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Published: March 2nd 2017
2Madurai and Kerala
Sunday (26th Feb) morning we set off early to Madurai. It's a four hour drive northwards, but on a good straight dual carriageway. Slower traffic (lorries and farm carts) often drive in the outside lane, and other traffic, with a horn blast, overtakes on the inside lane.
We leave the administrative district of Tirunelveli, and pass through Thuthukudi, Virudunagar, into Madurai and the main town Madurai, to the Hotel Supreme. Toni and I have time to pop in to Chennai Silks, a wonderful store of saris, of every hue and colour. I'm on a mission to buy a salwar kameez that I will wear as a tunic in the UK. So often I buy ethnic clothing in a country and never wear it at home. The one I buy I will sew up the sides and wear as a dress, and I will certainly wear the indigo below-the-knee leggings, and the short-sleeved lace shrug - all for £15
After lunch, and I'm embarrassed to say I joined Toni in a lunch of burger (vegetarian) and chips, we all went to the Gandhi museum (200 years of East India Company and British brutality and subjugation), the Thirumalai Nayak Palace (built in 1663 with beautiful carvings and coloured ceilings) and the Meenakshi temple, over 1,000 years old, with four magnificent towers, covered in coloured stucco, on huge granite gateways. Walking round this on bare feet tests my powers of concentration on what the guide is saying. I can't feel close to any deity when I'm constantly thinking, “Ooh, me corns.”
The meal in the evening is in the rooftop restaurant of the hotel.During this part of the trip, our breakfasts are paid for, but we buy our own lunch and dinner. Dinner, including a beer, (the first for two weeks) is 400 rupees, about £5, and this is in a touristy hotel. The beer is 'very strong’ (6%) with warnings of how it destroys ,'life, family and country’. It is called ‘British Empire’ and after the visit to the Gandhi museum, I would think it is aptly named. The bottles are bigger than a pint and quite quickly give Maggie and Myra the giggles.
Our rooms are comfortable but we can't manage to work the shower so I wash with a small jug. It's a wet room, and at least this one, unlike the one in our room at SCAD, had the plughole next to the shower, and not the other side of the room, so we had to paddle to the loo for the rest of the day.
Thursday is a long drive westwards through Madurai them south west through Theni to Trekkady in the Ghats of Kerala. The scenery is lovely, with high mountains around the village, which is a shopper’s and gourmand’s delight. It's good to see how clean India is becoming. There is a litter campaign, and lots of bins around with 'Use me,’ inscribed on them. We visit the Green Valley spice garden, and have a guided tour round the bushes and trees, seeing peppercorns, coffee, turmeric,lemongrass,cinammon cardioman, tree tomatoes and much more growing.
We all disperse for lunch I have the Kerala equivalent of thali - lots of little pots of different curries and sauces. Next we go to see some elephants. Some people ride them, but I did that in Nepal, so I just fed watermelon to one. She has a huge fat tongue, that I can just about reach up to. More shopping and i buy a monkey carved out of a coconut, with his hands pressed in prayer and the most beseeching eyes.
In the evening we go to the cultural centre and see a Kathakali dance, accompanied by two drummers and a singer who played the cymbals. The main dancer - a man but dressed as a woman with extreme makeup and brightly coloured costume, started her dance with the eyes. They rolled round and round, in time to the music, then side to side, then up and down. Next her cheeks twitched alarmingly, then while the singer described the emotions she was porraying, she showed different expressions - desire, sorrow, sarcasm, hate, fear, anger etc. Then the man came on with a green face and side skirts like a crinoline and they cavorted around each other. I couldn't follow the story properly, but apparently it was a story of unrequited love and lust, and eventually the woman turned into a devil, and the man stabbed her.
The next day six of us go on jeeps up into the mountains, off road, driving in huge ruts on a narrow track with a steep precipice on one side. We stop to admire the views of the tea plantation and see a friendly picker who lets us take a picture of her in her umbrella hat. The bushes are waist height with narrow passages between each bush so the pickers can reach across the whole bush. They pick the new fresh leaves that grow every 45 days. Up here is cooler, and the scenery looks Mediterranean, if you look closely at the type of trees,or even English if you look at the greenery. We stop on a couple of peaks, the first one has a young boy selling cut up chunks of pineapple, the next had a van with the young men selling tea, watermelon and offering a go on an sir rifle. They have a bullseye target set up, and Myra and I have a go. We don't get any in the bull, but get pretty close. I'm used to fairground shooting ranges, where there is a bench to rest my elbows on; it's harder bracing the butt against my collar bone. Myra rests it against her chin, and ends up grazing her upper lip. Toni and I take watermelon rind down to the cows grazing below, and I slip and graze my elbow. The jeep driver runs to us and escorts us down holding our hands, then up again. Toni tells the others I'll go to great lengths to get a young man to hold my hand. I think he's relieved to get us all back in one piece.
We meet up with the others who had been for a walking trek in Periyar Safari Park, and we all go on a boat across the lake. We see elephants, turtles, water bison, a warthog and some birds. Stephen and Toni are agreed they're happier seeing elephants in their natural habitat.
We spend another evening at the cultural centre, this time to see a magnificent display of martial arts (developed in India) using shields and swords, knives and poles, and an ingenious way of tying up two armed protagonists with a sash. Seven athletic young men did acrobats and dived through flaming hoops. They twirled batons like drum majorettes, and bashed sticks like Morris men. They clashed swords and shields till the sparks flew, and one broke a sword.
Wednesday we set off at 7am towards the Kochi backwaters and split into three groups for the flat-bottomed houseboats. We chug around a bit and are well fed, and Toni and I find a bit of sun on the foredeck either side of the helmsman. It's very pleasant here, after we've got the crew to move the boat as our first stop for the night was beside some rotting fish, which the five joss sticks failed to mask. We're on the boat for less than 24 hours, but them go to a hotel in Kochi which, joy of joys, has a pool. Toni are in there five minutes after getting our room keys (pod, rather than room and single, which means Toni will have no-one to wake her). After
Iunch there is apparently a trip, which I may forgo in favour of more time on a hammock by the pool.
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