A Travellerspoint blog

Wildlife at Kodikkarai

semi-overcast 24 °C

The 120 km trip to Kodikkarai from Chidambaram took a good 5 hours, but this time we weren’t surprised… that’s just how long it takes to travel that far. The last few hours were through gorgeous paddy field landscape – a true feast for the eyes. This is also the area that was worst affected by the Tsunami 4 years ago – we saw a fair number of NGO signs…. but didn’t learn anything about them.

There is so much water! Someone told us that this is the most rain Tamil Nadu has seen for at least 13 years. It’s mainly good news, although there is also a fair amount of flood damage along the coast – apparently another cyclone occurred yesterday (Dec. 18th) with its centre a little south of here and, as I understood from the tv news (in Tamil – so don’t quote me) even Madurai was flooded. On the other hand, we have generally had blue skies and sunshine… though we did enjoy a couple of intense showers here. We held my cotton shawl over us and in less than 5 minutes, it was absolutely wring-it-out drenched. But… everything was dry again within an hour. So, like much else here, “No problem, no problem”.

After the long, rural road and the many palm thatched huts we passed, this place feels like the end of the earth… and yet there is more or less reliable electricity, a paved road and at least a few thousand people living here in the “village”. Many work as fishers, others are employed by the government or by the big sea salt factory. Others are in the navy – this is a high security area, being so close to Sri Lanka. It’s hard to tell, it feels pretty relaxed here but apparently a close watch is kept on the fishermen and there is a 10 pm curfew (we have yet to stay up that late!!) We didn’t see any military people – only the compound)

We’ve come here to visit the Point Callimere Wildlife Sanctuary and feel lucky to be staying at the government run Forest Rest House – the cheapest but cleanest dwelling we’ve had so far. And fun because everyone sits out in the front hall and talks (too bad we can’t understand much!) We feelvery fortunate that two young men, Senu and Gokul who are working on their MSc’s in wildlife biology, are also here. They are thrilled to have the chance to speak English and we are thrilled to have them as guides. Christian joined Senu doing his field work early our first morning, and we all joined Gokul for his field work the second morning. We’ve been for several other walks … and, as well as dozens of species of birds, we’ve seen Blackbucks (beautiful antelopes with spiraling horns), wild boar, spotted deer, feral ponies, mongoose (mongeese??) and a single hare.

Unfortunately Emil came down with Delhi belly – seems so odd that only one of us is afflicted when we’re all eating almost exactly the same things. He had a rough night but after a huge long sleep the next day, he recovered fairly quickly.

It’s a real pleasure to be in a village, surrounded by the forest and ocean. The cities are interesting, but so very busy (and dirty).

This place also has its share of plastic littering the road and, unfortunately, the food stand has gone modern and lines its plates with thin sheets of plastic instead of the usual palm leaves. After eating, everyone goes outside to throw the plastic in a bin… and in the evening, the cows drop by to eat the food laden plastic!!! It’s awful to see. Gokul and Senu reassured us that there are many Indians who share our concerns and some programs for change have been initiated (not sure what they are).

Posted by MogenStoft 07:31 Archived in India Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Chilling in Chidambaram

sunny 28 °C

Another busy town, another gorgeous temple. This one is operated by a special sect of Brahmin monks who trace their ancestry back to the 13th century when the temple was built and monks were brought here from northern India to conduct special ceremonies – ceremonies that continue to this day. We witnessed evening puja (prayer) with lots of bell ringing (to ward off evil spirits and thoughts), chanting and circling of deities with burning candles. People lie right down on the floor and touch the ground with their foreheads.

The kids and I decided to accept blessings from the temple elephant this time – by dropping a coin into the elephant’s trunk then bowing down a little to allow the elephant to pat our heads with its trunk.

It’s always a little awkward visiting the temples – there is so much call for donations – both from beggars and for the temple itself. The difficult thing is that whatever we give doesn’t seem to be enough. I think it’s a cultural difference - people are simply and somewhat aggressively hoping they can wheedle a little more out of us - but they generally take it well enough when we politely say no (which is not necessarily easy!)

On the flip side of the coin, we had a wonderful experience at a tailor shop. We bought fabric for new Salwar Kameez in Tiruvanamalai and were happy to find a tailor near our hotel here in Chidambram. He was thrilled to have us as customers – charged very little, absolutely refused a tip and then insisted on buying each of us a boxed juice drink – a very big expense for him. What a kind man and lovely group of employees!

Our biggest frustration in this town has been that all the restaurants seem to figure that since we’re tourists, we must want to eat North Indian cuisine. I don’t know what it’s like in North India, but here it tends to be rather greasy – far oilier than the south Indian cuisine. After a couple of days of rich masalas, we are craving the much lighter south Indian idli (or rice), sambar and coconut chutney!

