Reluctant Winters and Backpacking

Tripoto
18th Dec 2000

It all started with e-mails. I had just landed home, back from Delhi. With no one to hang around I was chatting with my Delhi gang non-stop thanks to Yahoo messenger! And that’s when we decided to do some backpack travel down South. What started out as only a suggestion didn’t take long to turn into reality, for I got mine as well as their tickets confirmed. I was to board the Bangalore express from Guwahati, whereas Auri & Ashima were to come down to Kolkata & get on the same train with me.

Adventure started at the crack of dawn! I boarded the train on time and the journey seemed pleasant. I am too lazy to make contacts with my co-passengers. I wrap myself with a shawl & books. My compartment mates, all being followers of Sai Baba, they chanted bhajans (hymns) the entire evening. From Guwahati to Howrah I went mute. For there wasn’t any reasons to speak! As the sun descended my excitement amplified. I’d meet Aerosmith (fondly call Aurineeta) & Ashima after agaes.. & there were so many things to discuss! I looked at my watch & by my calculation I knew the train would touch Howrah at 5.00 in the morning.

I don’t know how long I slept. When I woke up it was pitch dark. The train stood immobile. I looked out of the window and I couldn’t make any sorts of guesstimates where I was exactly. I looked at my watch and it showed 5.00! But I was not in Howrah! Hey! I almost forgot that I was traveling in Indian Standard Time!

The train reached Howrah at around quarter to seven. I got down at the platform to look for the girls and it didn’t take too long for me to spot them. Once we were together the rest of the journey seemed easy & smooth.

The train was running behind schedule. At this rate we would reach Bangalore around ten. And for three girls to land at that hour didn’t seem amusing to any of us. So what we did was we got down at Chennai!

Chennai stopever

We reached Chennai around three in the afternoon. And one would really have to wonder if it was the month of December. There wasn’t any hint of winter in the air. It was as good as summers. Traveling for three days made us tired and once we checked in at a hotel. We loitered around the Marina beach in the evening. Marina beach lies to the east of Chennai (Madras) at Kamarajar Road, 3 Km from the city centre. The fine sandy beach said to be the longest beach in India and one of the longest in Asia, extends to a length of 55 Km, from Fort St. George all the way to Mahabalipuram.

The next day we headed to the Crocodile Park. Started in 1976 by herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, the Crocodile Park is spread over 3.2 hectares of lush vegetation. The Crocodile Bank in Chennai is the largest crocodile-breeding site in the country. Several species of African and Indian crocodiles and alligators are bred in captivity. This park seeks to spread awareness of the ecological role played by crocodiles in selectively feeding on sick and weak and injured fish. Projects are conducted on the biology and study of crocodiles, turtles and lizards.

Visitors to the Crocodile Park in Chennai can view the various alligator and crocodile species lazing about in the open pools. Be it the Mugger or Marsh variety of crocodiles found in the lowland waters or the Gharials (crocodiles with the longest jaw), the Crocodile bank is home to nearly 7000 inmates. Other species of crocodiles found in the Crocodile Park in Chennai - Morlet's crocodile from Mexico, American Alligator, Dwarf crocodile from Africa and the Siamese crocodile. Visitors can collect interesting trivia and information about these species. The Crocodile Bank also has a snake farm, where anti-venom is produced. Demonstrations of venom extraction draw considerable crowds.

But that left me with quite disgust! For these are the scariest creatures for me!

We decided we had enough of Chennai & soon after gobbling lunch, we checked out of the hotel and was on our way to the bus terminus to take us to our next destination - Pondicherry

Pondicherry

The bus ride from Chennai to Pondicherry didn’t take too long. Three hours to be precise. As we got out of Chennai I wished deep down inside me that the place was not so over crowded & choc-o-bloc with activities. I mean Chennai was not my-kind-of-place to vacation. So I looked forward what Pondicherry had in store.

