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Trip Report Travelaw escapes the IZ for R&R in South India

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Duck and Cover!

Office meeting, Iraq:

Colleague 1: You know Trav, we just received a cable from the State Department warning against traveling to India. Maybe you should reconsider going there for your R&R.

Pregnant Pause – Trav looks aghast at the thought of canceling her R&R.

Colleague 2: Excuse me, Colleague 1, have you noticed that she is in BAGHDAD?! Laughter all around.

Colleague 3: Yeah, Trav, hah! You might want to stay in the war zone instead of going to India! More laughter . . . I was to depart the green zone the next evening, New Year’s Eve, scheduled on the 8 pm Rhino (personnel armored vehicle).

Some of us gathered for barbecue and champagne to celebrate the holiday – it was close to the Rhino pick up point, so I dragged my suitcase there to party while I waited. Delicious ribs were smoking on the grill and we just began pouring the champagne when
Holiday interrupted: DUCK and COVER!, DUCK and COVER! – the big voice announces, you listen – and RUN! We ran to the nearest concrete bunker – not one second too soon – BOOM! It was fairly close by – Boom, Boom – a little too close for comfort. We huddled in the bunker – Happy New Year! Looks like we’re getting some fireworks for the holiday. . .
Fifteen minutes later: ALL CLEAR, ALL CLEAR, ALL CLEAR!
Back to the party . . . but only for another fifteen minutes . . . then the big voice again: DUCK and COVER! Sirens . . . run back to the bunker –
“Somebody grab the champagne!”
“Somebody grab the cigars!”
“Somebody grab the ribs!”
RUN! Boom! The ground shakes.
Somebody wants to celebrate with us. A memorable New Year’s indeed.
Of course I am in the bunker wondering, will I get out of here tonight? Will the Rhino come? Will they bomb us all night?
No Rhino at 8. No Rhino at 8:30. No Rhino at 9. Will I miss my R&R?!!! Damn insurgents!
But wait! What is that I see lumbering down the road? Yes! My Rhino! I don the helmet and kevlar, load up my bags and we are off to drive down “Route Irish” to the Baghdad International Airport. Seven rockets and one VBIED later, we actually make it to the airport. Looks like I might actually get out . . . and none too soon! Just one more night and I get to escape from Baghdad.

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    Happy New Year!

    Slept in a CHU (Contained Housing Unit) at the airport waiting for my military air flight out. We have an early show time – the sooner the better! After processing and a few hours wait, we are escorted across the tarmac to a C-130 cargo plane – mostly military guys and a few of us civilians. We strap in, make sure our earplugs are in and are ready to go when we get the word that we are grounded. Dang. So close!
    A 4-star general has commandeered the runway and air space, so we can’t go anywhere. Those C-130s get pretty warm – and at least it was winter and not 120 degrees out. The military guys speculate that the big guy is in town for the transfer ceremony to from MNC-I (Multi-National Corps-Iraq) to USF-I (United States Forces-Iraq) – just in time to begin re-deployment of the troops – assuming the election in Iraq actually happens.

    What will happen to this country is really a crapshoot. There are very good signs of stabilization, then the bombings began again. Sadly, most of the victims are innocent Iraqi citizens just going about their daily lives. So many families have lost loved ones in an all-out effort by the terrorists to discredit the current government and derail the elections. Only time will tell how it will all end, but I CAN say that many of the Iraqis are trying – and by a fairly good measure, succeeding. It is their country to make as they choose – it won’t be like the U.S. or the U.K., or Australia or Italy or Spain or the Netherlands or Denmark or Japan – all countries that are there, trying to assist them. It will be uniquely Iraq – and if they succeed, it will be a gem in the Middle East.

    But, enough of that! After a few hours waiting in the plane – finally – the general’s fancy air force jet passes by us and takes off. Yay! Earplugs back in, cargo tail up, and we are in the air and on our way!

    About an hour and a half later we land in Kuwait City. We turn in our helmets and Kevlar and are driven from the air force base into the city, where we are put up in a hotel suite to refresh and relax while we wait for our various flights out to our R&R spots.

    I have a few hours, so I wander around Kuwait City. There is nothing here to do but shop and the roads are lined with indoor malls. Everything here is built and paid for with oil money. The road from the air base to the city is lined with tents. Apparently, in order to get a cut of the oil money Kuwaitis have to spend three months living nomadic-style in the desert. So, every winter they pitch massive tents complete with velvet sofas, disco balls and DJs, stoke the barbi and party every night. The rest of the year they live in their castle homes and Shop! Shop! Shop! Kuwait is a consumer paradise. And the country is full of Indians and Pakistanis who do all the jobs the Kuwaitis won’t do – every family has a nanny or two, or more, for the children, cooks, drivers, gardeners, and housecleaners – all filled by folks from the sub-continent. Which explains why there is a direct Kuwait to Mumbai flight every day (Jet Airways) and several other flights to Lahore, Chennai and Dhaka etc. on other airlines.

    My Jet flight is quite comfortable. A basic meal is served, even though we take off at 9 pm and arrive in BOM at 3:25 AM.

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    Ah, chaos!

    Arrival at BOM, is, as always, chaotic – but oh, how I craved that different from Baghdad chaos – the good kind – the smells and bells and salesmen and people, people, everywhere walking freely – no kevlar – I feel as if I have broken out of prison!

    I negotiate for a car to the hotel – other times I would find it a hassle – tonight it is a joy.
    “3200 Rupees?!! Are you kidding?!! NO WAY! “
    “But Ma’am your hotel is in central Bombay – an hour’s drive from here – and this is a big car – A/C – comfortable, not a rickshaw.”
    I offer 1000, even though I know it is still a rip off – but hey, who cares! After back and forth and walking away a few times we settle on 1300 – I am a fool to pay that, but it is 4 AM and I am ready to collapse. After all, I escaped a war zone today.

    Hotel Krishna Palace Residency ( Exec. Room, $128 per night plus tax) in Nana Chowk is actually a pretty decent place. We had a room on the 14th floor with a fabulous view of the city. The bed is huge and there is lots of space – really quite big room with nice amenities. The service could use some improving, but that was a minimal complaint. They forgot our wake up call the morning we arrive, which was probably just as well, and we need to call to have towels delivered. It could have been much worse, right? While Colaba is a better area to stay for most tourists, the location is good for us as we had plans for both south and north Mumbai. It is closer to South Bombay than North Bombay, but conveniently very close to the Grant Road train station, just a block or so walk. Even so, we opted to take cabs, which are all now metered, and found the tariffs to be reasonable.

    When we finally wake up, we taxi down to Colaba and visit the ever-interesting Gateway of India area. Last year when we were here it was barricaded because of the 26/11 terrorist attacks at the Taj – so it was great to see it back open and all the usual attendant craziness – bubbles, fresh lime juice, toys, balloons, nut sellers, kids snapping our photos with their cell phones, lovers holding hands and gazing out at the boats – and drugs and prostitutes and every other vice you might desire – oh darling, yeh hai India! We wandered about for a bit, got blessed by a nagging sadhu, and finally ended up at, where else, Café Leopold. Last year they were still reeling from the attacks, but everything seemed to be back in full swing, albeit now with bullet holes in the walls. The food tasted especially good, but who knows, it may have just tasted better coming after several months of nothing but institutional food. After relaxing with drinks for a while, we continued our wander around the streets of Colaba – found an internet café to check our email, and a chemist to stock up on our regular drugs (super cheap!). Finally, we ended up at the Cottage Industries Emporium. This was not a good idea, as I bought far too much stuff – probably all stuff I don’t need – actually all stuff I don’t need –- and now having to fit it into my luggage and drag it around India. I broke one of my cardinal rules – don’t buy stuff until the END of the trip! Anyway, it is a good shop to find souvenir-type goods at a fair price (no haggling). We had a bit of excitement there – as we were upstairs making a purchase when the store was plunged into COMPLETE darkness. There was no emergency lighting, no flashlights (torches), or even candles. My ingenious daughter pulls out her cell phone for some light – the clerk finished writing our bill – which we held on to -- and found our way down the stairs and out to the street into the light. It took about twenty minutes, but the lights came back on and we finished making our purchases.

    We cabbed back to the hotel, dropped our packages and headed right back out. We wanted to see the latest Aamir Khan film, 3 Idiots, so we cabbed back down to the Metro Theater. Unfortunately, it was sold out (and has been since it released on December 25th). We opted to see Raat Gayi Bat Gayi – there were few people in the theater and it seemed to be a remake of a Western film – I know, that is surprising, hah! It was an OK diversion for the evening – especially enjoyed the lime sodas that were delivered to our seats. I love Indian cinemas!

    After the film we tried to find a cab back to the hotel, but for some reason not every one wants to go to central Bombay, so it took us several tries to find one that would take us. It was a lovely nighttime ride along Marine Drive – cool, clean breeze and clear sailing with no traffic.

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    Indian Hipster-Slash-Entrepreneur

    Slept late and missed the hotel breakfast once again. Today we went up to Goregon to see our daughter’s apartment and to meet some of her friends. Ate at a place called Pop-N-Dine, which, while it sounds like a diner-type place, was actually fairly fancy and had very good food: mutter methi malai, paneer butter masala, murg gulati, garlic naan, mango lassis. Pretty darn good.

    We met Mukesh and his BFF Vishal. Really sweet characters. Mukesh is all business – the cell phone is attached to his ear, and he is constantly calling his friends, colleagues and places seeking out the best places and deals. Mukesh has Bollywood connections extraordinaire, and he helped our daughter land an assistant director job. His friend Vishal is dressed in raggy-bottom jeans, an open-necked cotton shirt, sporting a colorful and large holographic belt buckle, tattooed left arm, aviators and a blond rat-tail. He tells us that he just finished filming a “fair and handsome” skin cram ad with Shah Rukh Khan, possibly the biggest star in Bollywood, and one of the biggest in the non-Western world. Vishal is young, but already very successful – he worked on Slumdog Millionaire and LOVES director Danny Boyle. He tells us that the real film action is now in up and coming Bollywood (they actually prefer to call it the Hindi Film Industry). Vishal is an entrepreneur – in addition to film, he runs a real estate agency, mobile telephone franchise and is an authorized wireless radio re-seller. He and Mukesh take us out to see a few places in Anderhi West (“Anderhi East is a waste of time”) – our daughter rides with Mukesh on his motorbike, while Vishal accompanies DH and myself in an auto-rickshaw. The bike is much faster in the Mumbai traffic. And the traffic is crazy and intense. At one intersection there is an altercation between a family on a motorcycle and a small delivery truck. Just as we try to weave past the incident, the father on the motorcycle hauls off and slugs the small, boyish looking truck driver – who sits there and balls like a baby –“Wah, wah, wah!”
    “Vishal grimaces – “Tension yaar.”

