Our travels across southern India are almost complete. Trains have carried us 570km from Kochi on the west coast, overlooking the Arabian Sea, to the French colonial town of Pondicherry, looking out across the Bay of Bengal on the east coast.
Romantic as this journey sounds, the reality of India’s railways have a way of imposing themselves on such fanciful notions. Train travel in India is nothing short of a test of character. Not for the faint hearted the bone shaking carriages rattling along jostling passengers to sleep or distraction depending on temperament.
We began with a relaxing few days in Dutch influenced Fort Kochi, an arts oriented suburb of Kochi with a narrow beach front facing the Arabian Sea. The beach is famed for the huge square fishing nets operated from shore by gangs of fisherman. The best food was undoubtedly the small but excellent Oceanos seafood restaurant and cultural highlight a visit to a traditional Kathakali theatre performance.
Next stop was Alleppey with its inland waterways and 1000 holiday houseboats. So many of the tourists visiting head straight through town onto the houseboats that the town itself hasn’t bothered to gear up for tourism. Few attractions (beyond the usual church and temple) and precious little in the way of places to eat. We opted for a day long trip through the waterways on a boat all to ourselves.
Such are the real-time changes to train schedules due to delays, breakdowns, and ad hoc changes that no amount of planning can insulate you from disruption to your itinerary. This was demonstrated on our seemingly simple 145km three-hour transit from Alleppey to Kochuveli (from where we planned to take an ‘autorick’ the remaining 11km to our hotel at the beach resort of Kovalam).
Since our train ticket informed us the train departed at 14.20, we sought a late check-out beyond the 11am cut-off. Nothing doing, the room was needed for an incoming guest. Consequently, from 11am to 1.00pm we languished in the hotel’s air conditioned reception reading (figuring that was a better option than sitting in the heat of a railway platform).
When we did finally transfer to the station, arriving at 1.20pm, we enquired about the platform for our 14.20pm train only t be informed it had left at 12.30. After the inevitable, ‘no you must be mistaken we have a ticket saying 14.20’ to and fro, we had to accept we’d missed our train due to an unexpected re-scheduling. If only we hadn’t waited at the hotel!
No problem said the man in the ticket office, just get the train to Trivandrum at 3pm and then get a taxi to your destination. It’s about the same distance in the taxi he assured us.
So, there we were, sitting on a hot platform for an hour and a half (which we’d tried to avoid earlier) waiting for a train, to a different place than intended, and with no ticket. Roll with it we told ourselves, this is India.
The Trivandrum train duly arrived. Where to sit? Our pre-booked seat on the missed train meant diddly here. Not to worry, we squatted in two equivalent seats on the new train and waited for the conductor. When he arrived – a Captain Mainwaring lookalike – he studied our defunct ticket eventually uttering a begrudging “OK, sit”.
So we settled in to a four berth compartment with an old Indian lady. Mysteriously she had 8 pieces of luggage. Two of everything. We then realised the gentleman across the aisle was travelling with her.
As we sat reading, we gave in and had a couple of cups of very sweet tea from one of the many Cha Wallers on the train, each about the capacity of two egg cups, and costing 10 rupees each (about 12p).
Suddenly, John noticed something flash across the aisle towards his foot. A mouse loose on the train. The old lady chortled at the speed he whipped his feet up to stop it making for his trouser leg. To Karon’s horror it shot past him straight under her seat.
It then suddenly dawned on us that both our shoes were under the seat: A squatter? John grabbed his shoes and banged them against each other hard enough to dislodge a large rat let alone a two ounce mouse. The old lady burst out laughing, as did Karon.
Lightbulb moment: if it wasn’t in John’s shoes… Karon’s face turned pale. No way was John retrieving her shoes for her. The old lady looked on with interest as Karon reached for and inspected her shoes. Panic over, the mouse must have had a better offer on the table.
Upon reaching our destination we breathed a sigh of relief at not having picked up a stowaway. Eventually, off the train, we squeezed into an ‘autorick’ for the forty minute trip to a hotel that resembled a squat from Trainspotting. But that’s another story.
