sirisa clark

the things I do and the words I choose


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Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

Saying farewell to the elephants in Delhi airport

We’re back! Did you guess? I suppose the being back a whole month and the steady stream of Facebook updates about our job hunt woes might have given the game away. In fact I wanted to blog about our plans to come home early many  time, but I had this whole surprise appearance at my friend’s 30th birthday planned (wholly ruined by Ben’s status update: “In Goa airport, back in London tomorrow”. Cheers honeybunch).

Anyway, here we are back in my hometown, neither of us actually invalids (although I had a stye for my first two weeks back, so y’know, walking wounded), but definitely missing the hot climate. Man alive it was cold when we first got back!

I was home approximately 2.5 days before I was jumping on another plane to Italy with Rani to see our mum, but it was no warmer in the south of Italy (I know: I was shocked, and so were many of the people I told, but apparently the Mediterranean has a winter too). We spent much of the week huddled under duvets, reading books, eating biscuits and teasing the cats about their weight gain. Oh Siri, you lost all of what, three pounds in India (despite your plans to come home a waif-like size 10), and you’re lording it over a couple of plump cats?? Loser.

We did make a wonderful day-trip up the coast to Gallipoli, where we bought fresh fish and wandered the backstreets, finding increasingly bizarre and tacky souvenirs. As we admired the carved stone facade of a church I was struck by the thought that a week earlier I’d been doing almost exactly the same thing in Panjim, Goa. Being an ex-Portuguese colony, Goa is littered with stunning Catholic basilicas.

Church facade in Panjim

Church facade in Gallipoli

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually I’m just extrapolating from Panjim because we spent less than a day in Goa. Our journey home basically started in Hampi, where we had a final breakfast in our awesome guesthouse with Laura and the Swedish guys we met, before we did this:

  1. walked to the river and took our final boat ride across to the town side (more on Hampi later)
  2. walked through town to the bus stop and caught a bus to Hospet
  3. caught a second bus to Hubli, the nearest proper train station apparently
  4. had dinner in yet another awesome little railway cafe, hopped the overnight train to Margao
  5. discovered the train actually carried on to Vasco da Gama, where our flight left from, but it would cost an extra 500 rupees to extend our tickets
  6. got off the train bleary-eyed at 6am, got a taxi to the airport in Vasco da Gama for 550 rupees. Felt stupid
  7. Couldn’t go into the airport at 7am, started walking (with all our luggage) into town to find the train station and left luggage. Refused access to left luggage in absence of an onward bound train ticket. Nuts!
  8. Took all our luggage on a bus to Panjim for a bit of sightseeing. Realised that Panjim is a Catholic town, and very much closed on a Sunday, thwarting souvenir buying plans
  9. Bussed back to the airport and settled down in a cafe with books to await our flight to Delhi
  10. Flew to Delhi an hour late, hopped the shuttle to change terminals
  11. Much to our delight, discovered at check-in that Indian airports list coconuts as one of the prohibited items for checked luggage. Really, coconuts? Flew to Abu Dhabi.
  12. Much shorter turn-around at Abu Dhabi, hopped our plane to London, where I promptly passed out and Ben watched all the films that he knew I wanted to watch with him!
  13. Arrived at Heathrow a little shell-shocked, got on the tube and well, you know how that goes…

By the time Rani and I flew back from Italy, I’d racked up five flights in about 10 days, but the last was definitely the worst. All my life I’ve struggled with the havoc cabin pressure changes wreak on the ears, and I’ve slowly got better at preventing popped ears. But coming back from Italy I had a cold blocking up the gubbins in my head, and this meant a three hour flight of shooting pains and wet squelchy popping sounds. The view of the Alps from above and a veritable duvet of fluffy white clouds did their best to soothe me.

So, that’s the end of the adventure. I still want to write about Gokarna and Hampi because they were so lovely, and I also want to share a few more photos and memories from the trip. Other than that, I plan to keep on blogging about life in general, but I will try not to make it all “wah wah, job hunting sucks, wah wah I’ve got no money, wah wah now I’ve got a job and working sucks” (although I cannot help it if these things happen to be the case can I?)

For now, I’ve made a little map of our route on tripline.net so you can see where we went. It was meant to be embedded as a cool thing on the blog, but apparently wordpress will not allow this, so a link will have to do!

