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India - Relaxing more in Mamallapuram

sunny
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Gerard:

Mamallapuram, also known by its other harder to pronounce name Mahabalipuram which tends to lead to some confusion when asking for a bus ticket, is a tourist town about 60km south of Chennai (about 100km north of Pondicherry), and was our next stop on our tour of India. Its very quiet and laid back, even compared to Pondicherry, at first glance there does seem to be more tourists and locals. We splashed out a bit here to get a nice hotel with a swimming pool, Hotel Mahabs, so we could do some serious relaxing. Its set back off the main road a little so it was pretty quiet, the room was big, the TV had 99 channels, a nice balcony, a massive turkey (no, not me, but we were pleased to see that it had survived Christmas) and a couple of big ducks just inside the front gate, a decent restaurant that included free breakfast and a good view across town from the roof. Only problem was a bit of a smelly bathroom which was not, as we had to explain to the hotel guy, due to either of us having an ‘upset tummy’. In the end we resorted to burning incense, it got rid of the bad smell (no, not me) and helped keep the mozzies at bay.

Hotel Mahabs

Hotel Mahabs

After a good sleep we were both starting to feel a little better, so we grabbed our Christmas cake and a couple of apples and sat out on the balcony to enjoy them and a bit of sunshine. I ducked back inside to get a knife and some water, when seconds later a hear a scream from Nee on the balcony then she yells “Ger-ard”. My first thought is ‘oh, what have I done now’. When I get to the door all I see is a monkey walking off with our apples. I didn’t even get to see the first monkey that took off with the Christmas cake under its arm. For those that don’t know, Nee has a healthy dislike for monkeys so when not one, not two, but three monkeys hopped out a tree onto the balcony rail, practically jumping over her onto the table to nicked our food, I’m surprised that the language was not perhaps a little more colourful. Oh well, there’ll be a couple more fat monkeys in Mamallapuram tonight.

To best describe just how lazy we were during our stay here in Mamallapuram, I should say that we were here for 5 days and only on the seconds last day did we venture far enough to find the main part of town. The part where everyone else stayed, with a good selection of restaurants and with a lot less through traffic. Ah well, we had a pool and sun lounges and books to read, and we made good use of all of them. Its not to say we didn’t get out at all.

Mamallapuram along with its chilled-out vibe, has two main attractions - the beach and the rock carvings. Coming from where we do (being spoilt for choice when it comes to good beaches) it takes a pretty amazing beach to impress us. Well, in Mamallapuram, we were not impressed. There were quite a lot of people on the beach, a tired looking market along the path down to the beach, even a dreary old fair ground complete with merry-go-round, shooting gallery and horse rides; there was rubbish everywhere on the beach (perhaps more rubbish than sand) and the murky looking water looked less than inviting. But there were a couple of things interesting enough to hold a attention for a short while. What is the one thing you can think of that looks most out of place on the beach? I’ll tell you - cows. They truly do not look like they belong on sand, yet there they were, chilling on the beach, chewing on rubbish. Clearly they had spent too long sun tanning though, because their skin had gone all leathery (ha ha ha - oh, that’s good). The next interesting thing on the beach was photography - the little fair was so dull that for amusement (I cant think of any other logical reason) the local came up to us to have their photos taken. Just bizarre! By now we will be featuring in several Indian slideshow screensavers. Finally, possibly the funniest thing you will find on an Indian beach…is Indians. They dart in and out of the water, splash about fully clothed in shirts and jeans. Maybe the older they get the more pleasure they seem to get from the experience, a freedom or a loss of inhibitions, I’m not sure exactly what it was, but there was sheer joy in their smiles and laughter (there is something very captivating about the unbounded smile hidden underneath an Indian man bushy moustache). It was great to see such carefree delight when so often you see faces full of struggle.

Beach cow!

Beach cow!

