India Part 1 – Chennai, Bangalore & Kerala

The other day I was cleaning out a cupboard when I came across a rather gaudy looking photo album I had made after a trip to India.  As I flicked through the pages fond memories of the days I spent in this wonderful country came back to me.  India has aways had a mystical and exotic appeal for me and so, some years back, when I had the  chance to travel to India I jumped at the opportunity.

Blue dye textiles in Chennai, India
A man goes about his work with textiles in Chennai, India

I was lucky enough to apply for and attain a fellowship with the Asia Education Foundation (Australia) and as it was funded by the foundation I only had to pay $500 for the whole trip.  This was not a solo journey, however, but a journey with a group of educators which took in tours of schools and the chance to meet some very interesting people.

 

Chennai

We flew into the southern Indian city of Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu after spending a few days in Singapore as a stopover.  Chennai was formerly known as Madras and let me tell you that it was hot and humid!  I found that it was filled with a rich exotic blend of heritage as well as nooks of modernism that is expected in any city that has a great history such as India.  There were various temples, museums, memorial halls and heritage buildings that could be visited. On the other hand, there were well built amusement parks, shopping malls as well as discotheques that would keep you entertained during the weekends in the city. It is a relatively safe city but avoid travelling alone late at nights and make sure you lock the door when you’re inside your room preparing to sleep. Travel within the city is pretty easy since most of the citizens as well as tourists are comfortable with the local buses, taxis and auto rickshaws. These vehicles run on CNG so they are eco-friendly as well as pocket friendly for all travellers. As a first time visitor to India I was surprised to find cows wandering around on the city streets next to traffic.  Cows are revered in Hinduism and therefore pretty much have free range to wander not only in the countryside but the city too.

A Barata Natyam dancer performs on New Year's Eve in Chennai
A Bharata Natyam dancer performs on New Year’s Eve in Chennai

We spent New Year’s Eve in Chennai and attended a celebration at a local hotel which included food and entertainment.  We watched some traditional Indian dance including a beautiful Bharata Natyam dancer in a gold and orange costume.  Also I have to tell you that I love Indian food – it is one of my favourite cuisines and so I had a wonderful time in India everyday with the chance to have my favourite Indian food.  Places to visit: Sri Meenakshi Temple (Madurai), Mahabalipuram, Kapaleeshwar Temple, Kodaikanal Lake (Kodaikanal) and Botanical Gardens (Ooty). Tip: Carry a sari with you when travelling so that you can dress conservatively for entry into the fabulous temples here.

 

Bangalore

In Bangalore, the silicon dreams of the country coincide with the uber cool attitude of the Indian youth. Bangalore is said to be India’s answer to Silicon Valley.  It is the nation’s leading Information Technology exporter. It had, at that time around 8 million people living there. Officially it is known as The Garden City and informally it is known as the Pub Capital of India.  We did get to visit one underground pub which contained mainly men and a few of us western women.  It was an interesting experience and a chance for our group to relax and socialise.  Some states of India are ‘dry’ and therefore it is difficult to obtain alcohol there. So it was nice to sit back and relax with a glass of something nice.

Underground Pub Bangalore
Underground Pub Bangalore

The traffic in Bangalore can be a pain, even when it comes to short distances. So, plan in advance and strategically when you are heading out. I would have to say that I experienced the worst air pollution I have ever seen anywhere in the world in Bangalore.  At one stage I could barely see the other side of the road because of the density of the smog.  Traffic policemen in the middle of the road had oxygen tanks to avoid getting really sick.  I do hope the environment has improved since I was there because it was a really lovely city.   We visited the Software Technology Park and were given a tour around the various businesses. Places to visit :  Shivasamudram falls, Nandi hills, Bylakuppe- In India, second largest Tibetan settlement and Kudagu(skip this during monsoon).

Tipu Sultan's Palace Bangalore
Tipu Sultan’s Palace, Bangalore

 

Kerala

A sliver coastal state in India’s south, Kerala has been wonderfully shaped by layered landscape: about 600km of Arabian Sea coast and mesmerising beaches; languid network of backwaters; the spice and tea hills of Western Ghats. Setting foot on the soul-quenching green will slow the subcontinental stride into a blissed amble. Kerala is all about relaxing and slowing your pace and is a world away from your stressful life back home – so take a deep breath and enjoy.

The Kerala backwaters
The Kerala backwaters

We took a boat trip down the backwaters of Kerala and I absolutely loved it.  Every aspect of life was on display here.  From people waking up and completing their daily ablutions to children playing on the banks near their simple waterside homes. From women collecting water for their homes to fishermen in their boats hoping for a great catch. It’s all here on show.  The people here seem happy and it was lovely to see their big smiles.

Indian boy in Kerala
Boy in Kerala

Besides backwaters, houseboats, pleasing ayurvedic treatments and taste-bud-tingling cuisine, Kerala provides shelter to wild elephants, species of exotic birds and the odd tiger.  Vibrant traditions, Kathakali plays, temple festivals along with snake-boat races can also be witnessed. Kerala justifies ‘God’s Own Country’.

 

Snake Charmer at the Palace Bangalore
Snake Charmer at the Palace, Bangalore

Kottayam, Kerala

Kottayam is a city in Kerala which is a little inland and so we travelled there by boat.  It was still really humid there and I remember trying to make my clothes look respectable as we were visiting a school there.  The school Corpus Christi was founded by a woman called Mary Roy who happens to be the mother of Man Booker prize winning author Arundhati Roy. Mary Roy is also famous for having won a court battle against sexist inheritance laws after her father died and for being an educator.  The

Mary Roy Kottayam
Mary Roy, founder of Corpus Christi School, Kottayam

school is now called Pallikoodam School but was known as Corpus Christi High School when I visited.  The school has been involved in several social and environmental issues including cleaning up local areas and forming the Citizen’s Action Forum.  She is a very strongly opinionated woman and was an inspiration to listen to. The school had reasonably sized classes and students took part in drama, dance, karate and music classes.  I taught a dance class there and the students were very enthusiastic participants.

Corpus Christi School, Kottayam
Some students at Corpus Christi School, Kottayam, Kerala, India

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drama class Corpus Christi School
Drama class Corpus Christi School, Kottayam, Kerala

We also had the chance to visit another local school called Holy Cross School.  Although these schools had religious names they were not Christian. The classes at Holy Cross School were much larger between 60 – 80 students per class and the teacher had a bamboo stick.  We were able

Staff at Holy Cross School, Kerala, India
Staff at Holy Cross School, Kerala, India

to go into one of the classes and when I asked quite a few students what they wanted to do after high school many answered engineering, science, maths.  So that was quite interesting that there was such an emphasis on those learning areas.

Students at Holy Cross, Kerala, India
Students at Holy Cross, Kerala, India

 

 

 

 

Last word for now…

India, even in the 21st century stays the rich cultural nation that it has been since the olden days. Solo travel contributes to one of the most liberating experiences on the planet – you’ve got no responsibilities to anybody but yourself, you can do what you want and leave when you like, and the buzz you get from the sense of freedom is immense.

However, there are some aspects to consider – especially if you are a female travelling alone on the journey. As long as you have done careful planning and have common sense, you can have a lot of fun.

Travel safety is common sense. Do not carry more money than you require.  Carry an ID card instead of a passport while you are on road. Carry only a single bag and purchase one that can be locked. Be a little sensible and dress in a modest manner – thighs, cleavage and shoulders attract attention so be respectful especially in religious temples and the like.

 

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