 

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The Fun with Rani Tour, part Tiny Kitten of Doom

And so to Varkala, a place that Rani and I couldn’t help associating with Vikings… Laura had a hot tip for a homestay in town from a French couple she met in the Andamans (who turned out to be our French couple from the boat back! Frickin’ tiny world, seriously), so we called them from the bus and snagged a couple of rooms.

The homestay was well out of town along the cliffs, which meant some slightly hairy late night walks by torchlight to get home, but once we’d explored the full on tourist mecca of Varkala and its myriad ayurvedic centres, souvenir shops and regulation German bakeries (why do people of the subcontinent put so much stock in German baking? This merely mystified us, but seriously upset the French people we met), we were very happy to be out of the fray. Our homestay had a wide porch with tables and a daybed where all the guests ended up congregating and lazing. It had wireless and seriously good meals. It had a huge chocolate labrador, and it had a tiny black and white kitten…

 

This kitten became a source of some heartache for Rani and me, as we soon learned it wasn’t quite right. According to the owners it had received a kick to the head that left it retarded and unable to smell, and subsequently it didn’t show any interest in eating. The poor thing was so scrawny, it tended to sit at the bottom of the kitchen steps, wobbling slightly but not moving around much. To make matters worse, the owners had a little three year old girl, who delighted in picking the kitten up around its middle and carrying it, legs akimbo and mewling pitifully, around the house. As often as we could we’d intercept her game and treat the kitten to an afternoon of being stroked to sleep in our laps. In my wildest dreams I like to imagine that kitten will work it out and grow up happy and strong, but if nothing else I take comfort in having made it very happy for a few days…

Well, that was a depressing little sidetrack eh? sorry to have taken you down that road, let’s get back to the beach.

The other plus point of our out of town location was being away from the tourist beach. We went to visit it one day and it was rather like popping along to Benidorm, or Margate on a really hot August bank holiday, except that all the lobster flesh was inverted in various headstands and asanas… Up north we had a beach pretty much to ourselves, and what fun it was! Unlike the placid waters of Havelock, Varkala treated us to some seriously pounding waves that near enough swept Rani and I out to sea, and sadly stole Ben’s newest pair of sunglasses off his face and out to sea (the third pair to meet a sticky end on this trip, I was torn between buying him a new pair to cheer him up, and telling him that to lose one pair could be considered unfortunate, but three started to look recklessly cavalier…) Once Ben had found a body board to hire though, the waves became less of a menace and more of a playground.

Having been pounded to pieces in the day, we spent our evenings playing cards and drinking beers with our fellow homestayers, Stefan from Hamburg, and Joona from Finland. Laura and Joona hatched a plan to head to an ashram down south, and spent their final day saying farewell to cake and beer and the good life. We had a goodbye breakfast, which stretched into lunch, and then a last trip to the beach… Suddenly the sun was starting to set, the air turning rosy, and a sneaking suspicion that nobody was going anywhere that night came over us, everyone but Laura and Joona, who held on to the idea that they would take a late train to Trivandrum well into the evening. Finally we pointed out that they didn’t stand a chance of arriving before 9 or 10pm, and they confessed that their leaving was looking less and less likely. The six of us went out for a farewell dinner instead, and we assured Laura that we were leaving the next day too, so we’d help them get out the door.

After another fairly leisurely breakfast the next morning, we said goodbye to Stefan and our hosts, and headed to the train station en masse. Ben, Rani and I hopped the train north to Ernakulam, and Laura and Joona took a bus south, with promises to reunite with us in Hampi if the yoga and meditation turned out to be a bust. So guess who we’re meeting in Hampi in three days’ time?


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Ben’s Guest Blog: India Encounter #5 – “Eighty Rupees”

We’d missed the bus.

What an irony, with only a single human’s fingers-and-toes-worth of days remaining before returning to London where missing the bus is practically the only thing you ever do.

But out here it’s no biggie. Shanti, dude. Something’ll come along and it’ll all be fine. Everyone’s so blissed by the sun, sea, sand, smoke and various hippy action that we felt no disappointment at all as we began moseying up the hill towards the village. It was about 8 klicks back to Kudle (say Kood-lay) Beach and our lodgings, but we were sure to snag a rickshaw on the way, whether we liked it or not.

