was pleased when they included me in their conversation at meals (eaten family style on the verandah of the main house) and really enjoyed their company. I enjoyed the food too, plenty of it, and a good variety, and one big advantage to staying on a coffee plantation - really good filter coffee.

After two nights the Indian couples left, and I moved into one of the deluxe rooms, although not solely for economic reasons. The second evening of my stay I was horrified to find a large slug on the bathroom trashcan. After I recovered from the shock I scraped it off outside, only to return to see three more comfortably settled in on my washcloth. At this point I called for help, and one of the young men who worked on the property removed them - with some reluctance, I thought - and Dilip assured me that they showed up in his bathroom all the time. I can't imagine how that was supposed to reassure me! When I subsequently found a large spider on the the night stand I was only sorry I couldn't move that night. When I did move I found the smaller room warmer, and the bed big enough for three. And no unwelcome wildlife!

In addition to running the coffee plantation and the B&B, Dilip acted as tour guide for his visitors. One morning we all hiked up to a nearby viewpoint (before breakfast!), and another we visited the coffee plantation and Dilip's parents, who lived in a traditional style house behind the B&B. Initially I enjoyed visiting the plantation, seeing the coffee beans ripening on the waist-high bushes, shaded by silver oaks, but then we took a detour through a damper area infested with leeches. I had met leeches on a previous hike in Laos and had absolutely no interest in seeing them again. Luckily I was wearing boots, but the other two women were in sandals. Even my boots didn't help too much, as some sections had mesh on the outside and the leeches were able to crawl in, although when defeated by the inner layer they had to crawl out again, and I wasn't very good at getting them off.

I enjoyed a visit to two nearby waterfalls much more. Of course, I'm always happy to sit, or even stand, mesmerized by falling water, but I would think anyone would enjoy these two. The second, higher, fall could have been a bit of a challenge for me to reach, except that a film crew had improved the access just a week earlier. (I have a hard time imagining how a waterfall could help sell mattresses, though.)

My last afternoon Dilip took me to see a rather drab "palace" (Nalakunad), built by a local ruler so he could hide from Tipu Sultan, busy extending his Mysore-based empire. Then we drove to Dilip's ancestral home - easily the highlight for me. The Kodavu, the warrior people of Coorg (they are still allowed to own guns), are ancestor worshipers, and the tombs of Dilip's ancestors, and a temple, were outside. Inside, photos dating back to 1840 hung on the wall of a long terrace, with beautiful carving decorating the main door. Every Tuesday, some of the seventy members of the family meet there for food, drink and socializing.

I loved the cooler weather up in the hills, a welcome relief after the steamy conditions down on the coast, but Dilip wasn't happy when it rained one afternoon, which wasn't supposed to happen in December. The coffee harvest was drying out in the open, and needed several days with no rain. Mostly I had sun and good views in the morning, and mist, clouds or rain in the afternoon. I had just missed the harvest festival, but barley and five kinds of leaves had been tied to one of the columns in front of the cottages for good luck. Didn't seem to protect against slugs, though.
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Old Feb 21st, 2011, 04:07 AM
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Good to see you writing again, thursday. Are you missing your own bed yet?
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Old Feb 21st, 2011, 04:30 AM
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"Are you missing your own bed yet?" Lol. I could certainly use my electric mattress pad up here, but in general, no. I had, however, become very tired of heat and humidity - Hanoi, cool but not cold, was a welcome relief. I am definitely thinking Scandinavia and the Baltics for the next trip.
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Old Feb 21st, 2011, 06:31 AM
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great ongoing report
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Old Feb 21st, 2011, 07:40 AM
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I'm delighted to read another installment!
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Old Feb 21st, 2011, 10:08 PM
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Happy to see you writing again, thursdaysd.

It's fun to get a taste of rural/ pastoral living for short spans, isn't it.
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Old Feb 22nd, 2011, 05:09 AM
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Nice to see you back on form. The wildlife made me cringe. I saw Hyacinth in terms of Keeping Up Appearances. I'm sure she wasn't really like that.
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Old Feb 22nd, 2011, 06:04 AM
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Still here and plodding along too! Don't the Naruto Whirlpools now seem like a long time ago,lol?

Aloha!
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Old Feb 22nd, 2011, 04:51 PM
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So nice to "see" you all here!

ht - it's been almost five months since the whirlpools, but it does seem a lot longer!

gertie - I hadn't thought about Hyacinth Bucket, but Hyacinth in Kannur does have to take some care with her behavior as a woman living alone in a Muslim community.

The slugs and leeches were definitely ugh! I felt a bit bad about the spider - I upended a glass over it, but it moved at the wrong moment and I killed it by mistake.