Dressed up for the beach

Dressed up for the beach

Tentative

Tentative

Mis-steak-en

Mis-steak-en

The beaches may not have been anything too special, but the rock carvings were fascinating. There are a number of different site around town, within an easy walk (any time other than the oppressive midday heat). Hundreds of years ago when they were chipping around in the rocks, they obviously were thinking ahead to he tourists of today, because most of the interesting carvings are lined up along a pretty grass covered field of boulders stretching about a kilometre. We are not talking little scratches in a few stones either, Ajunas Penance for instance depicts numerous Gods and animals and is a good 20 metres high and 50 metres long. You can only imagine how many years, blisters and black thumb nails it must have taken a man with a hammer and chisel. Other carvings are full temples dug into the rocks, complete with internal rooms, walls, doorways and pillars - no quick fit, pre-fab concrete construction in those days. It did make for a very interesting and relaxing days walks around the boulders, excepts for the occasional monkey leaping around hassling tourists for their lunch. This history of rock carvings here has spawned a major sculpting business here. On every street there are shops selling carved everything, Shiva’s, Ganesh’s, cows, elephants, crocodiles - even kangaroos. Late at night we everything else dies down and a degree of quiet descends across town, you get to fall asleep to the faint ‘tink…tink…tink’ of chisel on stone, the only problem these days is the pleasant ‘tink’ of the chisel is too often interrupted by the scream of an angle grinder, I guess that’s progress for you.

Carved temple

Carved temple

Rock carvings

Rock carvings

Sure as a mountain goat

Sure as a mountain goat


Stone carvings ready to be bought

Stone carvings ready to be bought

We had the good planning (or more correctly, good fortune) to land in town while the Tamil Nadu Dance Festival was on. Basically every night for about 5 weeks a show was put on featuring various traditional dance forms from all over India. The night we went was a riot. There were 2 forms of dance on, first was a soloist who performed what we might recognise as a traditional Indian form of dance. She was incredible. She looked amazing , her dress and make-up were stunning. The dance was beautiful. Full of smooth movements between intricate poses, all depicting something very meaningful I’m sure. And it was so long (she performed 3 dances that ran for a good half hour), but in a good and interesting way. How she remembered the complete routine is beyond me. Every move appears so detailed, from the movement of the fingers right down to the position of her eyes. It was impressive, and the accompanying music from the orchestra of the quirkiest looking instruments you could find set a great scene in the dark with Ajunas Penance lit up spectacularly in the background.

Dance festival in Māmallapuram

Dance festival in Māmallapuram

Traditional Indian Dance

Traditional Indian Dance

Next came some light hearted fun in the form of folk dancing. An odd collection costumes including ladies with pots on their heads, peacocks, a man on stilts (unfortunately for him he took the showbiz term “break a leg” a little too literally and snapped one of his stilts) and horses on stilts came out and pranced and jumped around stage. There did not seem to be much organisation or choreography to it all, but it was a laugh to watch, especially after a little while when the dancers had clearly had enough and wanted to stop, but the muso’s just kept on playing, so they just kept on jumping around stage. The whole show however was upstaged by a performance that wasn’t even listed on the programme. As I mentioned before, Ajunas Penance provided an amazing backdrop to the performance. Tonight a couple of the local goats who freely and happily roam the Mamallapuram boulder fields decided to put on a bit of a show themselves. Initially, a couple of groups of the were perched high in the rocks, apparently amusing themselves watching us watching them. As the dancing kicked off, a couple of young goats decided to put on a bit of a rock climbing exhibition. They climbed up and down and all over the Ajunas Penance carving. The crowd was really getting into it, every time one of the goat looked like it was about to fall off, or do something stupid (well more stupid) the crowd collectively held its breath. No one wanted to witness billy goat suicide. Who knows what the dancers thought of it all when there would be a gaps from the crowd mid performance? No goats were harmed that night, everyone got a good laugh and went home happy.

Crazy man on a horse on stilts!

Crazy man on a horse on stilts!

Funny Ladies dancing with pots on head

Funny Ladies dancing with pots on head

Men dancing in Peacock oufits

Men dancing in Peacock oufits

Posted by wheretonow 13:35 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

India - Ohhh Christmas

Missing our Aussie Roast

sunny
View The long trip! on wheretonow's travel map.