We reached Pondicherry at around five in the evening. The moment we hopped down from the bus I knew it would be fun. Pondi has the laid back & small town feelings to it. There’s no mad rush… there’s less traffic… & there was the colonial feeling as well.

Pondi is surely a paradise on earth. It’s a place where time, date, day, month…well nothing matters absolutely!

The history goes back to the Roman Times, but factually started with the arrival of the French in 1693, who founded the town and built it in its present form, during the two and a half century they occupied it. The French have established several institutes for cultural and social studies. The world-reknown Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville attract seekers from all over the world.

Heritage is one of the most precious gifts Pondicherry has to offer to its tourists and visitors. The impressive French colonial buildings still charm the streets and recall memories of a bygone era; the Tamil streets, each named after a community, vibrate with cultural traditions.

The best part being there is you can hire bicycles and cycle around the town the whole day…

The restaurants are good… there are couple of good one along the coast… the MG road…the beaches are the best I’ve seen… the waves are strong & high. Infact along the seaside one will find huge rocks blocking it. The reason- well the waves cause havoc! Sitting on those rocks and sipping a chilled beer is as heavenly as meditating… & did I mention that you’ll never get tired watching the wave’s splash & the sprinkles drenching you by and by … its outta this world!

It’s a cheap to be there – the accommodation, food and booze too!

We intended to stay in Pondicherry for 2 days but at the ambience we found ourselves in our 2 days extended to 5 days! And man! We didn’t regret our decision even for once!

By the 5th day we were totally relaxed and blissful. We decided to pack our bags and get moving. Over lunch, taking out the map and trailing our fingers straight down to Kanyakumari, we knew where our next direction headed – to the bus terminus again!

Kanyakumari

The journey from Pondi to Kanyakumari was one helluva rickety ride! Catching a train to Kanyakumari meant treading back to Chennai. We opted for the bus. Had we known what was in store for us, I guess we’d have second thoughts about it. But all said & done we boarded the bus.

It was shortly after three in the afternoon that we started our journey again. We knew we were heading to Kanyakumari but the number of stopovers that were to follow was beyond the means of our imagination.

The bus ride seemed never ending. And the road went up & down. There were too many bumps, and I was sure to get a severe backache by the time we reach our destination. After a drive of about four-five hours we reached this small place called Tiruchchirappalli! From there we were to find another bus that would take us on our voyage. The dusk had set and there arose a feeling of bitterness. We were not sure whether we had done the right thing. We were to blame ourselves if anything unpleasant was to happen to us. Though the same feeling ran through in each of us we didn’t show that! (This we let out while clubbing at a pub in Bangalore – at the end of our backpacking).

Language seemed to be the focal hitch! But somehow we managed to pass across our queries to the in-charge that “we were looking for a bus that would take us to Kanyakumari”.

The in-charge did comprehend and showed us which bus number we should embark.

Once inside the cramped bus, I dozed off. I was tired… the heat & the dust was all over. It never felt like it was the month of December. All I wanted at that hour was a strong cuppa coffee & a nice soothing shower!

I’ve never ever had such a terrible bus ride in my life! This thought came to me almost instantly when the bus started in motion. But what was the use complaining now? So I set my thoughts aside and tried to appreciate the surroundings, though there was nothing much to been see as it was already dark outside.

My sleep was radically broken when the tyres screeched as the driver pulled the brakes! I looked at my watch. It was 1.30 a.m. The glowsign of a shop showed the name Tirunelvelli. So we guesed we were at Tirunelvelli. We were famished to death and headed towards the first food joint we saw. A man came and asked what we would like to eat. Ashima said “ANYTHING”…. Soon we were served paranthas & a mixed veggies & just a single bite left me in disgust. It was not at all eatable. I went to the shop nearby, equipped myself with some biscuits & that’s what saved me from an attack of gastric.

From Tirunelvelli we hopped on to another bus and the rest of the ride was no better. More bumps all the way!

