Reaching the Finish Line – Kochi

Kochi is the great port city of the south.  It is a place known for the spice and tea trade.  Kochi is a city that was colonized first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British.  Each colonizer left behind some of their culture and the city has also been greatly influenced by other trading partners of influence like the Chinese and Arabs.  This blend of cultures attracted me to the city and seemed like a good place to end my Indian adventure.

The magnificent rain trees of Fort Kochi that charm foreign visitors, had their affect on me too!

The magnificent rain trees of Fort Kochi that charm foreign visitors, had their affect on me too!

The greater Kochi area is a maze of peninsulas and islands.  It’s a place where you get around on a ferry as much as you do by road-and I love ferries!  My visit centered around the area of Fort Kochi, as that is where my hotel was located  One of the main attractions of Kochi, and its icon, are the Chinese fishing nets.  They have been in place since the 14th century and while there used to be 100, there are now only about a dozen that remain in use.  Heading down in the early morning and then again at sunset was a highlight of my visit to this city.

Very simple - one man can easily lower the net into the water by shifting the weights with his foot, or pull it back up.
Very simple – one man can easily lower the net into the water by shifting the weights with his foot, or pull it back up.
The Chinese fishing nets at dusk
The Chinese fishing nets at dusk

The former presence of the Dutch was very apparent in Fort Kochi in the architectural style of many homes and buildings.  While so many buildings are nearly falling down, others have been restored.   Places of interest are the Dutch Cemetery and the Dutch Palace.

Grand old homes in a neglected state of disrepair
Grand old homes in a neglected state of disrepair
In the architectural styles seen around Fort Kochi, you can clearly see that the Dutch were present here.
In the architectural styles seen around Fort Kochi, you can clearly see that the Dutch were present here.

A walk through the port area and down the eastern edge of the peninsula was another highlight.  The Mattancherry area and Baazar Road is always bustling with port area business, the loading and unloading of goods, and business transactions being negotiated.  The day I walked through was a Muslim holiday so some of the shutters were closed but there was still a lot of activity.  The closer you got to the Jewish Synagogue the more touristy it became, but further up was quite different.

Lots of spices ready for export
Lots of spices ready for export
The port area of Mattancherry is a funky part of town.  Colorful streets and alleyways.
The port area of Mattancherry is a funky part of town. Colorful streets and alleyways.
Kerala has two dominating political parties - one which is a communist led party.  The two parties have alternated power over the past 3 decades.
Kerala has two dominating political parties – one which is a communist led party. The two parties have alternated power over the past 3 decades.

Partially because I’d read it was a beautiful museum and partially because I wanted an excuse to use the ferry network, I headed over one morning to the neighboring peninsula of Ernakulam to the Kerala Folklore Museum.  This beautiful building and private collection is a great showcase of all that is Keralan.  Three floors of musical instruments, puppets, masks and costumes for traditional dance, and religious artifacts make the trek to this museum well worth it.

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Puppets are big in a few places in India, including Kerala.
Puppets are big in a few places in India, including Kerala.
Even the ceiling of this museum was a treasure!
Even the ceiling of this museum was a treasure!

On my final night, I attended a Kathakali performance.  Kathakali is a traditional dance-drama art of Kerala.  The show incorporated some other traditional and similar dances as well.  It was a really entertaining performance and I couldn’t have asked for a better grand finale to my time in India.  At the show I met another solo female traveler and we went for a few beers after the show, as it was her final night in town as well.

Watching the performer apply his makeup
Watching the performer apply his makeup
Getting ready for the show is a two man job.
Getting ready for the show is a two man job.
Kathakali in action
Kathakali in action
This woman's talent was facial expressions - it was really funny and impressive to watch her.
This woman’s talent was facial expressions – it was really funny and impressive to watch her.
My last photo in India.....
My last photo in India…..

And with that, it came time to say goodbye to India.  I’d saved most of my shopping for this final stop so I had to spend some time packing and repacking and getting rid of things in order to get my bags ready for travel.  In the morning, it was off to the airport, for what would be a 50 hour marathon of recycled airport/airplane air.  50 hours from the time I walked out the door of my Kochi hotel to when I walked in the door at my friend’s apartment in Mexico City.  Yikes.  But so, so worth it for the opportunity to visit a little bit of this immense country.  Who knows what the future holds but I have a pretty strong gut feeling that I’ll be back to the subcontinent!

