Wednesday, March 24, 2010

India; Tamil Nadu region, 15th – 21st March 2010

Chennai (Madras), 15th – 16th March

With a hint of nerves mixed with bags full of fatigue, we finally land in the country that we have been led to believe to be the most challenging of our entire journey ... India. We only have a month here and have chosen to visit the South. This decision came as a result of many conversations we had with people throughout our journey who have already visited India, where most advised that if it’s the first time we are visiting India, we should start with the South as it will be less intense, less gruelling. The last 10 months of travelling are starting to take their toll now; we’re tired and are starting to look forward to our return to ‘normal’ life. Despite this, it is not without a certain degree of emotion that we land here, this is after all Renu’s mother country, where her heritage lies, and it is also our last country of discovery.

Chennai is everything we expected, and more! Busy, crazily so, smelly, polluted, piled under dirt and rubbish, poverty struck families in every nook and cranny of the city ... more than anywhere else we’ve visited in the world, do we feel that we truly live in different worlds to these people.

We don’t have plans to stay in Chennai, but were hoping to see some classical Indian music and dance here, but unfortunately there were no shows on that evening. It was still an experience though to take a tuk-tuk through the streets of Chennai in the evening...and our first curry in India was also quite an exciting moment :-). We decide to leave the very next day, and so take a 4 hour bus to Pondicherry.

Puducherry (Pondicherry), 16th – 19th March

So proof that we are starting to miss Europe, we’ve come to this town to take in the remnants of the French presence in this part of India. We spend our time walking around the French quarter admiring the lovely architecture, strolling along the beachfront, visiting the badly maintained local museum and eating at fancy restaurants. Renu attempts to get some ‘made to measure’ trousers at the crazy bazaar ... but they end up not really being made to measure, just very, very badly tailored, so no new clothes for Renu :-(.

Despite the French influence, there is no mistaking that you are in India ... colourful clothes, spicy curries, piles of rubbish and honking cars! An interesting mix!


Madurai, 19th – 21st March

We’re getting very lazy in the last leg of our trip now, and given that we’ve been really careful until now and have generally always taken public transport, we’ve decided to treat ourselves from herein. We take a private taxi to Madurai, arriving around 4pm. Upon arrival, there’s a familiar thought running through our minds; ‘oh oh, think we’re not going to enjoy this...’, but after a little rest at the hotel we venture out into the town as the sun goes down. It turns out to have a very pleasant vibe, even for us as non-lovers of the big city. Despite the ground being covered in rubbish, we notice as we walk through the streets that there is a lovely smell in the air, a burst of incense and spices all mixed together, covering the usual smell of exhaust and piss. A city that was once famous for spice trade, it is one of the oldest cities in India that exemplifies Tamil culture more than most places in the state, as it has no European influence. So far we are impressed. We finish the evening off with one of the best curries ever, bursting with flavours of millions of different spices, on the fabulous rooftop restaurant of our hotel.

It’s an early Saturday morning start for us, eyes open at 7.30 am. We have a busy day planned. First visit is to Sri Meenakshi Temple, the Tamil equivalent of the Taj Mahal apparently! It’s a massive temple complex, with very weird but wonderful looking sculptures. We didn’t go in, but it was enough to admire the architecture from the outside.

Next stop was our main reason for coming here, to visit the Gandhi Memorial Museum, a chance to learn a little more about and pay tribute to one of Renu’s greatest heroes. Madurai is where Gandhi first took up wearing the dhoti (long loincloth), as a symbol of unity with his people, and it is here where they exhibit the last dhoti he was wearing (still blood stained) when he was assassinated in Delhi. There is also an exhibit of some of his other belongings, like his famous glasses. The museum explains India’s fight for independence over many centuries, and how Mahatma Gandhi moved his people to fight (non-violently) for this until success. Though the history is fascinating, we were disappointed with the museum itself, the exhibitions were not well done, and the history was badly explained, but still, it was important to make the visit.

The afternoon was spent walking around the bazaars taking in the ‘trade vibe’ of the place. There are thousands of merchants, each specialising in their own produce, be that spices, textiles, fruit and vegetables ... you name it. We discover a little market-warehouse that seems to be a converted temple ... it is quite magnificent. Religious statues and carving fill the place, and we’re mesmerised by the architecture. After walking around and admiring the place, Nico finds himself ordering three very lovely Indian shirts, made-to-measure:-)

That evening we go back to our rooftop restaurant and enjoy another curry exploding with spicy savours. Though, we realise a little later that it’s a little too much of an explosion, the spices are so heavy on the stomach that we find it very hard to digest and end up having a crappy night’s sleep. Which is a shame, cause we have another long day of driving tomorrow, destination Cochin, in the Kerala district.


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