We've travelled many, many miles since I last wrote. A lot of them were very bumpy. But, while still down south, we spent a few days in Madurai, whose temple is said to be one of the most impressive in south India. Every inch of its four, 50-odd-metre-high entrance gates is smothered in rows of technicolour sculptures of gods. We also visited a local Ghandi museum (included in the display: the loincloth he was murdered in), which included a no-holds-barred exhibition slagging off the British for their exploits in India. To be honest, it was a relief to see this confrontational, angry display - the Anglophiles I've met here often make me squirm with embarrassment.
We then inched north to Pondicherry, a former French-colonized coastal city, where we stayed in an amazing ashram-owned hotel, complete with austere, sour-faced staff, a lovely garden (ostensibly for meditation, but we don't really go in for that sort of thing) and an amazing sea view from our balcony. In between eating posh cakes and drinking cocktails, we made time for the open-air screenings of French films in front of a seaside Ghandi sculpture, as part of a French festival. We also visited a local temple that has its own elephant. One of the most surreal sights I've seen - among many in this bizarre country - was this huge animal, two metres away from me, doinking people on the head with its trunk as a blessing. The elephant wasn't chained or tied up at all, it was just very subdued and obedient, and had the most intelligent, incredibly sad eyes.
After this, we began our two-day journey back up north (with a one-night break in Nagpur in the middle), via train, bus, minibus and rickshaw. Among other things, it included a 4am bus breakdown and a transfer to another bus that was like being in a tractor with square wheels for several hours. Eventually, we arrived at Khajuraho, in Madhya Pradesh - famed for its enormous, lovely temples decorated with some very rude and ancient sculptures (think: Kama Sutra with horses). It was all very impressive and quite funny and a bit bewildering. There was also a fairground in town and, for reasons I still don't understand, we decided to go on the big wheel, which suffered the unfortunate combination of being both very rickety and very fast. In Khajuraho, we also found out about an NGO that's working in the area and wondered what they were about. I called them and, within minutes, found myself on the back of the NGO director's motorbike (wondering, not for the first time on this trip, what I was doing, and how it had happened), being driven to a house and thrown into a Skype conversation with the head of the NGO's parent charity in Paris. I didn't really know what to say, but luckily she turned out to be a very inspiring, warm, middle-aged French lady, whose trying to help the area's agricultural traditions survive in the face of aggressive tourism, and to provide education and health care.
With the Hindu festival of Holi approaching, we wanted to be somewhere special to celebrate (by throwing huge amounts of brightly coloured powder at each other), so we headed to a small religious town called Chitrakut, just on the edge of Uttar Pradesh. Our hotel was on the riverbank by a ghat (complete with a 20-metre-high statue of the monkey god Hanuman), where people were bathing, conducting religious ceremonies and just generally having a chat, and where seemingly nonstop prayers were being conducted over loudspeakers from the many surrounding temples. We found a family willing to host us for Holi and we joined them on the street at midnight where they lit a bonfire - and then started to throw huge amounts of brightly coloured powder at each other, or rather to smear it on everyone's faces, from toddler to grandma. We indulged in a good deal of colour-pelting throughout the next day too (sticking, as far as possible, to the powder, which washes off pretty easily, and avoiding the more worryingly semi-permanent dyes that a lot of local kids were squirting with gay abandon. Even now, about a week later, we're seeing purple-faced children wandering the streets).
And now we're in another small town in the area, called Orchha, which has been one of our favourite destinations so far - a peaceful, agricultural place with a rugged, green landscape dotted with hugely impressive 16th-century ruins, palaces and temples. It has a beautiful river that we swam in yesterday. We spent two nights in a homestay in a village on the outskirts of town, in a room between the cowshed and where the family grows their aubergines.
Tonight we're catching a night train to Varanasi.