    We get to the shopping district and meet up with Mukesh and DD. They take me to a place to find a salwar kameez -- the boutique has gorgeous silks with amazing embroidery and beading. I buy 3 sets, but don’t have time to get them stitched, as we are leaving the next day (should have done this yesterday!), so hopefully I will find a tailor somewhere on our trip to have them made. Mukesh wants us to go to the DVD store so we can buy a few of the latest Bollywood hits, but Vishal says, “They will rip you off man! I will get you DVDs – 5 or 6 films to one disk – don’t pay these outrageous sums – give me one reason why you would do that!”
    “OK Vishal.”
    I am thinking that they won’t have subtitles or won’t work in my machine, so I go ahead and buy a few while Vishal is not looking – maybe somewhere along the route there will be a room with a DVD player. If not, they will certainly be nice evening entertainment when I get back to Baghdad.

    Next stop, the Star Bazaar and True Fitness, DD’s fitness club. We get a VIP tour of this AMAZING gym – it has equipment I have never heard of – special machines to work on every part of the body – rows and rows and floors of machines. This is a favored gym of the Bollywood stars, and there are a few around working out. DD loves the hot yoga classes here and convinces me I must try it sometime. I’m not so sure I can bend my body like that anymore without ending up in the hospital!

    Back out on the street it is now dark – we find an auto-rickshaw, which takes us as far as Bandra and then transfer to a taxi, which takes us the rest of the way to our hotel in central Bombay. The entire trip takes about an hour and fifteen minutes. This is a massive, massive, did I day massive? City. It is so amazing – once again, Blade Runner comes to mind. The pulse, the grit, the heat. I am loving it!

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    Vinegar with Hints of Cigarette Ash

    Next morning we finally make it up in time for breakfast at the hotel. We weren’t missing much.

    After cramming all the crap I bought into my duffle, we find a cab to take us to the airport – we’re off to Goa for a few days. The driver was separated at birth from Gandhi, but with more hair coming out of his ears than I have ever seen on a human being. His ears were reminiscent of a squirrel. How can one not see that hair and NOT trim it off? Perhaps the man does not own a mirror – but of course he sees himself in the cab’s mirrors, na? The cab itself is about as old as the driver. There is no floorboard in the back – just metal and a good view of the road below. He ropes our duffles on top – I pray they make it to the airport. After several close calls in the heavy Bombay traffic and 300 Rs, we, of course, make it to the airport. We booked our air on – the flight to Goa on Jet Airways was about $60.

    An easy hour later we are greeted in the Goa airport by a cadre of scarily masked dancing santas. Funny how they have plastic white faces and dark hands . . . anyway they are handing out information on H1N1 flu – FANTASTIC! Are we headed into a bad flu area? Hopefully I won’t have to hide in my room for the next 3 days!

    We are staying at Coconut Creek Resort in Bogmalo Beach – an Alastair Sawday’s recommendation. It is a lovely property – serene pool and a 2-minute walk to the beach. The room Bogmalo is a quiet beach, unlike some in Goa – but just what I was looking for – down time by the pool, by the sea – massage, tan, catch up on my reading – deep breath out. (, special book for 2 nights, get the 3rd free, $140 per night plus 10% Goa luxury tax.) My only beef here is that they charge 300 Rs for an hour of wireless internet – ridiculous and I refused to pay it. They do have a computer with free internet set up in the game room however.

    We lounge by the pool for a few hours, then walk to the beach. Some boys come running over and ask to have their photo taken with us – TII (this is India!) – it happens everywhere – we white people are like rick stars here. So strange. We oblige.

    Dinner at the hotel is good – Goan food – some kingfishers and a *mistake* a bottle of wine. I saw Malbec on the menu and figured it was from Argentina. No, it was unfortunately an Indian wine from Maharashtra – and tasted like it was aged in a barrel of cigarette ashes. My advice – stay away from the Indian wine. It tastes like you are drinking vinegar from an ashtray. Yuck.

    After dinner we played in the game/internet room, which was filled with mosquitoes. I was hoping to get away without spraying on the deet, but yeah, unfortunately, they are here – at least in the game room. I didn’t seem to be bothered by them near the pool or in the room, so maybe it is just the time of day. Tomorrow will tell. By the way, the rooks are pretty nice – we opted for one with A/C. There are two-story houses on the property – the lower floors have A/C and the upper floors have fans and French windows. Décor is eco-looking green, white and bamboo – crisp white sheets and plenty of space. So far, so good!

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    West and Welaxation at Wast

    So today is completely a relaxation day. Spent a good chunk of it on the beach. The water is warm – salt felt good and healing. After we felt we had enough of the sun and sand, we walked back to the hotel. On the way DH got suckered into seeing a little girl’s “store” – I ended up buying a bad for 400 Rs – WAY too much – and DD bought a silver ankle bracelet for 100 RS – also WAY too much – but we figure it is charity and will feed the family for a month. Back at the hotel, we showered off the salt and went to the pool. DH and DD played pool ball with an older couple from the UK, while I sat and read my book. Eventually we went up to the game room and watched “Wake Up Sid” – a cute Hindi movie about a boy who fails college and is figuring out growing up and life in general. DD enjoyed playing a few games of Wii boxing – then went to dinner – again at the hotel – this is lazy day after all – and ate far too much. Back to the room and book reading – and curled up for a good sleep.

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    “Gold? You brought gold? I thought we decided on a five-dollar limit! All I brought was lousy frankincense!”

    We hired a driver this morning to take us to the Three King’s Day Festival in Cassolim – at least I think it was Cassolim. We arrived to a huge number of people walking and swarming toward a small Christian church on the top of a hill. They were dressed to the nine’s – ladies in dresses, cocktail and evening, balanced on high heels, men and boys with sparkly bedazzled black suits and little girls in wedding cake frocks. Needless to say we felt under-dressed in our cotton shirts, jeans and sandals. Mass was going on under a huge tent – reminded us of the evangelical revivals of the Southern U.S. – lots of singing and penitent faces. A double line streamed out the front of the church – folks waiting to enter through the fake metal detectors to pay respects to something. We lined up with the crowd to check out the place and paused with them and paid respects at the alter – which had a statue of Mary on it – seems she is worshipped similarly to the Hindu gods – she was decorated with chains of marigolds, jasmine garlands and offers of fruit.

    Surrounding the church was a colorful fair – typical of any church fair – food tents and stalls, plastic toys for sale, sweets (typical orange and yellow ladoo) and religious items. We were met by some stares, but mostly warmly greeted. There were also some women from Norway and Mexico there – we of course stood out amongst the local population – they asked us if we knew where and when the 3 kings – boys from the community who arrive on horseback – would come, or if we missed that excitement. We all thought we must have missed it, since most of the time processions precede the church service, but a man came up and heard our conversation and gave us the scoop. He explained that the 3 boys would come from different villages and meet up and then process into the church grounds. He showed us where to stand for the best view – and just as he said, eventually three very young boys came up the path on decorated horses and with a huge entourage. They had long hair – not sure if they had on wigs or if it was natural – and wore tall, red velvet bishop’s crowns on their heads. We snapped photos and enjoyed the excitement of the crowd who obviously wait for this moment each year. After the procession, we wandered around the fair a bit more – tasted a ladoo (really just an orange rice krispie ball) and some somosas – but didn’t have the guts to try the Portuguese sausage sandwiches. The women were scooping the meat out of the sausage skins with their hands and putting it into the bread rolls – no thanks – I will pass on that one. It was terribly hot, so we bought some cold sodas and rested under a tent for a while before walking down the hill to meet our driver.

    Next stop was Old Goa. We followed the suggested walking route from the Lonely Planet guide. Old Goa is shock-full of big old churches and cathedrals (and not much else) – we wondered why a small community could possibly need so many – they must have been competing congregations. The heat was also getting to us there, so we stopped for lunch at one of the two grubby looking restaurant joints and ate some local fare – it felt good to get out of the sun. After we visited the Cathedral of Bom Jesus – where St. Francis’s crypt is – supposedly what is left of his remains are there, but that is unlikely. I wonder how many churches around the world lay claim to him.

    Post Old Goa, we drove up to Anjuna for the Wednesday market. The place goes on and on – tent after tent after tent of hippie wares and Indian glitter galore. WE made a few small purchases, but mostly just wandered around gawking at the again baby boomers trying to re-claim their youth. Goa is one of those magnets in the world that attracts the dred-locked, Teva/Birkenstock wearing types – plus Russians and a smattering of Indians.

    The last stop of our busy day was Panjim. We found the cathedral and attempted to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour, since we had been successful at it in Old Goa, but only got about halfway through it before we got lost. Before leaving we stopped and bought some drinks and a fresh papaya to take back to the hotel with us – we were beat!

    As soon as we arrived back at the hotel, our trusty driver Ram arrived. All dressed in white and with flowers in his hands, we greeted him with namastes and hugs. Many of the Fodor’s folks have used Ram for their trips. He is a sweet guy – great driver and we were pleased he was available to drive us on our South Indian trek. (Ramesh Meena, [email protected], +91 9829807074.) We invited Ram to eat dinner with us at the hotel – we talked all about all the Fodor friends he had driven (BTW, he did not reveal any personal info – we used Fodor’s names) and how their trips went. After, we walked down to the beach and stuck our toes in the water. The beach is kinda scary at night – black water, bugs blindly flying at your face, and waves hitting the shore like gunshots (made me realize that I may have a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder – loud noises are making me jump – it may take me awhile longer than I thought to recover from hearing bomb and gun fire noises). Ram took his leave for the evening to return in the morning for our drive to Hampi.