All of Kochi comes out to the beach on my final night, to wish me goodbye -or something like that.
All of Kochi comes out to the beach on my final night, to wish me goodbye -or something like that.

 

 

 

Tree Huggin’

The Arabian Sea
The Arabian Sea

I had only been traveling by myself for about 10 days, but it felt like a lot longer and I was in need of something a little less intense. I also wanted my last week to be free of obligations in the way of museums, temples, palaces, monuments, etc. I wanted to just BE in India. I wanted to be able to just live a resemblance of a normal day, against an Indian backdrop.

So, I hightailed it to the Arabian Sea.

As soon as we crossed into the state of Kerala, everything became green.  The number of palm trees here is really something!  Palm groves are thick and homes, temples and buildings are built among the palm trees instead of cutting them down to make room.  I was missing this kind of greenery!

The small, seaside town of Varkala was the perfect place to kick back and do a whole lot of nothing. While typically not too much of a beach gal, I was thankful to spend a few days hearing the crash of waves and the crow of roosters instead of the incessant beeping of horns and the roar of spirited chatter of massive crowds of people.

The tourist area of Varkala centers around the North Cliff, a thin strip of restaurants and shops with the sea crashing directly into the cliff down below. While there was some good food to be had and it was nice to be able to have a beer without issue, it is the kind of place that grows old in about 20 minutes. As has been the case all through the south, it is low tourist season so shop owners and tourist service providers are VERY keen to get your business and it wears on the nerves quickly. I was lucky to have chosen the right homestay as it was a quick 10 minute walk away from the cliffs, but tucked into palm groves and far from the road.

The North Cliff at Varkala
The North Cliff at Varkala

 

Peaceful breakfast on the veranda at Casa Eva Luna Homestay in Varkala.
Peaceful breakfast on the veranda at Casa Eva Luna Homestay in Varkala.

The B&B owners helped me plan a day where I could get far away from the North Cliff scene and see some of the real beauty of this region. The 5km walk took a few hours as I made my way from Kapil beach back to Varkala, passing many beaches with absolutely no one around and a few fishermen compounds. Because the state of Kerala is in between monsoons there really isn’t too much beach this time of year. Apparently from November to March the existing beaches widen considerably and several new ones appear – fine by me as I prefer to stay sand-free.

Where the backwaters meet the sea.  I just had to follow the thin strip of land in between.
Where the backwaters meet the sea. I just had to follow the thin strip of land in between.
Fisherman camp along the walk back to Varkala
Fisherman camp along the walk back to Varkala
Kerala fisherman standing proudly by their boat.  This was common in South India, strangers asking me to take their picture - why, I don't know.
Kerala fisherman standing proudly by their boat. This was common in South India, strangers asking me to take their picture – why, I don’t know.
Some of the fine black sands that fill some of the beaches.
Some of the fine black sands that fill some of the beaches.

Teetering between staying another day or two or continuing on my visit within the state of Kerala, I chose to move on to the backwaters, an area where boats are the preferred method of transportation and people visit to spend time floating out on the web of connected rivers, canals, lakes and lagoons.  Evidently there are about 1500 kms in the network.   I had been hearing about the backwaters for years and had expected it to be a highlight of the trip, but ended up a bit disappointed. This was in part due to arriving without a plan, choosing the town of Alleppey as my hub, and it being much busier than I’d expected given that it was a long 4 day holiday weekend for locals and a lot of national tourists had come to the region to spend their break. One of the classic things to do in the backwaters is to rent a houseboat with a few others and spend a night or two out floating on these moving hotels. As a solo traveler that didn’t really make sense or sound like much fun.