With Pondicherry’s strong French influence we had been hoping to find a big traditional Christmas feast somewhere, and a couple of days before Christmas we started to see a few signs going up at hotels promoting their Christmas menu. As soon as we started seeing pictures of juicy roast turkey’s we were hooked and booked into the best looking venue we found for a big Christmas eve buffet. It was with much anticipation that we rode our pushies across town that evening. We arrived early, well before they were ready, and got into the spirit of things with a couple of drinks and watched as the turkey roasted away in the outdoor pizza oven. The buffet was supposed to be ready at 7, but it was nearly 9 by the time the food was out and the order to start eating was given. There was so much on offer, soups, pâtés, salads, fish, roast turkey, lasagne, naans, risotto and, to top it all off, a roasted pig head. We grabbed our plates and loaded them up. The leek soup with some crusty bread was delicious, everything else was pretty well down hill from there. The risotto and fish had gone cold, the turkey has been roasted to a cinder and was a bit like chewing cardboard, the pigs head was pretty much all fat and still bloody (not so appetising but Nee tried a little of the cheek). Fingers crossed for dessert! Expectations were not very high now, but they did ok with a simple dessert - a sort of rolled up chocolate sponge cake with coffee flavoured cream, a couple of scopes of butterscotch ice cream with nuts, and a half built Croquembouche. It was good enough (and small enough) to go back for a second dip.

Croquembouche Indian Style

Croquembouche Indian Style

As we cycled back after dinner, we tried to figure out how it all went so wrong. In the end, it is probably that they just tried too hard to do too much that they don’t do very often. In the end, they brought all the food out at the same time, but some had clearly been sitting around while waiting for other dishes to be ready. Perhaps it was too much for the kitchen to cope with, too many people to feed, too much food to manage, too many dishes they don’t cook very often and not informing guests to start the appetisers before the mains had come. It left us almost wishing we’d just had a curry like any other night. But perhaps its not fair to try comparing a Christmas dinner prepared by a French trained chef with the fine feast you get at home - we all know you just can’t do better than Christmas lunch at mums.

There is a fair Christian influence around Pondicherry so there were a lot of people, lights and celebrations going on Christmas Eve as we rode our bicycles back through the streets of town. It was really nice to be out amongst it all, with people bringing their Christmas cheer and celebrations out into the streets. Even if dinner hadn’t quite lived up to expectations we still went home as happy little vegemites. But the worst was yet to come…

Post Xmas Eve Dinner

Post Xmas Eve Dinner

Christmas day arrived and Santa hadn’t found us (well we found him, but he didn't deviler anyway) - perhaps this was a bad omen.

hehe Santa..

hehe Santa..

We had no plans for Christmas day, and apart from making a couple of calls home that’s about all we did. Celebrated the day with a Christmas cake from our favourite French bakery (again nothing nearly as good as the cakes mum makes). We wanted to celebrate Christmas in India with a curry banquet at our favourite restaurant, Hotel Aristos, unfortunately it was Friday and Aristos was closed (as are many other places) so we went hunting for another place to eat. We had no faith in the food or the service at this place so we took it a little easy - no curry banquet for us. But that didn’t stop the trouble happening. We’d been in India for about 10 days now, so we were probably due a couple of rough days. On the way home it started to hit, call it what you will, the runs, Delhi belly, whatever, it is unpleasant. Me, I spent a good part of the night in the toilet and the next day with a quick sprint. Renee had survived all right, even managed to eat a veggie burger for lunch, until Boxing day evening when everything from the last day or so decided to come back up. Soon after I followed suit as well and we played an unfortunate game of tag throughout the night, but I must say the room was well equipped for such event with two buckets. Worse still was that we had to move the next day up to Mamallapuram, and our room had been booked out to someone else. That was not something we were looking forward to given the night we were battling through. Morning came and brought with it some respite, two very fragile feeling people, but after a few hours of stability and some flat lemonade we crossed our fingers, checked out (thank goodness for 12pm checkout) and made the 2 hour bus trip up to Mamallapuram. We got a seat on the bus, made it to our destination without incident and pretty much crashed for the rest of the day. Eating can wait till tomorrow.