By the time we reached Kanyakumari it was dawn. I was too tired to look at the sunrise. We checked in at a decent hotel and I crashed, whereas Aerosmith & Ashima rushed to the beach to click pics….

We did some sight seeing on our own.

Kanyakumari is located at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The small temple dedicated to Kanyakumari , or the youthful form of the primeval energy Shakti (Mother Goddess) is located on the seashore, in the town known by the same name. Kanyakumari was referred to by the British as Cape Commorin . Kanyakumari represents the site where the spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda spent days in meditation upon a rock off of the coast. A memorial built in his honor is accessible via ferry. There is also a recently built memorial to Tiruvalluvar , the author of the philosophical work Tirukkural - a treatise on the Indian way of life.

Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial - This grand memorial to the great Indian Philosopher Swami Vivekananda is on one of the twin rocks jutting out from the sea about 200 meters offshore.There is a Dhyana Mandapam where one can sit in a serene atmosphere and meditate.Ferry services are available to reach the memorial.

Kumari Amman Temple -Pictures quely situated overlooking the shore, this temple and the nearby Ghat attract tourist from all over the world.According to a legend, Devi did penance here to secure Lord Siva's hand in marriage.When she was unsuccessful, she vowed to remain a virgin (Kanya).The Diamond nose-ring of this deity is famous for its sparkling splendor which is supposed to be visible even from the sea.

Our halt in Kanyakumari was for two days. On the 25th, early morning we crossed borders and reached the next state – Kerala

God' Own Country Kerala

We hopped in a bus early in the morning. And the journey was just getting better. As we crossed borders from Tamil Nadu and entered Kerala, a striking difference could be felt and seen. Wherein Tamil Nadu was warm and dry and the landscape brownish, Kerala seemed more humid and flooded with greenery. I thought to catch up on my lost sleep but the countryside was so picturesque, my sleep took a back seat.

It took us about four hours to reach Trivandrum. We checked in at a hotel near the Railway Station. The room was clean and the bathroom was even cleaner. We gobbled up some breakfast and set out to go to Kovalam beach. Situated on the Malabar Coast along the Kerala shoreline, Kovalam is one of the most beautiful stretch of beaches in India. We galloped on a local bus to reach there. The drive was good. Once in Kovalam, it was sheer fun. It was pre-Christmas and the entire area and people were in a festive mood.

We stated in Trivandum for 3 days. Our routine was something like this – we would go tot the beach early in the morning – laze and lounge around there for the whole day and by dusk return to the secure shell of our room.

The beaches of Kovalam can be divided in three parts. The southern most beach and the most popular from the three, is the Lighthouse Beach. Further south on the beach one can have a spectacular view of the Vizhinzam mosque, but photography is prohibited here.

The middle beach is called Hawah. Each morning this beach acts as a base for the local fisherman. The northern most beach, Samudra, is least affected of all by the changing times. It is dotted with few rudimentary wooden fishing vessels.

Our next stopover was Alleppey. And Boy! It was the way I imagined when I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

It instantly became one of my favourite hideouts! I know I’ll come over and over again to this place.

Alleppey or Alappuzha is also known as the "Venice of the East" it’s was here that traders from across the seven seas came in search of black gold and souvenirs. Alappuzha or Alleppey is also home to Kuttanad, The rice bowl of Kerala, one of the very few places in the world where farming is done below sea level. In Alleppey or Alappuzha, the life revolves around water. Children learn to swim before they walk. They learn to row boats before they bicycle. They learn their first lesson from the school of fish.

From Alleppy to where - we pondered, we thought and then finally decided to go to Ooty...

Ooty and Mysore

After having a very relaxed time both in Kovalam & Alleppey we decided to explore some more places before we hit our final destination Bangalore.

Ooty – it was decided unanimously amongst the three of us. So once decided we gathered ourselves and our bags and got moving to the local bus terminus. The journey I knew would not be smooth and it reminded me of the Pondi to Kanyakumari expedition!