Instead, I spent my first day exploring the area on local transport. I took a public ferry suggested by my hostel and stayed on while it completed its 2 hour loop. It quickly became clear just how many freakin’ houseboats are out there as it was nearly a traffic jam of boats on the main waterways.The houseboats, according to a tourism website, are “made by wooden planks tied together with coconut ropes and painted with cashew nut oil outside. They are 70 to 100 feet long and 15 to 20 feet wide.” The ferry stopped frequently picking up and dropping off people and was a good way to see how life works along these narrow strips of land where communities have been built. In the afternoon I hopped on a city bus to head north about 30 minutes to another beach.

Rush hour for houseboats.
Rush hour for houseboats.
Someone said there are over 1000 houseboats here. Many were docked waiting for high tourist season to start in about a month.
Someone said there are over 1000 houseboats here. Many were docked waiting for high tourist season to start in about a month.

The second day I decided to book a full day boat/canoe trip. Because it was a small boat I expected that we’d get into some of the narrower channels and areas, but a good part of the day was spent pretty much in the same areas I’d seen the day before. The nice part was that it was a motorless boat so once we were away from the houseboats, with no motor to make a ruckus we were able to float quietly and our guide was a very friendly man who tried as best he could to share bits about life in the backwaters. Of the 4 of us on the boat for the day, 1 was a biologist interested in birds. With his help and his binoculars, I got to see all sorts of birds – the highlight being a couple different species of the colorful kingfisher. Lunch was provided by our tour guide’s wife in their small home somewhere in the backwaters and I enjoyed the simple fare served on a banana leaf and eaten sans silverware.

The beautiful kingfisher, which the country's #1 beer is named after.
The beautiful kingfisher, which the country’s #1 beer is named after.
Peacefully exploring some of the rivers and canals in our canoe.
Peacefully exploring some of the rivers and canals in our canoe.
Digging up mussels, one by one, is the livelihood for many in these parts.
Digging up mussels, one by one, is the livelihood for many in these parts.

While glad I stopped in the backwaters as otherwise I’d always be wondering, it didn’t pan out to be all that great for me. The town of Alleppey is hectic and loud. Perhaps if I’d been more proactive in planning the stop and had found a homestay out of the city along a quiet canal, it might have been a different experience. For what I saw it is over-transited and the water is terribly polluted with the exhaust of all the houseboats,.

Interesting how on the thinnest strip of land, homes were constructed. I'm not sure what happens if and when the water levels rise.
Interesting how on the thinnest strip of land, homes were constructed. I’m not sure what happens if and when the water levels rise.

Despite being a little let down in the backwaters, the 5 days spent along the Arabian Sea in my attempt to see a more laid-back India proved worthwhile and gave me much needed time to reflect on all I’ve had the fortune to see and do over the past 5 weeks. With only a few days left in India, I started to alternate between wanting to stay longer and feeling ready to leave.

Trapped in Temple Town

I wasn’t in high spirits when it came time to visit the Meenashki Amman Temple, in the Temple Town of Madurai. I’d had a bit of stressful travel day the day prior and arrived in Madurai to learn that there were political protests throughout the entire state, some turning slightly violent. As a precaution I’d stayed in the hotel all day until about 5pm when I ventured out to visit the temple, only to have it start pouring rain as soon as I walked out the door. I was also having troubles booking transportation to get out of Madurai, and I hadn’t really wanted to spend too much time at this stop. Trains were booked, state run buses were unsafe due to the political situation and the private buses all seemed to leave inconveniently in the middle of the night. On the positive side, I’d made my Madurai my “splurge stop”  for the week and was at a much, MUCH nicer hotel than the mosquito infested sauna from the night prior.

The incident that caused protests, a halt to most public transportation, a little violence and panic for about 24 hours in Tamil Nadu.
The incident that caused protests, a halt to most public transportation, a little violence and panic for about 24 hours in Tamil Nadu.

Despite my sour mood I went to the temple, and was quickly lured back into a happy mood. It took me awhile to actually get into the temple. There are a lot of prohibited items and it took me 2 visits to the bag check and a few pat downs in the security line to get the “all clear”. The outer ring of the temple was mostly commercial, with all sorts of stands selling shrine-related paraphernalia and snacks for the families enjoying a full day in the temple. Walking a bit deeper into the complex I came to the sacred pond with views of several of the ornate tours looming above. I sat for awhile and watched the throngs of people going about their festive visits to this temple, one of the few temples dedicated to a female deity. Up ahead I saw a “Hindus Only” sign, so I kind of figured that what I’d seen was what there was to see – it was impressive!

