2010-07 India: Madurai & On the way to Chennai

The title of this post somewhat elucidates a random mapping we made from the North of Kerala back upon ourselves to Trivandrum all the way down and round southern tip of India towards the town of Madurai, next stop along the way. Having braved our first day journey towards Kochi on the train 24 hours earlier we now prepared for our first overnight. The first challenge was getting on the train. To the uninitiated this may seem like a no-brainer however with large toting packs, fatigue from the day’s rain and the inevitable confusion propagated by asking people questions and getting multiple different answers the question of which train, when and where was not entirely apparent. Which train very quickly resolved itself as the hulking goliath powered into the station and with it the when however the where remained occult – specifically – Indian trains are in general huge, with no exception here, so it was not simply a question of waiting on the platform but also in the vicinity of our carriage to ensure that we gain our journey. Picture this: at the final moment as the train is about to depart we finally establish that our coach is 5 or 10 down from the one we were currently attempting to board. Navigating the internals of these coaches to transition from one to the next is next to impossible as they are so crowded, let alone the same prospect with our heavily laden bags. Adam and I ran as fast as we could, throwing our bags onto the train and bailing in just as the train started to pull away. This would turn out to be a forebear of a later misadventure where we were not so lucky.

By the morning and after a fitful sleep modulated by being hyperconscious about our belongings we woke up somewhere around the Horn of India on our way to Madurai, our bags still chained to our beds with padlocks and strong wire netting. When I woke I looked out the window to the yellowed hazy glass (a rarity on Indian trains as I was to find)… I have a strong recollection of my sentiments at the time of this photo – in an almost dreamlike somehow felt as if I was being drawn back in time to the 70s – as a child in a hairdressers in America – staring out the window through Ocre sunglasses. I snapped this photo is the train stock rolled out of the station.

Train Stop in the morning
Train Stop in the morning

We eventually made it to Madurai. We struggled to find our accommodation, almost expiring in the new heat of Tamil Nadu as a very real contrast to the more temperate climes of the Western Kerala we had left just hours before. After a Thali lunch we explored the town including one of the old palaces and the famous central temple. I never made it into the inner sanctum as I was inappropriately attired – I had chosen shorts because of the heat and failed spectacularly in buying the appropriate covering from a roadside salesman – instead purchasing some sort of small towel for an wildly inflated price of several hundred rupees. Whilst waiting for Adam to explore the internals I snapped this curious shot on the front of the shop. Modelling Diana Princess of Wales exeunt as the patient of their goods. A most bizarre situation seeing as the sign must’ve been printed a good time after her death.

Diana Memorabilia
Diana Memorabilia

Similarly back in Trivandrum I had spotted this photo – I wonder how she would feel of her visage being used in such a way.

2010chennaiadam-4759

That evening we had dinner on a rooftop of a hotel overlooking the lights in the distance of the temple. Later because there was a festival we walked round the town dancing and interacting the locals. Photos of me taking pictures here which I seem to have lost which in my mind’s eye were lovely and intimate – especially those of women. As a man in India is very difficult to interact with women – they are often out of sight and the majority of your interactions (I think this robbery holds true for women travellers as well ) are with men. Sadly these photos have been lost somewhere in time.

After Madurai we made an interim stop in the town of Thanjavur. This was one of my most enjoyable days of my adventure in India. However – due to the spectacular failure of the spare batteries I bought the journey through India (I’d cheaped out on Amazon replicas – and the double failure of my battery chargers) I do not have any photos of my own (or at least if I do I lost them alongside those from the nights activities and Madurai) alongside and my memory is somewhat replete. The essence of my recall of this place was that It was one of the friendliest towns we visited, from in the hotel we took up just the day’s sightseeing to the central temple at dusk where we sat and watched the sun go down with families committing to the end of the day’s prayers in such an incredible place.

