love fest india 2010

For some reason, we really like Tamil Nadu. I have no idea why, given that it’s crowded, dirty, chaotic and hot as Hades. Perhaps it’s just that we’ve finally reached the elusive point of travelling India where you begin to really love it and instead of having to actively remind yourself to notice all the things that make India pretty darn amazing, you just notice them automatically – the beautiful sari-clad women sitting sidesaddle on motorbikes and eating icecreams at the bakery; the smell of jasmine garlands wafting over the stench of diesel and urine; the autorickshaws ferrying a tonne of tiny, immaculately uniformed kids home from school; the cows wandering in the middle of rush hour traffic; the sheer scale of commerce in an economy of a billion people, with every square centimetre of available pavement being devoted to the selling of an infinite variety of wares. Readers may have detected some slight anti-India sentiment in a previous post, but after three months it seems we have turned the corner.

Heck, we even find ourselves liking things that would otherwise be considered unanimously crap. Like the overnight bus ride to Kodaikanal. Despite the fact that it’s only about 200km, that doesn’t stop it requiring two buses and nine hours of travelling time. We got turfed out in the nowhere town of Palani at 3am, but you’d never had known either that it is a nowhere town or that it was 3am – it was like Piccadilly at rush hour and we were agog at the crowds that mobilised each time an empty bus pulled around the corner, with people chasing and leaping on board the moving vehicle and throwing items through the open windows to secure a seat. Having taken our time deciphering the Tamil script on the front of the packed bus, we were the last to board but seats were miraculously found for us at the expense of some skinny grannies who squished two to a seat.

Kodai was one of a string of colonial hill stations in the south and also where my grandmother was sent to boarding school from the age of five. Having now been on a few ill-fated jaunts in search of Parsons family history, we were a little shocked when we found the convent with no trouble on our first morning in town (its location on Convent Rd was a bit of a giveaway). We were appropriately met by two dour-faced women of the sort you might expect to be in charge of an Indian convent school and quizzed on my grandmother’s details, as though one of them expected to know her, despite being at least half her age. Dour faces cracked momentarily into smiles when I mentioned that I had also attended a Presentation convent school and we were allowed to check out the stone buildings which seemed virtually unchanged since the days when my nan was, by her own admission, a good but rather naughty student.

The other highlights of Kodai are the lake, honeymooning Indian couples and colonial buildings that could almost make you think you’re back in the mother country, or at least until you get back to the incessant honking of the main drag. We didn’t get to observe many of these things, as we were both struck down with head colds and bedridden for a few days.

We hadn’t really planned on going to Madras but we ended up racing there just in time to spend an afternoon with our buddy Shark, who we met in Nepal, talking ourselves hoarse and squeezing in not just one, but two tasty meals. In making our plans to meet up, Shark also reminded us that we had wanted to try and catch a cricket game whilst in India and conveniently, the IPL season was starting that weekend. Linds will regale you with the details in due course but for now, it will suffice to say that it was complete pandemonium from beginning to end and a good time was had by all.

Lonely Planet describes Mamallapuram as home to the only backpacker ghetto in Tamil Nadu and that alone was reason enough for us to limit our visit to a day trip with the government tourism agency. In keeping with our current India love-fest, we didn’t even mind the obligatory stop at a silk emporium, gleefully watching from the sidelines as the Indian ladies on our tour picked over a veritable mountain of saris, collecting armloads while dutiful husbands paced the floor and forked over wads of currency. A neatly wrapped package of temple visits, some awesome monolithic rock carvings, tasty lunch and a dinky boat ride made for a rather satisfying day, which left us to rest on our sightseeing laurels for a few more thereafter.

A final word about Tamil politics. As far as we can tell, the chief minister – 85 years old; hasn’t taken his sunnies off since 1964 – and his son and heir apparent, Stalin (!), are in perpetual rivalry with the main opposition party, which is led by an ex-Kollywood actress and a guy with a silly hat. Running the state seems to play a far distant second fiddle to saturating the electorate with as much propaganda as possible, including partisan flag poles erected to be ever higher than their competitors and enormous billboards depicting the chief minister, sun-like, at the centre of the universe, earth and planets actually positioned around him. Policies be damned! K-Bot had better get himself a some shades and silly hat before the next election.


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