Thursday, February 27, 2014

February 2014: Two weeks in India with Intrepid

It's my seventh time in India but first time in the south and first Intrepid tour.  It's interesting - the UK, Jordan and India are where I keep returning.  UK is understandable - common language and customs, good music and theatre.  I've gone into Jordan eight times:  once with a tour and then as a volunteer on an archaeological project.  India?  Ah, the history, vitality,  color,  variety - all keep me coming back.  I've been to both the northwest and northeast, Sikkim and  central portions -   touristy and non touristy.  But until now, not ever to the South.

And it is another aspect of the Indian landscape.  Tropical and full of temples and churches and scenic beauty. And I was not the only westerner  there. Tourists were event throughout.   When I went to book, several of my favorite budget tours  were full up.   While I had not traveled with Intrepid before, I had heard good things about it and knew their reputation of using local transport whenever possible.  And so they did:  Buses, trains,  tuk-tuks, motorbike, boats! 

And we covered a lot of territory:  From one coast to another, into the Hill country and  a couple of parks,  several cities, Kerala Backwaters and finishing up where we started - Kochi. Three two night stays and the rest for a night only.  A grand circle of sorts.  Kochi to Ooty to Mysore; then over to Mamaliapuram, Pondicherry down to Maduai and over to the Backwaters and Kochi.

The group had  a full complement of  twelve plus a local leader.  From the UK, Australia, Germany, South Africa, Vietnam, Canada and the US.  And I again was fortunate in having a sympathico roommate who was on her third consecutive Intrepid Indian tour -several others were doing two back-to-back trips.  We had a really capable and delightful tour leader, one of the best I've run into.

There was the "Toy Train" ride into the Nilgiris Hills and onto Oooty, where in the old days,   Brits had summered during the scorching heat of the lowlands. A little less trashy than elsewhere.  Though India has discouraged  plastic bags,  banned public smoking and most lighting was solar, plastic bottles floated about the lovely Kerala Backwaters  though  our host insisted the lakes were not used for garbage.  However, I did see women doing the family wash at waters' edge and tossing out the kitchen waste.. 

Poverty was less evident in the South than in the North.  Western influence - the Portuegese and the  French were about in the early days -  was more evident, as witness the number of churches and autos/tuk-tuks with Christian signs on the windshields.  Both are crowded, noisy and grubby.  I did miss the colorfully painted trucks of the North -  only saw two and they were a bit long in the tooth.

At one point, we drove through an Army cantonment, most unlikely in any other country to have public roads going through an army base.  It was a large area, home of the Madras Regiment, an army group predating the partition. 

And speaking of driving:  Indian driving is still as it was when I first visited in 2002: frightening!  Even when it's a four lane road, which is rare, passing occurs on the wrong side with vehicles doing a face-to-face confrontation.  And consider that everyone and everything uses the roadway:  trucks, buses, cars, motorcyclists, bicycles, donkey carts, animals and pedestrians.    
With mostly  one to two lane roads, it can be terrifying,  Particularly in the hilly country with the tight curves  where  buses and trucks  have to take several stabs at getting around.

The temples were impressive, with interesting  art work and extensive sculpturing.  The elaborate palace at Mysore was a bit overwhelming; a member of the once Royal family still lives in an apartment there!
Two of us went to Madurai's  Gandhi Memorial Museum, with well presented artifacts of his life and deathThere were several performances:  one an Indian classical dance   presentation and another,  a marital art exhibition which incorporated some yoga and gymnastic moves.  Both were exceptional.

Despite wanderings, both by jeep and on foot, in two parks,  we were not successful in finding the elusive tiger though  an elephant and child were spotted.  I was not impressed at the Elephant Sanctury for the animals, though apparently well fed, had front legs chained.  I also saw several elephants at the temples:  chained and painted. 

Accommodation: We were  in 3-star hotels, at a home stay and in a dormitory (one of the better and most clean of all the places).  All quite comfortable and most with hot water.  One place, I heated water in an electric coffee pot and used the Hindu bath technique.  Another I found hot water in the lower faucet but not with the shower, so again, a Hindu bath. 

Transportation:  We did use private minibuses and taxis but were on the train three times, one  an overnight journey in the 3-tiered AC carriage.  I don't think much had been done to refurbish the trains since their inception.  But the sheets were clean on the overnighter.  An improvement over Chinese "hard seat". There was a five hour and a subsequent two hour public bus ride  - driving was a little hairy and the brakes on the second bus squealed in agony whenever used.  Which was most of the time.  And a boat was the transport from the home stay in the Backwaters to the local bus stop.

Food:  Mostly Indian, almost all at restaurants that also served  beer, in deference of our ten beer drinkers.  Remarkable for me was the Indian-Western meals served at the Mudunalai Park accommodation and a lunch at Auuroville, an ashram housing 80 rural settlements.  Our final meal in Kochi was exceptional.

Glitch:  Minor only.  After we settled in one hotel, Intrepid decided we should be in another which was a bit inconvenient.

Cost: Tour with a 20% discount plus an extra day's stay and an arrival transfer:  $1126.  Airfare:  $1551 via Emirates.  (One can see why tours get combined, with the cost of transport to and fro!)

Conclusion:  I would book with Intrepid again; they really make an effort to do more than just arrange sightseeing opportunities but encourage local cultural involvement.  (Though I must say,  it's easy to  end up knowing more about your companions than the country visited.)  I'll probably return to India - my visa doesn't run out until Dec 2015.

India 2014-Pondicherry.jpg
India 2014-Local Bus.jpg
India2014-Relgius Processon.jpg
India 2014-The Cow Reigns!.jpg
India 2014-Wating for my train to come in!.jpg

Jo Rawlins Gilbert
Palo Alto CA  94303

No comments: