So we are in fact coming to the end of Rani’s visit to India, but as we’ve been having so much of the fun part, there’s not been much time for the blogging. I will instead give you a wee potted history of our adventure in the South, in three week-sized installments!
Ben and I bussed from Pondicherry to Bangalore overnight, arriving at 6am and dropping our bags off at the hotel before spending 4 dazed hours wandering the streets so we could check into our hotel at a reasonable hour, as they operated a 24 hour check-in/check-out policy. Some words were exchanged and tears shed when we returned from our tiresome wanderings to discover they had already checked us in in our absence, but we managed to secure a 10am check-out. From there we high-tailed it to the airport to meet Rani, but my visions of greeting her at the arrivals hall were sadly quashed by a soldier with a rifle strapped to his shoulder, who told us we weren’t permitted in the airport. Still, having taken delivery of the VIP, we all crashed out in the hotel for a few hours to recover from our various journeys.
Our first proper day in Bangalore we headed to the Science and Industrial Museum, which kept us entertained like eight year olds for a good five hours. In the basement they had a real live mechanical dinosaur (!), a life-size recreation of the Wright Brothers’ flying contraption, and an amazing wire-frame maze spread across the ceiling, into which we joyfully cranked tennis-sized balls and watched them make loop-the-loops, roll across xylophones, pass through logic gates, seemingly split into two, and bounce off a platform in the centre of the room before landing perfectly in a gravity well to tumble back into the crank. We did this for a good half hour and at no point did our delight diminish.
Wandering through the museum we started to feel a bit like superstars, with groups of schoolkids shyly approaching to practise their English (“what is your native place please?”) and ask if they could take photos with us. We even had a security guard follow us around the Fun Science hall (remember when you were a kid and the Science Museum was awesome? I think they exported all that to Bangalore). This initially made me rather jumpy, especially as I got a little too exuberant with a couple of the interactive displays and thought the guy might hit me with his lathi for damaging the property, but it soon became clear that he just wanted to watch us having fun and make sure we tried out all the exhibits.
From the museum we walked to the more upmarket neighbourhood of Bangalore and found our way to a rather dark but stylish bar where a pitcher of Kingfisher was less than a fiver. We played cards and chatted with some drunk Bangaloreans, who recommended a nearby restaurant for dinner. The place was undeniably swanky and the food was wonderful, curry and biryani served on banana leaves with deep fried cauliflower, mmmm…
Our second day in Bangalore was slightly less successful, partly because most of the day was overshadowed by uncertainty as to whether our waitlisted train tickets would be upgraded to confirmed seats. We headed to an art gallery to pass the afternoon, but it wasn’t quite as fun as playing with cranks and mazes, and was preciously lacking in places to just sit down and relax. Ben did find a chair to sit on, but was quickly intercepted by a rather anxious attendant, who told him it was part of the installation (this was apparently not the first time he’s sat on a work of art, having jumped about on Dali’s Mae West lips sofa as a kid). Getting kicked out of not one but two cafes for playing cards did not lighten our moods (one place we were genuinely hogging seats, but the other place was empty and the waiter clearly just vindictive). We repaired to the station to sit on the floor and wait for our train like the locals, and like an eleventh hour blessing, our tickets were confirmed and we were away.