    More when the internet opportunity arises!

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    Boulder Dash

    It took FOREVER to get to Hampi – apparently a flyover was under construction and that blocked out entrance to the highway we wanted to take, so we ended up on local roads, which quickly turned into terrible pot-holed roads, especially the stretch though the Danali tiger preserve. It was so bad that at one point we came across another car that got stuck in a huge hole, so we stopped and helped push them out. Alas, we saw no tigers. We did pass chili pepper production areas, where women were sorting the peppers (can you imagine what their hands feel like?) and drying them in the sun. Huge stacks of red chili peppers that were waiting to be processed surrounded the women.

    We didn’t even stop for lunch and got to Hampi at dusk. We checked into the Padma Guesthouse, which is conveniently located in the Hampi Bazaar area. There are some nicer hotels across the river, but we were told that the last boat over there was at 6 pm. I don’t know if that is true – didn’t check it out. (Padma Guesthouse, +91 8394 241331, we paid about $45, including breakfast.) The rooms at Padma’s are about as simple as a room can be. Hard, hard beds, small, flat pillows and a tiny bathroom. You can do anything for a night, right?

    We walked out to the bazaar area. Padma suggested Geetha Restaurant, but following her directions, we couldn’t find it, so we stopped at a bright little place run by an old man and his family and ordered dosa masalas and chai. The owner also threw in complimentary fried peppers wrapped in some kind of dough. After dinner we started walking toward the other end of the bazaar, and lo and behold, there was the recommended Geetha Restaurant. We all still felt a bit hungry, so we decided to try it out. The food turned out to be AWESOME. It was all cooked to order and very fresh – absolutely tasty and delicious. I had Dal Palak, DD had Palak fry and cheese (which turned out to be spinach fried with garlic and topped with cheese) – so yummy it touched the soul, and DH had the Palak Gobi and Rice with Peanuts – all excellent. Next door was an internet café, so we checked our email and then headed back to the guesthouse. We had hoped to get here earlier to be able to see some of the sights, but because the trip took too long, we weren’t able to do that. So, tomorrow we will have to dash through the sight and hit only the highlights.

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    Think Pink!

    Padma Guesthouse possible has the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on – it was basically a 1” mattress on a board – no sheets, and of course the flat little pillow. Yes, good thing it was just for a night. We ate breakfast on the rooftop, which had a fabulous view of the main temple and the surrounding boulders and rock formations. After breakfast, we explored the main temple, which sits at the very end of the bazaar area. There were lots of swamis in black roaming about, some even taking photos of one another in front of the temple. Some women selling bananas outside the entrance got into a huge altercation – voices raised, even fists flying. Tension, yaar. A severely handicapped boy made his way up the street and into the temple to beg. It made me better understand the biblical temple stories, where people are always hanging about looking for healing – and money, of course. Inside, the temple had some fairly ornate carving – monkeys walked about seeking bananas, and for an extra fee, you could meet Lakshmi the temple elephant. Seeing Lakshmi from afar was enough for me. Several groups of school kids asked for us to take their photos and hammed it up for the camera.

    We moved on to the Vitthala complex, which is the most well known of the sites and which contains the much-touted stone chariot. The chariot is pretty cool – apparently at some point the wheels actually worked, if you can believe that. The last of the main sites (you could actually spend several days or more here, there is so much to see) I wanted to visit were the Lotus Mahal and the elephant stables. Both were in the same enclosure, conveniently. At the elephant stables we bought some coconuts – a guy with a machete lops them open and sticks in a straw for about 10 Rs. Refreshing. The usual gang of school kids surrounded us – “Hello!” “Take my picture!” “Where are you from?!!”

    On the road again, we left Hampi to drive to Mysore. We knew it was going to be long haul, but since we had underestimated the time to get from Goa to Hampi, we weren’t too excited to be back in the car. The road between Hospet and Chitradurga was awful. DD commented that if she ever has to be opened up for surgery, the doctors are going to find all her organs jumbled up and in the wrong places. After Chitradurga, the trip went great – the highway was very good and we picked up speed. For a little while we followed a truck full of bright pink goats – someone went wild bestowing blessings on the little kids. They had confused and embarrassed looks on their faces that said, “Why do we have to be pink?” Perhaps they were being driven to the special goat temple. Pink goats – I never in my wildest dreams expected to see goats dyed pink. I wonder what PETA would have to say about that!

    Not long after the pink goats we stopped for road chai at one of the shacks next to the highway. I always wonder what diseases I am risking from drinking out of the glasses at these places, but so far I haven’t gotten sick (knock on wood). The scraggy guys that hang around the chai stall moved a rope bed out front for us to sit on while we sipped our tea – and we were visited by a teeny little, emaciated puppy. Again, my defenses go up – “don’t touch it!” I tell my daughter, worried about rabies, which is something to be careful about in India (there have even been some posts about that on this forum) – but she ignores me and feeds the little thing our leftover naan from last night’s dinner.

    We saw a bit of traffic in Bangalore, but made it just fine to Mysore and found our hotel – Pai Vista. (, about $90 per night, including breakfast.) For dinner we ate at “ The Jungle”– a themed restaurant at the hotel, similar to the Rainforest Café. The food was pretty spicy, even though we asked them to tone it down, and the service was spotty, but overall it fit the bill – we were tired and didn’t feel like going searching for anything else.

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    Holy Cow!

    Breakfast at the hotel was served in “The Jungle.” It was okay, but everything about this hotel seems a little bit off. It must have tried hard in the past, as there are indications of luxury – slippers, amenities, a robe – but, for example, the robe is now rough and somewhat threadbare and the amenities look like they’ve been around for a while. The “luxury” room is actually two rooms – a small ante living room with a bathroom, and a fair-sized bedroom with a king-size bed and its own bathroom. Both rooms have a TV, handy along with the A/C unit for blocking the sounds of dishes clanking and trash pickup emanating from the frosted window that looks out onto the air shaft (there are otherwise no windows in the room). The bathrooms are a bit dingy and lack shelves – there are no niches in the shower to place your bathing necessities. The best way to describe the hotel is cruise-shippy – from the wall-bolted desk to the striped chairs and matching bedspreads to the themed restaurants (in addition to “The Jungle” there is also a “Cave” restaurant, which looks like a set from that old Nickelodeon show “Legends of the Hidden Temple” complete with fake wall torches and a huge head a la Angkor Wat.) All that said, it is a clean place and the staff is friendly. And actually, the location is pretty handy, as the Mysore Palace is easily walkable from here.

    The Mysore Palace is definitely worth seeing. It is a bit over the top – but stunning. The marriage room is incredible – beautiful stained glass ceiling with inlaid peacocks, turquoise pillars and lovely wooden screens. It seems a bit Slavic in style with its onion domes and colorful halls, much like the Winter Palace or Catherine’s Palace in St. Petersburg, if you’ve ever been there. The gardens are very nice.

    Next stop is St. Philomena’s Church with its tall spires and colorful windows. Kerala seems to be another very Christian area of India – we haven’t seen many Hindu temples, though there are quite a few Muslims it seems from the number of women in abeyas and head scarves.

    We visit the market – also worth a stop – I’ve been to a lot of markets, but this one is really quite fascinating. The fruit and vegetables are amazing because of quality and quality – there are piles and piles of them just tantalizing us. The banana area is especially interesting, as are the flower area, where men sit and string jasmine and roses for temple offerings, and the numerous stalls selling pointed piles of colorful face powders. One of the face powder sellers asks me for a dollar – I dig one our of my bag and give it to him – he looks at it and says, “This one has been washed, do you have another?” Picky, picky! Then, when I oblige, he gives me 4 dirty Rupee notes back – what a guy! I walk away wondering if it is a scam. Do this to enough tourists and you make 4-5 Rupees on the exchange.

    Across from the market is a restaurant called the Indus Café Parthas, where you can get South Indian thalis – quite good – but be prepared to share a table with others as seats are at a premium. We were seated with a young man who was also enjoying a thali, but he decline to speak a word to us. After lunch we bought some ice cream and ambled back through the market.

    Chumundi Hill is another interesting Mysore site. You need to take a car or rickshaw there as it is a bit out of the center. At the top is the Chamundershwari Temple, which is currently overrun with swamis who are on the Ayapaswami pilgrimage. The swamis remind us of fraternity boys on a road trip – they travel about 6-8 per SUV, which are covered with sandalwood markings and draped with fruit and flower garlands. In the parking lot at the temple a cow saunters up to one of the parked swami vehicles and starts munching on the decorations. The swamis go crazy and start beating the cow. So much for the sacred cow! Also on the hill is a huge Nandi bull carved from a single boulder. There are great views of Mysore from here.

    On the weekends and on certain festival days the palace is lit up with thousands of lights, and we are fortunate to be here on a weekend. They are spectacular. We were told that they are only on for an hour, from 7-8, so we arrived promptly at 7. There is a parking lot on the south side of the palace, which seems to be the best place to view them. We left at about 7:30 and they went off just as we returned to the car, so I’m not sure they even stay on for an hour.

    Not feeling particularly hungry, we instead walked to the movie theater across from our hotel and saw “3 Idiots,” the latest Aamir Khan film. We couldn’t understand the dialogue (the real 3 idiots in the theater), but we could still follow the story and enjoyed it quite a lot. Indian movies are a fun way to spend and evening or two – especially if the “here” is popular – the patrons whistle and sing along, and it this case, laugh uproariously. May have to get this one when it comes out of DVD so we can finally understand the jokes.

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    Of Elephants and Swamis

    Today is another travel day. We are driving from Mysore to Fort Cochin. It is a long drive, especially because of the swami-mobiles – they are everywhere. When we pass the state line from Karnataka to Kerala, the topography changes instantly – suddenly there are bamboo groves everywhere.

    The first part of the trip through Kerala we are in a state park. It is quiet and a little bit dark as the road winds though the heavy tropical growth. We come along a group of swamis stopped and standing by the side of the road looking into the woods. We stop and join them to find a wild elephant – and she has her obviously newly born calf with her, the cutest little baby elephant you’ve ever seen. And the baby is hungry – mama and baby are foraging for food. The swamis warn us to stay back in case the mama comes charging, but we of course grab our cameras and try to capture the moment. I crouch down to get a shot through the undergrowth, and as I try to focus in and get a clear shot of the baby I glance up to find a group of swamis taking my photo paparazzi style. Apparently, the white woman is far more interesting than a wild elephant and her calf!