Sure enough, five minutes’ walk through the village and there was a slight, frail guy next to his rickshaw offering the world for tuppence. I wasn’t much in the mood for bartering after a day’s exploring the cliffside beaches, but you know how it is – you have to keep up appearances.

“How much to Kudle?”
“One hundred rupees.”
“One hundred? It’s a hundred from back there at the bus stand! From here, ummmm, eighty.”
“No no, hundred rupees.”
Shake shake shake. Ah well, time for bad cop. I smiled and turned to Siri. “Shall we just walk then?”

We made as if to leave – now or never. “You sure, not eighty rupes?”
“Err…seventy rupees.”

Blink.

But a blink was all it was – we were stuffing ourselves in the back of the auto quicker than you can say ‘Bargain’.

Second-guessing time, as we clattered over the monsoon-ravaged roads like a cart with hexagonal wheels. Did he have the meaning of seventy wrong? Or the meaning of eighty? Had the sun fried his brains? Had the sun fried my brains? Should I have held out for eighty?

In the event, no-one ever found out. We reached the drop-off near the beach, handed over seventy rupees, waited for the driver to check through the sweaty notes and smile at us. He obliged. We smiled back and wandered towards the huts.


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The Fun with Rani Tour 2011, part lazy

India is a fairly vast place, but the traveller circuit is pretty small (to wit, we’ve just walked into a cafe in Gokarna on the west coast, and run into two separate people we met in the Andamans over a thousand kilometres away). So it was no great surprise that before we’d even said goodbye to Johan and Manon, we were making plans to meet up with another friend from the boat, Laura from Germany.

But before we catch a bus and a ferry to Alleppey to meet Laura, let me tell you about our farewell breakfast with Jo and Manon. I had a hankering for a breakfast that didn’t involve idly or dosa or sambar or anything even vaguely curried, so I dragged our wee group to a cafe the Lonely Planet assured me did a fine line in western treats like pancakes and cornflakes and all that jazz. Over a fruit platter we got chatting to an ageing hippy at the next table who waxed lyrical about, well everything. He was a seriously positive guy, telling us about the amazing time he was having in Kumily, the wonderful yoga lesson he’d had that morning, and his plans to travel down to a local ashram to meet the “Hugging Mother”, a popular woman guru who goes around the world hugging people. Apparently she hugs thousands of people a day, doling them out from dawn to dusk without taking a break. We’ve met a couple of people who have been hugged by her and said it was a transformative experience, and briefly toyed with the idea of going to see her ourselves, but couldn’t make our schedule line up with hers.

Our new happy hippy friend Michael turned out to be a Welshman originally, who’d lived in London for many years and now lived in Holland (like I said, a small world no?) But the best part was discovering that during the sixties he was a Harley Street dentist to the stars, poking around in the gobs of Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and, as he put it “their mutual wife Patty”, as well as David Bowie’s wife and John Cleese. He told us about an anaesthetic technique they pioneered that involved sustaining patients in a state of semi-conscious general anaesthetic so they could do hours of work on them and it would feel like minutes. Fascinating guy.

Anyway, bit of a non-sequitur, but I had to share that for one of our best encounters to date. Let’s get scooting along to Alleppey shall we?

We took a bus part of the way and then a ferry, which gave us our first taste of the Keralan backwaters. It would have been amazing were it not for the fact that a) we were sat right next to the ridiculously noisy engine and b) despite all the noise, Rani and I were so dog-tired that we could barely keep our eyes open to take in the sights. After another very long day’s travelling, we arrived in Alleppey as the sun was going down and were met by our hotel host, Anju. We’d booked two nights for ourselves and Laura at the Paradise Inn, recommended by Jo and Manon. When we arrived however, Anju started shaking his head and saying there was a real problem. He’d double booked the rooms for the second night, but would be able to move us ‘just across the road’ to his friend’s hotel, with nicer rooms for the same price. Okay great, we’d been looking forward to a lie-in for a change, but we’d get up early, move our bags and then just chill out.

