I have not updated my journal for a while as I have been pretty busy over the past few weeks. Since my last entry I have travelled through Tamil Nadu, been to the Andaman Islands and I am now back again on the mainland.
After Madurai I went to Kodaikanal in the western ghats (hills that run down the centre of the south of India). Kodi was a nice village with a lake and surrounded by really pretty scenery. It seems to be quite a holiday resort for Indian tourists who spend most of their time out on the lake in pedeloes in the shape of swans and means the lake front is covered with stalls selling strange things like Pot Noodles and fluffy clothes shaped like animals!
I decided to get in some practice for trekking and enjoy the peace and quiet of the forests by going on a long walk. I got sunburnt to a crisp and could barely sit down the following day as my legs had tightened up so much. I guess my fitness is not what it was when I started my trip. However, I spent much time relaxing afterwards in the parks eating the locally made chocolate, which was really tasty.
After Kodi, I caught what I thought was one bus (but actually turned out to be four separate buses) to a town called Thanjavur in the centre of Tamil Nadu. As usual in India the bus journeys were eventful. The first bus blared out a Tamil film (similar to Bollywood but the actors are usually fairly ugly - apparently they like to cheer for the underdog here, so the more unattractive the bigger the star!). The second bus had smoke billowing from underneath it throughout the entire journey and when I raised my concern about it, the conductor just wobbled his head at me. I sat next to the door for a quick exit - just in case! The other two buses were jammed to the rafters and then had people hanging off the edges too.
I made it to Thanjavur to go and see some of the architecture there. It has some nice temples, palaces and art gallerys too. It was a bit of a trek finding my hotel as I was sent in completely the wrong direction by the local traffic policemen - I must remember never to ask them anything traffic related! However, I really enjoyed the temples, which have fantastic sculptures of the various gods. The temples here often have lingams in the centre and it took me a while to realise that these are phallic representations. However, the temple in Thanjavur has a massive lingam with eyes and a smiley face and they put flowers around it too. It looked like a Mr Blobby and I found it difficult not to laugh at everyone praying seriously to it.
I then went to Pondicherry, which was the only part of India to be colonised by the French. It is strange to sit in cafe's there eating croissants and drinking coffee hearing the local Indians speaking in french. I ate some good pastries, cakes etc there as it is not often such opportunities come up here. My hotel was a faded three hundred year old colonial building and I think it probably has not been decorated or had the furniture changed since it opened. My single bed had high wooden sides almost like a cot and was not much bigger. Considering I am only five feet four inches, I had to lie diagonally to fit in it! However, it did have that authentic gallic charm with a slightly run down drinking den underneath it that I am sure has seen plenty of interesting things over the years.
There is not a huge amount to do in Pondicherry apart from eat and go and seen the ashrams. The town is pretty much owned by a local ashram called Auroville. I went to see their main ashram in the town where crowds of locals and westerners were sitting next to the shrine of the dead founder of the ashram - many of whom were crying. He died about twenty years ago, but his house has been kept intact with his sofa and coffee table where he used to relax with his friends.
I also visited their huge ashram on the outskirts of town which is really strange. The residents all wear white clothes and then main shrine looks like a huge golden golf ball in the middle of a field. It was like something out of a science fiction film. I had made the mistake of booking a government city tour to go there as it was a cheap way of doing it. However, never again... It started half an hour late, then took us to a village where the staff must come from, you were then encouraged to buy loads of rubbish from there and finally we arrived at Auroville at 4.50pm. The guide announced that it was shutting at 5pm and we would have to go 'with speed' to see it. So we ran through the grounds, took a photo and tried to listen to the Ashram guide deliver his half hour talk in five minutes flat. It sounded like a horse racing commentary and he nearly passed out from lack of oxygen at the end, before saying 'you must leave...now'.
I then travelled to a village called Mamallapuram which is quite a laid back traveller haunt ie. has places to do yoga, you can get food from anywhere around the world and is next to a beach. It also has some nice temples and sculptures in the rocks there and the village prides itself on having the best sculptors in India. You can constantly hear the tapping of their chisels on the pieces of rock they are working on. Most of the sculptures are in a wooded area near the village and you have to climb over rocks to reach some of them. Some have interesting names such as Krishna's butter ball and others are very elaborate scenes of elephants, dwarves, gods etc. You have to negotiate your way through the local monkey mafia who obviously don't like people coming onto their patch and terrorise the visitors by stealing their bags, food and drink. I saw one monkey down a full bottle of fanta that it had stolen.