    The topography gets even more tropical as we get further into Kerala – banana plantations, mango trees, papaya trees, coconut palms galore – and tea plantations covering the hills. There are lots of flowers growing wildly alongside the roadway – bright purples, yellows, pinks and reds. We stop to get some local chai, and it is deliciously infused with cardamom and ginger. It tastes delicious. The aroma is sweet.

    Just after the chai stop, a rainstorm blows in – a heavy one – and it arrives just as we have to weave through the hairpin turns over the Western Ghats. Yikes! The drive down is harrowing – skinny little roads clinging to the side of the mountains that turn into rivers as the rain gets heavier and the trucks slow to a crawl. The view from the mountain roads must be spectacular, but it was completely obscured and we felt as we driving off the end of the world into nothingness.

    It stayed fairly cloudy for the rest of the trip out to the coast – and the coastal highway got busier and busier as we passed though towns and cities. The houses along side the road in Kerala struck as being very large – they are brightly painted in colors such as orange, magenta and turquoise. First we would pass through a Muslim town with burqa’d women – and some even decorated with Pakistani flags – and then through a Christian town – dotted with churches and some grottos to various saints. In several of the Christian towns we came across festivals –
    Processions headed by someone carrying a large cross, followed by Mary in a box carried on a pedestal, trailed by row after row of sari’d women under colorful parasols, a band, and scores of worshippers. We never did find out what festival it was.

    Eventually, we arrived in Fort Cochin – it was dark already and everything seemed closed up. We found our hotel with some effort and checked in (Fort House Hotel,, $82/nt including breakfast). The front office folks were very friendly and helpful; the room was fine, although the beds, as per usual Indian standard, were quite hard. We walked down to the recommended History restaurant, but were told it was completely booked for the evening, so we opted to eat back at our hotel. The food at the hotel restaurant was quite good – I had prawns Kerala curry, some vegs fried with coconut, and lemon rice. DH and DD had the seafood platter, which they both liked. While the food was yummy, the service really turned us off. One server bused the next table from our table, setting his food tray down right next to me. Another server scraped and cleaned our plates right in front of us, piling the garbage and our used napkins in one of our food bowls right between DD and myself, very unappetizing after having just eaten food out of that bowl. And when DH asked our waiter for our bill, he physically turned his back on us, opting to obviously ignore us and to instead finish a cell phone call that DH hadn’t noticed when he asked, but that the waiter was incredulously taking in the middle of the tables. Among other minor problems, the service was quite slow, too. I wish I could recommend the restaurant because the food was simply delicious, but with the poor service, unless you can up with that, I’d have to tell you to give it a pass. Other than that, the hotel itself was good.

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    The Aroma of Spices

    Breakfast at the hotel was good – watermelon juice, a glass of colorful fresh fruits (bananas, papaya, pineapple and pomegranate), crepe with honey, eggs to order, tea and real brewed coffee) – served out on the hotel jetty, right on the water. Again, it was delicious, but terribly slow service.

    We found a recommended walking tour in one of the guidebooks and headed out. St. Francis Church was our first stop, built in the early 1500s. It struck us that the church had been built more than a hundred years before the English first settled in America in 1607. The old Portuguese tomb markers are interesting. Another church, Santa Cruz Basilica, was the second stop. A service was in progress, so we just sat on the benches at the back. The church is quite busy with murals, multi-colored arches and a double-decker Jesus Altar – the Jesus on the top has a halo that lights up in blue. Next stop was the Chinese fishing nets on the water, which weren’t operating at the moment, but looked awesome, all the same. We rickshawed to Jew Town and checked out the synagogue – upon request they will part the curtain and show you a scrap of a 200-year old Torah. The Jews have been here in Cochin since the Romans sacked the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Much earlier than that, we were told that king Solomon sailed here to buy and trade spices.

    Nearby is the Pepper Exchange – we went up, even though there isn’t much to see here these days, as it is all traded via computer now. In Jew Town, we try to dodge the endless shopkeepers who nag us to come in and take a look. Ram tells me that they are all Kashmiri. “How do you know Ram?” “ I just do. They can sell ANYTHING – they are the best salesmen in the world.”
    Outside the Pepper Exchange:
    “Do you want a pashmina, mam?”
    “No, I have too many already.”
    “How about some jewelry?”
    “No, I already have plenty that I don’t wear.”
    “OK then, mam, how about a painting, yes? A painting to remember Kerala?”
    “No, I have no walls for paintings.”
    “Nothing then?”
    “Yes, nothing.”
    “Okay then, thank you for speaking to me.”
    “You’re welcome.”
    “Where are you from?” Ut-oh – I can’t tell you how annoying this question becomes in India.
    “Iraq,” I say just to throw him off.
    “No, mam, REALLY?”
    “Yes. Really. Where are you from?”
    “Kashmir.” Ram was right! “You don’t look Iraqi.”
    “That is because I’m not – I’m an American working in Iraq.”
    “Where in Iraq?”
    ”Baghdad, really? There are terrorists there.”
    “Yes, I know. I’ve seen them. Besides, Aren’t there terrorists in Kashmir?”
    ”Well, actually mam, to tell the truth, yes, but it is because we do not like Pakistan and we do not like India – we want to be Kashmir alone. It is not a Sunni-Shia thing like in Iraq.”
    “So I’ve heard.”
    “So, are you sure you don’t want a pashmina? Because if you decide you want a pashmina I will give you the BEST price. Really, the BEST price, OK?”
    “Okay, but I don’t want one.”
    “Maybe later, OK?”
    Whatever. It is getting pretty hot and steamy out now, and we can feel the sunburn, but first we want to check out the Dutch Palace. On the way, we spy a man standing in a blue doorway wearing a blue longi – an interesting-looking fellow. I ask to take his photos. He obliges and invites us in. It turns out this is a ginger warehouse and the smell of ginger is intense. Various grades of ginger root are gathered in piles on the floor, and burlap sacks full of it are stacked in the back. I stand there for some time just breathing it in – it seems so medicinal.

    After checking out the Dutch Palace (marginal worth – but its only 5 Rs for a ticket), we find a rickshaw to take us back to Fort Cochin. It takes several stern warnings to the driver not to stop at commission stores (they all seems to do this in Fort Cochin), but otherwise the ride is fascinating. The driver takes us through the spice trading area. The aromas are to die for – ginger, cardamom and who knows what else. The warehouses are open to the street and stacked full of sacks of spices that we pay a fortune for a tiny amount of in the States. I know I will replay this ride in my memory many times to come in the future.

    No trip to Cochin is complete without an evening Kathakali performance. The makeup and costumes and story are enchanting – well worth seeing. Get there early for the application of the makeup and for the helpful demonstration of the face and hand gestures.

    After the performance we look for a restaurant for dinner. We try the Malabar, but it is full (even though there are obviously empty tables – is this a thing in Cochin? Do you have to stay at the hotel property in order to go to the hotel restaurant?) We end up at the Old Courtyard Hotel. This place looks like it would be interesting to stay at. Dinner is in the courtyard with musical accompaniment. I have the catch of the day wrapped in a banana leaf, while DH goes for the seafood spaghetti and DD orders the spaghetti putanesca. All was god until a giant, and I mean GIANT cockroach – two inches at least – cockroach swoops in (we call them palmetto bugs in the Southern US – but they are still cockroaches). I get very squeamish about cockroaches – a shiver runs down my spine. “Waiter! There’s a fish in my cockroach!”

    More at the next hotel that has wireless internet!

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    Yes, very generous of you to work on this while you're on holiday. (Dying to know what you are doing in Iraq but I won't ask because if you tell you may have to kill me...) I feel like we're giht there with you. Love the back and forth quotes with the locals.

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    Just a quick post before I leave this hotel -- thanks for the encouragement. LOL LAleslie -- I am advising judges and government officials on Rule of Law and Human Rights issues in Iraq -- basically courts, cops and corrections. That's about all I can say, not because I can't tell you (well, there are SOME things I can't tell you), but because for our own safety we don't want the insurgents to track what we are doing.

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    a quick note to tell you I have not read more than a few sentences when I decided I needed to print this and sit and savor every word and then pass it to my husband. I know I'm gonna love every word.!!

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    Thanks Trav,
    Let's hope when you leave they don't just ignore what you've said. On the other hand, as you say, one shouldn't expect Iraq to be run like the U.S.
    Safe journey.

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    Hi all -- thanks so much for the very kind posts. Herewith the next few days.

    What’ll It BE, Pardner?

    Breakfast at the hotel is served at a snail’s pace – again, it tastes good, but it would be helpful to have a cup in which to pour the tea, and butter for the warm toast. After check out, we are back on the road to Alleppey for the mandatory houseboat experience. The coastal highway is under construction, so the drive takes a little longer than expected, but we arrive in Alleppey at the boat jetty around noon. I have booked a houseboat online through, and we are confirmed with a company called Kaisalam Floating Castles. They are nowhere to be found. We eventually contact them and are told that even though we have an email confirmation in hand, we have no booking. We’re disappointed, because we saw good reviews for the company. Unfortunately, they left us hanging, and I am not very happy.

    Fortunately, it is pretty easy to hire a boat on the spot and we do – at a much better price than was quoted by the above outfit. We get a deluxe 2-bedroom A/C houseboat for 8000 Rs. We probably could have shaved a thousand or three off by haggling, but the houseboat looked like a nice one and we were anxious just to get out onto the water.