Posted by wheretonow 13:22 Archived in India Tagged food Comments (0)

India - Week in Pondicherry

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View The long trip! on wheretonow's travel map.

We have decided to stay put in Pondicherry for a few days, time to get our bearings and ease our way into India, and because the Kailash Guest House we found is great, especially after our first night at the very average Mothers Guest House.

Sitting area within the Kailash Guest House

Sitting area within the Kailash Guest House


Our only complaint at Kailash was dirty mats on the floor and urinal balls. There were a hand full of small urinal balls left in basin and shower - they would make Nee sneeze. So every day we would throw them away, and every day house keeping would come along and put new ones back. Everyday we would roll up the dirty mats so they were out of the way (the floor was much cleaner than the mats), and everyday house keeping would unroll them again. We didn’t want to travel too far from the Pondicherry area either, because at New Years we pick up our motorbikes from just up the road when the real adventures will begin. A week based in the same place gave us an opportunity to figure out the simple things like getting cash from ATM’s, getting a mobile phone sorted, which food is which, get an idea what route we’ll follow on the bikes…

sites of pondicherry

sites of pondicherry


Temple by night

Temple by night


the not so great beach of Pondicherry

the not so great beach of Pondicherry


Cows have right of way

Cows have right of way


Cool advertising

Cool advertising


Fishing boats

Fishing boats


Love signs in other countries

Love signs in other countries

There is definitely a clear divide between the French and Indian side of Pondicherry, and it’s a stinky open canal - one of those hold your breath moments. But the town is quite different also. We hired push bikes for a couple of days which was the perfect way to get around and see town, you can cover good distance and still feel part of the action, only drawback was a sore arse at the end of the day, must be a bit out of practise.

hehehe

hehehe


Cruising around the french part of Pondicherry

Cruising around the french part of Pondicherry

The French side has wide clean French named streets, grand buildings (comparatively anyway, its certainly no Paris), a beach-front promenade and bakeries (mmm hot chocolate croissants, thank you very much!). Yet the Indian side of town with its narrow, busy and noisy streets was much more interesting, even the cows preferred this side of town. Outside houses and shops, people used white chalk or salt to draw the amazing and elaborate decorative patterns on the foot path or street. Some were clearly done by blokes, but the rest were really good. As we got closer to Christmas, the patterns got more detailed, by Christmas many were filled with colour. They looked amazing, and were a really good distraction from the terrible state of the footpaths in general.

Street art

Street art

Pretty Christmas street designs

Pretty Christmas street designs

Pondicherry is not a place you can walk around without watching where you put your feet. Paths are uneven at best and just full of holes over deep drains at worst as Nee found out by stepping into one in the dark skinning her toes and shin. Ouchies!!! It is clearly safer to dance with the traffic on the road than attempt walking on the footpath.