Approaching the South Gate and the tallest of the towers.
Approaching the South Gate and the tallest of the towers.
Inside, the sacred or holy pond.
Inside, the sacred or holy pond.

Coming around the corner I saw a semi-official looking man collecting an entrance fee and he quickly spotted me and asked me to pay the foreigner fee. It was then that I realized that I had only just begun my visit! There were corridors shooting off in either direction, and shrines tucked away in dark corners with people sitting quietly meditating. I was careful to stay out of the areas that were for Hindus and wasn’t entirely sure where to go, but there was a nicely decorated chalk path that seemed as good as any map.

Stalls selling all sorts of colorful temple-related stuff.
Stalls selling all sorts of colorful temple-related stuff.
It quickly became a maze in there...street signs to guide the way!
It quickly became a maze in there…street signs to guide the way!
A nicely decorated path to lead you through
A nicely decorated path to lead you through

At the risk of sounding like a big buffoon and/or stating the obvious, Hinduism is an incredibly complex religion for an outsider. There are so many things going on in a temple like this. There were bowls of red, white and golden powder here and there that people would stop by and use to bless themselves, put on their foreheads, or use to decorate one of the stone shrines. Some people had their entire faces dyed a rusty golden color. People were eager to purchase the coconuts, bananas, lotus and jasmine flowers, and many other items to give in offering to their deities. Little votive candles were being lit and placed here, there and everywhere. Some of the shrines seemed particularly popular and pilgrims would walk around the shrine in a clockwise direction a certain number of times. These are just some of the things I observed from afar, I can only imagine how many other things have a specific purpose and significance.

One shrine that appeared to be more popular or important than some of the others.
One shrine that appeared to be more popular or important than some of the others.

I loved that it was such a festive and family affair. I loved that pulsing through the entire temple on hidden loudspeakers was a low, meditative chant. In other areas there were small bands for hire and people would request a particular tune. From another chamber there was loud music and I found some traditional dancing being performed. Just when I thought I’d seen it all (again), I came around a corner and ran into a group of people surrounding an elephant. A real one. For a small rupee note the elephant would take your money and give a pat on the head with his trunk – blessing the donor.

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As night fell, neon lights began to light up the atmosphere. Deep inside the temple I could still see long lines of pilgrims waiting for a particular blessing from someone or something important. Wiki says the temple gets an average of 15,000 visitors daily, and it certainly felt like it! A kind woman named Sonia stopped me for a short chat, welcomed me to the temple and thanked me for taking an interest in her religion. Her gift to me was the familiar red dot.

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The following day, since I was still stranded in temple town, I went back and didn’t go in again but walked around the outside of the temple complex. The spires, or towers or whatever they are called are just so interesting when you really look at all the figures, colors and details. The symmetry is interesting – for the most part the two halves are mirror images. But sometimes a figure will be sitting on a peacock on the right side and a bull on the other.

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While I was really pleased that I made the effort to get to this city, I was equally excited to board a bus out of there in the wee hours of the morning. I had myself all worked up about having to be out in the dark trying to board a bus at 2am, and while it didn’t go all that smoothly (I never found the bus I had a ticket for and ended up just buying a new one for a bus I could find!), I was able to make my way to the final state on my visit to India – Kerala, “God’s Own Country”.

Inland to the Great Living Chola Temples

Whoa, I’m really far from home. I’m just as far from home as yesterday, but this is the place where it really hit me. Thanjavur is a town in central Tamil Nadu, famed for its temple complex built during the Chola Dynasty. The Chola’s took power after defeating the Pallavas – my friends responsible for the stone carvings back in Mahabalipuram.

Thanjavur (Tanjore) was my wild card stop. There are a lot of important temples in this part of the country, and I suppose in all the country – depending on who you ask. There was also another region a bit to the south, the Chettinad region with a supposed unique and delicious cuisine and old mansions. I considered several of these different locations for my wild card stop, but in the end chose Thanjavur, mainly because it was the most logical stopover between Pondicherry and Madurai.