Not so easy. The next morning we presented ourselves in reception with our bags, and Anju said “great! The rickshaw’s just outside” Uh, what? I thought it was just over the road? “Oh yeah yeah, it’s really near”. So we pile into the rickshaw and follow Anju on his bike to a house maybe 20 minutes out of town. Granted it looked lovely, but it was way too far out of town for us. Anju looked a bit nonplussed, but started ringing round his mates to find another hotel closer to town. Back in the rickshaw, and off to the Brown, which had two rooms, and the second should be vacated any minute: “normally people only stay two nights, and these guys have been here two nights, so the room should be free”. What do you mean, normally, should be? “No no, 100% it’ll be available”. Well, 5 minutes later The Brown’s owner appeared, and no the other room wasn’t free, but he had another hotel just round the corner with a free room. Argh! Fortunately this one was actually just round the corner, and the upshot of spending the whole morning running around hotels with Anju was a 20% discount on the accommodation, bonus!

After an afternoon wandering Alleppey for a spot of light shopping and some ice cream sundaes (one of which seemed to involve alien sputum, but it was in fact a fairly evil pistachio sauce. Poor Laura), we booked a canoe tour for the next day. I’d initially been quite keen on the idea of a houseboat, but it turns out they’re huge, noisy, expensive and entirely unnecessary. For one thing, they can’t fit down the mini side canals, which turned out to be the most interesting bit of the backwaters. Sitting in a hand-paddled canoe was also a lot quieter and more relaxing, and we felt a bit sorry for the rich tourists chugging about with their noisy motorboats.

We spent the morning snapping photos or everything, but by the afternoon we’d all settled into a sleepy lull, watching the world drift by and occasionally dozing off. The lazy hazy feeling was so complete that at one point in the afternoon Ben said “what day is it? Is it… Friday?” There was a long pause as we all thought about it, but nobody could say for sure…


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The Fun with Rani Tour 2011, week 1

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…


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Ben’s Guest Blog: India Encounter #4 – “Choose Your Weapon”

The sandy arena below us was bathed in the light of hundreds of ritual candles, and the array of fearsome weaponry along one wall cast menacing, flickery shadows up at the audience. The lithe performers filed in, made a short devotion to the weapons, the gods and their master, and began the show.

Kalari. No, it’s not a coincidence that it sounds like a combination of ‘Kerala’ and ‘Karate’, though ‘Kung Fu’ would be closer. Either way, it’s definitely the South Indian combination of gymnastics, martial arts and all-round badassery, and we were being treated to a demonstration in the cultural centre of Kumily. These guys had some serious moves, and while the martial arts were clearly 100% choreographed, they weren’t holding back, sparks flying from their blades, lances and flails and illuminating the dark arena like lightning. The demonstration lasted an hour, but felt more like ten minutes.

Finally, all the performers trooped back out, took a bow and gave a wave. The lights flickered back on overhead. “Now,” called the master, “Someone come down.” His arm extended towards me and his eyes met mine. With a a sudden pang – part excitement, part anxiety – I rose to my feet, filed down my row of seats to the top of the stairs, removed my shoes and descended to the floor before I could come up with an answer to ‘what’s about to happen here?’ The last piece had been a pretty cool ring-of-fire circus leap – was this some sort of audience participation gig to finish things off?

The master shook my hand with a big friendly grin, completely at odds with the slashing ninja beast who had just entertained us. Our conversation was one I’d had a thousand times in the previous few months.

“Your good name, sir?”
“Ben, and yours?”
“I am Surya. You are from?”
“London, England.”

All pretty standard, and enough to put me back at ease despite the very palpable sensation of every audience member’s gaze fixed on me, the blindingly pale westerner with the crazy hair. But I was wholly unprepared for what was next.

Surya took my arm, turned me towards the wall bristling with offensive metalwork, and said coolly into my ear:

“Choose your weapon.”

The air around me climbed ten degrees, and the ambient noise disappeared. I was in complete silence as my legs, against all notions of common sense and self-preservation, carried me towards the row of spears, swords, shields, flails, pikes, and a whole other bunch of things I didn’t recognise. So this was it. The final act. Choose your weapon.

The thoughts came thick and fast. What afforded me the best chance of survival? Sword and shield? Could I back out now? Maybe just break and run for the stairs? Too late, my hands, clearly in league with those turncoat legs, were reaching for a shortsword and a round metal shield, which a sniggering Kalari flunkie strapped onto my left arm.

Shaking like a leaf, I turned back to the master, resigned to my fate. British man hacked to death in ritual ceremony.Smiling more broadly than ever, Surya put an arm across my shoulder, and turning me towards Rani and Siri up in the gods, said, “Now, photo!” I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or just hug him. In the end I just held a pose for a moment or two, surrendered my weapons and withdrew as quickly as I could.


