So I left you on the journey to Mamallapuram, where we spent another night. As we arrived quite late we did nothing in the afternoon, but the following morning was reserved for sightseeing. We hired bikes and rode around the (relatively) quiet streets to see some of the amazing monuments in the town. Most of these were created between the 6th and 8th century, carved from rock, and depict Hindu stories in breathtaking detail. I kind of lost track of the many stories after a while but just seeing the monuments was amazing. We got mobbed by school children at one of the monuments; they were shaking our hands, kissing our cheeks and posing for endless photos, it was hilarious but exhausting. I asked our guide if the tsunami had affected the town a great deal. He told me that it had only gone half a kilometre inland(!) as the area is reasonably mountainous. He showed me on a monument how high the water had gone and it must have been at least ten metres high. The weather was very hot and the humidity was more than 90%. We sweated bucketloads and therefore spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool. It was so relaxing to be there and quite strange. You could imagine that you were actually on holiday in the Mediterranean, and the sewage infested streets of the town just a few metres away seemed like another world.
We left at 6.30pm and travelled to Chennai (formerly Madras) which is one of the largest cities in India. I cannot describe to you how massive this city was, or the train station we arrived at to board our sleeper train. I was very excited about the sleeper train. It felt like quite an adventure and I had no reason to believe I wouldn't sleep well. How wrong could I have been. I discovered on this fateful night that fat Indian men (of which there are many) have an incredible propensity for snoring at a volume that I could only previously have imagined. I spent the first hour of the trip sat in one of the vestibules watching mosquitos fly around, until the train manager found me, took pity on me, and got me a bed in a carriage where everyone was sleeping in a more conscientious manner.
Despite my small victory on the train, I was exhausted when I arrived in Mysore and not really in the mood to look round the Mysore Palace. The palace is absolutely huge and is the former official residence of the obscenely rich Mysore royal family. Completed in 1912 it houses a number of beautiful colonial paintings in vegetable dye (hence no cameras allowed) and breathtaking stained glass windows. After the palace we went to a Muslim family's house for a home cooked meal. It was traditional south Indian food and was delicious. We then spent an afternoon looking round the shops. One boy leaned out of a shop to ask where we were from (not unusual) I replied "England" to which he responded "Asda price" in a very enthusiastic voice. We laughed so hard at this that we ended up going into his shop and buying lots of nice hand made scented oils, so he did quite well out of it. In the evening we went to see the weekly palace illuminations, which must create an astronomical electricity bill, and then for a delicious meal.
On our way out of Mysore on Monday morning we stopped to visit a temple on a hill which is devoted to an incarnation of the goddess Parvati. Again it was good to see the packed temple, full of gifts of flowers and fruit given by the people to the goddess, and full of devout and enthusiastic worshippers. We sweated all the way down the thousand steps to the car park, and set off for our night in the jungle.
We spent Monday night in the Bandipur Tiger reserve, a serene hotel complex with a freshwater pool. After having the chance to relax in the afternoon we met up for an evening safari. We first went down to the river to learn about the elephants which are in captivity in the reserve. Each elephant has a minder and spends the day walking around in the jungle. They don't do any work for the humans and have generally been rescued from captivity. When elephants are in season once a year they are capable of wreaking havoc. Thus, one of the elephants had been working as a temple elephant and had killed 3 people. It seems that humans are not the only ones to be affected by hormones! Another elephant had lived in the wild but had got into the habit of raiding villages for food and had killed a total of 17 people. For this reason, the elephants are brought to the reserve, trained, and kept locked up when they are at their most destructive. We had the chance to see one of the elephants being washed, and I even got to wade into the deeply infested river and wash the elephant myself, which was brilliant. Elephants live to about 80 years old, and drink 120 litres of water per day! We climbed back into the jeeps and drove through the jungle. We saw wild elephants, which I was delighted about, as well as blue jays, peacocks, monkeys, fireflies, a cat snake, a mongoose, some wild boar and a black bear with two cubs on its back, which is extremely rare.
After a night all sleeping together in a dorm, 6 of us got up at 7 to go on a 3 hour trek up a mountain. It was tiring but after all this sitting around on transport it felt great to do some exercise. The mountains were beautiful early in the morning with all the mist rising from them. We stopped for breakfast on a dramatic rocky cliff, my pictures are wonderful. We saw bluebirds and a bison on a hill, but nothing else. We had hoped to see a tiger, leopard or a panther. We saw a tiger's footprint and some leopard droppings, plus we heard a deer barking in the distance which meant it was being stalked by a big cat. God knows what we'd have done if a tiger had come and wanted to eat us - our guide didn't appear to have any weaponry on him, so it's probably just as well we saw nothing. Now I know what the legal disclaimer forms we signed at the beginning of the tour were for!