It took 2 local buses and about 7 hours to reach Thanjavur from Pondicherry and I arrived in time to head directly to the Brihadeeswarar Temple to catch it at dusk. This temple is quite the architectural wonder with the primary tower, well, towering over the temple grounds. The carvings are completely symmetrical and incredibly detailed. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Colorful fresco in the roof over Nandi's head.
Colorful fresco in the roof over Nandi’s head.

(As a irrelevant side note, but one I found interesting, there are 32 designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in both Mexico and India)

The Brihadeeswarar Temple recently had its 1000th birthday, an event which I imagine was greatly celebrated. Each temple has a primary deity which it honors and worshipers partial to a particular deity will make pilgrimage to temples that honor them. For this temple, it is Lord Shiva – “the destroyer” – as he creates, dissolves and then recreates the universe.

I believe the real beauty for worshippers lies in the inner chambers of the temple, where only Hindus are allowed, and in the inner-inner chamber where only priests are allowed. However, there was plenty for a non-Hindu to observe and explore. The outer passageway is lined with colorful murals and smaller sub-shrines to various deities and the massive statue carved from a single rock of the sacred bull Nandi, over 16 feet long, is certainly a focal point. I spent about an hour in the evening and returned the following morning to see it again in the early morning light.

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Other than the temple, I really didn’t care for Thanjavur. It was dusty, hot and full of bad hotels. I wasn’t able to sleep a wink with all the noise from the street, the mosquitoes and the heat. That said, it provided that silly deeper travel feeling that I crave and have convinced myself is important to any trip. Communication was nearly impossible and there certainly weren’t any nutella pancakes on any menu (thank Shiva!), not that there were too many menus I could read. I came across a group of about a dozen Spaniards and a young Japanese lad, but that was it for foreign tourists. For my two meals I had to just sit at the table and wait to see what appeared before me. I love the banana leaf meals, which remind me so much of my Thai and Burmese friends, but the dosa is a lovely new addition (dosa: crepe kind of food made from rice and lentil flower).

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A thank you to the ancient Cholas for building such a sturdy masterpiece that can still be admired 1000 years later!

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A glimpse of the old French India

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A few hours south of Chennai is the town of Pondicherry, a city unique as it has retained much of its character from a previous life as the center of French India.   This region was transferred back to India in 1954, but a fairly strong French influence remains.  The old part of the city is neatly structured with perpendicular streets, not like the twisting alleyways of others places I’ve been.  Many streets have kept their French names, Rue this and Boulevard that.

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The old part of the city is dominated by rickety old bicycles, motorbikes and tiny cars – a wonderful respite from the crazy streets and roads elsewhere.  The old part of the city is divided into the French Quarters, Muslim Quarters and Tamil Quarters and there is a fairly recognizable difference.

A mosque in the Muslim Quarter
A mosque in the Muslim Quarter
The homes in the Muslim Quarter are quite different than in the other parts of town.
The homes in the Muslim Quarter are quite different than in the other parts of town.

On a few streets you’d almost think you were in a small town in France, that is until you look down and nearly step in a steaming pile of cow shit.  I haven’t been to France, but I presume they don’t have herds of cattle wandering around all of their streets – at least not on a daily basis.

Pondicherry was one of the filming locations for the movie Life of Pi and is where the character Piscine is from in the novel.  With nothing specific to see or do in Pondi, I liked finding a few of the images from the film.  The Guardian has an article that helped.

Tamil style coffee, with a nice brownie from the french bakery to accompany
Tamil style coffee, with a nice brownie from the french bakery to accompany

A lot of people come here for extended periods to practice meditation or participate in an Ayurveda retreat or ashram program.  As a Union Territory of India (as opposed to a state) they have different rules and taxes.  Taxes in India have been insanely high, sometimes up to 30% on a restaurant bill, so it was nice to not have to pay that for a few days.  Plus, with the French influence and a good sized Christian population, I was able to have beef for dinner one evening – my taste buds were thankful!