It took us quite a long time to reach Ooty. We found ourselves again in the state of Tamil Nadu. But this time it wasn’t the sun or the heat. Ooty was chilly & pleasant. For the first time in this entire journey I wore my pullovers again – it was in the corner of my bag. I wore it till New Jalpaiguri only!

But someone I didn’t find Ooty interesting. Or more so as because I belong to a place of hills… of tea leaves and so much of natural surroundings.

We stayed in Ooty for less than twenty four hours. The hotel we took up was disgustingly dirty… could not sleep on the bed too… I still get the pukish feeling!

The very next day we boarded the bus to Mysore. How could be believe there was some more adventure in store for us? As we were on the suburbs, there was a long traffic jam and it was getting dusk. On enquiring the driver found out that there was a road blockade as attempts were being made by the police departments of both the states of Karnataka & Tamil Nadu to nab Veerappan! So we were to take a short cut! The short cut was so topsy turvey and the driver drove the bus so fast that weh ad to clutch on to our seats so that we won’t fall off!

On the way we crossed the Bandipur National Park. Bandipur is about 80 kms south of Mysore on the Mysore-Ooty Road. The reserve is a playground for wildlife, with elephants taking the lead role. You might see a tiger prowling amidst the mix of deciduous, evergreen forest and scrubland vegetation. Set against the picturesque backdrop of the enchanting Niligiri Mountains with its mist-covered peaks, Bandipur was once the Mysore Maharaja’s private hunting ground. It was brought under Project Tiger in 1973. This is one of the best game sanctuaries in India to observe and photograph wildlife in close proximity.

We reached Mysore early in the morning. Mysore was a pleasant experience for us. Mysore is one of the major cities of Karnataka. Today, Mysore is a vibrant city teeming with tourists and visitors. It is known the world over for its exotic sandalwood and rich silks.

We visited the The Maharaja's Palace which is one of the important sights in Mysore. Built in Indo-Saracenic style with domes, turrets, arches and colonnades, the Palace is a treasure house of exquisite carvings and works of art from all over the world. Intricately carved doors open on to luxuriously furnished rooms. The majestic Durbar Hall has an ornate ceiling and many sculpted pillars. The magnificent jewel studded golden throne of the Wodeyars is displayed here during the Dasera festival. Illuminated on Sundays and public holidays, the palace presents a spectacle of breathtaking beauty.

Another amazing monument was the St. Philomena's Church. A beautiful Cathedral, reminiscent of medieval architectural style,is one of the largest churches in the country. Built in the gothic style,the Church is an imposing structure with stained glass windows and lofty towers.

We could not stay in Mysore for too long. Not even a single more minute. For, the date was 31st of December and we knew where the party would be. It was around four a clock in the afternoon that we packed our bags once more and headed to our final destination – Bangalore!

BANGALORE - THE FINAL STOP - THIS IS WHERE THE PARTY IS!

It didn't take us too long to reach Bangalore. Maybe three hours precisely. All throughout the journey I kept wondering how the three weeks went by. Those twenty one days of non stop backpacking travel. Experiences were varied and unique - both pleasant and otherwise. But whatever they were they were all enriching nevertheless!

By 6.30 we were in Bangalore, the PUB capital of India. It was 31st of December and we knew we had to party till we dropped dead!

Bangalore is a place we did nothing else but partied, hopped pubs, did a lot of hip shakin!

The best places we hanged around was 180 proof & Pub World. Purple Haze was good, but then the crowd there was too peppy. Whereas 180 & Pub World seemed more like us - RETRO!

We stayed in Bangalore for 3 days. The routine went something like this - we slept & lazed around the whole day. By evening we would get ready to rock & roll...

& it was the first time in the three weeks I realized how much my back ache was severe!!!

On 3rd Jan 2001 Aerosmith & Ashima took the Karnataka Express to go back to Delhi.

I was to catch the 11.30 p.m Bangalore Express to Guwhati. There was still good four more hours to spend. Called up a friend. Put my stuff in the lockers and then we pub hopped again!

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