Am back in Hanoi - rain - train back was quieter but no smoother. Hanoi-Sapa almost my worst night train ever and I've done over 40 (I counted while not sleeping). Am watching coverage of the NZ earthquake - I remember Christchurch as quiet and cute...
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Old Feb 22nd, 2011, 05:26 PM
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Yes, me too. That was 1979. Pics on BBC are horrific.
I too would've felt bad about the spider....I'm OK with spiders in fact but...
When I was in Hanoi last March/April it rained the whole time. And in Hue. And in HK.
It will stop sometime.
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Old Feb 25th, 2011, 01:14 AM
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Dec 14-15 - On the way to Mysore

Mysore was the only place from my 2001 trip that I had chosen to revisit (I don't count the night I'd need to spend in Chennai before catching a plane to Colombo), but I planned a couple of stops on the way. Although I'd really like to visit Dharamsala, headquarters of the Dalai Lama, this shaped up as a south Indian trip, and I was saving the whole north west for a separate visit (wouldn't want that ten-year visa to go to waste), but I discovered a Tibetan refugee settlement, Bylakuppe, on the northern route from Coorg. Then I remembered a brief glimpse of the illuminated fountains at Brindavan Gardens, 20 kms outside Mysore, at the end of an exhausting day tour arranged by the local Tourist Development Corporation, and wanted a longer look.

Dilip organized a car and driver for me, although after we set off I had to insist that we were going via Madikeri and Bylakuppe, instead of taking the direct route - why do I keep having trouble with Indian drivers??? Lonely Planet had been dismissive of Madikeri, the largest town in Coorg, and I agreed with the author - not a place to spend longer than it takes to admire the view from the Raja Seat. The main temple at Bylakuppe, on the other hand, is quite impressive, although, obviously, new.

Commandingly sited at the end of an avenue, with a huge picture of the Dalai Lama dominating the facade, it's surrounded by accommodation for the monks. The frescoes are crisp, the Buddha statues golden, the decorations elaborate and the marble floors a pleasure to walk on barefoot. The cafe where I ate lunch proved rather less clean and bright, but at least I didn't get sick. I was interested to see a group of young women in blue saris, escorted by white-clad nuns, also visiting the temple and eating in the same cafe.

After lunch we sped towards Mysore on a four-lane divided highway (where I noticed that, just as in North Carolina, slow-moving traffic hogged the fast lane) before turning off onto bad back roads to reach the Royal Orchid Brindavan Gardens (http://www.royalorchidhotels.com/roy...e/overview.asp ). This was a splurge, although less of a one than I feared thanks to an internet special rate. I was very amused by the hotel, where it seemed only two other rooms were taken, and which was all faded elegance and colonial grandeur. I thoroughly enjoyed my balcony overlooking the gardens, my big bed and easy chair, and my well-equipped bathroom, although I was less than happy with the pricey wifi and disastrous breakfast.

The hotel's Elephant Bar had plenty of elephant heads (not real ones), but was quite unable to provide me with a gin and tonic. All they had was gin premixed with some kind of orange drink! I took a look at the fountains from the bar, before going down to enjoy them close up. Good thing I hadn't waited any longer, as the lights were turned off quite early. I suspect that there is a more elaborate display on weekends, which explained my cheap hotel rate, but I was quite happy and feel no need to go back again.
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Old Feb 25th, 2011, 07:15 AM
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why don't you buy some gin and have a drink on your balconies, etc??
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Old Feb 25th, 2011, 07:26 AM
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Because I don't want to lug the bottles around with me (and I certainly had no balcony at the next hotel, lol). Those palanquin bearers never did show up. I suppose I could look for an airline size gin. But in any case, I wanted to check out the bar.
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Old Apr 16th, 2011, 04:54 PM
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Status: I've been home over two weeks now, and am pretty much caught up. I've taken care of the critical: taxes! - the urgent: hair cut - and a lot of the mundane: Quicken is up-to-date. I'm still reconnecting with friends, and I could write a long things-that-need-doing list if I chose. But instead I'm trying to finish the blog and get started on the photos.

Dec 15-18 - More Mysore

In December 2001 I spent several luxurious-for-me nights in Mysore in a former palace, the Green Hotel. Admittedly, it bore little resemblance to the main palace, an Indo-Saracenic extravaganza in the middle of town, and I had the cheapest room in the house (avoid the motel-like building in the grounds), but I loved the palace, the gardens, and the food. (Not to mention the library of English-language books!)

So why was I staying in the Ginger Hotel this time? Partly because I thought the Green was too far out of town – I got tired of the perpetual fights with rickshaw drivers who flatly refused to use their meters. Partly because I wanted to check out Tata’s new chain of budget business hotels.