Pondicherry - no real "tourist task" to complete, just wandering around.
Pondicherry – no real “tourist task” to complete, just wandering around.

Entering Tamil Territory

 

Mahabalipuram, a great place to spend a few days.
Mahabalipuram, a great place to spend a few days.

After having been in the dizzying urban areas of Agra, Varanasi, Kolkata and Chennai, it was with a sigh of relief that I landed in Mahabalipuram. Affectionately known as Mahabs, it is an old, old town known to travelers primarily for a collection monuments that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town can be walked from end to end in about 25 minutes and there are only a handful of streets where visitors center themselves.

After a mostly vegetarian month up north, I was so pleased to find all sorts of seafood on the menu. I didn’t waste any time in fueling up on a massive pile of “Calamari Thanggu” and was also pleasantly surprised to start getting some spicy kick in my food – which I had a hard time getting up north.

Calamari for lunch, straight out of the bay
Calamari for lunch, straight out of the bay
I'm really enjoying the food all over India, but here in Tamil Nadu I'm starting to get a lot of coconut-based foods, which I love!  This is a breakfast - 2 dosas and a coconut curry chutney.
I’m really enjoying the food all over India, but here in Tamil Nadu I’m starting to get a lot of coconut-based foods, which I love! This is a breakfast – 2 dosas and a coconut curry chutney.

The ruins, monuments and temples found scattered around this area are from the ancient dynasty of the Pallavas. Their structures are carved out of rock, some preserved better than others. It made for an interesting 2 days of walking around, checking out the formal UNESCO sites as well as the carvings, caves and temples that can just be stumbled upon.

Fun stuff to find on a walk
Fun stuff to find on a walk
Such beautiful carvings in a stone wall,especially the family of elephants and monkeys
Such beautiful carvings in a stone wall,especially the family of elephants and monkeys
Checking out Shore Temple
Checking out Shore Temple
A little cave along the road
A little cave along the road
Stone carvings from the Pallavas
Stone carvings from the Pallavas

Mahabalipuram was a reminder (as if I needed one) that India can be many things, but it is never boring. I began to see a few aspects of Tamil culture and tradition in practice. One is the tradition of sidewalk art. Women and children can be seen outside their homes at all times of day freshening up the designs decorating the entrance to their business or home. One afternoon I went to my room to escape the heat for a few hours and when I came out every single home and business suddenly had a smashed squash in front of it, dyed red. As quickly as they appeared, they began to disappear as the town’s sacred cows began their feast. Just another little quirky thing to figure out. Later that night the host at a restaurant explained that this is done to celebrate every new moon.

Beautiful sidewalk art at a temple
Colorful  sidewalk art at a temple
A vendor showing me how it's done.
A vendor showing me how it’s done.
And the full moon squashes suddenly appear all over town.
And the full moon squashes suddenly appear all over town.
First an offering to the new moon, and then dinner for the cows.
First an offering to the new moon, and then dinner for the cows.

Mahabs’ present day residents maintain a similar trade to their Pallava ancestors.  The town is full of talented stone carvers and as you walk down the main drag you can see many people sitting out front from their shops working on another piece.  Some do the carving with a chisel and hammer and others use an electric drill of some sort.

Stonework for sale
Stonework for sale

Mahabs is a place I could have stayed another day or two.  It was really quiet, with only a handful of other tourists who were out wandering around.  Because of this, all of the shop keepers and restaurant staff were eager to get my business, which was a little over the top and annoying.  But despite that nuisance, it was a great place to explore.

Old bronze carving
Old bronze carving
"Krishna's Butterball" a big rock defying the laws of physics as it stays perched on the side of a rock slope.
“Krishna’s Butterball” a big rock defying the laws of physics as it stays perched on the side of a rock slope.

The Bay of Bengal

Fisherman's boat on the Bay of Bengal - Mahabalipuram
Fisherman’s boat on the Bay of Bengal – Mahabalipuram

Once at Kolkata International Airport, I started to mentally reboot and restart my mindset. To make the leap from always having pals and a tour leader around you to traveling 100% alone is an intimidating thing in India. But, it was time. I was ready to head south and get off the “nutella pancake trail” for awhile. While I’d been happy to spend the past few weeks following along like a little duckling it felt time to dive into the deep on my own.