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Ponggalo Ponggal!

Happy Pongal y’all!

Kolam on the streets of Pondi

Today Tamil Nadu is celebrating the harvest festival. Outside shops and homes the streets are decorated with kolams, intricate geometric designs drawn by pouring sand with the fingers, and coloured with the most vibrant glittering dyed sands, wow! Up at the temple people are buying lotus flowers to offer to the gods, and dropping rupees in the temple elephant’s trunk to receive a head-tap blessing (did we partake? Why yes we did).

Last night in our hotel I overheard the resident Australian guy (dictionary-definition of an irascible old coot) asking the manager why the Hindus revere and celebrate the cow for Pongal but not the buffalo. It turns out that while the cow is associated with the goddess Lakshmi and wealth and prosperity, the buffalo is associated with the god of Death, and as he put it, nobody wants to invite him into their homes…

In case you’re wondering why we don’t have an awesome harvest festival back in the UK to keep us in touch with the land and its wealth: my friend, it is called Lammas Day and it’s the 1st of August, look it up. Why isn’t this awesome festival being celebrated far and wide? Well why indeed, but I think I’m going to start when I get home, please join me!

Now lest you think that all our time in Mamallapuram was spent in shops, let me assure that we saw the sights. And what sights! I’ll be honest, when we first hit Mam (as it is affectionately known) I thought “okay, nice bit of seaside touristville, not much going on, but a nice place to relax for a couple of days and eat pancakes and buy souvenirs…”

Then we went to explore the local mandapams (temple porches apparently) and my godfathers, the place is stunning. The local landscape is dominated by huge boulders, the most famous of which is known as Krishna’s Butterball, a massive boulder perched on the slope of another boulder that looks like it should roll down any minute. We guestimated it to be maybe 50 to a hundred tonnes, but who knows? In fact it’s stuck there so fast that the British reportedly tried to shift it with a team of elephants back in the day and got nowhere.

As if the natural wonders of the landscape were not enough, in the 7th century the good people of Mam applied their local craft of stonemasonry to the land and carved a series of stunning temples into the scattered rocks and boulders. You can stand inside a porch carved into the rock and admire bas-relief of Shiva reclining. Now god help me this next bit is going to sound like the most irritating traveller toss, but the combination of clambering around on giant boulders and admiring the stonework of ancient civilizations totally reminded me of Great Zimbabwe. There I said it, now kick me in the teeth please.

All that said, the carvings of Mam make for one awesome day’s sightseeing, maybe two if you stretch it out. So after four nights in the town, we were ready to move on to Pondicherry.

Pondi is an ex-French colony, giving it a slightly different flavour from other Indian towns. For one thing the roads have names like “Rue Suffren” and “Rue Victor Simonel”, and they are often lined with very lovely Gallic colonial buildings. The tourist part of town centres on the beachfront, a long stretch of red sand walkway above a rocky shore and huge green-brown waves smashing against it, perfect for se promener or an evening game or petanque.

Some of you may well be thinking “a pretty Gallic town named Cherry, surely this is right up your rue, petite Cerise?” And yes, Pondi is very pretty, but as with so many of the pretty ones in this life, it’s also a little (whisper it) dull. We’ve been here two days now and are fast running out of things to do, having exhausted many of the chic coffee houses as well as the ‘sitting on the shore staring wistfully at the waves’ possibilities.

There are some very pretty Catholic cathedrals in town though, so today we popped in to visit one of those. Beautiful French confection on the outside, garish neon altar decorations and madonnas in plastic princess tiaras on the inside. We spotted one curious statue of the Madonna and as we drew nearer, the conversation took this turn:

Siri: Ben, does uh… does that Madonna have tentacles poking out from under her robes?

Ben: What the…? Yeah, it kinda looks like she does!

Siri: …Well no wonder she was a virgin.

Now on closer inspection it transpired that Our Immaculate Lady was in fact trampling a serpent underfoot (as were other icons of the Madonna around the courtyard). But for anybody who – like us – have been avid watchers of the cartoon Drawn Together in the past, the statue couldn’t help but bring to mind the unfortunate “octopussoir” of Princess Clara:

Our Lady of the Tentacle Feet

Octopussoir

The Blessed Virgin