I should have stayed at the Green. Initially I thought the Ginger stark but functional. Then I discovered the downsides: no free wifi, a useless shower curtain, a hair dryer with a plug that didn’t fit the sockets, a rapacious travel desk, no food options aside from a boring buffet, and a headache-inducing band pounding drums in the lobby my last night. And I still needed a rickshaw to get into the center of town.

Mysore itself charmed me for a second time. Cleaner, greener, and with more interesting buildings than most Indian towns its size, I found it a welcome oasis in the wilds of Karnataka. It is also a comfortable base for visiting the exquisite Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid, but I chose not to make the day-long trip a second time. Instead, I revisited the once-fortified island town of Srirangapatnam, capital of Tipu Sultan’s empire in the late 1700s and site of his final defeat at the hands of the British. Besides wandering among the towering columns of the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, and lingering over the detailed frescoes adorning the walls of Tipu’s summer palace (no photos allowed), I went down to the river bank, where I found a number of alfresco religious ceremonies in progress.

Naturally, I revisited the main palace, built for the Wodeyar dynasty at the turn of the 20th century. Again, no photos are allowed inside, which is a pity, as the lavishly-turreted exterior only hints at the over-the-top decoration inside. The Wodeyar’s signature peacocks are everywhere, from mosaic floors to stained-glass ceilings, solid silver doors confront the visitor outside the durbar hall, used for public audiences, and the ceiling of the hall itself, 155 by 42 feet, is supported by a dizzying array of oddly chubby columns. Foreigners are eligible for a free audio guide, although that hasn’t deterred the would-be guides at the gate.

Mysore is a shoppers’ mecca, known for its silk and sandalwood. I already owned three delicate sandalwood deities (Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati), but I did embark on an unsuccessful search for a salwar suit. I had more fun at the huge Devaraja market, where I was especially taken by the stalls selling religious paraphernalia and those heaped with blossoms, which are sold by weight for crafting garlands.

I hate buffets at the best of times (stay tuned for how that proved disastrous later) and the Ginger's was short on protein and short on choice. I ate dinner a couple of times at the Hotel Roopa's roof-top restaurant Infiniti instead, with quite good food and glimpses of the palace (centrally located, this might be a good place to stay). One lunchtime I splurged at La Gardenia in the Hotel Regaalis, but this was clearly a place where I should have opted for the buffet. Another day I ate lunch at the popular Indra Cafe's Paras, but although the thali wasn't bad it didn't have enough protein to last me until dinnertime.

My next stop was Coonoor, up in the Nilgiri Hills, where I hoped to find cooler temperatures and good scenery. Finding the quotes for a car and driver rather high, I signed up for a day tour by mini-bus to better-known Ooty (now renamed, by some sadistic bureaucrat, Udhagamandalam). A short ride down the mountain would get me to Coonoor.

The tour was cheap enough I had no expectation that the sight-seeing would be worthwhile – how many wild animals can one realistically expect to see from a noisy bus driving through a National Park? – but I had hoped for a better bus and a faster departure from Mysore. I should have asked more specific questions, as the bus I was shown on booking bore little resemblance to the one I rode out of town, and although my pick-up was scheduled for 7:30 (actual time after 8:00) we didn’t leave town, with me crammed into the backseat, until 9:15. But we did get to Ooty, and the guide did arrange a car to take me on to Coonoor, and the bus ride only cost me 250 rupees.
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Old Apr 16th, 2011, 06:13 PM
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anxious to read more
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Old Apr 17th, 2011, 07:29 AM
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Absolutely fascinating and riveting reading!
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Old Apr 17th, 2011, 02:34 PM
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I've been away for awhile, but it's always a pleasure to pick up on your travels.

Sorry about slugs and spiders. I always take a mini-mosquito net. It came in quite handy in Provence, of all places, which has scorpions. Who knew there were scorpions in France?

Tipu Sultan? Have you read Dalrymple's "White Moghuls"?

Welcome back!
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Old Apr 17th, 2011, 02:49 PM
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Welcome back! Did the trip meet (or exceed) your expectations?
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Old Apr 18th, 2011, 02:34 PM
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Thanks!

Marija - I would say in general the trip met my expectations, with Japan and Taiwan exceeding them, and India and Sri Lanka perhaps under-performing. I didn't enjoy India as much this time, and I had some bad weather in Sri Lanka.

indianapearl - yes, I've read most of Dalrymple's books. Some more than once. Are you in Texas yet?