The resort town of Kovalam lived up to expectations with its glorious beaches, warm sea and very good fish restaurants. Hastily rearranged accommodation was basic but acceptably clean after the shock of initial hotel. The sun and sand were a welcome respite from the trains.
From Kovalam, in the state of Kerala, we made the 306km trip northeastward to the traditional city of Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu. A pleasantly uneventful train journey for once. The calm before a minor storm it turned out.
We had a wonderful two day stay in 2500 year old city. Our visit to the main tourist attraction, the 17th century Meenakshi Temple with its 14 highly decorated gopurams (gateway towers), was the highlight.
In contrast to the extravagance of the structure and sculptures at Meenakshi, Thimuralai Nayak’s Palace was all elegance and calm. More than can be said for the tired Mahatma Gandhi museum we also visited. Our other highlight was a visit to St Mary’s Church which was closed due to a day of protests across the city but, which seeing our disappointment was temporarily unlocked to let us view the beautifully painted interior.
Not everything went smoothly in Madurai. The city was experiencing a lot of small scale demonstrations across the city against a court imposed ban on the ancient Tamil practice of Jallikattu. We learned Jallikattu refers to a Tamil tradition of attaching gifts to the horns of a bull that is then chased by young men trying to snatch the gifts. In the excitement of the protests, some high-spirited street kids decided harassing us – including one of them groping Karon – would be fun. Perhaps fun for them but, certainly not for us.
In addition, on an ‘autorick’ ride back to our hotel one time we were victim to an attempted bag snatch when our autorick stopped momentarily in the bus station. Fortunately, the would be snatcher signaled his intent by running at John from 10 metres away with his arm outstretched. An easy dodge that one.
Nevertheless, after two enjoyable days sightseeing and photographing, we faced an early start to make our 7am train.
A 5.30am alarm gave us forty-five minutes before we headed to the station. Our fingers were crossed not just from caution against the disruption to which the railways of India are prone. Part of the local protests had involved blocking trains in and out of Madurai’s main station.
Sure enough, on arrival at the station at 6.30am no trains were running again due to ongoing protests. Our sympathies for the Tamil protestors took a further dive. Added to the lashing rain, this was not a good start to the day.
Inside we noticed a handwritten white board stating our train – the Villupuram Express (12636) – would be starting from Dindigul at 8am instead. Where? A quick enquiry establishes this is 60km away. A taxi seemed the only option.
Outside the taxi drivers eyed us with the look a cat has when it’s quarry has no escape and must therefore accept its fate,. For us this meant paying an inflated 2000 rupee fare. However, we did manage to sub-let two seats in the car to an Indian couple for 500 rupees.
After one hour twenty minutes later and no nails left, we arrive at Dindigul with 10 minutes to find and board our train. Two fully-laden fifty-somethings racing down a platform that seemed to be getting longer with each stride must have amused the locals. If dragging our overstuffed cases wasn’t ballast enough, the fully loaded rucksacks on our backs made it feel like we were running through quick-sand. At full tilt we hit a top speed that would have embarrassed a tortoise.
Finally, we reached our appointed carriage, lashed on the cases and quickly located our seats. Red faced, but relieved. An hour and a half later train finally heaves its way out of the small town of Dindigul heading east towards Villupuram. A four-hour journey ahead followed by a further taxi ride (38km) onto the old French colonial town Pondicherry on the east coast on the Bay of Bengal.
‘Pondy’ as it is known locally has a small enclave of districts. Officially renamed Puducherry in 2006 most people stick to the older French name. Pondicherry was a French colony between 1674-1962. Nowadays, the French colonial vibe remains for a small area covering a few square kilometers of what is referred to as ‘White Town” due to the colour of most buildings.
Streets have classic French blue signage with names like Rue Dupuy and Rue Bussy. They have been renamed since Indian independence (1947) but original street signs left in place.
Apart from the smallish area of former colonial buildings – many in a sad state of repair – Pondy is not unlike many other hectic Indian towns. Mildly interesting, rather than a must see destination.
Our time in the south is almost done. We head to the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai (formerly Madras) for a few days and to meet up with a local photographer friend. Then we head to spiritual Varanasi before the more familiar ‘golden triangle’ to visit the pink city of Jaipur and of course Agra’s jewel the Taj Mahal.
Bye for now.