I'm trying to cast my mind back over the past couple of weeks to where I left off... We gave Goa a wide berth in favour of a hopefully more sedate beach experience in Gokarna, in the state of Karnataka. From the train, we saw the scenery suddenly become lush and tropical and we started to have high hopes for Gokarna. The little town was a mix of pretty bays and a rubbish-filled river, tacky shops and local religious folk milling around temples. And bikini-clad Russians. We met a lot of aging European hippies who live in Gokarna more or less permanently - a sort of semi-retirement from their glory days in Goa. We weren't particularly enamoured with the place until we eventually found a really long, quiet stretch of sand populated mainly by cows and tiny burrowing crabs, with little hut-like restaurants at a respectful distance from the sea.
After a few days we headed south again, to Mysore - a biggish town with a palace that is lit up like a palace-shaped Christmas tree every Sunday night with thousands of lightbulbs along every line of the building. In Mysore, we found a mighty posh hotel in a Raj-era stately home that is entirely solar-powered and donates all its profits to good, wholesome local causes. Guilt-free indulgence! We checked in for two nights, temporarily exchanging squat toilets and penny-pinching for historical drawing rooms, verandahs and a library, giggling to ourselves as we sat on the manicured lawn (maintained with waste water) and half expecting to be thrown out for not being posh enough.
We came back down to earth with a bumpy three-hour bus ride to Kerala and the town of Sulthan Bathery, where we fancied our chances of seeing wild elephants in the local sanctuary. Unfortunately, we arrived just in time for a national two-day strike over workers' rights (which was particularly enforced in communist Kerala). Once we realised the entire town was going to shut down, we just had enough time to stock up on two days' worth of fruit and biscuits so we wouldn't starve in our hotel room, with only Top Gun (nooo!) and Titantic (noooooooo!) on the TV for entertainment. The first morning of the strike, I went for a little wander and a lady living in a house right on the edge of the forest invited me in for a cup of chai. The next thing you know, she and her husband and two young sons have adopted me and Shahar, taken us round to visit all their friends in the neighbourhood, and invited us for every meal for two days. We started out without much language in common but by the end of the strike Shahar was doing headstands on the family's communal bed for the kids' entertainment. To top it all off, after the strike we finally made it to the sanctuary and saw a wild elephant only 20 metres away from us. Hooray! It was an amazing, surreal sight.
Then, on a road that local people proudly boast has no less than 32 hairpin bends (as the two vomiting girls sitting next to us on the bus could testify), we came to the hill station of Ooty, in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The wiggly journey took us through unfeasibly green tea plantations and rolling hills. And that's where we are now...