    DD and I decided we wanted to buy some beer and snacks for onboard, but it was tough to find a place selling beer. We finally found a bar and went in – it was like a scene out of an old Western. The place was dark, sticky and smoky and there was a low din of chatter and clatter. The smell of the alcohol was pungent.
    When DD and I walked in, the place fell silent. There were no other women there, of course, and the men’s jaws went slack as they stared as the two white women walked up to the bar.
    Can I have six Kingfisher beers, please?” I ask. There are a few audible chortles.
    “Yes, six.” Slowly the chatter starts rising up again.
    The bartender rummages around behind the bar and holds up a Kingfisher.
    “Six of those – six. The men at the bar start shouting at the bartender in Malaylam – I assume they are clarifying what I want.
    He shakes his head, finds a plastic bag and starts filling it up with beers.
    DD is starting to look nervous – several men at totally focused in on us and staring. No one stares better than an Indian man at a white woman. Seriously. It is sometimes very disturbing.
    “ Let’s just get these and get out of here, OK?”
    Men are throwing money at the cashier for their drinks, so we do the same, wait just long enough for our change and hightail it out of there to shouts and cat calls.
    On the way back to the boat we make a quick stop to buy a bag of banana chips – not sweet like the ones we’re used to – they’re crunchy, a bit salty and fried in coconut oil. By the way, beware, just about everything in South India is made with coconut or fried in coconut oil, and if you aren’t used to it, it can do a number on you!

    Just fifteen or twenty minutes later we are on our way cruising the backwaters. Lunch was served shortly after we departed port and we spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about the boat watching daily life along the canals – women washing clothes, kids on their way to school, men fishing, cranes dotting the rice fields. Our boat has an upper deck, which is a great place to hang out. Around six or so, the boats anchor alongside one of the larger canals. Dinner is served and the balance of the evening is just reading, watching TV or whatever other pastime you prefer. Air conditioning is turned on in the bedrooms around 10. The accommodations are simple, but perfectly fine.

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    King Suite

    Next morning breakfast is served fairly early and a couple of hours later we pull back into the Alleppey boat jetty. We chose to do only one night on the boat – which was enough for us, but if you have more time, perhaps two nights would be better. We enjoyed it very much – the quiet, slow pace and having your own cook on board to make all your meals is wonderful.

    After the houseboats, we drive from Alleppey to Kovalam back along the coastal highway. Every so often we spy the water through the buildings or the thick flora and it looks wonderful. The trip was pretty quick.

    When we get to Kovalam, we find out that we can’t get to our hotel by car, so we pack the few things we need for the night in our backpacks and walk about 15 minutes along the beachfront sidewalk to get there. Jeevan Ayurvedic Beach Resort looks inviting – it has a nice pool out front and the location is right in the middle of the beach with the lighthouse point at one end and a rock promontory on the other. Unfortunately, that is the best part of the hotel. The rest is pretty bad. Well, ok, to be completely fair, the room itself was a bit worn, but acceptable. We booked the only suite – so who knows what the other rooms were like. It seemed as if the King Suite rarely got used, because when we checked in there was a discussion amongst the reception staff that we were in the King Suite (”Oh! King Suite!” “King Suite?” Major head bobbling. “Ow!” More head bobbling.) The King Suite, Room 300, is a third-floor walk up and has all wood paneling – a small ante living room (with terribly uncomfortable furniture that makes you sit in a 60 degree angle), a large bedroom with a balcony, a generous-sized bathroom, and a small sitting room off the bedroom. As is often the case in India, it exhibited vestiges of faded luxury. The room is very hot and stuffy and feels like it hasn’t been used in a while. The manager told us it would take a while for the A/C to cool it down, so we were patient, but after we settled in, we noticed that the A/C kept cutting out. As we were headed down to the pool and beach, we mentioned it to the desk clerk, who told us they would check on it and fix it.

    We were all feeling pretty sticky at this point, so we dove straight into the pool for a refreshing cool down. After we felt a bit better, we walked down the steps to the beach, rented some lounge chairs and umbrellas and spent the afternoon in the surf and sun. The waves were big, so we body surfed – I got sucked under and tumbled to shore a couple of times – I forgot how scared that used to make me as a kid. I think there must have been some rip tides, as part of the beach was red flagged, and the lifeguards were blowing their whistles a lot. Lifeguards in India sure don’t look like the Baywatch crew – they are older, balding guys who wear shorts and work shirts (this I found hard to reconcile – the swamis are running around bare-chested everywhere, but the lifeguards wear shirts – strange). These guys are a far cry from David Hasselhoff. I was hoping for some peace on the beach, but the sarong sellers constantly harass you. I kept hoping that I had chased them all off with my stern “No! Go AWAY!,” but they seemed to replicate all afternoon.

    Finally, a thunderstorm started moving in and we felt we had enough of the sun, so we decided to go back to the room and shower off. The key was not at the desk because someone was, thankfully, fixing the A/C. In fact, when we get to the room, there are at least 3 guys in there, but they leave immediately when we arrive and tell us that it is now working. It wasn’t. Nor was the telephone to call the front desk to tell them it wasn’t working. The room was hot as hell and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to sleep there. So, figuring a shower would help, and at least get the salt and sand out of my hair, I discover that the water isn’t working either. Back to the pool to cool off again – and to again tell the desk that the A/C isn’t working. They seem genuinely surprised and tell us again that they will fix everything. We are all trying our level best to cut them some slack, be patient and give them a chance to fix the problems. After our pool fix, we lumber back up to the room to now find that not only is the A/C still not working, the electricity is out altogether. DH storms out of the room – me yelling after him, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar honey!” This time he is told that there isn’t enough power to run the A/C, but that it will come on after 10 pm. Just great. At least the water is back on – and we also now have electricity back.

    We need to get out of the furnace box, so we head out for dinner and settle on a place called Fusion. The view of the beach from this second-floor restaurant is very nice – once it gets dark, you can see the lighthouse beam going round and round – very cool – and off on the horizon you can see hundreds of ships’ lights as they line up in the shipping lanes. The food is pretty good and the service was decent until the end of our meal, when the waiter disappeared. We were planning on ordering coffee and dessert, but after a half hour of waiting for someone to reappear, we finally tackled another waiter and asked for our bill.

    Back at the hotel and waiting until 10 for the A/C to be turned on, instead of being up in the hot room, we sit down in the lobby with our laptops checking mail (and posting on Fodors!). I had to tackle the hotel manager to get the password. First we were told that there was internet, then that they had it, but it wasn’t working, and then, when we connected to their internet and needed a password, that they didn’t have a password. Very strange indeed. The manager finally agreed to type it into the computers himself, but when I got booted off and saw that he was headed out of the hotel for the night, I insisted, to his consternation, that he give me the password in case it went off again. He practically made me spit in my hand, shake, and also pinky swear not to give it to anyone. Sheesh.

    The A/C never does get fixed, but fortunately there are fans in each of the three rooms, so we spread eagle under them to try and cool off. It is a difficult night.

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    Next morning I get up, take a shower (at least we have water) only to discover that the power is out again and I have to dry my hair with the filthy, threadbare hotel towels. Needless to say, Trav has a full-blown meltdown at the hotel desk to no avail. This is why you should never pre-pay the hotel bill, which I had mistakenly done this time. (And I haven’t even told you about the extra-bed!) Avoid the Jeevan Ayuervedic Beach Resort at all costs – as I said, the pool and location are great, but not worth all the other hassles. If you can find a decent hotel, Kovalam Beach is a nice area for a bit of sun and sand – it is like a slower and tamer Goa with nicer beaches.

    The drive from Kovalam to Kanniyakumari, the tip of India, is interesting. You continue down the coastal road and it takes you through little villages and towns that are Christian (lots of churches) and Communist (lots of billboards and posters with Che on them). The people are colorfully dressed – bright saris on the women, and either white or patterned longis on the men. The longis must be uncomfortable, because the men are constantly re-adjusting them. There are shack after shack selling the most delicious-looking fruits, and the houses range from huge verandaed tropical-style McMansions to thatch-covered shacks.

    We stop along the way to visit the Padmanabhupuram Palace – former seat of the maharajahs of Travencore (200 Rs for an adult foreigner ticket, 25 Rs for a regular camera and a astonishing 1500 Rs for a video camera). The wood carving on the buildings and ceilings is sumptuous, the floors are gleaming, cool and black, and the latticed windows are intricate and pretty. The complex has a definite far eastern feel and look, and there are lovely courtyards with scenic views of the surrounding mountains. The museum, which you can enter with the same ticket, has fabulous statutes and incredible stone monoliths, some dating back to the 1st century. Well worth the stop.
    The mountain scenery the closer you get to Kanniyakumari is spectacular. Upon entry to the city you have to pay a tourist fee – Ram pays all these fees, but it think it was something like 80 Rs. The place is swarming with swamis – it is one of their pilgrimage destinations because of the memorials to swami Vivekananda. Nearby to his temple, on a rock island off the tip, is also a 40-meter high statue to Tiruvalluvam, a 1st century BC Tamil poet. Also in Kanniyakumari are the Kumari Amman Temple, the Gandhi memorial (where his ashes were kept until they were immersed), and the imposing, white, duel-spired Church of Our Lady of Joy, founded by St. Francis Xavier in the 1540s.

    We check into our hotel (Singaar International,, $81, double), passable for one night, though pretty gross – and I expect this is one of the nicest, if the THE nicest hotel in town. (DD says from the look of the tub in the bathroom, it was used to murder someone and dissolve the bones in acid.)

    A short walk from the hotel (though we are lazy and have Ram drive us down), is the Cape Comorin point area. Thousands of people are down here waiting for sunset. It is a photographer’s dream – beautiful sky, several variants of the bluest water (you can sort of make out the lines dividing the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Arabia), splashing white surf over the charcoal-colored rocky shore, the brilliant orange sun, the merchants and hawkers selling nuts, clothes, dishes, flowers, popcorn, ice cream and every kind of souvenir you can imagine. Booth after booth in the carnival atmosphere advertises “Everything for 5 Rs!” Chai-wallahs on bicycles weave their way through the crowds yelling “Chai!, Hot Coffee!, Chai! Hot Coffee!” continuously in their business-like monotone. Parents are buying their children rides on handsome white horses that gallop around in a circle. Along with the pilgrims we dip our toes in the water. Hundreds are swimming in spite of the posted, ominous signs warning of the multiple deaths in these waters.