I travelled up to Chennai for a day before catching a plane to the Andaman Islands. It was quite nice to be in a city again and I made the most of it, eg. having nice coffee in air conditioned cafes and visiting art gallerys and museums. I had a strange experience there when I went to buy a train ticket as the queue was enormous and it was only after a while that I realised it also snaked its way around the waiting room too. Therefore, as you got to the end of the standing queue, you then had to join the sitting queue and move one seat at a time until you got to the front. This was like a cross between a mexican wave and musical chairs as it rippled around the room and then people clung onto their seat until they ensured that the one ahead would be free.
I then flew to the Andaman islands and spent nine days there, which was completely different to mainland India. Despite getting to the airport in plenty of time, I was sitting reading my book and listening out for my flight to be called. However, it was obviously going on to somewhere else after the Andamans and so was being called with a different destination name and flight number (although they had put a tiny board up with my flight number above the gate). Therefore, I did not move and the plane was delayed as the staff ran around the airport looking for me. The man found me as my name was coming ove the tannoi and I was really embarressed. I had to catch a bus on my own and do the walk of shame on the plane as everyone already in their seats glared at me for delaying us. However, due to my lateness we missed our landing slot and had to circle the islands for a while and this gave a wonderful opportunity to see how pretty they were. You could actually see the sea bed as the water was so clear in parts - even from the height of the plane. I'm not sure if the other passengers appreciated me for it - but I enjoyed it anyway.
Port Blair is the main island and has shops and hotels etc. This is where you have to go through a rugby scrum to get a ferry ticket. I was in the 'ladies queue' and came out with a few bruises, but clutching my ticket. It's funny as even when you get to the front you look down and there are at least five arms surrounding you trying to push their ticket request ahead of you through the tiny gap in the ticket booth. It was unbelievably hot when we arrived and we had to spend a few hours on the jetty. I met a group of Israeli's there and we spent the day chatting in whatever small shadow we could find and minding each others bags when we went off for much needed drinks.
The ferry crossing was relaxing and you could see shoals of flying fish leaping out of the way of the ferry and skimming across the water. I also saw a school of dolphins on the horizon and the occasional seal. My main rival from the ladies queue was sitting nearby and she was a different woman, all smiles and head wobbles at me and none of the elbows in the ribs she had given me earlier.
I had reserved a room in one of the little guest houses on an island called Havelock. It is a really pretty island and really unspoilt as tourism here is pretty low key. There are only a few restaurants and mostly you eat in the tiny shacks with a couple of tables outside them. The sea food was great here as it was freshly caught every day. My local restaurant was run by a woman who everyone called Amma (mother) and managed to cook the food, look after her own and other local children as well as doing the family washing and simultaneously watching Bollywood movies. I think she had multi-tasking down to an art - although it did take a while to get your meal! Nevertheless, it was a nice way to pass the evenings and very sociable with locals, children, Indian tourists and westerners all sitting chatting throughout.
I enrolled at a scuba diving school to do the Open Water PADI course. It was a four day course, but the owners were very generous and let me dive for free on a fifth day too. I had to watch DVD's on diving theory and learn about how underwater pressure affects your body. I also had to learn how to use a table to work out the pressure in my body after repetitive dives. There was actually quite a lot to learn and rather than lounging on the beaches, I was having to study in order to pass two exams. I also had to learn how to put the equipment together and deal with any emergencies such as my air being cut off. On one test my instructor had to cut off my air supply and I needed to signal to share air with someone else. Unfortunately he forgot to turn the supply back on and when I tried to resume using my equipment again there was nothing there. This time I had to really signal for no air by frantically doing the throat cutting sign. He thought it was very funny and said I had responded well....I was not quite so amused myself!
There were some nice people doing the course at the same time and I became friends with them. I also met a woman who was an assistant instructor at the school who had been working for the same organisation as I did when I first came to London.
The diving was fantastic there and I saw loads of tropical fish and beautiful brightly coloured and strange looking coral. Every day we went out to different dive sites with names like the Wall or the Aquarium and saw many things. One one day there was a shoal of about thirty massive fish called Bump Headed Parrot fish who looked like grumpy old men with big teeth. We also saw countless lobsters, huge different coloured starfish from blue to red to pink and white ones. I really enjoyed it and cannot wait to dive elsewhere too.