Our most pleasurable experience here was taking a taxi to the nearby village of Pichavarum and from there being rowed through the mangrove swamp. It was heavenly to see all the green and to enjoy the peace and quiet there. The only thing I would do differently if I could do it again would be to stay in the resthouse in small and quiet Pichavarum instead of in the city of Chidambaram.

Posted by MogenStoft 07:29 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Transport, Food, Shelter, Health and Welfare

We’ve been using local buses to travel from town to town – they move pretty quickly once out of the congestion of the towns, they’re “air conditioned” (lots of windows!), the cost is negligible and we have lots of company (often the aisle is completely crowded). Today a man who spoke English very well gave us a great “guided tour” as we went along, and others offered bananas and peanuts with the kids. Fortunately we’ve only been stand-up riders for a single hour long ride. The most challenging thing is generally to find the bus we’re wanting. Though there is lots of English language on signs, the buses tend to have routes named only in Tamil… and we haven’t quite got the hang of the script yet! We look forward to taking the train, but it isn’t as practical for the shorter trips we’ve been on, or the places we’ve been and we’ll have to be more organized to ride them as there aren’t nearly as many trains running as there are buses.

Almost every restaurant here offers the same choices. We are slowly learning what the various items are and which ones we like best. Parotha, a deliciously flaky flat bread, is near the top of everyone’s list. We’ve watched men in the roadside stalls rolling and stretching unleavened dough into paper thin rounds then swinging it around itself and tying the loose roll into knots. These are later flattened and fried… and the multiple layers of flakes are large and very firm and very yummy.

Dosa and idli are sour-dough rice dishes that we all enjoy. Dosa are made of a thin batter that is crispy fried much like a crepe, whereas idli are made with a thicker batter that is steamed (almost in the shape of a poached egg). Emil prefers poori – a deep fried wheat bread that puffs up beautifully. Now and then we vary these breads with North Indian chapatti, roti or naan that are also served in many restaurants.

All of these starchy items are served with various light dahls or vegetable curries, coconut chutney and usually a raita made with sweet red onions and curd. Sometimes there’s also a fabulous green chutney (almost like a coriander and mint pesto). Each restaurant has variations and today we were delighted by some spicier vegetable curries in a restaurant recommended by our hotel manager.

We’re getting the hang of eating with our hands. Most food is served on a banana leaf – either the bread or rice is plunked in the middle, and sauces are ladled into small mounds surrounding the starch (or these are sometimes served in small bowls that are then poured on top of the starch). When it’s rice, pappadam is offered and can be crushed on top to add a nice crunch.

In Chennai we thought we were eating cheaply at about $10 a meal (for all 5 of us). Since then we’ve been paying less than $5 most of the time!! If we get brave enough to eat at street stalls, it will be far less…. But so far, we’ve been very conservative – only drinking deliciously hot, milky and sometimes spicy tea in these places. The only fresh fruit we’ve eaten is what we’ve peeled ourselves and we religiously sanitize our hands before every meal. We’ve had a few stomach aches – perhaps more in response to the greasiness of some of the food – and Nadia vomited a single time in response to something… but otherwise we’ve all been fine.

Our accommodations have been nothing to write home about. We enjoyed the guest house in Mahaballipuram because it gave us an opportunity to experience home life – but it was a little cramped. Here in Chidambram we have a huge room for all 5 of us, in Chennai we had a smaller room for all of us that was very adequate and at Kaliyampoondi our room was a separate little building in the compound. The best (but not the most expensive) so far was the hotel in Trivannimalai – we loved the courtyard and rooftop where we could hang out. The price range has been from about $12/night (for all 5 of us) to about $24. None of our rooms have been super clean, but none disgustingly dirty either. I think we can generalize and say that Indians tend not to be perfectionists in terms of housecleaning, at least not in hotel rooms.

But… we love how incredibly accommodating and open almost everyone seems to be. We get lots of stares, lots of warm hellos, handshakes and help whenever we ask. We love the way so much seems to be accomplished by spontaneous committee. For example, today at the tailor’s, a man walking by translated for the tailor and soon enough there were 2 or 3 others helping out.

In Tiruvanamallai we noticed quite a few Muslims and found it interesting that they were promenading up and down the streets outside the temple, buying sweets, toys and other festival items. I guess they wanted to be part of the festivities in their own way. It’s nice to see that there doesn’t appear to be any hostility between Hindus and Muslims here in the south, despite Mumbai and all the articles about the attack that we continue to see in the newspapers here. Tamil Nadu seems a very peaceful, relatively happy place.

Posted by MogenStoft 07:42 Archived in India Comments (1)

Tiruvannamalai

Though we enjoyed Mahaballipuram in many ways (did I mention the gorgeous beach? the awe inspiring rock carvings and cave temples?), we are also relieved to be away from the tourist scene there (complete with tight tank tops, short shorts and Pink Floyd blaring from a shop, not to mention all the people hungry to sell something).