    It is not long now before the sun will set, so we walk to the wall at the western side of the point. A gypsy-looking woman with an American flag bandana and a toothless grim tries to sell us bobby pins. Her name is Geetha, and by her weatherworn appearance looks like she has experienced a hard life. In spite of that, she is a comedian – aping us and smiling coyly. She is a happy woman. In sign language she asks me if DD is the baby of DH and myself, and gestures that she thinks DD looks more like DH than me – then cackles as if that is hysterically funny. Some boys come and stand between the wall and us and Geetha chews them out – wildly gesturing for them not to block our view. She kept the area clear for us – occasionally winking at us while she yells at the Indian who are crowding in. Several try to inconspicuously stand with us to have their friends snap photos with their cell phones and Geetha blocks. She’d make an excellent hockey player. Finally, I decide to take her photo. She is beaming as she poses. She breaks off a piece of cardboard with colored bobby pins and presses them into my hand. “No,” I say – and she vigorously shakes her head yes and tells me in her silent way that they are a gift from her to me and that she expects no money for them. She stays with us until the sun sets, assuring that we have a clear view till the end. Once the sun sets, and it is spectacular, the crowd lets up a huge cheer. Geetha gives us a namaste and begins to wander away. DD chases her down and gives her 50 Rs, which she presses to her eyes and kisses. She gives DD some more bobby pins. A little later we stop one of the chai wallahs for some tea (which is delicious by the way), and Geetha comes over and proudly buys some chai for herself. That 50 Rs will hopefully buy her a few more cups of tea and a meal – at least that is our hope.

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    I just read through some of the postings and want to apologize for the typos. It ain't easy posting from the road -- not enough time to check and re-check, plus the unreliability of the internet, so I hope you can figure out what all the misspellings are! Will be back in a day or so with the next episode . . .

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    Travelaw it is a pleasure making your aquaintance.

    I thought the title was a typo,that escaping from IZ should read OZ and figured another Aussie experience. Another of my mistaken assumptions.

    This is a treat to read, you writing is amazing. It is also fun reliving my time in Kerala where I spent time in some of the same places but at different lodgings.

    More please!

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    Thanks Mr. Coats

    DH gets up at 6 to see the morning sunrise over Cape Cormorin. I had every intention of doing the same, but I feel a sore throat coming on, so I skip it in favor of staying in bed. Turns out I made the right choice, as it is too cloudy to see the sun coming up. DH says he still appreciated hearing the crescendo of the city waking up – the roosters crowing, the temple music, the elephants roaring and the din and clatter of the traffic gearing up for the day.

    Breakfast at the hotel is non-existent. By the time we get down there at 9:30, they’ve pretty much run out of food at the buffet. While the foreign patrons sit nicely at their tables, the Indians were all standing around the buffet table scarping up every last scrap of food. You’d think the hotel would attempt to control this, but they don’t. I guess it is a cultural thing. Anyway, after we drink some coffee and tea, we decide to get on the road to Madurai, our next stop.

    The road to Madurai is pretty good – highway, except in a few spots where it is still under construction. For miles and miles after you leave Kanniyakumari, you drive through windmill farms, and today all the blades are turning, as it is quite windy. Craggy, imposing mountains with stark rock outcroppings are in the near distance, and they’re interesting to look at. It’s about a 3-hour drive, but it goes quickly on the good road.

    We are staying at the Gateway Pasumalai Hills, formerly known as the Taj Garden Retreat. (, $160 nt., deluxe room.) It is a bit out of town, but we decided to sacrifice the convenience for some luxury and pampering – besides, we have the car to take us into the city whenever we wish. The location of the hotel is up a winding driveway at the top of a hill. It has fabulous views of Madurai below. The former home of the head of the British textile manufacturer J.B. Coats (known in the U.S. as a thread company), the Taj has kept the ambience of the place and tastefully added buildings to house guest rooms. We are staying in the original guesthouse on the property, built around 1906. The room is huge and has a comfortable king-size bed and an ample sitting area. The bath is also quite large and the shower is wonderful – great water pressure and lots of hot water. The staff is incredibly attentive and tries very hard to satisfy all your whims, while still giving you maximum privacy. Our room has a lovely secluded outside terrace overlooking part of the city, a lake and a mountain – very picturesque.

    Since we haven’t eaten anything all day, we sent over to the hotel restaurant. We were seated on the veranda, which has stunning views, but just fair food. After we eat, we wander around the property on the trails, which are lovely – abundant flowers, interesting trees, birds, butterflies, and even peacocks. We check out all the hotel buildings, the tennis courts, the fitness center, the pool. I’d love to have a property like this! This evening we pretty much just hang around enjoying the comfort and luxury of the hotel.

    Head Massage x 2 and a Peacock Story

    Breakfast at the hotel is good – the Taj usually puts on a nice buffet spread. My first housekeeping goal today is to find a tailor to make my salwar kameez. The desk clerk tells us there are many near the temple. Ram has a contact here who finds us a good one – he charges a little more than the rest but we are told he is worth it – I guess we will see. Goal 2 - find an ATM. There is one right near the tailor – yeah! Goal 3 – DD needs film – also near there (and cheap!), so done. Now we are ready for our visit to the Meenakshi Temple (Entry fee 50, still camera 50, no video allowed).

    When we get to the temple there are thousands upon thousands of swamis and other pilgrims in line to get us in. Ram has found us a guide – who turns out to be fantastic. Just the type of guide we like – no pressure, managed to get us in the temple without standing in the miles-long line, showed us the highlights without droning on and on, answered all our questions to our satisfaction, and gave us plenty of independence to wander about at our will. The temple complex is amazing – really beyond description (Incredible India!). You could spend days and days here and never get bored (and I think some Fodorite has . . .). The colors are brilliant, the sculptures expressive (repaired and repainted every 12 years) and the pillars ornate. I’m not sure what is more interesting – the temple itself or the people who are worshipping here. We hang back in a corner for a while just watching the crowds. It is fascinating. Of course, I have to get a blessing from the temple elephant – named Meenakshi after the temple. She takes coins with her trunk from some people, and touches others on the head. I get a full-blown head massage – this is no 2-second touch – her trunk moves about my head for what seems an eternity while the crowds ooh and ahh. Photos are snapped like crazy. I am, apparently a lucky person – last year I spotted the white rat and this year I receive a passionate embrace from an elephant. Trav leads a blessed life!

    After the temple visit we walk up to the vegetable market. Unlike the market in Mysore, which was fairly orderly and all business, this market is haphazard and reeks of a compost bin. You REALLY need to watch your feet at all times. But worth it just to see it – and photo opportunities abound – there are characters in every direction, many appear to have come into the city from the countryside with their baskets of produce perched on their heads or transported by pedal rickshaws. Some of the older women cackle at us for taking photos of things that are commonplace for them – either that or they were just thought we looked funny. Probably the latter.

    We also visit the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, dating from 1636. There isn’t much of it left, but the vast courtyard surrounded by massive white pillars, soaring painted ceilings and gargoyles is impressive. (Entry fee 50 Rs. for foreigners, 30 for still camera, 100 for video camera).

    Ram drove us back to the hotel to spend the balance of the day relaxing. When we saw a peacock on the hotel grounds, he asked me,
    “Mam, do you know how peacocks get pregnant?”
    “I imagine like any other bird Ram.”
    “Nooo, Mam, my father told me that the boy gets some problems with his legs – they get very bad, and then the peacock starts crying. The female, she drinks the tears and they make her pregnant.”
    “I don’t think so Ram.”
    “No, I think its true, my father told me.”
    This is apparently a popular Indian myth. Back at the hotel, I google the story and find several instances of Indians writing this into ornithology websites. Just to make it perfectly clear to those of you reading this, this is not true. Peacocks and peahens mate just like any other bird.

    I visited the Ayuervedic Center for my second massage of the day. Not sure which one was better – just kidding! After a vigorous head, neck and back massage (ahh!) – we sat by the pool with tea and biscuits, shooing off the persistent peacocks who were badgering us to feed them. The pertinent things even stole food off our tray! This staff is frantically setting up for an engagement party at the hotel this evening – hopefully we’ll get a peek of the festivities.

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    By the time we got around to checking out the party last night, it had already wrapped up; but this morning they had something going on in the hotel ballroom, so it seemed it was some sort of marathon engagement weekend. We saw the guests, but never got a peek of the couple.

    After breakfast we headed off for Tanjore. Ram had already picked up my salwar kameezes from the tailor. They did an okay job, considering they made them on measurements only. They might all be a bit tighter and shorter, but that can be remedied later, when I have time to actually be fitted.

    The ride to Tanjore was fine. Highway 7 is really pretty good, but the crossover road to Trichy and onward to Thanjavur (Tanjore) is still under construction, so it was great in some spots and awful in others. There seems to be A LOT of highway construction going on in India right now – which is a pain in the arse if you are traveling while they are doing it, but a really good thing, because India desperately needs good highways. It will help their commerce and their tourism greatly.

    Upon arrival in Tanjore, we immediately went to the 1000-year old Brihadishvara Temple (free), a UNESCSO World Heritage Site. Most temples in South India are brightly painted, but this one apparently pre-dates that style. The temples have extraordinary carving and statuary. In the temple courtyard is yet another large Nandi bull carved from a single rock.

    I decided to go into the main temple. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the crowds were building into a frenzy to get inside. I just followed along. Before long, there was a huge mass of people pulsing toward the sanctum, and I got pulled in with them. Elbows and feet pushing and squeezing into every vacuum of space – hundreds of people breathlessly pushing and yearning to get to the front. Once over the first door stoop there was just no turning back. I had to endure, because I couldn’t make my way back through the crowd; the force pressing forward was just too great. Claustrophobia started setting in about halfway through the ante-chamber and I jumped the rope to the side of the chamber, out of the madding crowd, trying to find a way out. Finding none, I walked up alongside the crowd hemmed in by the rope until I could go no further. By the next door lintel I tried to jump the rope and squeeze back into the crowd. This nearly caused a riot. P eople began shouting “gauri, gauri, something, something!” (gauri means white girl) – and they probably would have beaten me up and trampled me had I been anything other than a gauri. I shouldn’t have done it, cut the line, but at that point I wasn’t able to bear the thought of heading back 50 meters through the throng and being battered and prodded anymore. What I didn’t realize was that there was another 50 meters to go past that door. To keep some order, the crowd was further merged down with metal gates on either side to a double, then a single, line. Still, the pushing from behind was unrelenting. When I finally got to the inner sanctum, there were some holy men blessing each person. Directly under the center of the gopura was a brilliant gold icon – some sort of figure with what looked like 6 or 7 heads – hanging over a Shiva lingam. The worshippers were overcome – chanting and waving their arms overhead, praying and crying and swaying. The holy men’s guards had to physically remove some of them from the rails in front of the deity. My holy man put white powder on my ring finger and told me to apply it to my head, then, in perfect English, asked me where I was from. “USA.” “OK,” he replied, completely deadpan. I guess he was just curious where the gauri was from.