It was interesting to see a few of the different faces of India throughout the day. In the early morning, 5-6am, you would often get groups (generally men) dressed in white marching along the street singing and chanting on their way to a temple. It was a nice way to wake up to the faint chants and bells ringing, gradually getting louder then disappearing off in to the dawn gloom again. Next come the horns. You can sleep through the chanting and even the singing from a local mosque, but there is no ignoring the horns. They were pretty relentless from 8 in the morning till 8 at night. Interestingly, there never appears as much traffic as it sounds. During the cool of the evening the city seems to come alive with shops and people, it has a different energy and sound, there‘s as much human noise as traffic noise. The streets are packed, stalls appear from nowhere, there’s all sorts of food cooking in pots on the street. This is when the locals shop. Shopping is a bit of an experience. As I stood in a clothes shop waiting, waiting, waiting outside a change room, I noticed that it was mostly men doing the shopping and they were mostly assisted by other men when buying things like sarees. I can only imagine that the next day all the women receiving these sarees must be running back to the exchange counter. I was pretty much free to roam around where ever I wanted in which ever shop I chose, but Nee was shadowed by a shop assistant every step she took, not discreetly from a distance but right there two paces behind. It was quite funny to watch the dance unfold as Renee started to get annoyed by the close attention and would start cutting laps around the shop trying to lose her tail. But the shop assistants (perhaps that should be shop annoyers) knew all about this game and quickly succeeded in chasing Renee out of the shop. Finally when its late, after the shops have all closed and the cows have wandered home, there is a final face (or belly) to the town. Quite late one night I went with another guy from the guest house (a local) wandering in search of a shop selling water, the streets were dark, the sounds were strange. The poor and the homeless are congregated in locations around town and settled in for the night. It is a little confronting to see rows of people lining the street, sleeping side by side under whatever they have managed to get hold of. There were a lot of dogs running around howling and growling. When they got a little closer, the other fella promptly picked up a stick and a couple of rocks, it was, to be honest, a little bit scary. Needless to say, there were no more late night water runs after that.

Hotel Aristos was our favourite place to eat. They had a big menu, the food was good, a nice rooftop setting above the crowded shopping strip below and it was pretty close to home. We ate there often enough to start getting recognised, but that wasn’t too hard since I am so handsome (or maybe because there weren’t a whole lot of other white people in that part of town). (Renee- You mean he recognised the only guy he’d seen with big hairy side chops!) Given our Pondicherry location in French India, we had two foods at the top of our list, a plump spicy samosa, and a smooth creamy creme brulée requiring that perfect ‘crack’ to open up. Alas, during our stay in Pondicherry neither of these dishes came our way. Menus frequently teased us with possibility, but as we learned, menus appear to be a list of food rather than an available selection. Only too often we are told ‘no no, not available, fried rice or fried noodle?’

South indian paratha - delicious!

South indian paratha - delicious!


Ghee sweets

Ghee sweets

We did another day trip up to Mamallapuram, about 100km north of Pondicherry. There were two things to sort out on this trip, find somewhere to stay for a few days leading up to New Years and check up on the mechanic we were hiring the motorbikes from. After taking a bit of a punt and booking and paying for these bikes in advance over the internet, we still had a horrible feeling that the guy may not be genuine. The bus service that operates between Pondicherry and Chennai, the ECR (East Coast Road) Express, is awesome, though the buses may not be the most comfortable (built for little people I think). Buses run every 10 minutes or so, so if you can’t squeeze onto one bus you don’t have to hang around too long before you can try the next one. The biggest problem is not finding which bus to take (there is always someone to point you in the right general direction), but figuring out when to get off. We spend a good part of the trip scanning for road signs (there are not that many) telling us how far to go to Mamallapuram. Sure enough, when we get to our stop there are no signs, no bus stop, just a bend in the road and a few people and rickshaws hanging around. Mamallapuram is a very dusty and popular tourist town, its big attractions are lots of rock temples and carvings, and the beach. But we are not in tourist mode today, we’ve got business to attend to. We are pleased to come across Ganesh our motorbike mechanic as we walk into town. He is pleased to see us (and so he should be after all the money we sent him in good faith) and after a quick chat we are all seems to be well. We head on into town happy but with a few lingering doubts given the state of the bikes parked in front of his shop - but he’s a mechanic, so what can you expect, we can only wait and see what the new year brings. We find a nice hotel with a really nice looking swimming pool, happy to spend a little more as a treat for New Years (still only around $30 a night). Mamallapuram is pretty cruisey, so looking forward to a few lazy days here by the pool before taking off on the bikes. We learn something new about the buses on the trip back to Pondicherry, if possible get on where the bus leaves from, if not it will be full and you’ll probably be standing for a good part of the trip. We, and three other girls from Denmark who were not pushy enough, missed out on seats and were standing for a good part of the trip home. Though many Indians even with kids and baggage will insist on giving you available seats if they are getting off soon which was so nice.

Posted by wheretonow 13:00 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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