To summon up the images I have appropriated a couple of Adam’s photos (above) to demonstrate the power of the place as well as to articulate some of the Madurai experience. One of our long-standing regrets which we reflected on several times throughout our journey was a refusal to take up the offer to join the dinner on the families who met with us that evening. In the end we had a rather disappointing meal in a dirty restaurant on the side of the road after much of a struggle to find the place so thoroughly “recommended” by the Lonely Planet guide. It would have been a meal where neither side spoke each other’s language but by simple non-verbal communication shall we would have got along and it would have been a deep pleasure to has had such an experience. Carpe diem! That should have been the order of the day. But by the evening we were already rolling towards Chennai.

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2010-07 India 2010 TRV to Kochi: Dog fights in the night

When Adam arrived in India I took some pleasure in taking the lead having had the chance to adjust the cultural “smack in the face” that India presents to the uninitiated. Nevertheless on our short afternoon in Trivandrum I managed to lose my phone and we passed the remainder frustratingly trying to file a report for its theft (which was in my opinion pointless but at the time I felt important so as not to offend our hosts). I got bounced from junior officer to sergeant to captain eventually to the regional police Commissioner who was understandably bemused that I’d been ushered into his limelight for a matter so unimportant as the theft of a phone.

The afternoon quickly wasted away we and we had to make a dash for Kochi, the first leg of our dual tailed onwards adventure. It started on uneven ground, taking an almost fatal rickshaw ride to catch a train (capture a mad, probably drunk, driver swerving across three lanes of traffic into the leftmost shoulder of the opposing side before careering through an infinitesimally small gap closing between two shoulders of giant public buses – to affect a triple overtake) – progressed to our first journey proper on a Indian train and culminated in the first of what would be many hotel negotiations in the depth of the night as we arrived late in town.

Despite arriving late I decided to take a walk with my tripod and camera up to the famous Chinese fishing nets. After wandering around I eventually made it up to the sea’s edge and began taking some long exposure shots. All of a sudden I was set upon by a pack of dogs – Local strays out to rough up a tourist no doubt. Barking turned into overt aggression so I ran and clobbered a couple as they clambered after me with my tripod. I managed to pegg it down the street and bailed into a sidedoor of a restaurant, luckily still open at 1130 at night. Hearing the clamour the owner rushed out and proceed to kick the remaining mongrels who had chased me down from the coast and putting paid to the pursuit.

After the excitement as serendipity would have it I then spent a fantastic night speaking in French with some travellers who had holed up in there with a bottle of wine. Late in the evening I stole home and crashed out in hotel (Adam having gone to bed a good while earlier when he first arrived).

The next day we explored Kotchi in the rain – really quite torrential. I also began the “great battery quest” as the spares I’d brought from Amazon turned out to be duds and as luck would have it my single charger gave up the ghost that on the first day of my travels. We returned that evening to the restaurant I dipped in to thank the team who saved me the night before for taking a late taxi down to the station from overnight train to Madurai.

2010-07 India: Varkala – Harm’s Way

With my feet somewhat more firmly on the ground and with a couple of days to kick back in India before Adam, my adventuring buddy, was set to arrive I decided to voyage out to at Lonley planet’s reccomendation north of the city Trivandrum. Jumping on the local after a somewhat confusing ride I was dropped off in the town of Varkala some miles up the coast from capital. I decided to walk down to the beach initially as I was hounded every 10m “auto” drivers who were trying to drum up custom. However laden down as I was in my bags I made a really clumsy sideways flip over a piece of very well laid Indian road and crashed into a puddle generating quite the injury. At the time I shrugged it off with a bit of inappropriate machismo. With a little dented pride I re-shouldered back on my trudge. It was only later that I realised the injury sustained my ill attired flip flopped foot would cause – as I developed in turn a severe foot infection (I developed a sinus!) Which even today shows in the scarred underportion of my right foot. Hulking down the road a ways I gave in and got an auto anyway.

In time I arrived at the beach I drank in the site of the ocean – a welcome reprieve from the clamour of the city – and posited myself on the beach. I began to take photos whereupon I noticed another chap doing the same. Nothing ventured nothing gained in the land of travellers I went over and said hello. What a fateful meeting!

