Our first stop in India threw us right into the thick of their infamous polluted, congested cities. However, the Tamil people proved to be set on ensuring our stay is pleasant. In the thick of honking horns and swerving motorbikes, trucks and rickshaws, approached people would patiently greet us and offer their best advice, often helpful. One such case resulted in an escorted cross-city bus trip back to our hotel neighborhood, complete with a stop for tea and a guided walk through Triplicane, Chennai’s, Parthasarathy Temple temple. And, believe it or not, unlike my experiences traveling the North ten years before, there wasn’t even a hint of opportunism; the university student refused my insistence on paying the cafe bill.
Puducherry was the easy going, guidebook highlighted, tourist town we needed for easing into our few months in India. Ruled by the French as recently as 1954, the only colonization it sees now is from spiritually minded westerners seeking ashrams and yogis. We sought a different path, involving sea view walks, cafes, and city parks; one of which inspired the novel/film Life of Pi. BTW, it lacks a tiger, or even a zoo for that matter, although it does have a nice little aquarium.
Next, a few days moving in road-warrior fashion, hopping on and off a dozen or so buses of varied comfort levels, we cruised through the temple fortress cities of Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Madurai respectively touring Nataraja, Brihadishwara and Meenakshi Amman temples. Part way stopping over in ever-so-tranquil Tranquebar, my personal Tamil highlight. A former Dutch colony, now fishing village, complete with 1620 year old fort. Dirt floor bamboo hut restaurants, without a tourist in site, suite me well. Not to leave out my first swim in the Bengal Sea.
Wrapping up with a hill station – the Summer refuge of the former British rulers – rounded out the Tamil segment nicely. Kodaikanal, commonly Kodai, at 2,000 m put the tropically accustomed Indians in wool hats and jackets. And provided a unique micro ecosystem where we stumbled on dozens of monkeys, a wild bison and the aptly named giant squirrel! Downtime was filled with bird watching from our rooms valley view terrace gardens.
A couple of hours of stomach turning switchbacks, each turn complete with the requisite horn signalling a possible head on collision, followed by a sleeper bus to Kerala, brought us back to the beach. Story in process…