Dec 18-21 - The Coonoor Chicken

All the guidebooks tell you that the way to arrive in Ooty is on the mountain railway from Mettupalayam, but that’s south of Ooty, and in Mysore I was well north. While I was sorry to miss the train ride, I have to say that the trip up by road wasn’t too shabby, either. My tour bus took the scenic route, scaling the mountain by way of 36 hairpin bends – at each bend a signboard listed the number still to go. I enjoyed the views of mountains and waterfalls, but wasn’t too impressed with Ooty when we finally arrived.

But then I only got a glimpse of the town, and a slightly longer look at the touristy lake area, before I left for Coonoor. The drive down the mountain was a bit more hair-raising than the drive up, as we quickly descended into thick mist. I was splurging on the Gateway Hotel, formerly the Taj Garden Retreat, and was welcomed with a flower garland and the news that I had been upgraded to a suite in one of the cottages. With a sitting room, bedroom, dressing area and bathroom I had the biggest quarters of the whole trip, but it was rather dark and far enough from the main building that the expensive wifi only worked in the sitting room. The Gateway didn’t really deliver the colonial-era ambiance I had expected – it was nothing like the Windamere in Darjeeling, although I did get hot water bottles in the evening.

High season in the hills is April to June, when people go up to escape the lowland heat. There seemed to be plenty of people about in December, but the weather wasn’t great, with afternoon mist hiding the view and one day of heavy rain. Fortunately the morning was clear the day I had a car and driver for a visit to the nearby viewpoints, although I had yet another (male) Indian driver who didn’t want to listen to his (female) passenger’s instructions, and it took a call to the hotel to get me to the tea “factory” I wanted to see.

Not that there was any shortage of tea – all the gentler slopes near Coonoor were blanketed by an apparently smooth layer of vivid green bushes. I had visited a tea factory in Darjeeling and seen the leaves being processed, so here I just wanted a shot of the ordered slopes backed by the steeper, forested hills in the distance, while the operation my driver favored was too close to town. I really preferred the views of the craggy hills and of the Catherine Falls across the valley to the regular rows of close-cropped tea bushes, and I did get to enjoy those in sunshine.

That afternoon I indulged in a massage in the Gateway’s spa, so by dinner time I was feeling pretty good. The Coonoor Gateway had the same menu as the one in Mangalore, but they also had a big buffet, and they REALLY wanted you to eat that. But I hate buffets – the food is never as good when it’s been sitting around, I always eat too much, and even so I never feel that I’ve eaten enough to justify the price. I discovered that if I wanted to order off the menu, the hotel would like me to call the order in from my room, and then come down in half an hour to eat.

So I ordered chicken curry and dal makhani and rice, and waited half an hour before wrapping up for my walk to the dining room. The curry tasted fine, but I noticed it wasn’t as hot as could have been. You know where this is going, don’t you? That night I got really sick.

Now I rarely, rarely get sick when I travel – I have fragile feet but a tough digestive system – but luckily I was carrying an antibiotic just in case. Even so, I spent the entire next day in bed, subsisting on toast and pineapple and listening to my iPod. I had intended to try for a seat on the mountain train up to Ooty (unlike the Darjeeling train it turns out that you can, and should, book tickets) and was only somewhat mollified by the pouring rain that might have kept me indoors anyway. I will say that the hotel staff showed appropriate concern, wanting to call a doctor and giving me extra time in the room before I left the next day.

Fortunately by then I no longer needed instant access to a bathroom, but I arranged a car and driver for the trip down to Coimbatore instead of taking a bus. The mist held off and I loved the scenery, but I was concerned about the four or five hours I would have to kill before boarding the night train to Trivandrum. My driver left me outside a restaurant near the station, and I nursed a big lassi for an hour before gingerly tackling some rice and channa (chick peas). Then I carted my pack over to the station – to find a minor miracle.

A sign by the electronic departure board just inside the entrance pointed the way to the AC waiting room. Not only was it open, it was clean, quiet, and provided with deep leatherette arm chairs and sofas flanking glass-topped coffee tables, with racks for luggage at one end, and not-quite-so-clean but acceptable toilets at the other. Only a handful of passengers shared a room that could easily hold twenty. The explanation for this miracle? Entry cost 15 rupees an hour. About 30 cents. I had no hesitation in handing over 45 rupees and settling in!

Many of you will remember dogster's Chicken of Doom, which had rather more serious consequences than my encounter, but took place not too far away. Perhaps this is not the best part of the world for carnivores - after all, many if not most of the locals are vegetarians. I do become a temporary vegetarian in India when I have doubts about the place I'm eating, but I hardly thought that I needed those precautions at the Gateway.
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Old Apr 18th, 2011, 03:25 PM
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And it was a not hot chicken curry that did Cheryl in when we were in Sri Lanka. I think perhaps we should put chicken curry on our "avoid" list when in the subcontinent.
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