Three buses and our first rickshaw ride brought us to the Hotel Ganesh in Tiruvanammalai. I can’t say we were all truly in the rickshaw – it was literally bulging with us and our entire luggage too!! “No problem, no problem,” said the driver who did very well on the short ride, since we’d negotiated for him to show us 3 hotels and we took the first.

We were lucky to get rooms – this town is crowded with hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees, here for the Kartiggai festival (always happens during the full moon in December – and lasts 10 days. It’s a celebration of the fire light brought by Siva to vanquish the forces of darkness and ignorance). If we thought we’d experienced a circus before… we stand humbled. Here we have met the constant movement and the constant chaos of thousands and thousands of people heading in and out and around the temple. The streets are lined with thousands more street vendors - selling prayer beads, kerosene chunks, other puja (prayer) items, as well as tacky plastic souvenirs. By 5:00 (and perhaps earlier) hundreds of puja lanterns and larger fires were burning. We’re reminded a little of First Nations’ cleansing ceremonies as people bend to purify themselves with the flame and pray to the gods inside the temple.

Perhaps many of the people who have made the pilgrimage here are disciples of Sri Ramana Maharishi who spent almost 50 years in contemplation in a cave (and later a small ashram) on the side of Mount Arunachula – the huge red mountain that rises above the town – and is regarded as a god. At 6pm, puja (a huge fire) was lit on the mountain top and fireworks went off all over town.

At 6:30 am (Saturday) we got up to hike to the top of the mountain, before the heat of the day. Along with dozens (possibly hundreds) of others, we made our way uphill over gorgeous red rocks and appalling amounts of garbage. I can imagine what a healing, spiritual journey this must have been in the past, but I found it very upsetting today, with all the garbage. Once we reached the top, some young saidus convinced me to purchase ghee to add to the puja fire. Whenever entering a temple or sacred area, a person must remove their shoes – and so we did just that before heading up to the big fire bowl. The rocks were coated with the thick black grease remains of a bigger fire and we tread carefully, trying to avoid the garbage and sliding off the mountain! Once I reached the top I felt mortified that I was meant to throw my ghee straight in to the fire – plastic packaging and all. But with my offering to Siva, I was told also to throw my troubles into the fire and say a prayer. I wished for India to find a way of dealing with all the plastic waste that litters the landscape everywhere. It is such a tragedy!

By 11:30 or so when we were down the hill again, we were all exhausted. It feels like everyone wants to talk with us and so many are so very sweet, I can’t resist – but I found this almost as exhausting as the hiking itself.

The next day (Sunday) we took the lazy way out and hired another rickshaw to take us on the 14 km trip around the base of Mt. Aranachula, stopping at ashrams, shrines, linghams, meditation halls, sacred water tanks and rocks along the way. The best one was the one we had to crawl through!

Our big frustration in Tiru. was that the internet booth across the street had truly high-speed internet… but we were too exhausted to go there Saturday, and Sunday it was closed!! It gives us hope that we’ll find another one elsewhere. Who knows, perhaps the one I’ll send this entry from (in Chidambaram) will be fast…

Posted by MogenStoft 07:39 Archived in India Comments (0)

Mahabalipuram

lovely beaches and warm breezes

We are now in Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram)- city of ancient rock temples and our first tourist destination. As well as the many impressive and beautiful structures here, there are far more hawkers and vendors hoping for business. The clever ones are subtle – we’ve now had three different men simply be friendly and helpful… only to learn that they are rock carvers and perhaps would like to sell us something!

We are staying in a “guest house” – 3 rooms in a family home down a long labyrinth of streets. It’s fun to see what the residential area is like, and what a residence looks like – several small buildings in one courtyard area, so we don’t actually enter the rooms used by our hosts. It’s nice and quiet if not as clean as we might prefer.

Yesterday we had a fabulous day visiting Crocodile Bank - Emil held a small croc, we watched as some big ones were fed, and watched as snakes were milked for their venom! We also heard about a volunteer opportunity with the same organisation in the Western Ghats... we'll let you know what comes of that. Christian is very excited!

After the crocs, we proceeded to Dakshina Chitra - a collection of reconstructed traditional homes from the 4 southern states, and examples of the traditional crafts - including some demonstrations. We all enjoyed that... and when the history/crafts got dull for some, there were lots of birds to see.

Today as we walked along the beach, I had fun helping a fisherman untangle his net and prepare it for storage. That's what happens when you stare at someone... you end up working! We'll try to upload more photos soon.... it's a bit cumbersome but we hope you like the ones from Kaliyampoondi! We haven't quite decided whether or not we'll leave tomorrow - our next destination is Trivanimanihali (or something similar). There's a 10 hectare temple there.

Posted by MogenStoft 00:41 Archived in India Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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