I’m not sure why I was so hell bent on traveling to the state of Tamil Nadu (TN) and spending a little time on the Bay of Bengal. Perhaps I read a novel once with a connection to TN that stuck in my mind. Or maybe a fellow VSO/CUSO volunteer had been placed in this region that sparked my curiosity.

To start my journey through TN, I took a quick flight down to Chennai, formally known as Madras and from there made my way down the coast with stops in Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. I really didn’t know what to expect from Chennai. It’s in the top 10 Indian cities by population and I saw it referred to as the “Detroit of India.” Hmmm. When I went to TripAdvisor the top 2-3 recommended activities were movie theaters, which apparently they take very seriously here. Given that, my visit only included 1 full day and I spent a good portion of that day just relaxing at the hotel and catching up on some zzzs.

But, anxious to get out to the Bay of Bengal I did make an afternoon quick journey to check out a small bit of the city and walk along a portion of Marina Beach, an area very popular in the evenings to cool off.

Marina Beach at nightfall.  A very wide beach with a carnaval-like feel in the evenings.
Marina Beach at nightfall. A very wide beach with a carnaval-like feel in the evenings.
Lots of food stands pop up along Marina Beach.  I went for some classic fried rice but with calamari now that I'm in seafood territory.
Lots of food stands pop up along Marina Beach. I went for some classic fried rice but with calamari now that I’m in seafood territory.
The Marina Beach boardwalk lined with food and drinks for sale
The Marina Beach boardwalk lined with food and drinks for sale
Chennai's tribute to Gandhi, along the Bay
Chennai’s tribute to Gandhi, along the Bay

As I made my way down the coast I recognized some pretty distinct differences from the north. For one, it was a culture that felt very familiar to me. Across the Bay lies the western Burmese state of Rakhaine/Arakan, where many of my pals from my Thailand days are from.  I could see such a strong resemblance in facial features, clothing styles and in the quantity of paan chewed and spit by the men (beetle nut – kind of like our chewing tobacco).  Food, music, clothing all is a bit different.  The language is no longer Hindi, and most people here don’t even understand Hindi, only Tamil.

This is also the area of India that bore the brunt of the damage and casualties caused by the 2004 Tsunami. The town of Mahabalipuram looked weathered and old with many of the structures just left damaged after the tsunami ravaged the small town.

Fisherman dominate the beaches of Mahabalipuram
Fisherman dominate the beaches of Mahabalipuram
Mahabalipuram, with the Shore Temple in the distance
Mahabalipuram, with the Shore Temple in the distance
The Tsunami tore through here and swept most of the trash out to sea, but dirty, abandoned areas like this still dot the coast.
The Tsunami tore through here and swept most of the trash out to sea, but dirty, abandoned areas like this still dot the coast.

 

A bit further down the coast in the town of Pondicherry, everything had been cleaned up and fixed up and no trace of the tsunami could be seen, at least not by an outsider. Again, people really took advantage of their beautiful boardwalk and coming out in the evening to enjoy the cool air and get a little exercise was a family and friendly affair!

The Pondicherry Boardwalk starts with a fun piece of art made from upcycled trash.
The Pondicherry Boardwalk starts with a fun piece of art made from upcycled trash.
Pineapple just tastes better when eating here on the rocky coast of the Bay - Pondicherry
Pineapple just tastes better when eating here on the rocky coast of the Bay – Pondicherry
The main drag along the coast in Pondicherry is closed to vehicles in the evening, so that everyone can sit, stroll or jog in peace.
The main drag along the coast in Pondicherry is closed to vehicles in the evening, so that everyone can sit, stroll or jog in peace.
Pondicherry's tribute to Gandhi
Pondicherry’s tribute to Gandhi

The world’s largest bay did not disappoint this solo traveler and was a good place to start my visit to the southern portion of this massive country.

Notes to self from a dedicated wanderess….Inspired? Join Me!

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