    Finally emerging from the mayhem checking myself and finding I was pretty much unscathed and much relieved, I wandered around the temple complex grounds taking photos (great frescos) and looking for DH and DD in the crowds. I was almost at the point of thinking I was lost, when I spotted them. All were happy to see each other alive – I wondered if I would survive the temple crush – and they wondered the same.

    After the temple, we checked into our hotel – Ideal River Resort (, $100 nt.) It’s a bit out of town, but a very nice place. Most of the rooms are in two-story cottages, and there are lovely landscaped paths and a wonderful pool. The hotel sits right on the river and the sunsets are spectacular.

    We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant – they had fresh seafood grilled to order. I had giant tiger prawns (7-8” – easily the largest prawns I have ever seen). DH and DD opted for the seafood platter, which included king fish, tiger prawns and calamari. Both said the platter was very good and the calamari some of the best they’d ever had. I relented to the desires of my family and braved another bottle of Indian wine – white this time, which wasn’t near as bad as the red. It was crisp, but just a little too sweet. We laughed a bit because the waiter very formally asked if he could open the bottle for us, and with the most gracious flourish unscrewed the cap. We had some live musical accompaniment for dinner -- two violins and drums. Nice.

    I would definitely recommend the place and would stay here again. The room was very spacious with decent furnishings, had a large balcony, and one of the largest bathrooms I’ve ever had in a hotel – it even included a separate private sun room with an additional bathtub. There are nice touches everywhere – we’re impressed, which is difficult to do. We hope to get out of bed early enough for a dip in the pool before more sightseeing and a trip to Pondicherry.

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    Red Giraffes? Por Quoi?

    Breakfast at the Ideal River Resort was good, and afterward, we did indeed get to take a swim in the awesome pool. The balance of the morning we investigated the Royal Place in Tanjore. The bronze and stone idols, some as old as the 7th century, especially those of Shiva, at the Rajaraja Musuem are very interesting. India has some amazing treasures in places that are not all that well taken care of, and have little to no security. These pieces would probably merit their own room if they were in the British or Metropolitan Museums.

    Completely out of place in an upper room of the museum, under the main temple-looking tower, sits a massive carcass of a blue whale (at first we thought it was a dinosaur) that washed up on a nearby beach in the 1940s. It is impressive, but rather bizarre. Underneath it is a tortoise shell, which normally would look pretty big, but under this looks tiny. It gives you some perspective on how big this skeleton is. It was a gift from the fisheries ministry.

    Next to the museum is the Sarawati Mahal Library. I really love libraries. While this one isn’t much to look at architecturally, it contains some real treasures, including some miniature books, manuscripts written on palm leaves, an 18th century copy of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, and, oddly, lithographs of forms of Chinese torture. The palace complex also houses a small museum with the personal collection of one of the more recent rulers. It has some interesting items – a lock in the shape of a beetle, beautiful lacquered and carved boxes, old trunks and some unusual weapons. Next to the Royal Museum is the actual palace. There’s not much to it now, but the Durbar Hall has some impressive frescos on the ceilings, walls and pillars. Unfortunately, the room has been taken over by pigeons and the floor is covered with pigeon-doo. The courtyard of the hall would be impressive, but it is overgrown and unkempt. So sad.

    We drove to Pondicherry in the early afternoon. From Thanjavur to Pondi you pass through very poor villages mostly made up of tiny little thatched houses. The people look hardened – life is obviously not easy for them. As you get closer to Pondicherry you pass through the sugar cane fields – and pass truck after truck laden and piled high with cane.

    We are staying at the Promenade Hotel (, $125 nt.), a very nice place right on the waterfront next to the old lighthouse and across from the Gandhi statute. After check-in, we take a walking tour of the French Quarter. Wow – this is SO different from the rest of India – the street names are even in French (e.g., Rue de Ste. Louis). DD says, “Mon Cheri, C’est India!” – a language play on “Oh darling, Yeh Hai India!”

    As we walk along the waterfront promenade, we look up to see three very red, very tall, spandex giraffes coming toward us. How very French! (They looked like they were borrowed from the Olympic ceremonies.) Each giraffe was being operated by two persons – one in front and one in back – and being escorted by a cadre of directors dressed all in red. Suddenly, one of the giraffes veers off in the wrong direction, and another goes out of control and starts moving uncontrollably toward the water. There is hysteria amongst the red-dressed directors, not to mention the back half of the giraffe, who can’t see where he is going and is wildly gesturing within the confines of the spandex. People are running around trying to control the contraptions, shouting and barking orders. We can’t help but just stand there and laugh at the spectacle – it was very amusing! They survived, as we saw them later on our walking tour. We still aren’t sure why they were walking through the French Quarter. No explanation. Maybe performance art?

    Pondi’s French Quarter has wide, tree-lined boulevards and a lovely park, as well as the beautiful promenade along the waterfront. A famous ashram is here, as well as a lively temple dedicated to Ganesh. It is a bit of a shame that many of the waterfront properties are taken up by government buildings, but there are some big old colonial buildings, including the French Consulate. BTW, there is a great little souvenir shop on the waterfront, right near our hotel, that has amazing prices on leather goods. I bought a couple of handbags – don’t know how I will be able to pack them in my already-full bag, but must try! I also bought a string of real pearls that were so inexpensive I can’t even mention the price.

    Dinner was at the rooftop hotel restaurant, named appropriately, The Lighthouse. The meal was good and it was a fine evening with a sliver of a moon, fresh air, and a great view of the waves crashing into the shore.

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    Hi Travelaw - your trip report is great - I love it. Keep it coming.... Nice that Ram is driving you again. We just firmed up our itinerary for November and book him based on your recommendation. Wanted to ask you a question - Jodhpur or Jaipur for an extra day. We can do 3 nights in one and 2 nights in the other - what would you suggest?

    Looking forward to the next entry!!!

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    Hiya trav: I've just been on the road myself, so I haven't said thank you properly for this labour of love. I don't know how you are mananaging to find the time to write AND travel but you're doing a really good job of it.

    Pondicherry eh? you must be heading for Chennai. Don't let your driver drop you off at the horrible tourist restaurant half an hour out of Chennai, whatever he says.

    Lemon Tree in Chennai is recommended. Ask for the Dogster suite. Good food in the restaurant. Go a la carte, not buffet.

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    mistygirl -- Jodhpur vs. Jaipur is a tough one, as I kinda liked Jodhpur -- maybe because it seemed more manageable than Jaipur. That said, there is probably more to see around Jaipur, so I guess that would be my pick. However, if you do go with the extra day in Jodhpur, there are some nice day trips you could do, such as Osian. Thanks so much for reading my trip report! I think Ram will work out well for you. Other Fodorites have used him and like him, too. I just know you are going to have a great trip!

    Hiya dogster -- we are in Chennai now and had already booked the Lemontree -- great minds etc. . . . I don't know if we are in the dogster suite, but its a nice suite -- large and spic and span clean. Our driver did not try to take us to the tourist restaurant -- fortunately he does not do this stuff now that he is working on his own. He does whatever we ask him to, which is one of the reasons we like using him. Ate at the hotel restaurant earlier today -- the tandoori oven was off, so half the items on the menu weren't available, but we ate pretty well anyway. Went to another Hindi film tonight -- have to get my taste of freedom while I can. Tomorrow I will post my last two days before heading back. Thanks for the nice comments -- I write in the car and just go with my first draft, which is why this report is not as honed as in the past. We've done a lot of car travel this time -- tried to cover way too much in too short a time, but I think cabin fever just made me want to see everything while I could. In spite of that, it has been a great trip and most of the car travel has been pretty easy. Looking forward to reading more about your travels as well. My best as always, Trav

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    Trav, I think that even if we were not leaving for South India on Feb. 11th I would still be loving your words. What a gift you have!!

    Can you recommend (other than ones already stated) any resaurants or unique shops???

    Many Thanks for your time!

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    We start in Chennai – Mahabalipuram Ideal Beach Resort - 2 days
    Pondicherry – Colonial Heritage
    Tanjore – Anandham Swamimalai 2 days
     Trichy – Hotel Sangam-
    Karaikudi – Chettinad Mansion 2 days
    Madurai – GRT Regency 2 days
    Thekkady – Elephant Court 2 days
    Munnar – Blackberry Hills
    2 nighst in a houseboat
    and Cochin – Old Harbour Hotel 2 nights before home.

    If you have any suggestions that would be wonderful and if not Thank you for sharing your adventure. It is such a pleasure!

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    Hi Pearl -- I'll miss being here, too!

    impacked, can't think of anything more than what I've written right now. Wish I could -- this trip wasn't as well planned as others have been, so there may be fab places out there I just don't know about.

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    Indian Marriage

    The Deccan Chronicle was hanging on the hotel door this morning. Headline: “Bizarre Ritual Continues in Village.” The story is a must read, so I have to post it.

    “The bizarre ritual of getting minor girls married to frogs to ward off evil spirits continues to thrive on Chinnapalipattu village, located on the Puducherry-Tamil Nadu border in Villapuram district despite sustained awareness programmes conducted by the official machinery to sensitize the villagers.

    “The villagers of Chinnapalipattu who are mired in superstitious beliefs and age-old customs have made it an annual practice to get girls married to frogs during the Tamil month of Thai to ward off suspected evil spirits and to appease the gods.

    “’The children are not even aware of the crime they are being subjected to. The practice has deep cultural roots and is very difficult to eliminate due to illiteracy. The district administration should sensitize the parents on the mental hazards along with strict enforcement’, say the social activists.

