Kerala and Tamil Nadu
Well, after 3 years India again… As I wrote in a post in 2010, India may wear you out and you may be so exhausted that you just want to get over it and go home but somehow after a while you are still thinking in coming back. The lure is there in a country where the mystique and spirituality lives together with dire poverty, dirt and refuse in an unmatched way.
I was trying to make sense of this and I think that the attraction, beside its amazing history and wealth of religious sites, national parks and palaces, resides in India’s unmatched mystical spirit that is able to survive and even excel in a society where the allover modernization process is kept at bay by an even stronger tradition. In your travels in India you encounter a raw, simple and sometimes barely livable society, like in the slums, far from the protected environment of the intellectuals, professionals and businessmen, the IT and business India. The people you encounter are mostly poor and the needs are so obvious that in time they may wear you out. India is rural and many towns evolved from large villages relatively recent and you will see a large mass of people in each and every small place you visit. The major difference between India and China is that, in spite of the same level of population, China’s travelers gravitate around large cities whose large crowds are similar in a way to the ones in the large European and American cities, the poverty of China’s countryside remaining hidden.
So what is to be said about travel in Southern India. I just have several words: travel, rest, taste, admire and smile. Makes sense? Let’s see.
Travel: ..or how to get to India or somewhere in India.
All travelers I talked to came here through the Gulf states. It’s funny how these airlines compete now. Qatar, Etihad, Emirates, etc all compete on this segments. Nobody uses Lufthansa, Air France or Delta, whose prices are higher and service of lower standards. This tells volumes where the money is…..Besides, all these airlines let you fly to one city and return from another even from a different country. So you can fly to BKK and return from Chennai all for the same low price. My choice was Qatar Airlines that had excellent layover times in Doha compared with the others. The reason that they concentrate on South Asia is because of the mass of migratory people that come from these countries to sustain the infrastructure and the workforce in the Gulf.
Inside India the train would be ideal but is hard to book. It can be done from abroad in a convoluted way but you have to go through so many hoops that I gave up. India is a very bureaucratic society, an inheritance both from tradition and maybe from the Brits, and everywhere you go there are forms to fill up and approvals to be obtained or denied. The train booking ticket system is obviously from the past century, beside the fact that the credit card would deny the transaction without prior notice.
Car+driver is the best option. Well, because would be insane for you to drive in India or as the song says, “There are so many dumb ways to die”. The price of gasoline forced the prices up 2-3 times since we first came here in 1998 at the time when the only available car was the Ambassador designed by the Brits in 1936 and built by the Indians on that design in 1996. But now the prices are competitive and, if you book from a place with many agencies, you will get very close quotes from them. They have a specific scheme of calculations, with max 200km a day included but non-accumulative and the extra km being charged individually. In the hotel rooms I found a table of prices, per car size and model, distance, number of days, extra km, etc. Also, in many towns in Kerala the ride prices to all destinations were painted on a wall at the taxi parking stand, establishing in this way an official rate of the town.
This being said haggling and asking in many places helped especially for a day trip, the prices I found could vary up to 35% and for one day trip they are high.
Do not expect a lot from your driver. The drivers are really nice and they would bring you anywhere you want if is not out of the designated way. They try to please you expecting a tip at the end but they barely speak some words in English that you will have a hard time to understand. Many times they don’t know how to get in a city and they ask around several people to make sure that the answer is the right one. Also, in general they are not familiar with the sights except from a traditional perspective. If they are over this level, they start soon their own companies a thing that happened with my first driver in 1998.
Buses are a very good alternative. Maybe they don’t look like you want to take one home and play with it, but they run every 10-15 minutes and you just show up and buy a ticket in the bus. Rarely they are completely full and if you take it from the end terminal stop you can get a conformable seat. The difference between the fancy AC ones and the regular is that the second run about 25% slower because they do stop, not a big deal at a 3-4 hour ride time considering that you jump in the first bus that shows up on the road.
Rest: Hotels in India are not great and this to be said in a very gentle way. If you compare with Sri Lanka or SE Asia you would have major surprises and not the nice ones. What is done casually in Sri Lanka or Laos, to stay in somebody’s extended house as a guesthouse, would not be the most pleasant move in India, except if it is a question of budget.