I did manage to have some time to explore the island and on one day even hired a bike to cycle to the other side. Previously, I had not really noticed how many hills there were on this route and I also made the mistake of cycling in the midday sun. I started seeing stars at one point and had to sit down for a while. However, the beach I was visiting called Radhangar Beach is meant to be one of the best in Asia and is a long stretch of white sand, turquoise sea and a cove full of coral to go snorkelling in too. It had the best sunset I have seen since I arrived in India. However, the Indian Navy had obviously decided to use this as a site for a practice invasion. They drew up in two massive ships and lowered the ramps at which point two men wearing shorts and shirts from each ran out pulling a length of rope. They then dived out in bellyflop style onto the water (clearly not realising how shallow it was) and then jumped up with the water below their knees and limped onto the beach. It was like something out of Dad's Army and I just hope I am not here if the Indian Navy are ever needed to secure my safety!
It was a relaxing time on Havelock and the only thing you have to worry about there is hoping not to get hit on the head by the coconuts, which fall milimetres away from you at times and make you jump out of your skin. Other than that there is a very relaxed feel there with the local men sitting around playing cards, the local women either selling fruit or watching their children and the children running around playing having a wonderful time. On one day I was out for a walk and came across a family with two little brothers sitting in a half oil drum that they used for bathing in and having a whale of a time splashing each other and laughing.
Apparently Jonny Depp was on one of the islands shooting the next Pirates of the Caribbean film. I thought that after making my Bollywood debut in Mumbai, I would be the obvious choice to star as his love interest....but clearly 'The Train' has not yet been released!
I came back to Chennai and then travelled up to Orissa, which is a small region on the eastern coast of India. Orissa is one of the poorest states in India and you see lots of people living in very basic looking mud huts in the countryside and also a lot of people with untreated illnesses such as elephantitis, which is awful to see. However, it is also a very beautiful green area and looks very lush with lots of paddy fields which appear to be blooming white flowers at the moment.
I started in the main town Bubaneshwar, which has lots of temples to visit that have living Gods in them. This is when they dress statues and put them to bed etc every night. They are very odd looking and look quite scary. I was also there when India were beaten by Sri Lanka in the cricket and there was a cafe with a TV screen outside my hotel. The local men were all shouting and cheering all night.
Since Sam has left, I have now had to slightly downgrade to cheaper hotels and I have been suffering a bit recently. I stayed in two different places, one of which had the most enormous lizard that resembled a small crocodile and scared the hell out of me by running on the wall near my bed. Whilst trying to track its movements with my torch, I realised that it became completely freaked out by the flashing light and this caused it to charge around the ceiling, fall off onto the moving fan, which fortunately span it away from me and I was able to chase it out of the door whilst it was still in a daze! I've also had too many close encounters with giant cockroaches recently and my only defence is to put buckets over them and leave the hotel the next day!
I then left to come to Puri, which is a laid back village on the coast. Although it does not feel laid back when you initially arrive as the local rickshaw owners have a strange habit of jumping onto the side of the incoming buses to 'reserve' their particular tourist. As I was the only tourist on the bus, there were three men hanging off the window next to me shouting 'madaaam, rickshaw' whilst bumping against the speeding buses sides and almost killing themselves in the process. Two fell off, but one man hung on for ages and wrenched me off the bus. I was so concerned about his complete disregard for his own safety that I refused to be in any kind of vehicle with him and he was clearly annoyed with me!
Again, it has some really stunning buildings close by. I visited one called Konorak today that is built in the shape of a giant chariot complete with rearing horses at the front and huge wheels surrounding it.
You get around Puri on the local cycle rickshaws and I was starting to get quite paranoid about my weight as I have gained a few pounds since being away (it is not very practical to try and jog in India). Every time I was being pulled along by one of the cyclists they were straining, puffing and panting, doing elaborate gestures to wipe the sweat from their brows, having coughing fits and even pushing me along at times. However, after a day I noticed that the other cyclers were pulling anything up to three passengers at a time and I realised that it was a bit of acting for a sympathy tip!
I shall be leaving for Calcutta tomorow and am looking forward to being in a big city again and treating myself to some luxuries.
Anyway, I will update soon.