    “On Saturday, eight-year-old V. Arthi of the village was married to a frog that was fished out from the Mariamman temple tank. The bridegroom’s party proceeded to the venue in a ceremonial procession carrying tumeric, coconuts, plantains, betal leaves, flowers and gifts. The frog was placed on a marriage platform erected in the village and all the rituals associated with a wedding formed part of this marriage. On behalf of the frog, the local temple priest tied the nuptial knot at 8 pm amidst showering of flower petals.”

    I have so many questions, but I will let you ask your own.

    Speaking of marriages, we talked with one young man who told us he is on his way to meet the family of the boy whom his father has arranged to marry his sister. Actually, he tells us, there are two boys, and this young man and his uncle, as representatives of the girl’s father, will decide which boy is appropriate, as well as finalize the dowry that the family will need to pay to the boy’s family.
    “Does your sister get a say at all in which boy she will marry?” I ask.
    “No? Why not?”
    “She just doesn’t. She says she will be happy with whichever boy we choose.”
    “Really? Does she have any other boys she might be interested in marrying whom she actually likes?”
    “No. She doesn’t know any other boys.”
    “What will you pay for her dowry?”
    “Some money, maybe a car or a motorbike, some things for their home or things like that.”
    “No. The boy’s family will buy that, all but a few pieces. They need to buy it as part of the engagement.”
    “I just have a hard time with this whole concept. It disturbs me that the girl, a human being with emotions and feelings, has no say about the person she will be most intimate with and have to live with for the rest of her life.”
    “I know, most Westerners can’t understand this, but it is tradition in India and everyone does this. And we need to make sure the family is happy with the dowry, because after they get married if his family thinks they didn’t get enough and wants something more, maybe they or the husband will hurt my sister or put her out. Maybe they will burn her.”
    “What?! Why would you even consider marrying your sister to someone who might hurt her?!!” We've seen homeless burned women several times.
    “This is my father’s choice and we must do it.”

    The Pondicherry traffic police have kindly posted public service signs all along the roads in the city. Here are a few of the better ones: “Don’t Over Speed”; “Avoid Rash Driving”; and my favorite, “Never Encourage Your Child for Driving.”

    Along the road between Pondi and Mallubalapuram are massive salt farms. The low-lying area is close to the Bay, so the fields are flooded, then dried and the residual salt collected. The salt pans go on for as far as the eye can see. We stop to steal a pinch of the salt, which is piled up high along the sides of the fields and covered up with palm fronds to keep it dry.

    Mallubalapuram is an interesting place – yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rock carvings and free-standing stone animals are incredible.

    DD was having a bad day. She damaged her camera when it hit one of the stones and then her sandal broke. She pinched her toes around the part of the thong that was still in tact, hobbling along trying to keep up with us and avoid stepping on the goat and monkey dung. Suddenly a young man appeared alongside her – about 25, tall and pretty good looking. He spoke fluent American-style English.
    “You busted your sandal?”
    “Oh Sheet.”
    “Can I help you? Maybe I can fix it?” he earnestly asks,
    “No really. No thanks, I’m fine.
    “Oh. Are you sure?”
    “Yes, I’m sure.”
    “Are you married?”
    “No!” says DD, now with her best “go away” voice.
    “No?! Then you are divorced? Do you have childrens?”
    “HAH! No, not divorced. No children, but I do have a boyfriend.”
    “No childrens?”
    “No – not married, no children. Really, I don’t know why we are even discussing this.”
    “Can I show you some kama sutra positions? After me, you can make them with your boyfriend and have childrens.”
    “What?!!” GO AWAY!!”
    “I can show you and also you can see some of my stone carvings – just over there is my shop.”
    “Oh Sheet. Go, Just GO!”

    After wandering around Mallubalapuram for a while we drive an hour to Chennai. We are staying at the Lemontree Hotel (, I think its about $125/nt.) We are given a spacious suite – its clean, great bed, fabulous shower, even if everything does smell like pledge furniture polish. It is on a very busy street – don’t think I’ve ever heard so much constant beeping in all my life. We’re hungry after the trip, so we eat at Citrus, the hotel restaurant. It okay. (BTW dogster, what is your verdict on the placemats?)

    After a rest and refresh, we decide to go see a movie. We order tickets online for “Pyar Impossible,” starring the gorgeous Priyanka Chopra and the unrelated Uday Chopra. Along with the tickets, we order and pay for our snacks online. Pretty nifty.

    We get to the theater about an hour or so early, so we hang out in a nearby patisserie called “Ecstasy.” It’s a minimalist, French-inspired place. The coffee, tea, chocolate and desserts are delicious and we easily wile away the wait for the start of the movie.

    The theater is pretty comfortable and has big leather seats (all seats are assigned). About halfway through the movie our snacks are delivered to our seats. I love it! Why can’t our theaters do this? The film is a chick-flick. We liked it, but the Indians who we talked to tell us it will be a flop, even though they can’t say why.

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    According to one of the guidebooks, in Chennai you can visit Film City where the Tamil films (also known as Kollywood – don’t know why) are made. The hunt for the place takes a while – we know we are in the general vicinity, but have difficulty finding it, and no one we ask has any real idea either, even though they are all willing to give us directions. We are sent on more than one wild goose chase. Finally, we spy a gate that looks like a possibility and we drive in. The guard tells us that to visit, we need to get permission from the principal. We enter the main building and go to reception, where we are asked to provide our business cards (if you have business cards, you might want to bring some along – I was asked for my card several times on the trip).

    We are led down the hall and out to a different building by a stern, but smiling sari-dressed older woman. We are told to wait. When we are finally shown in, we find ourselves in a classroom with the principal at the front instructing students.
    “Welcome!” he says bombastically. “Please join us!”
    We are shuttled toward the front of the room and asked to sit.
    “This is my director’s class. All these young men (there were no women) are studying to become film directors. Please tell me who you are and why you are here!”
    So, we explain that DD is working in Bollywood and that we just wanted to see the Film City grounds.
    “Film City closed five years ago. There is still some shooting here, but not very much. Films are now mostly done on location and by private studios. This is now a government film academy, but I think you should still see it – why not? You are here and we can show you some things.”
    The sets and the sound stages in the back lots, 50 acres worth, have been sold by the government and torn down to make way for huge skyscrapers currently under construction. They will be HQs for software companies. (Chennai is a boom town – there are skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings under construction all over the city and beyond, as it is pushing out its borders.)
    We have a nice chat with the principal and meet all of his students. He volunteers one of them to take us around the academy and then accompany us to visit the private film studios in the city. Prubaker is a 2nd-year film student, tall, sweet, and quite shy – though his syness may have been because he has been thrust into being a guide for a bunch of English-speaking foreigners. After a while he warms up and tells us about the academy, shows us all the equipment (now being housed in the remaining film city buildings) and all about his future plans to be a Tamil film director.

    There is a film shoot in progress on the grounds today – a bus with lots of extras and a scene between a lovely young actress and an unlikely-looking “hero.” We watch for a while – it is being filmed in digital – the director watches the filming on a small laptop screen.
    “Make-up!” They touch up the actress’s face again.
    “Check light.”
    “OK, places!”
    Extras run to catch the bus, while the hero gets off and his and the actress’s hand romantically touch.
    “Let’s do that again.”
    They film the same bit several times. Interesting that although it is a Tamil film, they are working in English.

    We also visit the demo theater, the projection booth, the editing room (where film is being stripped and transitioned), the color correction lab (all done on computers these days), the TV production area and see some of the track and dolly cameras.
    Prubaker also takes us to see AVM Studios – which has a revolving globe at its entrance – and Prasad Studios – both very old and established studios that produce dozens of Tamil films every year. Fascinating. At one of the studios we see a TV set for a singing show under construction. We also meet the director of the private Prasad Film Academy, who graciously carves out an hour from his busy schedule to
    sit and chat with us about film theory, Hollywood, Bollywood, Indian culture in film, how Hollywood keeps trying to capture India in film and continues to fail at it, and of course, Kollywood. He gives us a list of Tamil films we “must see!” All in all, it is a fabulous tour of the Tamil film industry!

    Late afternoon we find some time to visit Fort St. George and the little museum there (which needs some curator help). We find it interesting that Elihu Yale, Governor of Madras for the East India Company in the late 1600s, who erected the first Union Jack over the fort, is the same Elihu Yale who started Yale University later in his life. St. Mary’s, the Anglican church in the fort, is the oldest Christian church east of the Suez, according to a sign. The “fort” is still pretty active, with lots of security as it houses the Tamil Nadu state government buildings. The place is not well geared for tourists, even though all the guidebooks recommend a visit there. Afterward, we drive along the Chennai waterfront – there is a huge sandy beach, lots of monuments, and plenty of traffic.

    Dinner is at the hotel once again. We’ve got lots of creative packing to do, but amazingly we fit all our accumulated stuff into our burgeoning duffel bags. Hope they don’t explode in the cargo hold! Tomorrow it is off to Kuwait and on to Baghdad.

    So, that’s it. I’m not sure I would attempt to post from the road again – it is cumbersome and doesn’t provide for rumination time. Thanks very much to those who have followed along with me and provided me with the much-needed encouragement. A few times I almost abandoned the project only to log on and find a kind comment. It is hard to do this without some feedback.

    Bye for now.

    Back to nation building.

  • Report Abuse

    Thank you for letting me see India through your eyes. I'm such a fraidy cat, I never would have had the same experiences given the same circumstances. My favorite parts were your recanting of specific banter...loved it! Now I must leave your fabulous report and start pulling tax documents together...oh sheet!

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    Trav, I have not allowed myself to read your final installments because it will be my treat to sit and read it at the end of the day (but it's waiting on paper). I've loved reading every word and have saved it to pass on to my friend who is hoping to visit at the end of the year.

    All of your report has been printed with some temples underlined as well as other stops which will be repeated by my husband and myself.

    Thank YOU so much!!

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    I enjoyed reading your report. I am starting to plan a trip to southern India that covers some of the places you visited. In fact, I just posted asking for people to review my itinerary. I am thinking of breaking up the long drive from Cochin to Mysore with a stop in Ooty? Any thoughts on that?

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