The overnight train wasn’t much fun for any of us, Rani getting her first taste of sleeper-train joy, Ben perenially unable to sleep on sleepers, and me attacked by a squadron of bedbugs in my bunk that left me a paranoid and frazzled mess. We arrived in Kodaikanal bleary-eyed and slow-witted at 6.30am. A man who stepped down from the same carriage as us struck up a conversation and asked where we were going and if we had transportation. We told him we were planning to catch a bus to Kodaikanal and he told us that buses from the train station were very irregular and we’d be better off driving to the nearby bus station, before telling us (with a strangely hesitant and uncomfortable manner) that he had a vehicle and was heading that way. We paused momentarily but decided we had numbers on our side, so followed him to his jeep. On the way we learned he was a Jesuit priest, his jeep emblazoned with “St. Joseph’s” and we relaxed somewhat, until we got out onto the open road and his driver started weaving through oncoming traffic at a breathtaking speed… Road life didn’t improve much once we’d boarded the three hour bus up into the mountains, taking the only remaining seats at the back of the bus. Of course this broke the golden rule (always between the axles!) and Rani paid the price with some fairly serious motion sickness (and I thought I was green on the boat…)
Kodaikanal was cool and calm, a welcome respite after the noise and pollution of Bangalore, but without any plans to do some serious trekking there wasn’t a whole heap to do. We walked the 5km around the lake, balked at the price of rowboats, and posed for pictures with local teenagers. By far the highlight of our visit though was the awesome hot shower in our room. After just two days under piddly cold showerheads Rani was suitably impressed, but having lived with cold showers for nigh on three months, Ben and I were both ready to jack in the rest of the trip and just spend 3 months in the hotel, taking turns to have hour long hot showers each.
From Kodai we headed by bus to Kumily to meet up with our Dutch friends from the Andamans, Johan and Manon, and head to Perriyar Wildlife park from a jungle trek. Jo and Manon booked us into their lovely homestay and told us the guy would meet us at the bus station, but as our bus broke down and arrived nearly two hours after we were told it would, we felt pretty terrible for making the guy wait around, but he was nice as pie about it. Exhausted from our day’s journey (the first half of the bus ride was all standing, bumping down the hillside, lurching into bemused Indian laps) we were greeted with the news that our jungle safari began at 5am, and so quickly repaired to bed.
We woke in the pitch-dark and dressed by torchlight as the power was out, before jumping in a jeep and whizzing through the cold morning air to the wildlife park. Once inside the gates and as dawn crept up, the driver took to standing and leaning out of his window to scope the area for elephants. He stopped occasionally to point out extremely well camouflaged Horny-Bills and distant specks that were apparently bison but from our vantage point looked distinctly like fleas…
Having spotted no elephants, we arrived at a lodge where we were to have breakfast and then be rowed across the lake by our jungle guide, Sumbosh. Our trek began with a steep uphill climb and an introduction to some local flora and fauna. Soon we were spotting elephant footprints in the muddy path, being shown the scratchmarks of tusks on tree trunks and watching flies swarm over fresh elephant dung… but no elephants. Sumbosh snapped a twig of bamboo and told us that if we heard that sound it was likely an elephant passing through the bush, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was more likely to be the tour group 5 minutes behind us, being told something similar by their guide!
We saw giant red squirrels, a distant black monkey whooping through the trees and the flash of a kingfisher taking wing over the lake, but no elephants, and certainly no tigers. Sumbosh told us that just the day before he’d seen a leopard, but this was cold comfort for us. Rather forlorn, we returned to the lodge for lunch and another boat trip on the lake. Employing the strangest rowing technique we’d ever seen (light flicks of first one oar then the other to maintain an even keel), Sumbosh asked us to sing and English song. We gave him a short rendition of the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, and he returned the favour with a Keralan song.
In the end our closest encounter with an elephant was in the small skeleton museum the lodge maintained, where we examined huge skulls and a pelvis the size of two giants platters. We bid Sumbosh farewell and climbed back into the jeep for our return journey. On the way out our driver kept his eyes peeled for animal life, and as we zipped along he somehow spotted a monitor lizard, the same colour as the rock and half obscured by foliage. Photographs duly snapped, we returned to our homestay for a tasty homemade Keralan meal.
The next day we explored Kumily with Jo and Manon, they shopping for souvenirs, and we signing up for an evening performance of Kalari. We said goodbye to our Dutch friends over beers and cards, and repaired to the cultural centre for the evening’s entertainment, of which more in Ben’s Guest Blog…