Even when you stay in a hotel, mid range, 1300-1500R the quality is very poor, the hotel being old and ill maintained, badly lit, the pipes are broken, no shower, the AC is good for the local museum, the ceiling may be caved in and all this in what they call a “Deluxe room”, etc. All Indian towns suffer of continuous power outages so if the hotel does not a generator you may be out in the dark. It is actually just a small difference to move one notch up and it is worth it. Changing rooms every night I concluded that the best bet is to look for newly built hotels whose room rate can be around 2000-2300R per night, taxes included. If you are in this bracket you are fine, even for somebody who is more demanding. Besides you also get breakfast and internet included, a 300-350R savings.
Taste: As I posted earlier, the South is way cleaner than the Northern India. You see it in every town, on the streets, highways and in restaurants. Of course, when we talk about cleanness the comparison should stay inside the boundary of the country. We do not make comparisons with Switzerland or not even with SE Asia.
The South Indian food is great, at least for my taste. I felt very conformable to eat in any restaurant that I found to be clean and pleasant especially when I remember the ones in Varanasi where the cleanness level was appalling. One of the restaurants I ate in Varanasi in 2010 had proudly stated on its street sign: “Eat at us. We are less dirty”. The veg food is extremely good, a little spicy but pleasant.
In Kerala you are able to find beer in restaurants but in Tamil Nadu is impossible if you don’t go to a bar. Obviously absolutely no wine. So it goes with water that you better drink all day because is very hot and you will lose most by sweat. Almost no bathroom visits.
In Pondy and many touristy places there are great restaurants that serve French, Portuguese or European fancy dishes at Indian prices. They are really good but not always generous in quantity. In the other towns the veg restaurants are the haven.
Admire and take pictures: It is a lot. Some of the temples in Southern India were built when Europe was dealing with the migrations and Paris and London were mere villages. They are stupendous in architecture and decoration and the fact that they are active and essential for the Hindu religion makes them a magnet for pilgrims. people congregating at them from dawn to late night. If you are at one crowded pooja or a darshan you cannot be but impressed, if you are not the type that is scared by large crowds.
In many temples they advice you not to take photos or pay a hefty fee for the camera but you are rarely bothered after you get inside. But don’t take photos of the deities because according to tradition their power decreases.
Indians love to be photographed and so many asked me to take a picture of them and just show it. I took lots of images being asked and also, by the same token, when I saw an interesting subject I did not hesitate to ask or shoot and extend my portrait gallery on the web.
But the other side of the coin brings you in the picture. Lots of them want to have a picture with the foreigners and they simply take a picture or ask but always they are very happy to do it. I posed and took lots of pictures with groups of people that one day might think that I am a Bollywood/Hollywood actor. Being a foreigner you are the star. So take picture and let others take your picture. It’s nice and you make people happy!
Smile: That’s the most important tip. I know that is hot and you are thirsty or even hungry and tired and continuously harassed and you just want to get it over and escape in your AC hotel room. But don’t forget and beam a smile! You will see how people open up and they start sketching a smile on their stern and concerned faces. Besides, YOU will open up and the burdens of travel will look way easier. When you sincerely smile you open your heart chakra and in time you will see that somehow that smile goes down and you feel it coming from your heart. You will smile with your heart and notice that people feel it. It is a gift that you can give, first to your good self, and further to any other person you encounter. And some of them need it badly. When you travel, a smile would open padlocked doors like nothing else.
In this travel I brought with me more than 2 pounds of discarded pens and pencils from home. They make a great gift for kids who come in droves and ask for something like to write with. I love that they ask for pens and not for money and I gave them joyfully. The joy on their faces it was my best gift of the day and a payback for the effort to carry the apparent useless bag. Another collected smile!
And on a little unusual note. In all my travels I carried at least a travel book. This time I decided that is too much, because beside the two guidebooks I needed, India and Sri Lanka, I was reading the 1000 pages “Shantaram” to stay in the spirit. I know that some of you may think that I am so “yesterday” not to do it till now, but I decided to load pdfs in my iPhone and that proved to be the best organizational decision of the entire trip. The iPhone being always in my pocket I was able to read on the street, in tuk-tuk or in any bus or car the guide book and even to use its maps for directions with the drivers.