We left the complex at lunch time and headed round the 36 hairpin bends into the Nilgiri mountain range, to a place called Ooty (it is a shortened version of something but I have no idea what - it's very long). We were staying in this random officers' holiday home, which was decorated much like my grandma's flat used to be, but is comfortable enough. We spent Tuesday afternoon exploring Ooty and sampling some of the chocolate it is famous for (it is nice but not a patch on Thorntons and therefore none of you can expect any as a present). I spent a comedy 2 hours trying to find a phone where I could call Matt. The first shop I went to didn't allow international calls but the man offered me his mobile instead. When I declined he asked where I was from and what I did. I told him I was studying law, and he shook my hand at this revelation. He then advised me that he is looking to sell some paintings in England and told me that it would be helpful if I took some back for him, sold them and sent him the money. He didn't seem to expect that I would have any objections to this. I politely advised him that I would be too busy to open and manage a shop for him (for free), and departed. The next shop allowed me a ten minute call but the phone abruptly cut out as the shop's bill to its provider had got too high. I next went to a shop that advertised phone credit but didn't in fact sell any. They advised me to walk to the next village. The phone there was unavailable due to a power cut. I walked a little further down the road and managed to make a call, but only after waiting for one of the lines out of the village to become available. This is yet another example of the need for extreme patience in India. Luckily I saw the funny side of it! I walked back to my hotel and narrowly avoided being caught in a massive thunderstorm.
On Wednesday morning we climbed aboard a steam train for a trip through the Nilgiris to a tea factory. The views of tea plantations were stunning and the journey was beautiful, although freezing as the temperature is low there and I have no winter clothes! The tea factory was pretty cool. We saw women picking the leaves, on trees that grow to be a hundred years old. We then saw the drying process - leaves are thrown into trays with grids underneath, which allow them to be blasted with air. They are then ground up through 5 cutters, which removes all the chlorophyll and makes the powder brown. It is then blasted with hot air to completely dry it. We had many a photo opportunity in the fields outside. Indian tour guides are extremely enthusiastic about snatching your camera off you and placing you in multiple poses, using up most of your memory card in the process. We had the chance to try masala (spicy) tea and chocolate tea, both of which sound disgusting but are actually delicious. We headed back to the hotel via the highest point in the Nilgiris, which was submerged in cloud so a bit pointless. We visited the Indian version of Starbucks called Coffee Day, which boasted relatively western prices but didn't offer a very western service. When we ordered chocolate brownies the guy went outside, climbed on his motorbike and headed off to find somewhere he could buy brownies!
The number of people who have had some sort of gastro-intestinal illness in our group of ten has now risen to six. Thankfully I am not one of them and I am very pleased that I got that diarrhoea vaccine, which I think might have helped. Marine is the latest to be struck down by illness which has resulted in her fainting at the tea factory. Graham and Michael ate some unpeeled fruit in Puducherry and Graham still can't hold food down! It's not a good situation.
I am getting on with my group really well, everyone is great. There is one girl who I find very hard to understand though. She dislikes curry but doesn't like the western alternatives. She is scared of insects and insect bites. She is terrified of dogs and cows (both of which are in abundance on Indian streets). She hates the heat but doesn't like the cold either. She gets very annoyed with Indians who can't speak her language and who don't understand her. She can't bring herself to use squat toilets. She detests all train and bus journeys (which in my opinion have never been that bad). And she has been ill several times. She is 22 years old but I think she is very immature for her age. I also wonder how she managed to book this trip without apparently reading anything about it or about India - what the hell did she think it was going to be like?! Trying to sleep in the dormitory the other night while she spent the best part of an hour squealing over the possibility of animals coming into the room while she slept was particularly irritating. Unfortunately she is the only person continuing to do North India with Marine and me and I am praying I can continue to share a room with Marine for sanity's sake!
I thought I would share one more thing with you. Our guide is called Santosh and he is 34. We had been wondering for quite some time why he had never mentioned a wife as it is very old to be unmarried in India. He revealed to us the other night that he has been married 4 years and has a 2 year old daughter. His mother had been pestering him to marry for quite some time, and as you probably know it is the custom to have an arranged marriage in India. He allowed his mother to approach a marriage bureau with his CV (they actually have these here, they are much like job agencies with people's CVs in the window, apart from their aim is to find you a life partner.) He got his mate at the marriage bureau to contact him with all CVs before he contacted his mother. He found a girl who he liked the look of, and they travelled 300km north of Delhi to meet this woman. After half an hour in a room with her, they became engaged - this was in November. They talked on the phone every night and got married in April. How strange does that seem?! They also have online marriage bureaus in India, which I suppose is the Indian equivalent of an online dating agency!
I am now back in Cochin after a ten hour bus journey today. They are experiencing freak weather conditions with monsoon-style rains, and a lot of the backstreets are under several inches of water. This should probably be a hint to them (and us all) to cut down on the petrol usage. I am supposed to be flying to Delhi tomorrow but I don't hold out too much hope. I am supposed to be changing my ticket from the 8th April to the 21st March but the number of agencies I have visited today haven't been able to help, the desk at the airport is not answering the phone and the airline hung up on me! I'm just going to have to turn up ridiculously early at the airport armed with a lot of patience. Apparently, even though Christians are in the definite minority in India, tomorrow and Sunday are still public holidays which will no doubt complicate things.
So I'll leave you there and hopefully you will here from me in the North in a few days' time.
I'd just like to inform you of one more thing: In Puducherry you can stay at the Golden Shower Guesthouse. In Ooty you can stay at Hotel Gaylord. If you like that drive a few hours down the road to the outskirts of Cochin and buy your reinforced metals at Gaylord Steel, and your toilet products at Gaylord Sanitaries.