Dressed in a white cotton shirt, his prototypical shaggy locks and the dusting bronze of someone who is clearly been in India long and I had – the man announced himself as “Harm” in a Dutch accent. We hit it off immediately and began in earnest to talk about the “philiosphy of photography”. Being late in the day by the time I arrived we spend the afternoon wandering around discussing photography and drinking in the sites and sounds of the low season holiday resort. A night over beers precipitated me not getting my train back to Trivandrum crashing instead upon the beachhead in harms luxurious beach hut (to my then and future standards for this trip at least!). I still remember vividly sitting there drinking Diet Coke as we watched the sun setting in a five o’clock-ish kind of light producing such stark shadows of the palm trees that framed our view of the ocean.

The next day Harm being the more adventurous and arguably spontaneous of the two of us stated with no derision that we hire a motorcycle and drive off to see the area. One of the most unforgettable days of my life and one also for my shoulders probably never find me again… shouldering two massive camera bags clinging throughout the day.

As we wove through villages we ran into the local kids who are keen to have their photos taken and demanded in exchange “one pen”. We had a blowout on the tyre and were led miraculously by some locals to a place not far from where we’d crashed out of the race. We eventually made it to the town on the coast before making our roundabout retreat before the night closed in back to the resort. Now in the dead of the night. Exhausted and grabbed a rapid meal and then Harm swiftly turned around and boosted me back to Varkala station – to catch my train back to Trivandrum. A serendipitous meeting to be sure!

The fun didn’t end there though: at the platform I ran into someone else, a Swedish guy called Seb. As luck would have it he was on his way to meet another Sebastian in Trivandrum. Coincidences like this are certainly not to be overlooked so we had a local night drinking and enjoying late-night curries at the behest of local Indian Sebastian’s direction.

Thus…Varkala to Trivandrum was an excellent first foray into my Indian adventure and certainly made up for the roadside dumping that precipitated my initial excursions the day before.

2010-07 India 2010: Touchdown in TRV LOW-res Film

Although my journey to India was and was always meant to be a mainly photographic odyssey I had also intended to take some film as I went along. In the end I barely took any and the whole process broke down early into the journey. All that is recovered is the first 10minutes or so from an old Sony handy cam. Those of you who have read my other post and have seen the photos from Trivandrum might like to take a look at this short one-minute film which includes a shot of George indulging a beer, my first proper Indian” meal and shots of the dancing. Grainy pictures aside the beautiful music captures some of the spirit of the evening which I shared with Midhun and Stalin on my first night in India.

2010-07 India: Touchdown in Trivandrum

Stepping off the plane at Trivandrum airport was like being hit with a stick. The powerful tropical climate, the wall-to-wall press of crowds together with the sleep deprivation of a 16 hour transit flight sitting next to an enthusiastic Indian Middle Eastern worker called George bungled me sideways – so much so that I almost walked out of the airport without my pack. Somehow I was persuaded to take a journey with George’s cousin with the route plan of meeting up with him and his family to buy a chicken from market and to cook it fresh at his house. Needless to say the connection failed and the abandonment by my non-English-speaking friend in the middle of a foreign satelitte town somewhere outside of Trivandrum a little after two hours after my arrival was a sharp reminder of the vagaries of life’s dice – sometimes stories like this start out really well and other times they start in the shit. Somewhat demoralised I took some means to get me back into the centre of the city where I collapsed in a hotel after a long needed cold shower. Later I ventured out cautiously food – taking leave of the lonely planet to find somewhere safe and secure.

Traditional Keralan dancing 1
Traditional Keralan dancing 1

After the afternoon’s reprieve I journeyed down the road to take some photos where ran into two young students Midham and Stalin (named after one of the great Communist leaders to which many in the Keralan state still pay homage). Somewhat unremarkably for Kerala (although shocking it seems to us) Stalin has a brother called Lenin. Together we went to a community festival up in the northern reaches the city where I enjoyed an incredible session of traditional dance. The music was genuinely transporting and confirmed my senses in India as I sat amongst the crowd of entirely local people. We closed the evening by reflecting on our mutual experience of being university students, although worlds apart, and talked of our futures and aspirations. It would be a few days before Adam was to arrive during which time I had a whole side adventure in the fantastic town of Varkala. In the meantime I took stock of India as both shocking and exciting.